Tag Archives: California

Purple Star Thistle

Friend Bella and I took a hike early in the morning, into the hills nearby. The slopes all around have gone from the winter green stage on through the golden months, and are now dull brown. But they are not unpleasant to look at from a distance, and in addition to the ubiquitous oaks, bay trees make dark green splotches here and there.

At close range one sees the hard and bare dirt, the tufts of grass withered to shreds, and minimalist lichens on the rocks looking healthy and pretty. Those autumnal scenes are bleak, compared to the real deserts I recently visited. We took our tonic from the fresh air, and I took a picture of the new-to-me and alien Purple Star Thistle, whose flowers beautify the neighborhood, while its thorns warn, “Stay away!” Honestly, I am minded to stay away from this particular park until the rains come and once again water the earth to green.

A dome without deciding.

When we departed Mammoth Lakes on our last morning together, my family kept going north toward their home while I soon must cross the mountains westward. I was glad that while I was still on Highway 395 the road passed through forests of Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pine with sagebrush underneath. That is one of my favorite sights, the huge trees somehow adding a depth to the quiet, and standing in relief to the dry and scrubby desert. I also took extra time to drive off of the highway on a dirt road, trying to get closer to the mountain pictured above. I still needed to zoom in to see the beautiful geology streaked with snow.

That snowstorm our first morning had been a blessing in two ways. It cleared the air of the smoke that had masked the mountains when we approached the evening of our arrival back in California; and it added contrast to all the colors, highlighting the lines and textures of the rocks.

The decision about which mountain pass I would use that morning had remained a point of discussion for most of the trip. Google maps wanted me to go via Hwy 50 by Lake Tahoe; I suppose the program chose what would normally be the fastest route. But as a result of wildfire damage in that area the highway had been closed, and while the date of its reopening remained unknown, I leaned toward one of the other passes to the south, either Sonora or Tioga, and I booked a lodging in a little town that would be convenient either way. As the day drew near, Tioga Pass closed because of snow.

But it was opened again, and meanwhile it had become my first choice. The picture just above is from that road, Highway 120, which passes through Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. I had finally decided on this road because of all the memories associated with it, especially Tuolumne Meadows, starting with the day when 50 years ago last month my husband and I became engaged to be married.

This picture is just a closer view of the one above; you can see the aspens turning….

I stopped many times at turnouts, to get a look at Wright’s Buckwheat and a surprising number of other botanical roadside attractions:

But soon enough, around noon, I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows, and thought I would at least investigate the trail that leads up the back of Lembert Dome, which I mentioned just last month in connection to another granite dome. All my memories of this hike were foggy, it had been so long ago that we accomplished it.

I was curious, and entered into the process of continuing on the trail without quite deciding to do it. If there ever was doubt about my being a process- and not a goal-oriented personality, it has vanished, as I observe my rambling and meandering behavior that has created some problems for me, in this era when I have no goal-oriented husband around to keep me in check.

If you like maps (and domes) you might be interested in this one. I parked my car near the bridge over the river, so my trek started lower left at the doubled purple line.

I began to walk around the northwest side. At first the way was fairly flat and easy…

…but it quickly steepened, and ascended through the forest, where patches of snow still lay on the path and I could occasionally see the dome through the trees. It was lonely and lovely. In the first hour I saw only one couple, and listened to the sort of quiet that is full of small bird songs, the wind murmuring through the pines, and chipmunks chirping.

Looking back the way I’d come:

I heard groaning as of a door swinging on its hinges, and looked up to see a slender tree trunk that had fallen into to the branches of a larger tree, and was sliding back and forth the slightest bit when the wind blew.

Tramp tramp tramp, swish swish crunch, tramp tramp splish splish…. My boots were adding the only not-quiet sound, as I pushed on through snow and mud and plain dry dirt. I was glad that I hadn’t come too early, or I might have lost the trail in the snow, but tread marks showed me the way. After nearly an hour I saw this sign:

Really?? Still that far to go…? I realized that I hadn’t looked at the map beforehand to see how many total miles I was in for — because “it was an easy hike a toddler could do,” after all. Well, I was not going to give up at that point! Then it was, I suppose, that I knew I had a goal.

That next  mile was pretty easy, and only took 40 minutes. When you get behind the dome and the trail bends around to the approach, soon you start to see blue between the trees and down to the ground, and you know that you are high.

The last part is very root-y and rocky… and then, the bare granite is in front of you…


Lembert Dome sits on the meadow, which is 8500 feet above sea level. In less than two miles of climbing you gain 900 feet to the top of the rock, so the trail would naturally have to be steep. The grade, the length, the time it took, the difficulty — none of it was as I remembered. Nor had I remembered how old Pippin was — she was three, not two years old — and now that I have been up there again I can hardly believe that she walked the whole way, but that is the story that we’ve all been telling, and it’s true that she was a child who climbed everything from the start.

Looking down to the bottom, from where I’d come:

It’s such a wide space, you want to walk all around, and talk to the other rare people one finds in such a spot. I met three pairs of folks: First, a couple who mentioned several times that they were both afraid of heights!  They stayed in the middle of the expanse, and we took each other’s pictures. If you squint you can see them on the left below, eating gluten-free peanut butter pretzels which they also shared with me.

I met two 20-something boys, one of whom was ultra friendly and reminded me of the Jesus People of my own youth; I kept expecting him to ask if I knew Jesus. I liked him a lot, even though he asked my name as soon as I said “Hi.” I guess it’s okay to be forward with a grandma. And there was a father with his teenage son; we also took each other’s pictures, and told stories about Yosemite.

It was odd not to be talking about the names of the peaks. I don’t remember any of them, though their locations and the hikes linking one to another have been a realm of study and exploration for many people in my family, including my father and my husband.

In the picture above, we are looking around the west side of the dome to see Tuolumne Meadows as a tan strip in the distance, approximately in the middle of the frame. And below, Tioga Road is snaking through the forest. It’s a big expanse, but it is not exactly flat anywhere, so just standing around you have to brace yourself more or less.

I was up there more than an hour, but the time flew. I did not go around the side of the “knob,” as I call it, to the front of the dome, but I did feel confident to walk up on the broad and slanted slope just below. If I had not been alone I would have explored that last little area; when I told my fellow dome acquaintances why I was not going “all the way,” several of them offered to have me go with them. I was warmed by the camaraderie they were feeling, but was not at their level. I was content with my own solo feat.

And I had many miles to drive that afternoon, before I would get to my Airbnb home in the foothills down below, so I did not even sit down for a minute. I had a goal of getting to my resting place before dark, and it would take at least an hour to get back to my car. But I stopped on the way to chase after a tree frog for a snapshot. I think he was cold, and wanted nothing more than to sit in that patch of sunshine.

I also was looking forward to resting my aching body, and hoped there would be a tub in which I could soak, where I was headed. But it was extremely uncomfortable, psychologically, to be so driven in my driving, to keep pushing on toward my goal, with only a fleeting glance as I passed swaths of wildflowers and compelling rock views.

I allowed myself a brief stop at Olmsted Point, which was always a favorite place when we had children with us, and we would walk among the slabs and boulders of granite that we loved to explore. That spot might be more fun than a dome, because you can be freer to run and play. People who like can gaze up at the peaks and name them one by one.

I didn’t make it to my Airbnb before dark, but it was all okay. There was a tub to soak in, and a good bed, and my pictures to start sorting through. My last day’s drive was short and to the point, and I came home surprisingly energized and rejuvenated, having received in eleven days a thousand gifts.

This completes my October road trip story.

The mountains rise up and startle you.

We arrived in California and settled in our lodging (together) in Mammoth Lakes, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The next morning was pretty cold, requiring several layers of clothing as we set off for a hike in the Little Lakes Basin, along Rock Creek and to Marsh Lake. The trailhead was already over 10,000 ft in elevation, which meant that we were enjoying a very high mountain experience with minimal effort.

There was ice in several places along Rock Creek, which just made for more fun for Jamie. Three of us reveled in expansive or micro views in our camera viewfinders, and the youngest ones scampered like goats up and down boulders and cliffs.

Purple Mountain Heath

On the western side of the Sierras, you start from the Central Valley, nearly at sea level, and have to climb through foothills and lower ranges before you get to the high elevations. But on the east side, the valley is already at 4,000 feet elevation, and from there the mountains rise up immediately, and startle you.

Me

Above, you can see three species of cinquefoil that Pippin and I encountered all along the trail. In this spot they were all in close proximity to one another, though one is ihard to see back there n the shade. They are Slender Cinquefoil, Sticky Cinquefoil, and Shrubby Cinquefoil, not necessarily in that order. I actually gave up on keeping them straight.

This weathered Whitebark Pine got my attention; the Professor identified it for me:

We had arrived in town just before a snowstorm, we could see it coming on our phones’ weather app, and anticipated having to stay mostly indoors the next morning at least, because we have no snow gear with us.

And that’s how it turned out. While the snow was falling thickly for a few hours, we ate rice pudding for breakfast, built a fire in the woodstove (fires hadn’t been allowed in the campgrounds) and read or did creative projects. I tried sketching one of the images from the day before, in a tiny notebook I had brought, using Jamie’s and Ivy’s colored pencils. Both Jamie and Ivy got into writing stories, picking out the words on my laptop, their first time at a keyboard.

Then the snow stopped, and after lunch we drove to Hot Creek to ramble and explore. This is a place in the lower part of Mammoth Creek where the water spurts from hot springs under the surface of the creek, and its name is changed. We all found so much to look at, and Scout fished.

Lots of types of lichens grow on the “moonscape” rocks. Two of my favorites were growing together in this group captured by Pippin:

Elegant Sunburst Lichen with a mound of Orange Rock Posy Lichen

And more:

I was pleased to discover many bushes of ephedra or Mormon Tea growing near the creek.

The green bush is ephedra.

We dipped our fingers in the water in several places, and were surprised that tiny fish were swimming in it, it was so like bath water. In many places along the bank just above you could put your hand in a hole or crack and feel the warm and humid air. The smell of sulfur was strong in places, too.

Ivy had an encounter with nettles. She said with great feeling, “I thought it was lemon balm but it was a baby nettle!” Her mother managed to find some purslane leaves which she reluctantly chewed, and put the poultice on her skin. Either the poultice worked, or the taste of it distracted her; in any case, she was not frowning for long.

When we walked back up out of the creek channel, there the mountains stood, like gods.

Considering these mountains, and all the wonders that have surrounded me in the last week, Isabella Bird well expresses my feeling:

“I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.”

As large as alone.

Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain, and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as creeks will. The creeks are all the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.

– Annie Dillard

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park – web photo

A granite dome was the focus of my mother’s most memorable hiking experience. She told me many times the story of how, at the urging of my father, she climbed Moro Rock when she was great with child (me). That is, so far, my only experience of it.

On our yearly camping trips decades later, my own children’s father would hike to the summits of other domes of rock with them, and a few of those times I was along. Lembert Dome was long my favorite, looming over Tuolumne Meadows on the Tioga Pass, in Yosemite National Park. Even at three years old Pippin could get to the top of it, with someone to hold her hand on the gradual ascent up the back slope.

Lembert Dome in Yosemite – web photo

In the latter half of my life, my favorite dome is the one behind our mountain cabin. Several features of it make it accessible to me, the most important one being that I can walk to its base in a few minutes. I read recently that one summer, a small group of us climbed to the summit of this dome in the morning and again in the evening of the same day. My late husband took the picture below of our companions coming up behind him, about eight years ago. You can see why I wouldn’t want to try it alone.

During my recent mountain retreat, I set out one morning before breakfast, thinking that I would just walk over that way to get a view of the lake from the other side of what we have nicknamed Gumdrop Dome. Within ten minutes I had changed course and decided to approach from a different direction and to do a new thing: walk all the way around the base. I came through the trees to the north side, and headed to my right, around the west side of the rock. That side is a steep wall, decorated by veins of different colored minerals, and by lichens.

I refreshed my memory just now about different types of clast, or broken rock. I think what lies there at the bottom of the wall would not be classified talus or scree, but is just plain clast. On this side you can clearly make out where the base of the dome is.

I walked along in the clast, it moved under me, and then — whoopsie! Down I went on my behind. While I sat, I thought I should take advantage of the camera angle:

It wasn’t the only time I fell. A few minutes later I stumbled forward, and scraped my hand on some of that sharp granite. My euphoria was untouched; it was such incredible good fortune, that I should find myself completely alone, yet in rich company: God, and a friendly monster of a rock. Still, I navigated more carefully after that. The boulder to the right of the pine cones in the picture below is an example of the coarsest grit of granite imaginable; and the one below it, also.

I began to search for stones, keepsakes of my solitary walk around “Gumdrop.”

On the back side, the line between dome and not-dome is vague, as that granite face stretches away in an ever flattening  grade, down into the trees. There is still lots of rock there, but giant conifers grow out of cracks in it, and their duff lies thickly on top. Granite domes like this are called bornhardts; there are several theories about how they form.

For a long time I gazed at the wide views from my high perch, a flattish boulder-bench, and felt the cool breeze growing warmer as the sun rose to my left.

“O, Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all.”

From here you can see other domes in the distance, but of course you can’t get a good idea of what the dome you are standing on looks like. The best vantage point I’ve ever had is from the lake, as in this picture that was taken some years ago:

This area below I call the amphitheater. It’s a good place from which to watch the show!

If I had brought a snack, I might have stayed hours longer. It was all delicious and satisfying as a feast for the soul, but pure bliss was not going to prevent me getting shaky (elevation about 8500′) if I kept putting off nourishment such as was waiting for me back at the cabin; so I stood up and continued my explorations.

Frosted Buckwheat

This couplet below does not at all fit with the stones that I collected on the dome, as far as their smoothness, or the number of them. But the poet’s metaphor echoes somehow that of Annie Dillard at the top of this post, and they both understand what I left behind on that mountain dome, and what I brought home.

“may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.”
-E.E. Cummings

Here is my last look at Gumdrop, when I had circled around to my starting place. From this angle it seems that it might not be impossible to climb that particular slope. I wonder…. Well, next time I have a companion, I’ll have to bring him or her to this place and give it a try! But for now, Good-bye Gumdrop! Good-bye mountains! Thank you for inviting me. I had a good time!