Saturday, November 21, 2015

More adventures in roadtripping

Beat had a business trip in Boulder this week, and since next week is Thanksgiving, we decided I'd drive out to Colorado and then head directly to Utah from there. Between work deadlines and the weekend I figured I could take three days to make the 1,300-mile journey. It's still a lot of driving, but there'd be plenty of time in there for adventuring in 72 hours. 

 On Wednesday I pulled off I-80 at Donner Summit to take another crack at Castle Peak. This is a most ideal en-route adventure, with a trailhead only a quarter mile off the interstate. The current conditions made for difficult snowshoeing — about six inches of slushy muck to the ridgeline, and then a truly energy-sapping, breakable wind crust that covered anywhere from six inches to two feet of wind-blown sugar, over rock.

 At one point I broke through the crust and wedged one snowshoe between two boulders. My foot was stuck a full leg length below an awkwardly kneeling knee, and I couldn't reach the binding. There were several nerve-wracking seconds there while I wriggled and tugged, then finally broke free.

It took an age to slog to the peak, but the reward was uninterrupted views of the northern Sierra. It sure warms my heart to see snow up here — last year this region had almost no snow in mid-January.

 Then it was on to U.S. 50 — the Loneliest Highway. The sun set not long after I passed through Fallon, which meant I had to drive across Nevada in the dark. This was disappointing — I adore the views on this route. But with only 10 or so hours of daylight to work with, something has to give.

 I stopped for the night in Great Basin National Park — my first-ever visit to this park on the Nevada-Utah border. After setting up my tent, I tried inflating my NeoAir only to discover the pad was leaking air. I spent the next hour searching for the hole so I could patch it, trying everything I could imagine. With air temperatures dipping into the low-20s, I knelt on the shoreline of Lehman Creek and dunked the entire pad in the water, searching for air bubbles. Nothing surfaced; the pad ended up coated in ice before I could dry it, and my hands went entirely numb. After giving up on the repair, I spent the next hour lying in my sleeping bag atop frozen soil and ice patches, shivering and shifting my weight in hopes that a different position would keep the ground from leeching heat from my body. I told myself this was good prep for sleeping in the cold in Alaska, as well as an important lesson about relying on inflatable pads in cold weather, but after an hour the misery won. I retreated to my car, and slept reasonably well.

 Bright but not so early the next morning, I set out from the campground to follow Lehman Creek to the bristlecone pine grove. Bristlecone pines are intriguing — both for their long lives (bristlecones in Great Basin rank among the oldest living trees in the world) and ability to thrive in the harshest environments (they grow between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, thrive in alkaline soils that exclude all other plants, but tend to fail in lower elevations.) In short, bristlecones declined to compete with anything else and moved to some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. My kind of tree!

I'll have to admit that I didn't make it high enough to view the bristlecone pines. I forget just how much harder I have to work breaking trail on snowshoes, and how slow that can be. I started hiking at 30-minute-miles and it only became slower from there. After six miles and 3,000 feet of climbing, I'd lost any semblance of trail and found myself stumbling around on snow-covered boulder fields. There was just no easy way to navigate this terrain with or without snowshoes, and daylight was fast fading.

Sigh. Still, it was a gorgeous day. At 10,000 feet the temperatures were still below freezing, and there was a fierce wind driving the chills down to something that felt quite low. My first taste of winter this year. It's always invigorating.

I retreated feeling disappointed about the bristlecones, but I'll be back. It will be intriguing to visit these trees and compare them to another fascinating old tree — the 1,200-year-old, 300-foot-tall redwood in Portola State Park.

A 12-mile snowshoe that takes six hours sucks up a lot of daylight, and there wasn't a whole lot left to enjoy the views on my most favorite lonely highway — U.S. 6 through western Utah.

Whoa indeed. I wish I could stay longer.

Alas, eastward progress beckons. Welcome home!

One reason I enjoy traveling through these wide-open spaces is renewed perspectives about how much possibility there is out there. A glance in any direction includes intriguing ridges, craggy peaks, vast basins, and unlimited potential for adventure. I could spend the rest of my life exploring only what lies between California and Colorado along the corridor of I-80, U.S. 50, U.S. 6, and I-70 — and I'd still only see a small fraction of even that sliver of the world.

Long drives this time of year also bring out another aspect that I love about late-fall and winter: There may be less daylight to work with, but often what you get is really good.

I spent the night in Green River, Utah, and the following morning decided to go for a run in Rabbit Valley, western Colorado. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning — 35 degrees, frosty still, and clear.

I descended into McDonald Creek Canyon because I remembered hearing about Fremont rock art in this canyon, but hadn't done any research and failed to find it on my own. Still, I had fun exploring this area, running when I could but mostly scrambling around rock ledges, inadvertently wandering up side canyons, plodding in the wet, sandy wash, and slashing through tamarisk. I was determined to see the Colorado River before calling it a day.

There it is! I ran along the tracks for three quarters of a mile in hopes I'd locate a jeep trail to follow out, but huge sandstone walls made it clear there wouldn't be any cross-traffic for a while.

Emerging from the canyon, the sky looked foreboding. Cold sprinkles hit the sand, followed by snow flurries. "Oh, this isn't good," I thought. "I probably should have checked the weather earlier." It's fine weather for running, but driving? Either way, I had committed to I-70 and there was no going back.

I made it as far as Vail before the flurries turned to snow and traffic stopped. I mean stopped. I sat in one spot near mile marker 180 for more than an hour. During this time I sent many texts to Beat, who was waiting in Boulder: "This is my fault. I knew I should have taken I-80 through SLC and Wyoming. I should have gotten an earlier start this morning." That route isn't nearly as scenic, without any of the outings I'd enjoyed, but after one hour of sitting in stopped traffic I was ready to denounce the whole endeavor of adventure roadtripping.

When they finally let traffic creep through, a full blizzard was raging and the road was a mess — at least six inches of unplowed powder was stirred up in every direction, and dozens of smaller vehicles were stopped on the shoulder or stuck in the middle of the road. I was driving a Subaru Outback that admittedly has nearly-bald tires — I was ready to put on chains as soon as I could find a safe spot to do so — but it didn't really have any trouble navigating those conditions. I've driven in considerably worse weather in Alaska and Montana, but it looked like a winter apocalypse on I-70. No wonder this road has such a bad reputation. It was about to get worse.

At Silverthorne, police were directing cars off a closed section of the freeway. So instead of inching along on the interstate, traffic piled up on the unplowed streets of Silverthorne. I managed to weave through stuck vehicles to a City Market, where I drank two cups of Starbucks and refreshed the CDOT Twitter page. Three hours passed before I rejoined the traffic creep to the tunnel and down the luge toward Denver. I drove past Vail at 2 p.m., and didn't arrive in Boulder until 10:30 — eight and a half stressful hours to travel 100 miles. I may never complain about traffic in the Bay Area again (I probably still will.)

Still, it's always an adventure. And yes, still worth it. 


  1. I used to work at Great Basin and led naturalist hikes to that grove. Definitely worth a do over, maybe in summer.

  2. Glad you made it to GBNP as well. I've also thought about comparing them to 1,300-year-old cedars up here in the PNW, then I remember the Bristecones live FIVE TIMES longer ;)

  3. Great photos! Great adventures! Wow, 8.5 hours to go 100 miles. You could probably bike it faster! Have a good Thanksgiving with your family.

  4. nice pics... nice toque, as we say up here in canada eh!
    sa c'est bonne!

    snow down there, no snow yet... thankfully :) bike is ready for it though, almost.
    house is ready for it, I hope.
    Me, I'm not sure... its just days away now - as the snow flies and -40oC weather...

  5. Is it weird that I'm a little jealous your family is within driving distance, but not because I could see them more, but because I could have more little adventures in new places? I've been dreaming of a longer road trip but still haven't gotten Matt on board. He likes staying put.

  6. Way to enjoy the road trip. Beautiful country.

    If you're ever down near Salida CO, Mt. Ouray has a huge bristlecone forest in an alpine bowl.

    Driving I-70 is an art. If you're on a schedule you don't have a choice, but my main rule is just don't do it if it's going to snow, period. The combo of weather, volume, interstate travel and 11,000 foot tunnel is a perfect storm of bad factors. There are service roads that help in some spots, but there are no short alternate routes E-W over the Divide.


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