WHAT: Road tripping, rock climbing, grubbing
WHERE: Eastern Sierra, Yosemite
WHEN: Labor Day 2011
It’s been pointed out to me that driving three hours to mountains is a little peculiar when I live and work in the Tahoe-Truckee area. But as with many folks around here, the Eastern Sierra has a special draw — one I can only resist for so long. Without a south-bound trip under my belt since June, I found myself hurriedly throwing a sleeping bag and a few other essentials in the back of my car after work, with no clear plan in mind.
The way winds along the turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe’s east shore, down into Nevada’s rural Carson Valley, into the rocky canyon of the Walker River, past the dramatic (and still snow-laden) Sawtooth Range above Bridgeport, and down to Mono Lake, a crossroads of Eastern Sierra destinations.
The Tioga Mobile Gas Mart in Lee Vining — or more specifically, the Whoa Nellie Deli inside it — is known among backpackers, climbers and skiers, as a dirtbag destination, or congregation, at the doorstep of Yosemite National Park, just off the shore of Mono Lake. Thursday nights bring live music, and draw a crowd accordingly. I’ve never been there without running into a fellow Tahoe resident, and this last trip was no exception. Justin, our Mountain Hardwear sales rep, was there, refueling after a few days of climbing in Yosemite.
A fire near El Portal on the western side of the national park had unfortunately blocked the band from arriving, but if the Mobile Mart is anything, it is a scene. Mango margaritas flowed, and fish tacos were doled out in stacks. A perfect summer evening in a unique slice of California. Only a hint of smoke had made its way east from the fire, and the air was warm.
After a night spent in the back of my car — “There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep, and that was nothing like a good night’s sleep” to quote Bill Bryson — I pointed the nose of my car up, winding along Tioga Pass Road towards Yosemite’s high country, Tuolumne Meadows. I pressed my chest against the steering wheel, peering out from under the restrictive lid of my car’s roof at the massive granite peaks around me.
Standing at Olmsted Point, overlooking Tenaya Canyon, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, I was amazed at the facts I was able to glean from the wise tourists around me.
“No, that’s not Half Dome,” a man said in response to his traveling companion, gesturing at Half Dome. “Look at it, it’s more like one-third dome.”
I looked at him to see if he was joking, but nothing on his face gave away sarcasm.
Bouldering across the road from Tenaya Lake, I found solitude only feet off the road in an otherwise crowded, er, well-attended national park, pushing my crash pad from route to route, enjoying the unique crystal holds that make Tuolumne climbing famous. Although I was assured the water was warm(er) at the east end of Tenaya lake, a quick dip was about all I could manage — what a difference a few thousand feet of elevation make over Lake Tahoe. Even a quick dip, however, in a high mountain lake, always has a magical invigorating effect, and I lingered on the pure granitic sands of Tenaya Lake until my stomach started growling uncontrollably.
Once again amongst the throngs, standing in a glacial-paced line at the grill, I was lost in my own thoughts until a little girl in front of me waved a whole-arm wave to get my attention. She had a clear-plastic backpack on, displaying all the bright yellow plastic gear inside, a pair of Dora The Explorer binoculars at the top. She pointed eagerly at her wrist, a compass strapped on in neon colors.
“Is that a compass?” I ask in the voice one tends to adopt when speaking to young children.
“Yeah, but does it work?” Her mom replied back sarcastically. The little girl giggled.
By any rights, a kid stuck in a hot shack, waiting in a long line for a burger would be whining or crying — but this little girl was excited. A promising counter-point to the tourists whipping through Olmsted Point, only looking at the scenery through view-finders and on digital screens, barely stepping out their car doors.
Leaving the park, a yellow diamond road sign that read “Falling Rock” had been modified to read “Falling in love with Rock climbing,” and not for the first time that day, I smiled.