After a cheerful reunion, a BBQ, a pack shakedown, and a team meeting, it was time to hit the hay for an early rising and a road trip to the hopefully “clearish” skies of Yosemite. As we hit the northbound 395, a thick haze coats what should be crystal blue skies. Concern perculates in the recesses of my brain, ‘What if there is truly no place to go, then what?’. Paul is unfazed, saying, “We really won’t know till we get there.” We approach Lone Pine and our favorite diner stop, Alabama Hills Cafe. A crowd of people are lined up, waiting outside the door of this 50 seat gastric delight. Even more people are seen shuffling like zombies toward the cafe, like a scene out of the Walking Dead… it’s that good! (I honestly don’t know why I’m even telling you about this place, as it does not benefit us one bit! In fact the more people who know about this place, the longer the wait for us!) Sadly, breakfast will have to be elsewhere, so we continue northward noting the groves of people parked outside our decsending list of “favorites”, until we realize that it is Sunday morning, which explains the plethera of people out and about at these fine breakfast establishments. Our last and final attempt at a somewhat hearty breakfast, before instant oatmeal and mini crumbly donuts are the breakfast fare of the morning is achieved at The Looney Bean in Bishop. Breakfast burritos, a robust coffee for Paul and a fantastic chai latte for me, send us on our way. A smoke tinged haze hangs in the air from nearby fires (Lions, Hot Creek, Owens and of course Ferguson) reducing the visibility of the snow free jagged mountains. Considering the chaulky haze, it appears that Plan “B” and even Plan “C” may not be options if Plan “A” is a no-go. As we pass the exit to Mammoth Lakes, the smell of smoke oozes into the interior of our car. My stomach slowly ties itself into knots. Before we make the left turn onto Hwy 120 (Tioga Rd.), I text to our group our location and wait for them to respond with theirs, knowing full well that our cell service will fade almost permanently once we enter Yosemite…I think by design.
As we travel up the 120 and close in on the east entrance to Yosemite, the air is remarkably clearer than we’ve seen over the last 200 miles. We approach the entrance station hoping to find our favorite attendant, in hopes of playing “stupidest questions”, and getting him to laugh. He’s not there, so we have to settle for a simple smile and a wave of our annual pass. (We had such a great question too!). Last time we drove into Yosemite (end of May), the mountains and meadows were blanketed in bright white snow and the rivers and streams were overflowing with fast, angry, chaotic water. Now the mountains are devoid of snow, the meadows are slowly browning, and the ponds, streams and rivers have settled into a quiet tameness. We pull into the Tuolumne Wilderness Center Permit Office and retrieve our permit. We ask about the smoke, and are told that, “It was pretty clear up here until today…the winds shifted…but the fire is nearly contained, so hopefully it will be getting better.” Meanwhile, the guy next to us is trying to get a permit for Half Dome, and the Ranger is trying to talk him out of it due to the unhealthy levels of smoke near there and the fact he won’t be able to see any of the valley. He, however, insists on pulling a permit. Before we leave, we confirm that they have bear canisters available for the rest of our crew. They laugh. “Oh, we have plenty. We don’t see us running out anytime soon”. Since we have time before the bulk of our group arrives, we decide to drive down to White Wolf to check the air quality, secure a campsite, and determine where we will park Scout’s car once they arrive. We are amazed at how few people are in the park, and laugh at our impeccable timing. The smoke is far less than we experienced in the Owens Basin and definitely clearer than the Mammoth Lakes area. We might just be able to pull this off, we chuckle. We turn onto the narrow road (that at one time was the old 120) to the White Wolf campground. The lodge is already closed for the season, but the campground is wide open, practically vacant. We pinch ourselves, can this be real? An “empty” campground in Yosemite, and it’s August. Definitely surreal. We pay $18 (actually $20…as we have no change) for a campsite, and drop it into the iron ranger box. Had we stayed in the “backpackers” area we would have paid $6/person. This way we saved a whopping $34, and had a bathroom nearby. Proud of our craftiness, we drove back to the Tuolumne Meadows Store to meet up with our friends April and Josh, and Josh’s dad, brother Kaleb and his wife Katie. This will be Kaleb and Katie’s first major backpacking adventure…I hope we don’t kill them, as they are unfamiliar with 2moremiles “adventures”. Scout and Sandy (aka. Pole Dancer) won’t arrive till 5pm, which logistically makes for perfect timing. This allows us to ferry everyone to the campsite at White Wolf, pack bear canisters, and drop the cars (and smellibles into the bear lockers) at the Soda Springs trail head parking, and be able to walk back to the store, buy cold beer (and box wine) for the evening, and catch a ride with Scout and Pole Dancer to White Wolf, where they will leave their car. Of course, it only takes two people to ferry the two cars back to Soda Springs, so Paul and Josh volunteered. Meanwhile, the rest of us captured the attention of Ranger Nick who was wandering the campground literally “jonesing” for people to talk to. It had been three weeks without park visitors, due to the Ferguson Fire closure, and thus no one to share his interpretive knowledge with. We obliged his need and peppered him with questions.
He was energetic and animated, and even took us on a short hike to a perfect spot from which to view the evening’s meteor shower, and treated us to a sampling of “bear food”, in the form of goose berries, that a nearby fresh pile of bear poop confirmed. We wander back to our campsite, and shortly thereafter Scout arrives with the remainder of our 9 man crew and cool libations.
The first of many Mountain House dinners is consumed, and it’s “light out”, till a pre-planned rendezvous with a meteor shower at 1030pm. Paul and I, antsy to witness the meteor shower devoid of man-made ambient light slither out of our tent at 9:40pm. The sky is an inky black, pierced by the sharp white glow of distant planets, moons and suns, we commonly call stars. Now Katie wanted to join us in the viewing of the meteor shower, but it was prior to our agreed upon 10:30pm excursion. We considered collecting her, however active snoring could be heard from her tent (most likely Kaleb), so we let her continue sleeping with plans of returning to wake her if the showers are worthy of rousing. We tiptoe through the campground with headlamps tunneling through the darkness before us. Somehow we wander past the turn off point that Ranger Nick had taken us, but I recognize the second spot he recommended and backtrack from there. While we don’t actually get to the specific spot, we find an equally open rock formation upon which to climb up upon and view the sky. As we lay on our back staring at the sky in earnest, we are quickly rewarded with a long falling meteor whose tail streaks like a swath of glitter across the sky above us. Several others appear at sparse intervals, but not of the quality and magnificence of the first, and sadly not worthy of rousing. Beginning to get a little cold we attempt to make our way back to camp, failing to accurately retrace our steps, which leads us to a bit of an unintentional wander in the dark…with bears. Paul is unaware of the extremely fresh bear poop we saw earlier, and frankly I wasn’t about to share that tidbit of information with him…at that moment. After a bit of bushwacking we find our way back to the road that leads back to the campground. We are immensely relieved, for we were sure that we would never live down having to spend a night in the woods (sans tent and/or sleeping bag) because we got turned around (lost) in the dark. No worse for the wear, we slip back into our tent and quickly drift off to sleep…no one the wiser.
In any event, Plan “A” is a go!