Sunday, September 7, 2014

September 7th: San Francisco > Detroit > Providence

Bonus day! Playing my cards right with Delta, I managed to score a free day in San Francisco, completely unplanned. Interestingly enough, the hotel they put me up in was the same hotel that I was put up in, ten years prior when I gave up my seats flying back from John's wedding. Everything is cyclical...

After a hearty (free) breakfast, I wandered outside for a moment for the view. Then promptly went back to the room to putter around until checkout time, 1pm. I know it was a waste, but it was nice to just relax for a bit, before heading out to meet Steph.

I took the BART downtown, and it was a nice easy 30 minute ride, with free wifi.

Coming out of Powell Street Station, at the top of the escalator, the person in front of me took three steps and stopped. I veered to the right, only to promptly trip over his rolling suitcase. I went down on both knees, my right hand and my (heavy) backpack clonked me in the head. Even though it was totally his fault, I felt like a moron.

Seeing cable cars in action made it all better though. Not know how to get on one, I decided to walk all the way up Powell street to meet Steph for lunch.

Along the way I saw a small shop that had license plates for sale. The I found ONE Rhode Island plate, and was surprised to find it!

It was another beautiful day, with temperatures in the low 70's, the perfect day to hike up and down SF's famous hills.

I loved the art-deco style buildings that abounded.

The cable-car tracks were also something else to see, and to hear the thrum of the cable underground.

I finally met up with Steph, and we had lunch. I felt like I was back in Hong Kong, for certain. 

I look like I know what I'm doing with those chop-sticks

Even the architecture was reminiscent. With similar weather, the steep topography and proximity to the ocean, I can see why many people from Hong Kong settle in San Francisco.

One of the places I love going most is the Cable Car Museum. It's a neat place to learn about the history of the cable cars.

More than the history, it's also part of the actual working life of the cable cars. You can see the giant spools of cable, the electric motors that drive them, and the big sheaves that make it all work. The noise is deafening but it is truly amazing.

 Of course I bought us a day pass so we could ride as often as we wanted.

We both enjoyed it immensely.

Where else in the world can you hang off the outside of a public transportation vehicle legally?

Watching the cable car crew turn them around on the turntable has always fascinated me.


I then suggested to Steph that she ride the scoot down the short section of Lombard street that is famous for it's brick paved turns. I hiked up Lombard street while she went to fetch the scooter, and prepared for photos. She got the better end of that deal, for sure.

So I climbed partially up the rest of the way, and watched people drive down Lombard Street.

Any questions of allowing scooters on the street were put to rest when I watched this guy come down.

And finally, in the last moments of daylight, Steph made her way down.

By this time we were hungry again, so she went off to park the scooter and I walked towards the bay. Nice view of Alcatraz from here.

We ate an unremarkable dinner in a touristy spot, and then walked down to the water so I could see (sort of) the Pacific Ocean. All this time in California and I hadn't really seen it yet.

Out onto a jetty into the water for a better view of the sunset, and I got a little closer to The Rock.

And then this.

There are a few more pictures of my trip, on the plane, flying over New York State, but I feel this is a fitting end to an amazing trip. All the miles, the camping and the friendships, and in these few moments, watching the sun set over the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge, my life felt pretty amazing.

So amazing, in fact, that I barely made it back to the airport for my 10:30 pm flight! Needless to say, thanks to an expert taxi driver, I made it with time to spare. I slept for awhile on the flight to Detroit, then sprawled out on the floor at the boarding gate at Detroit airport. A few short hours later, I was home showering, washing away the grim of an overnight flight, and still marveling at the amazing trip I had just finished.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

September 6th: Death Valley, CA > Lone Pine, CA > Gardnerville, NV > San Francisco, CA

Nestled high in the bosom of the Panamint Mountains, Wildrose Campground was just about perfect.

The picnic table was perfectly aligned to back Dexy up to, and the light from the tailgate made a perfect worklight at night.

I walked around the front of the van that morning, and let out a small "eep" when I saw the poor dead bird that we hit the previous night. I hadn't expected it to be still on the grill of the van.

Driving back down revealed the almost alien landscape that we blazed through int he darkness the night before.

A brief pit-stop to brush our teeth and splash some water on our faces, and one last look down at Death Valley. The temperature at this point was in the high 90's, but still not bad.

I took advantage of a few moments while Steph was washing up, and the dust on the van to make notes on just where Dexy and I had been thus far.

One more range to cross, the Inyo Mountains before turning due north for Gardnerville. At this point, it was normal to go up and down thousands of feet on twisty roads, and the stunning scenery became routine.

We pulled into Lone Pine with a hankering for some coffee (Steph) and pastry (both of us), so we found this great little coffee shop, the Alabama Hills Cafe. Another place I highly recommend you stop.

Lone Pine is a neat little place, with one straight main strip filled with weird little shops. It's touristy, but not in the same sense of other places. People still come here before heading into the hills for camping supplies, food and a last bit of civilization before heading off into nature.

Just a few miles from Death Valley and Badwater Basin lies Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. It makes a neat counterpoint to the lowest point.

This is the reason I highly recommend Alabama Hills Cafe. This piece of pie was ginormous and delicious.

By this point in the trip, Dexy had been to four different National Parks and campgrounds, and was littered with taped on passes gently fluttering in the breeze.

Right on schedule, we arrived back in Gardnerville to sort through our gear, pick up Steph's scooter, say our goodbyes (for the third and final time) and head back West for San Francisco.

Dirty Dexy needed a bath before returning her to the car rental place. I was not about to pay whatever crazy fee they would charge me for having a dusty and dirty van.

I followed Steph back over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on another beautiful day.

We said our goodbyes near Stockton, CA. She is heading to stay with family in San Jose for a few months to recover from the first leg of her trip, while I headed on to San Francisco to fly back to Rhode Island.

Driving back into the sunset was both beautiful, and difficult, as it was hard to see.

I had averaged almost 25 miles per gallon in the rolling room, not too shabby for a large vehicle running the AC almost constantly at all ranges of speeds.

Final mileage: 2374, in almost 60 hours of driving. Not bad!

As I made my way to the airport, I thought back on all of the adventures I had on this trip, and thought to myself that it just couldn't get any better.

And then it did.

I had booked my flights through two major hubs, New York City and Atlanta, hoping that I might have the chance to volunteer my ticket. Wouldn't you know it, the red-eye flight from San Francisco to Atlanta on that Saturday night was completely jam packed. By the time it was all said and done, I had $500 in free travel vouchers, a place to stay for the night (a two room suite no less!), an unplanned day in San Francisco, and to top it all off, I was landing in Providence instead of Boston!

Now it really couldn't have gotten any better.

Friday, September 5, 2014

September 5th: Lake Isabella, CA > Death Valley, CA > Rhyolite, NV > Death Valley, CA

As with the day before, it was interesting to see the campground in daylight. The previous night had been (as every other day and night had) completely cloudless, with an increasingly full moon, so we could actually walk around without the aid of flashlights fairly easily. 

Seeing Lake Isabella in moonlight was something else, and seeing it in daylight was equally as pretty. The air was so calm and the temperature was so nice that we slept with the back of the van open, for at least most of the night.

While we had provisions for breakfast, I suggested to Steph that we eat at a local establishment. She readily agreed, and we found this awesome place. If you are ever in Lake Isabella (and judging from the guest book, many people from all over the world are), I highly recommend Nelda's Diner

Those biscuits and gravy were divine. We were going to have some pie for the road, but decided against it. I think that was the incorrect choice.

They also had this awesome clock (in the upper center of the picture) that flipped over (like an old alarm clock) different signs. Pretty neat.

Up the street was a war memorial, complete with a Korean War ear Patton tank, a DUKW and a few bits from the USS Arizona (seen behind the fenced in area).

Lake Isabella looks far more charming in photos than it did in real life, sadly.

Heading in a north-eastern direction to Death Valley, we headed through Ridgecrest into some terrifically sculpted terrain.


Eventually we made it into a large, flat valley, and ran up CA 178, between the Naval Weapons testing base at China Lake and the Panamint Mountains. This valley roughly parallels Death Valley, nestled between the Panamints and the Sierra Nevadas.

Along the way, we saw a very small sign for "Ghost Town Ballarat", so naturally we had to stop. Three miles out into the desert was a few crumbling buildings, a mobile home and what appeared to be a general store.

Welcome to Ballarat. Apparently it's quite a famous little ghost town - a scene in Easy Rider was filmed there, and Charles Manson and his gang set up house a few miles away in the 1960's.

CA 178 had some really long, straight stretches that were ripe for a photo op.

Also Dexy got a little dirty.

104 degrees!

And soon we came to the entrance to Death Valley, although we were still one valley to the west.

Whoa. 108!

As we crossed over into Death Valley itself, we stopped at Stovepipe Wells for a few moments to get our park pass and to get some postcards. It was so hot that my sandals felt like they were going to melt on the pavement. We headed east again, and went past Mesquite Dunes. We wouldn't venture out there during the day, but at night? That's a different story...

Oof. 111.

Okay, so now it's really hot. 114. I kept watching the temperature reading go up and wondered when it would stop.

At the Furnace Creek visitor center we stopped to use the restroom and eat some lunch, sitting in the van with the AC blasting. The heat radiating from the parking lot warmed the floor, but the AC never faltered and the water temperature needle barely moved past the halfway point. Way to go Chrysler and your cooling system engineering! These two folks we saw ahead of us in the parking lot were actually attempting to fry an egg. Apparently they did, and it wasn't too bad.

Yikes. 116.

With the heat baking our brains, a scattered but coherent plan was devised. First stop was Badwater Basin, one of the lowest spots on dry land in all the world at -282 feet below sea level.

Oh, really, is it hot out?

I describe it as the feeling you get after you've been outdoors in the summertime working all day. Your internal thermostat is out of whack, your body is warm to the very core, and you just need to cool down. Only in Death Valley, it takes 8 minutes for this to happen instead of 8 hours. Still, I think that everyone should experience Death Valley in the depths of summer when it is hotter than blazes. It's just an amazing experience.

After baking our brains even further in the sun, we headed back north through the park. Artists Drive was recommended by the park ranger, and it was easy to see why. The mineral deposits had left the eroded mountainside an amazing palette of colors.

By this time, we were exhausted from the heat, and attempted to figure out what to do next. We stopped for a few minutes at the resort at Furnace Creek, and found out something amazing: for $5 you could get a pass for all day access to the pool and showers.

Back in the car, we finally hit the hottest it would be that day: 119.

Instead of taking it easy and resting at Furnace Creek, we headed towards another ghost town, Rhyolite. It was 30 miles away, and the drive there it felt like 130 miles. We had to cross over another mountain range into Nevada, where it was mercifully cooler. 95 degrees to be exact, and it felt comfortable.

Rhyolite was an amazing place, even if it is one of the more "touristy" ghost towns.

You can read about the history of Rhyolite over on Wikipedia. I highly recommend you do, as it has a brief, but fascinating history.

The Rhyolite Train Depot is one of the more fascinating places I've ever seen, situated such that it is way out in the middle of nowhere.

This building is the Cook Bank.

This building is the eight room schoolhouse.

Not sure what this structure is/was, I think it might have been a general store, judging from the huge pile of squashed tin cans in what was the basement.

As the sun was setting, we headed back towards Death Valley proper, in hopes that the temperature had dropped enough for us to camp in Furnace Creek, and not trek an hour to the north for a campground at higher elevation.

This was not to be. It was still 105 when we crossed back over into Death Valley, and would remain so for the rest of the time we were in the Valley proper. We took advantage of that great deal for $5, and went for several swims in the pool, had a nice shower, and lounged under the moonlight for awhile. Once we had cooled down sufficiently, we headed back towards Mesquite Dunes for a little romp under the moonlight.

There are really no good pictures (of my own, or on the internet) of the dunes at night, and that's just as well. It was hot (105 according to Dexy's dashboard) but the sun wasn't out, so it wasn't unbearable. We wandered around in as little clothing as possible (I had on just my shoes/socks and shorts, Steph was down to a bra and her PJ shorts), and walked quite a bit out into the dunes. The sand was amazingly cool (until you dug down into it a bit), and I avoided bushes due to the threat of rattlesnakes (and kept thinking random twigs were snakes!).

After wandering around for a bit, we decided to go for the dark-horse, third option for a campground: Wildrose. We were told it was primitive, with only pit toilets, 22 miles off the road, and at around 5,000 feet it would be much cooler. Furnace Creek campground was still boiling hot, and Mesquite Springs was just too far out of the way.

Up into the canyon we headed, mile after mile further from the main road and whatever passed for civilization at Stovepipe Wells. We counted over 20 hares (rabbits), countless birds (including one that was splattered on the grill of Dexy), and three coyotes.

We finally made it to the campground, to find that it was pleasantly filled with people, many from the Sierra Club. We made camp, and even as exhausted as we were we managed to put together a delicious fajita, drink some wine and watch an episode of Orphan Black.

It was one of the best nights sleep I've ever had, and it was a shame that we had to wake up to make the trek back north.