California Reunion

Hey, if you don’t mind I’m going to take a break from talking about living with a chronic illness for a post or two. I have to tell you about my reunion with California!

This joyous reconnection with the Golden State was extra special because it came so frighteningly close to not happening. In fact, as I said in my last post, which I wrote while I was on the road, the trip got cancelled twice, the first time because of cancer, the second time because of COVID19. For weeks I was sure that once again something would stop me from going, that it wasn’t meant to be. It was so nice to be wrong! And the trip could not have been more perfect.

If you said that I’m kind of “prone” to hiking trips, you would not be mistaken. However, this wasn’t a hiking trip. Which is not to say that I didn’t do any trekking. Of course I did! But the entire plan was based around seeking out graffiti in Southern California and born from seeing the works of a professional photographer on Instagram who travels the U.S. taking pictures of really cool stuff. I did my research and strung several sights together, then figured that while I was there I may as well just take another week to see some old favorites, and there was my California reunion!

I lived in Los Angeles for five years from 1995 through 2000, and traveled extensively in and around the state. I guess I didn’t really realize until now how blessed I was and am to have been able to do that. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived other than Massachusetts, where I was born and currently reside, and I have to say that for me, a lover of the American West, there could not have been a better place to be. Mother Nature took one of everything amazing and tossed it into California. Sometimes, more that one of everything amazing. Though I’ve been a million other places around the world, I’ve never quite fallen in love with anywhere like I have the American West. I used to crucify myself for never having lived in a foreign country. How silly that all seems now.

Unlike most people, who think the desert is “too hot” and “boring”, I absolutely love it there. Deserts have ghost towns, tumbleweeds, and cactus. What’s not to love about that? I spent several days driving around the Salton Sea, an imposing but fascinating (and smelly) remnant of a failed experiment to lure vacationers and home buyers seeking the good life. If you’re like me and looking for graffiti, sand, and desolation, wow do you ever have to see the Sea! In addition to all that there’s Bombay Beach, an almost ghost that was revived as a quirky artist’s town, and Slab City, an “off the grid” settlement where people live for free. There’s lots of additional interesting art in Slab City as well as East Jesus, the eastern corner of the “squatters paradise.” I even did some research into one of the towns near the Salton Sea because I was inspired to use it for a locale in the book I’m writing. Such excitement from a place most people pass by without giving it a second thought! Is it any wonder why I choose to travel alone so often?

Didn’t I tell you that California has one of everything? Or, let’s make that more accurate: California has EVERYTHING!! Let me expand on that.

The post-graffiti part of my trip brought me to the Sierras, where the best ghost town in America nestles. No, Bodie isn’t in the desert, but it is at the end of a wild dirt road about twelve miles east of Bridgeport, California, and it is a state park, so there is a small fee (I paid $8) that goes to Bodie’s upkeep, which is impeccable. On the way I drove a few hundred miles of US 395, which I have to proclaim one of the country’s great highways. I stopped off in Lone Pine, which is still very much like the desert, and did a short and stunning hike to Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, where I also got a pretty special view of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the “lower 48” at 14, 505 feet. Did I mention that you can see Whitney through the arch, too? No, the thrills just never end.

Mono Lake and the Mono Basin are right outside Yosemite National Park. To me, Mono is so good it’s okay to skip Yosemite to see it. Don’t miss the short hike through the odd fantasy of the South Tufa Trail. You can bet that I didn’t!

Girl, take a breath…

The June Lake Loop is a sixteen mile drive around four lovely lakes at an elevation of 7,600 feet. Of course I had to get some hiking in here, and I encountered some bristlecone pines, that are said to be the oldest living things on Earth, even older than sequoias and redwoods. Even older than me! The loop was my last stop in the mountains before I headed back to the desert. I had to have one final jaunt in the hot sand before I came back to reality.

Death Valley Junction is the gateway to the park of the same name and a charming little desert hamlet with a hotel and opera house, much of which are beautifully hand painted by its former owner. Read her incredible backstory here. I’ve loved this town since I first saw it on a map as a dreamy-eyed teen, and it was so special to see it again before I moved on to Death Valley. Yes, I intended to hit the trails, but at 100 degrees at seven in the morning, I had to rethink my plans. Hiking had to be done in short bursts with plenty of time in the air conditioned SUV in between! Death Valley has been getting a lot of attention lately for record breaking temperatures, but the mercury varies greatly depending on what part of the park you’re in. I headed to Dante’s View to marvel at the salty Badwater Basin far below. It was twenty degrees cooler and with a hair-mussing wind. Lastly, no temperature was hot enough to make me miss wandering through the pastel hills of the Artist Palette. I felt like I’d fallen into a giant vat of ice cream!

Two weeks, a two thousand mile loop, and I just barely scratched the surface of the greatness of California. Oh well, looks like I’m just going to have to go back!

Two Great Alternatives Outside Yosemite

One of my close friends and travel companions was recently in the Lake Tahoe area and wanted to do some time at Yosemite. I gave her a couple of alternatives nearby, in case the steep road up to the Tioga Pass was closed. Upon returning, she described Yosemite in two words, the first one being “cluster” and the other starting with “f” and having four choice letters. The sentence went something like this: “Yosemite was a cluster f*** of people.”

Yeah, been there, done that. In my bid to hike all sixty United States national parks, Yosemite was one of the first I eliminated. In fact, Yosemite was the first one I ever visited, way back in 1987 when I was a newbie traveler. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place. Ye olde Yosemite holds a lot of nostalgia for me, as my mom and I discovered it together, and revisited it a couple of times afterward. But it’s not the first park I would run back to, as I hiked it for several days, and oh yeah, there’s that people problem!  (Thanks, John Muir!) What I would do again, however, is hit my two favorite sites in close proximity to the park. If you’re in the area, don’t miss them! And you can see them both in a long day if you only have one.

Mono Lake & the South Tufa Trail

Located on US 395 just north of the east entrance of Yosemite, Mono Lake was nothing more than a crystal blue alpine persuasion the first several times I saw it. It wasn’t until a decade or more later that I learned that the super-salty body of water actually had a trail leading to some other worldly formations of “tufa” made from calcium carbonate. Thus, the South Tufa Trail became one of my favorite trails anywhere. And like so many other incredible walks in the American West, anyone can do it. It’s short, flat, and spectacular.

A brief gravel road leads down to the lake, and a small parking fee is charged once you’re there. Mono Lake is one of those places where the sky makes all the difference. As you can see from my pictures, the white puffy clouds were on my side the day I stopped by.

Like anywhere a stone’s throw from a world famous national park, don’t expect to have the place to yourself. But most of the crowd will be at Yosemite. Promise.

Bodie Ghost Town

Anyone who knows their ghost towns knows that it doesn’t get much better than Bodie State Historical Park. To get there from Mono Lake, continue north on US 395 approximately twenty miles to California 270 east, just south of Bridgeport. Bodie is a fair weather destination; don’t underestimate the power of the three-mile climbing dirt road at the end of 270. The town sits at 8,375 feet above sea level, and you will feel it in your chest as you walk the dusty streets.

If you’re looking for an amusement park, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re looking for a genuine ghost town, you’re in for a real treat. Bodie is kept in what is called a “state of arrested decay,” meaning that it’s preserved but not restored.

You aren’t going to see any slick mining rides or “old west” shootouts. What you are going to see is the fascinating remnants of a once-vibrant gold mining town that at its peak was home to 10,000 residents and offered up as many as sixty-five saloons and a busy red light district. Bodie also has an amazing cemetery. If you love a good boneyard, there isn’t anything that quite compares to a ghost town burial ground. Don’t forget to check out the final resting place of Rosa May, the beloved madame of Bodie, who even in death is still bringing in the cash!

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After you’re done with your walk, don’t forget to marvel at the simple beauty of the landscape. And don’t forget to thank me for a day away from the crowds at Yosemite!