Breakfast was served at the motel in Gilroy only from five to eight, so an early start was necessary unless we wanted to hang around the motel after eating, which we didn’t. Dorothea talked to Liz again and learned that the restaurant in Merced was offering us a choice of eleven or 12:30 for our brunch date, so we opted for eleven. We were on our way by 8:45.
Although we hadn’t smelled any garlic in the Garlic Capital of the World, we did catch a little whiff as we drove westward through the fields outside the town. Our route ran up through Pacheco Pass over the Coastal Range and then down to the broad and totally flat Central Valley at Los Banos. The valley was filled with huge farms, most growing crops of hay, corn, and other vegetables. Water had been diverted from rivers and streams to fill irrigation canals across the flat landscape. Homes appeared to be far apart.
The road across the valley was straight as a ribbon and without the slightest trace of a hill: a highway designed for cruise controls. Nor was there much traffic on a Sunday morning — at least for California, where most of the population is reputed to be on the road at any given time.
Trying to mesh our planned route with Liz’s instructions for reaching the restaurant, we took a lateral detour south of Merced along an agricultural byway named Sandy Mush Road. This trip turned out to be unnecessary, as the road we were on led more directly to our destination, but it was made highly entertaining by the scrawny little ground squirrels who kept breaking out of the grass on either side and hightailing it across the road in front of us. Often there were three or four running parallel courses 100 or 200 feet apart. It was a little like that old computer game with the frogs. I managed to avoid hitting any squirrels, but so many kept popping out of the grass that it was first amazing and then hilarious.
We had a nice reunion at the restaurant, which was named the Mansion House. Dorothea had seen Liz as recently as the previous fall, when she came through Boston while I was in West Virginia, but I hadn’t seen her in a good many years. We talked about California, our trip, Liz’s new grandson, and the rest of our families. Dorothea and I ate crepes, fruit, and other brunchy things, and all of us ordered dessert (strawberries and whipped cream) less because we craved dessert than to hold onto our table a bit longer and not have to end our conversation.
It was close to one when we said goodbye to Liz and went on our way toward Yosemite. The road soon climbed out of the Central Valley and wound up into the mountains. Our motel, Cedar Lodge, was a few miles west of the park, and we reached it at about 3:30. After unpacking, we drove for 15 minutes or so to reach the west entrance and went into the park, where we collected some information and maps at the visitor center and generally worked on trying to figure the place out geographically. At 5:15 we started back to the motel, but took a detour to see Bridal Veil Falls, which we found in full spate with a rainbow forming in the spray at the bottom. We wandered around taking pictures and didn’t leave until after six. At that point we decided to save further exploration for the next day; both of us were a little tired after the long day we’d had.
We ate at the motel restaurant, whose menu was unexceptional. Dorothea settled for a hamburger while I indulged myself in a New York steak, which, though it didn’t look like much, proved both tender and tasty. The steak came with a good baked potato, the perfect accompaniment — never mind that I had ordered fries.
One thing we had learned at the park visitor center was that Tioga Pass was open. Our plan had been to drive farther north to take a route over Carson Pass, because we’d read that, even in June, Tioga (the highest pass over the Sierras) was often closed by snow, and that even when it was open, snow chains were often required on any vehicle allowed to try that route. But we now learned that the pass was open and clear, and no chains were needed. We decided to take that route over the mountains if the weather was still good on Tuesday.
Monday was our day to really see the park, and we made a pretty good job of it. We started with the breakfast buffet at the Cedar Lodge dining room, which cost only $6.60 apiece for Senior Citizens — a price we got without asking, since we were unaware that the discount existed. We chose not to take offense at the waitress’s presumption in putting us into this category without carding us first.
We liked the food and ate a good deal of it. Afterwards, bearing in mind tales Liz had been telling us of the copiousness of Basque dinners — one of which we were planning to eat the next night in Nevada — we swore to eat only small meals between this substantial breakfast and our scheduled rendezvous with the Basques.
We drove in to Yosemite Village in the center of the valley, where we left the car and took the shuttle. Our first stop was the Ahwahnee Lodge, which Liz had told us we shouldn’t miss seeing even if we didn’t eat there. We wandered about inside the lodge, admiring its luxurious 1920s-style interior. The dining room was as beautiful as she had said. There wasn’t enough light in there for a picture, but I did get a couple in the drawing room or sitting lobby or whatever it is, where the decor was similarly impressive.
The next shuttle let us off at the bottom of the quarter-mile path that leads up to the foot of Yosemite Falls, a three-part marvel. It was a cool and fragrant walk among incense cedars, Pondersa pines, and a few hardwood trees. Dorothea snapped a picture of a deer among the trees, and I snapped one of Dorothea snapping the deer.
The falls were spectacular — it was the height of the waterfall season, as snow was still melting in the mountains — and the light was good for picture-taking. These are the highest falls in North America, cascading in their three stages from half a mile above the floor of the valley.
After that we rode the shuttle to Sentinel Bridge, another good spot from which to see and photograph Yosemite Falls. We walked through lovely green meadows there, where we saw wildflowers in bloom everywhere, as well as an acorn woodpecker and many Steller’s jays. Crossing a little foot-and-bicycle bridge over the Merced River, we walked down a bit and crossed back over the Sentinel Bridge, from the middle of which there is a good view of Half Dome.
Lunch time had come, so we got off the shuttle next at Curry Village campground, where we found a pizzeria open for business. Neither of us wanted pizza, but Dorothea got a chef’s salad and I had a bowl of chili. We finished off with some miniature Oreos I found in a nearby vending machine. While eating on the shady deck, we were continually distracted by a beautiful bird that we later identified, from a nature exhibit in the park, as a black-headed grosbeak.
From Curry, we rode to a place called the Happy Isles, where we wandered about on the short trail there taking pictures of the surrounding greenery and rockery as well as the rapids in the Merced where it tumbles down around two small islands. I set up my tripod to try taking a picture of both of us, but discovered that I hadn’t brought the camera’s remote control, so we had to do it with the self-timer.
It was now past midafternoon, and we decided to go back to our car and drive up to Tunnel View, where Liz had told us we would get a spectacular view of Yellowstone Valley. She wasn’t wrong. Not that it was any secret, this viewpoint — we found 40 or 50 people jostling for the best picture-taking positions, though the jostling was very courteous. We both found time to take the several dozen shots that we wanted, especially during a magical ten-minute interval between tour buses.
We could see Bridal Veil Falls, which was again creating a rainbow, and one woman told us that this only happens during a 20-minute period each day. But we had seen a rainbow on the previous day, when we were at the falls at least 45 minutes later than it was now. So perhaps there is a “magic window,” but either it applies only to the viewpoint where we were standing, or the woman was wrong about how long it lasts.
We agreed that saving this vision for our last view of Yosemite Valley had been a good idea: not only did we benefit from the late-afternoon light, but the view capped and summarized our wonderful experience of Yosemite.
To prepare for the next day’s journey over Tioga Pass, where we were told that no facilities were yet available, we stopped in El Portal to fill the gas tank, and paid $2.96 a gallon ($2.959 to be technical), the highest price of the trip apart from our one fill-up in Canada, which cost a good bit more after the requisite metric and currency conversions were done. This price reflected not only the high California taxes, but the remoteness of the site and the lack of competition. Besides gasoline, we bought some good cheese, crackers, and cookies for the lunch we wouldn’t be able to buy on our way across the mountains.
We ate an early supper at the motel’s “Fifties Diner,” which was actually a misnamed annex of the bar. The leatherette booths looked genuine, and every table had one of those old jukebox inputs where you move little metal tabs on the bottom to turn pages and see the available selections. These were totally nonfunctional, however, and all music was coming from a huge standing jukebox in the bar, whose patrons mostly seemed to favor headbanger rock played at X-treem volume. The heading on the menu said “Houtz Sports Bar Menu,” which pretty much told the story. (Houtz is the family name of the motel owners.) I had some OK fish and chips, and Dorothea had a veggieburger, which she liked. (As she pointed out, all veggieburgers taste pretty much the same; it’s a good thing that she happens to like them.)
Back in our room, we dumped our California coast and Yosemite pictures to CD set #7, charged our cell phones and camera batteries, and generally got ourselves ready for the next leg of the journey.
Over the Hills to Nevada
We took breakfast pretty easy: fruit and a muffin for each of us, plus hot oatmeal for me. We were off by 9:15, and in spite of a lengthy delay caused by road repairs inside the park, we got onto the Tioga road while it was still early. There was almost no traffic, and we made good time through spruce and fir forests, where we saw a lot of big Douglas firs.
We stopped only once, at Olmstead Point, to take pictures, and when we got to the famous Tuolumne Meadows we found them still recovering from winter, with pallid grass and much water on the ground. Since it was only 11:30, we decided not to stop there to eat our lunch as planned.
We noticed that the Tuolumne gas station was open for business in spite of what we’d been told — so was the one at Crane Flat, which we had passed earlier. Neither did us any good because the tank was still full of the $2.96-a-gallon gas we had bought in El Portal. In Grand Canyon National Park, we had seen gas on sale at a shockingly low price, but our tank had been full then, too. It looked as though the parks were good places to fill up — maybe because they don’t have to charge state taxes — but so far we had been unable to profit from this information. (A few days later, however, when we finally had a chance to fill up at Yellowstone, we found that they charged just as much as the stations outside if not a little more. I don’t know whether this was done to accommodate the local businessmen or whether the state tax in Wyoming is so low that there was no practical difference.)
On the way up to the Tioga Pass, we saw several smooth gray “domes” with the layers of rock peeling off like onion skins. There was plenty of snow still around, but temperatures were in the forties and fifties; the lowest reading we saw on the car thermometer was 42°. Even so, the sun was strong enough in that thin air that, in spite of wearing short sleeves, I never felt the need of a jacket when outside the car.
The pass crested at 9,945 feet above sea level, and after that the road down the escarpment on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada was steep. It was easy to see how these mountains had been created by a fault: the slope is steep on the east, where the fault lies, and gradual on the west, where the land is tilted back toward the Central Valley.
After coming down out of the mountains to US-395 at Lee Vining, CA, we sat on a rock overlooking Lake Mono, which precipitates tufa (calcium carbonate) because of the interaction of fresh water from springs at the bottom with the lake’s alkaline water. The shore was rimmed with white, and we saw a few stumpy stalagmites near it, exposed by the receding water level. The strangest thing, however, was the low clouds that seemed to hang over the lake, with rain falling from them but apparently evaporating before it reached the surface. The same thing was happening elsewhere in the vicinity, but the clouds above the lake were much lower than the rest, as if the alkaline water exerted some kind of attraction on them.
US-395 ran north through agreeable mountain scenery and soon carried us into Nevada, where we immediately noticed lower prices posted at the gas stations: $2.29 and even $2.19, the like of which we hadn’t seen in the past few weeks.
This section last updated 12-13-2004