Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Home to Mono Lake, CA

30 minutes late is not too bad for leaving in a fully packed trailer for five weeks on the road with a 16 month old and a 25 lb terrier mutt named “Gorilla.” And honestly we would have been on time had I not forgotten to close the exterior door on the chicken coop the night before. Typically, we rely on an automatic door cobbled together from a car antenna, a household timer and two LED monitor power cables to close a sliding door at sunset, securing the flock for the night. In the morning, the door slides open and one by one they file out to patrol the pasture for the day, gorging on the grass and bugs that give our eggs their bright orange yokes. But for this trip, we’d decided to close an exterior door that would lock them into their amply-sized run while we were gone, preventing any possible malfunctions that could lead to tragedy. And this decision was based on experience – a bad one, in fact – in which a power outage at the house during a two week trip to Japan last spring had skewed the timing on the door and left the chickens outside to be picked off by a grateful predator.

So by the time we were packed to leave, the chickens had already been out for over three hours and had to be lured back into the coop. The first six went peacefully, led by our proud rooster, but the last one, our oldest hen who had by some miracle survived not only “The Japan Massacre” but also a subsequent incident, refused to be corralled. The trailer hitched and Gorilla sitting in a warming car, we ran around the pasture, Ann with Wynne on her hip, trying to triangulate her through a tiny door. With Wynne’s naptime rapidly approaching which would mean the ability to put two solid hours on the road behind us while she slept in the car seat, Ann pointed out that if we just left, the red chicken would come in just before sunset like she always does and the automatic door would close securely behind her just like it does every night. We pulled out of the driveway hoping we wouldn’t have to write a blog post entitled “Airstream Air Raid: Hawks kill 6 hens and a rooster while one red chicken watches from an undisclosed location.”

The stated goal for the first day of driving was Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras. This early in the season, most of the trans-Sierra pass roads would still be closed with snow, and we’d have to loop high towards Lake Tahoe instead of taking the much more direct Tioga Pass route through Yosemite. I tossed and turned the night before we left trying to figure out how we could push hard to make it all the way but woke up to the realization that it didn’t make a lot of sense to put so much effort into avoiding a stopover on one of the beautiful Sierra mountain passes in our warm and cozy Airstream with everything we could possibly want. I needed an attitude adjustment, and the first day on the road was the perfect time to do it. Instead, we set out towards Tahoe on Highway 80, veering slightly at Sacramento to follow 50 as it narrowed and twisted through smaller and smaller towns on its way into the mountains. The marquee on the saloon in the town of Kyburz read: “Welcome to Kyburz. Now leaving Kyburz.”



As 5 o’clock approached - when all parents of toddlers know it’s time to either have a plan for dinner and bed in place or suffer the consequences - we pulled into the Turtle Rock Campground off Highway 89 and had our choice of spots. Within 10 minutes, I had the newly-purchased Weber Q120 hooked up to the auxiliary propane line running to the two main tanks at the front of the trailer and the four home-grown pork chops we’d luckily thought ahead to defrost in the trailer sink after the last stop putting off a delectable plume of smoke.



It turns out there’s a fair amount to keep a little girl busy around a campsite.

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The next morning, we continued along Highway 89, hiding our disappointment at the fact that as nice and private as our campground had been, there were three of four more a few minutes up the road that looked incredible. That damn red chicken… 




While the V8 of our 2006 Toyota Sequoia made it clear we were asking it to perform, we had no problems towing up Monitor Pass and were rewarded with a sweeping view on the way down.



I hadn’t driven down 395 on the east side of the Sierras since my 20’s when my climbing buddies and I would escape bad weather in the Yosemite Valley via Tioga Pass and head for the sport routes in the Owens River Gorge. As we drove, I regaled Ann with stories of the prowess and exploits of my youth. She didn’t mind since it seemed to keep Wynne sleeping soundly in the back seat.

As Mono Lake appeared around a bend, I admitted that I didn’t actually know where we were going to camp, but that I remembered at some point seeing a blog post somewhere that showed an Airstream trailer parked overlooking the lake. We were going to do that, I explained. We stopped for lunch and a short walk while I searched on the iPhone for the link.





While I could never find the picture I’d been thinking about, we decided to stop in at the visitors center to get more information. Here it’s worth mentioning that Ann and I have a running joke ever since one random day we decided we’d drive the 35 minutes from our home in Petaluma out to Bodega Bay at the coast “just for a couple crab rolls.” When we got there, a sign on the crab shack said “Closed Wednesdays.” It had never occurred to us it would be closed Wednesdays. So now when we pull up to anything that looks unexpectedly closed, we check to see if it’s Wednesday. Well, today was Tuesday, but the visitor center was closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. No help there.

Not to worry, we had one lead in the form of a PDF I’d found listing Mono Lake camping options. It mentioned that the recommended dispersed camping area was in a Jeffery Pine forest just south of the lake. We headed out the road through the forest but were met with ever-present signage forbidding off-road driving. Now, you can probably guess about what time of the day it was getting to be, and as such, we needed a plan or would pay the price. We agreed to make a run for June Lake, a known quantity with lots of campgrounds listed. It wasn’t what I’d pictured, but I had to keep a positive attitude and stay flexible, right?

At the other end of the forest, we turned around and drove back through towards 395. Only this time, just as we emerged, I saw a marked dirt road leading towards the lake and then back into the trees. I swung the trailer into the hairpin and immediately questioned my decision as the scrub brush narrowed and the ruts grew deeper. I assured Ann that backing the 1/4 mile or so we’d already gone was well within my abilities should it become necessary. She started Googling “mono lake off-road tow truck.”


Wynne wasn’t much more encouraging, checking and re-checking the maps as we continued.


After another 1/4 mile, we saw a Sportsmobile van parked under a tree, confirming we were on the right track. Just a little farther up the road, we could see a large flat opening that looked perfect for the trailer. Feeling the sand becoming softer under the tires, I switched the truck into four wheel drive and tried to keep our momentum as we made our way to the site. Just then, a small tent came into view right in the middle of the spot. The sand seemed to deepen as we crawled past.

Just before an iffy wash, I hopped out and jogged up the road to scout things out. There was a decent possibility a little ways ahead, but the sand looked even deeper off the road. I pulled past the opening, but when I tried to back up, the trailer tires bogged down when they hit the sand berm at the side of the track. I switched into four wheel low and tried again. The truck moved but the trailer tires didn’t budge, jackknifing the coupling. The possibility we might not be able to turn around became real. While there’s a confidence that comes from knowing that at any time we could have just given up for the day, put out some chairs and started making dinner right there in the road, there were factions within our party who seemed to think they could have done better behind the wheel.


She couldn’t.


Finally, by keeping the truck and trailer as inline as possible, I was able to get enough momentum to get over the bank. Three or four or seven more back and forth adjustments and some minor vegetative collateral damage and we were situated.


Yeah, that’s an R2D2 camp chair…


What’s your favorite, beach or mountains? Why choose?


I sautéed some ground pork with onions, salt and pepper, cumin, chili powder and a little garlic powder, not minding the heat radiating from the large cast iron pan as the sun slipped behind Mt. Dana to the west. Avocado, cilantro, lime, salsa from Papalote and a dash of champagne vinegar put the finishing touches on the tacos.


While Ann put Wynne to sleep, I set up a chair and waited for the light show to start. It turns out, Gorilla’s not a huge sunset fan and would prefer curling up in her bed beneath the dinette in the trailer.



But I think you’ll agree that the wait was worth it.





Okay, first blog post of the trip down. Now maybe it won’t be so hard for people to find a picture of an Airstream camped overlooking Mono Lake.