Joy Unscheduled

Trip Start Jun 22, 2010
Trip End Dec 15, 2011

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, September 23, 2011

Mike and I had a little fight this morning. He was irritated by my lack of planning for this trip. I understood his frustration. I had booked the trip in April, but that was all I did. Earlier in the week, we had learned that we needed permits to hike up to Half Dome and it was way too late to obtain them. I wanted to point out that if I had planned ahead we would be hiking almost 15 miles and 5000 feet to Half Dome today. This had sounded like a great idea back in Monterey, but the hike yesterday had clearly left my husband exhausted. I tried to explain that I did not want to be too scheduled, that I wanted to see how the trip would unfold, deciding each day what we wanted to do.  I also wanted to add that if he was so concerned, he could have done the research. However, he seemed a little too cranky for that comment. I suggested a couple of hikes, but Mike finally admitted that he was too tired to do another "crazy hike" up the canyon walls. As always I wanted to explore as much as possible, so I suggested if we weren't going to go far on foot that we drive the hour and a half to Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierras for a couple short hikes and some sight-seeing along the way.  After leaving the Valley Floor, we drove through pretty but ubiquitous pine forests until reaching Olmstead Point.

Huge granite plutons bulged high above the road.  We pulled into the overlook viewing tall Pines growing from more giant boulders.  Areas of the bedrock had been polished smooth leaving evidence that this was all once covered by glaciers. Beyond the trees and rocks was Yosemite Valley and the vista offered another view of Half Dome; this vantage point showcasing its rounded side. To the east, Tenaya Lake’s deep blue water shimmered below the three rounded mountains framing all but the western side.

A few miles down the road, the Tuolumne Meadow Visitor Center recommended we walk the Soda Spring Trail and then head east leaving the park to see Mono Lake. Named for the carbonated water that bubbles out of a spring, the Soda Springs hike was flat, short and tranquil. We had escaped the masses of the Yosemite Valley. The meadow was flanked by domes and peaks. The northern sides containing small glaciers protected from the warm sun. I could imagine vast herds of moose and elk once roaming the serene meadows and drinking from the meadow.  

Feeling refreshed from the mountain air and the bit of exercise, we continued driving to Mono Lake.  As we climbed higher in the Sierras we passed more beautiful lakes and ice-capped mountains. Just shy of 10,000 feet, we exited the park at Tioga Pass and began the descent down the rain shadow side of the mountains. Examining the semi-arid environment, I questioned if this was the correct choice. I love forests much more than the desert.  Mike and I decided that since we had made the trip maybe we could at least find a place in Mono Lake to swim. I knew that it had once been a volcano that had exploded, so I figured the water had to be warmer than the snowmelt river we swam in yesterday.

A quick trip in the Mono Lake Visitor Center and we were directed to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake for sightseeing and swimming. Being a geographer, I am a bit ashamed to admit that I had no knowledge about tufa. Apparently tufa is a limestone rock formation that forms when springs with high calcium levels mix with carbonate-rich lake water. Over hundreds of years, towers, similar to stalagmites in caves, form underwater. In the middle of the last century, new water policies resulted in water that normally flows into Mono Lake being diverted to large population centers. As a result, the water level in Mono Lake receded revealing the tufa. Further exacerbating this issue, the lake lies in an arid region with high rates of evaporation. Every day more water is lost into the atmosphere. Besides the unusual tufa landscape, the evaporation causes the lake to be 2.5 times saltier than the ocean.

As soon as we left the parking lot, we began passing tufa surrounded by desert scrub.  We were still at least 200 yards from the water itself. The tufa disclosing how much was once underwater.  We reached the shore; it was unlike anything I have ever seen before. I could’ve been on the moon. I looked at the desert landscape surrounding the large lake. Despite the warm temperatures where I was standing, glaciers clung to the sides of the western mountains.  Over 300 miles from the ocean, seagulls dipped down into the sapphire water.  

The water was only shin-deep for several feet from the shore. As soon as the water reached my thighs, I realized it was much cooler than I anticipated. I knew if I wanted to swim I better just dive in. Unsure of the water’s depth I entered via a shallow dive.  I was rewarded with a nose full of very salty water. Once my airways were cleared, I discovered how effortlessly I could float due to the high salinity of the water. Copying Mike I folded my hands behind my head and laid back.  It was very relaxing, but I soon got antsy as I wanted to look around. I flipped over on my stomach and floated with my head up admiring the tufa and glaciers.

The only downside to swimming was the alkali flies. They were particularly fond of Mike, making me wonder if they were turned off by the sunscreen I had layered on. Despite this minor annoyance, I found myself feeling giddy.  My love for travel was renewed by this unexpected discovery.  I was almost overwhelmed by the joy of seeing something completely new. I wanted to soak up every second of the feeling. Unfortunately, the point came when the sun began to lower in the sky and getting chilly we ended our swim.

Walking back to the car, we finished the South Tufa nature loop.  This portion of the trail demonstrating that the lake was at least twice as big at one time.  It was such a sad testimony to poor environmental policies, yet I could not help but be captivated by the unique and beautiful creation that man’s mistake had made.

Before our trip, a friend had told me that a gas station here had a gourmet chef. Famished from swimming we pulled into the Mono Lake Mobil. Fish tacos for Mike and Ahi tuna on a seaweed salad for me. We settled outside at picnic tables overlooking the lake. I looked at Mike and then down at myself, our skin was crusted with salt. I touched my hair which felt like a five year old dirty mop, but I didn’t care. Our food arrived and we inhaled every bite of the deliciousness while enjoying the gorgeous view.  Tufa, glaciers, gourmet gas station food…A reminder to always have an open mind because you might get to experience a unexpected, unplanned, spectacular, perfect day.  
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