Saturday, July 28, 2012

On the road in the Lean Machine

I had long wanted to explore the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains along Highway 395. Mono Lake, Mt Whitney, Manzanar, and lots and lots of dramatic mountain scenery. I figured that since the boys would be 5 and almost 7 in 2012 it would be a perfect summer to do it.

I investigated RV rental options, and found the cost to be about $2,000 for 8-9 days, plus gas, plus the cost of campsites along the way (and in prime locations, sites at RV parks with power and water hookups can climb to $80 or more). It seemed like a lot. So Nathan had the idea to buy a cheap RV on craigslist! So that's what we did. We bought a 25-year-old "Lean Machine," made by Georgie Boy, which has since been bought by another RV manufacturer. I'll just say that it wasn't long before we had the number of the RV repair place memorized.

But we got in several practice trips at Bay Area campgrounds and by July 19 we were ready to roll.

I'd planned our route to have us only drive about three hours a day: Our first night we would be in Angels Camp, along Highway 49 (runs through Gold Country, naturally). Then we would drive over the Sierras to 395 and down to Mammoth Lakes, where we would meet up with my friend Jennifer (from way back in my ANG softball team days) and her husband and son, whom I hadn't met. Two nights in Mammoth and then we would drive a couple hours for two nights in Lone Pine, which is near Mt Whitney. The one night at the southern end of the Sierras at Lake Isabella, two nights in Sequoia National Park and one night in Mariposa before driving home.

The first day was uneventful; we drove about three hours to Angels Camp and had a very pleasant evening there. The boys played in the pool and I cooked spaghetti in the RV. 

Day 2 of our  trip was very memorable. We had a good start from Angels Camp RV Park to Highway 108. We left at 9 and figured we’d be at Mono Lake by lunch time. The road was well maintained and smooth and wide for a good while. It seemed like it would be a good alternative to Highway 120 through Yosemite, which we had driven many times and would probably be pretty busy.

The scenery along 108 became pretty dramatic. We saw a sign for a vista point and decided to pull in. By the time we saw the sign that said “No RVs or Trailers” it was too late. We had a horrible time backing out. I watched while Nathan backed and a tree caught on the ladder and ripped a piece out of it. But I completely forgot about that a minute later when the side of the RV scraped against a road sign and water started gushing out! The sign post had sheared the drain outlet spigot clear off. Nathan pulled to the side of the road enough that we were not blocking the entrance to the vista point so he could help me try to stop the gusher. This was the drain to our fresh water tank, which we had just filled and didn’t want to lose, since we’d be spending the next two nights without hookups. Nathan had just been eating some saltwater taffy and smeared some around the outlet. It worked! Of course it was a temporary solution. But we plugged on, thinking we might try to find a hardware store in Lee Vining and get some spackle or something.

But things were about to get more interesting. Before long we saw a sign that said “Vehicles over 25 feet not advised on Sonora Pass.” Our RV is 34 feet. Next we saw a sign that said we would hit a downhill grade of 26%. My stomach sank. We pressed on a bit further, though. We came to a short but very steep upgrade, where the RV was going about 20 mph with the gas floored. After a couple of those we stopped to discuss. Nathan was thinking of going on, but I had a very bad feeling, especially when we got to a vista with some foreboding looking mountains. 

You don't mess with the Sierras.

There was enough space there to pull over and turn around. It was decided that we would backtrack to the nearest town, called Dardenelles, and ask for advice about the route. Then Nathan noticed the taffy had sprung. He found a rubber spider toy in the RV that one of the boys had gotten as a prize at Chuck E Cheese. He cut a piece off and crammed it in there, and it worked for a bit, but then it went in too far. Then he decided to cut a piece of fabric off a cleaning towel and crammed it in there with a screwdriver, and that’s what stuck.

Trying to plug the leak.

Back in Dardenelle’s, there was an RV park, which we figured would be a good source of information. The friendly man at the office/store listened to my question about our proposed route with our rig and simply said, “No.” I said, “OK, we thought so.” He went on to describe some scary switchbacks. I asked about going through Yosemite, and he said that should be fine. So we set off down the hill.

It was a little bit sad to drive along the Tioga Road on a beautiful day and not have time to stop for a hike, but we may not have been able to find space to park the Beast at any of the trailheads anyway. And I felt bad that we would only drive past Mono Lake, because Arthur had seen a documentary about it and was very eager to go there and see the tufa and alkali flies.

We made it to the pass with little difficulty and then down toward 395. We stopped once when the brakes started smelling to let them rest, and soon Mono Lake came into view. We whooped with joy when we made it to the 395 intersection. We had finally reached the backbone of our trip!

It was about 35 scenic miles down to the town of Mammoth Lakes. We drove through town and past one lake to Mary Lake and into our campsite, finally arriving a bit before 7 to a steak, sweet potato and quinoa salad dinner cooked by our friends. Yay! We slept well in the Beast’s queen bed.

Day 3 started off slow but tasty with breakfast burritos again cooked by our friends. Around 11 we set off on a hike that started directly from our campground. We hiked past a historic mine site and began the uphill climb. 

With a 7-months pregnant woman, a grandma and some inexperienced hikers with little legs, it was slow going. After about 2 hours (over about 1.5 miles) we reached our destination, Heart Lake. The boys enjoyed splashing around with their pants and shoes off. It was in a beautiful basin surrounded by amazing trees and a jagged mountain pass. We walked another five minutes up above the lake to the vista, which some other hikers told us about, and we got a view of much of the Mammoth basin, with Mary Lake and other amazing mountains. I could hardly imagine a more beautiful spot. My “California Hiking” book said the highlight of this hike was the wildflowers, but for me it was the mountain vistas. 

There were some beautiful flowers and a lovely aspen grove about halfway up, plus some butterflies, but the vista was the star of the show! As usual Arthur was a trooper and hardly complained but Noah was slow and complaining on the way up. When he was splashing in the lake he said he was glad to have done the hike.

That night we made English muffin pizzas over the fire and the following morning Nathan and I made pancakes and bacon for the group. After packing up we walked back to the mine to take a good look at the ruins.

Mining machinery.
I don't think it runs.

Then we packed up camp and headed to Devil’s Postpile National Monument. To get there we drove to Mammoth Mountain ski area where throngs of people were getting ready for bike rides down the ski slopes, rides on the gondola and zip line adventures. We bought tickets for the bus ride (no cars allowed) down to the monument and got in line. There were many backpackers on the bus (the John Muir Trail goes right through the monument). We walked the half mile to the Postpile. It was pretty interesting from the bottom, but even more so from the top, where Arthur and I saw the tops of the hexagons, like a tiled floor. 

Back to the bus we escaped before getting too rained-on.  The ride back was packed and Jen felt green by the end, being 7 months pregnant and not normally good on windy roads.

Up at Mammoth we said our goodbyes to Jen, James and Derrick. Shortly after starting the drive down the mountain to town we smelled a strong gas smell. It didn’t dissipate, and back on Main Street a passing pickup flagged us down and said it looked like we were leaking fuel. We pulled over and Nathan confirmed the leak. We grabbed our most important belongings and hustled out. The boys and I went to the bakery we were stopped in front of while Nathan called our roadside assistance company. It was already 5 on a Sunday and we soon realized this wouldn’t get fixed today. I called a few hotels and settled on one across the street with an indoor pool and included hot breakfast. Nathan and I had a restless night, envisioning some massive problem that would force us to abandon the Beast on this side of the Sierra.

The next morning we waited till a bit after 8 to find out a mechanic would arrive at 10:30. We discussed what the boys and I would do while Nathan waited with the Beast. We thought about renting a car to drive to Mono Lake. But by then we had already decided we would abandon the southern portion of our trip in favor of a route home that would take us only on major roads; the stress of the problems already faced on this trip convinced us we didn’t want to be on some narrow mountain road in case of breakdown. So instead of staying in Lone Pine (near Mt Whitney) driving to Lake Isabella and rounding the southern Sierra to get to Sequoia National Park, we would be heading back north past Mono Lake and up through the Lake Tahoe area.

The boys and I got ready to get on the free trolley shuttle that makes stops all along the main street and ride to and maybe around the lakes. Just as we were leaving the hotel room Nathan got a call that the repair man was already at the RV, half an hour early! Nathan took off across the street and we went to the shuttle stop. We had to change shuttles to get to the lakes, and shortly after getting on the second shuttle Nathan sent me a text message: “It’s fixed!” It was a simple loose hose. When Nathan had gotten out to the RV the guy was already under it and had found the problem. It was fixed in less than 5 minutes! Since he gets paid an hour at a time, he asked Nathan if there was anything else he could look at. So the broken straps on the microwave and water tank got fixed and the generator got a minor tune-up.

It had started pouring, so the boys and I simply stayed on the shuttle and rode back into town. At the Horseshoe Lake stop, I saw a handwritten sign that said “Geology walk, 1 p.m., meet here.” I realized this was the tour a woman I had talked to at the pool the night before had mentioned. It sounded fascinating, so we decided to come back later in the afternoon for that.

With the RV fixed, we drove back up to Horseshoe Lake and met the ranger. Carole from Friends of Inyo explained that in 1989 there was an earthquake that opened up a vent that released massive levels of carbon dioxide into the soil. Soon trees started dying.

Trees dead from carbon dioxide in the soil
The levels above ground are not enough to hurt humans unless you lay down in a “tree well,” especially in winter. 

She told us about the five kinds of conifers in the Mammoth Basin and how to identify them (lodgepole pines, for instance, have bundles of two needles, which form an L). 

We also learned about a wind storm that happened last November that took down thousands of trees in the basin. She said it was like a tornado, but pushed straight down, like a burst. 

We finished at McLoud Lake, which was beautiful, of course.

That afternoon the boys played in the pool some more and we had dinner at a pizza place that was a short walk from our hotel with gluten-free pizza!

Day 6 we woke to breakfast at the hotel and then packed up to leave. By this time I had concluded that Mammoth Lakes is one of the greatest places on the planet, between the lakes, mountains, trails, activities, amenities in town and public transportation. I told Nathan we should retire there. He said, "You know it snows here, right?" OK, maybe summers in Mammoth and the rest of the year in Mariposa?

Anyway, we reached Mono Lake around 10:45. Arthur was thrilled to see the tufa, the alkali flies and the brine shrimp the birds eat. We walked toward the shore after trekking the short walk from the parking lot to watch the flies swarm in black clouds close to the beach.

I love the dramatic landscape at Mono Lake.

Arthur finally gets to Mono Lake!

If the Mono Lake Committee can do it, so can Restore Hetch Hetchy!

Then it was the drive to South Lake Tahoe. We took Highway 395 all the way to Highway 50. It was a longer route than some, but the one we had researched and felt comfortable taking with the Beast. The scenery was remote and dramatic, foreign-seeming until we started driving alongside the Walker River, when it was strongly reminiscent of the drive from Mariposa to Yosemite on route 140.

We found our RV park a few hours later. It was comfortable, but about 10 miles south of the lake. I think the biggest lesson we learned about RVing on this trip (besides the importance of researching your route thoroughly) is that you have to have a tow vehicle. Sometimes there are locations where you can get around by bike or transit, or there are hikes and other recreational activities right at your campsites "door step." This was the case at Mammoth Lakes, where the Heart Lake trailhead and historic mine were steps from our site, we could have walked down to Mary Lake to swim or splash on the beach, and they have an amazing system of trolleys that will get you anywhere in town, in the lakes complex, up to the ski area, and down to Devil's Postpile. However, our South Lake Tahoe RV park was miles from everything and public transit didn't reach that far south. We had to book it at the last minute, so the parks with decent locations were taken. And a number of activities we might have chosen were out of reach for us because of the narrow, windy roads and the size of our RV. 

Eating s'mores at the South Lake Tahoe campground.

That said, we had a good time letting the boys play on beaches at Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Barron while we were staying there.

Fallen Leaf Lake

Arthur noticed this cool rainbow effect in the cloud at Fallen Leaf Lake.

Lake Barron, across the road from our RV park.

One of the best things about changing our plans was that we went right past Nathan's cousin, Dave, and his wife, Shawna's house, so we got to hang out with them and their two little boys. It was great to see them, and they even ran an extension cord out to our RV while we docked in front of their house. 

I loved our trip, and I think everyone in our family did, too. Nathan is working on repairing the nasty hole in the roof caused by the tree at the infamous vista point, so we'll be taking tents to Yosemite next weekend for Muir's March

Nathan is removing some of the rotted-out inner roof and is trying to decide how much of the roof to remove and how much to patch.

Who knows how many more trips are left in the old Georgie Boy. But we know we'll never forget our Sierra adventure with the Lean Machine!

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