Winter of finding contentment


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As referenced in my EXPOdition report here, I also took a trip over a few weeks of February. It was another loop of the American west from Newport Oregon to Denver, then down to Death Valley and up California to Yosemite in round about attempt to see the Firefall. For a couple weeks a year if the conditions are right, Horsetail Falls in the valley glows at sunset. There has to be enough snow on the ground, and yet warm enough for the snow to melt and flow off the face of El Capitan. The sky to the west has to be clear. If all these elements work together, with luck you can be here for this.

It was important this time to take that chance to see it because I had had a rough winter. The chunk of time betwen December to February, to my mind, didn't happen. I can't recall doing much of any significance and recoiled into myself. But the Firefall was coming around again, and here I had a chance to put some distance between myself and my thoughts. I needed a change of scenery, and when I'm moving, I have less time to feel bad.

The plan was to come around Yosemite from the bottom. I would give myself a couple weeks to drive from Newport to the park, and one can see a lot if you go the wrong way first. And if you're me and want to hit the road in a meaningful way where do you go the first day? Yes, the Alvord. Again. Hopefully by now you're not sick of pictures of this place. I'm not. Arriving at the playa in the dark is deceiving. Even in the daytime, it's hard to put a useful sense of scale to work to help you navigate it. So finding camp was really just picking a direction and driving some distance. It was a long day of just driving, so we'll see what the trip is going to be like for real in the morning.

The night was uncomfortable, and it would soon become normal to have arms fall asleep on the failing sleeping pad in the back of the Jeep, and to wake a couple hours before dawn freezing to start the engine again and get some heat circulating inside. Overnight lows were about 20 in a 32 degree bag that apparently is safe down to 19. But oddly, I never started a day in a poor mood. Physical discomfort was actually welcomed as a distraction and served to shift focus and perspective. Plus, we like being on the road don't we? And we'll put up with it.

Beautiful though the rising sun is, it took some time to make an impression on the chill of the air. We played, finding fun ways to play with shadows and the only stick for miles.

I realize I showed pictures of the Alvord twice in my previous report, and page one so far is mostly the same. I'm trusting that they're still welcome. Maybe you've never been, and you hope you might visit someday. I hope you do. For me, it was I suppose the metaphor for my blank slate. There's some kind of reset button hit by big dry lakebeds.


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If you read the last report this next bit won't come as a surprise to you. If you did and are just wondering where I ate in Winnemucca this time, it's here at the Winnemucca Pizzeria. This is not only a pizza place, it's an uplifting place. The walls are plastered with positive signs, messages, notes of happiness and love. I was missing being loved, and pizza takes the edge off.

Now though we depart from the other route because we're heading east. And when you wake up on a a dry lake and have a day on the road, where do you like to finish that day? Precisely, another dry lake. The last time I drove by Bonneville it was full of water, and it was not long after Speed Week was canceled because it has historically been about racing cars, not boats. This time it was dry and good for racing black and white dogs. He definitely gets in the spirit of the place. Of course the night was frigid, and again I was up during the night to fight against being a Popsicle.

This guy did not quite pull off the stunt he was intending. Evidence shows there was less of a jump and more pulling the front of the vehicle off.

Of course an early morning, unable to sleep past about 3, easy to catch first light.

I'm traveling quicker than I like again, but I'm hoping to get to Denver at a time when friends there could actually find time to hang out. Back on the road I see a billboard. Hill Aerospace Museum is on the way. It'll put me into Denver late if I stopped, but I'd kick myself for passing a good aerospace museum. I'm a bit of an aviation geek. Hill has a great display for being a smallish museum. It's well curated and had a number of my favorite planes as well as plenty of cool equipment to discover.

The first thing Jenson found was a big Bone.

One highlight was seeing my first Genie missile, an air-to-air nuclear weapon designed to be fired in the middle of a formation of strategic bombers like the Soviet Tu-95 Bears and take them all out at once, and hopefully not the intercepting fighter that fired the thing in the first place.



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I will admit to a plane crush on the F-104. The protective sheaths on the wing is to protect ground crews from the .016in leading edge. It certainly looks the part of the first aircraft to simultaneously hold the world speed and altitude records.

I hear Old Man Emu is developing a lift kit for the C-5, but it's bound to carry a premium price.

Any Phantom drivers out there in Portal land?

My stop in Denver was partly to see old friends because I lived here for many years after moving out of Florida, and partly because my confused and ambitious brain had hatched a plan to sell the Jeep in Denver, then rent a car to take me and my stuff to Phoenix, and buy a 4x4 Toyota Chinook that I was first in line for. I actually put the Jeep up for sale and by the night I was supposed to leave for the Southwest I had someone offering exactly what I was asking for it. But I couldn't do it. The Jeep was great, I just had to organize it. It was cheap, I already owned it, and it has been good to me. It's very clear now looking back that abandoning the crazy plan to change vehicles was the best thing I could have done at the time. Now with just 328k miles, it's ready to head out to Alaska and Panama.

You don't need to see pictures of Denver, so we continue back south west into the desert. I had called the Chinook people and released myself from the front of the waiting list. We were now heading into more familiar territory. Southern Utah, not far from where we lived a couple summers ago. I love spots like this up by Gemini Bridges.



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There's a saying in a book I'm reading that goes like this.

Thoughts which are mixed with any of the feelings of emotions constitute a "magnetic" force which attracts other similar or related thoughts.

I had been doing that negatively, and now it was time to take back a feeling of control and cultivating some positive thoughts. What would you do if you had the privilege of being alive for a whole day? For me, this is when it started to click that "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul."

Driving out of the Moab area in the rain brought back memories. Like we would get to this sign at our exit off I-70 coming back from grocery shopping in another state and knowing there were just 90 or so miles till we were home. I put that Spot sticker there in honor of my old climbing gym back in Boulder, Co.

I had been down the road west of Hanksville so many times, but you just can't ever get to all the side roads in a place like this. Some of them end up traversing a landscape similar to the crust of good brownies.

Factory Butte was another area I had wanted to go play in. I would look at the tracks around and imagined the fun of being on a dirt bike there and just never got around to going in 4x4 mode. I'm very glad I did because it is a cool place. I did try to get up to where Mr. Block drove one of his nutty rally cars, but I think straight up probably wasn't correct. Good chance to test the parking brake though, which wasn't up to the task. It must be said though that on the other side of this crazy ridge is just air.

I found this out after Jenson ran to the top of this one, stood at the top, looked around and waited for me to come join him. I met up with him here on the side and my stomach turned over at how sheer and significant the drop was on the other side of where he ran to. The surface is not exactly stable to begin with.

So we ran around some more closer to the bottom, posed the Jeep for more pictures to prove to strangers how cool my life is, and carried on west.

Lunch by a quiet, muddy river, petroglyphs, and you can start to see what a lovely day this was turning out to be. When you're really out there, the days do feel longer don't they? Well this is all still the same day. We headed up and over the hills towards Boulder Town, did some donuts but didn't get to eat anything at the Burr Trail Grill this time because they're closed for the winter. Bummer.

I wonder what this strange writing means?



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Further on we reminded ourselves of Utah's unofficial state motto,

but with the presence of the winter snow, which I had missed living here in Summer wondered if there was any at Bryce Canyon. In the summer, Bryce is fascinating enough. The amphitheater area is quite large and the geology is stunning. Sprinkle some snow on it though, and it really shows how dynamic the landscape is. I like the juxtaposition of snow on real desert, not just in the upper elevations.

If you're already having a great day that started in Moab and there's still daylight, you drive though Zion, too.

We didn't stop, however, because there was just enough time to try to get to a campsite I remembered from years ago at the top of Smithsonian Butte. Just enough time in fact to remember how sloppy the road gets when it's wet and how the first time Sam and I found this site it was dry on the way up and after a big storm overnight was so slick that we were concerned about a slide ending up either in the ditch to the right, or off the edge to the left. This time however it was bad enough that I could try, fail, give up, make a sketchy 3 pointer and bravely run away just in time for real darkness to fall and still not have a site. Within an hour though, we did find something nearby.

Not my favorite place or surface to turn around on, but despite sliding backwards with all 4 wheels locked while I thought about life, I didn't even die.


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Day something. We were heading more towards populated areas, and in this part of the country means the one exception to my own no fast food rule. I've got an In-N-Out sticker on the Jeep from way back, and even had one on the Expo DR650. I don't have to defend myself to you.

I did spend one night in Vegas. Unfortunately, it was some kind of holiday weekend and nothing was all that cheap. I don't normally do the bar/club scene, but hey, I can have one night of normal people fun right? The quest for normal people fun turned into a night at an LGBT club with a drag show and the worst hangover since the last trip to Vegas.

But now it was time to head to a place that always seems bring me back to life. Death Valley. And finally after a couple times coming though in summer, I arrive and the weather is gorgeous. Exploring the desert when it's hot has certain inherent risks. Like that time my sunglasses started melting while I was still wearing them in the Valley of Fire a couple years back.

Anyway, the southern part of Death Valley where I was camped, I figured at least tied a site round the back of Goblin Valley for the quietest place I have ever been. Being somewhere without even a breath of wind, no insects, no rustling or any kind is actually a spooky sensation. Even calm, tranquil nature spots can be quite active compared to nothing at all.

But the best reward of the evening was the moon. I know, this picture isn't very good. All these photos are just phone pictures, and there was no way I was going to capture it, but whatever. There was just the tiniest sliver of a waxing crescent showing, the new moon must have been not long ago. And rather than being a negative space giving the crescent it's shape, the fullness of the rest of the new moon took on it's true color in striking contrast to the sky around it. For the first time I could really remember, and something I'll not soon forget, I was staring at the honest deep grey of the unlit moon, popping against the clear desert air not overpowered by a glowing edge or washed out a bright sky. Apart from the hopeless attempt to capture it, I stared at if for ages easily finding every detail normally blinding in a full moon, soft, almost like looking at a negative.



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Morning quickly brought the warmth.

Not the oppressive heat I was used to, which meant exploring Badwater Basin further than before without the fear of Jenson bursting into flames in the car while he waited. Death Valley is host to many crazy features like salt flats, colored hills, sand dunes, and are quite individually isolated to a particular locale, like the Devil's Golf Course.

I did not get up to the Race Track this time because I was honestly still worried about the marks put in it a while back. I remember it quite untouched and would like to leave it that way. I'll be back someday. My one visit was one of my favorite travel memories.

I was lying face down on the playa, not lounging with my head propped up on my arm, but cheek in the dust splayed out under the late afternoon September sun. Sam was photographing the sailing stones, which by the way are fascinating and bigger than they look in magazines. And as I lay there, stomach pressing against the lake bed as I breathed, I heard off in the distance a fly. One of the advantages of the natural silence is a certain amount of focus when there finally is a noise. I listened to this fly somewhere to my left as it got closer and closer, not buzzing around like usual when they're being a pest, but steady and closing. I kept my eyes closed and didn't move. The fly flew directly over my ear and kept going, straight and steady off to my right, fading, fading and eventually nothing again. The whole transit even had its own tiny little Doppler effect and I was the one who got to be the fly on the wall. I can't remember before or since being the observer of so simple a natural act and have that be the only thing happening in my world.

Sorry if this is turning into just a collection of stories about dry lake beds.

This time, I did get into Titus Canyon from the back for a little walk. From what I've heard the last couple miles in the narrow part is the best part of the long one way trail anyway, and a hike was a welcome change from all the driving. Exploring national parks is difficult with a dog because of how few places they're allowed to go, and I do like following those guidelines because they do keep the areas under protection in good shape. So I get it.

Leaving Death Valley again brought me out over the windswept eastern edge of the cascades. I remembered riding crooked here against the wind on the Expo DR trip the year before, but this time it was comfortable. I could see the clouds being whipped over the peaks, and remembered too how fried my brain was on the bike after 3 days of winds gusting to 65mph. I did however find a campsite in the same place as on the bike, in the Dove Hills OHV area adjacent to Red Rock Canyon. Not too busy, and this time, no tent rattling in the wind.

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The following morning had an interesting surprise. Ice on the roads east of Bakersfield. Was I going to find a warm campsite anywhere but Death Valley? Maybe. In an attempt to do just that I went south. Surely south would be the right call. Well, that put me in the mountains, and up this snowy trail to a lookout perched in what was perhaps a lovely spot if there were any visibility. Up here though, one of my Jeep habits paid off. I pull the keys out and take them with me even when I leave it running because the locks are a bit strange. Sometimes they freak out and click a little and do a little jig. But this time, here, alone in the snow, windows up, no service, mere moments after I closed the door after letting Jenson out, they thunked shut for real. No flipping around half locked a few times. Just locked. Maybe I'll put the spare in hidden box somewhere outside in case I forget to do my normal countermeasures.

No way I was prepared to sleep in the temps expected up here though, so back down, and further west near a town called New Cuyama. In a small grove tucked away behind shimmering SoCal hills, I went for a walk. It seemed lately that although I was experiencing the sadness of a broken relationship, the rest of my family were having medical issues all at the same time. Bigger and more serious stresses than the way mine felt at the moment. Sad sure, but look where I was. It seemed like I was the only one that hadn't been in hospital in the last couple weeks. I try to have an attitude of gratitude, and sometimes I forget it. I must not let myself lose sight of just how lucky I am.

This day would bring us back to the coast, but not before going through some very active farm land. Produce land, and it smells wonderful. But it all leads to beaches where dogs are not allowed. Oregon had me spoiled where most beaches are dog friendly and off leash for as long as you like. Not so here. Perhaps it's a job for Jesus and the rest of his super hero pals.

Eventually we did find a dog friendly beach though, complete with otters. Dinner that night doesn't get a picture because I said yes to a side of beans and rice with my carne asada only to find out later that it was over $6 extra for that and I'm still baffled by it.

Up the coast and our first early morning encounter was with some elephant seals. Males can be up to 15 feet long and weigh 5000 pounds. I knew we weren't going to be able to get up the coast all the way because a large section of the coast road by big sur is still shut after the massive landslide. The road still goes just far enough though to get to this beautiful little waterfall and pool.

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This was possibly the most I've spent per gallon on fuel, but I didn't have to get a lot, just a couple gallons to make it back to where I was. Now there was a big detour to be had to get around Big Sur.

I had been following the conditions in Yosemite to see if the Firefall was going to happen, and so far it didn't look good. There just wasn't any snow. But there was a chance, so I headed inland. I found a BLM site with no service a couple hours outside Yosemite and hoped maybe tomorrow. The next day I swung though Pinnacles briefly and back into cell coverage. A quick update and, look at that, there was a small amount of water flowing the previous day and it happened. It was small, but better than nothing. So I rushed over into the park so see if I could have some good luck this evening. This is what greeted me.

Well, when I arrived, I couldn't see anything. Fat chance in this weather. The roads were icy and chain laws were in effect. The odds were slim anything would happen today, but more snow was good for the cause right? Maybe this would be enough to have a good flow tomorrow. It was far too cold up here to camp with what I had, so I got myself a room outside the park, found out Jenson really likes banana chips, and hoped for the best again.

Daybreak again. The sun was shining, a bluebird day as they say. And Yosemite was resplendent. Everything was crystal clear. I got myself a parking pass and settled in for a day of watching and waiting. Time to read, make soup, and watch the ice on the side of the cliff face thaw out. At around 10am, it was trickling and getting steadily stronger. If the weather held out today, there was a shot.

Unfortunately, by about 2pm, it had exhausted itself. The previous day was the first real snow the park had had all season, and it wasn't going to happen. But I had been here overnight already and thought a sunset on a wet patch of cliff was still going to be alright. And you know, it was. Look where we were, and what we were doing. Not the best firefall ever, but beautiful nonetheless.

The purpose of the trip wasn't really to see the firefall was it? That was just the excuse to get out and feel free. Leaving the park late, it was all I could do to make Sacramento and visit an old friend from Miami and crash on a couch for the night.

Now I was headed for the King Range. California's lost coast. I had been through before on a weekend bike trip from Newport and knew it was not to be missed again if I was in the area. Black sand beaches, tide pools, secluded towns, just a really cool part of the country you have to put effort into getting. If this place was on the 101 it would be ruined.

You do have to make a concerted effort to get out here, but all the roads in and out are beautiful, it's quiet, and gorgeous. I know a lot of you travel up and down the left coast and the next time you do. I would strongly urge you to make time to go find the lost coast.

Also, I'll sneak in some more pizza, and if you're going through the area, stop in at Arcata Pizza & Deli.

By the time I'm to the redwoods and not finding anywhere free to camp, I figure I might as well suck it up for the last few hours and get all the way into Newport. But I love the redwoods, so I have to spend some time here. They are hugely impressive, and for me, calming. And we came perilously close to losing them altogether. There used to be 2 million acres of Coast Redwoods before we started logging. By the time we got around to thinking in terms of conservation and these natural resources are not, in fact, inexhaustible, we had cut down 95% of them. Am I sad there aren't more? Yes. Am I glad there are as many as there are? Yes.

Because I'm looking back on this trip months after, I remember feeling like at the end of it, I didn't have anyone to come back to. But that has passed. With time, I've come around again to realize just how lucky I still am even to be able to get out and do these things and that I'll just have to be okay being around myself. And while I feel delayed in getting out for the big one, I know that if my biggest problem in life is my year long trip to explore North and Central America has been delayed another month, then my life is still pretty good. Hopefully you found some enjoyment out of this journey as well.


Another great trip report; thanks for sharing. And after this and your last report, I am going to have to stop in Winnemucca next time I pass that way. I have always deliberately avoided "Win-and-run-amuck" but now you have me intrigued. BTW, a bit west of Winnemucca on I-80 is Rye Patch Recreation Area, where there is a campsite by the river and a classic Nevada outback bar. The Golddigger, or something like that. A bit ratchet from the outside, but very friendly locals. And a tiny Chihuahua that rules the bar and terrorized by 70 pound lab (he is a sensitive fellow).


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Thanks! I was worried since it was a few months ago i would have forgotten too many details. I had no notes. I won't be heading back that way for some time. Sounds like i could be heading out of here aa soon as tomorrow for the big one.