Friday, December 4, 2009

Eastern Sierra

Just before dark with a big moon on the rise, I drove through Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows to reach 10,000 foot Tioga Pass and then dropped down the steep eastern slope of the Sierras to Lee Vining, a high desert town on U.S. 395.

I had driven 5 1/2 hours from the Pacific coast town of Santa Cruz to cross the mighty Southern Sierra Nevada and meet friends for a long, sunny week of exploration. Our targets included natural hot springs, ancient pictograph sites, mountain lakes bursting with fall color, day hikes to spectacular High Sierra passes, and a Paiute Indian powwow on the 875-acre Bishop Reservation. We settled in early as a shirtsleeve warm September night fell over the camp. The last late night sound I heard was the soft rustle of aspen leaves as warm air from Mono Lake and the valley below rose gently past us.

The next morning we had breakfast, pulled out the topo maps, and drove to the San Joaquin Ridge Trailhead near Mammoth Lakes. We started up a 2 mile, 1400 foot climb that would culminate in 345 degree views east to the Sierra escarpment, west to the Panamint range and finally to the White Mountains and Owens Valley in the distant south. Our playground for the next week was laid out before us. Hiking down under a clear sky we feasted on views of nearby Mts. Ritter and Banner, at around 12,000 feet, among the tallest peaks in this section of Sierra.

We finished up the day with a late afternoon view from the 102 degree warmth of Wild Willy's, a natural hot spring on the valley floor east of U.S. 395.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Last Few Days

The end of this trip was anticlimactic as I came down with the flu and simultaneously experienced altitude sickness as I arrived in Santa Fe. I spent the next two days mostly in bed, managing one short side trip to Madras, N.M., a small artists' community in an old coal mining town south of Santa Fe where I salvaged some vintage iron pieces from the original dump on the outskirts of town.

My birthday was spent with a view from my bed of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and much reflection on recent events, and in between trips to the bathroom, I experienced an upwelling of gratitude for still having my feet on such a beautiful planet. I drove home to Santa Cruz in two days, not really feeling up to exploring, though I was blown away again and again by sunrises over the desert, 100 mile distant mountain vistas, and the feeling of freedom in being able to spend some time like this.

Most Prolific Wildflower Display goes to the stands of wild mustard cascading down the foothills of the Tehachapis where Highway 58 runs out West toward the backdoor of Bakersfield. Other Trip Awards go to Louisiana for Friendliest People, Texas for Best Drivers (helped along by state law: Keep Right Except to Pass), a tie between Arizona and New Mexico for Sweeping Vistas of the Wild West, and to California for Most Beautiful State, downgraded slightly for Most Inconsiderate Drivers.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Day 15 (continued)

After fueling up at a drive-in burger spot packed with teenagers and sporting roller skating car hops, I spent an interesting afternoon touring Las Vegas, N.M. A trading center for settlers on the Santa Fe Trail during the early 1800's, It later became a principal railroad town and currently has over 900 buildings on the National Historic Register, more than any other community west of the Mississippi. Try as I may, I couldn't find a single shop that had any architectural salvage. I thought I either just missed out or maybe that kind of material is at a premium and not generally available, given how many historic buildings might need renovation. It surprised me though, and became a minor third-water mystery I'm still trying to solve.

I tooled down the road to Santa Fe, arriving at dinner time, anticipating a two-day layover for some R&R and a solo celebration of my birthday on the road.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Day 15

New Mexico State Highway 104 begins as 2nd Street in Tucumcari, and heads out of town across the railroad bridge, winding north through sagebrush and low-lying red rock mesas. I sensed the character of the road right away and knew I had a winner. There were broad vistas on both sides of the road and virtually no traffic. I saw fewer than five cars in a hundred miles and most of them tilted a hand back off the steering wheel in the lonely driver's salute. After 30 miles or so, the road climbs a thousand feet along a steep grade and tops out on the high plateau. Here the expansive vistas ratchet up from scenic to vast, where endless stretches of undulating grassy plain sweep away under a huge sky canopy. I pull over and get out and the road is empty for 20 or 30 miles in either direction. The silence is loud enough to hear. My mind slips into neutral as I take it all in. Time flickers, then flits away.

Later, down the road, an old faded storefront appears in the middle of nowhere. I slow down to take it in, and something rings deja vu. It turns out to be the old gas station in the scene from 'No Country for Old Men' where the Coin Toss is played out.

Highway 104 runs out to the west for 30 or 40 more miles, equally desolate and satisfying, before diving off the plateau and on down to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I'm looking to find some salvage from the town's historic Victorians.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 12+13+14

Paul is a High-Adept traveler, having honed his skills while taking his own dog and pony show on the road as a conference speaker/consultant.  He was scanning ahead of me online for accommodations as I moved across country, sometimes finding a place for me at the last minute when I knew I was going to have to land for the night.  He never missed with the perfect place, and when I took a wrong turn on Dallas' busy nighttime freeways, he was right on it with google maps street view or something to get me on course.  Thanks, Paul.  In the morning I made breakfast in my room as usual, with mobile toaster, coffee grinder, mini brew bar and sprouted wheat bagels, before driving 300 yards to the salvage dealer.  Not bad, Paul.

This place was also a find, with good prices and some interesting pieces.  I loaded up some old porch posts and columns, lengths of dentil and crown molding and some antique ceiling tin and chatted with one of the owners while I roped it all down.  Business was slack and she had customers waiting for whole used kitchens to come in on the salvage trucks but she couldn't get any product because the demolition crews were waiting out the economy for better prices.   She was thinking about the 5 acres she'd bought for $1000. an acre just a few years ago up in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Georgia O'Keefe's backyard, but couldn't figure out a way to make any  money up there.  Just too far from Santa Fe.  I remembered that on our last trip to that area, Gail had found an arrowhead right next to the road about a half mile from where I thought her place would be.  She held my hand in both of hers and looked right at me as we said goodbye.

The back end of my truck had settled on the leaf springs, and the rear tires were bulging, so I set off at a slow lope for a layover in Santa Fe to rest up.  That night I made Tucumcari on I-40 and had some excellent chili rellenos at the Branding Iron.  These were Tex-Mex style with a deep smokey flavor, maybe chipotle, and as I was the last to be served that night, the homemade style green chili salsa had weathered in just right.  I slept in next morning and was last out of the parking lot, finally gearing down to relish what I knew would be a real treat - one of the Mothers of All Back Roads, New Mexico State Highway 104.  I'd never driven it, but when I heard it described as ...'so desolate it was scary', I knew it was my kind of road.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 11+12

The next afternoon we drove Gail to the airport, and I began making the rounds of New Orleans' salvage shops for potential furniture parts.  Basically, I struck out.  The high prices didn't leave me a window for profit, and so I set my sights on smaller towns and out-of-the-way places along my return route.  Taking a few hours for some online research paid off.   I talked with a builder in Jackson, Louisiana and a salvage shop in Dallas, Texas.  This gave me two points to connect on a map and the bones of my route home.  It was hard saying goodbye to my family and precious granddaughter, knowing all we'd have for a while would be our Skype video calls and an itch we couldn't scratch.  I put the Eagles on and drove down the blurry road to the Interstate.

I headed west on I-10 to Baton Rouge and swung north to Jackson, Louisiana to meet with Brent, a fellow builder, salvager and furniture maker.  He was friendly, helpful and offered me better prices than I could find in N. O.  I left with my truck half-filled with 100 year-old cypress 5-panel doors, some vintage porch posts, and a pair of very old,  2-1/4 in. thick hand-carved French doors sporting elaborate iron grillwork.  Then I was on the back roads again, tacking northwest toward I-40, out of Louisiana and into Texas, on an intercept course for Dallas across the bare flatlands and wide-open spaces, past oil fields, orchards and little hard-scrabble places where hardy people and their skinny cows go head to head with the dry land.  

I fell in behind a big rig pulling doubles and hammered down on the four-lane.  I drafted for ninety miles, grateful for the windbreak out on the prairie, then stopped for lunch at a rest area where you could see an easy hundred miles, setting up my backpacking stove to make coffee behind my truck out of the wind.   I took a walk out onto the hardpan to stretch, and was leaning into a strong headwind when it shifted and I fell on the ground.  I started laughing and it took me five minutes to get up.  Punchy.

In Texas, and later in New Mexico, I began to notice that the only packed parking lots I saw were at Wal-Marts, casinos, and some super-sized pawnshops.  I took lunch next to the parking lot of a pawnshop and watched a guy come out to a beater car and start scratching through a stack of $4 lottery tickets as thick as his thumb.

I'd met a few people along the way who were out of work, and struggling to come to terms with the hands they'd been dealt, but no one talked of throwing in.  Some were looking on the bright side, like the woman at the bank who'd been handling the construction loan for the last house I built.  At first I noticed her outgoing message indicating she was now on a four-day workweek, and two months later she called to tell me she'd lost her job, but was looking forward to home schooling her kids, something she'd never been able to do.  She sounded happy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - St. Anne's on Fat Tuesday

More Fat Tuesday Pics

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - St. Anne's on Fat Tuesday

Saint Anne's Parade on Fat Tuesday

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Parade Pics

More Float Parade Pics

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 6-10

We went to parties, parades and more parades.  Paul and Shannon live right on Napolean Avenue, one of the major parade routes, which has a fifty-foot wide grass-covered neutral ground (median) where everyone sets up tables of food, chairs, ladders and blankets to watch the floats and marching bands and yell for beads.  There are other 'throws' from the floats such as stuffed animals, metal and wooden doubloons, etc. but for a lot of people its all about the beads.  Some of the beads are good quality bling with great colors.  I'm embarrassed to admit that my initial nonchalance quickly degenerated into jumping and yelling with outstretched hands, which over five days resulted in eighty pounds of beads that I dragged back to Santa Cruz for god knows what.  No kidding, let me know if you want some!

The highlight of Mardi Gras for both Gail and I was donning our homemade costumes and marching with hundreds of people in the Saint Anne's Parade from the R Bar (for Royal Street) through the French Quarter.  The mood was definitely high spirited and friendly as people in costume gathered in the street in front of the bar, laughing, drinking. and taking pictures of each other.  The costumes were nearly all handmade, original and for the most part quite well done, some very elaborate and of award-winning caliber.  After about two hours a critical mass was achieved and we set off down the street behind the band, which was surprisingly good and blasting away ferociously.  Gail and I moved up in front of the band and danced, leading the parade for several blocks down Royal Street with scads of people on the sidewalks and second-story balconies shouting, throwing beads and having more fun than is generally allowed.  It was a total gas!

We saw plenty of outrageous outfits, but virtually none of the outrageous behavior we'd heard about.  Reportedly that's more of a tourist  thing and we were mostly hanging out with locals and major celebrants.  But they don't call it Fat Tuesday for nothing - though we weren't drinking ourselves, we felt amply debauched after five days of non-stop Mardi Gras activity, for as the saying goes, "You don't go to Mardi Gras, it comes to you!"  Meaning, if you're anywhere nearby, it's sound, energy and vibration are inescapably intermixed with your very own molecules.  We recommend it, as an easy lesson in surrender to a higher good!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 3+4+5

We drove considerably past dark, reaching the tiny town of Balmorhea Springs, 
Texas in the pitch of night, having turned off too soon onto the far end of a loop road, piloting only with headlights and starlight.  The only motel in town was still open as was the only restaurant, the Oso Flojo, recommended by our Santa Cruz friends Susie and Stan, who are transmogrified Texans.  We checked in to the motel and walked right over to the Oso Flojo for our first Texas meal.  I'm a chili relleno afficionado, and thought theirs were darn good, though they were deliciously eclipsed by the dish I was served the very next night in Austin!  Upon our return to Santa Cruz,  Stan was horrified that we hadn't actually swam in the 72 to 76 degree constant temperature natural spring waters.   On reflection, so were we.  Instead however, we threw ourselves headlong across the Texas flatland, scrambling to make the hill country of Austin and a great downtown hotel room just before dark.  We had two more days before the start of Mardi Gras, and needed to put a couple of 500-plus mile days together back to back.

That night in Austin, I had the best chili rellenos ever at the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill.  The poblano chilies tasted like they were mesquite singed, then delicately fried (there's about a 20 second window between perfection and overdone) and served immediately.  The almost crispy chilies held their own against a cornmeal batter and a great mix of italian and mexican cheeses.  I began conjuring up ways to justify further research.  After dinner we were too pooped to go on the River Walk, and settled for a view of it from our 16th story picture window.  We really liked Austin - just scratching the surface it reminded us of Santa Cruz (with a grown-up downtown).  We deadheaded east in the morning, connecting up with I-10 west of Houston and made some serious time through East Texas into Louisiana.  You could feel the gain in humidity on your skin as we passed the first bayou just before Lake Charles.  Here the highway floats on pylons high above endless ranks of barren cypress trees that jut up out of the black water like regiments of stick soldiers caught in a flood.

From Baton Rouge on into New Orleans we cruised in rush hour traffic that somehow kept moving until it spit us out onto crowded streets a half mile north of the French Quarter right in the middle of our first Mardi Gras float parade.  Traffic here was totally stalled out, so we called Paul who jumped in his car and came over to run interference.  As a longtime New Orleanian, Paul not only knew the back streets, but had the saavy to work the cops who were everywhere flashing their red and blue roof racks.  We whipped in behind  him and hung on hard as he jammed along, every so often hopping out of his car in the middle of the street and shouting something to the cops who backed up to let us through.  It was amazing to wend our way over to their neighborhood through this utter pandemonium.  Throughout the five days of Mardi Gras, we were continually struck by the good-naturedness of everyone, whether cops, marchers, throngs of onlookers.  We thought the whole event was a full embodiment of joyful community-wide celebration.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 2+3

(Because we didn't get the camera out again until New Orleans, the Mardi Gras pictures start here...)

We arrived in my former hometown of Tucson for a glorious sunset and a fabulous broiled salmon, at the adobe home of my college roommate Bob and his wife Marilyn.  I was six when my family moved to Tucson in 1951, a quiet desert college town of 45,000 - now sprawling out to encompass more than a million people.  Bob and I were fraternity brothers at the U. of A. and also hadn't connected for nearly 40 years when he tracked me down last year and we all spent a night on the town in San Francisco.  This time we laughed a lot again and had a great visit, sleeping the night in their guest house.

I spent some time commiserating with Bob, who is also a builder, about the flat-line health of our careers.  I had known Bob from our college years as, along with always being the smoothest dancer on the floor, the guy who could do anything with a ball.   Pool shark and crack billiard player, scratch golfer, and fastest pitcher on the fast-pitch softball team, Bob had become a golf pro before turning to real estate and development.  The next morning Marilyn departed early and we left Bob smiling at the old Mexican gate of his hacienda, feeling much richer for having spent even a short time with our friends.  As we took off east on I-10, leaving the last of our planned stops, we were willing to take pot luck for the rest of the trip.

We drove past the Dragoon Mountains' stronghold of Cochise and passed from the Arizona-Sonora Desert into the basin and range country of southern New Mexico and on into the Great Texas Plain.  Here Interstate 10 runs southeast from the recently notorious twin border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, just a quick sprint from the shanties of Mexico and on for seventy miles before turning east again.   This stretch of highway closely parallels the border and is a major crossing area for cartel traffickers, running drugs to the north and guns to the south.  The area is heavily patrolled by state and federal law enforcement which conducts surprise roadblocks and checkpoints staffed with drug-sniffing dogs.  Twice we had to inch along through a cordon of uniforms and dogs which had their noses plastered to the side of our truck.  If you happen to be traveling with medical marijuana on board, which is not recognized as such by the State of Texas, it might be advisable to chuck it before reaching this area, as any explanations you may have are likely to be made from behind bars.

New Pics of Scarlett and Shannon

Bernard has requested new photos of Scarlett,  happy to oblige!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Days 1+2

We left early the first day, having mostly packed up the night before, escaping south from the 8th straight day of rain in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  We've gotten up to 80 inches of rain between November and March, so it's a great time to be heading out of town.  For example, I've occasionally had to completely build two-story home additions under massive tents during the wet winter months here.  Our first stop was eight hours south in San Diego, and the tips I got from online travel forums had us veering east through Bakersfield to 395 and I-15 South, completely bypassing Los Angeles, with nary a single traffic jam.  In fact the only traffic jams I hit on the whole trip were near the Mardi Gras parade routes in New Orleans, and coming back into Santa Cruz on Highway 1 North in the last 15 of 5000 miles!

Gail and I stayed the night in San Diego with a favorite aunt and cousin, Naomi and Karen, who fixed us a wonderful meal that was two days in the making.  Naomi has a photographic memory for long ago events and told us stories late into the night.  I was estranged from Naomi and Karen for the better part of 50 years due to dysfunctional family dynamics and a cover-up in which my parents invented new identities for themselves, but that's another story!  I started connecting with them again five years ago and this visit was too short but a pure joy.

The next morning we started east on I-10 for Tucson, in seventy miles passing Buckman Springs Road, the hilly, boulder-strewn turn off that corkscrews down to Campo on the Mexican border, where I spent boyhood summer vacations for several years.  This was where my great grandfather, Rufus Jesse Clark, who graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1888 and became one of the first circuit-riding preachers in southern California, homesteaded 160 acres and raised 10 children.  As a boy I used to read to him as he rocked on the front porch, blind for his last years, passing at the age of 93 after translating the Bible into a phonetic language so it could be read by people who were illiterate, a common fact of life for many in those days.

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Before the trip

We really wanted to participate in the Mardi Gras festivities as fully as possible, so we first put together some costumes, then packed my pickup  truck with food and supplies, and took off on February 15, 2009. Pickup truck?...I was thinking I could scout along the way and maybe bring back old iron and wood salvage pieces to make into furniture and sell.  We also planned to minimize travel expenses by bringing our own breakfast and lunch stuff, and taking advantage of relatively low gas prices (round trip gas cost was roughly half the price for us both to fly.)

We'd been to New Orleans several times to visit my daughter Shannon, her husband Paul, and our granddaughter Scarlett, now two and a half.   But we'd  always flown and never timed a trip with Mardi Gras so we were both still 'carnival virgins' according to the locals.  We like road trips and saw this as an adventure, a possible business opportunity, an overdue family visit, and a rare chance to visit friends and relatives.   I had no time pressure to return, but Gail's massage practice was (and still is) doing well, and she'd have to fly home after Mardi Gras, leaving me to solo the return trip.

I'd be heading back from New Orleans to the north and them west to connect up with I-40.  I'm a longtime fan of desert roads and old Route 66 in particular, having hitched it twice back in the 70's, and driven the western part a few times.    I couldn't wait to break out the Eagles and cruise the backroad hardtop.   Route 66 has morphed over the years and been largely replaced by Interstate 40 west of Oklahoma City out to Barstow, but some old portions off the interstate are still accessible.

Monday, March 23, 2009

5000 Mile Mardi Gras Road Trip - Before the trip

Last November when I realized my homebuilding business was headed south along with the economy, one of the first things I did was make plans for a different kind of 'heading south' -  a three-week road trip to Mardi Gras with my partner Gail.  

I had mixed feelings about the timing of taking a trip just as my income was beginning to spiral down.  On one hand I felt like putting the brakes on any extra spending, but I also felt like I wanted to make an act of faith, to somehow affirm that better days were ahead.  I didn't want to be ruled by my fear and have it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I admit I also just wanted to have some fun, especially after having the financial wind knocked from my sails, and feeling the beginnings of a latent despair.  I wanted the kind of attitude adjustment I always get from going dancing.  Gail and I are dancers, and any Friday night we've felt the magic of music and what it can do for a funky week.

Gail suggested we also take advantage of being away for a while to have the bare sheet rock in our house painted while we were gone.  Something about maybe nine years was long enough to wait for paint (the cobbler's own shoes full of holes?), and if we ended up not working but hanging out at home a lot, at least we'd enjoy it more.   So, with a destination in mind, and an agenda of sorts, we set about to make it happen.  Somehow the decision to go left me feeling more focused, and also more open to change, maybe even a reinvention of my situation.  In short, it felt like we'd made the right choice.