Monday, August 2, 2010
Back from Cali
I'm back from California. Saw some amazing landscapes...the state's crammed with 'em. The guys in tinseltown used to make very good use of them, but amazingly, they don't anymore. Right down the road from Hollywood, you have these fabulous backdrops, particularly along the astounding rt. 395. If I were a filmmaker, I'd be writing scripts just to take advantage of the locations. But that's just me.
Here's what I did and saw on my trip.
Me and my family did a Joshua Tree-Yosemite-Monterrey thing. We flew out of BWI, got into LAX, met my animator daughter Soph there (some of you might know her as Moroturkey), picked up a big honkin Ford Expedition (true mastodon)and went to El Segundo to rendez-vous with Soph's boyfriend Jason. Drove out to Joshua Tree National park via San Berdoo and the 10, past Forest Lawn and the Morongo Indian Casino, and through that gap in the San Bernardino mountains where they've got that forest of giant windmills that looks like an alien invasion. To get to Joshua Tree, you take the turn-off for Twenty-Nine Palms,but you hit Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree before then. Pretty big towns, actually, with lots of nifty houses nestled in among all these big granite plutons, which, in layman's terms, are great big piles of boulders. Joshua trees all over the place, of course, looking right surreal, kinda like triffids, only in the desert, not England. You've seen the area in a bunch of movies...it's stood in for the entire American west at one time or another, including lotsa places where they don't have Joshua Trees...represented New Mexico (which it looks nothing like) in Them, for example.
Anyway, when we got to the park, it was late in the afternoon, but still about a hundred and six...we did some shopping to kill some time and let things cool off, then drove to our campsite. It was a much longer drive than I anticipated, mea culpa...couldn't go at a reasaonable speed in the park, and the campsite was all the way at the far end, down three thousand feet from the Joshua trees, in a completely different sort of desert, Coloradan, I believe. Still, it was a nifty drive at sunset, and the campsite was nice enough, at the Cottonwood Springs site, named after a very wierd place that struck me as one of the scariest and most magical locations I'd ever been to...but we didn't get down there till the end of the second day, so I won't go into that now.
Next day we figured it was going to get way to hot to stick around the desert, so we decided to go up into the San Bernadino mountains, to a (literally) cool resort town called Big Bear...there's a long lake, artificial I guess, which has all sorts of people boating and jet skiing on it, with a ridge to the north, from which you can look down on the lake...we hiked up the Cougar Ridge trail, got an eyeful of the lake, then headed back down, having used up a bunch of the afternoon...drove back to Joshua tree, did some more shopping, and then drove to the campsite, stopping off this time to do some rock climbing now that the heat had lessened. The sun was going down, and all those granite boulders and outcroppings had gone nice orange shade...we clambered all over the Hall of Horrors, then a another outcropping called Skull Rock, very justly named. A bit farther down the road, the land just dropped off, and we went right over the rim, down into that Coloradan stuff again, passing a huge forest of chollas in the process...these weren't the really badass kind of chollas, chain-fruit chollas, the sort that figure in my new book Flaming Sword...but they still looked pretty mean.
Did rather more than the speed limit, since I wanted to get to Cottonwood Springs when there was still some sunlight. Arrived right after sundown, could still see. The springs were right at the end of a road, below a railing...stairs led down into a canyon, and the springs were at the bottom. Not sure why they're called Cottonwood, because the trees most in evidence are untended rat-palms, you know, the kind of palm trees that get all shaggy all down their trunks if you don't hack the dead fronds away. Anyway, a ring of rat-palms had grown up around the spring, real close together...there's an entrance where a couple of palms seemed to have been chopped down, but it looked like a giant gaping mouth, leading to a cavern with a few openings, like the eye and nose-sockets that open on the cave inside Skull mountain in King Kong. But when you looked up into the canopy of completely untended rat-palm fronds, the chief effect was like standing under a crowd of giant tarantulas, with big hairy mandibles hanging down. Absolutely unbelievable.
Anyway, we were losing our light, and decided to come back after dinner, because we'd heard that animals came to drink at the spring...we ate our food, broke out our flashlights, and returned to the grove. There wasn't too much water...it was leaking out of rocks behind the palms, and it wasn't much more than an inch deep in places...we didn't see any big critters, but the water was all full of mating toads, who were blowing up their dewlaps and making toad mating noises...there was also a rattlesnake, obviously there for a nice toad dinner. We'd spotted rattlers on earlier western trips, but I'd never done the spotting, and I was so delighted with myself. Interestingly, the rattler didn't rattle...I understand they've stopped doing that, as it increases the chance that someone's going to grease them. At any rate, I went to bed feeling a tremendous sense of achievement.
Packed up and headed for Yosemite the next morning...thought we were going to run into a big traffic jam around San Berdoo, but we didn't...got over the mountains through a nifty pass where the plants were all short and scrubby and looked like beach vegetation. It stopped looking like California on the other side... high very flat desert. There was a big flat town with a name I can't remember, and we picked up rt. 395 there, passing some sort of huge shrine to Kwan Yin, the buddhist goddess of mercy, colossal statue...have no idea what she was doing there.
Headed north through some very high-quality flatness...stopped to get gas in a depressing little semi-ghost town called Johannesburg, under the shoulder of an interesting thing called Red Mountain.
Ride got way more scenic after that. Ground began to roll, and we went between some big hills and sighted the Sierras. Route 395 goes right up the Owens Valley between them and the much lower Inyos...on either side of the road, there are big lava floes, basalt cliffs with columns, and cinder cones. On the left, the Sierras come straight up behind a single line of foothills. Very different from the Rockies. The effect is very severe...the Sierras are white granite, very steep and spiky and jagged, sparsely wooded until a very stark treeline. Lot of talus. There aren't a lot of good pictures of the east wall online, in spite of the fact that the Sierras are the tallest mountains in the lower forty-eight...Mount Whitney, which you can get to from Lone Pine, is the very tallest. The Lone Pine area shows up in a lot of old movies though...among other things, it doubled for the Himalayas in Gunga Din, and the big wagon-train-Indian chase thing in How the West was Won was filmed there.
Anyway, until I clapped eyes on the Sierras, I thought The Shuddering Mountains (see picture above) in my new Zorachus book, Flaming Sword, were kinda geologically improbable, although I decided to go ahead with the concept anyway...I'd never seen mountains that were so jagged, came up so starkly, and had such a relatively narrow front wall...the Sierras are nowhere near as wide at the Rockies. Moreover, Yosemite, which is right over the fence, is in some respects rather more like the canyon of the Khuda Darya in my book than the Grand Canyon, which originally inspired it...Yosemite is this great big semi-bowl surrounded by a spiky rim that slopes down to these alpine lakes amid all this debris and through small glaciers...as I said, I thought that such stuff existed only in my imagination.
You get up to Yosemite through the Tioga pass...it's quite a long spectacular ascent, with Mono Lake (from High Plains Drifter) on your left...the Pass is stupefying stuff. You go along the northern wall of this huge canyon with a tremendous drop-off right on your left...pretty steep...pray you don't find yourself behind an RV. I think the pass is about ten thousand feet up. Thought the lack of air was going to bother me more than it did. There was road work going on right at the top, so everyone stopped before we got into the park, and we got out and went over to the side of the road and looked down into this yawning gulf with all these wonderful white feathery waterfalls tumbling into it.
Wait wasn't too long, and we piled back into the Expedition and entered the park. Went down into the Tuolumne stuff, which is all blue lakes, and zillions of wild flowers in broad green meadows with huge granite domes sticking up out of them...the grass is just naturally short and clipped-looking, and though I'm not a big fan of lawns and golf courses and that kind of stuff, it works much better when it's all natural. The trees aren't too dense or tall, because they're up near the tree-line...the air's very sharp and clear, and everything is bright, bright, bright.
Drove down along a bunch of switchbacks, the trees getting taller and thicker on very steep slopes...rather nerve-wracking negotiating the hairpins, etc. while trying not to look at the cool stuff. Everyone behind me wanted to go much faster than I did, and there was always a steep fall on the right. We'd lost Jason and Sophi earlier, but they were waiting for us at a pull-off,and we followed them on down into the big valley...got some great but all-too brief glimpses at half-dome and the El Capitain, etc, just as the light was getting good. We stopped briefly at the tunnel overlook, whetted our appetite gawking at the great stuff down the valley, then hopped back in the mastodon. By then I was real tired, and there was a bunch of road construction, and the air was full of dust, which wasn't at all held down by the oil they'd been spraying, so you just wound up with a bunch of dust that tasted like oil...the dust was all full of late afternoon sunlight too, and you'd go in and out of the shafts of light between the trees, and your eyes couldn't adjust, and most of the time you really didn't feel like you were able to see anything...by the time we got out of the park and reached the KOA down in Coarsegold, I was profoundly fashed and trashed. The KOA was full of loud funny Frenchies...I was too zombified to help with the tent much...actually, I don't think I helped at all..