Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wind, beards, a silver anniversary and the news

At mooring, waiting for the wind...
Summer has flown by and recently I’ve noticed the bright green hues of spring have faded as the undergrowth leaves begin to turn colors.  After last year’s drought and terrible harvest in these parts, the corn stands tall, soybeans are all bushy and apple trees appear loaded with fruit.  It appears creation is blessing us with a bounty.

Since arriving back from my trip out West last month, I have spent most available afternoons sailing.   Some days, the wind has been nearly non-existent and I recline in my boat, using life jackets as cushions as I let my troubles drift along with the boat.  Other days, the sailing has been fast and my troubles disappear as I focus on the wind, the water ahead, and the shape of the sails.   The wind on smaller lakes change more often than on larger bodies of water, so when the winds are strong, concentration is a must.  However, the thrill of the boat heaving as it slices through the water is exhilarating and makes the effort worthwhile.  I have yet to capsize to the boat (but this past Sunday had it heaving on a reach to where the port side of the cockpit was just inches from the water line).  Since my boat is a classic, built in the mid-60s and before they began to install self-bailing contraptions on this type of boat, the thought of capsizing and me-bailing isn’t appealing.

Me and my beard at the tiller on a light wind day
This month I’m celebrating a silver anniversary for my beard!  That’s right; it has now been 25 years since a razor has scrapped my cheeks and chins.  As I had a few beards before this one, when I grew the hairs out on a backpacking trip in the Idaho mountains in the summer of ’88, I had no idea I would have kept it this long, but I don’t have any plans on shaving it anytime soon, maybe never.  Of course, as I’ve aged, I have found I need to keep the beard trimmed for when it gets too long the gray spots become too prominent.  With the celebrations of my bread, I’ve been hearing a lot about other beards lately.  On the radio the other day (I think NPR), I learned that Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame dyed his beard early on in order to create his image.   Another NPR report discussed beards and politics in Iran!  Then there’s BrianWilson, a pitcher for the LA Dodgers and his beard.  And then there is a viral youtube post about a magic beard that I watched thanks to Sherry, one of my blogging buddies.  With all this media and blogging talk about beards, you’d think there is nothing important going on in the world such as us sticking our nose into the mess in Syria.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bless Ewe

For the past week, I’ve mostly neglected blogs as I’ve spent my time sailing.  The weather has turned cooler but there have been some days with great wind and others when I sat relaxed and waited for the air to begin to move.  Either way, it’s been great and as the sailing season is short up here, I’m going to make the most of it.  However, I did want to get this review down before I forget some of the details.  Enjoy!

Jeff Kunkel, Blessed Ewe: More Stories for All Seasons (Shorewood, WI: Face to Face Books, 2000), 181

These ten short stories are all set in the Midwest and along the Great Lakes at various times over the past century and a half.  The common thread running through the yarns is change and transitions that forces those within the story to accept a new reality.  In the opening story, “Stone Fences,” a daughter of Lutheran farmer decides to marry a Catholic.  The father must decide whether or not he will support his daughter’s decision.  In “Buck Haven,” a group of men who have hunted together for decades and have worried when there are no sons willing to join them are surprised by the willingness of a daughter-in-law.  There is the tale of a young woman going to work in the steel mills during the Second World War, as her family frets over their Russian homeland as Hitler’s tanks advance.   My favorite story, “Come About!” is an account of a terrible storm on Lake Michigan at the end of the shipping season 1880.  Kunkel tells the story of one ship’s struggle to survive a blow that sunk dozens of ships.  The title story, “Bless Ewe” is heart-wrenching and humorous story of a young pastor celebrating his first Christmas at a new church is surprised (as with the congregation and the farmer whose sheep he borrowed) when a four-legged member of the Nativity cast gives birth during the Christmas Eve service.  

The author is able to draw us into the story using very ordinary events and with an attention to details that make the stories seem even more real.  Kunkel’s writing is crisp, filled with subtle humor, and a pleasure to read.  I must admit that I was surprised as I picked up this book with apprehension.  The title seemed cheesy, but from the first story, I was drawn into the book and enjoyed devouring the tales within the collection. 

I met the author at a recent conference I attended at Lake Tahoe and, as a disclaimer, was given a copy of this book. However, I was not asked to review the book.   Kunkel, a United Methodist minister, has one additional book of short stories, several children’s books and an adventure/historical book set in Alaska.  For those of you who may be baseball fans, this Jeff Kunkel is not a backup catcher for the Detroit Tigers.   

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Drive North (part 2): Mono Lake

Looking at the Sierras
 This is a second part of my "drive north."  I spent the last two weeks of July in Nevada, Eastern California and Utah (In addition to my "drive north," I have already posted about mountain biking and watching the moon set in the early morning along Lake Tahoe),   I love this country!  Because of the beauty of the scenery, I've made most of these photos larger, so if you click on them you can enjoy them in a larger format.

On Friday morning, July 19, I had a decision to make.  Not being expected in Virginia City until late in the day, I had time to explore.  I could backtrack a little on US 6 and then take Nevada 360 back through US 95 (following the old railroad bed of the Carson and Colorado), or I could continue on California 120 to Mono Lake.  Although I had never driven the 23 miles of Nevada 360, I’d driven 95 up through Mina, Hawthorne and Yerington many times. I’d also been by Mono Lake many times, but only once had I spent time walking along its shore and that was back in 1988.  I decided to head to the lake. 
The roller coaster road bed on CA 120

Although I had also driven California 120 many times, heading from Utah to Yosemite, I had forgotten how much part of the highway is like a roller coaster.  From Benton Hot Springs, the road climbs the sage covered hills and once on top, it seems as if they forgot to grade the road and just laid asphalt on the rolling hills, with short pitches of roadbed followed by quick short drops that leave your gut hanging a 100 feet overhead.   You also worry about what’s on the other side of the pitch because you can’t see down into the trough until you're headed down.  Although there is little traffic on this road, this is open range and it’s always possible to find a cow loitering around at the bottom, something that wouldn’t do either of us any good.  However, I enjoy the drive and after about 30 miles, the Sierras began to loom in the distance and Jeffrey Pines begin to replace sagebrush and the occasional pinion pine. 

Young Jeffrey Pines at site of old mill
I stop at a new interpretative site for Mono Mills, a sawmill that stripped the largest forest of Jeffrey Pines in the world.  I have always liked this variety of pine and think of them as kin as we share the same name.  Today, the Jeffreys growing here, whose bark has the distinct smell of vanilla, are all second growth.  During the heyday in Bodie (a mining town north of Mono Lake), there was a short-line railroad that ran to this mill, but the train (which never connected to another railroad) was abandoned in 1917, as the mines died out and the forests were depleted.  You can still see a few railroad ties at the site of the mill.  According to the interpretative signs, when the railroad was abandoned, it was sold for scrap and brought in more money than the investors had originally paid to build the line.  I expect World War 1 and the high price of scrap metal had something to do with the bonus its investors received.  

Looking toward Yosemite from Mono Lake

A little further down 120, I take a right on a gravel road that leads out to the shores of Mono Lake.   It still feels as if I’m far from civilization, but as I am walking up to the ranger station to pay my three bucks for a day-use permit, I’m shocked with the ringing of my cell phone.  I didn’t even realize I was again connected to the larger world as I’d pretty much been disconnected since leaving Tonopah yesterday (yes, there are still places beyond the reach of a cell phone).  I take the call, but then turn the ringer off.  

Brine flies that line the lakeshore
Mono Lake is a unique place.  Nestled in a basin, the water runs off the backside of the Sierras and down from the Bodie Hills and from the volcanic craters to the south and ends up in an evaporating in the lake where the water leaves behind its mineral content.  As a result, the lake is extremely salty, as are similar bodies of water:  The Great Salt Lake in Utah, Pyramid Lake in Northwestern Nevada and the Dead Sea in the Middle East.  Although there are no fish in these waters, the waters are full of brine shrimp and flies, the later which do not bite but cover the shoreline and at times look like moving carpet as they make a way for you to walk through them.  The flies and shrimp attract birds and the lake is home for many species of birds as well as a stop-over point for many others during migration.   Also unique about the lake are tufas that line the shoreline, limestone statues created over the centuries as spring water laden with calcium percolate into the waters of Mono Lake.  The calcium in the spring water bonds with the carbon in the lake water to create calcium carbonate.  As the lake level falls (it has a history of rising and falling), it exposes these unique statues, giving the shoreline of Mono Lake an appearance that seems as if should be from another planet. 

For much of the past century, the lake has been falling rapidly as tributaries that bring water from the surrounding mountains have been diverted to Southern California to wet the thirst of those in the Los Angeles basin.  However, in the mid-90s, a lawsuit was settled that forced the water authorities to allow more water to drain into the lake, allowing the lake to rise to its 1963 level.  This level is still way below the 1930s level, but is significantly above the level it was in the early 1990s.  The ranger informed me that the lake has risen at least 10 feet since I’d walked along it’s shoreline in 1988.  When the lake reaches the 1963 level, the water authorities can again tap into the streams coming into Mono Lake, but must allow enough water to flow into the lake to keep it at a constant level.
Birds feasting on shrimp and flies
The next hour or so I spend walking along the lakeshore, watching the birds feast on the brine shrimp and flies and observing the clouds’ reflections on the water.   It’s warm, but not too hot and there is a breeze that’s keeping the temperatures down.  I spot a group of kayakers paddling on the lake.  There are signs warning people that the lake is subject to violent storms that can quickly rise, such as the one Mark Twain endured with his friend Higbie when they camped along the lake in the early 1860s.  Taking a rowboat to one of the islands, they came back in a violent storm.  Twain also noted how clean their clothes were in that camp, for the water was nearly pure lye and their washings didn’t require much scrubbing.

In the early afternoon, I leave the lake.  I wished I had more time to explore but I was getting hungry.  I continued on west on California 120, toward the Sierras that were now looming over me.  Reaching US 395, I turned north and drove to the small community of Lee Vining.  I have to resist the temptation to take a left and head up Tioga Pass and into Yosemite.  Not seeing anyplace that I want to eat in the overly touristy town of Lee Vining, I continue on to Bridgeport (again, resisting the temptation to turn, this time to the right and climb up into the heights and visit, once more, the town of Bodie—a ghost town turned state park).

In Bridgeport, which I’d always considered a cow town, I stop at the Burger Barn, where I enjoy an Elk Burger.  While there, I talked with a northbound thru-hiker along the Pacific Crest Trail.  She gives me her trail name, but for some reason I don’t record it in my journal so I won’t be able to look and see if she makes it by the end of the hiking season.   She’s waiting at the Burger Barn for a promised ride back up to Sonora Pass (this is quite a drive and she's lucky to have someone going that direction).   Leaving Bridgeport, which I found to be busier than it was the last time I’d been through here in the late 1980s, I drive on up 395, through the Walker River Valley, amazed at the number of new businesses that have popped up since my last time in this part of the country.  Also amazing is the growth south of Carson City.  The towns of Gardnerville and Minden no longer seem separate from the state capital.  In Carson City, I take a right on US 50.  One last surprise was at Mound House, just east of Carson City and my turn on Nevada 341 for the drive up the mountain to Virginia City.  Above the highway was a trestle for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad which now extends all the way from Virginia City to the Carson River. 
Kayakers on the lake
I arrived in Virginia City around four, in time for dinner and some music and to make plans for my Saturday’s adventure.  Stay tuned.  The next installment will tell about my trip in the cab of a 1914 steam train.  

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Drive North (Part 1: Tonopah and Benton Hot Springs)

I am back home, after spending two weeks in the Great Basin region of the United States.  It was a two part trip as I spent a week at a conference at Lake Tahoe and the other week involved exploring old haunts and playing with a grandchild in Southern Utah.  This is the first of at least three posts about the roads I traveled. 
Sage and his cotton candy at Simons

I got into Vegas twelve hours later than planned, which meant that I had to reschedule a breakfast meeting with a friend.  Luckily, he was able to meet me for lunch, but his wife had to work.  Upon renting a car, I headed to the Palm’s Casino where we ate at Simon’s, a delightfully weird upscale diner in which you could get omelets, hamburgers, sushi, Japanese bento box lunches, all topped off with cotton candy for dessert!  

After catching up over dinner, he took off for an afternoon appointment and I pointed my car north!  I wanted to blow Vegas as quick as possible!  Driving up US 95, I was amazed by the mid-day traffic and by how far out Vegas had expanded since I had last driven this road a decade ago.  I drove on, through the dry Amargosa River Valley.    It was 107 degrees, which ain’t bad for mid-July, but in the mid-day sun everything was hot and flat and boring. I wondered if the West no longer held it’s magic over me.  I stopped for a bathroom break and for a drink in Beatty, Nevada, a town I’d stayed in a few times exploring Death Valley.  As I continued to drive north, I passed the legal brothel just north of Beatty and abandoned brothels at Lila Junction.  I drove on through Goldfield, stopping again at Tonopah, a town that has always been on my retirement short-list.

Mizpah Hote, Tonopah
 Thankfully, my mood changed when I got out of the car in Tonopah, a place where silver was discovered early in the 20th Century and a town that gave Nevada a new beginning.  The late afternoon breezes had picked up and the air not nearly as hot due to the elevation.  I smelled sage and again felt the lure of the West.  As the sun moved behind Mount Butler, the shadows increased and the landscape once again became magical.  I walked around the town a bit, looking inside the Mizpah Hotel.  I’ve often wanted to stay there, as it’s a classic place, but every time I’ve been through this country in the past, it was always closed.  Once, driving to the Sierras, I left Utah at 3 AM and came into Tonopah in time to have a late breakfast their dining room named for one of Tonopah’s most famous guests, the boxer Jack Dempsey.  On this trip, I would have stayed the night, enjoying the richly furnished bar, had I not had reservations on up the road.

While in Tonopah, I also stopped at Whitney's Bookshelf, a new addition to the town.  Talking to Larry, the proprietor, who’d retired from Southern California, I learned that he opened up his book store four years earlier.  He seems to like to talk to those who visit, but admits that if it wasn’t for selling books on the internet, he couldn’t survive.   He had a deal on all paperbacks and I picked up a book on sail trim and another on racing techniques--not exactly books I'd expect to find in a desert. Before leaving Tonopah, I filled up my tank with the most expensive gas of the trip.  Some things never change, but then Tonopah isn’t exactly on the beaten path.  For another of my posts on Tonopah, click here.

Abandoned store and gas station
Not wanting to set up camp in the dark (yes, my reservation was for a camping spot, but one at a hot spring), I headed out of Tonopah around 6 PM.  At the junction of US 6 and US 95, I took a left and drove over Montgomery Pass into California.  The highway snaked through the pass under Boundary Peak, which is the highest point in Nevada even though the peak, which is higher, is in California.  The road followed the long-defunct Carson and Colorado Railroad, whose cuts could be seen running back and forth along the side of the mountain.  This narrow gauge line ran from Mound House, Nevada, along the Carson River, to Keeler, California.  It never reached the Colorado River.  D. O. Mills, one of the principal investors and President of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad once said that they’d built the line either 300 miles too long or 300 years too early.   The Virginia and Truckee had a hard time maintaining the line so in 1900, it sold the line to the Southern Pacific.   Shortly afterwards, silver was discovered in Tonopah and suddenly the line became a lifeline to the mines.  A branch line from Sodaville ran to Tonopah eventually this section of track between Mound House and Tonopah was converted to standard gauge.  The line over the pass and into California continued on as a narrow gauge although trains stopped running over the pass in the 1930s.  A request to abandon the tracks around the time of Pearl Harbor was denied.  It was felt the United States might need a north/south line east of the Sierras if Japan invaded the West Coast.  When it became clear there would be no invasion, much of the track was removed, but the line kept running in the Owen’s Valley until 1960.  Another portion of the line, between Churchill, Nevada and the Navy Storage in Hawthorne, Nevada, continues to be used today.  Much of the narrow gauge equipment used on the line can be found in the railroad museum in Laws, California.   

my "private" soaking tub
My destination for the evening was Benton Hot Springs which are located a few miles off US 6 on California 120.  At the town of Benton, I stopped and picked up a sandwich and beer for dinner and drove on to the springs in time to get my bivy tent up before dark.  I had questioned bringing it, knowing I’d be camping in the desert, but there was enough standing water around to keep a hardy group of mosquitoes airborne.  But as the sun set and the color faded from Boundary Peak, this wasn’t a problem as the wind was blowing.
my bivy tent
After eating my dinner and preparing for bed, I spent an hour in my private tub, enjoying the warm water as the stars began to pop out.  A waxing moon was also high, blocking many of the southern stars. As darkness covered the land, the wind died and mosquitoes took to flight and found myself staying mostly submerged, just my head staying out of the water, as a way to minimize my exposure. I crawled in bed at 9:30 PM and fell asleep to the sound of running water and buzzing pests.  At 1:30 PM, I woke to the sound of what I thought was rain, but the wind had again picked up and was blowing through the cottonwoods whose leaves quake with a rain-like sound.  The skies, however, remained clear and the moon was setting in the West.  I didn’t wake again until early in the morning, in time to watch the last of the stars be extinguished.  After making a few notes in my journal and reading a few Psalms, I got up and hiked around Benton Hot Springs.

cemetary above the village
source of the hot water
old mining camp
High above the springs is the cemetery with graves that go back into the mid-19th Century.  To the east of where I’d camped was the actual hot springs in which water was piped to each of the tubs within the campsite.  Along Highway 120 were a group of old buildings, one dating the community back to 1852, when miners would come to the springs to soak their aching bones.  Miners also discovered some profitable ore in the area and across the highway from the springs was an old mining camp.

Bed and Breakfast at Benton Hot Springs

After my walk, I came back to came and ate a couple of granola bars and some dried fruit for breakfast and then sat in the tub, enjoying the warm water, as I finished reading a book for the conference I was going to be attending at Tahoe.  When I finished the book, I packed up and got back on the road.  (to be continued)

A good ending photo