In early April, I hopped in the car early Sunday morning, and headed South down I-5. The clouds in the sky, and the surrounding green hills, made the trip more pleasant than it otherwise would be. I snacked on edamame and listened to podcasts, making eight hour drive almost enjoyable. The spring air outside the window whizzed by, and before I knew it, I was on the eastern side of the Sierras, making my way north. I stopped at Albertson’s, in the ghetto fabulous town of Bakersfield, and picked up some apples, almonds, and donut holes to get me through the trip (though the donut holes had no chance of lasting very long). This is notable only for the reason that I hadn’t seen an Albertson’s Grocery in 20 years, and I had though the chain was long defunct. However, that instant smell of greasy fried chicken brought me back to the heydays of my youth, and took my mind off the worry that my car would be broken into while I was in the store (did I mention Bakersfield is ghetto?)
I went through towns such as Trona, a boarded-up, desolate town with a mill for making talc. I was shocked at the emptiness. It was as if there was an emergency order to evacuate, and everyone had dropped what they were doing and fled. I did find that the gas station manned however. A bored teenager, and an older woman stood behind the register, gazing at nothing. The gas station parking lot was filled with motorcyclists taking a break from their ride. Strangely, these people did nothing to make me feel less alone.
I drove further down the road, and the mountains rose on either side of the small valley I was driving through and the road turned a crimson red, for reasons that are unclear to me. Wildflowers appeared in yellow bursts occasionally on the side of the road. I drove for miles without seeing another car, the only company coming from my speakers in form of the podcast of the hour.
It is fitting that I was feeling so small and desolate that I should happen upon a ghost town. The town of Ballarat, it was apparently a happening place in the late 1800’s, during a mining boom. Feeling adventurous I drove the two miles down the gravel road to see what this strange tourist destination was about. I parked my car near the general store, which was open, but completely empty. Again, it was as if someone left in a hurry. All that was left behind was a cash register, some Ballarat paraphenelia, and a sign that said ‘don’t tread on my gun rights.’ Okayyyy. I quickly turned and exited the general store, half expecting the piano on the front porch to start magically playing, and looked around outside a bit. I could see people in their campers in the distance, but I wasn’t sure what they were doing, and I wasn’t too keen to find out. I walked over to another structure, and old wooden building with a hastily-made sign that read ‘Jail and Morgue’ hanging about the doorway. I stepped inside on the wood-plank floor. Two rooms, two beds, and not much else. The creeps further settling in, I left the jail/morgue, got in my car, and drove the two miles back out to the main road. Later I would read on Wikipedia that the Mansons (that is, the family of Charles Manson), lived nearby, and left graffiti in the town. True or not, I’m glad I was unaware of that fact when I was exploring the deserted ghost town, alone, in an unreliable car.
Back on the main road, I drove another hour to Stovepipe Wells Campground, in Death Valley. The drive was incredibly beautiful, and I was just so happy to finally be there. I hopped out into 85 degree weather, with the sun beating down strongly on any exposed patch of skin. It felt incredible. I popped a few donuts holes and walked the perimeter of the gravel ground, tree-less campground, hoping to find a spot to pitch my tent that wasn’t in the gravel parking lot. As I was walking by, a man with his two sons asked if I was looking for a spot. Yes, yes I was. He informed me that I could camp along the perimeter, where the desert scrub-brushes were, just beyond his camp. I was deeply grateful, and assumed this courtesy would be extended to all wandering campers, but when another camper approached to ask about spots, the same offer was not extended. Oh well, finders keepers! I was a little creeped out by his enthusiastic offer, but hey, he had two sons, and I really didn’t want to pitch my tent in the dust. I went off to pay my campground fee, and explore the other amenities the campground had to offer.
Though the campground was quite sparse, there was a general store (with soft-serve inside and rocking chairs out front!), and a lodge across the street with two restaurants (but only one which appeared to be open), a pool, another store, and a business center. Oh, and pro-tip, their bathroom had soap! They also had wifi, precious wifi. Satisfied with my exploration, I went back to set-up camp. My campmate was casually cleaning his armpits with a wet cloth as I approached. His two boys were running around kicking up an inordinate amount of dust, as small boys do. ‘Anywhere back there’ he said, and I went to search for a suitable spot for my small, lime green tent. I went back to the business center and tried to answer a few emails, and decided that joining a conference call was a lost cause. I ate a nasty piece of leftover pizza and walked on the crunchy gravel back to my tent. By then it was dark, and the stars were out in full, spectacular force. The sky was glittering, and it was absolutely amazing. The campground had filled up, and people were milling about in the darkness. Kids were having blast playing with a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. I returned to my tent, which was actually hard to find in the dark, and found out that a circle of non-sanctioned tents had gone up next to mine. Non-sanctioned by the campground man I mean, I for one, was happy to have company in the darkness of the desert. So I laid back on my comfortable sleeping back with the tent door wide open (no bugs bugged me!) and gazed at the bright, dense stars. I listed to the comforting tent-muffled conversations next door, and the distant sounds of someone playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on the banjo. I drifted off to sleep easily, with the natural and non-natural sounds providing a soft soporific.
Well-rested, I popped out of my tent just as the sun was peaking over the Amagorosa mountains. I donned my running clothes and jogged through the bushes into the desert. As I was doing so, I passed a woman doing sun salutations on a mat in the smooth sand. As her lycra’ed leg lifted gracefully into the sky with the backdrop of the sun rising over the mountains, I made a mental note to come and do that the following morning.
After breakfast, I ran up the rode to the Mosaic Canyon hike. I set out at about 10 am, as the sun was high and punishing. Nevertheless, I grabbed my water bottle, donned the sunscreen and headed up the dusty gravel road. I was not sorry that I did. The mosaic canyon, layered with four types of rock, was a beautiful site. After hitting a dead end, I ran back down to the campground, and immediately dumped some cold water on my head. Parched and hungry, I grabbed my lunch and water, and sat in front of the general store, and enjoyed the sunshine and heat. After lunch, I drove to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, and looked around a bit. The place was pretty crowded with tourists and families, and everyone enjoying some general merriment! I walked around a bit, tried to get a good pic of Telescope Peak and drove back.
Deciding I needed a shower, I purchased a shower/pool pass and swam a few laps, despite the pool not being heated. It was fun to swim in a pool in the dessert, with the dramatic backdrop of the mountains. Afterward I got some real work done in the business center, and took myself out to dinner in the lodge. The restaurant was old and decrepit, with creaky wooden floors, carpeted over with carpet from the 1970’s, but it did the job, and I was able to order a prickly pear salad, which was sounded better than it was. The sun was setting by the time dinner was over, so I grabbed my NYT magazine, and sat out at a picnic table to read and watch the sunset. But the wind was picking up, and it slowly turned into a veritable windstorm! The wind whipped everywhere and from the time I had walked from the lodge to my tent, I had dust in every orifice. That night in my tent, it felt like the hand of God was reaching down to shake my tent every few seconds! Cool!
The following morning I woke early, and did a few sun salutations as the sun popped over the mountains. It was glorious! I then loaded up the car, and drove west (northwest), over mountain passes and through eastern Sierra towns until I reached the mountain town of Mammoth, and about froze my toosh off.
I checked into the Davison St. Guest House, and worked the afternoon away. A guy at the hostel had told me about this place called Hot Creek, so I went for a run out to check it out, and couldn’t resist a soak in the hot pool.
That night at the hostel, everyone was really nice. I was the youngest person there, surprisingly! Everyone was older and on a ski vacation. And really cool. We all sat around talking about history and politics, and it was a lovely evening.
The next day I drove out of the Eastern Sierras, one of my favorite places on earth, a vowed to return again soon.