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“Then out to California, through the forests and the pine…”

The words of the ZZ Top song, “Jesus Just Left Chicago”, ran through my mind (and at least once through my truck’s speakers) yesterday as I traveled to a part of California that I had never seen before – a part between 9,000 and 10,000 feet, with a steep descent to Mono Lake.

The trip took 14 hours round trip, so I postponed my blog entry until today, after my return last night at 11 PM. The trip was made even more enjoyable by my son’s acceptance of my invitation to ride along.

There is always something unexpected about travel – the resurfacing of Highway 120 before Crane Flat, the detour around the Highway 99 South on-ramp on our return, the small deer in the headlights on the Tioga Road, and the fox that ran across the road on the way home. Some of the most unexpected pleasures of the trip, beside the scenery, were the people whom we met along the way.

My National Parks pass will expire at the end of September, and the Tioga Road (Highway 120 through Yosemite’s high country) can close from snow and ice at any time at this point, so I decided to make the trip. The travel from Livermore was uneventful until the road resurfacing before Crane Flat. The Crane Flat gas station and other services were closed for renovation. I covered the western part of the Tioga Road with “few” stops, other than to let my son stretch his legs at Siesta Lake, and to show him (and re-photograph) Yosemite Creek, Olmstead Point, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows (the 20- by 30-inch print hanging on the wall at home is just not the same). The facilities at the Tuolomne Meadows Visitor Center, including the gas station, were closed for the season, in anticipation of the oncoming winter.

In response to my son’s need for food :-) (since he had devoured all of the granola, trail mix, jerky and other edibles in the truck), I agreed to hurry the trip through Tioga Pass, noting locations for photography along the way, and make the descent into the Mono Lake Basin, for food and gasoline at the small town of Lee Vining. We had an “early dinner” or a “very late lunch” at Nicely’s restaurant in Lee Vining. In response to my son’s question about a blue bracelet, a young waitress told us about her 47-year-old father’s death of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a little over a year before, but not before the Make-A-Wish Foundation had fulfilled his wish to see Neil Young (in concert with Crosby, Stills, and Nash). Her description of the concert and her loving description of her father in better days also reminded me that the famous physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking (his web site is at has been disabled by the disease. Before leaving, I asked her about the best locations to photograph Mono Lake, and she gave me directions to the south tufa.

A good overview of Mono Lake is provided at Wikipedia, of course: I intended to photograph at Mono Lake, make the ascent to Tioga Pass, and photograph a couple of locations in Yosemite that we had passed by. The light was getting better all the time….

I spoke with several photographers at Mono Lake, who ranged from the amateur to the pro, from the digital to the large-format. It was as though photographers had come to roost at evening at Mono Lake’s south shore. A female professional photographer noted that humans had finally realized the error of their ways with regard to Mono Lake, and I replied that we sometimes “back up and do the right thing,” which struck her as funny. I met a middle-aged couple from Hamburg, Germany. He told me that he has photographed “people taking photographs” for over 30 years, and showed me the photo he had taken of me, on the display of his digital camera. I told him that it looked better than I do in person. I told them that I had never visited Germany, but would really like to, and we compared experiences in traveling to Japan. The couple was touring “all of California”, and I welcomed them and wished them a safe and enjoyable trip. In leaving, with my backpack on, and my (rather heavy) tripod over one shoulder, I met a professional photographer who told me that Ansel Adams had said that any tripod that could be carried in one hand was “too small”. :-) I laughingly told him that I agreed….

I tried to make the ascent to Tioga Pass without stopping, but I could not resist the yellow foliage on the steep mountainsides, which had snow at the higher elevations. After reentering Yosemite, we stopped so that I could photograph the two mountains to the east, reflected in an alpine lake, and becoming brightly lit in the setting sun. At this point, I had to make a decision – should I photograph one more location before dark?…or should I stay at this location for what promised to be a spectacular sunset? I moved on, capturing a mountain stream lit by the sunset, which turned out to be spectacular, although I rushed to set up equipment so that I would not miss it. I hoped that I will be able to return, another year.

Hopefully, I made the correct decision. I will know soon, as I prepare to spend the many hours involved in digital post-processing. The gps coordinates that I captured will help me locate the photographic positions on calibrated US Geological Survey maps (thank you, Dr. James, for MacGPS Pro

Sunset found us at 9,000 feet. I tried to remember the curves of the Tioga Road as we traveled westward and downward in darkness, with a companion vehicle following us. We made the roughly 4-hour return trip to Livermore uneventfully, in darkness, but I remembered that the moon was full the day before, and it lit our way after moonrise. We took the longer-but-perhaps-safer route 120 descent from Groveland, which kept us to the inside (away from the canyon) edge of the road, since we had taken the Old Priest Grade road (also on the inside edge) on the ascent to Big Oak Flat and Groveland on our way eastward. We arrived home at 11 PM, as predicted.

If you ever have the opportunity, take the Tioga Road. I think about some of the folks I have known in high tech who will never read this blog because “they don’t have time”. They will also never take the Tioga Road because “they don’t have time”. They may spend 12 hours a day for a company that does not care, instead. We each have to follow our own path.

I also think about a cartoon that I had hung with magnets on the metal wall of my office/cubicle (hey, at least it had a door!) at my first job after graduate school. The cartoon was entitled “Useful and Wasted Lives” and underneath the title were two *unlabeled* panels – one showed a man working at his desk with stacks of paper and a clock that indicated late evening, and the other was a man resting under a palm tree on a small island, barefoot in the sand. Since the panels were unlabeled, the viewer has to choose which life was useful, and which was wasted.

–Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo

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