Archive for Februar, 2011

Morro Bay, California – The sea otters’ cute bustling

Montag, Februar 28th, 2011

Morro Rock isn’t only the landmark of the bay and the town with the name Morro Bay. The 580 ft / 176 m high widely visible rock also marks the beginning of Southern California. Sea otters that are rare in California as well take a break in the bay protected by a sandbank, and connected just via a channel to the sea. The smallest and probably sweetest of all sea mammals just laze about, and even then they manage to look cute. They lay on their back, the furry round head with button eyes rests on the belly, as the folded front paws do. The rear flippers are kept out of the water as far as possible. The group’s largest animal is awake. It does one sideways roll after the other and entangles itself with seaweed. The animals use kelp as an anchor to not drift away while sleeping. Fur grooming is intense: The otter “scratches” itself, washes its head, and cleans its feet. This spectacle might just be surpassed by a mother that swims into the bay with her baby. She does rolls, somersaults and pirouettes, and the pub deliberately copies her.

During our watching the otters a ground squirrel tries to eat my jeans. That’s not too bad; they have to be taken out of service anyway. But when the gopher tries to specifically unstitch the hem seam with its keen teeth, I’ve had enough and try to chase it away – with moderate success. They are actually cute, but if they are too many it feels like been drawn into one of Hitchcock’s thrillers. A great blue heron next-door caught a huge fish. This heron can become up to four feet / 1.2 m and possesses an impressive beak, but this prey is close to a foot long. The bird keeps the fish decoratively in its bill until it decides to reject it and sets it free.

We have a short hike in Montana des Oro State Park in Los Osos where many whales pass by today. Then we meet John and Virginia, friends of Camille whom we met when hiking in Utah and whom we’ll visit in a few days. John and Virginia offer guided kayak and bicycle tours and feed up animals on the side – more or less everything from deer to mountain lion.

Big Sur, California – California’s most beautiful coast

Sonntag, Februar 27th, 2011

The coastal road is fantastic around Big Sur. The views from the cliffs to the today quiet ocean are magnificent. It is the time of the grey whales. Mothers with their calves slowly return from their birthing grounds back to the north, during other late pregnant cows are still on their way south. There is very often a spout to see few hundred metres off the coast, sometimes entire groups.

Pfeiffer Beach shall be one of the most attractive beaches in the area. It is accessible via a narrow winding road that’s not permissible for motorhomes. We may, because we ask in advance; they only care for the vehicle size. The entrance fee is 5 $. The extensive protected bay with arches and brooks flowing into the sea is worth visiting. Not far from Pfeiffer Beach Henry Miller Library is situated to the east. Wanting to be more than a library it offers complimentary coffee, tea, and Wi-Fi. The famous nevertheless controversial author Henry Miller made the area known only with his work “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”.

Ten miles south at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a perfect bay is located: fine sand, turquoise-coloured water, protecting rocks, a waterfall that initially splashes onto the beach and then flows into the sea, green trees, and colourful flowers. At the southern end of Big Sur coast, right before San Simeon, hundreds of elephant seals lay at the beach in the so-called Elephant Seal Rookery. The numerous parking lots are connected with boardwalks and separated from the beach just with a fence. Her we can watch – without entrance fee, but without ranger interpretation – the barking, crying, slobbering, howling, whining, hissing, copulating, burping, sneezing, and farting bustle of the sea elephants.

Carmel, California – The Californian number plate phenomenon

Samstag, Februar 26th, 2011

Some beautiful beach towns are located in Monterey Bay. Monterey was founded in 1770 as a mission. The mission called Royal Presidio Chapel can be visited still today. It is said to be the world’s smallest basilica. From 1775 on Monterey was capital of the initially Spanish, then Mexican and from 1846 on US American California, until it was superseded by Sacramento. The Fisherman’s Wharf is pretty with all its restaurants, souvenir shops, boats, and common seals – but out of proportion to San Francisco.

We reach the neighbouring town Pacific Grove via the scenic drive with many view points, common seals and sea lions. The main attraction is the monarch butterflies that spend the winter from October to March here. They have conspicuous orange- or yellow-black markings. They cluster at tree branches in restricted areas of the town and wait for the sun to warm them up. They can start flying around only from 55°F / 13° C on. The usually flutter around midday. Particular in the American Monarch’s migration is that during one year several generations of butterflies are born and die – their life cycle is just few weeks long. But only the generation hatched out in fall fly from Canada to its overwintering grounds in California and Mexico. From where do they know that?

The third town on the peninsula is called Carmel. Carmel – there was something… Right, actor Clint Eastwood was mayor for some years. This expensive town of artists has also a Spanish mission from 1770 – very pretty. Before we want to see downtown and the beach and follow the scenic drive. We do not feel involved by the 20-foot vehicle’s length restriction. We want to have a walk at the beautiful white beach. We didn’t even park properly when the Californian legislative power is behind us – with a car this time. The officer is friendly, but thinks we shouldn’t be where we are. After a thoughtful look he agrees with us that the 20-feet-restriction doesn’t apply to us. But we are higher than seven and a half feet. What’s correct, but both of us didn’t see any sign. We apologize and ask if we can get out here on the road. We can, but – I don’t believe my ears – we can’t drive around in California with these number plates. Please, not again! We listen to his didactic lecture with rapt attention until it’s our turn. We explain him that we are Germans, travellers with own vehicle, that came with it and will leave the States with it and definitely don’t need an US American licence plate. Well, the man has got a driver’s licence; he’s even allowed to drive a police car, so he understands somewhat faster that we are probably right.

But the occurrence makes me think. That can’t be coincidence. Are tourists with own vehicle an unknown race in California? Meantime I don’t rule out that it is due to us. We are obviously considered Americans. Should we remove the American Flag on our roof rack beside the German one? Should we take off the American base caps? Or should we rather speak with a heavy German accent? I will ask the next officer.

We reach the particularly beautiful sparsely populated coastal sector called Big Sur. To avoid more problems with the authorities we sleep on the state park’s campground in-between redwoods for 35 $ the night.

Pinnacles National Monument, California – The earth’s movement

Freitag, Februar 25th, 2011

We leave the Pan Americana for a trip into the inland to Pinnacles National Monument. Hwy # 25 crosses the San Andreas Fault several times; we can feel the truck slightly shaking since the pavement can’t always be redone. The fault is 680 mi / 1100 km long from Mexico into northern California. The Pacific and the North American continental plates adjoin here, drifting to the north respectively the west. That usually works smoothly, but sometime the plates become entangled. When tension becomes too big, an earth quake breaks out. There are thousands every year, most of the time not even recognizable. Sometimes, like in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a big displacement occurs. It was measured 20 ft / 6 m. The average counter movement is 2.5 inch / 6 cm per year. The San Andreas Fault is part of the Ring of Fire surrounding the Pacific Ocean, but is one of the few areas where the continental plates adjoin on land and not under water.

The Pinnacles have actually been a volcano. Two thirds of it broke off in the area of Los Angeles 2 million years ago and drifted to the north where we can visit them today. The other third is still 195 mi / 315 km south-east. Erosion wasn’t doing nothing during this time. It created spires and pillars that gave the park its name. Many of them collapsed during the numerous earthquakes and encased a canyon nearly completely. The attraction of the park is a hike through this dark, cave-like labyrinth where sun only occasionally comes through. Firm shoes and a torch are necessary, a headlamp would be even better, for the 2.2 mi / 3.5 km long hike. Arriving on the mountain we can see the interesting pinnacles and a small reservoir that has been created in the 30s, but has never been used. After the productive rainfalls of the last weeks the reservoir overflows and brings small waterfalls and artificially created rain showers to the caves, and wet feet. We go back via Rim Trail above the gulch. The caves can temporarily be closed when the resident Indians use them.

Santa Cruz, California – The strange behaviour of the elephants of the sea

Donnerstag, Februar 24th, 2011

We pass Silicon Valley and Stanford University on our way to Año Nuevo State Park that protects a habitat recaptured by elephant seals, the world’s largest seals. The northern sea elephants that populate Northern America’s west coast can become 16 ft / 5 m long and up to 6,000 lb / 2.7 tons heavy. Females are significantly smaller with maximum 10 ft / 3 m and 1,900 lb / 900 kg. The marine mammals got their name from the snout that the males with their scarred chests develop during their life and that’s especially long among the northern species – up to one foot / 30 cm. The larger southern elephant seals live in South America.

After mass slaughtering in the 19th century for commercial use of their blubber they were assumed to be extinct 100 years ago. But a small colony has survived and slowly spread out – genetically one-sided though. Every elephant seal spends several weeks without eating or drinking on land twice per year. The usual loners come to the beach for moulting in summer, but males and females, juveniles and elders chronologically staggered. All individuals meet at the beach for birth and mating from December to March. The rest of the time they spent out at the sea where they eat and sleep hovering. The males swim up to Alaska and the females far out into the Pacific to the continental shelf. Their diet consists of fish and squid.

To become an alpha bull, conquer a harem so to speak, a male has generally to be larger than his competitors, what he rarely reaches under the age of 13. His average life expectancy is 14. Females can become up to 20 years old. They bear one young that they suckle for four weeks with their mayonnaise-like milk, containing 55 % fat. The pub quadruples its weight during this time to nearly 900 lb / 400 kg during the mother looses weight at least to the same extent. In the end of the month both of them are distinguishable only by their fur colour – the young is dark at first. Then the mother crawls into the water without warning, swims away, and leaves the pub to its own devices. Some babies find a substitute mother that might have lost her own offspring and sucks until it is round as a ball and immobile. They are called super weaners. After their abandoning the weaners lay around for some weeks, changing their fur into silver-grey and living from their fat resources until, acting on a sudden impulse, they think eating and swimming might be a brilliant idea. In little tide pools and in shallow water they teach themselves swimming and diving until they take the view that they master it and take off to Alaska or the continental shelf. Their actuarial survival rate however is only 50 %, and just 30 % will make it to the next year and return to their birthplace. After escaping the danger of being mashed by a bull going berserk to mate and surviving their two-month fasting cure, white sharks and orcas wait in front of the coast for their favourite food.

At the entrance of Año Nuevo we have to pay the usual 10 $ entrance fee per vehicle that’s valid for all Californian state parks on that day. To get to the seals we have to take part in a ranger-leaded program for 7 $ per person that takes about two and a half hours. The hike (3 mi / 5 km) brings us very close to the animals. Elephant seals aren’t interested in humans at all. But the bulls indifferently crush everything in their way – you should better get out of their way. But most of the time the submarines lay around motionless. The weaners howl from time to time, the females loudly complain about whatever with their mouth flinging open, and the bulls create heart-rending, deep, and mechanically clicking sounds. But just to signalise superiority to a competitor that gets too close. Otherwise the mammals just move to throw sand on themselves – for cooling.

Vallejo, California – Nearly finished

Mittwoch, Februar 23rd, 2011

Everything sealed, we pack. Scott presents a very fair invoice. Then he helps us to get an estimate for the scratch from Death Valley for the insurance. Scott is a great help! He doesn’t really repair expedition vehicles, but he could organise somebody. But if you can repair on your own, as Joerg can, it’s perfect. We may camp on his property, we can use his tools, and he organises whatever is needed.

Vallejo, California – Light on the horizon

Dienstag, Februar 22nd, 2011

The welding wasn’t successful, the crack in the oil filter housing extended. But Scott could get back the filter from a suitable engine that he has sold recently and that’s not really used. A working oil pressure transmitter is included. The rebuilt starter comes back as well, so we have again a spare part now. Joerg takes the chance to change the oils in the axles, differential, and in the split gearbox, since Scott got the appropriate oils for us.

Vallejo, California – Material defect

Montag, Februar 21st, 2011

We actually should have arrived in Vallejo just today. But due to the oil problems we already travelled here yesterday. Scott is looking for spare parts for us. He brings our oil filter housing to a welder who is experienced in welding cast aluminum, but he doesn’t have too much hope. He thinks it must be a rare material defect, an unlucky coincidence.

San Francisco, California – Close Encounters: The bicycle officer

Sonntag, Februar 20th, 2011

San Francisco is one of the United States’ oldest cities. It was founded in 1776 as Spanish mission. In 1906 80 % of all buildings fell victim to a conflagration that followed a severe earthquake. The city wasn’t abandoned, and counts 780,000 inhabitants today, the bay area five millions. San Francisco differs decisively from other American cities. Its location in a bay, its climate not following the seasons, its grown town centre, one of USA’s biggest China Towns, the dreaded prison island Alcatraz, and pier 39 with all its restaurants, souvenir shops and seals dozing on the pontoon bridges create a very special flair.

We’ve been to Frisco before, so we tackle it easily. First, we are heading to THE landmark: the Golden Gate Bridge. There is a nice view from the parking lot at the south side. Then we hop over to the south where is another view point where there is a good prospect to Alcatraz and the city. A good third spot is on top of Conzelman Road. But there stands a bicycle police officer between us and the fun of taking photos. She cycles towards us, she rides around, plants herself in front of us, studies the number plate, and signals to open the driver’s door. No hello, no self-introduction, her opening words are: “You can’t drive around with this number plate in California.” “No? Why that?” Because we needed a Californian licence plate when driving through California, she informs us. “Since when? We’ve never heard of that.” Since ever, she explains, and then a ridiculous, senseless and incomprehensible discussion starts. Our passports and visa don’t mean too much to her. She rather wants to know if we have a bed in the cabin and can cook there. (Is that of her business? It’s not a friendly question; it’s more that she accuses us of living in the camper.) Where did we enter the United States and didn’t the immigration inform us about our obligation to carry American number plates? And didn’t they search us thoroughly? “No, the border officers were very friendly and let us pass.” That is completely irresponsible, she curses, in SUCH a vehicle you could smuggle tons of weapons, drugs, or even people!!! Without being disrespectful, did she watch too many bad movies? If we were never stopped and controlled by a police officer, she wants to know. No, and if it were only questions of personal interest, no official control. Her world view begins to sway.

Joerg’s aggression level slowly rises. His answers are getting a bit ill-tempered. It’s worse with me. I desperately try to keep my composure. I really don’t want to make the officer know what I think about her evident neurosis and her leak of specialized knowledge. It’s better not to say anything. Not easy though. Breath deeply, count to ten, doesn’t help. Go on, 20, 30,… Once more she starts this dumb Californian number plate story. Joerg has got a read face, trying to keep calmness, but the seismograph now clearly indicates an impending eruption. Then even the officer seems to realize that. Joerg shall relax, sais she, we are only chatting. Chatting?!? I probably had a wrong idea of this activity.

She makes concessions and tries to feign interest for our vehicle and the trip. Until she obviously finds the rewind button at her implanted cassette recorder, presses replay, and the same old story of the Californian number plates starts again. I interfere: “But we didn’t import the vehicle.” “Nooooo?”, she asks. „And if we don’t import it and don’t keep it longer than 12 months in the country we don’t need American number plates.“ But we entered the country on the overland route, and that’s completely different from shipping a vehicle, she still doubts. “No”, I state definitely, “that doesn’t matter. If we don’t import, we don’t get number plates. And if we don’t have a United States’ residency, we can’t even import”, I claim. She doesn’t seem to be convinced, but basically pensive. Perhaps she ways up if it would be better not to create another enemy on the other side of the driver’s cabin. Her survival instinct wins. Who knows which weapons are stored in THIS vehicle? (I’m willing to draw them.) She half-heartedly wishes us a good trip and pedals. What a pity, I actually planned to ask her for her name, grade, department, and superior.

A sign at Conzelman Road states: No RVs and buses. The bicycle officer can’t be far, so we skip this. Plus we are having another problem. Our engine seems to lose oil. That’s absolutely not good since our oil pressure transmitter gave up two days ago. Besides, there is the risk of a drop of oil on San Francisco’s ecologically-pure pavement. And in case the two-wheeled law enforcement gets to know this… Death penalty is still practised in California. Let’s go.

Sacramento, California – California’s capital

Samstag, Februar 19th, 2011

Sacramento is not only California’s attractive capital, it offers real history. The town, founded in 1838 by Swiss Johann August Sutter, quickly developed and counts 470,000 inhabitants today. Despite of the fact that the capital isn’t centre of trade and commerce at the same time, the city progressed better than most comparable examples. The historic, partially restored, partially reconstructed Old Town Sacramento is a popular district in western style with shops and pubs – not only for tourists. The white capitol is one of the most beautiful in the United States. Arnold Schwarzenegger has resided here up until a short while ago. In January the Republican ended according to the law his second period of office, and handed over his post to the Democrat Gerry Brown who is one of California’s previous Governors.

Redding, California – Fruit tree blossoming

Freitag, Februar 18th, 2011

The I 5 is our fastest connection to San Francisco. The interstate is a pretty route through the foothills of the Cascades, passing the 14,163 ft / 4317 m high cone-shaped Mt. Shasta that somehow reminds of Kilimanjaro, just carrying more snow. Shasta Lake is an idyllic reservoir, but we continue our way down to escape the snow and finally land in Redding, the first bigger city in California, where fruit trees are blossoming to our relief.

Medford, Oregon – Snow in Oregon

Donnerstag, Februar 17th, 2011

The sound of dropping rain is slowly exchanged by something more silent. Plates of too heavy gotten snow slide off our cabin’s rounded edges in the morning. Six inches of snow (15 cm) fell overnight. Trees fall under the unusual weight, rocks slide off the mountains. We are happy to finally reach I 5 where the white flakes slowly liquefy and later even the rain disappears.

Myrtle Point, Oregon – Through rainforest to the Pacific coast

Mittwoch, Februar 16th, 2011

Don’t miss the coastal view points Klamath River Overlook at Requa and Point St. George in Crescent City in the northern part of the Redwood Parks. The views to the Pacific with its raging waves are spectacular. One of the prettiest roads in the park is Howland Hill Road that loops back to hwy # 101 via hwy # 199. The very narrow trail (good for passenger cars only, Arminius just fits in) leads through a majestic, awe-inspiring stand of tree, enchanting with its dense understorey of ferns and rhododendron. Down here it’s pretty dark and the rain is dripping sparsely through the 100 m high evergreen leaves.

We stay on hwy # 101 and head north along the Oregon coast that’s said to be even more beautiful than the Californian one. I try to imagine that but it’s not that easy due to continuous rain. From time to time, when the sun breaks through, the Pacific changes its colour from dreary grey to light turquoise. We can watch from many viewpoints how the waves brake at the outcropped black rocks.

The weather doesn’t promise anything good. We plan to go via hwy # 42 to I 5 back to California. At # 42 land is under water. Rivers bubble over, and pastureland transforms into swamp.

Redwood National Park, California – Three ancient relatives

Dienstag, Februar 15th, 2011

In California’s very north four more parks are united into the Redwood National and State Parks. Many view points, passable forest paths, and hiking trails invite to activities. We restrict our outing program a bit due to the pouring rain. The ranger in the park’s visitor center is happy though: “We are really excited, it is the first rain since five weeks.”

And the winter is the rainy season. This is what the rainforest needs and what enables their incredible height increment – up to a foot / 30 cm per year. During the dry summers they gain moisture from the coastal fogs. Beside humans they hardly have enemies. Tannin and other poisons in the bark prevent fungus infestation. The up to one foot / 30 cm thick bark makes insects’ penetration nearly impossible, and the therein stored water makes the tree hardy against forest fires. Only wind can fell them.

There are two more redwood species that both live in separate limited habitats. The sequoia in the western Sierra Nevada grows with 311 ft / 95 m not as high as its relative, but is with up to 40 ft / 12 m diameter the most massive tree in the world. It can become more than 3000 years old. We do not know too much about the dawn redwood. It is much smaller that the other two species, has deciduous leaves, and it was considered to be extinct since millions of years. A forester discovered a remaining stock in China in the 40s.

There is a beautiful walk through an old redwood population called Lady Bird Johnson Grove at the Bald Hills Road. More old trees can be found at the Drury Scenic Parkway, which parallels hwy # 101 for several miles. The Coastal Drive isn’t too exiting but allows nice views to the sea.

The insurance of the pick-up driver who brushed against our cabin in Death Valley NP calls me today and shows itself obliging. They will cover the damage and need photos as well as an estimate. Good news!

Eureka, California – Hello Mary-Lou

Montag, Februar 14th, 2011

The forecasted rain catches up with us at our overnight place on top of the cliffs, and there is a heavy storm as well. We leave the lost coast on the morning, following Mattole Road. After shopping and laundry in Eureka, ready to leave, Doyle stops us. He invites us into a cafe and then to spend the night on his plot. Despite the pouring rain we have a barbecue. Doyle sings in a men’s a cappella choir Barbershop music. We may join the rehearsal and like the beautiful, demanding harmony singing, but only recognize the more modern “Hello Mary-Lou” from the 50s. Then we spend the rest of the night sitting and chatting with Doyle under his awning.

Avenue of the Giants, California – The earth’s tallest trees

Sonntag, Februar 13th, 2011

At 8 am a white pick-up stops at our spot. A ranger alights from it. A short discussion develops with our neighbour before money is exchanged to a piece of paper. Then it knocks on our door. We illegally camped in a state park. It is not allowed to camp in any parking lot in California, we always have to use a campground. The usual camping fee is 35 $ and that’s what she wants to collect now. We will have free entrance to all state parks for today. Alternatively she could issue a ticket. We consider it inappropriate to mess with an American Law Enforcement Officer and pay the steep overnight fee.

Only a mile after a sign tells to that we are leaving the state park. We probably didn’t pay enough attention yesterday in the dark. The next state campground we examine has outhouses, no hook-ups or showers and also costs 35 $ a night, another one with absolutely unusable toilet is 25 $. Those seem to be the common tariffs here.

We drive along the ocean and through cedar alleys, through Mendocino that became famous through a song, until highway no. 1 leaves the coast to come to its northern end in Legget. We drive on hwy # 101 for a short while and turn into the Avenue of the Giants called byway in Humboldt State Park after Garberville. That is the southernmost park of an entire chain that protect the remaining stock of redwoods in California.

Redwoods are with 370 ft / 113 m or more the tallest trees in the world, and to the oldest ones they belong as well. Some specimen took root before the Nativity. They only grow in a zone of moderate rain forest between Oregon and Santa Cruz in California. During the dinosaur age the trees covered the entire northern hemisphere, but retreated since the last ice age due to warmer and drier climate. Their corrosion resistant wood is very interesting for the logging industry. Since the beginning of the Whites’ settlement their stand was reduced to less than 4 %. That had major consequences not only for the trees but for the entire ecosystem. Like in Canada reforestation wasn’t really on the agenda and the soil was left to the erosion. Plants and trees retreated, rivers silted up with the earth washed up, and spawning grounds disappeared. Salmon stock went down drastically. Only then measures were taken by the government to rescue the remaining forests and to go for reforestation. It is said to be successful.

A very nice section in the Humboldt State Park is Mattole Road # 211, branching off to the west. Instead of turning back we follow the bumpy side road that crosses several ranges of hills in steep slopes to a lonesome area called Lost Coast.

Jenner, California – Another search for a criminal

Samstag, Februar 12th, 2011

We want to discover the coast northwards during Scott is busy with the starter. We go to Napa Valley, but think it’s too busy on a weekend. Queues of people arouse, waiting for a wine tasting. We skip it and proceed to legendary highway no. 1. The road winds its way up and down along the coast. There are several magnificent views to the mighty Pacific Ocean that seems to quietly lie there, but thunderous waves break against the offshore rocks and cliffs. We are watching some seals in a protected river mouth that glide apparently playful through the water. There are some whales’ spouts as well. We find a place to overnight at the top of some cliffs and get ready for the sunset with camera and binoculars.

Two Sheriff Cars zoom past us. Not much later the Sheriff’s helicopter circles above and below us, again and again, exactly in the area where we are. When it’s getting darker the searchlights are switched on. We hear K-9 units barking and megaphone announcements. Only when the last daylight disappears the helicopter turns off. We can’t stop an uneasy feeling and decide to drive on despite the darkness. Yet after the next curve is the police presence. We stop for a short time to check the situation since we’ve actually planned to stay overnight. “We’ve something going on up there” the friendly officer informs us and points uphill without being able, being allowed, or wanting to say more. He confirms that it is definitely better to leave the area. As a precaution we cover several miles but it takes time since it is very dark and there is one hairpin bend after the other. We are happy to find a place where another motorhome has already parked. We join it.

Vallejo, California –At Expeditions-Scott in Vallejo

Freitag, Februar 11th, 2011

The I 80 is the fastest way to the Californian Pacific coast. We cross the Sierra Nevada on the only 7239 ft / 2200 m high Donner Summit. The highway is perfectly ploughed, but to the right and left skiers dash down the sunny slopes. We even skip Lake Tahoe due to the wintery conditions, but we’ve been there already few years ago. Not much further everything gets green: Trees carry leaves, almond trees bloom pinkish.

Scott’s company Expedition Imports is situated in an industrial area of Vallejo. He has an excellent name for trading with expedition vehicles and spare parts, and of course Unimogs. We are having a weak starter that works perfectly when temperatures are mild, but doesn’t like the cold (who does?). Scott shall rebuild it. In the meantime he makes another high torque starter available to us, which we can either keep or return to him after repairing the old one. Everything without money, and without surety. Scott just trusts in our coming back.

Reno, Nevada – Two visits, three hours, and four shop assistants later: Lissy gets company

Donnerstag, Februar 10th, 2011

Arriving in Reno we stock up on food, but especially on diesel and beer. In California everything is expensive. We decided not to replace our broken speedometer shaft for the moment; the spare part procurement will take too long anyway. Alternatively we want to buy a second GPS navigation system that should have a poster-like speed indicator and be mounted in the driver’s field of vision. When buying another brand than the Tomtom named Lissy that we already own, we may have the advantage to get different maps than what we have for remote areas.

We try our luck at a consumer electronics retailer. It will take us two visits and three hours to buy a new device. In the same time we wear out four shop assistants. Admitted: They smile much nicer than at home in Europe, but their competence level seems to be in the same range. Questions that go beyond “How much is that?” or “Which colour is prettier?” are mostly answered with a smile and result in the sales clerk’s disappearance without trace. The question “Can I run this gadget only with twelve volt or with 24 V as well?” is considered an unreasonable demand and I am being scanned by the shop assistant regarding my state of mind. 24 V – where does this exist, on the moon? The helpful answer goes: “Yes, it runs on 12 V.” My request to open a box and to see the plug wherefrom one can usually gather the voltage the device works with is friendly ignored.

After asking which maps are available for the Garmin Device I am told, the USA are included. My insisting makes assistant no. 3 (type: young hectic computer freak) surf strewn around on the internet to notice a world map. Before I learn details the page is already closed. After repeated pleading I get to know: “Yes, you can download maps from the internet.” Really? I wouldn’t have thought so! No, you guys won’t wind me up. I can smile as well and repeat my question five times. Where is assistant no. 4?

Here she comes, and we are finally lucky. She is from another department and has no idea at all what’s a real advantage. She’s willing to check the internet for the world map and she even opens a box to allow us a glance on one of the plugs. Of course the thing works with 24 V as well. There’s just some confusion when emerging that the device with some fringe benefits was not available in the shelf, but is locked somewhere (to not find it?). But who cares to walk back from the cashier to the sales assistant (no. 4) and back to the cashier. It only costs me a smile…

The evening gets really funny. Chas and his wife Vanessa invited us into a local restaurant. Chas has discovered our website months ago and we’ve been in contact since then. He drives his Unimog 1250 Doka from 1991 into the restaurant’s parking lot. Together we cause double as much attention as usual. An old Mercedes S class comes into the parking lot. A very stout but likeable and bright man alights from the car. “What’s going on here?” he wants to know. “Is that a secret Mercedes meeting?” Yes, it’s becoming a funny evening.

Carson City, Nevada – Arches, cake, and tufa

Mittwoch, Februar 9th, 2011

The way from Death Valley westward consists of endless slopes and gradients and is a nice conclusion (or beginning) of the park visit. In the next town Lone Pine is a well-equipped visitor center to stock up on information about eastern California or Death Valley. For example, it is important to know where the most inexpensive gas stations are – California is expensive. Provided with directions we proceed into the Alabama Hills beyond town. The soft-shaped round hills from beige-grey granite lay at the foot of the ice-cold massive snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Water, ice, and wind created caverns or arches in many rocks. The best-known one is Whitney Portal Arch, because you can see Mt. Whitney, contiguous Unites States’ highest peak through its opening. Most of the arches are accessible with short hikes from the Movie Road that’s called due to the many western movies that were shot there.

We visit a well-known Dutch bakery, Erick Schat’s Bakkery, in Bishop, furnished in the style of the 30s. We buy cake and all natural bread that’s even more inexpensive than in the supermarket. We stop at Mono Lake East of Yosemite National Parks at sunset when the snow-covered Sierra, the odd tufa stone structure, and the pink-coloured sunset-sky mirror in the quiet lake water. Mono Lake is one of the few remnants of the huge lake that once covered east California. Its water is 2.5 times saltier than sea water. There are no fishes, just other strange creatures like alkali flies and brine shrimps. Waterfowls seem to have difficulties to keep their web-feet down due to the buoyancy. The tuff spires are former underwater springs whose mineral-rich water crystallized and deposited. Just after the water level had sunken they were revealed.

Actually we have planned for the trip from Death Valley to Reno three to four days, since there is a lot to see in the area. Unfortunately nearly all of the destinations aren’t accessible, the side roads of hwy # 395 are closed for the winter. Instead, we take our heels, rattle along, and cross the state border to Nevada until we reach Carson City close to Reno.

Death Valley NP, California – The secret of the moving rocks

Montag, Februar 7th, 2011

It is best to take pictures from Racetrack Playa when the sun is low on the horizon, so we have to start early. It may well be the most peculiar place in Death Valley shrouded in mystery. Rocks move in a mysterious way, driven by an unknown power, and nobody ever watched it. And still, it is known to be true. The traces are unambiguous, and there are measurements.

Racetrack Playa is a dried lakebed between two mountain chains. Stones crumble from the Cottonwood Mountains at the south end of the perfect plain and then move along, leaving stress marks. The rocks weigh up to 100 pounds / 50 kg and do not roll, but rather slide or glide due to their squared shape. There seems to be a major direction of movement, but not all stones follow it, and not always. Some lean into the bend, double back, zigzag, draw a circle, or simply turn round. It seems to be undisputed among scientists that wind plays a crucial role as driving force behind – but probably with storm force and not as a sole factor. Many scientists believe that rain converts the ground into a soft soap-like slippery slope. The theory that ice and snow play a role as lubricant seems to be disproved. But it’s totally unsolved why, if the wind thesis is the case, some rocks move and others not respectively how they can shift in different directions.

The traces on the mostly hexagonally cracked lakebed are clearly visible. The highest amount of moving stones can be found from the second, southern parking lot, walking to the mountains on the opposite side of the plain. The clear desert air considerably deceives: It looks like only some steps, but then it’s a hike of two miles.

On our way back we stop at the Teakettle Junction. Humorous travellers hanged up most different teakettles at the intersection sign over the years – a real eye candy. Not long after leaving the washboard trail our speedometer doesn’t show anything anymore. Later we will realize that the shaft is broken. The infamous stretch didn’t harm our tires, but it was the final straw for a 24 years old speedometer shaft.

Right before Stovepipe Wells, the only settlement in the park with supermarket, gas station (highest prices we ever saw!), hotels and campground, are the yellow 30 m high Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where you can climb up. Some miles to the west is Mosaic Canyon. Water fought its way through marble stone, polished it and created a winding gulch. The marble has mainly yellow, beige, white and grey patterns and is in some places light or dark grey with the typical stripy or chequered white inclusions. The most beautiful walls can be found in the lower part, it’s a nice two-mile-hike up though.

Aguereberry Point on 6000 ft / 2000 m elevation offers a less popular but much better view into Death Valley than Dantes View. The gravel road is narrow, one-lane and winding, but unproblematic. From up there you can see the sand dunes, Furnace Creek Oasis as well as Badwater Basin (Good for afternoon photos!). For the night we head to Wildrose Campground, which has drinking water and outhouses, and yet is free of charge.

Death Valley NP, California – Small accident

Sonntag, Februar 6th, 2011

The yellow-beige Golden Rock Canyon is getting more and more colourful to the end and there is no excuse to miss the view to the yellow-brown striped hills and the Red Cathedral named cliff. Take on of the tracks leading uphill to the right. That comes to 2.5 miles / 4 km altogether. A bit north of the visitor center a short walk invites to find out about borax mining in the end of the 19th century and to take some photos of the old tools. Another short hike (3/4 mile / 1 km) at Salt Creek is worthwhile. Peculiarity here is the tiny pupfish not known much about. The fresh water fish from the once huge lake was slowly isolated during evaporation and forced back into small reserves where they had to get used to the increasing salt content and the extreme temperature differences. The gill animals are here maximum 2 in / 5 cm long, frantically dash through the shallow water, and probably become less than one year old. They have to drink their surrounding water not to die of thirst since the saltwater constantly withdraws their bodies’ liquid.

Titus Canyon can be driven in one-way traffic with a 4-wheel drive, but it’s a long and somewhat boring detour to get there. It is sportier to hike in. In the very north of the park lies Ubehebe Crater that suffered a steam explosion 1000 to 3000 years ago and flung water and debris out. Today it forms a neatly striped crater with a diameter of nearly half a mile where you can climb down.

A notorious tire eating 28 mi / 45 km washboard track brings us south to our tomorrow’s destination. There is remarkable oncoming traffic in the evening. It’s not always easy to get out of the way since the grader ploughed an edge to both sides of the road. No problem for a Unimog, we crawl uphill to make way for an oncoming pick-up with camper cabin. The pick-up driver on his part also climbs up the slope with his right wheels, suddenly accelerates, and turns too early back onto the road. His cabin starts tilting to the left and hits Arminius. The other driver stops, and we jump out. His cabin top edge brushed against our cab, fortunately just from the middle of our cabin on. So he missed our first window, and the kitchen window is deeper. A remarkable scratch stretches alongside. The left rear edge reinforcement has got glass fibre damage and has to be repaired to seal the surface. All in all it got off lightly, but still unpleasant. Of course, there is nothing to see at the pick-up. The driver apologizes; he has forgotten that he has the cabin on top. He hands over his insurance details. We will see how American insurances handle those things, we have no experience.

In the end of the gravel road is the Homestake Dry Camp, a tiny primitive campground without water, but free of charge. It is neither mentioned in the official park map nor in the campground list. It shows up only on the off-road map and only on inquiry we get to know which sites are open respectively closed for the winter. Even some roads are closed for ice and snow – this is Death Valley, one of the world’s hottest places.

Death Valley NP, California – The valley of death

Samstag, Februar 5th, 2011

Actually Death Valley owes its name to just one fatality. It was nevertheless a disaster that happened in 1849 during the Californian gold rush. Some pioneers believed to be able to take a shortcut to California when crossing the valley. Contrary to their wagon master’s advice they proceeded without knowing it to one of the hottest places on earth, had to leave equipment and wagons behind, and slaughtered their oxen to survive. When finally arriving on the mountain crest on the west side three months later, and having lost only one team member, one of the men looked back and said: “Goodbye, death valley.”

In summer 1913 the second highest temperature ever measured on earth was here with 134° F / 56.7° C, just exceeded by the Libyan Sahara some years later. Imagining Death Valley as a flat sandy desert is completely wrong. The 110 mi / 180 km long valley is bordered both in the east and west by high mountain chains and is drawn through by colourful rocks. After getting oriented in the visitor center in Furnace Creek oasis we visit Zabriskie Point where, after a short walk uphill, there is a spectacular view to the surrounding hills with stripes and gradations from yellow to brown with hidden spots of pink and green. A drive through the short Twenty Mule Team Canyon passes a closed borax mine where in former times loads with in the average ten pairs of mules started their 165 mi / 265 km long way through the desert to the south. Most mining activities floundered on the complicated conditions and the high costs after only a few years.

26 mi / 42 km to the south, Dantes View, more than 5000 ft / 1500 m above the lowest point of the park, offers a view over nearly the entire valley with its flat dry desert landscape, the salt fens, the pond-like remnants of a once huge lake, and the elongated mountain chains. From here you can see the lowest point on the North American continent with 282 ft / 85.5 m below sea level as well as the highest point in the contagious United States, Mt. Whitney with 14,505 ft / 4,421 m, snow-covered even in summer.

Badwater Basin is not only North America’s the lowest point but the western hemisphere’s one. 2000 to 4000 years ago, a lake still covered the area and left a one to 50 ft thick salt layer after evaporation, and a small pond that is four times saltier than sea water. We spy a sign high up in the mountains that tells us where is sea level. That’s a kind of frightening. A bit further salt crystals grow from the crusty dry lakebed and form coral-like structures. It is allowed to walk around on Devils Golf Course, but the ground is uneven and the crystals extremely hard and sharp-edged. The 15 km long one-way road Artists Drive is a rollercoaster ride through the most colourful geological formations of Death Valley. The highlight is Artists Palette, some hills with splattered colour spots of pink, green, purple, maroon, grey, yellow, and black.

We quickly take some photos of the pink sunset that mirrors in the saltwater, and then we have to find an overnight place. Death Valley National Park offers more or less everything: comfortable hotels, campgrounds with the whole works, and complimentary primitive campgrounds. There is none close by, but contiguous United States’ largest park kindly permits dispersed camping. A special off-road map with information about trails and backcountry camping is available at the visitor center.

Red Rock Canyon NCA, Nevada – Colourful rocks

Freitag, Februar 4th, 2011

In Red Rock Canyon we find petrified sand dunes in light-red, dark red, and yellow. The National Conservation Area is highly frequented from visitors from Las Vegas and California, from day-trippers and climbers. The park isn’t a stunner when coming from Utah, but lowlanders seem to go into raptures. It is not a detour; the Scenic Drive is pretty, and the scenery worth visiting.

Las Vegas, Nevada – Gomorrah

Donnerstag, Februar 3rd, 2011

On closer examination the city of gambling looks much less noble and glamorous in daytime than at night. We have been here some years ago, but it was dark and we were only in the hotel area. Today we go shopping for the first time. The Costco is the smallest we ever saw with very limited choice. The Wal-Marts appear grimy, as wide areas of the city do, and the other shops aren’t much better.

The parking lot behind Bally’s Hotel is an insider tip among campers. On the extensive site, access from Flamingo Road, RVs are accepted hoping for more gamblers, and it is only one block away from Las Vegas Boulevard, the so-called Strip. We stroll around between the hotels. At the Bellagio impressive waterworks were composed to music, at the New York – New York the Statue of Liberty and the streets of Manhattan were reproduced, and in the Paris there is an Eiffel Tower in half size as well as a triumphal arch. Other giant hotels make it unnecessary to visit Venice or even Egypt any more.

The CityCenter is new and wasn’t finished on our last visit. The most expensive privately financed construction project of all times in the USA with 8.5 billion Dollars comprises six huge buildings, besides hotel casinos also luxury apartments, and a high-class shopping mall. Because the real estate crisis of 2008 messed up before completion of the complex, owner MGM had to sell one of its other hotels. But finally they managed to finish the first ecological facility in Las Vegas. There is an energy-efficient power station, surplus heat is used for hot-water supply, and the hotel’s own limousine pool runs on natural gas. 80 % of the rubble from the Boardwalk Hotels that was torn down on this spot was reused for the new building, and the old bathroom interiors were wrapped into curtains and carpets that weren’t used any more and sent to developing countries. The hope remains that one of the world’s “greenest” hotel complexes set standards in a city of wastefulness, where hotels don’t consider themselves too good for heating porches in winter and air-condition them in summer. For the moment merciful darkness is falling over the city with its somewhat haggard buildings.

There are many choices at dinnertime in Las Vegas, but it is not always inexpensive. The Ellis Island Casino right behind Bally’s and the RV parking lot is an insider tip, and they even have a micro brewery. They offer six different beers, the pint for 1.75 $ including tax. The food is as inexpensive, but a real blast is the lean 300 g sirloin steak with vegetables and potato side order of own choice, starter salad or soup, and a beer for 7.99 $. We do not mind spending the half hour waiting time drinking another beer. Take dessert only of you are very hungry! The cheesecake for 3.99 $ with fruit sauce substitutes a main meal and covers the sugar need of a full week.

Mesquite, Nevada – Excitement in the water station

Mittwoch, Februar 2nd, 2011

In the morning we comb another time the eroded sandstone plateau Little Finland searching for new and undiscovered shapes. We meet Gonzo from the Muppet Show with the long hanging nose. It’s cold. A storm coming from the north pushes a cold front down south. The search for drinking water for our tank makes us stopping in the village Bunkerville. On the surface of the water in the municipal park’s public restrooms a thick layer of ice formed. I didn’t see something like that before! Fortunately the toilet bowls are from metal and can’t break from freezing.

We didn’t want to pay 10 $ for a water tank filling on the campground in Overton. In Bunkerville’s library we are advised to try it in the next town, in Mesquite’s water station. The ladies in the office there burst into shrieking when discovering Arminius. They order a worker to help us with the water. He isn’t less flustered. Well, maybe there is not too much going on in Mesquite. Anyway, we will remember that it might be possible to get drinking water in a water station. Where else? On I 15, we engage 16th gear and tear up the road to Las Vegas.

Little Finland, Nevada – The petrified limbo

Dienstag, Februar 1st, 2011

Clouds of sand are sweeping over the ground; round dried bushes are rolling over the road. They are called tumbleweed. I couldn’t have thought about a better name. Today, the wind causes havoc and lets us know that it is still winter in Nevada. On our way to Little Finland in the Gold Butte area we pass the nearly 8000 ft high Virgin Mountains, then the Whitney Pocket, red and white sandstone hills that seem to grow out of the green plain, and eventually Devils Throat, a 100 ft deep sinkhole that’s secured with a fence and whose origin is unknown. Joshua Trees and huge cactuses grow here. We find several smooth sandstone walls covered with pre-Columbian petroglyphs. The paved road turns into a gravel road and finally into a wash – check conditions with BLM office in Las Vegas before driving there. Rumours are circulating that the area shall be closed to public access, or it shall be protected as National Monument.

The parking lot for Little Finland or Hobgoblins Playground, as it is also called, lies at the foot of a mesa. Large Californian fan palms cuddle up to the wall, seeking shelter from the roaring winds. Climbing up an ATV-trail at the side of the mesa we are in the middle of a highly eroded rock plateau with a large number of rock remnants. I think I landed in the middle of the purgatory. I recognize monsters, grotesque faces, dragons, and yelling faces. My imagination runs amok. I even reveal Pinocchio, but he shall have lied so much that he probably has to roast for a while in the limbo. An arch formed like a heart promises hope though. An endless number of forms and sculptures were captured by nature into the red sandstone. I could keep rummaging around for hours, if there wasn’t the icy wind. And there is something more that sets me thinking: Many fragments and destroyed shapes crumbled from the rocks, though probably no fault of human’s own for the major part, but of rain and wind – exactly as they were created. But still, there might be some slabs, broken by a thoughtless footstep. Will future generations have the opportunity to see this wonder? Or shall the area be closed, so that nobody can see the goblins any more?