Published: March 9th 2006March 9th 2006
The view from our motorhome window
Motorhome News from North America 5
California - it’s cold and it’s damp! 25th February - 6th March 2006
Salton Sea, Mecca, Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, Palm Springs, San Bernardino Mountains, Rim of the World, Kern, Pixley, Sequoia National Park - and the Snowy Mountains!
The morning brought white pelicans to the still waters of Salton Sea, shallow and serene at its northerly end where we camped overnight. Fresh water flows into the lake from the Alamo and the New Rivers, but Salton is below sea level and there is no outlet to the sea. The rivers help to irrigate the flat plains where palm trees flourish alongside California vines, orange and lemon trees, artichokes and other things under plastic - so they learned something from Spain!
The farms hereabouts are clearly prosperous, but the local town of Mecca reflected the high number of immigrant farm-workers from south of the border, with untidy streets, shanty shops, men sitting around on street corners chatting and smoking, (not a woman in sight) and dozens of public payphones in use on Sunday morning - phoning loved ones at home. There are some signs of hope on the outskirts of town
yuccas in Joshua Tree
where new high-density homes have been erected, but if this is Mecca, please take me further north to meet Joshua.
Towns here are not as we know towns to be. Back home in the UK, you park your car in town and walk around the shops. Here, with the exception of the few historic towns, the shops are stretched along the highway, often five miles or more and each store has its car park of an acre or ten. A car is essential if you plan to visit the Post Office, the grocery store, the library, the Bank and the garage all in one day. I dropped Janice off at the Laundramat the other day while I went to the Library and I had clocked ten miles before I picked her up again! Whilst the Post Office might be a long drive downtown, it does have one thing in common with the good old British P.O. - the long queue, too many products and insufficient staff to cope. But they do know how to sell here. ‘Anything else I can get you, stamps, postcards, insurance, envelopes? You have a good day, now.’
The life of a grey-haired nomad
is not always a bowl of cherries. Some days, things do go pear shaped. Sunday 26th February was our first bad day. We made the mistake of not filling up with petrol in Mecca and it was clear we had insufficient to get us through Joshua Tree National Park. We had erroneously thought there would be services at the Interstate junction and it took a 44mile diversion before we eventually found petrol. Later, our phone card ran out before we finished our planned calls to friends and family - and there was no signal on our mobile phone. There’s nothing like a bit of problem solving to prompt an early night and a fresh start to tomorrow. It’s like wearing your baseball cap back to front for a day, that’s all - trying to remember what it was you were aiming to achieve and in which direction you were going.
We had come north, out of the Sonoran Desert (sea level to 3,000 ft) into the Mojave where it is cooler and wetter at 3 - 6,000ft, to Joshua Tree National Park, so named by early Mormon settlers who thought the branches of the yuccas resembled the arms of
Morongo Canyon Preserve
Joshua welcoming them to the ‘promised land’. The road climbed gently up through the prickly pear, the creosote bush and occatillo, barrel cactus and mesquite - to the high desert of Joshua trees, a forest of tree-like giant yuccas, some as much as 40ft tall and 200 years old. Finally, after six weeks in the desert, it rained overnight, leaving the desert a picture of bright green yuccas against a striking backcloth of gold, grey and silver undergrowth. By 10am the ground was bone dry again and the sun was shining as though that’s what it’s supposed to do every day.
The compact mountains of Joshua Tree Park are of Lake District proportions, but there is no green grass in the desert. The mountains offer World class bouldering, on mesmerising ash-brown monzogranite rock formations; wonderful mounds of weather-worn boulders in the image of the human brain - and meal-coloured sand, weathered granite, crunchy underfoot - like walking on cornflakes. This is a wondrous place. It left us spellbound by its beauty, its intricate patterns interwoven by huge rocks and spiky plants in crystal sunlight - and a blue, blue sky overhead.
People come here to the desert to breathe the
Big Bear Lake
Spot the Bald Eagle on the tree!
pure air and the 25% humidity to find help with breathing problems, and many settle in the small town of Twentynine Palms, where wonderful murals adorn shop walls, hippies abound and the largest US Marine Base in the world meets hick-country. Here you can get your Marine haircut from any one of a dozen barbers; hair removal on all sides and a quarter inch left on top - I’ll give that a miss too! (I look daft enough in my cowboy hat and sneakers, without a head shave!) The average house in Twentynine Palms costs just $58,000 (£35,000) according to the latest Chamber report, and that probably comes with an acre or more.
In stark contrast to the towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley at the west end of the Park has smart houses fit for a king, doubtless the retreat of commuting workers in Palm Springs about 20miles away. At a local wildlife preserve, we met an English couple from Sussex who winter in their mobile home in Palm Springs every year. They travelled around North America for ten years in a motorhome before deciding to have something more permanent. We’ll be home before 2016, we
Rim of the World
San Bernardino Mts
Even a brief visit such as ours to Palm Springs can set the heart pounding. Elegant palm trees line the bowling-green grass verges, winding footpaths traverse the manicured flower beds, bougainvillaea hedges and blossom-laden trees adorn the gardens and magnificent houses nestle behind the gates of communities where stars hide from the glare of publicity. Whilst the town spreads for many miles along the valley, through Cathedral City and Desert Palms, it has a certain pristine attraction - a man-made oasis in the desert without the glitz of Las Vegas. And the sun shines. To complete the picture for you, there’s a big wind farm just off the highway; many thousands of wind-turbines thrashing around in circles in the image of performing gymnasts on the opening day of the Bejing Olympics.
From Palm Springs there’s a good road leading up into the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, to the resort at Big Bear Lake where the smart set from LA come to ski - on man-made snow this year. For us, the excitement was a flock of beautiful cedar waxwings and a red-breasted sapsucker in the trees in the car park of the visitor centre -
and a bald eagle over the lake (sorry, no photos of these!). The mountain road, called ‘Rim of the World’, climbs up over an 8,400ft pass, winding westward through grey-green stands of California junipers and Ponderosa pines, round endless hairpin bends high above the plains overlooking Los Angeles, totally lost in a thick cloud of purple smog and fumes some seventy miles away. When you see it from this perspective, it’s hard to believe they would allow anyone to live or work there.
There’s a song, I recall, that goes; “…hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp.” So it was when we awoke at our campsite one morning in the week - it doesn’t matter which day; they’re all the same to us. ('Camping World' stores have a wall clock on offer for serious motorhomers like us; instead of numbers it has days of the week!) Whenever it rains we switch to plan B - we use the time to travel and shop and hope the rain goes away. By midday the weather had improved and we passed by Edwards Air Force Base, skirting north of LA with hopes of seeing Californian Condors over Mount Pinos on a loop
road through Maricopa. At this point we became aware, once more, of the inadequacy of our maps. We’re clearly spoiled in the UK with our fabulous OS maps with real contours! Within a few miles we had climbed to over 8,000ft and the signs were warning; ‘Chains or Snow Tires a requisite.’ But by that time we were committed; we passed snow-laden cars going the opposite way and white dusted trees by the roadside before the snow started to fall, in heavy swathes shimmering in the bright sunshine - threatening and frightening. With sound advice from a local trucker who gave us the ‘thumbs up’ we eventually cleared the ridge after half an hour of nervous tension, on wet roads, anticipating snow and ice around every bend. The Condors were tucked up in the warm somewhere as you would expect, but we did see a Ferruginous Hawk and a Rough-legged Hawk when the snow eventually stopped and the road finally descended through rolling green hills, to the ‘nodding donkeys’ of oily Maricopa and Taft, and into the sunlit valley below as evening approached. The shock of seeing snow this close to Los Angeles prompted us to question our planned route
northwards to Sequoia and Yosemite National parks over the next week.
Two great wildlife refuges, Kern and Pixley, dictated our route north towards Sequoia, both giving us spectacular birding on open marshland in true fen country. Five thousand cranes feed on surrounding farmland during the day in winter at Pixley, returning to the reserve late in the evening to roost in the safety of the shallow pools. Picture if you will, the sight of a mile of cranes crossing a rich-red sunset sky before you in single file, nose to tail, with the distant snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada to your back. Now, keep the camera going…..on and on, for ten minutes or more as the long procession continues until the sun sinks below the horizon. That’s a memory to last forever and ever.
Captured by the emotion of the moment, we returned to Pixley the following morning to find the cranes rising in the morning thermals, groups of twenty to a hundred or more, circling higher and higher before heading northwards as tiny dots in the blue in V formation, following the urge of nature with a frenzied croaking that can only be cranes, ever closer
Through the open door of Winnie
to their breeding grounds. One day later and the memory canvas would have been blank. That was two ‘wow’ days indeed.
Birding might seem an obsession but as many of you will know, we’re not really too serious about it. It provides us with a focus for our journey; one side of the balance suspended on the point of the compass, with the sounds, sights and history of the great landmass of North America on the other. Here, the birds enjoy the security of the reserve in the flat plains of inland California stretching for miles between the mountains, cultivated along our route with fruit trees in delicate white and pink blossom and whole vistas of vines, orange groves and olives, irrigated by water efficient systems 'to feed the Nation,’ as the signs say. Sounds like spin to me.
There is a touch of Tuscany in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Somewhere around Lemon Cove, the green grassy hills roll as only Tuscan hills can, topped with tall cypress columns and handsome farmsteads. Vines, orange trees and palms line the road, climbing slowly into the mountains and into Sequoia National Park, the home of the huge redwood
Snow in Sequoia
Time to turn around!
trees, where green grass and the bright green leaves of oak-covered hillsides herald the coming of spring. But spring comes late high in the mountains and news greeted us at the park entrance that heavy snowfalls had closed the road 25 miles ahead except for 4X4’s and vehicles with chains. I guess we half expected it. After all, it is winter, and these are the ‘Snowy Mountains.’ We camped in the park overnight, down at 2,000 ft amongst the shady oaks with the white-tailed mule deer and ground squirrels and consoled ourselves with the thought that we might get into the northern end of the park in the morning by retracing our footsteps, approaching Kings Canyon from the west. A few visitors turned around at the gate; like us, bitterly disappointed not to get to see the giant trees. But for us with no pressure on out time, there’s another day tomorrow. It was $20 per car to enter the park, but our Golden Eagle Pass, purchased for $65 five weeks ago, gets us in without further payment. The pass has now saved us more than $200 of entrance fees to National Parks, National Forests and National Monuments - with nearly eleven months to go!
Tomorrow came, as it inevitably does, bringing with it heavy rain and dark clouds and our new plan to get us to into the park to see the trees. The detour took us back down the valley and way to the west before starting the twenty-mile climb back to the park; clear roads at 2,000ft, clear at 3,000ft, winding tighter but clear at 4,000. By 5,000ft we were in the clouds with snow beside the road, tall sequoias brushed with snow, and at 6,000ft, a mile before reaching the visitor centre, the steep road was deep with snow and slush, hearts pounding, following in the ruts of a previous vehicle between giant trees heavy with Christmas card snow. It was time to turn back. They call the snow on the mountain roads ‘Sequoia cement’ here for good reason; it compacts and sets on the surface, a solid sheet of ice. Advice from Park Information suggested our snow/mud tyres would get us there, but without chains we considered the route impassable. We’re not easily beaten and we had given it our best shot. After all, the excitement of the journey and the spectacle of snow-laden trees are all in the memory bank. There will be more trees at Muir Woods next week.
I guess we always knew there would be snow in the Sierra Nevada in March and we dallied as long as possible in Arizona to improve our chances of a clear run. With hindsight, there’s every likelihood that our next port of call, Yosemite, ninety miles to the northwest, will not be any more friendly- but we’ll give it a try and tell you more about it next time.
David and Janice, the grey-haired nomads