Still running a day behind on these updates but here goes 2010-09-06… Escaped the Ramada Inn of Modesto by the skin of my teeth. It made the previously mentioned Best (Worst) Western look positively beaming by comparison. Remember the scene with the mattress from Four Rooms? It was so bad, I was compelled to check mine too. For the full story see if you can identify my review on Yelp or Google reviews. :-)

The drive east out of Modesto on 120 is pretty much a series of leaps through suburbia into the glaring morning sun as the low quality of the time lapse dash camera below will attest. Finally, however the scenery becomes more agricultural. After seeing so much water wasted on vanity lawns in a part of California that is only slightly more naturally verdant than a desert, it was nice to see the precious resource being put to some productive application. It is only when 120 reaches Yosemite National Park that the scenery really picks up, though.

At this point in the park it winds through some lovely mixed terrain of prairies, forests and granite domes of various sizes. This last feature reminded me a lot of the monadnocks of Georgia, such as Stone Mountain, Panola Mountain and Arabia Mountain. This area appears to be immensely popular with climbers and boulders as evidenced by enthusiasts lining the road in places apparently trying to squeeze one more climb into the Labor Day weekend.

120 emerges on the other side of Yosemite at Mono Lake which was the first official site on today’s drive. I’ve been fascinated with the literature and documentaries on this ecosystem. At three quarters of a million years old, it is probably the oldest surviving lake in North America. It is also a classic case for conservation, as it was nearly devastated by poorly planned and greedy water diversions to fill the unrestrained life system of Los Angeles during most of the 20th century. The result was alkali dust storms from areas that were once underwater. Although efforts have halted the destruction of Mono Lake, you can still walk hundreds of yards from the original shoreline to the current one. Strangely beautiful tufa towers can be found along the depleted shores, looking quite odd surrounded by grasses and shrubs. Another feature near the ranger station is a huge block of obsidian, about the size of a large office desk. A reminder of the volcanic history and current activity of the area.

Still Photos

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Leaving Mono Lake I headed south along 395 through Inyo National Forest. I headed south until I reached the town of Lone Pine where I fueled up, checked the car again and top off my personal water supply, because next destination was 136/190, Death Valley.

Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?
Lawrence: It’s clean.

Let’s set the record straight, while it is the lowest, hottest and driest place in North America, the name “Death Valley” is a bit dramatic, but I have no doubt that poor preparation and lack of respect for this demanding environment would easily result in fatalities. The terrain is remarkably varied; eroded gulleys and hills, plains of broken rocks, dusty flats, scrub brush, and even a few classic dunes. At no point did I see the iconic cattle skull by a poisonous pond. The landscape is a compelling one and I made frequent stops for pictures or just to soak up the sun. It’s that delicious sort of heat which seems to draw out excess and purify you (yes, I know that is sweat) not plaster you with humidity and stickiness. I stopped at Furnace Creek which holds the record for second hottest place on earth (edged out by 2 degrees by Al ‘Aziziyah, Libya) at 134F. During my brief visit, I was subjected to a relatively mild 110F and 5% humidity.

Emerging none the worse for the wear, I crossed over into Nevada and ending up in the town of Pahrump for no particularly reason other than it was there. I did briefly consider detouring north to “see” Area 51, but by all accounts all the best access roads have been sealed and security is far less tolerant than it used to be. Where are the Lone Gunmen when you need them? Oh right…

Tomorrow I have to decide if (and how much) of Las Vegas I want to drive through on my way to Hoover Damn, Grand Canyon, etc. While I appreciate Vegas as a vehicle for books and movies, I’m not into the the whole gambling chic thing but it might we worth a driving tour just for the supposedly legendary tackiness. :-)

Time Lapse Dashboard Camera Video