Monday, June 22, 2009

First cycling leg in Alaska

It's now Day 5 of the ride and after almost a full day of recouperating in the sleepy town of Tok (latitude 63ish), I might be recharged sufficiently to head onward towards Haines tomorrow morning. We cycled in from Moon Lake campsite on 1 apple each, thinking the distance was a lot shorter and knowing there would be pancakes at the end. 31km later and totally famished, we headed straight for Fast Eddy's in town to order a massive omelette each which came with a side of 2 huge pancakes. Normally I would have been happy to share but wolfed it all down, surprising Robert and probably everyone else in sight.

Today is the summer solstice, so officially the closest we'll get to a midday sun. It's still bright outside but perhaps more like the first signs of dusk 11.45pm (see photo below of us leaping at midnight). These long days are brilliant for camping - no rush to set up camp before dark or worry about torch batteries going flat. A blindfold is essential, however.

I had no idea of what to expect, landscape-wise, of Alaska. I have vague images from episodes of "Northern Exposure" but these weren't much help. The landscape is beautiful and apart from the odd headwind, surprisingly easy (gentle terrain) for cycling, so far. We've crossed over many wide, braided rivers (stopped at some for a sleep), stopped by a few lakes and found some beautiful campsites, both wild and state-managed. There's plenty of water around but giardia is common, so we've been filtering or boiling. As we've headed further southeast, the hills have turned into beautiful rows of velvety green and chocolate brown mountains with streaks of white snow. There's still hard-packed snow by the roadside in some places and on the river beds, despite the mild (10 to upper 20's celcius).

Forests seem to cover most of this country (or what we can see from the saddle) - pines, aspen and birch of varying heights depending on soil and conditions. Wildflowers in pink, purple, yellow and white blanket the roads sides and are sprinkled in the mossy forest floors. The forests hide much wildlife but so far, we've only seen a few moose (females), loads of noisy squirrels (sound like mini machine guns) and birds.

I'm quite relieved that we haven't yet had a close bear encounter but am keen to see a few from a distance sometime. I wear bells when I venture into the forest to look for firewood or a toilet spot and carry my bear spray (powerful pepper spray) whenever I can. It's at the ready, attached to my front pannier on my bike, when cycling. Robert is carrying an airhorn as an additional deterrent. Precautions of cooking, storing food and sleeping in three different areas are a bit of a hassle but I'm keen to make the extra effort to avoid a nighttime visit by a grizzly bear. Luckily, vegetarian food isn't too pungent so we should be fine.

The roads are surprisingly good here, with a broad sealed verge, perfect for single-file cyclists and often there are long, separate sealed cycle paths. Traffic, from semi-trailers to the mega motorhomes are extremely courteous, passing right to the other side of the road. Even on-coming traffic pulls right over to the road edge. Talking of motorhomes, I have been mildly horrified at the enormity of most of them. Repeatedly, I have been surprised at the steady flow of tourist coaches, only to be reminded that they were all mobile holiday homes for two. These travellers have all the luxuries of home on wheels. I photographed a few this evening in our Tok Tundra RV Camp that if huge to begin with, are enormous in camp mode, with slide-out bays on each side!

Robert is a great travelling companion - mostly jolly, same diet, similar speed and endurance and considerate. We've had two others join us at different times, Argentinean Axel (33) with his massive, tower of a load, and Paul (30) from near Boston with his very neat Bob trailer compactly loaded with an amazing array of gear (including laptop, frisbee, yoyo, gps tracker, solar charger). Both of these guys are heading to Ushuaia on slightly different routes with 20 months and 10.5 months respectively.

Everything is big here - cars, streets, roads, house yards and people.

We've met some interesting characters along the way - lots of slow-talking hairy blokes (Bob at Salcha River campground), beautiful native Alaskans and their very wild children, very fat people (reminds me of Wall-E), drunk bar folk and a very out-of-place but pleasantly familiar health food shop owner (huge contrast from the Tok status quo).

We have 366km under our wheels now and are 1/3 of the way to the ferry which will take us to Juneau, Alaska's capital, in its remote, watery location in the Gastineau Channel. Fortunately Sarah Palin is not in office at the moment, so we won't be seeing her there.

For those who like figures, here is the trip so far (updated on the wetpaint site):
17th June 81km to riverside state campground
18th June - 93km to Delta Junction state campground
19th June - 88.1km to Berry Creek (wild camp)
20th June - 67km to Moon Lake
21st June - 31km to Tok and a bit of a rest day
22nd June - ? to ?....better get riding!

Photo below - setting up to leave Fairbanks

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tamarack Knoll Cohousing

In my search for cohousing and eco-design projects on this journey, Tamarack Knoll Cohousing conveniently popped up in Fairbanks. Established in 2004 and housing 9 members, it sits amidst boreal fir forest within an easy cycle ride of town and the university. Several of the residents were away adventuring and enjoying a summer outdoors but the remaining 4 adult residents and their 3 children welcomed us to a delicious dinner. We were their first dinner guests so hopefully have inspired them to not be their last.

Each household has its own self-contained cabin with power, heating (wood or other), pit toilet and kitchen (no running water), tucked away in 80 acres of forest, and all share the common house with a large kitchen (where they share meals each weekday night), lounge, store room, laundry, bathroom and loft guest room. Carrying water to the cabins each day in summer sounds fine, an added opportunity for interaction and a simplification of infrastructure but in the depths of winter where temperatures can drop to minus 50 degrees celcius, it would be a challenge to me.

There is a vegetable garden area where plants are encouraged along to produce before the short summer ends. Growing on permafrost has many challenges totally alien to someone living in the subtropics. What they can't grow, the residents purchase through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) with a local farmer in the summer but through the winter, food has to be bought from the megastores in "Box Town".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Alaska here we come!

I'm writing this in the basement of Freddy and Kay's beautiful handbuilt home 20 miles out of Fairbanks amidst a forest of aspen and birch trees. This is my first time to Alaska and after 2 days of being here sorting gear, reassembling bikes and shopping for supplies, I can't wait to start pedalling and exploring this part of the continent.

After much emailing, phone conversations and a few brief meetings, Robert, my cycling companion, and I managed to meet at the precise agreed time at the departure platform of San Francisco's airport. Thanks to Robert collecting my bike box the day before, I was able to enjoy the walk down to the Mission station BART with Kristen's help sharing the rest of my load. Being early Sunday morning, the streets were quiet - no towering drag queens or overflowing bars, just dog walkers and sleeping homeless.

Checking in and flying went smoothly, and even the brief escape from the airport in Seattle to find some lunch in the downtown area on a cheap local bus was straightforward. I had a window seat on both legs and with clear conditions, I was able to get a better picture of the immense undertaking we have ahead of us.

On the flight to Seattle, the snowy volcano cones of mountains Lassen, Shasta, Hood, St Helens, Adams and Garibaldi poked up above the clouds. We looked down over Victoria, on Vancouver Island and Port Angeles – the bay crossing where we will return to the States from Canada. North of there, the mountains marched out into the water on islands and into the distance with steep-sided fjords and gorges. Glaciers, milky-green rimmed lakes (caused by glacial rock ‘flour’) and crocodilian ridgelines reminded me that there will be some chilly and steep parts of the journey back south. Snaking rivers surrounded a paisley pattern of ox-bow lakes suggest some flatter areas.

An old friend of Robert's, Penny, gave us a whirlwind tour in the 10pm sunshine, with running commentary of Fairbanks and all the buildings that have been demolished. Maintaining built-heritage is clearly not a priority when new buildings can be bigger and boxier (the Alaska Museum at the University and the airport terminal are the two buildings of architectural note that I saw). As a result, the town has a generic feel. A box town has sprung up on the edge of Fairbanks - a cluster of all America's biggest megastores surrounded by a sea of carparking. We lost hours over the next two days, in these energy-sapping hulks seeking last minute gear and food supplies.

Houses vary from log cabins (more traditional) to simple boxy forms clad in plywood and twee European-style chalets. Windows tend to be minimised to cut out the summer sun and store winter warmth. Yards are spacious with many filled with skeletons of cars and other flotsam. With a very short summer, well kept gardens are a rarity.

The town of Fairbanks may not be much of a beauty but its surrounding landscape is completely different from any that I’ve experienced before – rolling hills covered in spruce, birch and aspen with permafrost beneath the spongy ground and views of the distant snow-topped Denali Mountains. Wildflowers are everywhere - wild rose, bluebells and many others.

The days are impossibly long (endless, in fact), and it's easy to lose track of time when the sun is still shining. I fall asleep pretty instantly when I do go to bed, however, but that may be due to the fact that staying up until midnight is easy to do without keeping an eye on a clock. I have a blindfold at the ready for when we start camping tonight.

After 2.5 weeks of public transport, aeroplanes, walking and car travel - all been fun and adventurous - I'm looking forward to finally starting to cycling this morning towards Haines. Robert seems like the perfect cycling companion. Let's see how we go when we start pedalling!

Time to load up my bike and give it a test ride.

Monday, June 15, 2009

California Academy of Sciences Building, Golden Gate Park

The Academy of Science building, set in Golden Gate Park is my favourite contemporary green building in San Francisco. With $500 million dollars spent of the 10 years of its making, it is not the most ethical investment in a city with such poverty but in firing up an interest in science, it has certainly been a huge success. Designed by Renzo Piano, the building seamlessley incorporates some built heritage with the new structure of steel, glass and grass.

Not only is the building itself enticing and its displays but the weekly Thursday night events in summer, with cheaper entry, cocktails, beer and wine and groovy tunes from various dj's, draw in crowds to match those on the weekend. This, however, is a more chilled out flood of people, perhaps assisted by the drink and ambient trance music and lack of charged-up or cranky children. All the displays are accessible and the rooftop terrace beside the 7-mounded roof (reflecting the 7 hills of San Francisco) is a great spot to watch the sun set and enjoy the outdoors and views of Golden Gate Park.


Here are some sustainable achievements from the museum website:

"The Material World:
90% of all demolition materials were recycled
32,000 tons of sand from foundation excavation applied to dune restoration projects in San Francisco
95% of all steel from recycled sources
15% fly ash (a recycled coal by-product), 35% slag in concrete
50% of lumber harvested from sustainable-yield forests
68% of insulation comes from recycled blue jeans
90% of office space will have natural light and ventilation
60,000 photovoltaic cells; 213,000 kilowatt-hours
30% less energy consumption than federal code requirement"

For more information, see the Academy website

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Favourite San Franciscan food spots

Food is a very important factor in the enjoyment I experience when travelling.

There have been some particularly memorable dining places in San Francisco:

Milennium, Geary Street
Fully vegan, gourmet, delicious, mostly organic and stylish restaurant. A true inspiration for classy vegetarian dining seriously absent in Brisbane. Bookings are essential and the salubrious and sophisticated setting enticed Kristen and me to indulge in several courses and cocktails...and to purchase their recipe books, at a fairly hefty but worthy expense.

Orphan Andy's, Market Street, near corner with Castro
We feasted here for breakfast amidst orange vinyl 50's (?) diner decor. A popular spot, particularly for scrummy fluffy pancakes (banana ones are best), fresh juice and bottomless coffee, it is crowded from early morning, late into the night, mostly with buff gay guys. We didn't have the pleasure of being served by Woody, who Kristen and her dad, John, had chatted to on previous pancake missions but he was there in his glory - huge bushy beard, bald head, heavy nose ring, large earplugs (in his lobes not earholes), a Utilikilt (a very funky, modern version of a kilt) with heavy studded leather belt (studs spelt "nudist" across the back). The red-rimmed spectacles were a bit of a give-away that he wasn't the sort of bloke to knock your lights off as he sped past on his Harley. Despite his intimidating appearance, it was very apparent from his effeminate hand gestures that he was not that type.

Ananda Fuara, Market Street near Orpheum Theatre
Vegetarian Indian-style food and great wholemeal pancakes and non-coffee coffees. This was a favourite hangout of Kristen's (and Dad John's) but the queue out the door on my second visit was too daunting.

Bi-rite Creamery, 3292 18th Street, opposite Dolores Park
Time this right and you might get an icecream without having to wait in a queue that stretches to the corner of the block. We did, on my first day (see photos in first blog entry) and enjoyed balsamic strawberry. They do vegan gelati too and all ingredients are organic, wherever possible.

MINAKO Organic Japanese Restaurant, 2154 Mission Street, Mission
Kristen had previously eyed off this restaurant, easy to miss amongst the mess of Mexican tobacco and junk stores and taquerias and hoving homeless, and we spontaneously decided to give it a go one icy night after travelling home from Berkeley's World Music Festival. Waiting folk were crammed inside the door and we squeezed in, optimistically, with them in the warmth. The brisk host growled at our arrival and said there really wasn't any room but two guys in front invited us to join them at their table. Although this made Minako even more fiesty, we risked it, in our desire for delicious Japanese food. David (New York) and Albert (Montreal) were happy to have extra company after an intensive conference day and they slowly worked their charm on our quirky host. The menu was extensive and a bit overwhelming but under pressure due to kitchen time constraints, we made a group selection and enjoyed it all immensely (mostly vegan). We managed to transform Miyako from slightly intimidating host to jovial long-lost friend, enhanced I'm sure by David's dance moves, sweeping her up to dance to Barry Manilow - part of her diverse, eclectic musical collections.

Tangoing in SF

I bought some lightweight ballet slippers to take with me on my travels for opportunities for a bit of tango glamour and elegance amidst the more gritty realities of cycle touring. Kristen had been to a couple of tango lessons in an Italian cafe in town, led an effervescent teacher, in preparation for my arrival and we decided to go along together to check out the scene.

Despite having tangoed for many years (though not at a consistent rate), it is always good to have the basics fine-tuned, and also to check out prospective partners for the dancing after the class. There seemed to be a few promising potentials in the class and spectating, and a decent number of men, so I thought my odds of being a wall flower might be low.

Well! Although we were well away from the Castro, what happened next made us laugh and despair at the same time. Men got up and danced with each other! I had been hoping to have a dance with the petite blue-haired guy, who had turned up in full motorbiking leathers and helmet but when he peeled his layers off to a mesh shirt, revealing a tatooed torso (including "Unconditional" written across his belly), he assumed the female role with his dance partner (wearing a "Queer Tango Festival" tshirt), I knew that he wasn't going to be asking a giant like me to follow his leed.

Soon, women were dancing with women too. Very few women in Brisbane can lead but both men and women seemed proficient at both roles - leading and following. Mid song, the leader would gracefully move their partner's hand and assume the following pose.

Kristen and I did eventually manage to find a few straight men to take us onto the dance floor including the old Porteno singer (performing with his grandson), a funky Indian in dapper, tight red waistcoat, a graceful older Chinese gent (who danced beautifully with his wife and took Kristen under his wing) and our new Indian (?) Mexican friend Darryl (who wanted a photo with us, thinking we were as good or better than Nicole Kidman!).

Friday, June 12, 2009

San Francisco

"The City", as San Franciscans like to call their town, has been home for me for almost a week. After that brief time, I'd be happy to call it home for a longer time some day. Cosily settled into Kristen's 1920's flat (see sketch below) with a soft bed that folds out of the wall on an ancient mechanism, and green views of the back and neighbouring gardens, I've been venturing out daily to explore the different modes of transport (with the exception of cycling), hilly streets, architecture, street murals, food spots and outdoor gear shops.

I rate this city in my top 5, along with Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Bristol (can I include Brisbane?). Its diversity of people, districts (gay, Chinese, Italian, Latino, hippy, yuppy), grand parks, hilly terrain, old and new architecture and food have all entranced me. The City does have its flaws, as all do, with homelessness (street people with paper cups and escaped shopping trolleys overflowing with belongings, begging on almost every block) and an icy climate, even in summer. Despite June being the start of summer, I don't recall being warm or close to hot in the time I've been here. Frozen would be a more familiar sensation for me here (good training for my trip north) and I often wonder how all those without homes to sleep in at night cope. Thankfully the colourful and elaborately painted timber buildings, which must keep painters in demand, brighten the many grey days, psychologically.

One of the most noticeable things about San Francisco is the lack of smog. Mist and clouds abound but pollution seems absent. This would be partly due to the chilly sea breezes but also the fact that many people use public transport or ride bicycles and the majority of cars are small hybrids. Buses, trams, cable cars, muni (underground bus) and BART (Bay Area rapid transit) all run on hydro and wind-powered electricity. The odd buses that escape the cobwebs of overhead power cables, normally connected to by long antennae, run on biodiesel. I have made the most of testing all these public transport modes to get around town, as part of a "City Pass" deal - a week's pass to key city destinations (galleries, Academy of Science) and unlimited travel on all public transport except the BART.

The main connection from the Castro, where I'm staying, to the city is the "F" line - a tram line running trolley cars salvaged from all over the nation and world - Kansas City, Boston, Philadelphia, Alabama (see photo from 1947), Cleveland and from Milan, Italy. Each is has a unique colour scheme and style of its era, from elaborate Victorian to streamlined 1950's with its history displayed inside.

With bicycle paths criss crossing the city, cycling is popular and anything goes with bike types and dress, though helmets are consitently substituted with dapper hats or hairdos. Lycra-clad cyclists seem an endangered species here.

Big American life

Most of the time I forget I'm in the US as so many things here are familiar - the cars, fashions, chain stores, junk food - but then some things snap me out of this dream state:
  • Mega roads - dual carriageways are so old-school here. 4 or 5 lanes or more in each direction are common as well as double-decker bridges
  • Hummers and RV's - although most of the vehicles I've seen are small and efficient, especially in San Franciscos where the Prius rules in popularity, these now rarely-seen super inefficient beasts suggest how pre-peak oil roads might have been occupied. Out on the open roads, huge homes on wheels roam the land with full-sized 4wd's towed behind. I'm happy to demonstrate to their occupants anytime the wonders of creating a house, bed and kitchen from bicycle panniers.
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road - this still catches me out but once I start cycling, I might start to break down my instincts to look the wrong way before crossing streets
  • Imperial numbers - why is it that only one nation still clings to this very complicated way of calculating things?
  • Obama obsession - Barack Obama is on everything - fridge magnets, posters, apartment windows, caps, t-shirts. Irby was carrying out his own Obama survey after 100 days in office with an average rating of "A", sitting between his lowest score, B, and highest, A+.

  • High Mexican population - the cheap tacquerias (a frequent life-saver when I've forgotten to eat) and extensive use of Spanish. A comment
  • No plastic bags in supermarkets - all heavy recycled paper
  • Very visible homelessness
  • Megastores - after my time in the wilderness with Irby, my reintroduction to urban life was a visit with friends, Robert and Jenny, to two big megastores in one afternoon: Costco and Office Depot (like Australia/South Africa's Office Works). Neither could be easily reached without a car (no sign of bus stops or bike racks) and each swallowed up vast amounts of shoppers and merchandise. Costco sold everything from digital cameras to massive strawberry punnets, portable garden saunas to Australian red wine, meat to children toys, socks and bed linen, novels to furniture and photo printing. All the merchandise is stack 12 metres high in one vast shed. I bought a cardboard replica of a USB memory stick and then had to exchange it for the real thing at "the cage" - a secure lockup for valuable, easily-stolen items. Fortunately the system worked.
  • The word "toilet" is not used. Strangely, a toilet is a Rest Room (where is the day bed?) or a bathroom (no baths to be seen). Toilet paper is bath tissue and if you ask where the toilet or dunny is, you usually have to translate.

I'll think of more and add them in. Stay tuned

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Yosemite National Park adventures

Two days after arriving on the western shores of the US, my Patagonian hiking friend and Californian tour guide, Irby, planned to take me to Yosemite National Park. Probably being one of the most popular parks in the States (3.5 million visitors a year), I was initially resistant to the idea of joining throngs of tourists in a landscape that deserved to be peaceful and uncrowded. However, after many high recommendations from locals and Australian friends, I agreed.

The long drive out from San Francisco, took us through rolling golden grass countryside of the Oak Tree Plains heading towards grey skies to the west. The landscape reminded me of South Australia in summer.

We only got a brief taste of the crowds (most contained within the valley) as we joined a slow crawl through Yosemite Valley - set by the traffic, pedestrians and wildlife and the dramatic granite peaks. Many people use the extensive cycle/walking paths which meander around the valley floor in preference to the road, reducing car traffic a little. We gathered information about the hike options, the ominous weather forecasts and the bears and did a short walk to the foot of the dramatic Yosemite Falls through beautiful forest, before winding up to the higher plateaus of the park around Tuolumne Meadows. When greeted by torrential rain and hail and high winds soon after picking up our bear barrel (for safe food storage), and discovering that Irby was without wet weather gear or a tent, we sought shelter in the cosiness of Tuolumne Meadows Resort to warm up on hearty homemade fruit pie. Irby wisely suggested seeking warmer, drier climes in Death Valley, before returning a few days later to try again.

I'm glad we did return. Hetch Hetchy sounded like a more remote location for hiking and the weather forecast was more stable (we were snowed on when crossing Tuolumne Meadow on our return). Irby hadn't ever been there, which was another incentive.

Packing gear for a hike into bear country is serious business. Bear are attracted to anything with a scent - deoderant, toothpaste, lip balm, suncream, insect repellent, moisturiser and, of course, food. Nothing can be left in a car as bears will break in (even for an empty soft drink bottle). These things have to be stored in hefty steel food boxes in the carparks (with almost human-proof locks) or on your body, with bear bins as the only approved and non-fineable means of storing bear temptations overnight. This was good training for Alaska where bear-proofing will be much more critical. Perhaps as a result of our dilligence, the only bear we saw was from the car in a meadow.

HETCH HETCHY HIKE - 3rd, 4th June

Hetch Hetchy Valley's O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923 with much controversy and resistance. It supplies unfiltered drinking water (delicious) to San Francisco's bay area - 85% of its total needs as well as generating electricity (totalling 218mW). Many walks start across the dam wall, on the other side of a long and large tunnel hewn out of the granite.

With uncertain weather, we decided to do the return walk around the lake to Rancheria Falls. The icy, green-hued lake unravelled as we followed the trail near the base of the granite cliffs and the distances were deceptive. From early on, we could see our campsite, marked by a broad white brush of foaming whitewater but it took 4 hours to reach it.

The trail was stunningly beautiful and the lushness of the vegetation, cooled air and profusion of wildflowers was a pleasant relief after the baking heat of the desert. Our trail was shaded with lichen-speckled trees (not that we needed shade due to stormclouds) and the path, though uneven, was elaborately constructed from stone, like a rustic version of the Inca Trail. Although Yosemite is teeming with human visitors, this lakeside pocket was quiet and even quieter beyond the drenching Wapama Falls where few daytrippers continue. There, the path widened out in parts where wildflowers in blues, lilac, purple, pinks, yellows and oranges bloomed in profusion. While Irby plodded on under heavy pack, I played hare to the tortoise, getting left behind, taking photos of flowers, plants, creatures and vistas, then dashing to catch up.

Although we saw no bears, ground squirrels were everywhere and suprising translucent fire red newts (like geckos) enjoyed the damp puddles and shade around the waterfalls. A jerky robotic-looking mule deer passed through our camp the following morning - a delicate, beautiful creature straight out of "Bambi", the movie. We think we heard a bear at dusk, as we were walking the last stretch to the camp across the rock slabs to Rancheria Falls and the camping area. A surprised roar, it could have been one, or perhaps the Germans we found camped down by the river - a cold dip in the river perhaps.

The spacious campsite was idyllic and shared with 3 other tents. Sheltered in a pine forest and only a short walk to the falls, it felt cosy and perhaps offered Irby some psychological weather-protection from the thunderstorms brewing in the distance (which fortunately didn't come).

With more time and food, we could have completed a loop up into the mountains above the lake but along with our limitations, the thought of a hot shower after 4 nights without was too appealing. With some regret, we walked back around the lake (this time with bursts of sunshine which released the floral fragrances). Not racing the daylight, we had more time to enjoy the granite landscape and wildflowers and picnicked in the sun beside the cooling Wapama Falls.

Within 4 or 5 hours, we were back in civilisation - Pleasant Hill, home of the Irby's. Hot showers, clean clothes and a soft, soft bed.

For more photos see

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Architecture of the Alabama Hills

So far on my travels, I've been surprised at the lack of contemporary architecture. Building seems to be strongly sentimental, making it difficult to discern old from new. Irby and Steve's hiking friend, retired architect Brian Webb, has created an exception for himself and his wife near Lone Pine.

Appearing to be of heavy masonry, its strong block forms are in fact built in lightweight construction to cope with earthquakes. Here are some of the features, in case you're curious:
  • 5.5" thick timber studs with bracing ply on the outside and inside
  • Rendered board externally
  • Heavy bulk insulation to wall cavities
  • Plasterboard internal wall linings
  • Double-glazed windows and doors
  • Polished concrete topping slab with colouring from sprinkled oxides - this sits over "bubblewrap"-type insulation and pipework for subfloor heating above a strong concrete raft slab.
Large windows to the west frame view of Mt Whitney, the highest point in continental USA at 4,418m while others look out to the Inyo Mountains, the play area of Irby, Steve and Brian.

We enjoyed the view from the comfy couches in Brian and Grace's open plan living room, while sipping delicious red wine and nibbling on blue cheese. I was slightly self-conciousl about the fact that I hadn't showered for 3 days and had plenty of desert dust on me but our hosts were very understanding.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Death Valley - 1st, 2nd June

The name Death Valley conjours up unpleasant images of harsh, life-threatening conditions, darkness and doom. So too do the names of places within the valley and neighbouring ones - Badwater, Furnace Creek, Funeral Mountains. It is the hottest (up to 54 degrees C in summer), lowest and driest (1.5 inches annual rainfall) place in the north american continent. Who would be drawn to such a place?

For the last 1000 years the native American tribe, Timbisha, has resided in the area and from the 1849, when the valley was given it's English name, mining of gold, silver and borax attracted hardy prospectors, miners and other folk. I was taken there by my Patagonian hiking friend, Irby, who resides near San Francisco. When Yosemite greeted us with snow, hail and heavy rain and freezing temperatures, he suggested a warmer destination....around 30 degrees hotter.

After the huge drive down, and overnighting on the floor a Irby's friend, Steve's, house, we headed into the hottest, driest, lowest point at Badwater in Death Valley, timing it perfectly with roasting sun and hot wind for the full desert experience. While the conditions, rocky ground and stubborn stubble of vegetation were familiar from travels in outback Australia, the mountain ranges created by volcanic action and great geological forces was far taller and more varied in texture and colour than anything we have on our ancient, weather-worn continet. Silky blonde dunes nestled at the base of the mountains in the junction between Death and Panamint valleys and faint lines of miner's roads and donkey triails criss crossed the hillsides behind. These dramatic ranges, painted with colours of chocolate brown, deep purple, cream, lime, pink, aqua, yellow, orange from rich minerals, brought back fond memories of cycling in the Bolivian Altiplano in 2003.

Itching to stretch my legs after the long plane flight and the very long drive (665km the previous day and 170km to and from Badwater), we headed up the Panamint Range - the rugged ridgeline west of Death Valley, with its highest point, Telescope Peak (3478m). This ascent (in the car) also reduced the air temperture by around 20 degrees C from the valley basin - life in the desert could be achievable. With the cooler temperatures, came trees and flowering plants - Pinyon, Limber and Bristlcone pines, Junipers, Lupins with purple blooms and vivid red Indian Paintbrushes - relief on the eye after the harsh, dusty brightness of the lower desert.

On the way up the hill to Mahogany Flat, we stopped off at the photogenic charcoal kilns built in 1879 by Chinese to a design by a Swiss engineer. Their stone beehive forms (almost 8m high x 9m wide) with stone-spiked crowns turned the Pinyon Pines into charcoal to fuel a smelter 30 miles away. The pine population thankfully seems to have made a recovery since 1882, when the kilns closed after their brief use. Being the first inspiring architectural form I'd seen in the desert, I snapped away with my cameras and imagined ways of occupying these magic spaces in their stumpy forest setting.

Time was running out before our rendezvous with our Ridgewater friend, Steve, so after a very late lunch, we headed up the Mahogany trail towards Telescope Peak, with no hope of reaching the summit. However, the extra elevation gave us great panoramas over the Death Valley Basin and Funeral Mountains and my legs got a bit of a workout. I met my second snake for the day on that walk, a striped racer - one of many reptiles encountered in the region. At my turnaround point, I was 3000m above Badwater - a huge change in altitude.

The icing sugar cloud puffs over the Panamint Range were slowly gaining volume. As we snaked down the mountain ridge, rain clouds illuminated by spears of sunshine through the clouds marked our evening destination of Minietta Cabin, nestled in Thompsons Canyon in the foothills. After a celebratory beer when Steve arrived, we hopped into his sturdier 4wd for the ascent to the cabin up the rocky road.

Minietta Cabin is one of 30 huts in the west California desert region - all free to use and maintained primarily by volunteers. Minietta, a former gold and silver mine, did have companion buildings until a few years ago when a couple of GI's decided to have a bit of fun with explosives in their free time. Without power or water but lots of indoor space cluttered with mementos and paraphenalia added by various guests, the hut is a character-filled retreat or base for mountain adventures. Despite the hospitable interior, we cooked outdoors to soak up the view in the last hours of daylight - Irby and me making lentil dhal and Steve, instant noodles to accompany his pop tarts. The view from the deck by sunset, moonlight and sunrise across to the Panamint Valley and wall of the Panamint Range was stunning.

Sleeping under the stars always seems like such a nice idea but with a bright moon and heavy air traffic, I had to blindfold and earplug myself. Fortunately, I removed the blind briefly in the night to see the Milky Way spread across the pitch black sky and two shooting stars.

At the suggestion of climbing Zinc Peak, I enthusiastically said "Yes please", to escape the quickly building heat of the valley floor and to burn up some energy before another long drive.

We drove around the arid Argyle Range, following Darwin Canyon to start the walk, after a hairy drive up a gravelly narrow ridge. We found the remnants of a zigzagging miner/donkey trail to follow, edged with rocks up the western flanks of Zinc Peak. A geologist's haven, this mountain is split in two hugely different halves - to the north, pale egg-shaped granite and marble-like stone and to the south, dark shaley, sharp rock with a crumble topping of small aerated stones.

Amongst the tough plants on the hillside were many delicate wild flowers which just like in Australia - a reminder that beauty can be found in the harshest of places. We also found a Horned Toad (an odd looking lizard, not unlike some of our reptiles), a Chuckwalla (a bigger lizard with a bright white tail) and swallows at the summit being tossed around by the wind.

The mountain range was very peaceful - just the crunch of our boots and the breeze....most of the time. There is a naval base nearby, which we could see from the summit, and from there launched fighter jets which tore around above and below us. Being boys, my hiking companions were in awe but I found their presence a bit unnerving.

For more photos visit the following link:
Modern architecture - Brian Webb, Lone Pine