Friday, October 31, 2014

Boondocking at Tuttle Creek

We’ve been having so much fun in our new life that it’s hard to sit down and find time to write about it. A new post is long overdue and we’ll try to catch up over the next few weeks. In the meantime, we will continue where we left off at Lone Pine in California…

Steven here. It won't come as any surprise to people who know me that I love photography. Most recently, I’ve reconnected with the work of the great master, Ansel Adams. Being surrounded by the Sierras was a rare treat for Linda and me but especially when I was sitting on my chair outside our motorhome looking at a photo by Mr. Adams and then looking up to see the real thing in front of me! Talk about mind-blowing.

Laurie and Odel, Scoopy's previous owners, had written about their experience boondocking in the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, and we were intrigued. So we extended our stay by one day to do some off-the-grid camping after spending four nights at the lovely Boulder Creek Campground.

All we had to do was drive around and find a suitable place to park. So off we went, heading up Whitney Portal Road, checking out spot after spot that grabbed our attention. We checked out spots off Movie Road, but most we could easily get to were already occupied. On our way up to the top, we noticed a few suitable places for boondocking. One place, in particular, overlooked Owen Valley on one side with huge mountain views on the other. It was exhilarating and scary for us to consider camping in such a remote place. Before we committed, we decided to check out the lower altitude and more human-friendly Tuttle Creek Campground. With more breathtaking views, we quickly decided that this was a more preferable virgin boondocking venue. After driving around, the obvious campsite of choice was number 63 because of its easy big rig access and bathroom-free view of Lone Pine Peak.

Who can resist this view??

So it was settled and, on the morning of our fifth day in Lone Pine, we headed up the road. I had gotten up at the crack of dawn to scout the campsite and make sure number 63 was available. It was, so I decided to fill out the reservation envelope while I was there to ensure no one else would snag it. Well, that was the intention, anyway. All that was left of the pen at the sign-in booth was a plastic stump dangling from a chain. In fact, there were a few things that needed attention from the camp host, in addition to the pencil. The payment box was stuffed to the gills with little envelopes, it looked like it hadn't been emptied for weeks. Outdated reservation stubs were clipped to the posts of all campsites so we had to physically get out and read them to make sure they were free. This is a minor gripe, though, because our stay was miraculous and magical.

When we were ready to leave Boulder Creek Campground, we decided not to hook up our car. Tuttle Creek is only a few miles away. We agreed that I would go in the car and secure our reservation and Linda would follow behind in Scoopy.

Tuttle Creek is a bit of a challenge to get into. The "road" up to the campground itself is long, narrow, winding and bumpy. There are several angled speed bumps the size of a redwood trunk so Linda had to take it really slow. On top of that, she was hoping no other vehicles were coming in the opposite direction. There simply wasn't room. As usual, she handled the challenge admirably and soon we had our chairs outside, while enjoying the sun and scenery.

Linda fearlessly drove Scoopy on the narrow, bumpy and winding road to our campsite.

Every now and again, I prompt Linda to remember the moment we are experiencing. I only say that when that moment is really special and, surprisingly, there have been many since we began this lifestyle. Sitting next to my best friend and then looking up at these beautiful and awe-inspiring mountains made me realize how incredibly lucky I am. Even if we were going back to our old lives after this, I would have enough wonderful memories to sustain me through two lifetimes.

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Hey honey, this is one of those moments…               One of the great views out our window.

It was nice to have nothing to do that day. We pledged to each other that we would stay outside until the sun sank behind Lone Pine Peak. It was a treat for me, sitting there watching the play of light on all the crags of the mountains. The comings and goings of various clouds over the peaks fascinated me. They were at once abundant and gone as swiftly as they had arrived. I almost wore out the shutter of my camera. I also had a chance to do a little flying with my Phantom quadcopter. The aerial views made us giddy and also illustrated just how isolated and alone we were out there.

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Piloting my Phantom “Buzzy” gave us a great view of the Sierras and Scoopy’s place at our site.

We were planning to use our grill for dinner but decided to use up all the cheese, pate and crackers we had left over from our recent trip to Napa. It was quite the sight; fancy cheese, duck pate and wine. The perfect spread for the perfect place.

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Our gourmet meal and site number 63 at sunset. This is roughing it, people!

The evening was warm in the sunlight but quite cool in the shade. We managed a decent walk around the large and sprawling campground and then dragged out our blankets and prepared for some star watching. Rarely have I seen the Milky Way so vividly. The Big Dipper stood squarely above our car and millions of constellations loomed above Scoopy. I managed some long exposure photographs of the night sky but I must confess, as beautiful as some of them turned out, they could not begin to match the scale and scope of the sky itself.

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The camera didn’t pick up the Big Dipper behind Toadie but you can certainly see the Milky Way above Scoopy!

We didn't miss our TV and we didn't really miss anything else. Our water pump was performing sporadically but we didn't care. How could we not love our lives? Were we in Heaven? We got into bed, opened the blinds to reveal the stars and slept soundly that night.

I have to say that this, our first real experience boondocking, was not exactly challenging. Because it was only for one night and our dinner was basically a cold plate, we didn’t really need to use our systems. Our fridge performed flawlessly using our batteries. Still, there is something very cool about being able to stop in the middle of a place like this and have everything we need for short-term camping. In the new year, we plan on spending a lot more time exploring this aspect of fulltiming.

Personally, there was only one thing left for me to do before I left Lone Pine. One of my favorite Ansel Adams' photographs was made pretty close to where we were staying but I hadn't been able to pinpoint its exact location. There was a hill in the picture and I couldn't figure out where it was. The previous evening I drove through town and suddenly recognized the hill in the picture right there in front of me! From there I was able to figure out that the place where Ansel Adams had dug in his tripod legs was just outside of town on Highway 395. The photo in question was taken at sunrise so I headed out at dawn on that last day to pay homage to the master.

I found the place with relative ease although some things had changed since 1944. I couldn't see the aspen trees that were in the original and another tree prevented me from being at the precise coordinates. However, I snapped my own version of it and felt touched by the man himself just for a fleeting moment - one final thrill before we moved on to out next fabulous experience. You can see Ansel’s original here.

My take on Ansel Adams’ “Winter Sunrise”

We have both decided to return to this wonderful place, probably when the snow has fallen. But for now, it was time to move on towards the Pacific Ocean once again, to visit with our youngest daughter Tara.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mountains, Movies and More in Lone Pine

I found my limit. I now know the maximum wind I am willing to drive Scoopy in based on our very gusty trip to Lone Pine. It's a good thing we got going early, because if we had waited and traveled in the even gustier afternoon, we probably would have had to find a place to stop and wait it out. There's just nothing enjoyable about getting smacked broadside by 25-30 mph gusts.

Wind aside, the scenery of the Sierras was stunning. Literally breath-taking, the kind of beauty that elicits lots of oooohing and ahhhhing. The kind that makes Steven undo his seatbelt and dart from window to window with camera in hand. At one point as he was leaning across Scoopy's sloped dash trying to get the perfect shot, I flipped on the engine brake without warning and he flew right back into his chair. I didn't do it on purpose, but if he doesn't stop roaming around, I might!

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The views and ever-changing light on the way were spectacular

We arrived at Boulder Creek RV Park and got set up. Considering the lush areas we have mostly traveled in, Steven and I both commented that we were now really and truly in the desert. The Flintstones would feel right at home at Boulder Creek. Lots of rocks. (Guess that's why they call it "Boulder" Creek, although, there ain't no creek here, at least one that had any water flowing, so there's that.) Of course, the mountains were amazing, and we could see them right outside Scoopy, but the relentless wind made it impossible to sit outside and enjoy the view. I admit I was underwhelmed at first, but mostly I was just exhausted from the drive.

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Our site at Boulder Creek and the awesome view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

We were told that the winds were not typical for this time of year, so we made plans to do most of our outdoor activities on later days when it was supposed to calm down. We watched the weather reports like hawks. For two days and nights the wind howled. Then finally, it stopped. And that's when we completely and totally fell in love with Lone Pine and the entire Owens Valley.

Without question, the scenery is the star of Lone Pine, but there's lots to do here even when the weather isn't perfect. We stopped in to visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum, which was awesome. Even if you don't know it, believe me when I tell you that you've seen this area before. The majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range and the awesome Alabama Hills have served as background for all kinds of storytelling. Tony Stark in Afganistan? Nope - Lone Pine! "The Lone Ranger", "Star Trek" (totally cool alien planet stuff here), that scene in "Tremors" where that nasty wormy thing that sprang from the ground, "Django Unchained", and just about every shoot-'em-up-singin'-cowboy B-Western you can think of, all filmed right here. If you love film history (Steven) and even if you don't (me), it's well worth a stop to visit this little gem of a museum.

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The Film History Museum. The wheels on this stagecoach were bigger than Scoopy’s!

There is also Movie Road, which you can drive to see the exact spots where a lot of this filming took place. It wasn't a highlight for us, because a.) nothing is marked (maybe we needed a map?) and b.) the road isn't paved. On the day we went it was so washboardy we had to turn around - too teeth-rattling even in our little Toadie Hopper. Our neighbors at the RV park went and got lost, so they weren't all that impressed either.

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Once we turned onto Movie Road, we were transported to another world…

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One of the few signs in the area giving info about where the old classic “Gunga Din” was filmed

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Despite the rough road, the views were magnificent with lots of cloud drama!

Can’t you just imagine the Lone Ranger and Tonto here, or the Away Team from Star Trek?

One of our favorite drives turned out to be Horseshoe Meadow Road. Again, not having a map, we had no idea where it led to, and for some reason I thought it was a loop. It wasn't. We found ourselves on a 30-mile trip straight up a mountain with more switchbacks than I can count. We ended up at an elevation of 10,000 feet and the views of the valley were fantastic, particularly dry Owens Lake. Once we reached the end of the road (it literally ends at a rustic campground) we found out that Horseshoe Meadow was still a 4.5 mile hike, so we decided to save that for another day. We simply did not come prepared for a long hike (no map! no water!), but it's on my bucket list now. 

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The view from high up on Horseshoe Meadow Road looking out on Lone Pine

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Selfie at the top of Horseshoe Meadow Road!          End of the road, with warnings!

There is a lot of history in the area, and while much of it is fun, some of it is just downright sad. The Manzanar National Historic Site, the site of one of ten camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II is located just north of Lone Pine. Considering the massive size of Manzanar at it's height of operation, there's not much left to see, but the visitor's center is well worth the trip and they do a good job of educating visitors on daily life for the people who were imprisoned there. Clearly, this was not one of our country's finest hours. There is a 3-mile drive to take, but Steven and I chose to walk through the now-abandoned streets rather than drive. For us, it was much more up-close and personal way to learn about it.

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Manzanar National Historic Site was a surprisingly moving experience

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Remnants of gardens and streets where row after row of barrack-like housing once stood.

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Gravesite at Manzanar and reconstruction of the housing.

South of Lone Pine is the very dry Owens Lake. It is an interesting place to see, and it has a fascinating history. In the early 1900s, Owens Lake covered over 100 square miles and was up to 50 feet deep. Then a couple of shysters from Los Angeles showed up having decided their growing city needed that water more than the residents of the Owens Valley. They cheated farmers out of their land, built an aqueduct, diverted the water and drained it dry in just a few years. That's the simplified version, but the whole thing just kind of blows my mind.

What remains today of Owens Lake as seen from Horseshoe Meadow Road

For RVers, the Alabama Hills are well-known for boondocking. You can just head up Whitney Portal Road and take a turn on just about any road and find a cool place to park for free, nestled in the giant baked potato-like Alabama Hills or in a rustic campground. We were eager to work on our boondocking chops, ready to test our limits without hookups of any kind. We had booked a four-night stay at Boulder Creek, but we decided to stay an extra day and kept an eye out for the perfect site. We found it and on departure day, we moved nine miles to Tuttle Creek. It was glorious.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rerouting Through the Mountains

Long before we reached Napa I had been in contact with Laurie Brown about our route. We were trying to figure out how to get to the Placerville area east of Sacramento to visit with her and Odel for a couple of days, then get back south of San Francisco to Hwy 101 to continue down the coast. This led to email exchanges about how to navigate around the big California cities - San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, and well, I finally concluded this was more than I wanted to take on. So I ever-so-gently mentioned to Steven the idea of ditching the coast in favor of a different way altogether. He was profoundly against any changes, as photographing the California coast was something he was looking forward to. Sigh.

Then Laurie sent an email suggesting we make our way over the Sierras and travel south on Hwy 395. She went into detail about all the stunning and beautiful sights we would see on this route and best of all, she sent photos! It took Steven about a nano-second to agree. I was so happy!

Since we adopted Scoopy from Laurie and Odel, we have been blessed to have their ongoing support and advice. Not only have they kept us off a couple of "suicide routes", but having fulltimed in Scoopy for nearly a decade, they know every inch of her and her systems and graciously answer our many questions. Best of all, they are just loads of fun to hang out with.

From Napa we had an easy trip to the Placerville Elks Lodge. We spent a lovely evening at Laurie and Odel's home, catching up on all the goings on in our lives. We made plans for the next day to drive Hwy. 50 to Lake Tahoe, the purpose of which was two-fold. 1) Laurie knows all the great hikes, sights and restaurants along this route and 2) we were scouting it to make sure we would be comfortable driving Scoopy over the pass as we made our way to Hwy. 395.

Strolling around the lake by Laurie and Odel’s home in Diamond Springs

When I first asked Laurie about Hwy 50, she thought we'd be better off to avoid it. Then she and Odel drove it the day before we came and decided it was doable. As we made our way in their Prius over the nearly 8000 ft. pass, we discussed how to keep Scoopy from overheating and kept an eye out for pullouts. We further discussed our stops and what to expect once we were on Hwy. 395.

Visualizing Scoopy at 8000 ft. Yikes.

We had a great day hiking, taking in the views and enjoying lunch. We also had fun showing off Scoopy's upgrades. It's funny, I had forgotten about the new shade on the driver's side window, but Odel noticed it and pointed it out. Like I said, they know Scoopy inside and out.

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We stopped along the way to see the wonderful scenery at Emerald Bay.

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Two trees at Emerald Bay     Two Chouters at Emerald Bay

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Old growth and generally gnarly trees at Meiss Meadow made for some fun photos

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Hiking at Meiss Meadow.                                           Laurie and Odel relax after a yummy lunch

We said our goodbyes and settled in for the evening. Even if I am brimming with confidence about the next day's travels, I still lay in bed and freak out a little. I had read a little about Hwy. 50, including posts from those who say avoid it. There were some hair-raising descriptions of "the cliff", a point on the highway that appears to drop a few thousand feet into Lake Tahoe. It doesn't, but when I am laying in bed thinking about it, it might as well.

When we woke up on our departure day and looked out the window, all we could see was fog. We couldn't tell if it was local, or if it engulfed the region. Laurie posted on Facebook that it was clear at her place, about five miles away, and before long it lifted and we were on our way. Hwy 50 turned out to be a gorgeous drive and the only time I freaked out was when I thought Steven might not get a good photo of "the cliff".

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Fog at the Elks Lodge                                            “The Cliff” and a sign reinforcing the treachery ahead

We continued through Lake Tahoe and on to Carson City, NV to make the turn onto Hwy. 395. Our destination was Lee Vining, CA, which was a long day for us. But the views were spectacular. We geared down for the climbs, but Scoopy's engine still kind of overheated and the warning thingy screamed at us - twice! We managed it, just like we had discussed, and everything turned out fine. Odel mentioned we might want to gear down sooner, and as soon as we began to anticipate the climbs, we never had another issue. See? Still learning!

I have no doubt that if we had gone this way without any idea of what to expect, our trip would have been a frightening experience and we would have totally freaked out. But we didn't and the trip was awesome. As much as I didn't care for the climbs, I loved, loved, loved the descents. I just flipped on the engine brake, coasted down and soaked in the views. And they were spectacular!

We got settled in the park in Lee Vining in plenty of time to mosey out to the Mobil Gas Station for dinner. We had been told the food was delicious, and it was. We spent a lovely evening at our campground among the aspens and with a view of Mono Lake. But what a difference a day makes. The next morning, Steven went out to the lake to get in a little photography, but I called him and said "let's get going, right now!"

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Dinner at the Mobil Restaurant hit the spot. It lived up to its reputation!

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Our campsite at Mono Vista RV Park, complete with McGyver-style step support!

Sunset over Mono Lake

The wind had really picked up and I was beginning to think we might have to stay put. Winds were steady at 20-25 mph, with gusts up to 35 and they were only going to get worse, so either we stayed, or we got the heck out of Dodge asap! I don't know yet what my limit is when it comes to wind, and as far as I was concerned, there's only one way to find out. So, we hit the road. Destination: Lone Pine, CA.