The happy couple at their Lake Tahoe wedding.
#11 Stateside Again & The SW (October 2012)

"Make It Pop"
Our 2012 rendition of culture shock upon returning from Europe was not our usual "being in Europe vs being in the US" but "2010's vs 1990's" or "Pacific NW vs California". My nephew, the only member of my family's next generation, invited us to his wedding being performed at Lake Tahoe. A Portland wedding would have challenged our wardrobes but San Franciscans marrying at upscale Tahoe was a real stretch. When angling for reassurance that it would be a comfy, casual affair I learned that the pre-wedding festivities dress code was "San Francisco casual," which meant cocktail dresses for the ladies and not fleece and flip-flops--ouch!

Of course, the first stop for dressing ourselves for the event was our closet, which resulted in yet another pile of clothes heading out the door never to be seen again. I stopped buying professional and party wear about 1990. I saved 1 suit and a couple of dresses, hoping they'd cover me if a need arose but my lovely plaid silk suit was hopelessly outdated with its zoot suit era shoulder pads. And the 2 dresses that were elegant by my standards didn't seem stylin' enough for this occasion.

Bill was pleased with his 2012 wardrobe upgrade.
Luckily the single pair of black patent heels that I still owned in the hard-to-replace double-wide width seamlessly blended with the current mix on display in the stores. I salvaged a plain sheath dress to be accessorized for 1 of the 2 events though Bill was only able to incorporate a newer pair of shoes that had replaced a pair that had disintegrated on the shelf several years ago. Other than those few items, we were starting from scratch for our 2-event, dress-up occasion.

Shopping for Bill went surprisingly well especially considering it was done on our first full day back in the country. He was instantly thrilled: for the first time in his life his shape and size were almost a perfect match with the clothes on the rack. More money than we'd hoped to spend and a few minor alterations were all that were needed for him to soon be wondering where besides the wedding he could be seen in his flattering new duds.

My quest was made easier by the dress code for weddings changing in the last 30 years. I still remember being scolded by a church matron for wearing a black blouse to a wedding--a blouse that the bride had approved. But I was shocked to learn that now black was in, including for the bride and bridesmaids. Being able to wear black at the wedding hugely increased the odds of my new but yet undiscovered garment not shouting "2012" should I want to wear it in a couple of years.

Next I learned that my lament "I gotta have sleeves" echoed the most commonly received customer complaint as I and other graying women looked at the sea of cocktail dresses with spaghetti straps. No matter that I had enviable triceps and biceps, I was humiliated by my newly sagging armpit skin and would not be going sleeveless in pubic--anywhere, every again.

Barb in her new spray-on dress.
Upon seeing that the cute little black dress with 3/4 length sleeves that I spied at our first stop in the ladies department clung to my rear end like it was loaded with static, I asked the clerk for a larger size. "It's perfect," she said. "But my butt…" which prompted "That's the way it's supposed to fit." "Oh." When I last shopped in the dress department garments were fitted to the topside of your rear and then hung neatly and straight down from there but I accepted that things had changed. After an initial round of embarrassment, I decided to embrace flashing my hard-earned athletic bum, especially since I'd be hiding my upper arms.

"What should I do for hose?" was answered with "Don't wear them." "Eekkk!" I never had porcelain-doll skin anywhere on my body and my 61 year accumulation of spider veins, brown spots, and assorted speckles didn't make me in a hurry to distract onlookers from my spray-on dress to my time-worn skin. Fortunately I later learned that October 1 was the official switch-over date from bare to covered legs for some in the retail fashion industry so I soothed my nerves by hiding inside illusion-creating hose on October 12th & 13th.

"Make it pop" echoed in our ears with our visits to every department as we sought guidance in building our new outfits. It seemed to be the contemporary way to express the more familiar fashion concepts of "adding color," "creating contrast," or "make it stand out." We snickered every time we triggered the expression from the next clerk because the phrase became a symbol for our re-education in dressing ourselves.

After being blown away from learning that a butt-clinging black dress without hose was contemporary attire for a trendy wedding, I threw out my other preconceived notions of what was suitable. A drapey, wooly, brown sweater thing was offered as a way to tone the dress down a bit for a second wedding event but it looked like a substitute for my beloved fleece and not evening wear to me. But when the clerk at a second store offered the same type of wrap in a similar brown tone at half the price of the first I said "I'll take it, I'll take it." I was convinced that I was clueless about current fashions and that I should accept all the help offered to steer me in the right direction.

"No, no, don't match the earrings and necklace--that's just TOO much!" "OK, OK, I'll go for coordinating…." And on it went. Little that was de rigueur back in our dress-up days applied anymore. We quickly recognized that this was our immersion in contemporary West Coast fashion, our opportunity to update ourselves and re-align with our culture so we took it as graciously as we could. And it wouldn't be long until we understood how we'd done in synchonizing our new outfits with a "more formal affair" when no attire suggestions had been mentioned on the invitations.

What a treat to see the aspen trees when ablaze.
The time pressure on our 2 week turn around between returning from Europe and driving our camper to the Lake Tahoe wedding had skyrocketed while overseas upon learning that the wedding was a more elegant affair than I had prepared for before we had left the country in June. And though we'd quickly assembled the main garments for our outfits, we were both still putting the finishing touches on them the day before we hit the road.

Ready or not and still burdened a bit by jet lag, it was time to be on our way. We released our camper from summer storage; heaved-in bedding, clothes, and food; and hit the road at 3 pm one day. An 'inauspicious' departure further slowed by shopping on the way out of town, but at least we'd freed ourselves from the clutches of home and were headed south. The 5 days allotted to travel 650 miles would be a mix of driving, hiking, and reorganizing.

Our Lake Tahoe campground was marketed and priced like a spiffy RV resort but was outfitted more like a federal campground. There was no ironing board in the laundry room with an iron available for borrowing so we used the tiny travel iron in the camper that I brought to press-out the travel wrinkles in our garments. The showers and toilet rooms were utilitarian with half-length, polished metal for mirrors instead of dry, well-lit rooms with full-length glass mirrors. The final checks of our outfits depended upon the other person's assessment in the cramped quarters of our camper. But we managed to pull ourselves together even though we were wildly out of practice in the art of dressing up and felt like we fit right in with the other guests when we got to the celebrations--whew!

A day after the wedding events were history, friends from east of Sacramento drove to see us, which was a treat. No fussing with the iron
Our friends kindly did the driving needed for our rendezvous.
or mirrors, we enjoyed connecting with them in the lovely, leisurely setting of the high-mountain Lake Tahoe. We lingered a few more days in the Lake Tahoe area for some vigorous hiking and then it was on to Yosemite National Park for our first visit there.

Yosemite National Park, California
An Unexpected Storm
We were relieved that our truck successfully hauled our heavy camper over the 9,000' high Tioga Pass into Yosemite Valley without needing to pause to cool an overheating transmission. And better yet, we accomplished the laborious task less than 12 hours before the road was closed due to snow for the next 3 days. Our only lament about the journey was the strong, bitingly cold winds ushering in the storm which prevented us from admiring any of the stunning scenery on foot. But the views from the vehicle convinced us that we'd be visiting the high end of the Park soon. After this initial good start on a sunny Sunday afternoon, our much anticipated first visit to Yosemite and subsequent hiking extravaganza there suffered from a series of problems that developed immediately after our arrival.

While it was snowing and blowing (80mph gusts) on Tioga Pass during our arrival night and all the next day, it was raining in the 4,000' Yosemite Valley National Park campground. Our gratitude for being out of the snow storm quickly turned to regret because visions of cross country skiing in fresh snow looked mighty good while we sloshed through the flooded campgrounds in the downpour. Of course, there were some practical problems with the snow fantasy, but we were in the mood for dreaming.

The foul weather had us resigning ourselves to a tour of the Park's Village facilities on foot instead of taking the planned hike up one of the steep faces our first full day there. We inventoried and price-shopped the 2 available grocery stores, visited the small Ansel Adams gallery and bookstore, picked up our election ballots sent General Delivery to the Park post office, and acquainted ourselves with the visitor's services, including the free shuttle buses on limited, off-season routes.

On our 3rd day we were finally able to hike to Vernal Falls.
One Thing After Another
The lovely fall forecast that had coincided with our planned week in Yosemite was severely down graded with the arrival of the storm and life in the Park instantly became more complicated for us. Cold, damp, gray weather would mean more need to heat and illuminate our camper to be reasonably comfortable than anticipated. But with no hook-ups available in the Park, we would be rationing our use of battery-sourced electricity to power our lights and the fan in our propane furnace. The overcast skies and heavy tree canopy in the campground rendered our solar panels useless for recharging our batteries. I loathe the smell and noise of other people's generators so we have none but this was the type of situation in which those folks revel in the significant comfort their generators provide and they ran them with abandon well beyond the allowed hours.

The high humidity accompanying the rain and perpetuated for days by the accumulated standing water combined with our need to limit heating of our rig meant that we suddenly had a severe moisture problem in our camper. And normal activities like cooking, hanging up wet rain gear, washing dishes, and showering only made matters worse. We and our camper Fox suddenly had a humidity challenge we'd previously avoided by successfully courting better weather.

Our second day in the Park was the only day in the 3 day forecast with a small window in which we had any hope of making some electricity with our solar panels. Upon seeing that, we immediately drove out of the swampy, pine forest campground to a trailhead up another 1,000' to catch a few rays at the most likely bright time of day. Not enough sun actually materialized to substantially reduce the humidity and condensation in the camper, but at least it didn't get worse as would have happened had we stayed in our assigned slot. We recharged our batteries a little bit, managed a short hike on an unremarkable trail, and felt uplifted by escaping the dark den of the campground that had only felt fit for trolls.

About 1 am that night we ran out of propane. Bill noticed the telltale sign of one of our furnace fans running incessantly, something that had occurred once before for a different reason. As instructed by the dealer, on nights such as this when the temperature was expected to dip below freezing, we had set the thermostat to 55º to prevent damage to our plumbing system. Luckily our little weather station reassured us that the temperature probably wouldn't sink as low as projected that night and there was nothing to do until morning but hope for the best for our freezer full of food that now had no refrigeration. We were baffled: we either hadn't correctly remembered when we'd switched to the 2nd of 2 tanks or we had an equipment failure. Matters were a little worse upon arising when we realized there would be no hot breakfast that near-freezing morning in our cold, damp camper since we had no propane and no external source of 110v electricity.

Half Dome & the Yosemite Valley meadow from Upper Yosemite Falls trail.
We knew we were doomed to driving for hours to buy propane outside of the Park but we didn't' know in which direction to head so we were on the Visitor's Center doorstep when they opened at 8 am. But alas, I was wrong, they opened at 9. The staff was surprisingly ill-informed about this matter and it took Bill another half hour to get a convincing answer. On a lark, he pressed an unlikely but more helpful clerk at the bookstore who made some phone calls for him and in doing so discovered a little known fact: the nearby garage that refuels the propane-powered shuttle buses was set-up for selling propane to the public. It still had taken us several hours to get the propane but at least we hadn't consumed gallons of equally scarce gasoline to do so. After the propane crisis was solved and a much delayed hot breakfast, we finally took a proper hike to the top of Vernal Falls, one of the standard, must-do tourist sites in the Park.

The next day Bill came down with a cold, which predictably meant that he was miserable for days and had a nasty cough for the next month. To aid us both in getting more rest, we simulated a raised hospital bed by stacking extra sleeping bags in their stuff sacks on the the dinette/bed to prop him up while sleeping. By the weekend he was still convalescing and had only made the 1 short hike in the Park. He of course wanted to stay in Yosemite longer but we already knew the campgrounds were fully booked for those 2 nights. Our luck turned when we managed to get the only cancellation for all 3 open campgrounds for the Friday night but had to drive 30 miles outside of the Park to have a legal place to camp on Saturday night. By then we'd been in Yosemite area a week and felt like we'd spent most of our time dealing with problems and discomfort rather than savoring warm, carefree days on the trails that we'd anticipated.

The oak tree Ansel Adam's photos made famous.
What's Best For Fox Is Best For Us
But during this gloomy, chaotic start to our frustrating first visit to Yosemite, we did settle upon new routines that made the cold, damp camping conditions without hook-ups inconsequential. Each morning we'd arise, rush to the campground toilets to continue our policy of keeping "solids" out of our camper toilet for ease of maintenance, and then drive out of our dark, soggy campground to park on the roadside adjacent to the largest open meadow in the Valley. We positioned our rig so its big dinette window looked onto the meadow and towards Half Dome, one of 2 iconic massifs in the Park. We'd fire-up our propane furnace for a little heat while waiting for the rising sun to begin warming the rig. While waiting for the external heat sources to sooth us, we'd begin our exercises with our strength work for internal warming and then transition to our stretches when it was more comfy. I ventured out into the cold for a few minutes of my routine as I usually do.

Once the sun was up and we and our rig were warm, it was onto making and eating breakfast perched on this roadside. We quickly shifted from feeling silly cooking with traffic going by to feeling smug because we escaped the all-day 80% or higher humidity and dark of the campground, a campground where others were building big fires at sunrise to combat the chill. Once breakfast clean-up was completed and lunches were made, I'd kiss Bill good-bye and begin my daily task of hiking up 1 of the 4 athletic trails accessible from the Valley while Bill sat at home and recouped in the warmth and brightness of the sunny meadow setting. I returned from my hikes, some as long as 12 miles, just before dark and we'd cook and eat dinner watching the sun set on the granite walls of the Yosemite Valley. Doing our last cooking and clean-up of the day where the air was still warm and relatively dry helped keep the condensation in the camper from rebuilding after a day in the sun.

Photographers were in 'our' meadow every morning.
After dinner, we'd pack up the camper and drive a few miles to the public shower house where we discovered we could bathe for free. The first night the water wasn't very hot and every night the air temperature was too cold for comfort, but it was better than showering in our camper. We'd learned to take a descent shower using less than the entire 6 gallons in our water heater but the bigger issue at Yosemite was the accumulation of moisture in the rig from bathing. Bathed, fed, contented, and with our rig dried out and our camper batteries recharged, we'd return to the soggy campground at bedtime.

We looked for other scenic spots to park Fox and Bill for variety but the place we stumbled upon the first day was the best. It was there that we received the most solar gain for warming and drying our rig, the most hours of direct light on our solar panel, and the best views out our window. Like the campground, the rest of the valley floor was too shrouded in tall pines to meet our warmth and brightness needs.

In addition to the great sun exposure, our dawn to dusk parking spot proved to be grand for people watching too. Climbers often parked behind or across the road from us and were entertaining to watch during their slow, protracted process of gearing up. They and the very tame mule deer were invaluable for providing a distraction while cooking and doing dishes. And our meadow was a huge draw for photographers and photography classes. Everyday at sunrise a herd of them lined up to re-create Ansel Adam's classic shot of the morning light blazing down on the old oak tree. By the time we left Yosemite, we felt like we could have been instructing the photographers as to where to stand and when for the best shot.

Clawing Our Way Up Multiple Learning Curves
Fortunately, the frustrations and chaos we experienced at Yosemite brought with them new clarity about many elements of our lifestyle:
..keeping a crude propane log is a 'must' given that we have a poor gauge and the tricks for judging tank fullness don't work for us
..the camper dinette/bed can be outfitted from our standard kit to create an effective sick bed
..our bed's unused privacy screen makes an excellent barrier to contain cooking and bathing moisture for more effective venting
..even with the winter sun, our solar panels are sufficient for indefinitely meeting our electricity needs, contrary to the dealer's belief
..charging our electronics with an inverter drawing from the truck's battery significantly spares the camper batteries for appliances
..we cannot maintain our minimum comfort standards without hook-ups for more than 2-3 days if it is wet, cold, and/or overcast

Wind from the 2009 rockfall toppled trees.
Natural History Lessons at Yosemite
Granite is THE story at Yosemite and it is the massive granite faces like on Half Dome that make the Park a Mecca for rock climbers and tourists alike. And the Park literature is quick to point out that it is also the constant rock falls that keep changing the face of Yosemite, in addition to making it a bit dangerous.

The drama of falling rock was highlighted by walking through a 2009 fall that destroyed the path on the back side of the very popular little Mirror Lake and caused a 2.4 earthquake which was felt by the park's residents. Fortunately no one was injured in the early morning event. Amazingly, the winds from this very confined rockfall were strong enough to knock down nearby trees that had been unaffected by the rock itself.

So conscious of the prevalence and dangers of rockfalls in the Park, we assumed that the occasional starburst patterns in the granite bedrock of some trails were due to rockfalls as well. But a Park worker set us straight, those were made by the more localized force of dynamite used by trail builders to smooth our way and not missile-like falling rocks we had imagined.
Dynamite, not rockfall, created these 2 starburst patterns.
A different kind of crater caught our eyes on a trail in a burn area when we'd been in search of sun for our solar panels. Seeing the large crater formations in the soft dirt reminded me of being equally intrigued by the huge, grass covered limestone sink holes along the roads of coastal Croatia. Curiously out of place, we pondered these dirt crater's origins as we walked. The pits were too big for animal diggings, too exposed for bear beds, and the lack of obvious signs of human activities left us baffled. Finally, charred remnants of huge tree roots convinced us that the pits were the result of tree stumps completely burning away. We had each lobbied for our own interpretations of the details of the process until one charred stump settled the arguments.

Towards the end of our first week in Yosemite when it had warmed a bit, I began doing a little barefooting once off the high trail for the night but still having a 30 minute walk to the meadow. The mostly powdery soft dirt with a mix of pine needles and leaves made for easy going for my feet that hadn't done any barefooting in 2012. I enjoyed the contrast in sensations from wearing my minimalist sandals and was pleased that my feet were tolerating the coarser surfaces, including segments on asphalt, quite well.

/The answer revealed: burning tree stumps created craters in the soil.
Accumulating an hour and a half of post-hiking barefooting emboldened me to take off my hiking sandals on the way to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls on Bill's first ascent of it. The young man ahead of us stopped to remove his minimalist shoes and it was hard to argue with his decision. I'd done the trail once before alone and knew that the granite and dirt surfaces on the steep, rocky route wouldn't be too difficult plus the challenge would slow my pace so as to better match Bill's not-quite-well speed. My more social tempo was a perfect fit with the 2 German men we overtook on the trail because one of the 2 was discovering just how out of shape he had become. Towards the top of the trail Bill took off his Vibram 5 Fingers and soon the struggling German man removed his boots as well. My fitness walk had become a slower, cheery social event with all of us having some good laughs about gong bare.

Near the top, an athletic descending couple stopped to ask us about barefoot hiking even though her nephew who had gone ahead was doing the whole day hike barefoot. The long conversation gave time for the young man whose bare feet had prompted me to shed my shoes to appear on the trail and he jokingly asked the couple "What are you doing with boots on?" Suddenly, though briefly, the 4 of us standing on the trail barefoot made it look like the accepted convention for hiking in Yosemite. A little later, taking a picture of the German man without his boots reminded us of poising for a photo with a German couple who shed their boots upon seeing us take our first barefoot hiking steps in Obergürgl, Austria back in 2009. And even more inspiring was the young man we saw backpacking barefoot a few days later. Quite unexpectedly, this would be the first of a string of barefoot hiking events for us while in the SW this fall.
Our German trail buddy who carried beer & cookies but no water in his large pack.
Heading Out
With more storms on the way and Bill still dragging a bit from his cold, we headed southeast hoping to find refuge from the harsh weather in Death Valley National Park. We exited Yosemite over Tioga Pass between snow closures to enjoy the scenery on a better day than when we arrived though there was snow on even south-exposed forest trails. Neither our great hike or my secret hope for more bare footing lived up to our expectations but at least we'd gotten a second long look from the truck and a little bit from the trails of the higher end of the Park.

A wind advisory for Pahrump, NV, which provides our last proper re-provisioning stop before 'roughing it' in Death Valley had us postponing our entry into the Death Valley National Park. We' learned from sitting out a dust storm in the spring that it's better to be situated where there is less material available to become airborne, like when surrounded by asphalt, than to be in the open desert. when the winds start howling. From Death Valley, it would be on to Zion National Park in hopes of hiking the trails that were closed due to snow on our first visit to it in January.