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base camp Pasadena, and the weekend adventures from it.
Here are some of Sean's photos from Strawberry Peak. It's a 2 hour up, 1.5 hour down walk, jog, and scramble about 20 minutes up the Crest Hwy. On a clear day, like Saturday was, one can see Downtown and the beach and the offshore islands and the ocean beyond, and the San Bernardino mountains to the East and the Tehachapi Mountains to the North. The wind was stiff and the ground was frozen. There were ice crystals in shady places and beautiful frozen dewdrops on the shrubs and yucca spikes. The inhospitable, steep terrain reminded me that I enjoy such places more than tropical islands so I went out and bought 60 meters of 8.1mm mountaineering rope a couple days later.
While the Northeast was being buried by snow and Pasadena succumbed to gray wet weather, Phoenix was enjoying above-average temperatures and sunny skies. I was too, since I was in Phoenix. There were butterflies and colorful leaves, birds singing in the trees, bright green carpets of grass, and rivulets of water burbling peacefully in a stream beside which Marla and I sat in the sunshine. Nearby, the signs said, dangerous rattlesnakes were also enjoying the afternoon sun but we didn't pass those signs until later. It's common sense anyway that we are guests in the home of other creatures and should step carefully. Later we saw two such creatures, collared peccaries looking very much like their relatives I spotted in the Peruvian rainforest. It was late afternoon and we'd just visited the Tonto cliff dwellings, though the approaching darkness kept us from climbing to the ruins. It was for the better since we were descending the narrow, winding, mostly unpaved road from the Roosevelt dam back towards Phoenix at dusk in time to see the flaming clouds reflect off the water below in the canyon and silhouette saguaro cacti perched on the steep slopes. The wispy clouds were leading in a weather front that was blasting the San Bernarino pass the next morning as I drove through. Unusual lenticular clouds were anchored in the sky above the mountains, streamlined and stacked like saucers. Snow covered the higher peaks and clouds roared over the ridges. The same strong winds had spun up hundreds of wind turbines and the entire pass was a churning mess of dangerous-looking whirling blades of many sizes, turning at different speeds and in different direction, seeming to block my way. I was allowed to pass unharmed but plunged into a fog bank and became mired in traffic that had been defeated by a light rain. The desert ran in rivulets off my car, departing with the last hours of the weekend.
December 1, 2003
The world is shrinking, a disturbing occurrence since if the trend continues then well before I've collected enough years to access my retirement funds the planet will have lost its allure. I should not, however, base this observation on the banality of crossing the continent after lunch, to arrive in time for dinner, because our fine land spans only an eighth of the globe at its latitude. The holiday crowds were well-behaved and nowhere did I have to battle long lines or traffic during my migration to Massachusetts. Three days at home convinced me, judging by the slow pace of life and the lack of progress, spontaneity, and creativity, that if I did not depart immediately half my life would vanish with nothing to show for it. The news was the same as always: Classmates returned from universities resumed dreary jobs they'd worked in high school. Friends got married, or divorced, or drunk at the bars too much. Some pushed baby strollers home to households strangely lacking in family. I wish I remembered their names, as they know mine, but I've been home so little and found so much else to occupy my thoughts that those details escape me. Everything seemed to move so slowly and without any drive to exceed. I miss the place, but not the lifestyle. Back in Pasadena life's fast as ever and I can't complain. It keeps me occupied, and no one out here has yet complained that I can't stay still.
November 24, 2003
Leaves turning color, flowers blooming, blue sky sometimes on crisp days that could easily be Northeastern winter if it wasn't 70 degrees. Days at the lab, evenings at the shop, weekends on the move. Just got back from Santa Barbara, going to New York. Nights in Hollywood, sunsets beyond palm trees. Snow in the mountains, groves of orange trees covered in fruit, sidewalks packed with people on warm Sunday afternoons. Crashing waves, silhouettes of islands, canyon country. Wildfire and burned hills, windstorms, even some rain; a big thunderstorm flooded Los Angles last week. Counting the days till landing on Mars, working away at the next mission. Movies, dining out in Pasadena, shopping the Saturday morning farmers market, grilling steaks out on the balcony while the Rose Bowl blimp circles over our place. Sometimes we watch fireworks from the back deck. cycling to work when it's warm, racing the sunset home, dodging the deer. Some evenings I spin my globe and look at all the places within a hand's spread of home, the reasonable week's escape. Perhaps French Polynesia, I think.
November 16, 2003
Sunday again, and I'm exhausted but one more weekend wiser. Now I will include peace of mind in my selection criteria for campsites. We were out wheeling again, among the lava beds and cinder cones southeast of Baker, and found a lovely site in a dry wash atop a 20-foot high cascade. Undeterred by swollen rain clouds, we set up camp in the constricted channel and parked a car length from its edge. Steaks, roasted potatoes and onions, beer, and fire completed the evening and a game with the glow-in-the-dark green football fortunatlely caused no injuries or cliff diving. He who holds the glowing orb can see nothing and must range and orient the throw with sound, like a bat. Then the rain started, just as we were turning into sleeping bags. We rigged a tarp between the two vehicles and slept there and in the cars, thrashing about to avoid drips or strange objects in the cars, all the while imagining a distant heavy shower sending a wall of water to sweep us over the cliff. But in the steady light drizzle it seemed foolish to get soaked moving camp - and to where? - so we stayed. Some slept more than others. In the morning we explored sandy creek beds and rugged tracks in the lava before heading home. Lesson learned: the good night's sleep is as important as the view and thrill of the site. Plan carefully ;)
November 9, 2003
On Sunday Sean and Steve drove up to the high desert in their respective 4WD vehicles so we could explore trails and creek beds and roads not normally considered passable to autos by the rest of us street drivers. It is quite exhilirating creeping up and down steep hills and over large boulders and off ledges but I'd liken it to the excitement one could get navigating a hiking trail in a wheelchair: the two just aren't very compatible and the sport is about combining them without getting stuck or broken. Strange, isn't it?
The weather's cooled enough that I could climb out at J-Tree. I could pick up scuba diving again in the kelp forests of the Channel Islands. I could do more cycling, but I'd need to get out to the desert because the trails nearby are frequented by hikers and other riders and I have to stay far below the speed (and degree of recklessness) where descents become thrilling. I could start running trails regularly again, or buy a kayak and paddle, or take up skiing for the winter. But I'm starting to realize that if I continue to be an occasional participant of all these activities, I'll never be much good at any of them. I have equipment to maintain and skills to remember and strengths to build upon. Must be time to make decisions and direct my life... I was trying to avoid such a situation! But if I don't, I'll lose the edge that keeps each sport fun and the confidence and understanding and feeling of progress that motivates me. Hmmm... much to be learned. How to be capable, but specialized? Interesting, but focused? Responsible and guided, but flexible and accepting? How come I wasn't taught these things in gradeschool? The exact same things apply to work. Well anyways, all's well in Southern California. I'll retreat to my peaceful bubble of Hollywood lights and fine restaurants in this metropolis of people and goods from all over the world. I'll pretend for a little longer that until I get my own life figured out, I can ignore the worldly social issues I hope to address with my career. Eventually I'll have to make some decisions. It's a sobering thought..
Some of Southern California is on fire and much of it is covered by smoke and ash, but north in Yosemite the air was clear this weekend. It's a long drive - 6 hours - for a 2-day weekend trip but a national parks pass, good gas mileage, and hunger for adventure brought Beckett and I to the dead-end dirt road on the Owens River Friday night. The packed sand was very comfortable and the stars brilliant and the night very restful. Breakfast in a Big Pine cafe reminded me that I was a long way from my own kitchen. The eggs tasted like butter, and so did the biscuits, and the sausage, and the gravy. I consoled myself with some fruit I'd packed and drove 2 hours more past gold and orange aspen groves glowing in the morning sun.
At Mammoth the hot springs were steaming even though the weather was unusually warm. It was a beautiful day, but Park rules said my car would be towed if I parked it at any Tuolumne Meadows trailhead. Sometimes it snows at this time of year so after October 15th, until the first major snowstorm closes the road, no overnight parking is permitted. I drove in 8 miles to the trailhead and asked some hikers preparing to venture out overnight about the parking situation. "Sure, this is the only place in Tuolomne you can park overnight," they said. "Park anywhere. Sideways, diagonal, it doesn't matter. We have the whole lot and they don't care." Eyeing the "Overnight Parking Prohibited" sign recently tied with string to a post at the entrance, I thanked them and drove out to look for a knowledgable ranger. I found one calmly listening to a steaming French couple and a more practical-sounding man lamenting the loss of driver's side mirrors from their lumbering RVs. The ridiculous vehicles were almost as wide as their lanes and I wondered why more people didn't share my conviction that a house should not have wheels. Be a nomad with a tent, or travel from lodge to lodge, or stay home. Don't be selfish and try to take your home with you.
The ranger sympathetically confirmed my suspicions and advised us to park outside and get a ride in or hike from there. We returned to the gate, parked outside, and began thumbing rides. Soon Bruce picked us up. He was ferrying supplies to his cabin in Tuolumne Meadows where he would spend the entire winter with his wife. He worked ski patrol, monitored avalanche conditions and prescribed slides, did wildlife studies, and almost never left the park until the road opened in the spring. He had electricity from the line running under the road, but it was sometimes down for a while when storms knocked out the aerial lines at the outside end. It sounded like a fine job, though not one I'd consider right now. The two misinformed backpackers we'd met in the parking lot had either reconsidered their situation or been advised to leave, for they were gone. Bruce said there would be a $150 ticket for parking illegally and that cars would be towed out if there was any snow in the forecast. They were serious about it, and I could see why - hikers heading out for a week might be snowed in and the Park can't be responsible for plowing them out.
We hiked in along emerald pools carved into granite and then climbed a rocky ridge to golden grassy meadows with resiliant wildflowers peeking out of sheltered pockets. There were cold blue lakes and one had a sandy beach where we stretched out in the sunshine on our foam groundpads. Later, we climbed to a ridgetop and discovered a view of Half Dome to the West. We camped there on the granite and watched the sun sink to the hills behind Half Dome in a blaze of color. The lake below gleamed slate blue, perfectly smooth in the calm air. There was a light breeze, just a hint of moving air, and in the light of the low sun I noticed filaments drifting past in the wind. Each was more than 15 meters long and nearly vertical, angled forward and pulled tight as if some insect was flying on a kite. Some looked like they had a tuft of fuzz at the top end, but in the fleeting glimpses I could see little. They blew in horizontally and some snagged on the ridge, my tent, and our packs, criscrossing the rocks. We were at 10,500 feet and the nearest place they could have departed from was miles away or more even considering the ridge lift from the Northeasterly breeze. I imagined intelligent spiders weaving little airfoils, casting them out into the favorable breeze, straining against the pull until the kite was high, then leaping into the sky and traveling away to distant lands.
The sunset was, like most sunsets, spectacular. I never cease to enjoy them though. We cooked dinner, watched the light fade from distant peaks, and turned in for the night. A half hour later a stiff wind arrived and began shaking the tent. It grew stronger, and my nearly-new Swiss-made tent billowed upward, crumpled in a crackling of bent and broken poles, and collapsed onto the rocks. The wind tugged at its new-found loose fabric and tried to wrestle it away from me as I extracted pieces of pole and tucked in the tent to serve as a bivy for the rest of the night. By morning we had moved a considerable distance on the rocks, pushed and pulled by the relentless wind. I didn't get much rest but fortunately the temperature stayed above freezing.
In the early light I was awakened by a bird standing near our food and loudly claiming ownership to it. It was a ptarmigan in white winter plumage, a reminder that our late-summer weather was a treat so late in October. The food hadn't been touched but I was awake so I started packing. After a quick breakfast we headed down to a lake and sunshine for water and warmth. The hike out went quickly and we got a ride with Tom, another hiker whom we ferried back to the trailhead after reaching our car. On the way home I made detours to photograph the colorful aspens, then made straight for the great clouds of smoke we could see billowing beyond the San Gabriel mountains from a hundred miles away. We could see flames in some places as we crossed into the LA basin and drove into an eerie smoky twilight. For now, Pasadena is safe though.
It took me two months to get restless again after a summer of solo travel. Once that fire had been relit I was off again, though, to distant and difficult places. San Gorgonio Peak is the tallest in Southern California, a dome-topped mass of granite 11,500 feet tall. Beckett and I climbed it Saturday with overnight gear and camped at the summit, where there are tent sites. The valley was hot - temperatures in the high 90s - but the air cooled rapidly as we climbed. The lower slopes are forested with large redwoods and pines, green grass lines stream-fed gullies, and there were even some maple trees turning yellow. They were a far cry from the fall foliage of home but nice to see nonetheless. Soon there will be snow on San Gorgonio; we were reminded of this as the warmth of the sun sank into haze to the West in a brilliant red flame. Arriving at the breezy, boulder-strewn summit after dark we greeted the other campers and then retired to a site on the East slope to cook dinner and warm up in sleeping bags. The lights of Palm Springs ended abruptly at the dark expanse of Joshua Tree, not far away to the East. In the north I could see the glow of Las Vegas lights some 200 miles away. The stars were brilliant until the moon rose and blinded us. I slept off and on, trying to keep from sliding down the gravel slope onto uncomfortable stones and shivering in my too-light sleeping bag. Then finally there was a glow in the East, then a red ribbon on the horizon, then a brilliant pink smudge and a point of light. The frost on our packs melted as we cooked breakfast, packed our bags, and prepared to depart. The tent dwellers were complaining of the raging wind they had imagined from the flapping of their tents in the light breeze, but they had been warm. The walk down took much less time than the walk up and we were back in Pasadena at 1:30. Much recommended... I'll be going back as soon as there's snow.
I drove a thousand miles around Pasadena looking at apartments, then shopping for furnishings, at the end of August. Sean and I signed a lease on a 3-level, 2 bedroom, 2.5 bath townhouse near the Rose Bowl and moved in. Sean's Jeep was the primary method of transport for large objects, two of which were simply too large to fit through the stairwell and had to be raised to the second floor balcony with my climbing equipment:
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