Goin’ to California

After resting up for a month at Villa Koransky, Teresa and I were ready to hit the road July 1st for our Alaska adventure.  I do have to admit, it felt strange leaving Colorado, where we had just placed a contract on land.  In addition, we were getting a little bit travel weary.  (In my experience, and in talking with others, I’ve noticed travel-weariness can easily set in after 3-4 months of continuous travel).  Teresa and I had a long discussion about whether or not we wanted to continue to travel, or stop in Colorado and start building, hitting the road again in a few years.  This may sound strange, but our dog was the number one reason we decided to continue to travel.  We try to be responsible dog owners, and it just wouldn’t be fair to Simon to be moved to Colorado for a year or two while we build, only to be left with someone else for a few months while we travel up to Alaska.  So with some trepidation, we headed off towards California… for Simon’s sake.  He is, after all, our only son!

We did our usual route… the gorgeous drive through Glenwood Canyon on I-70.

We stopped in Grand Junction at Colorado National Monument.  While just a few minutes off I-70, I had never stopped there before.  The canyons and views were nice, as were the “monuments,” which are basically rocks spires which have resisted erosion over the years.  But it was a fairly small park and didn’t really capture our imagination… especially after seeing so much similar scenery just a month ago.  We were also back in the desert, and getting pretty tired of the heat… remember, now it is July!

But… even with the brutal heat, we weren’t done with the desert yet!  We still had to travel through much of the desert Southwest to get to California, and there were a few things we missed on our earlier jaunt (February – June).  We just had to stop at my favorite desert park, Capitol Reef National Park (after a quick bathroom stop at the Hollow Mountain Gas and Grocery in Hanksville).  The “you-pick” orchards in Fruita historic district (old Mormon settlement) were producing apricots, and we picked 3 pounds of apricots while camped in their campground.

We also did a great hike up Grand Wash, where the valley gets choked down to an area no wider than 10 ft.  Not quite a slot, but impressive nonetheless.

In addition to the stunning scenery of the waterpocket fold, along the Burr Trail in the South side of the park, there is another very remote area known as Cathedral Valley that we wanted to check out.  The roads were miserable, but worth it!  Absolutely stunning…

After checking out an old ranching cabin, we raced out of Cathedral Valley ahead of a thunderstorm.  The clay earth had the potential to turn to mud, and while Big Red can handle most horrific roads, without a limited-slip differential, Big Red is skeered of mud and ice.  🙂  So we drove quite quickly out of the valley, snapping a few shots along the way.  We did manage to visit all the major sites, including a gypsum sinkhole, glass mountain (gypsum mound), and the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon rocks.

After hitting blessed pavement, we continued West into the Great Basin Desert.  We had already hit all other major American desert ecosystems, including the Chihuahan (indicator plant: lechugilla), Mojave (Joshua tree), and Sonoran (saguaro).  But we hadn’t really checked out the Great Basin yet.  And we were headed to Great Basin National Park.  I had no idea what to expect in Great Basin…  What we found was far beyond our expectations.

First, it is in the middle of nowhere.  Didn’t we mention that the coolest places sometimes are in the middle of nowhere?  It takes the hardy souls who live there at least 2 hours to get to a town with any decent shopping, including a reasonable grocery store.  (According to rangers, Ely, NV is farther from any major city, but at least Ely has a grocery store!)  We may have been abducted by aliens, but if so, they did a pretty good job of erasing our memory.  And check out the desolate roads that brought us to the National Park!

Outside of Baker, there was some pretty funky art along the road into Great Basin National Park…

Second, Great Basin National Park has a highly decorated cavern.  Third, it has a gorgeous alpine high country.  Fourth, the USA’s most southernmost glacier sits in that alpine high country.  And Fifth, it was once home to the oldest tree in the world.  And this is desert??

Well, not exactly.  The Great Basin National Park is perhaps representative of one of the North-South ranges of high mountains that permeate the great basin desert, but the thing that makes the Great Basin Desert a basin (or multiple basins as the case may be), is the fact that no water leaves the great basin.  We didn’t know it, but we were in the “hydrologic” great basin in Death Valley.  The watersheds empty out into desert areas where the water either evaporates, or forms temporary lakes / playas.

We first enjoyed the caverns, which, for a commercial cavern, was quite small and narrow.  It was, however, highly decorated with beautiful cavern formations.

We also did some hiking into the alpine country up to within a few hundred feet of the country’s most southernmost glacier.

And we also hiked through an ancient Great Basin Bristlecone Pine forest.  Grand Canyon makes you feel insignificant in the three measurable dimensions of length, width, and height that we are all familiar with, but the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines make you feel insignificant in the 4th dimension: time.  As far as any human knows, these trees are the oldest living things on the planet.  The oldest tree, Prometheus, was cut down inside Great Basin National Park in 1964 by someone studying the tree.  (This event, not surprisingly, ended up promoting support for the bristlecones’ protection!)  The tree was likely over 4,862 years old.  Many of these trees were older than Christianity (or the birth of Christ)… some are even older than the great pyramids.  In short, these are miraculous trees.

As we hiked out of the bristlecones, the clouds started to build again.  During our desert journey, we have been rained on a few times.  It was nice to get rained on while in the desert.  The fragrance of the desert after a rain is remarkably pungent.  Although no pavement is in sight, it smells like very dry pavement after a short cloudburst of rain, but far more natural and enjoyable.  It is as if the desert is saying “thank you” to the Great Spirit for the moisture and releasing a odiferous offering.  In sagebrush country, rains bring out the intense intoxicating smell of sage.  It started to rain, and the landscape released its magnificent odor as we hiked past some beautiful alpine lakes, including Teresa Lake.  (They spelled it right!)

The oldest known living tree sits in an unpublicized location in our next stop, the Methusela Grove of Great Basin Bristlecones in the White Mountains of California (part of the Inyo National Forest).  We learned a great deal about the Bristlecone while reading through the interpretive brochure on our early morning hike.  Some people like to say “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”  Well, the oldest trees grow in the most inhospitable of climates, right at tree line, which basically destroys any competitive species or pests.  The majority of the tree can completely die off, with only a narrow strip of living bark supporting the growing portion of the tree.  They produce very narrow growth rings which are hard to see with the naked eye.  When they die, they do not decompose.  Instead, they take thousands of years to “erode.”  Because dead trees can lie on the ground for centuries, it is possible to get a nearly continuous tree-ring record of the growing conditions, and sometimes, climate changes that affected the world (IE large volcanic eruption) back nearly 10,000 years.

The Great Basin Bristlecone Pines have rewritten history by allowing scientists and archeologists to “calibrate” the whole carbon dating process.  This is because each bristlecone pine growth ring provides an accurate sample of wood produced during a specific year.  With the new carbon dating process, they have quite literally changed the prehistoric timeline.  For example, it was originally thought that our civilization originated in Mesopotamia and spread from there.  Thanks to the bristlecones, which have that reliable carbon record and growth rings to separate the years, “calibrated” carbon dating turned that theory on its head.  It is now thought that civilization progressed in many areas at the same time.  These trees really have rewritten history.  Who knows what else we might discover about the bristlecones as time progresses?  They truly are miraculous trees and deserve protection.

Teresa and I have discovered that the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine species, which doesn’t grow nearly as old, lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and may be near our new home.  This requires more research!  But for now, we move further into California.

PS Look out for this police officer in Torrey, UT…

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