I just returned from an adventure. I tried to hike to the highest point in the continental US - Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern California, and then follow it up with a drive to the lowest point on land in the Western Hemisphere: Death Valley.
I saw this journey as sort of dividing point in my life. Act I was the youthful time of growing up, learning about life, going to school, figuring out who I was. Act II was career, marriage, children, mortgages and IRAs. Now I am retiring and going back to that time of discovery, learning about life again, but from a more experienced perspective. Act III is the final act and this trip was, in a way, the first scene.
I flew from Newark to NJ to Los Angeles CA with a stop in Chicago. I rented a car in LA and drove north out of the city. As I drove the towns got sparser and the landscape was oh so dry. I stopped in a wind-blown, dry tiny town to get a snack and stretch and shot this:
At Lone Pine, CA, elevation 4000 feet, I turned west and started climbing in the rental car to the Whitney Portal Campground at 8000 feet. I arrived late in the afternoon at our designated campsite, nestled in a Sequoia grove beneath towering cliffs on three sides. Here are my camp-mates and hiking companions. The photo was taken by Karen Cookson, Jeff's wife:
Although I've been hiking for years, this was my first camping experience. I hope that camping will be a regular part of Act III, so the experience of camping was an important part of this adventure for me. We went to sleep as soon as the sun set because we set our alarms for 2:45 am to get an early start on the next day's 22 mile round trip one-day hike!
We set out at 3:30 am in the dark, following the trail with the help of our headlamps. The stars overhead were magnificently abundant. After a couple of hours of hiking the eastern sky over Lone Pine down below started lighting up and the sunrise was breath-taking. Sunrises are not a forte of the iPhone camera I had, so here's a shot to the west of the first rays of sun striking some of the cliffs we were yet to climb, as we passed by a campsite along the trail:
We climbed steadily upward all morning. Occasionally the trail would level out at a beautiful alpine meadow, sometimes with a lake or stream. Jeff stopped to add some water to his pack at one and took this picture of me:
After this we hiked separately for the rest of the day, each of us at our own speeds. Jeff, the youngest, went up ahead. Nolan and his uncle Glynn trailed and I was between. At about 10 am I reached Trail Camp, (point 4 on the East Side Trail Map below). I was tired and feeling a little altitude sickness at 12000 feet. What I didn't know then was that I had only drank 1 of the 3 liters of water in my bladder pack - a bad mistake. This is the view ahead at that point:
If you zoom in on the picture above, you will see six hikers 2/3 of the way up traversing the many switchbacks on this steep slope. It was a pretty daunting sight to me. I started up and my legs quickly became shaky as my head became less clear. Somewhere between 12500 and 13000 feet I sat down on the trail and realized I couldn't go on. A strong young hiker coming down told me that there was 2-3 hours of hiking to go and that the last 500 feet would be very difficult. It was a sad and hard decision to make, but I turned around at this point afraid that if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to make it all the back (I know: excuses, excuses, excuses). I was pretty despondent for awhile after coming 3000 miles to open Act III of my life. But ultimately the beauty of the whole experience lifted me back up.
On the six hour trek back down, I learned how to refill my pack's water bladder from a mountain stream, adding Iodine, I met some really nice people along the trail, did a lot of introspection and saw so much beauty. At one bend in the trail I saw what I thought was a man sitting in a tree, watching me. As I finally reached him he turned into a gnarled uprooted tree trunk:
I finally made it back to camp in the late afternoon after a 17 mile round-trip, almost 5000 feet of elevation change, and 12 straight hours of hiking. I didn't accomplish all I came for, but it was a personal best. Here is a map of the full hike (the East Side route). It shows the starting point at our campsite (1) and my limit about half way between points 4 and 5).
Nolan grilled steaks for us over an open fire that evening. Not something I usually crave, but I devoured mine that night. Then I slept 11 hours in my cozy tent. Getting up during the night to pee meant putting on my shoes and headlamp and finding a tree. How incredible it was to look up at the blanket of stars while I took care of business, hoping there were no bears watching.
Here's the scene I woke to the next morning, looking at my feet in my red LL Bean sleeping bag as the sun rose on the left:
We said goodbye to Karen and Jeff Cookson and their dog Blue. I am so grateful to them both for making the camping and the trek so great for us all. Nolan, Glynn and I drove back down from the Whitney Portal to Lone Pine for breakfast. We stopped for photo ops on the way down and Nolan took this shot of me with Lone Pine in the Owens River Valley down below:
Now for the second part of my trip. Instead of driving the four hours straight back to LA, I took a five hour detour to drive through Death Valley:
The romance of driving on arrow-straight two-lane blacktops through vast deserts has always had a strong allure for me. The signs said to turn off your A/C to avoid overheating. It was amazing to descend from 4000 feet on a cool morning, sticking my hand out the window every few miles to feel the air change into a furnace blast.
In the midst of the valley was a gas station and residence behind it. I went in to buy a gallon of water because I could feel the fluids being sucked out of me. The young girl behind the counter was a recent immigrant from Russia. She told me that she traveled to many places before deciding to settle down in this desolate place because she loved it here so much. Good thing I didn't have to fill up the gas tank here:
I drove for many hours from the north end of the valley to south and the landscape was constantly amazing.
But to me the most beautiful place in the valley was Zabriskie Point. There was a famous movie with the same name filmed there in 1970. Cast included a young Harrison Ford. I took dozens of pictures, but none of them can capture what I saw. Here's a panorama I shot with my iPhone. Keep in mind that what you're seeing spans several dozen miles:
So after getting out of my rental car a dozen times to take in all the desert wonders, from here I drove straight back to LA for the flight home.
I didn't succeed in everything I had hoped for, but it was still a good opening scene to Act III.