Laguna Seca Trip: Day 11 – Monterey to Henderson

Tuesday, July 19

Now we enter the phase of the trip where things are a bit more free-form. So far, everything has been pretty well planned – the route is known (even if not perfectly followed), activities defined, lodging reservations made. Now, though, things are more like ideas than plans. The idea is to visit Yosemite, but it’s not well enough defined to call it a plan: drive through the park, stop at the visitors center, chat with a ranger to determine a hike for tomorrow, perhaps take in a short hike, then off to the Inyo National Forest to search for camping.

With that in mind, I want to do a little trip preparation. The internet in the motel room is nearly worthless and isn’t connecting so I figure I can go to a Starbuck’s, grab a bagel and some internet. I use the Google Navigator app on my phone: find Starbucks. It thinks about it for a few seconds and presents me with a choice: which Starbucks would I like to visit? There’s one in St. George, UT, and a couple near home in Arvada. I know I passed one within a few blocks of the motel and might guess there’d be about thirty in a five mile radius of my position. Why does Google want to send me to St. George?

No matter, I find the Starbucks. It’s in a Safeway. I grab the laptop and head inside. Get the laptop booted up and search for wi-fi. None of them seem to be Starbucks, but Safeway has an open network. Get connected to that only to find it doesn’t have internet. So no further planning for me at this point. I’ll rely on the phone app for navigation.

This goes well enough. The drive from Monterey to the approaches of Yosemite is pleasant; scenic but not particularly noteworthy. Well, except one bit: Google has me make a turn onto Road 9. This is a farm road, paved sometime in the last century and barely maintained. I’m taken through the farms of the central valley – some sort of nut orchards, corn eleven feet tall, olive orchards, various other crops. Next is a right turn on Sandy Mush Road. It’s in only slightly better shape. Why is Google sending me on these odd roads?

I arrive at Yosemite around 11. If our national parks were named for their most prominent feature, RMNP would still be RMNP. Bryce would be Hoodoo. Yosemite would be Granite Slabs. As soon as you see the first giant slab of granite that forms a cliff wall you see the entrance station.

At the gate I ask for the visitors center and am directed to Yosemite Valley, the most crowded part of the park. Here, people have parked cars at every available turn out or wide spot. I find a place to pull over and consult the park map. I see that I passed the turn off for the tunnel view, so I decide to check that out before hitting the visitor center.

I get lucky here. I imagined the parking lot to be bigger. It’s not very big, and it’s crowded. The three cars in front of me are waiting for spots and blocking ingress and egress. But they didn’t notice that a car behind them wants out, so I snag a spot before those folks. I take the opportunity to snack here; I’m starting to get hungry what with having skipped breakfast.


Part of the Yosemite crowd

The view here is pretty magnificent. The car normally draws a lot of attention. But here I’m mobbed by comments and questions. Nearly as many people take pictures of the car as they do of the view. I’m used to the car getting such attention. Even when there’s another Elise people like the green and yellow. But I’ve never seen anything like this. I have my snack, snap a few pictures, and am back on my way back downhill into the valley.

Yosemite Valley tunnel view

There’s a trailhead! I should stop here and take a short hike. I pull into the lot. Sort of: I can’t actually get into the lot because not only are all the spots full but there’s a long line of cars hoping to get a spot. I make about a 9 point turn to get out and note that cars are parked along the road below the parking lot, too. Clearly, I’m too optimistic. I’m going to have trouble parking anywhere in this place.

I decided to skip the visitors center and head to Tioga Pass. There are pullouts up and down all the roads in the park. I find one here with a view of the valley and park the car. I did a quick u-turn and park so that I can try to get a picture with the car in the foreground and climb a few feet up the hillside across from where I’m parked. I missed the opportunity for a quick shot. Other cars and people are arriving and they all seem to want to get a shot of the valley while standing by my car. I wait patiently and eventually get the shot.

IMG_2268sNow a tour bus pulls up. Because I’m parked where I am, he can’t get in. The ass end of his bus is blocking traffic. The driver sees me; I point to my car and to me, run across the road and hop into the car to move it down far enough for him to get parked. No key in my pocket. Where the heck is it? It’s not in the ignition, not in the seat. How the hell could I lose my car key? I need to move it downhill, so I just take it out of gear and let it roll. The bus gets parked and the driver gives me a thumbs up. I’m in a bit of panic, though. I finally find the key in the wrong pocket (I never put keys in that pocket). I make a pantomime of “cant’ find my keys” for the bus driver, then show that I found them. He laughs.

I continue up Tioga Pass, stopping at most of the pullouts. Early on, we get a view to the east and see damage from a recent forest fire. The road continues to climb and turns back to the west. Overlook after overlook is crowded. All the trailheads have full parking lots plus lines of cars on both sides of the road in both directions. Doesn’t look like I’ll be hiking today.

But, frankly, for the last few hours I’ve been considering just heading directly to Vegas. The congestion here is just an additional factor. Perhaps the deciding factor, but just one factor. I continue to take my time through the park, seeing what sights I can (and answering questions about the car at every stop). When I was looking at the map earlier, I saw there’s another visitor center at Tuolomne Meadows, so when I get there I make a quick stop. This is not the visitors center I’m looking for; it doesn’t have much to offer. And it offers me no reason not to head to Vegas. I decide to table my decision until I reach Lee Vining for a late lunch/early dinner.

Over my meal I call Chris to make sure it won’t be a problem arriving at his door two days early. This done, I call home and let Genae know the change in plans. I let Google Navigator select the quickest route to Vegas and hit the road. Now, up until now the idea was that I’d drive a somewhat longer route and see what Death Valley looks like. Yes, I’m probably insane for wanting to go through Death Valley in July in a convertible with English air conditioning (probably works great in London, cooling from 80 to 75, but it’s certainly not good for desert southwest climes). With the updated itinerary I’ll be skipping Death Valley.

The first bit of the next part of the trip is CA 120. What a fabulous road. I’ve seen a road built like this before, near Joshua Tree. The road was built using no cut-and-fill. It looks like they drove a road grader to clear the weeds, then just poured asphalt right on the ground. I didn’t see a single culvert and the only shaping of the roadbed they did was to bank the road enough to prevent any cases of negative camber. The road lies directly on the terrain, unlike most roads. If the ground falls two feet, so does the road.

This is actually quite fun. You can’t go terribly fast, but you don’t need to. It has more curves per mile than you’d expect, and it rolls up and down so much you generally can’t see more than a few hundred yards. One section descends through a gully not much wider than the road. It’s a series of S-curves a few miles long. Tightening, loosening, getting steeper then not so steep. Next comes a sign: “Dips Next 5 Miles”. This section is a straight line but the road goes through depression after depression. Again, you can’t see very far, so it’s strictly no passing. But the road goes up and down like mad. The dips come in combinations: one, then three quick ones, then a big one, then a double. Sometimes the dips are so steep you feel like you’re going straight down. None are more than perhaps thirty or forty or fifty feet deep, but they’re big enough to give you that “light stomach roller coaster” feeling, followed by some serious compression at the bottom. I was having so much fun, I laughed out loud several times. What a great Lotus road.

After this fun section, I was directed through a couple of navigation points. By now I notice that the map doesn’t show my route in a blue line. In fact, the map is empty save for the pointer that indicates my location. But it’s still telling me where to turn. Okay, I must be out of cell range. I’m sure it loaded the required info when I started and I’ll be okay. Remember, I lack an atlas.

I also use the phone as a speedometer. I notice that as I speed up or slow down, the reading doesn’t change, and the compass heading is stuck. I arrive at a T-intersection but Navigator is silent. The phone has locked up. I cycle the power and relaunch Navigator. The phone actually says “No Sim” before it says “No Service”. In any event, Navigator will be no help here.

Last gas, of course, was Lee Vining. I’d seen one sign indicating how far I’d have to drive to get gas. The signs here told me that town was to the right. I need to go southeast, and it’s south to the right, north to the left. I go south. It isn’t long before I see this is the wrong way to go. The road makes a right turn and heads directly into the sun. Yes – directly: we’re climbing a steep pass, the road still poured directly onto the terrain. I know I can get gas in about 25 miles this way, I have no idea how far I need to go the other way. The safest course is to proceed to the known gas station.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

This is all a big adventure. The road I’m on is not quite as fun as CA 120, but it’s still a gas. It climbs steeply, twisting and turning all the time. Like the other road, the surface is good. Near the top of the pass the little canyon we’re going through is so narrow as to support only a single lane. “Yield to Oncoming Traffic.” Like the other road, it’s not heavily traveled: occasional cars but not a single truck. I’m having fun, it’s all good. Another fun Lotus road.

In the next town I gas up, get connected with Navigator, and answer more questions about the car. Navigator wants me to retrace my steps, but I see that the route through Death Valley is only 20 minutes longer from here. I’m not a big fan of repeating routes when I have so many to choose from, and as it’s only 20 minutes, what the heck? Perhaps I’m fated to go through Death Valley.

A few miles down the road, Navigator gives me a new message: Shorter route available. Do you want to take it? It can’t be the one I’ve already been on, can it? I’ve been going 20 minutes already, and turning around here would be longer, wouldn’t it? I accept the change. Of course, it wants me to make a u-turn. I cancel and reselect the Death Valley route.

Passing through the next town I can’t help but notice a bunch of runners. They’re scattered along the road side in pairs or pairs of pairs. I think the guys at the edge of town are stragglers, but after making a turn to the east I see they’re running along here, too. They’re coming my way, running on the foot-wide shoulder. There’s not much traffic, so I can almost always give them the full lane. Along the other side of the road, spaced irregularly, are vehicles deployed to assist the runners, always in pairs. I’m guessing one of the pair is the competitor, the other is providing support or assistance.

By the time I’ve gone sixty or seventy miles I’m really curious. The sun went below the mountains to the west some time ago; dusk is turning to dark. How long will I need to keep an eye out for runners in my lane? There’s a pullout ahead, so I pull off and ask the crew there. “How far are we running?” “One hundred and thirty five miles.”  This isn’t just a 135 mile run, it’s the Badwater Ultramarathon. It’s a 135 mile run out of Death Valley to the Mt. Whitney portal, which means it includes over 8,500 feet of climbing. The things people do.

The road here starts a serious descent: tight turns and steep grades. Drop offs on one side. And still there are runners. I pretty much have to crawl down the mountain to be sure I don’t run into somebody around a blind corner. By the time it’s fully dark I haven’t seen a runner in fifteen minutes, but there’s one final straggler.

The road is now clear of runners, but with the dusk and dark other critters are appearing. A coyote is ambling down the road toward me, following the center stripe. Rabbits occasionally make a dash across the road, or sit and watch me go by. It would not be fun to clobber one of these guys. Are there really as many rabbits as I’m seeing, or is my imagination getting the best of me? Now, instead of a 9:30 arrival in Vegas it’s more like 11:30. I have a couple more hours of night driving.

Shortly after Stovepipe Wells, Navigator directs me to take a left on Scotty’s Castle Road, followed by a right on Daylight Pass Road. I’m not happy that it’s taking me onto named roads. I much prefer numbered routes. After a few miles of Daylight Pass Road I enter Nevada and Navigator tells me I’m back on a numbered route, a Nevada state highway. All is well again! Except that it’s not. Now Google says to make a right turn on Airport Road. This is a dirt road. Does Google want to kill me, have me dispose of my own body in the desert? Why is it taking me this way? Should I rebel? In the dark, with no map, I follow directions. It turns out that the road is dirt only two miles, which doesn’t take long, even at 15 mph. Shortly after regaining pavement I arrive at an intersection with US 95 which will take me right to downtown Vegas.

I have survived the various tests Google as presented me: I found a Starbucks in Monterey, I overcame resetting the phone in the middle of nowhere with no service, I was not left for dead in Death Valley. And one final minor annoyance: Navigator left me at the end of Chris’s street rather than in front of his house.