Author Archives: GAC

Adventures in Brazil

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Under the Southern Cross

Over the summer our friend and member Rick Cleveringa journeyed south to Brazil for family, friends, and destinations unknown. Many of you should remember Rick from his provious article “Pappa’s House”.

This time, its a trip into the Brazilian mountains thats brings him beautiful sites, sounds and a close encounter of the four legged kind.

We hope you’ll all enjoy “Under the southern Cross”.

The Mountains are Calling

dsc01020The Mountains are calling

We’re continuing to expand our following as we seek out like-minded adventurers. One of those new found friends is a co-worker Matt Brisbin who recently shared some of his own mountainous adventures with me.

Matt is an experiences hiker, backpacker, and mountain climber and we shared our experiences regarding hiking the John Muir travel and our trip to the base of Half Dome in Yosemite. Matt has journeyed for more extensively than I (for now), and has documented his journeys on his own blog titled “Matt Brisbin – The Mountains are calling and I must go”. It’s a fun and informative site and I highly recommend it if mountain trips are your calling.

Matt’s most recent post highlights his January trip to Colorado and his first experience ice climbing. It’s a fun read and encourage everyone to check it out.

Here’s the link to Matt’s “IceFest 2015”.

Adventure Stories – Part 2


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“The Adventure Stories”

~Part Two~

By T. Dietz & Brian K. Brecht

Tom’s List:

There is a very direct correlation to the books I had access to as a kid and young adult , and how they fueled the vast majority of my adventure seeking behaviors, hobbies, and my career.

“Wild Life in South Africa”

securedownload2The very first book that I remember vividly, and still have today (it actually sits on my desk), is “Wild Life in South Africa” by J. Stevenson-Hamilton who at one time carried the title Late Warden, Kruger National Park. The book was first published in 1947 with a second edition in 1950. An illustrated edition followed in 1954, which is the one I possess. It’s worth a few words how I ended up with this book. My mother was an immigrant to the US from Switzerland in the late 1950’s. As a first job she worked for a wonderful family physician, Dr. L Berg. He was a staple in my life for my early years and new of my enthusiasm for collecting insects. I was a born naturalist, enthralled by all sorts of animals. But all I could talk about was Africa, that very mysterious place with incredible animal life. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 when he presented me with his own copy, a gift given to him by who I don’t know in, 1957. I have read this book dozens of times. It is not an adventure in some sense, but for me it was an example of an adventurous life.

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Stevenson-Hamilton had published his first version of the book in 1917 when he was the first Park Ranger of South Africa’s main wild life sanctuary, Kruger National Park. It is a factual book about the ecology of Kruger, the natural history of its animals, man’s influence over them, and man’s fortitude to protect them. The book has wonderful maps, photo plates, and descriptions. From when I first read this book to the many times since, I can see Stevenson-Hamilton out in the Park, noting his observations, making sure he is not in peril from predators, and camping in the open bush. The book fueled a lifetime desire to go to Kruger and that dream finally came true in 2009 – several of the stories from that trip will be forthcoming.

 

“The Silent World” & “The Living Sea”

securedownload4Then there are the two books by one of my favorite adventurers, Captain Jacques Cousteau, “The Silent World”, 1953 and “The Living Sea”, 1963.

The influence on me from these books can be seen in both an early career in Science, my tenure at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, SCUBA diving, and exploration. Cousteau’s undersea adventures are legendary and his respect for the sea extraordinary. I’ll look to write up some of my own underwater adventures as I’ve already touched on some on sea adventures with my GAC write up “Diablos Rojos”.

 

“Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”

securedownloadNow Brian has his Shackleton voyage book and I have mine, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, by Alfred Lansing, 1959. This is another book whose pages are well worn from its many years in my active library.

As Brian talks about, Shackleton’s ill-fated trip resulted in one of the greatest known feats of navigation and survival. Antarctic exploration has always fascinated me and like other adventurous places, it’s been on my list. I came close once.

While at the Scripps, a team of us made a request of the National Science Foundation to fund an Antarctic expedition to further my molecular research on animal adaptation to stressful and unusual environments. Unfortunately, Federal funding for this type of trip was waning and the wait seemed too long. In the end, we settled for a warm water collecting adventure in Baja California.

 

 

“The Right Stuff”

securedownload5There are many more books by the likes of Hemingway, Roosevelt, Carter, Hillary, Scott etc, that have kindled and kept the thirst for adventure and exploration alive for me, but I will mention one last one, “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe, 1979.

Now this book really came after having already gotten the space exploration bug, as many of my generation had watching the Apollo program, especially Apollo 11.

As like most kids, becoming an astronaut and space explorer was high on my list, and lasted considerably longer than most, as my last application to NASA’s astronaut program was when I turned 46 – a glutton for rejection.

Many of my passions like diving, flying, science etc, had the dual purpose of filling its own desire, but were also pursued to give me the skill sets necessary to become a space explorer. Although that long chapter has many interesting stories, its now closed, but the journey to achieve it has brought incredible adventures.

More Adventure Stories

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It’s been an exciting and unpredictable start to 2015, but happily, we’re finding time for a little adventure where ever we can.

We wanted to start the year off, by finishing an article we stared last fall. In late October we took some time to highlight books and stories that inspired us during our youth and young adulthood. Our first post called “Adventure Stories” focused on the books which led me to the idea of the GAC. Now in our follow up article “Adventure Stories – Part Two” we finish out that thread with the books that inspired Tom.

We hope you’ll add these to your own library as well.

Yosemite and Half Dome – Part 2

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“Yosemite and the Hike to Half Dome”

By Brian K. Brecht and Rico Prate

**Part 2**

**Our Story Continues**

 

THE ASSENT – VERNAL AND NEVADA FALLS

Climbing… it seems like all we’ve been doing is climbing. We’re about 4500 feet above sea level, and I feel like my heart is about to beat out of my chest. I’m saying to myself, what in the world was I thinking!

But perhaps, I’m a little ahead of myself.

Rico:

Camping sleep is typically low quality sleep, and the first night in Yosemite was no exception, thanks to squawking ravens, owls, and many other birds not at all heard outside my apartment in Chicago. Predictably, Rick is up before Brian or me. He wanders around for who knows how long before running out of patience, returning to the tent, and waking the two of us up by saying, “We’ve got 8 hours of hiking to do today ladies – time to get up!”

Our goal from the beginning was to hike to the top of Half Dome. Again this is the part where one really needs to do some research before understanding what you’re getting yourself into. Rick kept saying “Are you sure we’re hiking the dome, do you know what’s actually involved?!” We knew we needed a permit and to that we didn’t have one. But we also knew people will hike to the base and see if there are any no-shows. So after series of conversations while driving, our goal was to see how far we could get. We’d shoot for Half Dome base camp, and if we made it, we’d assess if we could make it to the top. If we couldn’t so be it, it would provide an excuse to come back.

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Crossing the Merced River

We shot back to the valley and took the drive as far in as we could, finding the parking lot that leads to the Happy Isles Trailhead. The trail started easily enough and meandered through the tall pines, and across the Merced River. Again due to the draught, the river was extremely low, so for some reason Rick felt we should walk through instead of over. No worries, jumping from boulder to boulder was pretty easy with just a small daypack. Rick on the other hand felt he needed to carry his full pack. Now he wasn’t carrying all his gear, but he had felt the need to push himself and at least know what it would be like to hike this volume under weight. So as Rick hurried across boulders, Rico and I gradually followed along.

Again the trail was paved and we assumed it would turn into a gravel trail soon enough, but what we weren’t expecting was the immediate and profound incline that started within the first few hundred feet of our hike.

Rico:

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chart from the National Park web site http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/vernalnevadatrail.htm

We start out from the trailhead, just off the parking lot at 10:40am. We hike about a half-mile through the nearby woods – on a paved trail – before we start gaining elevation. I should correct myself. The phrase “gaining elevation” does not nearly convey the physical struggle of what we are doing. “Locked in an all-out war against the evil and malevolent forces of gravity,” describes what it feels like much more accurately. I mean, this is no fucking joke. The climb, while still on a paved trail, and in the presence of many hundreds of others about, is absolutely grueling – particularly for three guys, pushing 50, who, as I just referred to, had done no physical training for such an endeavor, whatsoever.”

And now we come back to our first words, “Climbing, it seems like all we’ve been doing is climbing,”.

The first real milestone you encounter on the hike is Vernal Falls footbridge, but this alone is an elevation gain of 500 vertical feet over the course of only one mile. For us with the intent of getting as close to Half Dome as we can, that meant continuing to the top of Vernal falls which was another 500 vertical feet. From here we’d continued to climb to Nevada falls, making its base at approx. 5500 vertical feet. All this in only 3 miles horizontal distance.

I have gone from valley floor to the base of Nevada falls without much highlight, simply to point out this was a much tougher hike than what I had ever imagined. Granted I did it, and would definitely do it again, but for me it was a moment of realizing the sedentary nature of my office job is quickly becoming not for me. Not only do I long for the fresh air, but also the toll the lack of exercise it’s taking on me is staggering. I have to change my life and I need to do it before I find myself stuck this way.

So regarding the assent, to be honest words cannot truly describe my feeling at seeing the vistas that were put in front of us at each step. Climbing up the initial rise along the paved well-maintained path was tough. You’re climbing out of the valley and most of your views are of a thickly wooded landscape. But the higher you go, the grander it becomes. Sheer rock walls reach skyward; towering over the pines that I was sure couldn’t be topped.

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climbing out of the valley

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Rico on his way to Vernal Falls

When you arrive at the Vernal Falls Bridge, you’re met with an expanse of rock and mountain debris, having been forced down from above by the rushing water. At this time of year there was very little water and certainly no torrent of rapids, but with the exposed rock and riverbed, you could truly appreciate the force and power that must exhibit when the river and falls are in full flow.

From the bridge, the trail becomes mostly dirt and the climb a more severe. Now with the falls in plain sight you’re headed to their base. Again due to the season, there was much less activity to the falls than what we expected, but no less impressive as the water that is flowing, tumbles over it’s 300+ foot drop.

 

 

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climbing the stairs to Vernal Falls

We stop and sit, now having climbed all of those 600 steps, and take in the full picture of the falls. Rick has been steadily marching ahead of us, at some points as much as a half-mile ahead. Rico, in his mercy, is hanging back with me as he realizes how badly I’m struggling. This is frustrating to me in so many ways. The hike is tough, no doubt, but as a little girl bounds past me practically running up the stairs, I realize this is pathetic. I have no intension of stopping.

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Vernal Falls

We catch up with Rick half way up the elevation of Vernal falls. At this point most people have the discussion of sitting, enjoying the view, and then turning back. Or you have the option of continuing on, up even steeper stairs, to reach the very top, the crest of the falls itself.

As I said, I was tired and sore, but more frustrated and there was no way I was going to stop now. We sit for a spell breaking out some of our modest rations, some water, a granola bar and some of the trail mix I packed. One of the things that you don’t hear about until you’re in the park is the squirrel and marmot population has become quite adapted to the human visitors. They are fearless and don’t think twice about running up to you when they see and smell food available. Rick messes with one for a bit but given the signs through out, asking to not feed them (which is practically impossible) we try to shoo them away as best we can.

 

We eventually get up, put packs back on and started back with our climb. We were now probably 90 minutes IMG_2533into our assent. There is a section almost at the very top of the assent where you climb some extremely rough stairs and the path narrows to about a couple feet. There is happily a large metal guardrail but it was stunning how limited you were in available room in order to reach the summit.

 

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At the top of the falls

Climb, climb, and suddenly you crest the top of the huge granite slab that you’ve been ascending, the backside gently sloping into the woods and the top of the Merced River. The brink of the falls is again railed off, and you are warned by the increasingly abundant signs in the area, that going past the rail is deadly. Each sign highlights victims of recent death as adults and children at one time or another, have gotten too close to the water, fallen in, and once in the grab of the current, find themselves pulled through the water, and over the falls. A terrifying death for all involved.

The Emerald Pool sits at the top of Vernal Falls and is fed by yet a still higher waterfall, that of the Nevada falls. But here there is a tranquil setting as a 20 degree slope called the apron gently washes into the Emerald pool. Again the scenery is majestic with massive granite formations shadowing above. We spend a faire amount of time here and though careful not to go IN the water, I can’t resist getting my hands in it and splashing some on my overheated face. Its exhilarating and its here I realize I’ll be taking a swim when all this is over.

Rico skips rocks, Rick closes his eyes for just a few, but we all take some time to recharge, because we all feel, we’re still not done.

Rico:

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skipping rocks at the Emerald Pool

Once on top of the falls, we get a chance to pause, take some pictures, and become energized by the stunning scenery surrounding us. We choose to continue ascending. The next stop was to proceed to the top of Nevada Falls. Before we continued, however, we were able to enjoy the calmness and tranquility of the Emerald Pool. Fed by the cascading waters of Nevada Falls, the Emerald Pool is about 30 yards across, by about 150 yards wide. Perfectly constructed by God for skipping stones, we spent a good half hour climbing the big rocks that border the pool, relaxing, and enjoying the view. Newly refreshed, and ready for more, we begin, once again, to climb.”

 

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Nevada Falls

 

As I mentioned above Vernal Falls is Nevada Falls. The falls itself is just less than 600 feet as far as its vertical drop, and the hike here is not as bad as the climb to Vernal. Nonetheless it continues to climb and challenge you. And it was that challenge that finally did me in. We made it just pass the bass of the falls, climbing another (approx.) 500 vertical feet, but it was the remaining 500 feet to the crest I knew I wasn’t going to make. So after three and a half hours, I threw in the towel. Again I was proud of how far I had climbed, but also disappointed that I was the one who called the stop.

Rick again had gotten a bit ahead of us and Rico still staying with me, said he’d run in ahead to catch rick. I waited patiently and after some time, they both came back down.

Again it was time for a break. We moved down to the base of the falls and watched the flowing water. Looking at the map when we had gotten back to camp, made it even more frustrating. Assessing the elevation gain from the top of Nevada to the Half Dome bass, it would have only been a gain of another 200 feet. But I knew I just wasn’t going to make that last climb no matter how hard I tried.

So it was back down. What took us three and a half hours up, took us just under 2 hours to get down. It was over five hours of hiking and we were all spent.

Rico:

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the decent from Vernal Falls

Something that actually does go as expected is that the trip down goes faster than the trip up did. This is aided by three factors: Familiarity, anxiousness to get back, and, the biggest reason: Gravity. At one point, I turn to Brian and remark that I am fucking sick and tired of fighting gravity. First, of course, we fought it while we were ascending. And now, we are fighting it tooth and nail as we descend – gravity wants to pull us off this mountain quicker than our legs are able to navigate.”

As we reached the truck and drove out of the valley I remembered my thought at the Emerald pool of taking a swim.

 

 

 

Rico:

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an afternoon swim. A very COLD swim.

On the way, Brian is determined to take a dip in the nearby Merced River and “wash the stink” off of him. Since he is the driver, he is in control off that. He spies a suitable placed to do so, pulls over, and we head toward the shin deep water. We all take off our shoes and socks and wade into the water. Two ducks swim within a few feet of us, neither of which are the least bit concerned or intimidated. Brian does us all one better and goes to the extreme measure of actually sitting down in the middle of the river and completely immersing himself in the 50-55 degree water – not once, but twice. We spend 20-30 minutes in and around the river, skipping stones and generally horsing around before heading toward the campsite once again.”

The water was almost painful but there was exhilaration to it that leads me to drop myself under for a second time. I think it was less I got used to the water and more I was numb head to toe. So soaking wet, it was back to Crain Flats and some dry and warm clothes.

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a perfect evening

Rico:

We arrive just past 6:00pm. Rick builds a fire, and Brian and I indulge in a nip from the Bar of Love as I get some journaling done. It isn’t too long at all before night falls. Like last night, a dizzying tapestry of stars appear above the very tall pines, and helps the three of us to quietly, and wearily, enjoy the Yosemite evening”.

THE END

In the end, this was Yosemite for us. We woke the next morning, each complaining how bad the OTHER two guys had snored, no one acknowledging we’re not 22 any more. Rick again was up first and had stoked the fire back to life while Rico and I dressed and wandered out of the tent.

All joking aside, this was a fantastic experience. Sure, a little more planning or training would have been nice, but this was a trip where we would be able to say we had done it. We at least made the attempt. As for Half Dome, the best part, is that it’s continued to push the three of us to saying “We have to go back, we have to make it to the top”. We know we can do it; this time we’ll make the plans. In the weeks that have followed I’ve already gotten emails from Rick asking, “When are we going back”.

The trip home was uneventful. We made a few stops at some local sites, but we were all spent, and looking forward to some downtime at the house with the family. We had a funny moment just outside of the park when we stopped for breakfast at the Buckmeadow Restaurant. During the week, Rick and I had fallen into a quest for the perfect slice of pie. We had pie in Shasta, we had pie in Monterey, and we even had pie inside the park at the Ahwahnee Hotel. And now we found pie in Groveland for breakfast.

Rico:

Toward the end of the meal, Rick sees a menu for “Aunt Betty’s Homemade Pies”. Uh oh… Rick immediately asks the waitress which pies are the freshest – seriously – twice in less than 24 hours. Our waitress goes in the back and brings out Aunt Janette, wearing a flour stained apron – who tells us Aunt Betty retired last year, but she knows all her secrets. After a rundown of, basically, the entire pie menu, we buy an entire “cherry-berry” pie, since we are too full to eat pie right now. $16 for an entire homemade pie – very nice.”

Its not a true road trip unless Rick is harassing a waitress, and this one took it all in sport.

This trip rounded out a couple things for me. Of course it’s always fantastic to do an adventure with the boys from Chicago. And getting some road time takes us back to our early adventuring days. But for the GAC, it was fulfilling to set a goal at the beginning of the year and realize that goal as intended. Certainly the shape and form changed as it became reality, but we felt that’s the making of a great adventure. Somewhere there’s a balance between it all being planned out, and the spur of the moment inspiration, as the adventure unfolds. I think Rico summed up this trip the best when he said:

Rico:

This trip ranks up there with New Orleans, London, and Route 66 (insert background angelic-like chanting here) as one of the great road trips we have ever done. Come to think of it, it is unfair to really categorize this as a road trip. Compared to other road trips, this one was much more centered on one location than most of the others. This trip was more about activity and accomplishment as opposed to miles under the wheels.

At this time in my life, and hopefully the others as well, this kind of trip is much more satisfying. Last year’s Lake Michigan Loop trip taught me that spending hour after hour in the car without a lot of activity to balance it out is no longer of much interest to me. This trip was perfect: Active, beautiful, challenging, not overly planned, limitless possibilities, a campfire, with a little road time sprinkled in. And who knows? We may come back for more next year…  

Yosemite and Half Dome – Part 1

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“Yosemite and the Hike to Half Dome”

By Brian K. Brecht and Rico Prate

**Part 1**

There are adventures that require plenty of planning, and some that come by happenstance. This trip would amount to a bit of both.

THE INTENT

Since last spring, when we wrote our story “Walker & Muir”, we set a lose goal to journey to the Yosemite Valley the following summer. This was more a goal for myself, as Tom has been to the valley numerous times and even hiked the weeklong backcountry trails. Having never been myself, and after our exposure to Walker and Muir in Martinez, it was a destination that played in my mind for months.

Slowly as spring turned to summer, the idea took shape and through a series of conversations, it was floated to the other inspirational GAC members, my old crew from Chicago. With busy schedules, it took time to align our plans, but finally we found a date in September. Unfortunately, by this time, our full team was not available. It would mean my partner in crime Tom D. as well as Tom C. from Milwaukee; both wouldn’t be available this trip. But with full support from them we set the date and tickets were purchased.

Rick, having the more flexible schedule, would journey out ahead of Rico and spend some time in Northern California with me. That lead to some day trips we’ll highlight in later articles. We ventured up to the old ghost town of Shasta and back down to Salinas to revisit Rocinante, and happily Tom D. was able to join us for the Shasta trip.

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Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir

Lets set the stage. The Yosemite National Park covers almost 748,000 acres, spanning across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Yosemite Valley specifically, is only seven square miles of the total park but has some of the most iconic views of this amazing landscape. Towering redwoods, imposing granite mountains, and pastoral meadows all can be found within this wilderness.

The initial steps to preserve the park for future generations came under the Yosemite Grant signed by President Lincoln in 1864. It wasn’t until 1890, with the help of naturalist John Muir and the editor of the Century Magazine Robert Johnson, who lobbied congress for the act that created the national park on October 1st. Eventually it would also lead to the creation of the National Park Service by Theodore Roosevelt.

 

 

MAKING IT HAPPEN

In other posts I’ve mentioned being “somewhat” uptight in my youth, with my tendencies to set rigorous schedules and itineraries for our trips. I joked with Rick when he had arrived that it’s taken me 25 years to break that habit. When Rick asked, “what’s the plan?” I simply replied, “I don’t have one”. The surprised look in his eyes was proof I had indeed altered that behavior.

It was true; I had set no plan, made no reservations. I had read numerous articles about how it’s impossible to get into the park without a reservation a year in advance. I was rolling the dice that going after the peak season would allow some latitude regarding our ability to find lodging. Even if we had to stay outside of the park, and drive in each day, we were all ok with making the attempt, for better or worse. That said this was a trip to learn, some adventures really do require some preplanning.

By mid-week, Rick and I had a couple excursions in, but it was Yosemite we were both chopping at the bit for. We considered our trip having begun only once we met Rico at the Oakland airport, his 10:00pm flight arriving right on time.

So this was our goal, and standing in baggage claim in Oakland, it was clear we three were all ready to get too it. Tom Dietz and I had been driving to get the GAC off the ground for the past nine months. This was the first time I had tried to mold my long time (and inspirational) friends into the idea Tom and I had created. As soon as Rico walked into baggage claim, any concern vanished. Rico said it best in his journal:

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the airport reunion

Rico:

Even though we only see each other a few times a year these days, because of our history – over 20 years of friendship – our shared experiences and adventures, and the strong, almost tenacious bond we share, every time I see them, it is almost as if I saw them just yesterday.”

And it was just that. While waiting for Rico’s bag it was short, light, brief conversation, with general pleasantries mixed in with the warm handshakes and hugs. We all knew, the real conversation, the real updates would happen as soon as we were on the road.

The goal for tonight was NOT to return home, but head straight west and make for Tracy. If we stayed the night there, we’d only be a couple hours from the park the next morning. So with a coke, some beef jerky, and plenty of attitude, we were off. Overnight in Tracy would be a blur as was breakfast the next morning. Again it was getting to the park that was the most important item.

It was during the drive when we started discussing our plans, or perhaps more accurately, Rick’s plan. As I mentioned Rick was the only one who did any real homework. He slowly outlined the concerns of hiking to Half Dome. Camping in the valley wasn’t really the concern, we’d roll with whatever we found, but as Rick outlined the severity of the hike, I started to think perhaps my “no plan” approach could have used a little more plan.

If you’re ever heading to Yosemite, and plan to hike Half Dome, here are a few important tips you should know. First Half Dome is a granite dome formation at the eastern end of the valley. It’s likely the most iconic image you’ve seen of the park as it rises almost 4800 feet above the valley floor.

Thousands of hikers hike the 8.5-mile trail to the top of the dome from the valley floor each year. This starts from the Mist Trail and runs approx. 2 miles to the Half Dome base in Little Yosemite Valley, all while gaining an elevation of approx. 2000 vertical feet. But not before climbing over 600 rough-cut stairs that have been hune from the very rock face. From Little Yosemite valley, you’ll ascend the rounded east face and ANOTHER 2000+ vertical feet using the cable path, to the summit. All of this is achievable but ONLY if you’ve purchased a permit to do so PRIOR to coming into the park.

THE (lack of) PLAN

Now, with no plan and clearly no permit, it was questionable whether we’d make it to the dome or not. Regardless, we’d take this adventure as it came and see what we could accomplish.

Here I turn again to Rico’s take on our day;

After breakfast, we ride west on Route 120 and make a beeline toward Yosemite National Park. After a few miles of staid, four-lane blacktop, 120 quickly turns into a wonderful two-lane highway that nicely reflects the character and personality of Central California. Our scenery begins as rows upon rows of various fruit trees, dotted with numerous roadside fruit stands. As we gently ascend into the highlands that precede the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the fruit trees fade away, replaced by heartier looking, less pampered trees that have a scruffier appearance to them. The colors change from the greens and reds of the fruited plains, to shades of brown and tan. The road becomes 8-10 miles of excruciatingly twisted and angry paved mountain road, requiring every ounce of Brian’s mental focus to navigate its relentless nature successfully.”

We reached the town of Groveland looking for a last stop gas station to make sure we were filled but instead we find a Yosemite Visitor Information center where we were helped by a lovely park ranger named Katie.

Katie was young, pleasant, extremely knowledgeable and finally, patient. She took her time thoroughly answering the seemingly endless questions from three Yosemite virgins. Her instructions, what to do and what to be aware of, where the nearest grocery store was, and most importantly that we should have no problem getting a campsite within the park. To this point she clarified, yes it was true if we had wanted to stay in the valley specifically we would have needed a reservation well in advance. However, there were a number of campsites, within the park, but outside the valley that all had open sites for a few nights.

From Rico’s journal;

The Main Street market in Groveland is less than a mile from the visitor center. There, we get freshly made deli sandwiches for lunch – just fill out a form where you pick your choice of meats, cheeses, bread, and garnishes. We also get ice, drinks, food, and other potential campground needs.

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at “The Rim of the World” – Stanislaus National Forest

On our way to Yosemite, as we pass through the Sierras, the scenery can only be described as strikingly beautiful. We pull over at a turnoff called “Vista – Rim of the World, Stanislaus National Forest.” Here, we are gifted with a glorious, panoramic view of the mountainous terrain we find ourselves squarely in the midst of. The vista, while breathtaking, unfortunately, contains some negative indicators of this part of the forest’s current state. A large portion has a pale, dry, death-like cast to it – reflective of the drought conditions that are prevalent here right now. We also see some black and charred evidence of recent forest fires, which, inevitably, accompany a drought.”

We got to the Western Gate and did as Katie instructed, we pulled to the right and parked in front of the park camping office to secure our site for the next two nights. As she predicted, there was no trouble getting a spot in Crane Flats, the second campground inside the park, campsite #825.

Rico:

After we make our campground reservation for two nights – a ridiculously good bargain at $40 – Rick’s enthusiasm takes a noticeable leap forward. When we enter the actual campground – inside the gates of Yosemite, he is akin to the proverbial kid-in-a candy store. The unexpected intensity of his childlike joy of being in Yosemite – somewhere none of us had ever been – was certainly infectious to both Brian and me.”

We entered Crane Flats and eventually got to site #825. A relatively minor mishap with our site cause some delays but eventually the camp was set and it was time to make our way to the valley for what remained of the afternoon.

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Our first glimpse of Yosemite Valley

The trip in was quick and easy and afforded us a great view of other areas of the park. We continued our drive when as we rounded a short bend, wham!! There was the valley laid out in front of us. Not surprising, there was an immediate vista point on our right, so we and a number of other park visitors, pulled off to take in the view.

It was stunning. Even from this distance and this elevation (we still weren’t in the valley) the view of Half Dome and El Capitan was breath taking. This is the part where everyone says, “you just have to see it to believe it”.

With photos taken, and our excitement reaching a peak, we got back into the truck and continued down.

Rico:

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the majestic El Capitan

Our initial foray into Yosemite takes us into “the valley”. The Yosemite Valley is centrally located within the park, and is close to many of Yosemite’s signature attractions, such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome. On the way, we pull off and walk through a small wooded area to get a superb view of El Capitan. At almost 7500 feet tall, only Half Dome is taller (at 8839 ft) within the expansive confines of Yosemite”

Once on the valley floor you lose your perspective as to what you’re seeing, as now you’re below the tree line and underneath the canopy. Moving through in the truck wasn’t going to do for us, so I quickly found a pull off and we disembarked from the truck to get a more close up view.

There was an easy trail off to the left and we followed it through the pines. Soon it opened up into a pastoral scene of high sierra beauty. Tall grasses fill the near by field while a shimmering stream flowed through. We walked in the shadow of El Capitan until finding a spot where the sun cut through the trees and stone.

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walking the river

It was breathtaking to say the least and the thought that occurred to us all, was how easily you could believe in giants after feeling so small in this environment. What did the natives feel when they walked this part of the earth thousands of years ago?

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“There be giants here!”

There was a good amount of stick and rock throwing as we revert to our childhood ways of play, but then it was time to move on. We had only just arrived and knew there was so much more to see.

One thing to note regarding the park, we of course had in our minds the idea that we would be in the wilderness, perhaps even alone amongst the trees. Yes we all knew this was a tourist destination, but you have high hopes of finding some amount of isolation. Going to Yosemite, you should know this is not the case. The park sees HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of visitors each month, and at peak season it can feel almost claustrophobic. For that we were glad we came in the off-season. We spent a little time in the Yosemite Village, checking on supplies and souvenirs, and couldn’t wait to get out. We were also very happy we chose to not stay on the valley floor.

YOSEMITE FALLS

With time to kill we thought we’d do a short hike and see Yosemite Falls, a short mile or so distance from Yosemite Village. Rico’s description here speaks to the tourist populations.

“…we decide to go on a short hike to Yosemite Falls. This “hike” is nothing like I had pictured it might be. It turns out to be a walk on an uphill path through some woods. The entire trail is paved, and there are numerous people, both coming and going, that we pass along the way. The one thing that is expected is the scenery. Lush, rugged, and striking in its picturesque beauty, Yosemite is just a privilege to be in and around.”

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The imposing, yet dry Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls is the 5th tallest natural falls in the world. At a towering 2,425 feet the falls consists of three sections, the Upper Falls, the Middle Cascades, and the Lower Falls. Its primary source, coming from Yosemite Creek, the falls are primarily produced from runoff every year of the proceeding snowfall. In years such as this, the falls in fact, were not falling at all. The California drought has been bad enough this year that in the late season of August and September its not uncommon as today that the falls are completely dry. To see the falls at their most spectacular, the early spring is when they run at their height.

Even though there was no water flowing, you can’t help but be awestruck standing at the very base of the massive shear rock face. Judging by the debris at the bass of the falls you can imagine the roar that must come when the falls are at capacity.

 

 

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Half Dome in the dwindling afternoon light.

With no water, we turned and followed the (yet again) paved path around its full length. As we walked back we were afforded one of the many beautiful treats the valley provides each night, as the sun sets hitting Half Dome and lighting it up with brilliant warm amber tones as it sits above the darkening valley floor. It was a fantastic sight.

We were back at camp as the last light of day was dwindling. We broke out our makeshift dinner for tonight, all of us still pretty full from the deli sandwich earlier. As the night came on, the fleece jackets came out, and soon so did the travel bar. Rick had gotten our first campfire going well and Rico and I couldn’t resist a nightcap in front of the flames.

Rico:

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1st night in camp. Keeping warm with a wee dram.

“…whisky (for Brian and I), and good conversation consume the rest of the evening. It has been a good and exceedingly satisfying day. We are certainly looking forward to tomorrow as we crawl into our sleeping bags a little past 11 o’clock.”

We talk into the night, staring at the stars above the redwoods, seeing the night sky light up with no ambient surface light to obscure our view. We talk until around 11:00 when we all head into bed, knowing we have a long hike ahead of us tomorrow.

 

 

**See “Part 2” for our conclusion**

Dinner and a discovery

Whisky and Wine

Last October we had the pleasure of joining the Wine and Food Society of San Francisco for one of their wine paring events. Hosted at San Francisco’s distinctive Jardiniere restaurant, we of course anticipated spectacular food and wine. But it was a quiet moment we found at the bar that put a special spin to the evening.

(*From the wfssf web site) The Wine & Food Society of San Francisco is a charter member of the International Wine & Food Society, and the first chapter to hold a dinner in North America. Each year members and their guests enjoy about ten evenings of fine wine and exceptional food at venues in San Francisco and surrounding areas.

The Society has built a comfortable-sized Cellar, so that most events are supported by wines chosen years before by the Wine Chairman. This tradition continues in selecting current fine wines for those who will enjoy these in the future. Each event is planned by a committee of members who work closely with the chef to tailor each experience.

Tom and his wife have been members for a number of years so Tom’s invitation to my wife and I had a convenient coincidence in that it was Leslie’s birthday, and cause for added celebration.

Having arrived early, resplendent in my black tie, I waited at the bar for Tom, Leslie, and my wife to arrive. While enjoying a glass of the featured chardonnay, I snuck off to the far corner of the bar, feeling exposited without my partner in crime at my side.

As anyone with an affinity for bar contents, it didn’t take long for me to examine the inventory of the spirits on the shelf. It was here I found something I had not seen before.

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Our discovery

Sitting at the far end were three distinct bottles, each with a specialty label. The label alone intrigued me so when Tom arrived, I peeled him away to examine the samples I had found. Completely unfamiliar with the brand we asked the bartender what it was. Clearly something unusual, our young friend had to call over the head bartender for an explanation.

The head bar tender for Jardiner is Greg Stone, a gentleman who clearly loves what he does.

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Our lesson from Greg Stone

He proceeded to explain to us the story behind the bottles and who Michel Couvreur is.

Michel Couvreur, having recently passed away, was a Belgian and independent bottler of single malt scotch. His cellars, located in Bouze-les-Beaue are in the heart of Burgundy where he aged his single malts for four years in hand picked sherry butts from Jerez.

The bar wasn’t open tonight; again our reason for being there was about the wine. However with true barman skills, our bartender offered us a pour of two of the three bottles so we could better understand what he was explaining.

He poured the Special Vatting and the aged 24 years versions, each having wonderful characteristics of their own. Tom favored the 24 year, I the special vatting. Both were spectacular, having full command of the sherry finishing Couvreur was trying to achieve.

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remnants of a wonderful evening

From here the evening was amazing and again, it really was about the wine and food. But starting with a specialty whisky and a great conversation with Greg Stone set our evening apart from most others.

 

Twain and the Suicide Table

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“Twain and the Suicide Table”

By Brian Brecht

Virgina City

We’ve spent a fare amount of time in the Lake Tahoe area, but it was a trip Tom suggested to Virginia City Nevada that brought us back to an original cowboy town.

We shot east from Tahoe and eventually crossing the border into Nevada. Any town or city you go to these days is reasonably modern or built up, regardless of it’s history. And then there’s Virginia City. This town has purposefully remained as much a cowboy town as you can and still remain functional in modern times.

The Comstock Load

The Comstock Load

For context, Virginia City is the location of the Comstock Load. The Comstock Load, discovered on June 8th 1859, was the first major discovery of silver in the United States. The discovery of the Comstock sparked a “silver rush” of prospectors and created an excitement as great as the gold rush in ’49. Mining camps and towns sprung up over night, eventually adding to the bustling centers of wealth in Nevada and San Francisco California.

During its time, the production coming from the site was so great; it altered world monetary standards and kept the United States solvent during the Civil War. It created the state of Nevada and made possible the two Senate votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (the law abolishing slavery).

The Comstock is notable not just for the immense fortunes it generated, but also for the

Square-set timbering

Square-set timbering

advances in mining and mining technology. Square-set timbering, invented by Phillip Deidesheimer in 1860, made possible the removal of large ore deposits at great depths. The square set timbers being set into an internal super-structure reinforcing the walls of the mine.

Because of it’s intent to remain something of its hey-day, I confess to being a bit shocked as we rounded the mountain pass and first set eyes on the modern Virginia City. It took only a few short moments to realize I was in for a treat. This was a town the likes of which we seek out when on an adventure such as this.

Virginia City is in many ways, as it was back in 1850’s & 60’s. Granted, what once might have been cowboy saloons or miner places of business, now sport t-shirts and “cowboy trinkets” as souvenirs and modern keepsakes.

Tom and I were willing to accept the modern trappings the town had put on, but it was those olden times we were in search of this day. Virginia City boasts number of different attractions, like the “Bucket of Blood Saloon”, or a working courthouse from days past. A number of different mining and silver baron sites are throughout the area. But there were a couple specific sites we set our minds to hit.

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We found ourselves along “C” street, the main thoroughfare in the hillside town, but quickly realized we were probably on the far end of what we wanted to see. As we cross the street and headed the opposite direction, we found a small shop claiming jerky, which of course I had to stop in. Jerky has always been a prime requisite on any road trip or adventure.

I grabbed a small amount of regular and teriyaki, Tom taking away some of the ”Hot” version. I laughed my ass off as we were walking, Tom starting saying things like “wholly shit” and “Oh my god!”, watching sweat bead up from his brow. Having experienced numerous versions of jerky through out the country, I have to say this stuff started out like leather. Admittedly that’s probably how it truly tasted as far as texture back in the day. The flavor was fine, nothing out of the ordinary, but again the tough texture in some way made it seem more authentic. Seriously this stuff was like leather.

You could catch a glimpse of the old west in the architecture and historic building facades. But then the illusion would wash away amongst t-shirts and tourist traps. We spent our time hunting through a variety of shops, every once in a while finding something of interest or out of the ordinary. But there were two stops we found very enjoyable.

Mark Twain

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into the basement!

Located at 53 South C Street, is what appears to be just another trinket clogged gift store. But along the left wall, and behind a very thin brass chain was a door marked Mark Twain museum. Ok lets be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Or perhaps, when I see the word, museum, I’m expecting something more. Something that didn’t require you going through post cards and key chains to find it.

Then again, it’s these kinds of things that make the best adventures.

Having paid our fee, the owner, or caretaker, walked over and opened the door to what clearly was going to be the basement. Oh boy, there was no way this was going to be good.

So for perspective, Samuel Clemens journeyed to Nevada in 1861, eventually coming to Virginia City in 1862, taking a job very early in his career with the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper. He spent roughly three years here and it was during his IMG_2416time in Virginia City when he took on the bi-line Mark Twain.

I’ve been through plenty of “museums” claiming to be the place where “this guy slept”, or so and so MIGHT have lived, or where such and such COULD have worked. This I have to admit was a surprise. We stepped into the building’s basement, which, during Twains time, was the printing room of the Territorial Enterprise. Undoubtedly there are a few items that likely didn’t always reside here. For example we passed what was labeled as Mark Twain’s actual writing desk. I think it’s unlikely the desk was always here in the basement,

Mark Twain's writing desk

Mark Twain’s writing desk

but there was little doubt the large printing presses and set-up tables were anywhere else. It was really impressive to see these huge machines and to think about the work that had gone though them. Signs along the walls spoke of the large marble tables as the place where not only the men of the paper set type for each edition, but also took their meals and even slept when the next edition needed work late into the next morning. Even the mechanics held a deep fascination for Tom and I, noticing the ceiling mounted belt drive system that at one time powered many of the presses in this room.

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the print room of the Territorial Enterprise

It was engrossing and Tom and I found ourselves just standing in this space, reading and soaking up as much information as we could. What I expected to be an “in and out” kind of attraction grabbed ahold of us for an unexpected amount of time.

We came up from the basement, invigorated and renued that Virginia City had other hidden treasures to offer us.

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the “Julia Bulette Red Light Museum”, now owned by the Mustang Ranch

And so it was with that excitement that we came across another “basement museum”, that of the Julia Bulette Red Light Museum. This one however didn’t play out as hoped. The building had just been taken over by, believe it or not, the Mustang Ranch restaurant. It seemed fitting that the Mustang Ranch would buy the building occupying the space of the Red Light Museum. In the end it seems we caught them a little early. Tonight was their opening night, and because of the chaos surrounding their start up, the museum was closed for the day. So from here, we kept walking until we found our next point of interest.

 

The Suicide Table

One of the more active and well-known locations in Virginia City is the Delta Saloon. Located at 18 South C St. the old tavern and casino still boasts the clanging chimes of the one arm bandits and a pronounced layer of cigarette smoke hanging from it’s ceiling.

And though a drink and nickel slots are well available, what folks like IMG_2394us tend to wander into the Delta for, is to see the infamous “Suicide Table”.

Sitting in a far back corner, now roped off from modern use, the Suicide Table was originally a Faro table brought to the Delta somewhere in the 1860’s. The table gets it’s macabre name due to the claim that it is somehow responsible for the death of three of its previous owners.

The first casualty was its original owner, one “Black Jake”, who in one night lost $70,000 playing cards, and in the end, shot himself. The next victim is an unnamed second owner who was unable to pay his losses. The official record is unclear whether he killed himself or was done in by his creditors.

At this point the table was put away as no one would deal on it. In the late 1890s the table was converted into a Blackjack table and play once again resumed on it.

The legend claims, on a stormy night, a drunken miner walked in with a wild streak of luck. Everything the current owner had, $86,000, a team of horses, and an interest in a gold mine, all departed from the owner to the miner, and quietly the owner moved on to the next life.

the infamous "Suicide Table"

the infamous “Suicide Table”

Today the table sits in the Delta under protective glass. It’s seen little action in the passing decades, however there was a short lived game in the mid 1980’s when Jack Palance, actor and host of the TV series “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, dealt a few hands for the episode highlighting the tables doomed history. As far as I’m aware, Palance suffered no ill effects from the table (believe it or not).

The Delta exemplified what I felt about Virginia City. You can clearly see the cowboy town, hiding under the t-shirts, and tourist trinkets. And I couldn’t help but feel frustrated as what I wanted to see wasn’t modern life, but the old west we’ve read about. But that said, we stood in the middle of the Delta, took a deep breath (trying to not choke on the smoke), and through the clanging of the slots, or the blaring flat screens, you actually could find the history you’re looking for.

I realized, yes over the bar hang signs of beer specials and Jagemeister shots, but the fact is that there has been a bar in this spot since days when spurs jangled instead of slot machines made me smile. That the back stairs, instead of being “Employees Only”, probably saw various working girls move up and down them with various “Johns” in tow. That the beauty of Virginia City is that, yes you can get a t-shirt or a reproduction map of TV’s Ponderosa, but it really is a town from the old west. You just have to look past a few things to see it.

the bar at the Delta Saloon

the bar at the Delta Saloon

Boot Hill

On the way out of town we made one last stop, that of the Silver Terrace or Gold Hill Cemetery.

I wanted to call this Boot Hill, as so many other western towns have done, but clearly this was a cemetery built from the hunt of gold and silver. It was surprising how far the sight stretched on, realizing it flowed down the far side of the hill and into the valley like a river of the past. There were a number of beautiful old tombs and head stones, but it was troubling to Tom and I the state of disrepair the site had fallen into. Even more, as we walked around, we found modern graves from families who must still be native to the area. Not only for its historic value, but also in seeing its continued use, we both felt a sense of sadness that time and vandalism has taken it’s toll.

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Silver Terrace or Gold Hill Cemetery

It was a quiet end to a thrilling day. We had little knowledge that Twain would figure so prominently in this cowboy town, but it helped round out what we came here to find. Not just old west trinkets, but something of the real history that took place, those 150 years ago.

Tales from the old west have shaped this country and fascinated us from childhood. And from here on the west coast, it’s an inexpensive way to grab an adventure even just for a weekend. Virginia City has opened a door to other cowboy and mining sites, all within striking distance, and we’ve already ventured off in search of new destinations.

So as we continue to set our sights on future explorations, we felt it only fitting to finish this entry with a quote from Twain himself.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Continue to find your own adventures friends.