Grand Canyon to Fresno

It’s early Wednesday morning in Fresno. I’m sitting outdoors at a Starbucks Coffee table, watching people drive by, talking on their cell phones, texting, listening to the silly morning shows and the ever scarier news. They’re grabbing their bucket-sized coffee mugs without even getting off their cars – efficiency, I guess… I’m sitting alone, sipping my coffee and munching on an overpriced piece of preprocessed carbs (leaning the lingo from the hyper-wife). The place is busy, most young people getting in and out in a hurry, some retirees lingering indoors for hours – talking, reading newspapers or just sitting quietly, enjoying the drink.

It’s only 8.00 AM and the temperature is already in the upper 80’s. I move inside, looking for the air-conditioned breeze. Soft jazz tunes flowing from the hidden speakers are topping up the cacophony of noises: steaming coffee machines, people’s chatter, baristas calling orders, doors opening and closing, chairs scratching the floor… Slowly, I work my way up to the comfy armchair in the corner. It takes persistence and time, but just like the retirees, I have plenty of it. The car is left at a local repair shop and I rode the bike to this chain, characterless coffee shop to write this little update.

The brakes needed tune-up to bust my confidence level. Couple of days ago, we came down from the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Sierra Nevada. Fortunately we entered the magical, giant forest from the south, which means we had to climb the steep, curvy roads in a 7,000 feet ascend. Getting down to Fresno, the road was of a much lesser incline with only a few winding bends. Next stops are going to be Yosemite and Lake Tahoe before visiting Sacramento. Good brakes will be essential, while traversing the Sierra back and forth.

The barista yells another order: Grande Iced Skinny Caramel Orange Mango Machiato! What, the heck is that? All I understand in “grande”, which in the Starbucks units of measurement is a medium size. Still, that’s 16 oz of liquid… Anyway, it reminds me that I’ve written the last trek update in Grand Canyon and in the meantime, we’ve moved a few states to the “left”.

In the Grand Canyon we had an opportunity to see elks, mule deers and plenty of other wild- (and yet surprisingly domesticated) life passing through our campsite. That of course to top the wonderful views down the world’s most famous hole in the ground. We even found the strength and courage to hike down the canyon. Not to it’s very bottom, just to the Cedar Ridge, but we joined the club of only 5% of visitors, who dare to set foot below the rim densely spotted with shops, lodges and restaurants.

The weather was very cooperative with chill nights and pleasant, sunny days. Considering that just a week before, there’s been snow on the ground, I think we got very lucky. Unfortunately, our luck left us upon leaving the park. Headed to the Zion National Park, we decided to stay for the night near Page, Arizona at the Colorado river dam at the southern end  of the Glenn Canyon. The place in known for it’s uncommon views that attracted lots of science fiction movie makers looking for the Moon or Mars-like views. It also draws a lot of photographers, who seek the perfect light down at the Antelope, one of the few slot canyons around here. When we set up the tent, the wind started blowing, black clouds rolling in from the west. The weather forecast for the next day called for rain, a lot of rain… As one of the fellow campers put it, we were lucky to experience such weather in this otherwise very hot and dry place. Well, I guess everything depends on your point of view…

We decided to fold our camp before it gets wet and headed west. Passing the campground gate I turned the windshield wipers on. The timing couldn’t be better… For the next few hours we drove in heavy downpour. Our moods were gloomy, but the car got washed off of the dirt it accumulated on the different deserts.

Approaching Zion, the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, when we entered the park, it cleared off almost completely, giving us truly unspoiled views of the most unusual and colorful rock formations we have ever seen. Dominated by reds and deep browns, the park is a mecca for all sorts of outdoors enthusiasts. Even though there is a winding road going through the park, large of it’s portions are only accessible by foot. The free shuttle delivers thousands of amateur photographs, hikers, climbers, bikers and boaters to the heart of the valley, from where they have to carry their gear to all the breathtaking places you see on the postcards. None of them complain. Not even the campers, who are offered only the basic of amenities: picnic tables, toilets and cold water. There are no showers, no laundry, no coffee, no Internet, nada… Fortunately, in the adjacent village of Springdale there is plenty of entrepreneurial folks, who know how to take advantage of this situation and offer those services at such astronomically high prices that are only matched by the cosmic views of the valley.

Refusing to pay $5 for shower or an hour of decent Internet access, I decided to develop a few days worth of a body odor, and visited the local library to maintain connection with the rest of the World through their flimsy wi-fi. My wife and kids decided against my better judgment and allowed the local shower-moguls grow prosperously, while our travel fund (read retirement savings) was melting quickly. In the result, even the snakes we’ve met on the less traveled trails were giving us right of way… Despite of the shortcomings of the campground infrastructure, we did fell for the enchanting beauty of the canyon and decided to visit more of them. The plan was to do a little loop, following highway 12, one of the most scenic in the US to Bryce Canyon, then to Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, except… we felt it was bit too early to visit most of those higher altitude places, where temperatures at night were falling to the upper 30’s. At the time we thought it was cold, so we decided to work on our trek’s itinerary and allow for a second touch down in Utah on our way back east. This time in the midst of summer.

In the meantime, it was time to wash off the dirt, refresh and warm-up our frozen limbs (and other body parts). What better place to do that then… Vegas! We remembered the city from our previous visit. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. We remembered the city from the pictures we have taken (or were taken of us) during our previous visit. We were much younger then, childless and worry free. We enjoyed the ambiance of the city much more. At that time we were spending the afternoons at the hotel pool, partied at night and slept during the days. Just like any other tourists there.

But the times and our view on pleasures changed (I think that’s a better way then saying that we got older). Walking down the Strip at noon we sweat in the scorching heat, even more trying to answer some of our kids questions. At lunch time it is much easier to find a buzz happy hour then a decent food stand. Seeking refuge from the heat and looking for kids friendly attractions, all we could find were huge shopping malls with their “famous” aquariums…

At least the hotels are inexpensive and plentiful. I managed to wash off the canyons dirt, but after a few days in Vegas I acquired a much more difficult to get rid off distaste for the city. For some people cheap drinks, expensive shopping, glamor and gambling might be the dream vacations. For us, it’s like visiting a different planet. In fact, the streets are filled with extra-terrestrial creatures and living zombies that crawl up at night. Unlike the last time, we’ve spent the three days in Las Vegas visiting local library, cooling off at the pool (whole day, not only afternoons) and sleeping at night.

Twelve years ago, I planned to visit Death Valley. Unfortunately, at that time we were traveling in a rusted, well beaten up Oldsmobile, which among other things lacked one essential feature – working air conditioning. Getting ready for the passage, sitting at a parking lot, waiting for the steering wheel to cool off enough to be able to touch it, I made the mistake of letting Agnieszka read the chapter dedicated to Death Valley in our guide book. Fortunately, it was a cheap book and not very thick. Therefore it didn’t hurt that much when she smacked me on the head with it…

This time, I made sure the air conditioning works well, we have enough gas, ice and water before we set off. Since the temperatures in the spring are still rather moderate, we even decided to risk an overnight stay at the bottom of the valley, 200 feet below the sea level. With very strong winds, it was like sleeping in a tumbling dryer. I had to get up few times at night and affix the tent poles, which were about ready to take off. Still, it was much more appealing experience than the city we just left behind…

On the other side of Death Valley is a mountain range, called Sierra Nevada. It raises steep from the desert – dramatic shift in the landscape – preventing easy access to Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite parks from the east. We’ve decided to circle it from the south and approach the Giant Sequoia National Forest from Lake Isabella. Granted, it wasn’t the easiest of drives – a twisted, narrow road climbing up the hills, causing some of the passengers to develop motion sickness. But the views were breathtaking!

Looking for a place to overnight, we found ourselves going up on a lone road, which 15 miles of narrow curves later ended up in… dead end. Tired, hungry and a bit annoyed, we decided to get back to Lake Isabella, were we pitched our tent on the river’s edge. We weren’t alone. It was Friday night, opening to the Cinquo de Mayo weekend… Fortunately, the mountain steam with it’s constant humming was louder then the drunken neighbor’s midnight attempts at “We Are the Champions”. Despite of lack of basic amenities at the primitive campground, in the morning I had to admit that the setting was actually quite nice. Moreover, since we didn’t pay for it, I simply had to include it on my list of best places we stayed at…

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks span over many square miles of mountains and offer quite a few accommodations. Spoiled by temperatures at foothills, we chose a family friendly, showers equipped campground at Lodgepole, almost 7,000 feet above the sea level. Going uphill, I watched the temperature drop about 3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of elevation increase. The upper 70’s quickly became 50’s during the day and barely 30 at night (my wife is convinced it was even less than that). We stayed for couple of nights, did a few hikes, never met a bear. Nadia was relieved, Alex disappointed…

The car is ready, all brake pads replaced, rotors machined, studs fixed, nuts replaced, even some other small repairs I didn’t know were needed were performed. Tomorrow we leave sunny and warm Fresno, leaving it’s economy supported by a substantial donation from our travel budget. We are ready for the next adventures, vehicle safe and sound, bracing ourselves for cold nights and scenic roads. Warm cloths aboard, I must not forget the brown paper bags…