Cross-Country Travel, Chapter 5 – Highest Point, Lowest Point

September 2002

This update starts right after Burning Man. Luckily my friend had relatives in Carson City, so we drove there and had the first shower in a few days of desert dust and heat. His uncle also made a really good dinner which was great after days of canned vegetables and instant soup. It was especially good to be able to taste something again. The dust on the playa got into my tastebuds and my nose, until everything tasted and smelled the same (including Bud Light, and the porta-potties). It turned out there was a place to go 4-wheeling right nearby.

It was then my plan to go to Yosemite and do some hikes I had wanted to do for years. As I drove into Yosemite, it started raining, due to a hurricane off the coast. I was reading a section in “Blue Highways” where the author ran into rain on HIS trip, and was getting himself down. The rain along with $18 campsites, and the book started to get ME down.

I had neglected to get a hold of my sister before I went out of cell phone coverage, so I didn’t know she was on the road staying around lake Tahoe. Once I realized that, I headed up there, and we hung out for a few days of gambling (they were very happy to turn our pennies and dimes into quarters in Stateline, NV) and mountain biking. When the storm in Yosemite cleared, I went back, and my sister also happened to be there rock climbing. I did a great short overnight up Half-Dome, which is pretty crowded, but very impressive. I also did a hike up Mt Dana, a 13,000 ft peak, on the eastern edge of Yosemite. I met a couple in their 50′s from New York with whom I chatted for a bit. As I was talking to them, a couple came rushing up behind. I tried to ask them a couple questions, but they were in way to much of a hurry to talk long. I named them “God’s Gift to Day Hikers (GGDH),” as they put on an air of being quite certain they were the best. I was sitting relaxing at the top when the GGDHs showed up. The wife looked back, and said to her husband in a self-esteem boosting manner (loud enough for me to hear), “I wonder where those other people are?” The in-shape 30-somethings seemed to feel quite impressed with themselves for getting to the top before the out-of shape 50-somethings.

After Yosemite I headed toward Kings Canyon/Giant Sequoia National Park, where I did a couple of short hikes, and yet another cave tour, and I also saw some BIG trees. I ran into one of the less desirable and less expected sights on my trip in the visitor center bathroom where two big Germans stood, completely naked, monopolizing the sinks to wash their feet (sorry, no picture). An English woman said to me the next day, “Yeah, that’s Europeans for you.” But I still found it a bit odd. I also did a cool hike up to Sawtooth Pass in the park. This was my last hike in training for my real goal, the highest peak in the “lower 48,” Mt. Whitney. I took a couple of days off from hiking, and drove into Fresno, and over to the base of Whitney. Fresno was the smoggiest place I have ever been; the sky was yellow and overcast due to smog.

Mt Whitney is 14,495 ft, and a 6000 ft vertical, 22-mile roundtrip hike, and my guidebook warned: “only superbly conditioned, previously acclimatized and psycologically prepared hikers should attempt this as a gargantuan day hike.” The hike requires a pass, and luckily I was able to get one from the Forest Service for the next day. I relaxed in the campground for the afternoon, dreading waking up at 4 for the hike. Luckily I met a guy in the campsite across from me who was also doing the hike the next day, and we decided to start out together. It made all the difference to have someone to talk to on the way up; although as breathing got harder, the conversation turned into occasional short breathy sentences. It is a spectacular view much of the way up, and especially at the top. The guidebook was right, the hike was a difficult dayhike. Hiking up wasn’t bad, and I felt pretty good until about halfway down (aside from having to walk on the ankle I twisted badly about 100 ft. from the top), where I was completely beat, but still had 5 miles to go, but I did enjoy a drive through the upscale part.

It was my goal to go from the highest point to the lowest point in the same day, or the same 24-hour period, anyway. The National Park Service is a bit wishy-washy about exactly where the lowest point in Death Valley is, because they don’t want crazy people like me going to find it and cooking in the desert. They claim the lowest point, 282 ft below sea level moves around and is hard to find, and after the hike of the day before, I was satisfied to go to 280 ft below sea level, right off the road. It’s funny, Death Valley is a huge park with many 4×4 roads, and long dirt roads, but some of the rangers will try to convince you not to explore any of it. The ranger I talked to told me people often get two flat tires, and that if I didn’t have cell phone service, to dial 911 because sometimes it will still go through, and that I might not see anyone for days, so have plenty of food and water. On the road I chose to drive, I saw about 20 people, the high temperature was only about 90, and I didn’t get any flats. I drove to the racetrack where rocks mysteriously move across the playa. Just as mysteriously, no one (not even the woman who did her PhD on these rocks) has ever seen them move.

From Death valley, I headed for Las Vegas. I had planned for some time to make it to Las Vegas to see “Fosse,” the new tour that Dustienne is in. It was excellent, one of my few cultural events. After my luck in Stateline, Nevada getting quarters from my pennies, I decided to turn in more change in Las Vegas, but Las Vegas ain’t no Stateline, and I got a big attitude from the cashier: “We only have a private machine for nickels and pennies.” “So?” I said. “These look old; if they break our machine, we’ll be pissed.” So much for getting rid of my change collection. From Las Vegas, I drove by the Hoover Dam, through Lake Havasue, AZ (The most undesirable place I passed on my whole trip), home of the London Bridge, yup THE London Bridge. I also drove through Hope, AZ, where the sign on the highway leaving the town cleverly says, “You are now beyond Hope.” I stayed in Phoenix one night. I went to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home in the west. I wasn’t sure if I would get much out of the tour, but it turned out to be very interesting, and I really liked some of his ideas. From Phoenix, I headed for Tucson. I stopped at the Biosphere II, remember that big greenhouse where the people were caged up for a couple years, simulating a colony in space? They now have a tour that goes “Under the Glass.” It’s fun to be able to walk from tropics to desert in a hundred yards, and it was really interesting seeing the basement, and some of the workings. Another great museum in the Tucson area is the Titan missile museum, an intact decommissioned ICBM missile silo. On the tour, the guide runs a demonstration of the sequence that would have taken place if the missile were launched.

In the campground the next morning, I was lucky enough to meet a guy who really knew Arizona like the back of his hand. He gave me some great suggestions, like going on a mine tour in Bisbee, even if putting on a raincoat, and a miners flashlight, did seem hokey, he assured me the tour was interesting. And it was. Tombstone, AZ, on the other hand WAS hokey. The campground that night was a secluded free National Forest campground with only one other camper in an old VW bus parked across the campground. My periodontically challenged neighbor came over just a little while after I pulled in, and said, “I don’t know if you’re having a fire, but I will be, and you are welcome to stop by.” Even if he did seem a bit odd (who doesn’t), I stopped in and let him have a conversation to me. He did at least give me a couple suggestions on things to see in AZ. The next day on my way to the hot springs he had told me about, I stopped to get gas in Bowie, AZ. Only one gas pump “worked,” but the automatic shutoff didn’t, and gas poured on the ground. I walked through the swarm of flies outside the front door to pay and inhaled cigarette smoke thicker than the smokiest bar I’ve ever been in. There were three people inside: a woman cracking jokes, a guy sitting at the counter swatting flies with a flyswatter, and the owner wearing American Flag Suspenders with a .45 on his hip. There it is. What I did in September.

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