South America 1978-1979

With the coronavirus pandemic giving us an excuse to stay at home, my wife Joann and I decided it was a good time to start rummaging through photos and journals from some of our past adventures. Most notable was a trip to South America some 42 years ago. Going through files of film and journals was a daunting task. I’ll have more to say about that in future posts, since I’ve discovered much long-forgotten content that is destined to find an audience. And our first product from this effort is a book about the month we spent in South America at the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979.

Our adventure started on December 22, 1978. I had been on an oceanographic research ship in the South Atlantic and I joined Joann at the airport in Santiago, Chile. From there, our travels took us to Torres del Paine National Park where we spent a week backpacking.

In 1978, Torres del Paine was a remote location. There was no public transportation to the park. We teamed up with a couple of Germans and hired a taxi to drive us to the park. After a long, bumpy ride on dirt roads the taxi dropped us off, returning to Puerto Natales with the Germans. We really had a sense that we were at the end of the world.

How we got back to Puerto Natales is another story, but once we were back to civilization we flew to Puerto Montt where we spent time in the Lake District before traveling to Peru to visit Machu Picchu.

You can thumb through the book on the Blurb website, or buy a hardcover copy or PDF. I posted photos from the book in a gallery.

Parker Lake

With the Labor Day weekend approaching, it was time to make our way over the mountains towards home. We decided a three-day camping outing was in order. The trick was to find a spot off the beaten track that would be away from the throngs of campers. Here’s where a little local knowledge came in handy. Our son Aaron had a tip that Parker Lake might be the spot. So on Saturday, September 5, we pointed our rig towards Parker Lake. Along the way we observed that campgrounds near Grant Lake and Silver Lake seemed to be packed to capacity, and the trail head parking was full to overflowing.

We found Parker Lake road and left the pavement, switching into four wheel drive. This is not a road I would recommend for anybody with low clearance, although we did see a Subaru Forester. We stopped on a rise where I took a photo of our rig with Mono Lake in the background.

A few miles further on we found a nice camping spot in a grove of aspen and pine trees. As is my habit, I’m always looking for that Truck Camper Magazine calendar photo, without a camp fire in this case, since campfires are not allowed in the current conditions. I substituted a camp lantern for our campfire glow. In the morning we woke up to an orange dystopian sun peering through smoke from a wildfire, the Creek Fire, on the other side of the mountains. As you can see in the photo above, the sun is peeking through the smoke. Despite the smoke we decided to do the short hike to the lake before breaking camp.

From our camp we hiked up the road to the trail head, and then up through sage brush and desert vegetation and down into a lovely wooded valley with pines and aspen.

Once in the valley it’s a short distance to the lake which is situated in a bowl with mountains rising above. The mountains were shrouded in smoke, but nonetheless we stopped to let Carson get his feet wet and to watch ducks that seemed to be looking at us for a handout. Don’t look at me for a handout. I make it a point not to share my food with the local wildlife. After a brief stay, we hiked back to our campsite, popped the top town on the camper and headed over the mountains for clean air.

Bound for Home

As we turned the calendar to July, it was time to leave our temporary post in Big Pine and head for home. We decided to make the trip a two-day drive with an overnight near Ebbetts Pass on State Route 4. This is one of the lesser-used passes crossing the Sierra. It’s a steep, winding, narrow road with one lane for a good portion of the time. Suitable for our rig, we figured that with throngs of people heading to the mountains for the Fourth of July weekend, it was a likely route on which to still find camping. And since we were driving midweek on a Thursday, we figured we’d have the jump on the campers coming up for the weekend.

Our route crossed two passes: Monitor Pass at 8,314 feet on State Route 89, and Ebbetts Pass at 8,736 feet on State Route 4. Just before cresting Monitor Pass, we stopped to admire the view. I was intrigued with the clouds and grasses on the high plateau.

Once over the passes we had plans to check out Hermit Valley for camping, but when we got there we decided to move on. Not far down the road we saw a sign for Pacific Valley Campground that looked promising. We found plenty of camping available along a lovely mountain stream.

In the morning we decided to explore the trail leading up Pacific Creek. Our dog Carson was happy to be off-leash once we were out of camp, and happy to cavort in the creek’s cool water. We manged to hike about six miles up the creek and back, and returned to camp lamenting the fact that we couldn’t stay longer. We had a commitment for a family Fourth of July get-together.

We broke camp and headed down the mountain passing Mosquito Lakes and Alpine Lake, which were quite busy. There was absolutely no parking available along the road. Every conceivable spot had a car parked with many more cruising looking for parking.

Despite the weekend crush of visitors, we were inspired by our overnight at Pacific Valley. We’ll be returning to explore more of the Stanislaus National Forest.

Taking Grandpa for a Walk

Here’s my grandson Micah taking me on a walk. June 4, despite the continuing stay-at-home order here in Alameda County, we left town and drove the 80 miles to Mount Hermon for a family visit. My last opportunity to visit with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson was at Christmas.

We’ve managed to keep our distance for a few months, and we were a bit anxious about how a visit would go, showing up with our face masks and keeping at a distance. One of our family pastimes is walking. I asked Micah if he wanted to go on a walk. On previous visits he was a bit shy about interacting with Grandpa. This time he came over to me, grabbed my finger, and led me out to the front gate. My heart melted when he touched me. Such a sweet encounter. There is nothing like the power of touch, and something that’s lost in our social distancing experiences. By lunch time the masks came off, and we were feeling like a family again.

Desert, Dogs and Dutch Ovens

January 12, 2020. As I write this we’re nine days into an 11 day road trip, making a circuit through Joshua Tree, Mojave and Death Valley. It seems like the theme for this trip is desert, dogs and Dutch ovens. We like to travel with our dog Carson, and winter camping seems to be conducive to Dutch Oven cooking. After sunset I can put the camera away, start the coals for the Dutch Oven, and build a campfire.

We even used the Dutch Oven to thaw out Carson’s water dish after it had frozen solid one morning; that after we had fired up the oven to reheat some quiche from a previous breakfast. Our journey started on Saturday, January 4, with a drive to Red Rock Canyon State Park. Camp fees seemed a little steep there, but the location is worth it. Dogs need to be on leash, which is the rule for many of the places we visited. There is BLM land nearby where dispersed camping is available for free. We paid $23 for the night at Red Rock and that included a $2 senior discount. In the evening we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook cod with lemon and capers. Joann cooked a risotto dish to go along with it. A gourmet meal.

The next morning we were in no rush to hit the road so we fired up the oven again and cooked a mushroom and brie breakfast strada. Absolutely scrumptious, with enough left over to feed us for another breakfast and more.

From Red Rock we drove to Joshua Tree National Park. When we got to Hidden Valley Campground we were discouraged to see a “Campground Full” sign at the entrance, but we decided to take a look anyway and found one open site. We spent two nights and I took the opportunity to wander around for two mornings and one evening looking for early morning and evening landscape photography opportunities. Hidden Valley has interesting rock outcroppings as well as some nice stands of Joshua trees. As a popular spot for rock climbers, camping spaces are scarce. I’ll post more about the landscape photography in another post. It’s hard enough to condense eight days of travel into one blog post.

While wandering through Joshua Tree we managed to do the short nature walk at Hidden Valley. We alternated walking the trail while the other walked the dog around the parking and picnic areas. We also explored some of the other campgrounds and noted that there was plenty of camping available at Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We also drove down to the Cholla Garden which is an amazingly dense stand of cholla cactus.

On January 7 we drove to the Mojave National Preserve where we decided to camp at Kelso Dunes. This is a primitive campground with no running water or facilities except for a few fire rings. There was one other camper about a quarter mile from us. We took a hike up the sand dunes letting Carson wander off-leash, returning to camp just as the sky was going dark following a blazing sunset. With a near-full moon rising to the east we had light to find our way as darkness approached.

From Mojave we drove to Death Valley where we spent one night camped at the Oasis in Furnace Creek. Our motivation was to find hot showers and do some laundry. We camped at Fiddler’s Camp, an RV camp behind the gas station. $24 with showers and pool access included. We also took advantage of the food facilities and ate dinner and breakfast in the luxury of the Furnace Creek Ranch.

Furnace Creek is a good spot to spend a night or two if you want to see some of the more popular attractions of the park. We were intent on seeing some of the less popular locations. In the morning we drove the short distance to Twenty Mule Team Canyon which the park literature suggested was a good spot to walk a dog. We drove in the canyon a short distance, parked the truck and took a two mile walk with Carson on-leash. Dogs are not permitted on the trails in the park, but they are permitted on roads; this is a lightly used dirt road, perfect for walking the dog.

After walking the dog we topped off the fuel tank, anticipating a good 200 miles or so of driving before we could expect another gas station. From Furnace Creek we drove to Mesquite Springs Campground where we spent a very windy night. We were happy to be in the camper rather than a tent. With the propane heater going we were cozy even with a chilly wind blowing outside.

The next morning we drove to the Racetrack Playa with a stop for lunch at Teakettle Junction. The Racetrack is a perfectly flat playa. Near the southern end of the playa there are some truly bizarre trails left by rocks. When conditions are right a thin film of water freezes and thaws in such a way that fierce winds move the rocks leaving trails. Some of these trails go for hundreds of feet. It’s a truly mind bending experience to imagine how these rocks can move. We arrived at about 3 in the afternoon and found good lighting, using the glint of the sun on the playa to photograph the rock trails.

Getting to the Racetrack Playa is a bit of a chore. It’s a dirt road marked as a 4×4 road, and a two hour drive to cover the 27 mile distance over washboard and gravel.

From the playa we drove the short distance to Homestake campground, another primitive campground with no facilities. We had the campground to ourselves. Here we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook Eggplant Parmesan and we ate dinner by the campfire while we watched the full moon rise over the mountains to the east. With nobody else in sight we let Carson have free run of the campground.

Fall Color: Eastern Sierra

We’re on a short road trip to look for fall color in the Eastern Sierra. We’re also visiting family in Big Pine. Our trip took us through Yosemite National Park and over Tioga Pass to Mono Lake where we spent the night of October 2. The word was that the best fall color might be in Bishop Creek, so we started our tour at Mono Lake, driving South, avoiding some of the popular spots north of Lee Vining including Lundy Canyon and Virginia Lakes.

At Sagehen Summit we found some pockets of color with large swatches of Aspen still green. Having four wheel drive, we were able to negotiate some of the sandy terrain, although we did encounter some fellow leaf peepers that managed to get stuck. We were able to help them by using our leveling blocks and a shovel. They were quite happy for the assistance. From Sagehen we headed south to Bishop Creek were we set up camp at the Sabrina Campground and then drove the windy, narrow, one-lane road to North Lake. We were disappointed that there was very little fall color at North Lake. In years past, the mountain side above the lake is ablaze with orange and yellow.

Some fellow leaf peepers we consulted with said this was the worst year they can remember for fall color. Nevertheless, I can always find something to photograph, and I was particularly struck by a small grove of Aspen along Bishop Creek, adjacent to the campground. I returned to this site several times for late afternoon, dusk and dawn photos. My favorite from those efforts was the morning image. I was reminded how much I enjoy the soft light of dawn and dusk for photography. I find the harsh contrast of mid-day sun and dappled shade hard to work with. Back in camp after the morning photo venture we had breakfast and then took a short hike along the north side of Lake Sabrina. We found some nice color in the Aspen groves along the north side of the lake.

Overall we found the fall color conditions quite mixed with occasional pockets of color and many Aspen groves still showing green. There is some speculation that unseasonably warm weather followed by a sudden cold snap a week ago has delayed the display of color for the most part, with the sudden cold creating pockets of color. There could be good opportunities to see fall color over the next few weeks.

We’re now in Big Pine playing grandparents. More news to come. Stay tuned.

Olot: Gateway to the Volcanoes

Olot is a bustling town of 34,000 located in the foothills of the Pyrenees about 70 miles north of Barcelona. It is surrounded by the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. There are over 40 ancient volcanoes and lava flows in the region which are now cloaked in thick woodland. We were in Olot as part of our Macs Adventure walking tour, arriving by foot on June 5. The town provides an excellent base for hiking and exploring the Zona Volcànica.

We spent two nights at Hotel Can Blanc, pictured above, a lovely converted Catalan farmhouse that now serves as a hotel. It’s located right next to the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica so it provides easy access to excellent hiking.

For dinner we walked the short distance to La Due Restaurant. Here we discovered Patatas de la Deu, which has to be the most amazing potato dish I’ve ever tasted, and unique to the volcanic cuisine of this region of Catalonia. We didn’t expect the food to be such a highlight of our trip, but such as it is, we gained a real appreciation for Catalan food. The website for Cuina Volcanica says “a regional cuisine based on a traditional, creative and daring recipes, which increases the restlessness and culinary curiosities of the area. ” If you’re visiting Olot, the La Due Restaurant is worth a visit for dinner.

And of course the architecture is always interesting. The architecture of Olot runs the gamut from traditional Catalan farmhouses to Modernista architecture such as Casa Gaieta (the pink house below) to modern.

And on the subject of architecture, the market, Mercat D’Olot, is worth noting. A glass jewel box full of glamorous displays of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and everything else you’d expect to find in a local market. The South side of the market has a green wall covered with lush vegetation.

We bought fruit and snacks and had coffee on the outdoor plaza. You can see more photos of Olot here.

Calella to S’Argo

Continuing our walking tour of the Costa Brava, this post covers our walk from Calella de Palafrugell where we spent two nights at the Hotel Sant Roc, the nights of June 16 and 17 and on to S’Argo where our tour ends.

At Hotel Sant Roc we had a lovely dinner on the terrace with a view of the town below with some color in the sky as the sun set. With a day off from walking we spent some time exploring the local environs including the the beautiful botanical gardens at Jardins de Cap Roig; also the home of a renown music festival. A trip to the beach was in order also where I rented mask, fins and snorkel from a local dive shop to explore some of the underwater life around the rocks just off the beach. We could easily have spent a few more days here, or a few weeks. A beautiful spot overlooking a picture postcard city. And even though we weren’t on the walking route we logged 9 km just touring the gardens and the town.

Alas, on June 19 we put our hiking boots on and continued our walking tour, hiking over rocky headlands, and along the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, past quaint fishing hamlets and beautiful beaches. It seems that swimsuits are optional on many of the beaches along this stretch. We observed that nude sunbathing seemed to be more popular with middle age men.

The evening of June 18 found us at Hotel Ancora in La Fosca. Having logged 10 km. With some of the day left we walked to the waterfront in Palamos where we were hoping to watch the fishermen unload the day’s catch. We arrived well after the last boat had unloaded, so we toured the Museu de la Pesca, which turned out to be quite an exhibit and well worth the time and the cost.

June 20 we were once again on the trail, walking from La Fosca to Hotel San Pol in S’Argo. This stretch of the tour took us along miles and miles of white sand beaches, walking along the promenades adjacent to the beach. Many apartment buildings and hotels that line the beaches have their windows shuttered with the tourist season yet to come. Many carnival rides and vendors were setting up on the beach, and it looks like this is going to be a busy place soon.

Between the long stretches of white sand we climbed up steps, over trails, across rocky headlands down steps to tiny sandy beaches, up more steps, around more rocky headlands. Up and down, up and down. Each headlands giving a postcard view of the beaches below and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.

Along the promenade in Palamos we ran into several other people that were on the same walking tour as us. They recognized us by the “Macs Adventure” luggage tags we had on our day packs. We walked with them for several miles for the last stretch of our walk to S’Argo. They were staying in a different hotel, the S’Argo Hotel, having booked a “deluxe” package through Macs Adventures, we went on to Hotel Sant Pol which while not “deluxe,” certainly met our needs. We had walked 20 km (12.4 miles). In the evening we raised a glass of wine to toast completing our “Hidden Gems of the Costa Brava” walking tour having logged 77.4 km (48 miles).

Llafranc and Kayaking

On Friday, June 15 our walk took us from Begur to Llafranc, hiking along rugged cliffs and past small fishing hamlets. There were white caps on the Mediterranean with a strong wind blowing out of the north east and waves crashing on the rocks and beaches. We had hoped to rent kayaks and paddle out of Llafranc the next day, Saturday.

As it turned out the wind let on Saturday and the sea was calmer. We rented kayaks and paddled out of Llafranc, past the town of Calella de Palafrugell and on the Cap Roig. There we turned around and headed back. We had a very pleasant paddle, even with a five foot swell running and sending waves crashing on rocks and beaches. The lumpy water had us feeling like we were on a coastal paddle along the California coast. The outfitter commented that it was extremely rare to have such rough water.

By evening when we dined along the waterfront the the water on the harbor in Llafranc was looking flat calm.

Costa Brava and the Walking is Easy

June 12 our day starts with a ride from Girona to Begur where we begin our next adventure, a walking tour titled Hidden Gems of the Costa Brava. While we booked this tour through Macs Adventures, Macs contracts with a local tour operator Catalan Adventures. Our driver for the trip to Begur is Steve, the owner of the tour business. It’s about an hours drive.

Once we arrive at Hotel Rosa Steve spends half an hour with us going over the tour details including reviewing the maps, walking routes, suggestions for places to eat and such. Breakfast and lodgings are included in our tour package but for lunch and dinner we’re on our own. We have two nights in Begur. It’s market day and the main square is full of vendors selling shoes, cheese, clothes, beach towels. We buy cheese since we’ll have a picnic lunch on our first day of walking. I also buy a pair of sunglasses, since that’s one thing that didn’t get packed.

We spend the afternoon walking around town exploring the history and architectural details. The Hotel Rosa is in the older part of town. Just across the street are two restaurants, Plattios and Fonda. With two nights in town we try them both. Plattios was highly recommended. The advise was to make reservations as soon as we checked in to the hotel, so shortly after arrival I called, but got no answer. This went on for several attempts and finally I went down to consult with the hotel manager who informed me that they don’t answer the phone before 6:30 pm. Most restaurants don’t open before 8 pm. The manger was happy to make reservations for us. A small place, I counted 16 seats. The food was exquisite. One of our best meals on our trip. While we didn’t come to Catalonia for the food, the food and wine experience has been one of the highlights of our trip.

By the way. After several days in Costa Brava I have to say the walking is easy compared to the foothills of the Pyrenees.