Sunday, May 13, 2012

He Just Flew Right Out There; James May Visits Yosemite Valley

Sunday, May 13

I woke up early enough to shower, wish Sarah a happy Mother’s Day, grab some breakfast in the hotel lobby, and then catch the 6:30 shuttle back to the airport.  The tide had come in in that shallow corner of the bay overnight.  Transferred to the sky train to the rental car terminal to pick up our reserved “we pick it” car at Dollar Rent A Car.  The cheapest option (and of course the one we went for), was a guaranteed at-least-compact but they would give us what they had on the lot at the time (“we pick it”), which might be a significant upgrade.

The counter at Dollar wasn’t yet open and a sign told me to go down to their kiosk in the lot itself.  When I finally found them after wandering around the building for a while the guy at the kiosk was very efficient (I had preregistered so there weren’t a lot of “do you want this option?” questions) and he was about to hand me my paper-work and the keys when I finally popped the question.  “What kind of car is it?” I asked, trying to appear as if I didn’t have a lot invested in this issue.  Then the second small not-quite-optimal thing happened, “Why it’s a Crown Victoria!” he told me, thinking I’d be instantly fantasizing about how impressed the chicks would be with me.

I guess I’d been hoping for a compact SUV like the Rav4 we’d lucked into on our Colorado/Wyoming trip.  After all, we were planning to do some seriously tortuous driving on narrow, twisting roads that went through some drastic elevation changes.  I knew that the Crown Victoria had a big engine, and was probably a better chance than a underpowered compact car, but I was instantly very worried about how it would perform when we started it on the torture test, and what the Dollar people would say when I called them up telling them it was at the bottom of a ravine.  Oh well, I named the powder-blue, rear-wheel drive, 8-cylinder, 2011 Crown Vic with 25K miles on it “Vicky” instantly and tried to make the best of the situation.

The immediate best of the situation was achieved after I got onto route 101 South for the short hop to Millbrae Boulevard, turned onto Bay Shore Boulevard, and then exited left into the Vagabond Inn lot, right in front of Dave and Sarah sitting outside eating breakfast.  This was my James May moment, and I could just imagine Dave (Jeremy Clarkson) saying to Sarah (Richard Hammond), “That isn’t!  What is that fool driving now??  It’s a Crown Victoria!!!”  You have to be familiar with Top Gear to understand that this all occurs in a very English accent.  Their jaws were hitting the tabletop as I cruised in slowly and gave them the thumbs up, then sprung out of the car with a “Ta-dah!!”

To be honest, we came to appreciate Vicky a lot while dealing with the background problems she created throughout the trip.  Lots of power, good environmental controls, lots of room and easy to pack and spread out in, not bad handling (once you got used to it), a great hood for making peanut butter sandwiches on, and pretty good front, side, and rear visibility (though not very high windows).  The down side was that the trunk lid was on the fritz, the windshield washer didn’t work, there was no room to put little things like cups and sunglasses, there was no MP3 port, the mileage wasn’t great (in the state with the highest gas prices in the country, averaging @$4.40 per gallon on our trip), entering and exiting the car was difficult, it did not do well on non-paved surfaces, and it was huge!  The thing that weighed on me the most was that I constantly had the feeling that I was driving a very large hunk of metal at high speeds up and down very, very twisty roads and that I had to concentrate very, very, very closely.  This was probably a good thing (we never came close to going off the road, nicking a cliff wall, or ramming a bicyclist (though the latter opportunity presented itself often)), but this took away from my ability to look around and enjoy myself.

Oh well, I say again.  It just amazes me that anyone would consider this a “luxury” car.  Another mixed blessing I should mention is that there were countless comical moments when someone passed us or saw us approaching and you could tell by their immediate reaction they were thinking, “Oh my God, it’s a cop!”  The bad part of this was that they would then slow down suddenly and we’d have to lumber along behind them.  We often wished we had a siren.

Sarah and Dave had gotten things partly organized but we were still in early-trip chaos (what will we need today and where did we pack it??), and it took us a bit longer to load the car then it should have, but we hit the road South on route 101 by about 8:15 on a cool day with a slight overcast and a lot of low haze.  We crossed West over the Bay on the long San Mateo Bridge, and then did the jog North up route 880 and then West on route 238/580 around Hayward.  We climbed the hills over the ridges towards the Bay Area’s Eastern suburbs, while marveling at the alternate universe we were passing through.  It’s hard for an Easterner to understand that there are places you just can’t build houses, but that’s the reality in a lot of the world, and when you see it you understand more fully how the land of humans can collide with the land of nature.  The hills were still in their mid-Spring green but were starting to show signs of wear.

Then some more small things went wrong.  We took the right exit off the freeway in Dublin to get to the supermarket I’d found on Google Maps (we had to fill up our folding ice chest with supplies), but then took the wrong ramp off of the exit and when we tried to circle around the cloverleaf to the right ramp we found ourselves with nothing to do but to cross the hills again back to Castro Valley.  Oh well, back to the right exit again and this time the right ramp but it was the wrong store when we finally got there … Google had sent me to Safeway’s corporate headquarters instead of a store!  Oh well, I was prepared and knew where the next nearest Safeway was, where we parked large Vicky away from the other cars and had a fine time getting fruit, bread, natural peanut butter and jelly (they had more varieties of peanut butter than we’d ever seen), chips, water, beer, cookies, and ice.  We paid the very efficient checkout artist and packed it all in the folding ice chest (which we later discovered had developed a leak and so was less than effective throughout the trip and leaked on our suitcases).  Then we got onto route 680 South at 9:47 and were not allowed to exit onto route 580 East and so had to go South into Pleasanton and circle back before we could start East again!  Oh well, we were at last on our way to Yosemite.

Vicky did not have a MP3 jack as mentioned, but we had brought some CDs and were rocking out to the Grateful Dead of course as we followed the semi-thick traffic out the flat and straight superhighway that turned into the flat and straight smaller-freeway start of route 120 in Manteca.  The suburbs and factories were now long behind us and the super-orchards had started up: mile after square mile of identical fruit trees surrounded us, alternating with some massive livestock establishments, one featuring more sheep than we’d ever seen in one place before.  We took another turn onto route 108 in Oakdale and then the road started to feel a little wilder and began to rise up slowly, then started some serious thrashing back and forth up into the sky as we passed Tulloch Reservoir and then Don Pedro Lake.  Sarah and I had been through this before and were vastly entertained; David hadn’t and was almost as shocked as we’d been back in ’86 at the crazy changes in the landscape, the steepness of Priest Grade (play this backwards), and the lushness but aridity of the environment.

We straightened out on the stretch through Groveland and passed the funky old hotel Sarah and I had stayed at in ’86 that was now much too precious for us, and then entered the Stanislaus National Forest (NF) and really started to go uphill.  There wasn’t much traffic and we could stick to our own pace as the road slanted uphill at a more and more aggressive angle and Vicky took us up and up effortlessly, into the lightening sky and over the ridge into Yosemite Valley.  We got to the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station at 12:26, waved our pass, and settled back for the road down into the valley, as the brilliant sky now filled just the top half of our windshield and the flowers, lichens, and twisted rocks filled more and more of our view.

You go through a long tunnel and then a short tunnel when you come into the Valley on route 120 and the view when you come out of the short tunnel is enough to make a man swallow his dentures.  Yosemite is astonishingly beautiful, like those times when you see a movie star at the exact right angle at the exact right moment and you’re in love, or the times when you see a painting or a sculpture and think that it’s a perfect expression of what could never be spoken.  It’s like when the alto voice or the sax or the clarinet or the rugged bass voice comes in at the end of an incredibly technical guitar run and brings the song and its meaning to a higher level.  Yosemite is like that and it can take you away without warning.  Many people let out a loud “WOW” when they see it for real and realize that they’re in that Valley and actually seeing El Capitan towering 3500 sheer feet above them and Half Dome making it clear that they are nothing (NOTHING!) and they’re surrounded by waterfalls (you have to see it in the Spring) and there’s an incredible river bounding through it among the boulders and massive trees.

Anyway, as you might expect, some of those people saying WOW had stopped in the road just beyond the shorter tunnel and we had to detour around them.  Sarah snapped a quick picture through the windshield and we continued down to the very bottom of the Valley, several thousand feet below the entry station.

Our aim was to walk the Valley Floor Loop on our first day rather than to try something more aggressive, and we realized quickly that we had to get out of the tourist/traffic flow and start experiencing this at our own pace.  We pulled into the Cathedral Beach area before the vortex got us, and found that even that out of the way parking lot was packed with families enjoying cookouts, etc.  It was Mother’s Day (as mentioned) and it was nice to see that many of them were there to give Mom a break and for the rest of the family to administer the picnic.  But it was packed down in that small area and we just managed to squeeze Vicky into one of the last available spots, wondering if we’d be able to get back out again.

We splashed around in the Merced River some, the river that runs down the middle of Yosemite Valley.  Cathedral Beach is at one of the more civilized stretches of it, but you’d still be crazy to go swimming in the river in May because of the water temperature and because you could be swept away into the sparkling, rapid, dangerous current at any moment.  The beach is named after the rock formation you can see peeking up from the South rim when you’re on the shore.  We grabbed a picnic table that had just been vacated by a family and made peanut butter sandwiches (we had forgotten paper towels and plates but used pieces of maps, receipts, and directions we could discard) and tried to catch our breaths.  We had planned this trip to California for a long time and were a day into it, but the reality of it was so sudden and not peaceful yet.  Here we actually were in the bowels of the Merced River, smelling pine all around us and watching ground squirrels battle with tourists; Yosemite has a way of yelling at you to pay attention, it was a little too much at first.  Got our lunch down and the makings stowed in Vicky’s massive trunk and then tried to decipher the maps we had and get away to the trailhead.

Crossed the road, walked down a spur that seemed to be going the wrong way, and then got onto the Valley Floor Loop heading back up the Valley (away from the vortex of Yosemite Village thank Dog!), towards Bridalveil Fall.  Oh were we relieved!!  We were away from the noise and the crowds (though this trail often swung near the entrance road that it paralleled), and were walking along, seeing incredible profiles of rock towering thousands of feet above us, lovely varieties of evergreens all around us, oaks, ashes, beeches, maples, manzanita, mosses, wildflowers, a skink, Western Dogwood, pileated woodpeckers, Stellar’s jays, and huge chunks of rock fallen from the cliffs scattered here and there like someone had been playing dice with the universe and the remains of the game were all around us.  This was the vacation we had signed up for.

After a couple of miles and a few groups of people met on the trail we started hearing the roar of Bridalveil Fall and actually began to feel its spray.  We could see incredible Ribbon Falls across the Valley to the North and Horse Tail Falls [below] to its right … we were there at the peak of water activity.  We passed a guy being egged on to climb one of the huge rocks on the Valley floor by his girlfriend (who was holding his Bud Light can), then came out into the huge, half-full Bridalveil Fall parking lot and followed the masses up towards the falls.  There was a guy whipping around an elderly relative in her wheelchair while she laughed in delight and perhaps experienced the thrill of her older years, feeling the spray of the falls, seeing the shock on the eyes of the people all around her, and feeling the utter abandon of the wind in her hair and the undulating trail.  We would have liked to get closer to throbbing Bridalveil Fall, but this was a center for cars/tourists, and we would much rather get back into the woods.

We tried to follow the Valley Floor Loop as it meandered towards the river and the Pohono Bridge, but the problem was that the water in the Valley was very high, and the normal path we would follow had disappeared.  We had to track down the road a bit before we could double back onto the trail.  We got into the woods again finally and meandered between the river and a beautiful yellow meadow, then found ourselves hugging the streamside on a narrower and narrower spit of land.  We had to stop and double back again when the tributary formed by Bridalveil Fall blocked our way.  A ranger who was doing the loop in reverse from us was on the other bank and there was no way for him to get across either … we had to try to scramble through the woods back to the road and cross where it was paved.

We eventually made it to the Pohono Bridge and crossed the Merced around the marshy shelf of Valley View to the North side of the Valley, and then wound our way back among the ubiquitous Ponderosa Pines into the shadow of El Capitan.  After several miles of clear way, the outfall from the streams we’d seen coursing into the Valley earlier, Ribbon Falls and Horse Tail Falls, blocked our path again and again.  We tried our best to get over and managed to ford some of the torrents, but several times had to make our way back to the busy road and cross the streams on the road close to where they dumped into the raging Merced.  We found our way to the El Capitan bridge back South over the Merced and then meandered through the Incense Cedar woods back to Cathedral Beach, where we were delighted to see that almost all of the picnic-makers had left.  That meant that we, Vicky, and some late-arriving tourists could sit calmly and stare at the trees and the river.

We were exhausted and exhilarated all at once.  We had only seen a small portion of Yosemite and I for one was ready to rank it up with the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.  But jeez, this was not a wilderness experience.  I could lie on my back and stare at El Capitan for days and continue to be enriched by the experience, but I would have been driven crazy in the meantime by the crowds and the traffic … and this was in May!  I had to give Yosemite extra credit in my tally of best places ever just because of that handicap.

We finally saddled up at 5:58, stowing the rest of our stuff in Vicky’s massive trunk and bumping up the road out of Cathedral Beach.  The road took us into the depths of the Valley and the mainstream of traffic.  Sarah and Dave got some views and some pictures of Half Dome and Upper Yosemite Falls while I tried to battle out of there, circling back around past the throbbing parking lot at the base of the Lower Falls and the rocking main campground where we’d found a few quiet moments back in March ’86.  The traffic stream took us out towards the West end of the Valley, where we thankfully turned off on route 140, following the path of the Merced South and West precipitously downhill toward Mariposa.

What a magnificent river and what a tricky drive alongside it!  I was still learning how to control the massive horses of the Crown Victoria (and was very grateful that the brakes were so good) but was distracted like you wouldn’t believe by the raging river gushing over massive boulders and down magnificent granite ravines.  We switched back and forth and back and forth through the slanting evening sunlight as the Valley very, very gradually began to lose its steep pitch but got narrower as the hills started to rise around us, covered by the vividly green grass that turned to light green and then to brown as we lost elevation and the Foothill Pines and chaparral started to close us in again.

We whipped through the small town of El Portal and then, many miles later, suddenly started up in the middle of nowhere at a stop light!  A sign told us to be prepared for a 15-minute wait.  We waited a bit and then a few cars came over the rickety, one-lane Army Corps of Engineers(?) bridge we were staring at from the West and then it was our turn, banging slowly over the bridge toward the North side of the Merced and then down-river along a narrow old railroad bed for a few hundred yards.  We could see clearly that the South side … where route 140 should be … was currently buried under a few thousand tons of rock that had slid down from the hillside and that we were lucky to be able to get around.  Another temporary steel bridge brought us back to the South side eventually and we pressed the pedal to the metal, now more confident in Vicky and in our fate.

At the even smaller town of Briceburg (the only building we saw was a closed river-rafters drop-off), we suddenly turned back up the steep hills and left the Merced to gurgle along its way while we headed up to the town of Mariposa and the Miners Inn.  Another half hour of twisting through chaparral and ghost pines and we were there, suddenly over the ridge and heading downhill into a real town at 7:21.  The Miners Inn was right where it was supposed to be, at the junction of route 49, and after a short detour through town we docked the Crown Victoria and then found the office with a little aid.  I have no idea how Sarah managed to stand up straight while she signed us up for our room for two nights: room 114 looking South from a small bluff into the town … we were exhausted.  We got it together and managed to drag our suitcases in, and then Dave and I changed into bathing suits and vegged in the pool until the dropping temperature and the setting sun convinced us that we were still alive and that we needed to leave.

Changed into warm clothes; the climate wasn’t quite cold by Massachusetts standards and we were down to just a few thousand feet of elevation above sea level, but still the stark remaining rays of the sun between the thick shadows and the wind whipping out of the hills convinced us that this was not a time to break out the sandals.  We staggered over to the Miners Inn restaurant and were charmed that they were giving every mother a carnation that night, but not so charmed by the menu.  But we were so tired, hungry, and thirsty that we didn’t really mind that.  Dave had a Ranch Burger and ate less than half before he realized he was too tired to chew, I had a “salad with Cajun chicken” that really wasn’t any of the above, and Sarah had an acceptable meatloaf.  They advertised two good beers and one was off (the other was stale).  Still, we survived and made it back to the room and to sleep!  We were a looonnngggg way from San Francisco and an even longer way from Massachusetts.

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