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My birthday was coming up. When I turned 50, I got to choose the destination – Death Valley. I was born on Veterans Day. It is a holiday on the Lady’s teaching schedule and at times it comes as a three day weekend, as it did again this year. The Lady had been choosing recent birthday destinations after my Death Valley humor. She has made great choices. I can’t complain, but this year the ball was in my court. The choice was mine.
For this birthday I wanted to visit something old, something older than me. Ancient would do just fine.
One afternoon after the Lady got home from school it came to me – The Volcanic Tablelands just north of Bishop, California. A rugged expanse of land on the south end of the Long Valley Caldera, a place dotted with petroglyphs and other signs of ancient habitation. We had made a couple trips before and knew there was more to find, more to explore.
Ancient would do just fine.
We were watching the weather. A cold storm was forecast to be coming through. Not a lot of moisture but well below normal temperatures. Snow flurries here throughout Friday. The roads remained fairly clear until the Lady returned from work, late.
“Spin outs everywhere, doesn’t anyone know to slow down? Lots of people on the road. I threaded my way around the wrecked cars. Let’s not join them this afternoon heading out.” This was the Lady’s report.
“Pre dawn start tomorrow with no one else on the road?” I replied.
There are times to take advantage of a warm, cozy home. Is it age that teaches us that? Most likely other factors than just age.
At 4:30am there was not enough snow to impede just driving out to the highway. It was still snowing, the storm had not broken off, but it made for a peaceful drive on mostly empty roads over the passes. Cattle were still out in the pastures, their backs covered with a skiff of snow, their breathing coming in huge billows of fog. “Frosty topped cows!” the Lady named them. She was happy in her nest and what was out the window as this cold morning dawned was her world. We stopped at one of our favorite hot springs for a soak. It was absolutely wonderful. The place was empty. 16° does that.
The Lady’s phone came to life a couple of times with text messages from Ted. It was slow going through the Carson Valley. They may be late for our rendezvous. Not too bad, they made it to Bishop by noon and we started our explorations.
The Lady enjoyed laying in the sun.
I had heard about Sky Rock, a petroglyph panel facing the sky made famous by a Galen Rowell photograph. I put together little tidbits of information with research. The location is not publized and I believe that is best. Special places are worth hunting for. This is what I really wanted to visit for my birthday. Armed with possibilities from my research, would we find it?
With coordinates from my research, Ted had printed out an aerial view. We followed a narrow rough two track road. It was slow going. It led to a steep drop off into a board gully. It was time for a walk and a talk to see if the Teds would be comfortable with dealing with this stretch. I spotted Ted, the women folk walked, and we were soon down. The sun was dropping and finding a nice dispersed campsite was becoming the priority. I stopped where I thought we were closest to Sky Rock. Ted and I further scouted the road on foot for a camping spot. The women folk wandered and explored. As Ted and I returned to the trucks we saw Mrs. Ted on the ridge line, a big grin on her face, with thumbs up. The prize had been found.
We had camp set up as the last light from the sun hit the White Mountains.
And spilled through the Sierra Nevada crest.
The light was wonderful along this remote ridge line in the Tablelands.
And it soon was gone.
It was cold. We joked that it was only 4:30. Ted had dug a hole for a fire and quickly got that going. Dinner chores were quickly taken care of. The wind, although mild, I was finding it blew right through my fleece pants. I knew a different clothing layering system would be needed in the morning. This was going to be an early night. We all had not yet adjusted to the realities of winter camping. Ah, but what a special place to be working on the learning curve.
Sunday, it was my birthday morning. Our bed was cozy and warm, except for those unused spots that we discovered when we stretched. I reached down and turned on the thermostat. The Lady wiggled to life and turned in my arms.
“This is a first for me,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Waking up with a sixty year old man, I’ve never done that before!”
It was time to get the coffee going, dress more appropriately, and explore and try to capture the predawn light and how it touched all that was around us.
The sun hit the Sierra crest to the west.
And walked across the Tablelands toward us.
As we explored we were pleased to see the warming sun had reached our camp.
And gave a new perspective to the world around us.
With our coffee we walked to the south and found a view down off the Tablelands with the meandering Owens River below.
Our friends joined us.
This was a perfect birthday.
As the Teds and I turned to return to camp, there the Lady was, standing atop a high rock. I don’t know who drilled “seize the high ground” into her personality, but it had found fertile soil.
I called up, “Do you know what time it is?”
“Time for pancakes, buckwheat pancakes. You’re cooking!”
“On my birthday I’m cooking?”
That was settled.
After a great breakfast with the pancakes done to perfection with real maple syrup and blueberries, we all took off on foot to explore the area around us. The Tablelands hold all kinds of special treasures. All it takes is a little effort. Soon we found an interesting petroglyph panel.
The symbols were intriguing with some of the etchings filled with red pigment. Most of the figures were aligned with their heads to the ground.
The Lady watched over us from the high ground and spotted new opportunities to explore.
Around one corner we found a mini Sky Rock, also facing the sky.
The morning had warmed. We all had too many clothes on. We returned to camp and prepared to leave. Visiting this place had deeply touched us.
I want to add that Ted did an incredible job restoring the campfire site. All rocks that we had moved were returned to where they were taken. The hole was completely filled in. There was not a trace left that we had a fire. Good job Ted!
The road was just as rough and rocky and slow on the way out. We waited for the Teds at an intersection.
Something was rattling in the back of Ted's camper. It needed to be checked out. A turnbuckle that holds the camper to the truck needed to be tightened.
I had supplied Ted with coordinates for a couple of other areas that looked promising. One feature that stood out on Google Earth was a parking area at the end of a road with several trails moving out from that point. I figured a petroglyphs site or possibly a climber’s area. The latter proved to be true. We enjoyed the sun, had lunch, walked and explored around the interesting rock, and Ted talked to everyone as he wanted to find the owner of the FWC rig parked at the lower parking area.
There was time to check out one more spot. A dirt road led in only a short ways and then we had about an easy mile to walk. At the base of the cliff were large rocks that were adorned with ancient art work.
On our walk in we had noticed a couple of possible shelters eroded into the cliff and figured it would be worth it to check them out on the way back. We were very surprised to find more recent art work in the form of pictographs.
The day had been a series of relaxing adventures with surprises; it seemed, around every corner. We found another dispersed camping site along a bluff and settled in.
This was a pretty hammered spot. The Teds started right in on cleaning the place up. The fire pit was filled with half burned trash. Spent ammo casings, bottle caps, broken clay pigeons, shot shells, compressed air cylinders, just to name a few items, littered the ground. Marking their territory held preference to previous users over leave no trace.
Remarkably, there was little wind. We settled in and told stories around the campfire.
The Lady’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Mine was today. In just a couple of days Mrs. Ted was also celebrating a birthday. Out of their camper came Ted, two plates, each with two small squares of cake, each with a burning candle. What a thoughtful surprise! We broke into song, although a little out of tune.
“Happy birthday to us!
Happy birthday to us!
Happy birthday to everybody but Ted!
Happy birthday to us!”
The song faded into the night. The coyotes did not answer.
The next morning was how you would hope to imagine.
As I dropped down off the bluff, I found Ted in his chair.
“What are you up to,” I asked.
“I’m enjoying the show.”
We joined him.
Breakfast, pack up, and it was time to say goodbye to this place and our friends. The Lady wanted to “do a circle.” “Can we head up highway 6 to 120 at Benton and take that back over to 395?” she asked. “I love the views from Sage Hen Summit!”
The Teds headed home and we embarked on our circle route.
Well, since we were in the neighborhood, there was another petroglyphs site on my list. This one is along a creek bed on the edge of Chalfant Valley. The welded tuff cliffs are covered with ancient art work of a different style. This spot is more heavily visited and there are reminders about respect and etiquette.
The Lady’s idea of a circle was excellent. We did not encounter another vehicle along the stretch of 120. The views were incredible on this cold clear day. We stopped for another hot spring soak and then continued north on 395. We were surprised to find Monitor Pass open again after the storm. Before we knew it, we were home. The camper was emptied and cleaned and we were settled again at home.
It had been a pretty darn nice birthday trip. Pretty darn special.