Sunday, January 15, 2012

Vagabonding Across the 39th Parallel: Clicking my heels, because....

...well, there's no place like home...
After a two week journey across the 39th parallel exploring the geology of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, we were finally to the last stage, the last mountain range between us and home in the Central Valley. It was the Sierra Nevada of California

It's no small barrier: the Sierra Nevada is the largest single mountain range in the United States, and for 400 miles it rises as a nearly inaccessible wall of solid rock. It has been a barrier to human and animal travel for thousands of years. Along the highest part of the Sierra Crest, from Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National Park, a distance of  least 150 miles, only one throughgoing road crosses the crest, at Tioga Pass where we started our journey two weeks earlier. We crossed Sage Hen Summit, and the mountains came into view. Even though it was late July, snow still covered large parts of the high country. It had been that kind of year (compare to the extreme dry conditions we are seeing now).
The Sierra Nevada is such an extraordinary mountain range that it can dwarf other incredible mountains nearby. In any other region, a hundred mile long mountain range exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation would be world renowned. Instead, the White Mountains are barely known to most people, even in California. Likewise, a chain of thirty or so active volcanoes, some only a few hundred years old, would be getting far more attention in 2012 than good ol' Yellowstone. But they don't appear in the news very often, and not on the Discovery Channel either. As far as I can tell, there aren't even any conspiracy nuts weaving stories about UFOs and harmonic convergences at all.

We came across Highway 120 and wound our way around the north side of the Mono Craters (above), and stopped to enjoy a panorama of the Sierra Crest on the east boundary of Yosemite National Park. The prominent peaks in the picture below are Ritter and Banner, two spectacular mountains that were left outside the boundaries of Yosemite. I suspect the reason involved possible mineral sources in the metamorphic rocks (they are protected from development by their designation as a wilderness area).
A little further to the north we could see the Lyell Crest and the countryside near June Lake. The glaciers wreaked havoc with the topography there. In one spot the river flows towards the mountain range rather than away from it (by some incredible coincidence it is called Reversed Creek).
And then Mt. Dana, the second highest peak in Yosemite (below). We were close to our home territory, and it might have been quicker to go home the way we came two weeks earlier, but we still had a sense of curiosity about the other pass, Sonora, a little north of Yosemite National Park. We were tired, but we still wanted to explore...a little bit.
Something caught our eye in the foreground. There is almost nothing that can live on a surface of recently erupted pumice ash. Water simply percolates through and what little clay that forms in a few hundred years dries up within a few weeks of the last snows. But that was the kind of summer we had. Late July and spring was only beginning. The pumice flats east of the Mono Craters were alive with colorful wildflowers.
They certainly weren't tall. I was down on my hands and knees trying to get pictures of the common ones, like the magenta flowers above, that I assume is some kind of Monkeyflower (corrections are most welcome).
There were a few spindly lupines hanging on as well...
And some delicate yellow daisy types (again, any id is welcome!). We stopped for a sandwich in Lee Vining, and headed north on Highway 395, and then east in Highway 108 over Sonora Pass (9,624 feet). We stopped for a few minutes at the Leavitt Falls Overlook to see the snowmelt-swollen cascade pouring out of the hanging valley below the pass.

The road climbs steeply and becomes a narrow byway. If you have one of those RV's don't try this one! We passed meadows and waterfalls that had an air of familiarity. We were almost home. We had had a good trip, and seen a great many new places, and seen familiar places in a new way. But it was time to wrap things up.
What did we find? There's no place like home. Not the Dorothy's "We're not in Kansas anymore" kind of 'no place'. Literally: there is no place like home. One of the joys of teaching geology is the ability to say that you can never escape it (in a good sense, most of the time). Wherever you go there is a geological story that is distinct from everywhere else, and the story is almost invariably fascinating. We could have picked any line across the earth's surface, and we would have found something unique (but I must say the richness of the American West is unparalleled).

We crossed the pass and started down the canyon of the Stanislaus River. In two hours the vagabonds were relaxing once again in their own home. The dog and the cat were certainly happy to see us again. It was good to be back, but it wasn't a week before we wished we were on the road again.

For those of you who have been following this series, I hope you have enjoyed the journey!


Gaelyn said...

This was an awesome journey. Sure makes me hunger for a road trip.

Nina F said...

My oh my, those Sierra Nevada mountains are pure gorgeousness!

Certainly have enjoyed the journey.

Tonyhawklookalike said...

Great photos! The eastern sierra is a great place despite what Mark Twain said about Mono Lake!