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Follow the Yellowstone Road

Back through Nevada and into Idaho

sunny 75 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When we woke up at the America's Best Value Inn the day after climbing Half Dome, our first concern, apart from the unbearable pain in our legs, was the flat tire from Tunnel View. There was no way we would drive over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a donut tire; as the German tourist so helpfully informed us, it was only rated to 40mph. As luck would have it, the concierge at the motel was married to a mechanic and, knowing all of the car shops in the area, directed us to Fast Tire down the road.

They were fast, holy crap! When we pulled up into their empty parking lot at ten in the morning on Memorial Day, four or five guys poured out of the garage, jacked up the car, and had the tire off before I had even had a chance to exit the vehicle. The tire was patched in record time, and the final bill came to ten dollars. Ten dollars! We were so impressed we gave them twenty (which still seems cheap to me).

Since the tire had taken us off our planned route, we decided not to travel over the Sierras via Ebbett's Pass, as originally planned, instead taking the quickest route back through Yellowstone (including driving at the highest altitude of the trip, 9890 feet) and Mono Lake. I'm so glad we did. At the adjacent town of Lee Vining, we stopped into Nicely's Restaurant and Laundromat, where you can get a nice hot diner meal while your clothes spin. Out the window, we could see the eerie and beautiful (I keep saying things are beautiful, but they are, dammit) Mono Lake, with its strange limestone formations, and a shape belying its volcanic origin. This was to be the beginning of a volcanic theme that lasted for the next five days as we crossed the country through Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Mono Lake

We saw a few strange things driving back through the northern part of Nevada. The "town" of Middlegate was essentially a restaurant at a crossroads which looked like a movie set, complete with a cowboy sweeping the porch as we pulled up.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Northern Nevada

While speeding down a highway at night, Matt suddenly shouted at me to get the camera so I could take the following picture:


Yes: Dunphy, Nevada. We actually came to a complete stop on the highway in front of the sign so the picture wouldn't blur. There was not a single other car on the road. Matt is pretty sure that this is only the second time he's ever come to a complete stop on a non-congested highway (the other instance being when an emergency helicopter landed on the highway in front of him in Harrisburg once).

We spent the night at a truck stop town called Wells that consisted only of motels, gas stations, and desperately seedy casinos. I sort of wish we'd had the balls and the energy to go into one of those casinos, just to see, but frankly, our legs were too sore to do anything other than creak towards a bed.

The next day: Idaho.

If you'd asked me what I knew about Idaho before this trip, I would have said, uh, they grow potatoes there, and, uh, there's a city called Boise, but I don't know anything about it. I would not have said atomic power and volcanoes. This is what we discovered Idaho to be about in our drive across it. First stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument.

How could we go past something called Craters of the Moon without stopping in? I had initially omitted it from our route because I worried that we would be rushed, but we decided to make time by rejiggering our schedule. Instead of racing to see Grand Teton before nightfall and arrive at Yellowstone that evening to camp, we'd take our time, stay the night in Idaho Falls, and hit the Tetons and the supervolcano first thing in the morning. In the meantime: VOLCANOS!

As you have probably guessed, Craters of the Moon is a very alien looking landscape, but this is not due to anything lunar or the presence of craters. Thousands of years ago, nearby cinder cones spewed large amounts of lava and debris over a wide area, causing the ground to be covered in tortured black pumice fragments, boulders, and crags. Authorities apparently called it Craters of the Moon to stimulate tourism, back before we figured out that lunar craters are caused by meteors and not volcanic activity. It seems kind of a stupid name. The moon is clearly white, not black. I don't really get it.

Ten points for it looking like something not of this world, though.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Craters of the Moon

Next stop: EBR-1, the first ever atomic power plant in the United States. It's been out of commission for decades, but back in the day, it was used to provide the energy needs of the nearby town of Arco:


Matt describes EBR-1 as "the creepiest place I have ever been." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was empty except for a lone motocycle. Two rusting turbines as large as houses lay to our left; to our right, a dusty desert plain was interrupted only by a road to a restricted atomic facility of some kind in the distance. In front of us, the EBR-1 building looked as deserted as the set for a movie about the apocalypse or the rise of zombies, an association that was greatly enhanced by a whistling and moaning wind that sounded like a horror foley cliche. Tumbleweeds blew around us. Actual tumbleweeds. The cheerfulness of the fifties-era signs only made the scene more ominous, especially when contrasted with the decidedly uncheerful warning signs about radioactive materials and hantavirus.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: EBR-1

Inside, the place is more like a museum, with displays about nuclear energy, the fisrt successful test, and the process of running a nuclear power plant. Much of it was put together after the tsunami in Japan and the aftermath at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and so read like a pro-nuclear public relations exercise, emphasizing the relative safety and cleanness of nuclear energy. I enjoyed walking around the facility, though Matt grew increasingly creeped out the longer we stayed. It's true that the place had a Alcatraz-type ambience, but it's so well preserved, I could imagine being one of the scientists involved in the first production of electricity by a nuclear reactor. Those guys were pretty badass. And many of them are still alive, and contributed contemporary oral histories to the displays, so it didn't feel too awash with ghosts.


For miles around EBR-1, the landscape is defined by cone-shaped buttes that, as their shape suggests, are volcanic in origin, although the exact geological mechanism varies. Aside from Mount Ranier, which we visited in 2003, this was as close as we'd ever been to a volcano, although the next day, we entered Yellowstone National Park and eclipsed that record by actually walking all over the crater of a supervolcano. Geology is pretty awesome. In the days that followed (and especially after our time in Thermopolis, which I'll talk about in a future blog entry), we discussed maybe one day going back to school for geology. For fun. We could attend classes together at night school and get matching Bachelors of Science. It would be the nerdiest and cutest thing ever.


It was really nice to pull into Idaho Falls before sundown, with no further sightseeing plans. We ate dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant called Morenita's right around the corner from our motel, forced our stiff legs down the stairs to our room with much groaning, and fell asleep.


Posted by mormolyke 23:02 Archived in USA Tagged volcano california yosemite nevada idaho mono_lake ebr-1 craters_of_the_moon Comments (0)

Yosemite - A flat tire and a Half Dome

The longest hike I have ever taken summarized in the longest blog entry I've ever written

sunny 70 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

Our Memorial Day Weekend trip to Yosemite began with one of those I-know-this-will-be-a-funny-story-later goddamnit events.

After driving about thirty miles into the park around winding mountain S-curves, we entered a long, straight tunnel. We both like driving through lit tunnels. There's something very THX 1138 about them. But neither the thrill of the tunnel, nor the previous eye-popping sights witnessed on our roadtrop, nor our combined 65 years of lifetime visual experience could possibly prepare us for our emergence on the other side of the hill. Behold, the appropriately named Tunnel View:


Cue: Oh my holy wowwwwwwww.

The large bald cliff face on the left is El Capitan. The waterfall you can see is Bridalveil Falls. And if you look closely, peeking its famous profile out from behind clouds is Half Dome. You might recognize it from the Sierra Online logo or perhaps identify a stylized version of it in the North Face logo. We had permits to climb that sucker.

After staring breathlessly at the view for a while, we turned back to our car in the convenient parking lot behind the lookout ... to find our driver's side rear tire as flat as a pancake.


"No problem! Where's the Fix-A-Flat?" asked Matt.
"We were supposed to have Fix-A-Flat? That definitely wasn't on the packing list."


Well, let's see what happens when we try to pump it up with our 12V compressor.


At this point, we were thirty miles or an hour's drive into the park on Memorial Day weekend, so AAA was not really an option. It was time to unpack half the car so we could get to the jack and the donut tire, while other park visitors looked at us with pity and made predictable noises of commiseration. I tried to take photos to commemorate the event, but only snapped one before I started to feel a bit weird watching my husband change a tire while I stood aside and took pictures like an insensitive tourist.


Then I noticed a few other tourists taking pictures of us. Those insensitive clods! I was all ready to make withering comments and chase them off, when I realized they weren't looking at our pneumatic misfortune, but at the magnets attached to the hatch. It seems our burgeoning collection had finally reached the tipping point at which they began to draw attention, comments, and yes, people asking to take pictures of the back of our car. This is from a couple of days earlier when we were in Area 51 (and before getting a car wash in Fresno). You can see we had to start a second row:


The other amusing interest we drew was from a German tourist, who, after Matt had already changed the tire and we were getting ready to pull away, felt the need to inform us several times in a very German way that our donut tire was only rated for 40mph. Uh, yes, the park speed limit is 35mph, so that shouldn't be a problem. "You can go no more zan forty miles per hour. Do you know how zis vorks?" Yes, sir. Yes, we do.

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at the Upper Pines Campground, which we had to book months in advance in a process that resembled scrambling for rock show tickets. Unfortunately, the looming cliff faces that surround the location didn't quite make up for the overall crowdedness of the campground, which meant loud children and nauseatingly revolting bathrooms. Also, we didn't have any firewood, and we were too tired to go scouting for some. At least our neighbors were friendly - they were camping in Upper Pines for seven weeks in their RV, and on Memorial Day Weekend, their grandkids were visiting. When they heard we planned to hike Half Dome the next day, they advised us to start early. "That's a long hike. You want to be back before dark." Gulp. As we prepared for bed, we listened to the family jam out campside tunes on a ukulele; if I weren't so keen to rest before our giant hike, I totally would have busted out my mando and joined them.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yosemite

Hiking (and Climbing) Half Dome: It begins

Hiking (and Climbing) Half Dome: It begins

Sunday, May 27, 2012, 5:00AM. Our cell phone alarms took turns interrupting our snoozing. We had wisely forced ourselves to do all our packing and preparation the night before, so we rolled out of the Magnum, threw on our packs, and set off to hike Half Dome, a rock that, until about 1870, was considered insurmountable.

The dome of the rock itself is 1,360 feet tall, but that's not taking into account the altitude. Hiking in high altitude is a good way to make unfit people feel even more unfit. I am the first person to admit that I live a basically sedentary lifestyle. I probably normally spend between eight and twelve hours of each day sitting in front of a computer screen. I don't exercise. Ever. I get puffed climbing a flight of stairs. But, with the low oxygen at high altitudes, even people who run every day feel their chests heaving with little exertion. What possessed me to attempt this challange I will never understand.

So, Upper Pines Campground is already at 4,000 feet above sea level. Just to get to the base of Half Dome, you have to climb about 3,500 feet straight up over an 8.5-mile hike from the valley; many people take two days just to hike there, camping halfway. Not us! The hike includes the 600 treacherously slippery granite stairs of the Mist Trail. Last year, at least four people died on the Mist Trail alone: three were swept over Vernal Falls, and one slipped on the steps and died of head injuries. Then, before you get to the infamous Half Dome cables, the Sub Dome must be scaled via yet another excruciating round of 442 switchback stairs hewn into the granite rock, and 600 yards of perilous sloped trail that looks impossible to scale from below. By the time you reach the top of Half Dome, your elevation is 8,835 feet above sea level.


I'm not going to lie: that hike was killer. At times it felt like a death march. By the third waterfall, I really didn't care about waterfalls anymore; I could only think of my aching calves and quads. I imagined Pai Mei waiting for me at the top somewhere.


After 8.5 miles of uphill walking, which took six or seven hours, we finally arrived at the Stairmaster. I mean, the Sub Dome. The process of moving at this point went something like this: 1. Ascend five to eight stairs. 2. Sit down exhausted and catch breath. 3. Repeat about 75 times.


By this point, there was no turning back. We had invested too much. We had to attempt the infamous cables.

The Half Dome cables have a reputation for being scary and dangerous, which is not unjustly earned. Last July, a 26-year-old woman plummeted 600 feet to her death after slipping and falling from the ropes. The next month, a man fell 4,000 feet from the top of the rock down the sheer cliff face. Perhaps the most terrifying Half Dome story is that of a group of climbers in 1985 who were subjected to a thunderstorm when they reached the top. When the next group of hikers ascended, they were met with a horrifying sight: all five of the hikers had been struck by lightning, killing two of them. I was probably wise not to read the book about the disaster before attempting the climb myself, though I think I'm going to pick it up when I get home.

A note on acrophobia: when I was a kid, my parents would call me "Monkey" for my tendency and ability to skinny up poles -- including one outside our house that was at least 25 feet tall -- but I stopped that well before I reached my adult weight. As a grown-up, I can absolutely understand why my parents were always freaking out and yelling at me to come down, though at the time I felt completely secure gripping a pole between my feet. I've found that as I get older, I become more afraid of heights. Partly I think it's because I've seen more people fall. In particular, my dad fell off a roof in 2003 -- I ran outside to find him lying in a spreading pool of blood (he was fine after some stitches to his scalp) -- which scared the hell out of me. Partly, it's because I have more to lose now. And partly, it's because when you're a kid you think you're immortal, and the older you get, the more you realize how untrue that assumption is.

Where was I? Oh yes, climbing Half Dome. I figured before the trip that, given my worsening vertigo, the greatest hurdle of the climb would not be physical, but psychological. And so, I decided to take the fear factor completely out of the picture by getting both of us climbing harnesses and via ferrata carabiner sets. With these sets, you hook yourself to the cable as you climb it using carabiners at the ends of two lines with suspension systems. When you get to a rope support pole, you move the carabiners over to the other side of the rope one at a time, so you are always connected to the rope by at least one line. I remember using sets like these at school camp in grade ten on some crazy high rope course, and wasn't even slightly scared.

It totally worked. While other people were overcome by vertigo and turned back, or froze on the way up or down, paralyzed by fear, Matt and I powered up that rock like it was nothing. Well, our arms and legs were tired, but we weren't afraid of falling off the ropes and splattering our brains and other organs over Yosemite Valley for helicopters to locate.

We were accompanied by a girl we met on the Sub Dome, Laura. Laura and her sister Hope leapfrogged us (and vice versa) several times on the trail, but when they got to the Sub Dome, Hope decided she didn't want to try the cables, so she kindly agreed to look after our gear so we'd have less encumbrances.


At the top, being from Philly, we kind of had to do the Rocky pose. Oh, so Rocky ran up the Museum steps? What a pansy. Try climbing Half Dome, you weakling.


We also met a marmot (ahhh so cute!) who had zero fear of humans.


The human in that shot was another friend we met on the hike, Sandy, who along with her buddy Nelly accompanied us for the entire hike back. They were great company, and hiking downhill was a huge relief after all that climbing, so that I barely noticed the time and effort it took to return. It only took about four hours to get back to the Valley.

When we finally arrived at camp, our limbs aching and our bodies covered in sweat, dirt, scrapes, and blisters, we made an executive decision that the Upper Pines Campgound just wouldn't cut it tonight. At that point, we would have given up our freedom and dignity for a proper hot shower and a hot dinner with plenty of protein, so we packed up and headed out of Yosemite for civilization in the form of an America's Best Value Inn and Taco Bell (nothing else was open, dammit). The motel was too expensive, but it was so worth it.

For the next two and a half days, we could barely move. Every time we came to a set of stairs, we turned into arthritic ninety-year-olds, creaking slowly and with much groaning. But we carried on!

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Climbing Half Dome

Posted by mormolyke 10:53 Archived in USA Tagged california national_parks yosemite dome half half_dome tunnel_view Comments (1)

116 degrees to 18 degrees

Death Valley to Sequoia

all seasons in one day
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

On Friday, May 25, I woke up on the wrong side of bed in Death Valley National Park. The motel where we were staying advertised wifi, but through a satellite connection that was effectively useless. My best friend in Sydney had some worrying health news. I was tired of the desert. I missed trees. It was too hot and sunny. I had a crazy suspicion that being 280 feet below sea level was screwing with my head somehow. I knew I was feeling petulant, so I offered to drive; since I was apparently determined to have a bad day, I might as well play chauffeur and let Matt enjoy himself.


Before leaving aridity behind, I gritted my sulky teeth while piloting the Magnum to the incredible and strangely beautiful alien environments around the park. At Devil's Golf Course, so named because of the beyond-rough salt terrain, a wind began to blow that was strong enough to rock the car and nearly sweep Matt off his feet.


At our final stop, Natural Bridge, Matt decided he wanted to hike the half mile trail to the rock arch. As we pulled into the parking lot, closer and closer to the base of the rocky mountains, I watched the outside temperature reading on the dash climb quickly. 101 degrees ... 105 degrees ... 110 degrees ... 112 degrees. When the temperature reached 116 degrees, I drew the line. Nothing would get me out of that car into that temperature in the mood I was in, not even Matt looking disappointed as I dug in my heels and proposed waiting in the parking lot.


Matt had a good time hiking solo to the Natural Bridge regardless (he says the strong wind counteracted the intense heat), and when he returned, we struck out west, through a series of blinding dust storms.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Death Valley

The other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains greeted us with velvety green hills and orchards of citrus and berries. We had little time to enjoy it, however, as we raced toward Sequoia National Park, where we were planning to camp for the night. I was worried we wouldn't be able to find an available camp site before nightfall and kept my foot anxiously on the gas pedal, watching the temperature drop almost as quickly as it had risen in the desert as I steered the car around steep mountain curves. The air grew sharper and clouds rolled in. Icy rain occasionally fell around us.

Very suddenly, the typical forest canopy gave way in front of the car, and the sight that greeted us made my heart skip a beat. I gasped and cried out, pointing like an idiot child to the rust-colored tree-trunks that towered over the Douglas firs. Huge redwoods, their trunks wider than my armspan, and a little further up the road, the even more massive and breathtaking Methuselahs: giant sequoias.

I joined Greenpeace for a year when I was 11, and I guess I would consider myself an environmentalist, but I wouldn't call myself a tree-hugger. I do my part for conservation, but I'm not much of an activist. I have never given a thought to, say, chaining myself to a tree to protect it from loggers. But looking up at those sequoias was about as close as I have ever come to a religious experience. The sight of them, especially after days of desert dust, made me tremble. I thought about the centuries upon centuries that they had stood - thousands of years, for some of them - and I forgot all about everything that had left me stuck in a selfish bad mood all day. Pretty soon I was peering up through tears.

I think I would maybe die for those trees. I think they might have more right to be alive on this planet than I do, and that's a first for me.

Before we reached our campsite, the air temperature dropped below freezing, and as we parked and started a campfire, it began to snow. The low that night was 18 degrees Farenheit. We'd experienced a temperature fluctuation of nearly 100 degrees in less than 12 hours.

The snow made for some beautiful pictures of the forest the next morning, especially when we visited General Sherman - the largest living tree in the world, and about two and a half thousand years old.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Sequoia National Park

Posted by mormolyke 01:37 Archived in USA Tagged california death_valley sequoia Comments (0)

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