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Joshua Tree National Park: Bringing on the New Year (2016)

The last fleeting moment of 2015 came and went over the course of an instant.  Now, moment by moment, time inches forward into 2016 and onward to 2017.  Booooo.  Time, please stop.  Please?  But alas! I am excited for everything that is in store for this New Year.

It was only fitting that I found myself spending time with Jocelyn's family once again for Christmas and the New Year.  After much anticipation (following a very lethargic and slow work week to my dismay), I geared up and drove down to Orange County the day before Christmas Eve in a vain attempt to beat traffic.  Lo and behold, I am starting to realize more and more that there is no such thing as "beating traffic" in SoCal... especially through Santa Barbara, Ventura, and north LA.  After a grueling 6 hour drive (which should normally take between 3.5 to 4 hours) of stop-and-go traffic, witnessing over two dozen emergency vehicles drive by, and casually sipping on ice-cold water pinky-up style from my trusty stainless steel Contigo water bottle... I finally arrived at my destination.  

This was my second time joining Jocelyn and her family for Christmas and the New Years (and Joshua Tree).  Just like the last, this staycation was full of good company, food, fun and puzzles!  However, I am promising myself to go home next winter for the holiday season.  As much as I enjoy spending time with Jocelyn and her family, I realized it was also time to start spending more time with my family as well.  Also, Hawai'i won't be nearly as cold as California in the winter.

In due time, Jocelyn's family and I went on a short 8-ish mile hike through Aliso and Wood Canyon Park in Laguna Niguel.  It was a beautiful, though very windy, day to take a hike while surrounded by wild oak and sycamore trees.  The terrain itself ranged from flat to fairly steep inclines although we decided to avoid the harder routes and stuck with the medium to easy trails.  I considered this hike a moderate warm up for Joshua Tree which would take place later the following week.  During the four or so hours we were out and about, we ran into a multitude of young and old mountain bikers cruising along the trail, kicking up dust into the wind.  Additionally, as it was the weekend after Christmas, there were also many small families with younger children walking along the trails while enjoying the fresh air.

Afterwards, another week of part-work/part-play passed by much quicker than the last as the day to head to Joshua Tree loomed closer.  This time around, my college-buddy-slash-impulse-shopping-roomie Willis decided to join in on the fun.  I was glad he came along; otherwise, I would have froze to death alone in the tent at night.  Willis decided to spend the night before New Years Eve (the day we were to head out) at Jocelyn's place, so he and I offered to make food for her and the family.  We ended up making a bombtastic mouthwatering beef pot pie that pleased everyone's appetite, except the dogs who could not partake..  I miss cooking with that guy.  Hooray for recipes and not actually following them. Haha. No, but really...

New Years Eve

The day finally arrived to temporarily leave Orange County and head to Joshua Tree National Park.  We all woke up early in the morning, packed and loaded our belongings and camping supplies, and drove out at 9AM.  Some of Jocelyn's family friends also caravaned with us in their tricked out RV/camper mobile, complete with restroom (though often unused), kitchenette, roll-out canopy, and pop-up sleeping cab.  Did I mention a hot-water boiler and space heater?  Anyway, we drove through the suburbs... then desert... then desert... then desert... then you guessed it, more desert... and finally arrived at the north end of the park.  We stopped at Twenty-Nine Palms on the way to pick up some Subway sandwiches for lunch.  Our group was the only customers at the shop... Hooray travelers bringing all the business!  Just kidding, I'm sure they had other business through the day.  Subway is the place to be, after all.

After snagging some grub, we piled back into our cars and made our way to the Visitor's Center at the northern end of Joshua Tree.  The Visitor's Center had a room full of glass walled exhibits displaying some of the park's featured fauna and flora.  It was here that I learned kangaroo rats have specialized kidneys which allow them to secrete a paste-like urine.  In fact, kangaroo rats excrete some of the most concentrate urine out of all the mammals in the world!  Fun facts, huh?  Aside from that little critter, there were also trapdoor spiders, horned/spiny lizards, and a rattle snake on display.  Probably a few more others, too.

After perusing for a few minutes, we left the visitor's center and entered through the park's north entrance to try and find campgrounds at Jumbo Rock, but to no avail.  However, we did successfully found two adjacent campgrounds after a 30-mile drive to Cottonwood Springs near the southern edge of the park.  We set up shop over the course of an hour by pitching tents, snacking, unloading, and eating lunch.  Park map here.

All the young'ns went out for a short hike into the wilderness near the campground as the adults took naps or cleaned up.  Willis, Jocelyn, Jocelyn's sister, and two girls from the second family meandered around the multitude of rocky outcrops as I chose to explore a little farther away.  To me, the time I spent at Joshua Tree was a time of reflection over the past year.  Even though I was surrounded by people, there was definitely a large part of me that wanted to be alone with the wild.  Initially, many thoughts came to mind... ranging from family deaths to newfound friendships... from successful first-time adventures to failed decisions.  My mind continued to wander as I was called back to camp before the sun set.

As the sun set we prepared to heat up dinner.  Part of the menu was a variation of pre-cooked shoyu chicken and canned green beans.  I love shoyu chicken.  I love green beans.  As the congealed chicken fat melted onto the warming aluminum cake pan resting atop a propane burner, the group started to settle down for the night.  Darkness settled quickly as the sun set below the mountain-line and we all grabbed plates of food to eat as a few nifty LED lamps illuminated the night.

Afterwards, our little group of 10 piled into a single 6-person tent and played a card game called Tunk!  Time had never passed by so slowly as while playing cards.  At one point, it felt like 11PM while it was only 7PM.  My mind and feet grew antsy as we sat in the tent playing Tunk!  Eventually, it came to a point where Willis and I were vying for last place... Needless to say, he beat me for last place.... I don't know who was the real winner at that...

After a short while, a few of us decided to do some light painting.  The stars were out in force and the sky was littered with very few sources of light pollution to be seen.  Below are a few photos from the excursion.  Afterwards, we all decided to call it a night.  It was late.  Probably no later than 10PM.  None of us were awake at the stroke of midnight when the date and time turned January 1, 2016, 12AM..

New Years Day

Ah! A new day!  A New Year!  Well.  It still felt like any other day. Hello 2016, goodbye 2015.  You know what the best part of the morning was?  Waking up at 7AM without an alarm.  We all woke up bright and early to start our day. 

Breakfast consisted of Lil' Smokies and bread.  Everyone packed snacks for the long day ahead... trail mix, beef jerky, assorted nuts and bars.... Oh, and water.  Our group was aiming to meet a few more families at Skull Rock later in the morning.  Amazingly, we departed from our campsite on time at 9:45AM and arrived at Skull Rock around 10:30AM.  We waited for ten or so minutes before deciding to start hiking within eyesight of the cars.  Most of the group immediately started climbing the various rock formations nearby.  The weather was still a little nippy as the rocks were just starting to absorb heat radiating from the sun.  In due time, I shed three moderately thick layers and stuffed them into my new F-Stop Gear Ajna backpack.  This trip was a trial run for the bag and I was happy it had ample internal space for not only my camera equipment, but food and clothes for the day as well.  Eventually, the other families showed up and we ate a hearty lunch atop the rocks.  I consumed two of the remaining spam musubis I had on hand.  The rice was cold and hard, but who really cares when you have spam in your mouth :)?

In truth, I found myself in a fairly antisocial mood after lunch.  The group was advancing slowly and all my feet and eyes wanted to do was explore.  As such, I walked ahead of the group (though within visual range) and meandered around among the rocks, sand, and plants whose names I could not identify.  As the afternoon went on we wound up at the same camp site Jocelyn's family and I camped at the previous year.  At that point, we decided to return to the cars and rendezvous at the Cottonwood Springs campsite for dinner.

Before we returned to the campsite the group stopped by the Cholla Cactus Garden.  Hundreds of cholla cacti of varying shapes and sizes littered the ground around the well-marked path.  A few strangers dared to venture into the thick of cholla cacti.  Some unlucky wanderer found themselves with cholla spines stuck to their skin.  How unfortunate...  They walked into that one.

And then darkness fell.... and dinner came.  and the night was cold.  The beef stew was delicious.

The Second Day of 2016

After a rather cold and grumpy night it was again... another day.   Hooray.   Seeing a pattern here?  Time not stopping? Woohoo!  This time, a full nights rest brought my spirits back up.  Breakfast was simply some hard boiled eggs and leftover snacks.  We packed up the tents and loaded our cars, again, and decided to go on a mid-morning 8-9 mile hike out to Mastadon Peak.  It was a relatively easy trail with a few rock hopping points along the way.   We did lose our way once or twice, and ran into a rather large boy scout troop who thought we were part of a girl scout troop... I was slightly perturbed by that comment.  Just slightly.  Our group finally made it to Mastadon Peak in the middle of who-knows-where next to an abandoned mine potentially full of "unstable explosives".  That is quite literally what the sign said.  Did that deter us from climbing?  No. Absolutely not.  Mastodon Peak offered a 360 degree view of the surrounding area; it was both windy and breath-taking.

End.

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Take a Hike: South Lake Tahoe

Every three-day weekend is another calling for adventure.  This past Independence Day weekend was definitely one to remember.  Seventeen friends and I ventured out to South Lake Tahoe (in reality, Kirkwood) for the weekend.  Most started out from the Bay and only a handful from Southern California... and of course, two amazing individuals from good ol' San Luis Obispo.  I was antsy all Thursday afternoon sitting in the office. There was nothing I wanted more than to be outdoors, lost in fields of green at South Lake Tahoe. Never having visited, I had little idea of what to expect of the trip. Here's a quick recap of what went on.


I left with two others in my car around 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning. The previous night I had prepared some humongous spam musubi to eat on the car ride up. It would take approximately 6 hours to reach the rental from San Luis Obispo. The car ride felt especially long while driving on the 41 and 5. There was nothing to be found for miles but desolate brown grass fields.  Well, there were a few small pit stops here and there, too. A few patches of green also showed up in the form of a vineyard or fruit/vegetable farm. At one point we passed a cattle ranch that must have had a population of over 1,000,000,000,000 cows for slaughter. It was an interesting sight to see so many cattle in living on one straight stretch of land. The smell of cow dung and musk in the dry summer air was overpowering as it intruded our nostrils. We continued along the 5 and eventually hit some windy roads closer to Tahoe. I was pleasantly surprised by various different shades of greenness amongst the granite and basalt faced hills and mountains

We made a pit stop at Peddler Hill Overlook about halfway to the rental in Kirkwood which overlooks the Lower Bear River Reservoir. The clouds were lumpy and fuzzy like cotton balls, and the air was crisp and warm. We walked around a bit and stretched our legs outside of the car. I snapped on my 14-24mm f/2.8 and took a couple shots out over the horizon. Nearby, two large stacks of hay bales were left abandoned on the side of the road still on trailer(s). Not sure why... they disappeared when we passed again later during the weekend.

After twenty or so minutes we decided to continue our journey into Kirkwood. The roads were windy (as in, curvy) and reminded me a lot of the roads back on Kauai. The clouds, woodlands, and roads brought back many memories of driving through the back roads of Kauai in my Tundra back home. I wished I had a truck here to do the same... perhaps in a few more years.

We made it out to the rental around 3:30 p.m.  However, we were lost as the address only gave the rental's unit number, and not actual address. It turned out that the rental was part of a duplex. We waited another hour for the person with the keys to arrive. A few cars full of people showed up in between and we stood in a circle, chatting away, while taking in the fresh air. However, most were tired from the long drive to Kirkwood. Some of the rental neighbors also arrived shortly after we did, comprising mostly of small families (and dogs).

Tired and hungry, everyone unpacked their cars and lounged around in the rental. A lone ceiling fan circulated air around the living room. I started to defrost 8 lb of ground beef in a pot of water for dinner. Meanwhile, we spent some time catching up with each other's lives. Most of us were friends back in our Cal Poly days. A few more cars arrived during that time and people trickled into the rental. The sun started to set as we started dinner. Many willing hands aided in preparing the night's meal, but the kitchen was a little cramped for more than three people.

We ate well that night... Home-made burgers, store-bought buns, and an accompaniment of salad. Meanwhile, 50 First Dates started playing on the TV. A few of people planned out the following day where we anticipating hiking 11.7 miles (it was actually more) to Lake Aloha in South Lake Tahoe along the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). Meanwhile, I and a few others started preparing the stew for Saturday night's dinner. After 11.7 miles of hiking, everyone would be hungry, hangry, and craving for a meal. Most people went to bed by midnight. I stayed up an hour longer to let the stew meat soften a bit more, and then crashed quickly afterwards.

Surprisingly, I awoke rearing to go at 6:00 a.m. I woke up my roommate and headed towards the kitchen to start making breakfast. Some of the other guys and girls joined in on the effort as well. We made cooked up some pancakes, scrambled eggs, and hot links. Everyone ate a few bites, although I don't think the food was quite hardy enough. Everyone was to make their own sandwich(es) for the day, so that freed up time for the people preparing the main meals to pack their bags for the trip. Jocelyn packed a couple sandwiches for me as I cleaned up the kitchen with a few other helping hands. Then, I packed up my camera bag and everyone else was soon ready to leave towards the trail head.

It took about an hour from the rental to reach the trail head. The roads were just as windy as before, and there were less cars on the road than the previous day. Our four car caravan arrived at Echo Lake, where the hike was to begin mid-morning. We had some trouble parking and ended up in a dirt parking lot perhaps half a mile away from the trail.  The sky darkened and drops of rain started pitter-pattering on the car roofs as we parked. Grumpily, I muttered to the people in my car that I hate rain during hiking... which I do. Partly because of safety, partly because of comfort.

After a quick prayer and short while, the rain dissipated and we exited our cars. I decided to leave my 14-24mm f/2.8 in the car to lighten my backpack load. Our group of eighteen people gathered under the tree cover nearby and we started to walk towards Lake Echo. The sky was still overcast as we bought our Desolation Wilderness (what the area was called) passes. Regardless, the lake was serene and calm. A few visitors were kayaking and others were riding their boats along the water.

We started the leg of the Pacific Coast Trail shortly thereafter, wasting little time. But first, we took a few group pictures before the hike. The view from our stopping point was nothing short of breathtaking.

Shortly thereafter, we started our escapade towards the mountains and lakes. On the way to Lake Aloha we passed by three other lakes: Upper Echo Lake, Lower Echo Lake, and Tamarack Lake... all in the Desolation Wilderness. Inevitably, our group of eighteen split into three distinct groups. The first group sped along on nimble feet and ankles. I found myself part of the second and third group(s) who were a bit slower, but were enjoying the scenery nonetheless. Time seemed to pass at a snail's pace as we made our way through the PCT. The most difficult part was adjusting to hiking at 8,000 ft in elevation above sea level. Thankfully, the overcast weather stayed with us the entire duration of the trip. Despite inconsistent drizzling every half an hour, the hike wasn't strenuous at all. However, the hike was indeed very long and definitely the longest I've ever hiked in the past 23 years. The following photo is of the end of Lower Echo Lake, just as it turns into Upper Echo Lake. Numerous cabins littered the edge of the lake, some accessible only by boat or kayak.

An hour or so later and we found ourselves at the end of Upper Echo Lake. We ran into many backpackers and fellow hikers on the way. Many wished us a "Happy Fourth". Surprisingly, there were many families with young children on the trail. Many of them also had small (and big) dogs along for the hike.  We stopped for lunch mid-afternoon, savoring our sandwiches, power bars, fruits, and water. The sky continued to cry throughout most of the journey and I left my camera in my backpack for most of the trip, taking it out only when the rain stopped. Here is another photo (in black and white this time, because why not?) of Lake Tamarack, which was the last lake before Lake Aloha. Soon after eating lunch, the group of eighteen again split into a distinct set of three groups with I and Jocelyn in the middle.

Eventually, the first group stopped on an uphill portion of the hike. All three groups reconvened at that point and some were conflicted whether we should settle for Lake Tamarack or proceed another few miles to Lake Aloha. A couple passing by had mentioned that Lake Aloha was another two to three miles away from our current stopping point. However, we took a look at our map and figured that it was only another mile and a half to Lake Aloha. The group took a vote and it was decided to continue towards Lake Aloha as a bellow of thunder roared from the distance.

We pushed forward in our groups. Jocelyn and I found ourselves wandering into the wilderness without much direction other than the trail(s) before us. Arrows at each of the forks helped us find the main group. I was worried that we were going to get ourselves lost, but she insisted that we would be fine. Eventually, after an hour of wandering without any others from our group with us, we arrived at our final destination: Lake Aloha.

A few daring individuals jumped waded, jumped, and swam in the fresh water of Lake Aloha. It wasn't the most appealing scenery I've ever ventured upon, but the ambiance was certainly eerie. Dead trees forty to fifty-some feet in height towered above the lake. A few tents littered the lakeside amongst the granite rocks a bit farther inland. We stuck around for an hour or so before deciding to head back to the trail head. By the time we arrived back at the rental it was close to 9:00 p.m. We quickly made dinner and ate in silence (partially because of food, partially because of tiredness). A few people stayed up to watch Up, while the rest dozed off or cleaned the kitchen. Then on Sunday, we ate, then bid our goodbyes and farewells until next time.

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Take a Hike: Yosemite

The Journey

This past Memorial Day weekend, fourteen others (friends and friends-to-be) and I ventured out to Yosemite (also, Sonoma). Personally, I had never been to Yosemite before and had no inclination as to what to expect... and man, was I amazed at the creation God has crafted out there.

Sadly, we didn't go camping or backpacking. We rented an Airbnb out near Sonora, a few hours away. As much as I love SLO and the people who are still here that I am close to, I think it was a much needed time to be able to escape SLO for a few days and share life with other alumni (from both SLO and other schools).

We drove up Friday night after work. Originally, we were to leave around 8:00 p.m., but we ended up not leaving til around 10:00 p.m.  Long story short, I ended up waiting a few hours extra for some folks from SoCal to make their way up to SLO, whereupon I drove the rest of the way up to the rental unit. When they arrived, we departed from the house with a fully loaded car packed with personal belongings, sleeping bags and pads, cooking equipment, various ingredients, and a whole lotta joy. Also, energy drinks mixed with water go a long way.

First of all, I hadn't realized that the trip was a 4.5 hour drive. When we finally got to Sonora, I took a wrong turn and ventured onto a windy gravel path through the woods that eventually looped back onto the main road.  There were a couple moments where my wheels lost traction on the gravel, but thankfully we made it out and to the cabin safely.

By the time we made it to the rental, almost everyone who had arrived earlier in the evening had fallen asleep. Props to Ptub for staying awake and letting us in. We quickly unloaded and started to hit the hay.  The girls ran into a problem trying to figure out sleeping arrangements... as a certain someone fell asleep diagonally on the queen-sized bed the girls were to share that night. But eventually as the night progressed, sleeping arrangements were figured out and the night swept us away.

Saturday Morning.

Even after a long day of work, packing, driving, and unpacking, I still got up with the other early risers on Saturday morning. I formally met a couple of new faces, and also embraced the many old faces who also made their way out to the rental the night before. We had a light breakfast of pancakes with an apple-syrup concoction and some fruit.  I had never realized fruit was so expensive until buying them in bulk for this trip.

Somehow, we ended up watching a few hours of Titanic in the morning. During which, a few people went to town to grab some last minute toiletries/supplies, and a special surprise for someone later in the evening. Meanwhile, the remainder of those who stayed at the rental took a break from watching a movie about a ship sinking after hitting an iceberg to take a walk and breath some fresh air around the rental and the surrounding area.

The area we were staying in felt a lot like home; albeit, perhaps a little less lush and tropical  The air was fairly humid after some recent drizzling. It was a little cloudy, but not completely overcast. Pretty much still tank-top and shorts weather. Eventually in our musings we came across a dirt trail that lead to who-knows-where. We decided to follow it for some time before turning back to the rental as the group who went to town had returned and were in the process of making lunch.

When we returned to the cabin, we were happy to dive into some home-made baked mac-and-cheese for lunch. Meanwhile, we finished the rest of Titanic... from which we coined #womenandchildrenonly as a social media tag for the weekend. There were women with us, but I hope the men didn't consider themselves as children...

After lunch and finishing watching ship sink and a woman throw a highly valuable diamond into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the group made its way to a lake (think, pond) within 10 minutes of the rental.  We found ourselves lost on the first leg of the walk, but we did eventually reach the fabled hole in the ground filled with water, algae, ducks (and ducklings) and stocked fish. And lo and behold. A ROPE SWING!

A few of the adventurous folk swung into the lake from the rope swing and swam out to the floating platform in the middle of it. Meanwhile, a few local residents and visitors were trying their luck at catching some of the stocked fish. I'm fairly certain we ruined their chances of any "Catch of the Day" honors with the ruckus we were making, both in the water and out.Others stood around, talked, and shot photos (aka me). Overall, spending time at the lake was one of relaxation and serenity. Some folks brought along some hammocks and hung them in the trees and a few people skipped rocks on the lake (some of us failed miserably). Physics.

After a few hours at the lake, we ventured back to the rental. Thankfully, I had brought our house's slow cooker along and threw in some pork butt and secret ingredients to make Kalua Pig and cabbage... Between the 15 of us, I think we ate about 7-8 lb of meat and cabbage, and 10 cups of rice that night. Good stuff.

Most of my night consisted of prepping food for Sunday night, knowing we'd be extremely hungry and tired after the Yosemite hike. Big thanks to a handful of people who helped prep! Meanwhile, many of the others played games and talked the rest of the night away.

Sunday Morning.

6:00 a.m. is never a good wake up call. But strangely enough, some of us woke up well before the alarms sounded throughout the house. Breakfast was simple: bagels, cream cheese, and fruit. We packed our bags for the day, made sandwiches, and rode out to Yosemite.  On the way, we were supposed to pick up gas in Sonoma, but miscommunication occurred and we ended up buying gas closer to Yosemite. Oddly, gas was cheaper up in Yosemite than in SLO. Finally, two hours after leaving the rental, we arrived at our destination: the base of Yosemite Falls.

Yosemite Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in North America. It is a staggering 2,425' from the edge of the waterfall to the valley floor. The trail leading up to the falls are complete switchbacks laced with stone "stairways". Overall, the hike from the valley floor to the top of the falls is around 7.2 miles out and back, but it felt like much more. Over the course of four hours we labored up a 2,700' elevation change with numerous other hikers seeking to reach the top. We were met with breathtaking views at every stop and lookout point.

The hike was strenuous. Probably just about as strenuous as I had imagined reading some of its many reviews. Thankfully, many of the other hikers were encouraging during their descent and in our ascent. But really, just 10 more minutes is never just 10 more minutes. Our fifteen-man group got split in thirds as we ascended the trail. I was happy to find myself with the caboose, freely chatting with two/three individuals on the way up, catching up on life and  taking in the scenery.

We were relieved to finally reach the top of Yosemite Falls. It felt like such an achievement to reach the top and the views were spectacular. After an hour or so of wandering and waiting for a couple of people, who found themselves lost and off the main path, we started our descent to avoid the looming darkness as sunset approached. It was quite a struggle getting back down, at least on my part.

We arrived back at the rental at about 10:30 p.m. Thankfully, we had prepared some Portuguese Bean Soup the prior night. So we spent the rest of the night eating and in merriment as a few fellows sang along to some musicals. I have some videos for blackmail.. Ha..maybe not.

Monday Morning.

Drove back home.

End.

What was learned:

  • Yosemite is a beautiful place, and I want to go back again and do more hikes
  • National parks are free for all current US military members
  • Cooking food in bulk is fun and cheap  (approximately $2.02 per person, per day)
  • Stairmasters are probably your best bet at getting in shape for a strenuous journey.
  • My current camera bag is not ideal for long day hikes.
  • Compact water filters are useful
  • The longest road is not necessarily the best road
  • Ptub really likes musicals
  • People are amazing
  • God is amazing

Until next time.


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