Roadtripping in the Eastern Sierras

I name my rental cars. I don’t know why. I never name my own cars. There is something about the randomness of collecting a rental car, though, that just inspires me to name them. As soon as I saw the black Ford Explorer waiting for me a nondescript lot in the San Francisco airport I knew it’s name: Darth Vader. It was big, black, and commanding, plus a little on the over-dramatic side. Just what we needed for a road trip out to the Eastern Sierras and escape the acrid smoke that blanketed San Francisco, caused by the Camp Fire in Northern California.

I pressed the power button, put Vader in drive, and just like the Death Star, the huge black beast lurched forward. To hyper-space and beyond! Ok, perhaps we weren’t going to destroy any planets with a gigantic laser beam, but one thing I love about road trips is that you never quite know what you might find.

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Mile after mile, Vader rolled on. We headed north east through Tahoe and across the Nevada state line before turning south down HWY 395, one of my favorite roads. Last time I drove this road I found myself in the middle of a snowstorm driving a rear wheel drive convertible Mustang. Like I said, you never know what you might find on a road trip. When I left San Francisco, it was 70f. I certainly didn’t expect to be sliding around corners and creeping behind a snow plow attempting to avoid a precarious drop off into the valley below. I felt my hands cloth the wheel tighter, sweat beading on my forehead as I recalled that experience. Thankfully, this time, the weather was co-operating. I pressed harder on the accelerator, Vader wallowing around corners, scenery wizzing by.

By 16:00 the sun was beginning to set behind the Sierras, now well and truly towering to our west. We pulled into Mono Lake just as the sunset bathed the lake and bizarre tufas in a pastel pink. We pulled into a parking lot and explored the otherworldly landscape before piling back in the car and heading to the southern side of the lake. I remembered a nondescript dirt road which lead to a great viewing area. If we hurried, we could make it before we lost the light.

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The sun had almost dropped below the horizon before we found the dirt road. I disengaged traction control and planted my foot. Plumes of dust and gravel spat up in rooster tails behind Vader, like his cloak billowing behind. Corner after corner, we fish tailed around. It is true - rental cars really do make the best rally vehicles. I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat on crack.

We slid around a tight left-handing and into a parking lot. I slammed on the brakes bringing us to a stop, surrounded by dust and confused tourists. Grabbing our cameras, we ran down to the waters edge capturing the final rays of a beautiful sunset. The water was like glass, reflecting light and rock in a perfect imitation of reality.

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The next morning was bitterly cold. Vader’s windshield was covered in ice, finally thawing out after blasting it with hot air for ten minutes. After a quick breakfast as Nicely’s, a small old school diner in Lee Vining, we headed east along HWY 120. After about forty miles of beautiful winding roads we passed through a desolate valley. Small bushy scrub stretched off as far as you could see, only broken by the hazy outlines of tall mountains, painted gold by the morning sun.

We passed a sign warning of dips in the road. I paid it little attention. I knew Vader could handle a few dips, no problem. Suddenly the road dropped away. We launched down the first of dozen of rolling drop-offs in the road. These were no ordinary dips! Each one dropped about 10’ at an anglenearing 20%. It was like a rollercoaster in the middle of the desert. Up and down we flew, catching air more than a few times. Our stomachs lurched. The suspension worked overtime soaking up the road as best it could. We screamed. We laughed. We loved it. For a moment, we considered turning around and doing again. The road ahead called, and we obeyed.

Our next destination was a town called Goldfield and place called the International Car Forest of the Last Church. I’d seen a few photos online and always wanted to visit it. Who doesn’t want to drive 500+ miles to see a bunch of junkyard cars sticking out of the ground? After almost missing the turn-off, we climbed up a steep gravel driveway and parked beside a school bus sticking out of the ground. Cameras in hand, we walked around the cars posing for photos and looking for unique angles. I could have stayed here all day.

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Back in the car, we headed northwest into Death Valley, passing through Furnace Creek campground and down into Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States at 293’ below sea level. It’s fascinating to think that barely one hundred miles to the west, Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States towers at 14,500’. I’ve climbed Whitney a few times, but never made it to Badwater Basin until now.

We parked the car and walked out onto the dry lake bed following other tourists deep into the white landscape. We walked for almost a mile until we were surrounded by a vast salt flat. Even in the middle of winter, it was warm enough to wear shorts and t-shirts. In the summer months, this place must be brutal. That’s often the way with nature, the more beautiful a place it, the more inhospitable to humans it is. Perhaps nature designed it this way? It keeps the flood of tourists away. Badwater was certainly the most touristy spot we stopped at, but it was worth it.

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We ended our day in Lone Pine, a quaint town at the base of Mt Whitney, and location of more than a few McDonald binges during my life. It’s the first sign of civilization after climbing Whitney or completing the 300 mile John Muir hike. You’ll be amazed how delicious a big mac tastes after three weeks of eating rehydrated food!

Lone Pine was also our last stop on our road trip. The next morning we woke to a beautiful sunrise and the delicate smell of horse urine. Oh the joys of country towns! We packed Vader for the last time, piled in, cranked up the heat and headed back to San Francisco. After heading south to Mojave and turning west to Bakersfield, we joined the I5 heading north. I remember driving along the the I5 watching the miles melt away and civilization materialize around us. Interstates are great, but give me a windy road and random road trips any day.