Mono Lake California
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Mono Lake California

Mono Lake is an oasis in the dry Great Basin.

Located in California's spectacular Eastern Sierra.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ~ John Muir

With the lingering effects of light tempting us in the rear-vision mirror, we reluctantly farewell Yosemite and start on the road to fulfilling dreams, where we dance with moonscapes, channel our inner tundra selves and learn one or two things about reading maps and relating to mechanics. Then there is total acceptance and clarity. If your world is totally, completely and really upside down then you do indeed have a place to live. Read on.

This is an excerpt of a 2011 blog post. You can read the full story with PHOTOS here.

Yosemite’s light, grandeur and the thought of seeing her draped in snow from the winter storm that was half a day away was making it hard to go. It was more than enough to tempt us to stay. However we did have somewhere to be in just a few days and again as we always say…“We’ll just come back one day.” Honestly though, we do really want to. Both to see the epic vista wrapped in white and also for a crack at that Horsetail Falls shot. But it was time.

So in leaving Yosemite to get to our next destination, the long-awaited, much-dreamed of Mono Lake we had 2 options. Head back out to the freeway and go way around or the ranger suggested that the slower but more picturesque route was winding over the top, through the Yosemite peaks. The direct Tioga Pass which dissects from here is now closed for the winter, so we would need to go past that and through some serious mountains. Of course, as the Ranger said we had chains, so we would be fine. Of course we didn’t have chains and pretended we did. Oh, dear. Who knew what lay ahead?

Certainly we were hoping for a gas station and food because we were running on empty on both fronts. We finally took the plunge and the Big Oak Flat Road and very randomly somewhere along it found a gas pump. All good to go for some serious mountaineering. It was simply a beautiful day. Luscious blue skies, not a hint of a blizzard anywhere. And as we ascended higher and higher from the valley floor our world soon became a glistening white playground. Icicles, crystal snowflakes, a hint of black ice every now and then. Just as we hit the snow line, along that deserted stretch of wriggly road, a Mountain lion darted up ahead, crossing our path. We were now firmly in gold country. Heading to Sonora via historical and fabulous mining towns with names like Moccasin, Jamestown, Chinese Camp, Confidence, Strawberry and Bumblebee.

The town above was Jamestown, we think. We were madly doing some drive-bys with the new Nikon px-7000 and not paying attention because we were trying unsuccessfully to learn our lines for Ignite and not get beeped at in the process. Then we started climbing through the Sierras. Getting snowier and snowier, but the blue skies showing no sign of the massive storm that the airwaves were saying was on it’s way. Not a lot of time to take photos as we were conscious of staying ahead of it. And again trying to convince ourselves that we would be fine in a tiny little rental car, with bald tires, snow-chains nowhere in site, on the roof of California. It was about this time Trace started regaling me with tales of the Donner Party – signs said Lake Tahoe was somewhere up ahead. Fabulous and it was lunch time.

The road was spectacular and awe-inspiring and very much unexpected. All plans to study and learn lines flew out the windows, swiftly replaced by peak after snow-covered peak. Throw in some ice-fishing, thoroughly frozen lakes and no-stopping-for-avalanche-areas and you had our attention Sierra Nevada’s.

The road then had us coming out in Nevada a bit…Such a stark contrast, a bit nude really.

And then heading back into California and climbing way up over 8000 feet to nestle ourselves high in the Sierras again. We love driving our toy car. It was somewhere on this route that we stopped for gas and I got to talking with the very pleasant locals and staff who were all preparing for the next few days of true winter weather. There were strapping down and settling in. Their words. So it was at this point, at their insistence, that we did in fact purchase snow chains. Now fitting them…well, we’d deal with that another day.

This was a truly stunning drive. Certainly one of our all-time favorites. The sheer heights, the unexpected views. Ranking way up there with Big Sur, the Great Ocean Road and of course Route 66. Our first view of Mono Lake and Lee Vining below…We took this hanging out the car. It was beyond freezing. And then there was the wind…

Lee Vining, looks like a one-street town, but there’s more to the sleepy little winter stop. In summer months you’d need to book 3-6 months in advance for a room. Today we pretty much had the town to ourselves. We check into Murphey’s Motel – the photographers hangout and find it…yes, deserted. Well, that winter storm was coming. We checked out town. Everything was closed, including all restaurants. Except for the general store. Grab some supplies and then we head out to the lake. Our sole purpose for coming. To find, to see, to discover with our eyes and cameras. To finally photograph those incredible tuftas.

We spent most of the afternoon scouting locations for sunset. Mono Lake is particularly famous for it’s pink hues. The wind was gale force but luckily the Gitzo tripods were up to the task. And so were our 25 layers in keeping us warm…kind of But the wind was deafening. We were just happy to finally be here though and watch the sky do it’s thing… Here is the Blue series, with that warm late-afternoon glow.

Then as the sun set we got our first few shades of pastels…

And as the sun sank lower still and as the winds ripped through the tuftas, the colors changed once again showing hints at the spectacle that was about to unfold in the skies. Were we ready? We had no idea. I kept losing Trace, both lost in our own shared dream. Streaks of orange teased us on the horizons, an already visible moon was daring us to shoot in that direction and then there were the infinite possibilities to play with now in front of us, on land, in water, behind.

And then we had 10-15 minutes worth of the Tuesday Night special. And it was incredible. Pale tints and then it was full throttle. Every single shade of purple; violet, lilac, mulberry, electric purple, aubergine, grape, wine, lavender. And that pink. Oh, that pink. Coloring the tuftas, the mountains, reflecting in the water, finger-painting the sky and the world for just a little while.

The stars came out and the colours start to fade, dripping behind the mountains, caught in the clouds. The intensity fading into the night. Speechless, frozen, hoping we could somehow communicate what we felt and saw through our images.

We did a little painting with light on the rocks to finish the experience. But honestly the wind was too violent to get any really good images. After several moments flush with panic in not being able to find each other in the darkness of the tuftas and the wind drowning out our calls, we finally met up and made our way back to the car. The night ready for the storm. One dream now true.

Tucked in warmly back at Murphey’s with the heater on the Bahamas setting, we were in for the night, ready for a possible sunrise shoot, happily reviewing photos and reflecting on what a day it had been. Starting on valley floors ending in mountain lakes.

The next morning we woke before sunrise to head back out to the lake but found that the world was now significantly altered from just a few hours ago. We now had over 2 feet of snow, it was coming down horizontally and were were most certainly snowed in and definitely hotel bound for quite some time. We made the most of it by a) going back to bed and b) finally getting up and practicing the Ignite speech and eventually getting our slides through to Lindsay with some extremely sporadic internet that we pulled from somewhere.

By the afternoon there was a slight break in the blizzard and we decided to head back out to the lake to see if we could witness another sunset like the day before. We unsuccessfully tried to get snow chains on the car and prior to that broke the ice scraper and lost my cable release. The plows were clearing the highway, but it was still icy enough to make those 5 miles somewhat harrowing. Back at the lake finally it was an utterly different view from just 24 hours ago. A soft break of blue contrasting with the still stormy grey, full snow clouds. And a very odd animal track we are still freaking out about…

Not a soul to be seen. The snow stopped just for a very little bit but it was so, so cold. While yes, it’s true we do have a flair for embellishment in this case, let’s keep it real…we felt like we were in the Arctic tundra…But again the potential frostbite was worth it, we think.

No colours at all today. But that in itself was it’s own palette. The grey blue sky just fading into twilight blue and then black without even a hint of what had happened the day before. White the natural reflector for it all. A different type of pristine today.

We headed back to Murphey’s. And locked ourselves in with some Ben & Jerry’s for the night. Fully carb-loading now, in preparation for Vegas. We did get up early again to see if there were any sunrise colours. But all we could see was more snow and more snow forecast. So we took our time packing up and knowing how slippery the roads were, waiting for the plows to make it to Lee Vining. We knew we had to somehow get our snow chains on to leave town. We had to leave today. Chains were now mandatory.

We stopped at the gas station for some assistance. The very helpful guy couldn’t do it not for lack of trying though (indication of the chain quality perhaps…) and told us to go to the other one, across the road, which had a mechanic. We then met the very fun Cory who certainly had the busiest business in town that Thursday morning. He was dealing with broken down trucks, engine replacements, a customer breakdown – all in store. But he fit us in straight away, thanks to our accents and got it done for us…With a full run-down of the un-doing process which we would have to undertake by ourselves. He looked as unsure of our success in this department as our faces clearly showed. He gave us both a very cool hotted-up car souvenir calendar and then we were back on the road with promises to stay safe… Going MAXIMUM 30mph as had been drummed into us more than a few times. Thanks dudes.

We then headed out to find Lee Vining’s other claim to fame – the Upside Down house. Really.

Round and round and round the 4 streets of town… couldn’t find it. Hopeless. Welcome to our world. In our defence it wasn’t in the Navi and the massive sign on the side of the gas station was truly unclear as to which “down one block” it was referencing. I then had an idea that maybe we should try another street. The only street on the other side of ‘town’. And of course we found it. There really was an upside down house. Everything inside was upside down. The sign was upside down. But we couldn’t see too clearly because it was closed today and the snow had made everything very icy and very slippery. When everything gets a little topsy-turvy we now go to thoughts of our special place, where it really is OK to be the wrong-side-up. So LOVE roadside America.

So very soon all attractions were done – it was time to leave the mountains and our tufta filled dreams. Yes, we were now on our way to another valley; a re-visit to Death Valley and the desert. Time for a total and complete change of scenery. A new history, this time with digital rather than film cameras to tell the story. And along the way make time to practice our Ignite presentation… after of course we get past the slippery, icy roads, Mammoth Lakes and make it over the pass.

Leaving Lee Vining. Thank goodness for snow chains. Remember 30mph.

With lakes and skies full of light behind us, snowy roads eventually finding themselves clear, empty cartons of ice cream disposed of, grateful internet connections found, lovely locals met, out of the world landscapes recorded, dreams fulfilled, gas tanks full for now and supplies purchased, we wing our way south. Neon lights beckon that way. As do tumble weeds, idols, endless surprises, brushes with the law, moon-sets and what can only be described as an Operatic haunting of epic proportions in 2 acts from borax to ballet. Naturally, it’s time for an intermission.

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