Of course I knew I was ahead of schedule but, waking up that Sunday morning, it started to dawn on me just how much ahead of schedule I was. I had arranged to meet up with a couple of friends in San Francisco on the Thursday evening but what could I possibly do to keep myself busy until then? My mind wandered around aimlessly until suddenly it came to me. I'd visited Death Valley a couple of years ago and absolutely fell in love with the place. It was only five or six hundred miles away, right? I hurriedly packed my bag and excitedly jumped in the car.
My route took me along the Avenue of the Giants then south to San Francisco where I turned east and headed out to Yosemite National Park. The roads were decidedly average but I was motivated and managed to cover the 500-miles with just one stop for gas and just eight hours after setting off I drove up to the gate at Yosemite to be given the news that all the park campgrounds were full. I was directed back to Yosemite Lakes - a private campground six or eight miles back in the direction that I had come.
First thing the following morning I packed away my tent and headed back to the park. I'd visited Yosemite before as well but hadn't been massively taken with the place - this time it was different. I warmed up with three shorter hikes and, having parked the car at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, I decided to have a go at Columbia Rock Trail. I struggle a little to make my way up the seemingly never-ending steep switchbacks in the heat but the view was well worth it and I couldn't help but press on up the trail a little until the Upper Yosemite Falls came into view. Admiring the view I got talking to another guy who was going all the way to the top of the trail and, rather foolishly, I let myself get talked into joining him. I guess I knew that I didn't have enough water to make it to the top and back but put this to the back of my mind and went for it. I made it to just a few hundred feet from the top of the trail before realising I absolutely had to turn around and head down again.
I rationed my water intake on the way back down but the dry heat of the day was really taking it out of me and I quickly started to dehydrate and feel decidedly off colour. When I finally made it to the bottom of the trail I headed straight for the luxury of the nearest water fountain. I drank and drank, refilled my water bottle and drank that on my walk back to towards the car but I still didn't feel too good so, in an effort to recharge, I stopped at the store and bought a bottle of Cherry Coke, a bar of Hersheys and a big bag of salted peanuts... and consumed the lot without any of the usual feeling of guilt. I was soon feeling myself once again and left the park having well and truly learned my lesson.
When I'd visited before we'd planned to visit the ghost town at Bodie State Park but I, erm, messed up our route and we didn't make it. This all came back to me as I retraced my steps across the Tioga Pass and I couldn't help myself but throw my plans out of the window and take a left at the end of the road in an effort to make up for this faux pas. There was no camping or other accommodation at Bodie so I had no other choice but to retrace my steps and seek out accommodation nearby. I returned to the main road, turned right towards Bridgeport and, in less than a mile, was rewarded when I stumbled over the Virginia Creek Settlement where I got myself a real bargain... a cabin for the night - with electric, wireless internet, a fire pit and grill - for 24 bucks. There were hot showers and even a decent restaurant on site - that's what I call a bargain!
The next day was supposed to be all about Death Valley but I spent far longer than planned at Bodie and didn't arrive at the edge of the park until 3pm and it became a real race to even get to the visitor center before it closed at 5. When I enquired about camping for the night, the look on the rangers face suggested that it wasn't the wisest idea I'd ever had and I had no choice but to throw my budget out of the window once again and take a cabin at the Furnace Creek Ranch. It wasn't cheap but, I've got to be honest, it really made the visit something special and, much as I love camping, you do deserve these treats every now and then!
I settled in, took a shower, then headed off to Badwater Basin - at 282ft below sea level, the lowest, and hottest place in the US - to see the sunset. I parked the car and walked. And walked... it was seriously hot but strangely invigorating. When I finally turned and looked back to where I'd come from I realised that I'd made it a great deal far further out than most people do; it had to be a good ¾ of a mile from the parking area. The sun started to drop out of the sky at a rate that I'd not realised was possible, the sky turning the most amazing red colour, and offering the most beautiful sight as it set over the mountains ahead of me.
I hung around out there for what seemed like forever - lapping up the solitude and marvelling in the beauty of the place - before my peace was finally shattered by one of those dreaded Cruise America Rvs roaring up. Somewhat disappointed to have my moment ruined I set off back to the cabin but felt strangely compelled to pull the car to the side of the road halfway back. I turned off the engine and lights and clambered up onto the roof where I sat for twenty minutes, just enjoying the moment and thinking about just how far away I was from my ‘real' life. By now it was all but pitch black and the silence, combined with the heat, was quite an experience and one which will stay with me for a long time. Then I sensed something behind me - isn't it strange how you just know to turn your head sometimes - it was a light up on top of the mountain. I couldn't figure it out initially - was it someone up on Dantes View with a powerful flashlight. No, it was getting bigger, must be a car up there? Then it got bigger still... and it finally twigged. It was the moon rising over the mountains! One of the most amazing sights that I have seen... I felt privileged to be the only one out there enjoying it.
After another half an hour or so, just chilling out and enjoying the atmosphere, I headed back to the visitor center. It was closed, of course, but I wanted to check my email and there is an open wi-fi connection there. It was after 9pm and the thermometer was still showing 110 degrees! God, I love Death Valley.
In the morning, after a nice hot shower - the third of my stay - I checked out of my cabin and hopped in the car and set off in the direction of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Like Yosemite and Death Valley I had planned to visit these places once I got back from Alaska but I had time to spare and it seemed silly not to visit now as it really opened up the possibilities for later in my trip. The drive from Death Valley to Sequoia took me south across the Mojave Desert, west to Bakersfield and then north to the park entrance - taking six hours to travel probably no more than 100 miles as the crow would fly - but there was no alternative route so I just had to get my head down and drive. Thankfully no-one seems to have any interest in enforcing the speed limits along much of the route so I was able to shave a considerable time off the 8 hours that had been suggested for the journey.
I had decided to break the journey part-way at the Red Rock Canyon State Park where I decided that I would take one of the roads within the park which was signed as ‘4wd advised' - having driven quite a lot of dirt roads in various national parks I was confident that it'd be fine - but, within 100 yards I was bogged down and had to rock the car free of the soft sand. Having finally accomplished this feat I drove on... only to almost tear the front splitter from the car a few hundred yards further down the road. At this point I figured that 4wd really was advisable and headed back to the safety of the tarmac.
I have to be honest that I wasn't massively excited about Sequoia and Kings Canyon but I would leave as a bit of a fan. The General Sherman tree may not be as impressive as they make out but the road through the parks was superb - a great drive and very scenic. If it wasn't for the crazy amount of mosquito bites I received - I gave up counting at 23 - I would have spent more time in Sequoia leaving early allowed me more time at the quite marvellous Kings Canyon so it all worked out in the end. To say that I loved that drive was a complete understatement - it was sublime - and I wish I had just another couple of hours to spend there. But I had an appointment to keep... in San Francisco.
I used to be unbelievably anti-satnav but, having fought my way through the traffic into San Francisco, I finally stepped out of the car wanting to hug my TomTom. To put it simply, if it'd not been for that little box stuck to the inside of the windscreen, I would never ever have found Neil and Kristin's house. But it took me straight there through the maze of side streets and the tangle of freeway slip roads to be greeted by two friendly smiles on the door step. The first time I had seen anyone that I know since I was dropped at Heathrow. Now seven weeks is a long time to only have strangers to talk to so I must apologise to them now if I got a bit carried away and didn't let them get a word in!
Next morning I woke to an empty house - my hosts both had to work - but it was lovely to be able to lounge around the house, answering my emails and doing very little without having to worry about the check-out time or about hopping in the car to get somewhere. I finally forced myself to leave the house around lunchtime - not for food, for I had munched my way through a massive burrito the previous evening - but to head out to a hike that had been recommended to me - the San Andreas Trail. It turned out to be absolutely tedious but it got me out the house for a couple of hours until it was time to head over the Bay Bridge to Oakland for the baseball. It proved to be an excellent evenings entertainment - the Athletics beating the Marlins 7-6 in the eleventh - and all for no cost as someone handed me a ticket as I waited in line at the ticket window and refused to take any money for it... which was nice. What wasn't nice was the massive swarm of black fly which descended on the stadium for half an hour before leaving as quickly as they had arrived. Most surreal.
Neil had managed to get hold of passes for the Saturday at Sears Point so, whilst he was away, Kristin and I popped along to the local farmers market. When Neil returned home he took me off for a walking tour of the neighbourhood. Initially I wondered why he insisted on us marching up to the top of a dirty great hill but, when we reached the top, I saw exactly why. The view over the city was absolutely breathtaking. It should be in every guide book but, thankfully, it's not and I was able to enjoy my visit in peace. We rounded the tour off with a couple of pints at one of his local drinking establishments before heading back to the house to get ready for a party we were attending at their friends house. I'm still trying to work out which gave me the best view of the city - looking down from the top of that hill or walking through it after dark... either way I loved the place and will definitely be back someday.
Precisely a year ago I watched on TV as Juan Pablo Montoya won the Nascar race at Sears Point. I decided there and then that I would attend the following year and, despite numerous revisions to the exact nature of the trip since then, it was fantastic to actually drive through the gates of the circuit. The race itself was going well with Montoya running in second place for much of the race and Marcos Ambrose - making his Sprint Cup debut - also running really welll. I am a huge Montoya fan but I was cheering both drivers on until disaster struck. Montoya was bumped from behind, sending him wide, and then collected by Ambrose as he tried to recover the line, spinning him off the track. He got back on track and eventually fought his way back to a creditable sixth - Ambrose didn't finish at all - but it could, and should, have been so much more and I left the place really disappointed.
It took me 30 minutes to walk back to the car and twice that to get out of the parking lot - and then only because I decided I'd had enough of sitting in line and took off in search of another exit route, cutting between the lines of parked cars and bumping through a ditch. I was off to Sacramento to spend the evening with my cousin who I'd not seen in around 15 years. Not surprisingly we'd both changed a fair bit but we found plenty to reminisce over until it was time for bed.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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