It was about 7AM and after the traditional coffee / McMuffins stop we were on our way. The wind blew us south, south to warmer temperatures (hence…warmer) were the mountains grew taller and taller, rising high into the sky. It was sunny outside but chilly as another snow storm had just passed. The forecast over the next four days called for sunny conditions in the mid thirties. Still cold and not exactly tropical, but the calm conditions with no wind and the sun would be perfect. Plus there were plans on heading further south, away from our base location for one or two days in case it got too cold. That’s one of the nice things about the Sierra and living here, there are so many options that allow you to be flexible and weather permitting. You can hardly go wrong, no matter which direction you take. As far as this trip and the weather was concerned, we couldn’t have picked a better time to go and the next snowstorm was announced to hit the day after our return. Call that one perfectly timed with a bit of luck and the heavens shining down on us. So south it was and as some of you already guessed, I did end up in the mountains, my beloved mountains who won over the ocean. This time, and in the end the decision came down to spending more time in nature and less time driving and sitting in the car. I had to move and get some exercise. Another fact was that my first day back at work would be an early shift and we decided not to stray too far in one stretch and allow for more time to relax.
The Jeep was packed like a Tetris puzzle, tightly stacked allowing enough room to see out the back window and surely amongst all the items neatly stored, that kitchen sink I couldn’t leave behind had to be somewhere tucked away in there. I knew I had too much stuff, as always, but even though most of it would be returned, unused and never worn, it was power of choice like my friend Luca would call it and at least I was prepared.
I felt totally relaxed driving alongside the Sierra, watching the snow covered mountains reach higher the further south we drove. As a passenger I could gaze upon it as long as I wanted to. I allowed it to carry me away, to instill the calm I needed so desperately, to lift my worries and sorrows, and leave me comfortably wrapped in a blanket of belief that the world was ok once more. It wasn’t long before the tranquil feeling took over and reminded me of the lack of sleep from the night before. I felt myself drifting off into sleep, nodding off a few times, even though I was desperately trying to stay awake. I had been on this road and seen the scenery many times before and yet there was not one moment that I wanted to miss. It’s not only a matter of getting from point A to point B of whatever road we travel, but it is also the journey that lies in between of getting there that becomes part of the adventure. Advise and wise words from another good friend Kyle who will gladly tell you that the destination is the journey. The battle continued as it was quiet in the car and the warm sun shining on me didn’t make things any easier.
A stop at the grocery store to supply the next four days helped spring me back into action. Loading up on quick, easy to prepare meals, we would live pretty good over the next four days. Eggs and sausage for breakfast, bagels with cream cheese, pizza, avocado and chicken wraps for snacks, apples, pretzels, lasagne and even a Tri-Tip with baked potato and salad was nothing to complain about or feel like you were roughing anything. Not even cowboy coffee was on the menu.
We decided to stop at Mono Lake, CA and check if the road was cleared enough to visit the Tufa’s. These rock towers are formed from underwater springs rich in calcium that mix with the water that is rich in carbonates. The results are limestone towers originating underwater and getting exposed as the water levels dropped. No fish live in Mono lake as the waters are too salty, but you can find plenty of brine shrimp who provide food for over two million of annual migrating birds.
It is truly a sight to behold and you easily feel like you are entering the landscape of a foreign planet. We were in luck, the road was clear and I was looking forward to revisit the area. We got there early, around 11 Am and it was still a little chilly outside. We parked off the beaten path at Navy Beach which is just a short stroll away from where we were heading and which allowed us to skip paying the day use fees. My first few steps were clumsy, uncoordinated and painful. A reminder and realization of how long it had been I since hiked last. Hard to believe when you run around all day at work, feeling like you are active and exhausted, but it is a totally different type of exercise as you use different muscles and it is the stress that leaves you wiped out. The other culprit was that it had been roughly two month when I missed a step, walking in socks, slipping down the stairs to land on the joint / knuckle of my big toe that had folded backwards. Ouch. I remember the pain, standing there in silence, holding my breath while a thousand bad words were going through my mind in record speed, until the feeling subsided and the braveness returned. Inspecting and trying to move my toe, one of my special talents had always been that I could pick stuff from the floor, but I could hardly move my toe or grip the sock that I had dropped. I determined that it wasn’t broken since there was some movement but it had to been strained, perhaps even fractured pretty good. The pain and discomfort stayed for weeks but my loose work shoes mostly disguised it. Now in my hiking shoes, tight and snug around my feet, it was definitely a different story and I felt pain. Thank god I had packed Advil in my quest to be prepared as I would surely need it if this kept up. Another saying came to mind of “He or she who rests, rusts” and even though the stresses of my job hardly allowed me to rest, it had taken away my freedom to hike and I felt as if I had rusted. A realization that hit home and reminded me of the work lying ahead to get myself back. Here I had been Gung ho, fantasizing and dreaming of a thru hike, to be left feeling rusty from merely walking along on level ground which could hardly be called hiking. Hardly in shape for a thru hike and I had work to do. I decided that this trip was the start to it all as I remembered the Hawks, the owl and the raccoon.
To my surprise I saw results shortly after walking for a bit and my toe adjusted to the movement. I felt more flexibility and coordination in my step and perhaps the Advil could stay packed away. The clumsiness started to subside as with every step I felt the rust chipping off my weary bones, or at least I thought so at the time. I felt great and once again enjoyed the feeling of coming to life, to shed the shackles of restraint and to breath deeply, waking up from a coma, a dormant state of being, to feel with all my senses, to finally be alive.
The Tufa’s were beautiful and my heart felt restored and at home. We discovered something new on that trip even though we had visited many times before but perhaps never noticed. The cool air made two natural hot springs visible of which faint steam was rising up into the air. The water was warm, not hot and it would be perfect to sit back and relax in the bubbling waters. Tempting, but not today as we decided that there was more exploring to be done. The ground was wet, saturated from the storms and downright boggy in spots. Eventually the clumsiness or just poor luck returned as I was attempting to get out to a point that I considered a great photo op. The things we do, we photographers and I’m sure my friend Marcus has a few stories of his own he might share some day. Carefully I navigated through the marsh until the unthinkable happened. I’m not sure why I considered it so out of the ordinary, I just never actually considered it to happen. Left foot forward, I aimed for a rock, a stepping stone as I moved forward. On top of the rock my weight already shifted to allow the right foot to follow. Almost immediately the rock submerged, swallowing my foot, slightly above ankle deep. I must have had the profoundest and dumbest look on my face as I lost balance and followed right besides it with the right foot. Precious seconds passed until balance was restored and the thought of being swallowed alive by the bog and sinking in further crossed my mind. The mud was thick which luckily kept most fluids from entering my shoes, but it took some effort to pull my feet out and reach safer grounds. “Major clump foot” reporting, I didn’t know if I should laugh or be upset and in the end chugged it up to the good ole “Oh well shit happens” attitude. I knew we laugh about it eventually as it would remain a memory for the future, associated with this trip even though it was more of an inconvenience instead of funny at the time.
We kept walking and I brushed my clump foot up against and through the tall grass which managed to remove some of the mud. My socks were slightly wet inside but luckily not to the squishy point and I was imagining what they would look like once I took my shoe off. My pants were sporting a nice ring of mud around the bottom as the weight itself was posing a threat to pull my pants down, but there was no sense in trying to clean that off as it would only touch my muddy shoes again. Eventually we found a spot to take a break as the extra 5 pounds on my foot alone was somewhat restricting my photographic nature and ability. I collected a twig along the way and was intending to use it as a scraping tool. My socks revealed a few damp brown spots that would later become dried on crustaceans. Hopefully just mud and no additional hitchhikers such as brine shrimp. Scraping away, my shoes took shape again and happy with the results I faced them towards the sun. This would help dry the mud that saturated the top materials and soaked through. Mission accomplished it was time for another nap and I fell asleep, lying there at the shore of Mono Lake, at peace and without a care, enjoying the feel of the sun, the now and that moment. I did get sunburned a little, so don’t think that the 30’s can’t leave you sporting a little tan. We stayed a few hours before heading to our final destination, our base camp you could hardly call a camp. It was a cabin in the woods, tucked away between aspen trees, surrounded by my beautiful mountains and insane amounts of snow. Winter had been no stranger here as well and perhaps brought even more snow.
We got there a little before darkness fell and unpacked the groceries along with all the items of my kitchen sink. It had to be homey, no feeling like living out of a suitcase, even that that’s not a bad thing either, but this would be home for the next few days and the meticulous, organized side of me had to have things in order. That night was a pizza night that yielded plenty of picnic leftovers for the next day’s adventure.
And with day one already coming to a close in this cozy beautiful cabin in the woods, we sat in wonder, waiting in anticipation for the full moon to crest over the mountain ridge and illuminate this amazing winter wonderland.
A sight that would surely steal our breath and fill our eyes with magic. ❤