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The world's big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark

September 30, 2017

Next to the Pacific Ocean is a line of high sand dunes. They are mostly covered in pig-face, as a means to stop erosion of the dunes. These sandy hills must be a picture in the spring and summer, as their fluorescent blooms cover the surface.

The sand dunes are tall enough to protect the hundreds of hectares of agricultural land that lay on the lee side from the ravages of the salt water and air. These farms have probably been there since John Steinbeck wrote his classic novels, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. I wonder how much has changed since Steinbeck's day?

I can only hope that the working conditions of the large number of migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, are better today than in Steinbeck's time. I surreptitiously sneak a peek at the hundreds of people bending over rows of strawberries and lettuces, carefully packing them in crates. This is the area that feeds much of America to this day.

The GPS directs me off the highway and through a small agricultural town called Castroville, which boasts its 'Big Artichoke'. Not nearly as impressive as Nambour's 'Big Pineapple', I drive on. I don't want to engage in a 'Crocodile Dundee'-style interchange on what is considered 'big'. Not today!

After refueling in Mariposa, which lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, we start the climb through the tall sequoia forests that will bring us into the mighty Yosemite National Park. Mariposa was founded as a gold mining camp and for a while it was lucrative. John C Fremont, the explorer and friend of Kit Carson, had a Spanish land grant that entitled him ownership of most of the Mariposa mining district. However, due to the influx of gold seekers, and little enforcement from the few law-keepers in the region, he was unable to secure his property. It is possible that others profited from the gold mined from Fremont's land. In 1856, Fremont became the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of the President of the United States of America. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly, and was so-named for the monarchs, which migrate to California each Winter. The migration, which may span more than 2,000 kilometres is unique in that the butterflies have never been to their destination before. In fact, many generations have hatched since the butterflies departed last year. 


The road from Mariposa takes me through a place call Midpines. It's not really noteworthy, except that the population sign on the edge of town shows that the population is precisely 421. I have giggle to myself as I ponder the comings and goings of the town. Surely it would be better to put an approximate number, like 420.

I enter the park. I intend to purchase an annual National Park Pass to use whilst I'm touring. Since I intend to visit many parks, it may be a cheaper option for me. I stop at the National Park sign to take a photo before continuing to the booth to pay for the pass.

I'm told that it is a cashless day today, which means that the entrance fee is waived for the day. Lucky!

Just ahead, the road forks and my side, the right lane, passes through a huge boulder. Called Arch Rock, it is one of the five entrances into the Yosemite National Park. It's weird driving through the arch formed by, presumably, two huge granite rocks that have fallen and wedged themselves together.

I follow a stream of cars; people who are taking advantage of the free admission day and the good weather.

I drive along El Portal Road to the Yosemite Valley. Just over the past few days, huge boulders have fallen off El Capitan, killing hikers. Overawed by the huge granite cliffs on either side of the road, I stop the car and get out for a closer look. Sentinel Falls are next to Sentinel Rock, it stands 2,145 metres tall. Nearby the Three Brothers and El Capitan make up the main formations. There are many others in the park. El Capitan is the largest granite monolith in the world. It, along with other granite cliffs, was formed by glacial erosion. Today, however, I don't have my hiking boots with me, so a quick look-see from a distance is all I can manage.

I continue to the Yosemite Valley, where I find the Visitor's Centre. It is also time for lunch.  I see a parking spot, indicate, wait for the driver to move, and start to make my turn, when some creep jumps in from the other side. He must be from Melbourne! As often happens in these situations, I drive along to the next row and into an empty space. 

I've been in the car for hours and take time to take a short walk. The air is clean; the fresh and antiseptic odour of the pine needles is welcoming as my clothes absorb the warmish sun. It's not too hot, nor is it cold, but I do feel, at this elevation, a slight chill as the mid afternoon sun makes its way down towards the horizon. My runners crunch on a footpath of built-up dried pine needles. Craning my neck, I cannot see the tops of the huge sequoia trees through which I'm walking. These trees were ancient when John Muir fought the US Congress for a National Park bill, which was passed in 1890. His vision and conservation ideas were well ahead of his time, and are solely the reason why today we are able to visit National Parks like Yosemite and appreciate the natural world that have been forever preserved. I'm only able to see such a small part of this iconic National Park, and I'm sorry that I won't have time to really immerse myself in this natural surrounding. It's all very well, at the planning stage, to put aside X number of hours for a visit, but when I arrive and see the beauty of the place unfolding, I wish there was more time. However, I do have a plan.... 

I return to the car, reset the GPS, and make a turn. The car comes to a complete stop. There is nowhere to go.  Today's free admission has been extremely successful in getting people into the park and now, as the day is nearing it's end, everyone has the same idea as me. I only hope that they are going somewhere else once they get out of the Visitor Centre car park.  The line of traffic snakes snaking along the road, and whilst I'm last in the queue, I seem that many cars from are merging successfully in front of me. I just need to be patient...

I just need to be patient...

I just need to be... Oh... Three deer appear from the forest and walk single-file along the side of the road.  Slowly, purposefully. I can sit and watch them whilst I wait for the traffic to clear. I'm suddenly very much aware that time means nothing when these experiences present themselves. I'm happy to watch the deer walking nonchalantly along the road, marvelling at their majesty and grace. This is why I'm here.

I eventually reach the intersection and turn onto Tioga Pass Road. It's not my first time here, but perhaps it doesn't matter how many times one travels on this road, it will always be a new experience. I climb up to about 2743 metres (9,000 feet) before levelling out along the top of the pass before driving in a downward direction down the other side of the mountain range. The bright blue sky contrasts with the granite colour of the hills above the treeline. It is awesome. But when your senses are sharp, everything appears more spectacular then the last scene. And the view of the Tioga Pass Mountain Lake doesn't disappoint.  I drive through Tioga Pass, eyes carefully watching the road, whilst trying to take in the view. 

As the light dims I drive out of the Yosemite National Park and travel along Highway 395 to the town of Mammoth Lakes. The mountains on this late September day are dusted with fresh snow.

monterey to mammoth.jpg

El Capitan

Friendly deer

Traffic jam

Granite and trees

Tioga Lake

Fresh snow


ACCOMMODATION: Sierra Lodge, 3540 Main St, Mammoth Lakes CA 93546

TOUR: Road Trip from San Francisco to Denver

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