As strange as it may be, I’ve come to enjoy 4:30 am call times. It’s become the staple start time to adventures up North. Whether it’s a drive to the Redwoods, the Oregon Coast or the Sierra Nevadas it doesn’t really matter. With Los Angeles just 2 hrs north of us, beating the rush hour traffic means getting up early! I pulled up to Tyler's Driveway just past 4:30am, we tossed his gear in the back of my trusty 2000 4x4 Durango and we hit the road headed for Sequoia National Park.
Being in a band, I’m no stranger to long drives. I always think of a place as “far” only if it takes longer than half a day’s drive to get there. So, the Sierras being only about a 7 hr drive from San Diego, it fits in the “short drive” category. Feeling confident for the glory that awaited the other end of the drive, we were both in good spirits. “Very soon we will be walking among the Giant Sequoias” we said, excitement evident in our voices.
Tyler and I have developed somewhat of a “Creative Adventure-hood” over the years. What started as a work partnership quickly became a friendship. At this point we’ve done so many trips and have had so many things go wrong and right, that every time we head for another adventure it really feels like we’ve arrived at the “road trip navy seals” status (and overconfidence is always a good thing right?).
As a rule of thumb for life, you never really know what’s going to happen, no matter how prepared you may be (and trust me, we were not very prepared). It doesn’t take long in the school of hard knocks to realize this. Add to that equation that we were sporting a 20 year old car and driving to the mountains in the middle of winter and well…things can get spicy pretty quick. I had quickly glanced at the weather report the day before we left, and noticed that California was having an unusually wet winter. I was able to deduct from this that there was probably a good amount of snow in the mountains. That being said, my overly sanguine spirit urged us on and assured Tyler that not only would everything be fine, but that the chains I had from my last vehicle (RIP) would surely get us through any snow we might encounter on the way. As ominous as my blessed assurance sounds, we were in for a couple of surprises.
We were entering the gateway to the Sierras in no-time after unashamedly downing drive through coffee and breakfast to fuel our 7 hr drive. At this point, we were finally getting close to the Park entrance. The signs started lining the streets every few miles. “Chains for Sale” and “Chains Required up Ahead” and “Winter Road Conditions” they read. My unwavering confidence in the chains I had brought along—not to mention my nearly bald front tires—was slowly starting to fade. Despite this seed of doubt—which I quickly shoved to the back of my mind—we carried on. Up and up the windy road we went, having assured the Park attendant that we had chains and were good to go! Switch back after switchback, view after view as Bon Iver crooned Indie Folk in the background. We were mesmerized by the snow capped peaks and pearly pines surrounding us. We climbed higher and higher. Up the mountain we went, looking forward to seeing the Giant Sequoias.
This mythical phase of the trip lasted for about an hour. Finally, we came to the first icy spot on the road. Having made it thus far with no problems and feeling that a little snow and ice wasn’t about to stop us, we pressed on. This was beginning: The first of many trials….Seeing that about 6 cars ahead of us were parked and putting on chains, we decided that we should do the same. It was at this time that we quickly realized that my trusty old chains from my previous car “Old Red” were not going to fit. The reality sank in like a punch to the gut. Ouch… Agreeing that we would rather not careen off of the side of a cliff in our search for big trees, we cast two votes to turn around and pick up some chains that would work. We clumsily—and quiet crudely—unstuck ourselves from the slippery road using a trusty quilted blanket that I always keep in the back of my vehicle. We were on our way back down the mountain—Bon Iver, no longer playing and the mood a little somber (note to reader: It turns out that a quilted blanket placed under the tire provides enough momentary tread to thrust your car forward, providing just enough momentum to get you unstuck). It was a 2 hr detour to return to the park entrance where we picked up new chains. Selah.
We “somewhat” quickly got back on the road with the proper gear we needed. “We are no strangers to bumps in the road”, we thought. But not before receiving an ominous “Be careful” from the store clerk—who no doubt was making untold amounts of wealth off unprepared tourists needing chains. “Just last week someone slipped off the side of a cliff and the Park’s been closed up until today because of the snow.” Tyler and I looked at each other with crazy eyes. Yikes! “Looks like we made it at just the right time” we said as we headed back up the windy road.
Despite the apparent odds against us and a mounting feeling that we actually could die on this trip, we made it to the ancient Sequoia groves, arriving just a few hrs later than we had expected. The child-like wonder in us was awakened as we marveled at the the gigantic circumferences of the largest trees in the world. We trudged through the 5ft deep snow, took photos, ate cliff bars, threw snowballs and laughed as we slipped and slid our way through the National Park. Time flies when your having fun. Dusk quickly fell upon us and feeling both humbled and satisfied that we had made it to our destination despite the previous detour, we headed for a small hotel outside of the National Park to enjoy a meal and figure out our plan for the following day.
At this point, I was pretty exhausted, and so was Tyler. Originally we had planned to drive straight to Alabama hills that night—which would have been another 6 hr drive—but having learned from mistakes in our past—from trips untold and unmentioned—we decided that a good nights rest would do us good. One day in and we were already showing signs of road weary travelers. Bags under our eyes, slight grins and a slight pensiveness mixed with happiness. We passed into a temporary coma until the following morning as our alarms jolted our aching bodies awake at 4:30am. We brewed the nastiest cup of hotel coffee ever, and hit the road once again.
Tyler had never been to Alabama Hills, nor Convict Lake for that matter. I was stoked to show him some of my favorite California hangouts. As we drove, and the hours passed us by, we noted that the sky was growing darker as we made our way up the 395 into the Great Basin. I maintained a sliver of hope that we were still going to get to see Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the continental U.S) and that Convict Lake would be visible at the time of our arrival.
As we pulled into Lone Pine and drove down Whitney Portal Road, no magical parting of the clouds occurred. In fact, we were in for a snow storm within the next 24 hours. Tempted to be disappointed, we drove around the Mars like rock formations, and found ourselves enjoying the unique feel that a stormy Alabama Hills carried. With all the rain and snow this year, it almost felt as if we were in Iceland. The Desert grass was colorful and nourished, the wind was chilly and the mountain base was covered in a white blanket of fresh snow. The brown of the wet earth mixed with the black clouds and created a mood and atmosphere that we couldn’t help but appreciate.
Proceeding a short-lived exploration of the area, we headed for our true hope of the day; Convict lake and then a famed hot spring in the vicinity. I had been talking up this hot spring to Tyler non-stop for the past 24 hrs. “This hot spring will change your life” I assured with confidence. Naturally, as our bodies grew weary from the long drives and hiking, we desired the oasis of warm mineral water more and more. It became our sole motivator to keep going, despite the knowledge that a storm was brooding up ahead. Ominous clouds surrounded us as we pressed on. Further and further into the Sierra Nevadas. We stared ahead, dreaming of toasty hot springs surrounded by a snow covered valley. As if some great cause was depending on our completion of this journey we pressed on with knightly valor.
We sped down the highway, increasing in fervor and excitement. Deeming however, that my front tires would likely be the cause of our death, we stopped in Bishop and replaced them before entering the snow zone. Armed with our chains and new front tires, we decided that we had come too far to turn back. Again we received a foreboding word from the gas station clerk. “I wouldn’t be going up there in these conditions unless I absolutely had to” he said. “This guy obviously doesn’t know about the hot springs,” we thought. Tyler and I nervously laughed and shrugged it off. we headed further North. We climbed in elevation and the temperature started dropping. It wasn’t long before we hit ice and snow. Feeling like snow veterans from our previous day of adventure, we latched the chains back on and continued making our way down the highway. Having been broken previously, the Durango's 4x4 shifter conveniently bumped into gear as we were driving up the hill to Convict lake. It felt as if everything was in our favor.
The stoke was high, the snow was soft, and the lighting was good. Similarly to our Alabama Hills epiphany, there was not a chance that we were going to see any mountains this day. It was nearly white-out conditions and the entire lake was covered by several feet of snow. We attempted to trudge through the snow, hoping to find some sort of viewpoint, but quickly realized that without snow shoes, we wouldn’t be making it far. Being from Southern California, we were more versed with flip flops than snow gear, and it hadn’t even crossed our minds that we might need such gear for this trip. Every third or fourth step we were stuck in waist deep snow. We trudged and crawled a hundred yards before we decided we’d better call it quits. “It’s time” we thought. “Lets go soak in that hot spring.”
We were feeling euphoric. We could not wait to receive the crown jewel of our trip. “Everything we’ve gone through to get here is for this moment” we thought. As we passed by the entrance to the hike (to get to the tub), we observed that the road was completely buried in several feet of snow. We likely would have tried to drive in, but having spotted a car that was stuck—having attempted to make the drive in—we decided that hiking in was the way to go. Knowing that we had our trusty quilted blanket in the back of my car, we helped the folks who were stuck get back on the main road. Old faithful came through like a charm and we had them out of there within 20 minutes.
Having made some new friends—who we found out were visiting from France—we decided, “Hey, it’s almost sunset and we’ve come all this way to soak in a Hot tub. Let's hike in and make it happen.” Feeling that we were about to have what was likely going to be the best experience of our lives, we hurriedly hiked from the entrance as fast as we possibly could towards where we believed the hot spring to be located. Hiking through 4 ft of snow in regular hiking boots however, proved to be a challenge. Thinking that a mile hike shouldn’t take more than 20 min, we pressed on.
With the high elevation and the strenuous nature of snow hiking (especially without snow shoes), it started to dawn on me that firstly, we may never find this hot spring as everything looked the same with the amount of snow on the ground, and secondly, that with the sun setting very soon, we could very easily get disoriented in the dark. As the temperature continued to drop, I started thinking that if one of us got altitude sickness it would be very hard to carry them back to get help. I started to feel sick. That instinctual human awareness of danger started to rise in my chest.
We had a quick meeting to see if we should press on. I shared my thoughts, but even so, I agreed that there might still be hope to find this hot spring, so we pressed on. Glancing at my watch time and time again, I saw that it was now 8 min from sunset and we were a mile deep on a trail that we couldn’t really see. It was at this point, that we re-convened for a group meeting. Everyone’s face looked exhausted and our cheeks were rosy from the cold. My left foot was numb and it was getting dark. There was some slight disagreement among us, but we concluded that if we didn’t start hiking back, we could easily find ourselves in an actual life-threatening predicament. We decided we weren't going to be those tourists on the local news being pulled out of the snow from a hiking tragedy the next morning. We started hiking back as the sky faded from white, to blue, to black.
As the already low visibility became even less, we trudged through the snow, our pace growing slower and slower from fatigue. I tried my best to trace our foot steps from earlier, but it was becoming increasingly hard in the dark. I reached down to tie my left shoe lace. My foot was completely numb. I realized that all of this was silly. Hiking in without the right gear so late in the day. I felt a bit worried, and scared.
It took an hour to hike back. Step by step, trudging through the deep snow with numb feet. Finally we rounded a white corner which revealed our cars. I couldn’t help but feel that we had just escaped a really bad situation. Exhausted, but glad to be alive and without frost-bite, Tyler and I said goodbye to our new friends and started the 8 hr drive back to San Diego. We were tired but ready to be home after the events of the past 48 hours. We had seen ancient trees, beautiful desert rocks and snow covered valleys, but it was time to go home. Ready for a hot shower and a home cooked meal we grabbed a quick bite to eat at Bishop's famous "meat-and-3", and started cruising down the highway.
The 4x4 that had engaged earlier was a welcome upgrade to our driving stability through the snow, but due to the lever being broken, I had not been able to disengage it. We shrugged our shoulders and kept barreling down the highway towards San Diego. Deep into a Podcast as the clock rounded midnight, we talked about what an adventure the last few days had been. Then it happened. Crack! Bump. Ggg gg grrrrrummm bummmmmm. The Durango cluttered and crackled to a halt. It was 12:30 AM in the middle of nowhere. We were broke down in the desert.
What happened the next 24 hrs could be an entire novel of its own. We happened to break down right next to a gas station, a motel and a mechanic. Sketchy figures passed by our car, whom I was convinced were on their way to siphon gas from one of the many abandoned vehicles sitting around us (we could only assume they had broken down there too). We called AAA, got towed to the local mechanic and checked into “The Hotel California”. The only question I received when checking in was, “Smoking or non smoking?”, foreshadowing the grimness of the room we were about to sleep in. Despite the inconvenience, we survived the bed bugs for that night and after bumming around the small town for the following 18 hours, received news that the car was fixed and that we were good to go.
We arrived back in San Diego 3 days after our trip had begun. We were exhausted, but happy to be home. The following week felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. I felt like I had mild PTSD or at least had experienced something of impact. Of all the trips I’ve taken with Tyler, none have been so perilous, beautiful, tiring and rewarding. The images we captured on this trip are among my favorite. We had some really heavy and beautiful conversations during the long drives. We found a new level of bad coffee from the first nights hotel. We found a renewed appreciation and respect for nature and we felt the fragility of these lives we lead. Between the ice slips and the scare on the hike, it really brought the gift of everyday to the forefront of our minds. Would I approach a similar trip in the same way again? Definitely not. But, we learned a lot, saw some beautiful things and lived to tell the tale. Note to self. Prepare more, stay flexible, and keep having fun: dead men tell no tales.
Thanks for reading.