(Not so) Sunny California

“LA County has a higher population than 40 of the 50 states in the Union,” a fun fact we heard listening to the radio as we were experiencing it first hand sitting in bumper to bumper traffic trying to drive the bus into North Hollywood. Fortunately we found our way through the masses to meet Mike who was nice enough to tour us around. We first went by Venice Beach and then the Hollywood sign and the star walk. Mike also talked us into experiencing a true southwest classic, In And Out burger. We have to say, it was pretty tasty although it broke our streak of no fast food for the trip. That is, sober fast food, as in New Orleans we experienced the stomach wrenching Krystal Burger, and Las Vegas brought us the unfortunately similar White Castle. Later that night we also got to meet up with Jordan and all went out for dinner which was a cool experience for Louis who got to see his two worlds from both college and high school collide.

A few Burros among the vastness near Death Valley

Sand Dunes within this massive park

The next morning we woke up in the hills of Malibu where we failed at finding Barbie (Or Ken if that’s your thing) but did find some amazing sites as we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway. After getting Tyler’s skis mounted, (finally!) we broke away from the coast and headed northeast towards Death Valley. The green scenery of the now drought-less southwest coast was quickly overtaken by absolutely desolate valleys of salt flats and rocky cliffs. If you were ever wondering why it may be called Death Valley, it doesn’t take long to realize the name is actually quite fitting, in fact you are faced with utter desolation more than 50 miles before the actual park entrance. The wild burros didn't seem to mind the lack of greenery though as we saw several in the valleys leading up into the park.

Death Valley is a very popular place among geologists for many reasons and I can only assume that this mountain is one of them

Lowest person in North America!

Our realizations of a place that is described first off by death continued to grow as we watched the elevations signs go from 0 to somewhere around 5000 feet just before the immense space of Death Valley became visible. We quickly made our way back down to the seemingly misplaced sea level signs that make you scratch your head in disbelief as you drive through the park. Despite our emphasis on the extreme desolation that we found driving into Death Valley we were pleased to find the park to be diverse and full of fascinating sights. From being at the lowest elevation in North America at Badwater Basin, to walking across the eye catching dunes of Mesquite Flats and even passing a green golf course in between, we found there to be more than a morbid attitude to the valley.

Louis checking out Devil's Golf Course

Water in Badwater Basin reflecting on Telescope Mountain

Tyler within the massive landscape of the salt flats

Sitting in shorts in the 87 degree weather of Death Valley and looking at the skis sitting in the back of the bus having been neglected so far on the trip, we decided it was time to migrate to the snow. This idea was not as far out of reach as you may think as the large front window of the bus was filled with snow capped peaks in no time after driving north west towards Bishop. Having to place Louis’s eyeballs back in his sockets after he saw the upcoming weather forecast calling for multiple feet of snowing falling in the mountains, we high tailed it to Mammoth Lakes, California. Upon arriving in town we made a quick stop by Mammoth Mountaineering, a super cool gear shop, to grab some necessities and beta on the area. We ended up finding an awesome place just outside of town where we could park the bus and ski right out the front door.

Hermelda in Death Valley before making the journey north towards Mammoth Lakes

Tyler leading the way up the skin track in Mammoth Lakes, CA

Having enough time still after getting into town we decided to head out for a quick ski and get a feel for the area. Our excitement to start skiing exploded as we fumbled around at first, trying to figure out the new ski setups we were both using for the first time. We got the cobwebs cleared quickly and were skinning up through the mesmerizing old growth forest in no time (for those of you who aren't familiar with back country skiing here is an explanation of how it differs to riding the ski lift). After a sloppy transition, still trying to get used to our new gear, we started down hill finding some unexpected recycled powder turns which had our far from ski shape legs burning in no time. Before heading back to the bus we took the time to do some more avalanche beacon practice to make sure our skills were sharp after only having large piles of sand as the most dangerous changing terrain during the first half of our trip.

On the way up, skiing on storm day

That night the wind bringing in the storm started to rock the bus and had our imaginations running wild for what we were going to open the bus door to the next morning. And when morning did come Mother Nature did in fact leave it up to our imagination, as we were welcomed with whiteout conditions and more high winds making sitting in the bus feel like riding in a boat with stormy seas. Catching a small break in the wind and storm, and having spent the day before plotting out our plan we headed towards the trees which provided much needed shelter from the cold winter winds. Upon finding shelter from the wind the trees also held the stash of beautiful powdery snow which we had been dreaming about since first laying eyes on the weather forecast. We spent the day skiing through the beautifully blanketed woods, laying tracks as we went with every grin inspiring turn. Then to our delight the same spots where our turns sent snow flying into our goggles and above our heads on one run, was covered up by the new falling snow leaving a blank canvas for each run thereafter.

As our legs grew sore from all of the hiking and lack of skiing in the first part of the trip we headed back to the bus. At the bus we met others who were taking advantage of the newly fallen snow and let them in to use the bus as shelter from the still powerful winds. As our plans were to head into town to check it out after skiing we got the bus ready to leave, but quickly learned that Mother Nature had other plans for us. In fact the new snow and wind had turned the completely clear road that we had driven into the parking area on the day before into a literal car graveyard. While helping out a new friend rescue their car from the snow drifts we found another car a little further down the road completely buried to the roof in the snow and then a truck with a camper buried half way even further. With our chance of leaving the parking area seriously improbable we invited the other parking lot prisoners into the bus for some coffee, tea and cards.

After a pot of coffee and a couple rounds of hearts we learned that the road wouldn't be cleared until most likely the next morning. Being that we didn't have any other sleeping bags and we were only a mile from downtown Mammoth, our new friends decided to skin out to the main road leaving us in the bus for another exciting night of rough seas. The next day the storm had finally cleared and we headed out for a quick ski in the morning. On our way up we caught a glimpse of the massive front loader with a monstrous snow blower attachment begin clearing the road with a not exaggerated 20+ foot wind drift. After climbing higher and finding interesting conditions due to the high winds we lapped some more trees and made our way back to the bus. Arriving at the bus we tried right away to get it started, but didn't have any success. The reason for our lack of success was easily revealed as Tyler opened up the hood exposing the completely snow encrusted engine of the bus. The extremely high winds forced a bit of snow inside the bus during the night, but we never even thought about its ability to get under the hood. After spending the afternoon sweeping the snow off the engine and leaving the sun to melt the rest we were still failing at getting Hermelda started.

The calm after the storm. On our way up for a few more turns before dealing with the bus

Still some fun snow even after all of the wind

Seeing that the next day was supposed to reach 43 degrees with plenty of sun we retreated to one of our new found friends houses for the night as it was supposed to be quite cold again and we were uncertain about the amount of propane we had left for our heater. We enjoyed a delicious meal and spent the night learning about the U.K. and swapping travel stories. Refueled and with new hopes, the next morning started with some epic espresso from Chaz before we headed back to the bus to continue getting things thawed out. After making a tent for the engine and using the last little bit of our propane to heat everything up we were able to seek help from a local woman walking her dog who was kind enough to give us a jump start for our depleted batteries.  Even after 20 minutes of charging, her little Subaru was no match for Hermelda’s big o’l batteries.

Hermelda's engine after a night of high winds and snow

The road that trapped us in for the night after being cleared

View from part way up Mount Tallac

Spirits were getting low as we went to our last resort, calling AAA to get us going. Despite the service not normally being offered for buses and RVs, the visibly experienced old man who showed with a cigarette hanging from his lips and permanently oil stained clothes certainly did not back down.  We hooked Hermelda up to his massive Diesel engine made for towing vehicles from whatever sticky situation he may find them in. The wait to start light came on, “beep beep beep beep.” The engine still dripping with water after being all thawed out, seemed like it might go. When Louis turned the key, all but a pitiful attempt was made by the still low amount of power left in the batteries. “We need MORE POWER” our roadside mechanic, turned superhero, said. While still connected to the diesel truck, he hooked us up to a battery booster. Again, the wait to start light illuminated, “beep beep beep.” Louis turned the key and things were sounding better but not quite there. 2 more attempts and we were on the last bit of power left in the booster pack. The wait to start light glimmered with hope, “beep beep beep”, Louis turned the key and kept it turned for what felt like an eternity. Finally the engine seemed to get going but did not sound good. Our AAA protagonist told Louis to pump the gas as fast as he could to keep up with the engine as the booster pack was now out of juice. After pumping the gas for about a minute it began to feel as if we were inflating a balloon with an obvious hole, but we pressed on. Eventually, Hermelda came back to life, spitting out a chunk of ice from her innards like a human spitting out a chunk of spaghetti and meatballs after being given the Heimlich maneuver.

Once she was all warmed up and we finished dancing inside the bus overcome with joy and possibly the caffeine from the espresso we made to lift our spirits prior to trying to start the bus, we hit the road and headed North towards Lake Tahoe. We started off by doing a quick ski tour near Mount Tallac which was cut short due to snow conditions being wetter than the bright turquoise water of the lake below. The temps continued to rise getting to over 50 degrees before making it back to the bus.  We then drove around the scenic east side of the lake stopping at the beautiful sand harbor. After wading through the snow to get to the sand we reached the crystal clear Lake Tahoe with views and reflections of the snowy mountains that surround it. Our last stop of the day was to check out Squaw Valley where coincidentally two friends from college were visiting on break, Alicia and Andrew. After having a beer and catching up we had to part ways as they were to catch a flight from Reno home.

At this point the plan is to continue pushing north to check out Bend, Oregon. From there we need to pick up our friend Dylan in Portland before checking out Olympic National Park.  We will then head to Seattle to pick up more friends and enjoy skiing in the Cascades

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1 Comment on “(Not so) Sunny California

  1. Yes Death Valley is indeed a unique place. I have always enjoyed my visits in that area. I am glad I wasn’t with you in the snow. But you had great skiing. Keep the updates coming and enjoy you planned excursions.

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