Saturday, April 12, 2008

Desert Road Trip - Part 1

I really, really needed this trip. After six months or so of hell--our mother's sudden illness and death; constant anxiety about our father's situation, heightened by his rapid deterioration--four days alone on the road exploring spectacular new territory seemed like the perfect de-stressing adventure.

I started planning it back in January. I settled on Death Valley and surroundings--30 years in California and I had never been there. Spring wildflowers were a potential bonus. I figured I'd take the southern route (Highway 58) and make it a loop by coming back up the Owens Valley (I had never been south of Bishop) and over Highway 50. I got the maps, did a bunch of Googling, figured out what might be worth seeing along the way, started obsessively checking the wildflower reports, and generally planned my little heart out.

Then, in mid-February, my father was moved into a nursing home because he was beyond the point where they could care for him in the assisted living facility. A week or so after the move, the hospice nurse estimated 28 days at the outside, but told us he could go "any day now". When I talked to my brothers, they told me not to let it interfere with my plans. Just for good measure, the night before I left I called to check on Dad's condition, and there was no news--which is to say, no catastrophic news.

So on the morning of March 13 I saddled up Hissy and hit the road a couple minutes before 9 am. City traffic was a little aggravating, but it was smooth sailing once I got on the freeway. I took the bridge to I-580, east through Pleasanton then south on I-5 (lots of nice bright yellow on the green hillsides, and a couple splashes of bright purple), turned east on 46 through Wasco, and south on 99 to Bakersfield.

Up to this point it was mostly familiar and all pretty dull. From Bakersfield I took 178 east toward Walker Pass, and that's where it started to get interesting. You pass through some low rolling foothills for a few miles, then the first line of mountains loom and suddenly you're in the steep and narrow Kern River Gorge. Rugged mountains, bright patches of yellow on the mountainsides, green everywhere--this is where I really started enjoying myself. Around 2 pm I stopped for a late lunch at a turnout above the river, and sat for a while just enjoying the scenery.

178 winds up through the gorge to Lake Isabella, where it opens up. Past the lake you go through a lovely broad valley, sparsely populated, ringed by the rocky peaks of the southernmost Sierra. Just north of 178 here is the Kern River Preserve, which I had found while trip Googling, and where I stopped to take a walk. It's a pretty area, all cottonwood forest and sage meadow, with poppy smears on the grassy hills, and as far as I could tell I had it to myself--exactly the sort of peaceful place I needed.

178 climbs up to Walker Pass then drops through the most amazing Joshua tree forest, mile after mile of them, to the desert floor. At CA-14 I was solidly in the Mojave: wide open vistas, ragged mountains on the horizon, Joshua trees scattered around, and not a lot of green. The California desert is the closest most exotic landscape, within a day's drive but completely alien.

Then there's the wind. Big, hard, fast desert winds broadsided me as I turned south on 14. Fortunately I had just 20 miles to go, and I got to Red Rock Canyon State Park in one piece.

Joshua trees aside, Red Rock Canyon is a dead ringer for Almeria; if anyone ever wants to shoot a spaghetti western with the American West standing in for Spain, this would be the place. It's a badlands of deeply-eroded sedimentary strata, all of it tilted at a rakish angle, with the campsites scattered along the base of some wildly-carved mud cliffs. There were only a dozen or so campers among fifty sites, so I was able to get a nice isolated site with a sweeping view of the whole valley. I got ready to set up camp...

...when I realized I had forgotten my tent and sleeping bag. Oh well. Guess I'd see how comfy the Fit was to sleep in.

I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking up to the top of the ridge, then just wandering around the area. Dinner was leftovers from my (too generous) lunch, with a little windblown grit added in (despite my best efforts to shield my food). The car wasn't the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in, nor the least.

I got up a half hour before sunrise, made myself some coffee and drank it, then hit the road, doubled back north on 14 towards 395. As I headed northward the mountains to my left got higher, rockier, more Sierra-like; by the time I was on 395 there were occasional traces of snow on the peaks. Around Little Lakes, you start to see a high sharp snow-covered peak poking out in the distance--Olancha Peak, the southernmost peak of the true High Sierra.

Just past Little Lakes I pulled off at Fossil Falls (another Google find), a spectacular gorge cut in a volcanic plateau by a long-gone river. No fossils and no falls; just high cliffs and fantastically-carved volcanic rock. It's a great place to explore. Someone less acrophobic than myself could clamber all the way down into the gorge (I dropped a little ways, then got dubious about the way further); or you could follow the rim, or just wander around the cool volcanic landscape (hard to get lost, with the big cinder cone to navigate by).

And then back on northbound 395. At Olancha I turned onto 190, the highway into Death Valley. After a long flat stretch alongside Owens Lake, 190 climbs into some low mountains and enters the National Park of the Valley of Death.