Archive for March, 2010

Last Sunday, we drove from Carrizo Plain to Bakersfield on a highway we hadn’t been on before. It wound its way through the Temblor Mountains and there were wide swaths of wildflowers all over. Then we got to the top and began the descent. At the bottom of the hills, we were driving through a gray, barren landscape covered with insect-like oil pumps, courtesy of Chevron Oil. Ugh! What a difference on the two sides of the mountain.

Our usual RV park neighborhood in Bakersfield is a rather unattractive area close to the highway heading into the Tehachapi Mountains, but it gets the job done: supermarkets, cheap (relatively!) gas and laundry facilities. We looked for the movie “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” but it wasn’t playing anywhere in Bakersfield. I guess Swedish-language films aren’t too popular here. (By the way, the book is a great read.)

Tuesday was driving day to Death Valley. A short hop over the Tehachapi’s and we were happy to be back in the desert. Another steep rise over the Panamint Mountains and we were coasting into Stovepipe Wells. Ah, it was joy to be back in the middle of nowhere. Wednesday, we got up very early and went out to the Mesquite Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. The weather was great, cool before sunrise and warm but not too hot after sunrise. We both like taking abstracts of the dunes. They have subtle patterns that vary sharply from dune to dune. Then there are the weird little tracks of beetles, lizards and other small creatures, as well as bushes that create their own patterns on the dunes. I also discovered a bee burrowing under the sand. He repeatedly would go into his little hole and push a little bit of sand out. Then there’s just sitting on the top of a dune and contemplating things. There were a few other photographers out there, but we all kept far enough apart to maintain a feeling of solitude.

That afternoon, we drove to the Charcoal Kilns, an odd place in the Panamint Mountains, where they built beehive-shaped ovens to make charcoal out of nearby trees. There was still snow on the ground at 7,000+ feet, and we were chilly in our Bermuda shorts.

On Thursday, we went to Titus Canyon, one of our favorite places in Death Valley. But before the canyon, we stopped in Rhyolite, a ghost town that has quite a few buildings left standing. Their big strike was in 1906-07, and the town grew rapidly. Now, the train station is mostly intact, but fenced off. Bits of the bank, the school and the mercantile still stand. The neatest building is the bottle house, built with heaven-knows how many bottles, set in cement. I followed a moto-cyclist in full regalia to a little miner’s shack. She let me take her picture in the doorway, looking like a space-person, recently landed. Right next to Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, with its strange collection of artwork. We found a new addition on this trip: a bench created with tile, bottle caps, glass, abalone and other ephemera.

After that, we started down the gravel road to Titus Canyon. The first 10 miles are fairly unspectacular; then you get into the foothills and enter a multicolored mud-hill heaven. After some serious switchbacks, we reached Red Pass, a small space with parking for about 3 vehicles, that looks into two valleys. After a slow, bumpy descent, we reached Leadfield, a defunct mining town. Then it’s into Titus Canyon. For about 6 miles, you gently descend into the canyon, that gets narrower and narrower, as the walls get higher and higher. To top it off, the walls vary between silver and peach-colored stone. The light wasn’t as perfect as the first time we went through (in 1980), but was still quite beautiful.

Friday was moving day – all of 26 miles from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek. We were in line at Stovepipe, waiting to dump our gray tank, when I heard a wonderful sound. Peering out the window, I saw a guy playing a Xylophone, a little way in the desert, like a pied piper. I went over, with a few other people, and discovered Michael Charles Smith (marimbamike.com) and found out that he was playing a marimba, not a xylophone.  Great music – check out the website. After clearing the gray tank, we did the short run to Furnace Creek and settled into Sunset Campground, a huge gravel parking lot, with nary a tree among 750 campsites. But it gets the job done and it’s possible to see the snow-capped Panamint peaks if you get a good campsite.

We went for an afternoon drive to Artist’s Palette, which is a multi-colored conglomeration of mud hills that look like melting ice cream. (Speaking of which, we haven’t had any ice cream on our trip yet!)

Today, we got up early and went for a hike up Golden Canyon. The quiet beauty of the Death Valley won us over once again, as we hiked up canyons of every color of cream, gold, rust and brown. The wildflowers haven’t run amok yet, but there are bits of greenery all over the place. It’s nice to be here in spring.

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Wildflowers in spring. Where to go and when? Wildflower blooms are notoriously volatile, a function of rain and sunshine. I followed the desert wildflower blogs for a week or so before we left, and they proved valuable. We took off Wednesday, and went south on Highway 101. Once we got to southern San Jose, the environs became lush, displaying every shade of green. We sailed into Paso Robles, and the campground we chose had a flowering fruit tree at every site.

The next day was devoted to finding wildflowers. We headed east on Highway 46 and almost immediately, saw wide swathes of yellow and gold. What was truly amazing, however, were patches of poppies high on some hills that were so bright orange they looked like the beginning of a wildfire.  It was spectacular. We went on a few other roads that were noted on the wildflower sites and were not disappointed. Shell Road, off of Highway 58, had a few miles that were dominated by Baby Blue Eyes. All in all, it was a great day.

On Friday, we headed to Carrizo Plains National Monument, an unknown quantity to us, smack in the middle between Highway 101 and I-5, west of Bakersfield. It is not a very developed place, but is currently inundated with flowers – desertgold, fiddleheads, tidy tips, and more. We really lucked out: the RV could only fit at one campground with 12 sites. We got there around 2 p.m. and got the last site. The car immediately behind us was out of luck. It’s a nice space, under Eucalyptus trees, with a long view of the Temblor Mountains and miles of wildflowers.

After settling in, we went for a late drive. At the north end of the monument, which is 37 miles long, Soda Lake dominates the scenery. Seeing it filled with water is unusual, as the years of drought have left it dry most of the time. Now, where there’s water, there are birds, and there are birds everywhere.  We drove east across the plains on a rutted road, and small birds would escort us, some for minutes, flying alongside or right in front of the car, playing chicken with us. We got to the other side and viewed the famous Wallace Creek that made the mistake of flowing east-west across the San Andreas Fault. When the fault moves, it moves south-north and the creekbed, where it crosses the fault. has been displaced about 420 feet over many years. We’re waiting for an earthquake, but haven’t felt one so far. Coincidentally, I’m reading a book titled “A Crack in the Edge of the World”, about the great California earthquake of 1906, that has a picture of the San Andreas Fault as it exists here in Carrizo Plain. Plate o’ shrimp! (a reference to synchronicity in the movie “Repoman”) We got back to camp around dusk and heard 2 hoot owls in camp.

We were disappointed today. We expected to go on a hike along the ridge of the Caliente Mountains, but couldn’t drive up to the trailhead – all the rain has destroyed the road. We could have hiked the 3 mile road, but hiking 3100 feet up a dirt road in order to reach the trailhead, after which we’d hike up another 1,100 feet, didn’t appeal to us. And we couldn’t see the local famous sight, the Painted Caves, because the one tour had already departed and was full anyway. So we were forced to return to camp and sit on our asses all day. Darn!!  All that sitting led to another discovery: there’s a hawk nesting in a nearby tree. So we’re making the best of a good situation.

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