Driving the Road Less Traveled
They told me that this road on the other side of Mt. Hamilton toward
Patterson was well-traveled. But on July 2nd, two days before a major
national holiday I passed about nine cars and trucks during one-and-a-half
twisting, turning hours down the mountain. There are still places even in
populated California where you can find natural wonders and very few people.
As I drove from Silicon Valley along Rt. 130 toward the Central Valley,
barren dry hills give way to clusters of California-liveoak. At the top of
Mt. Hamilton, the Lick Observatory site offers views in all directions.
Repeating the pattern down gave spots of green in the brown hills leading back
down to the summertime dry browns. In the late afternoon sun, one rock
formation looked like the pyramids at Giza.
After all the silent miles of cattle ranches and regional parkland, it’s a
shock to see semis. Yo, it’s civilization in the form of a freeway abruptly
ahead of me.
The intense heat had cooled by the time I reached the Central Valley at 7:45pm.
The twisty mountain roads gave way to flat Avenida las Palmas in Patterson.
Easy to see in all directions and see what was coming up in the grid-like
roads and streets of the flat valley.
I started the climb toward the Sierra foothills, and spent the night in
Next morning, I pulled out the sweaters one by one that yesterday in the
intense valley heat had seemed like excess baggage, impossible that I would
need them. As I ascended to 9000ft, I began to layer just as I had planned.
Every time I’ve been to Yosemite, I’ve seen a coyote, and the coyote has seen
me. Looking at each other, it has always seemed a coyote blessing. The sun
was already up and I doubted that I would see one on this visit. But among
the trees on the as-yet-deserted road, I thought perhaps there is a chance.
Seconds later, there was a coyote.
This time I’m on a road in Yosemite I haven’t traveled before, Rt.120 over
Tioga Pass. Got to Wolf Lodge just in time for the ranger campfire talk.
As I was walking back with my cup for the boiled coffee, only 400 yards ahead
of me walked a black bear (brown, of course, in California). The ranger was
explaining that she was a naturalist, and I told her there was a bit of
nature strolling toward us. That caused some excitement as the ranger turned
to shoo the bear back into the woods. She reported happily that it responded
like a wild bear by retreating from the arm-waving and noise from
“civilization” (that was us). So by 8am I had three wildlife sightings:
coyote, bear, and marmot.
While still at White Wolf, I stopped by one campsite where a woman, clutching
a cell phone, was brewing two pots of coffee on her Coleman stove. Another
cell phone was on the table, plus a hefty portable CD player. Latest-model
camp chairs, and other take-your-home-to-the-campground accessories adorned
the site. Of course, I’m speaking into a tape recorder, and drinking from a
thermal mug, so I’ve nothing against technology; I just don’t want to take
too much of it into the wilderness with me.
Stopping by any trickle resembling a waterfall, I took short walks,
wildflower meanders as the lupine stretched over the rocks along the
roadside. Trees with roots grasping what little soil sat on the ledges along
the cliffs, seem to emerge out of rocks, showing that it doesn’t take much
for a seed to grow. Sitting awhile by Yosemite Creek watching chipmunks munch
their breakfast, I realized that after the silence of the forests, the water
rush is a din.
Now we’re reaching 9000ft. Do you feel your ears popping?
Olmstead Point, one of the splendors of the trip, but also a major
destination. Cars were whizzing in and out like a fast-food stop, and I knew
it was time to move on when the tour buses began to arrive.
Down the eastern side of the mountain, along dramatic views of lakes and
river, the most dramatic of all is sighting Mono Lake. The lake itself is a
wonder, salt water supporting a delicate balance of life, and giving rise to
tufas, the eerie rock formations that emerge from the lake.
Driving north along Rt. 395, Walker River is to the right. Rocks, whitecaps
of the rushing water. What is missed by only travelling freeways! All you
need to do a trip like this is a reliable car, a full tank of gas, a clean
windshield, good maps. No cell phone, just faith.