Two Weeks of Van Life: Desert Heat to Hail Storms

Mojave National Preserve, The Beginning

The vastness and emptiness that stretches from the Mojave to the Eastern Sierra simultaneously empowers and frightens me. Our first week of van life began at Joshua Tree Music Festival in The Mojave National Preserve, which includes Death Valley National Park is the largest nature preserve in the country. Here, scientists are constantly discovering new species of plants and animals, said Nature Conservancy project manager Stephanie Dashiell during her talk on the preserve at JTMF - an eco-conscience music festival that has began bringing in local experts for talks on local environmental and conservation issues. Seeds buried deep down below desert pavement may not come to surface until rain has nourished them for up to twenty years. In late May, the sun stands at a perpetual high noon and beats down unforgivingly

As people pack up their tents, and solar pads, we travel on from Joshua Tree Music Festival to the eastern sierra, where our new nomadic van lifestyle begins. We no longer have roots in any town; the type of roots that are comforting and restricting simultaneously. This new life is also at once exciting, and frightening. Life’s a trade off like that; I’ve always found the things that scare me the most are also adventures worth pursuing.

As we drove off towards the eastern sierra in hopes of cooling off in the Owen’s River, we made one last stop in the Mojave; Giant Rock. Some claim it is the largest freestanding boulder in the world (this fact is an area of contention according to Wikipedia). Its diameter covers just shy of 6,000 feet and it’s seven stories tall! The boulder was a site for many; ancient shamans, American Indians, and early 20th c. extraterrestrial enthusiasts. George Van Tessel, Ufologist, was the most influential ET enthusiast who found inspiration at the boulder. He financed a miner to live under it 40 feet deep underground, and later held meditation sessions there where he purportedly received knowledge from aliens. This knowledge influenced him to build the Integratron , which is 10 minutes down the road from giant rock.
One face of Giant Rock split off in a lightning storm, story has it.

Me for scale with Giant Rock in Landers, CA.
After Landers we headed west, and then North to the Owens Valley. At sunset we pulled off the 395 into BLM territory and parked next to a deep brick red cinder cone. 

First campsite in the Eastern Sierra.
Fossil Falls, Owens Valley

When we woke we decided to explore the basalt flows that surrounded us. The cinder cone erupted violently 440,000 years ago spewing red scoria while thick mucus like basalt rolled down its flanks and spread out into the surrounding valley.

Hundreds of millions of years later, titanic glaciers sliced through the lava-turned-granite. The remnants of this dramatic conception are deep canyons and glacial lakes filled with azure water, lined with pines, and crowned by sharp craggy peaks that make you feel reverent and humbled. To the east of the peaks lies the Owen's Valley, equally beautiful, but in stark contrast to the lushness of the sub-alpine meadows west. John Muir described the eastern sierra landscape as " hot deserts bounded by snow-laden mountains, cinders and ashes scattered on glacial polished pavement."

Melted Tioga glacial runoff, thought to be the oldest known glacier in the eastern sierra, carved the molten rock at Fossil Falls. The barren, dry, mars-like landscape that stands here today was riparian, filled with lakes, waterfalls and streams. 12,000 years ago American Indians lived in harmony with this watery landscape.

Got really excited about this basalt flow and made Ryan take photos of me with it.

Two forty foot drop offs into the valley below show where powerful headwaters surrendered to gravity. If you’re quiet enough you can almost hear the buzzing white noise of the powerful waterfalls that once were. Over thousands of years the rivers slowed, lakes shrunk, and people left. Today, fossil falls stands as a relic. What’s left is polished ballast, so smooth and slippery you can’t help but envision water rushing over. All the ancient tribes left behind here were worked obsidian tools and one petroglyph.

What will modern society leave behind? Steel buildings, stucco homes, and chemical plumes? Will we be able to walk away in freedom like they did? Or are we forever tied to the industry we've built, that will surely outlive us, as our bones decay into the same earth the holds those of the earliest civilizations.

Sherwin Lakes, Mammoth

While the Owen’s valley abounded blue skies and sunshine, above 8,000 ft thick clouds condense and either scatter, or release over craggy granite mountains. Spring in the eastern sierra is temperamental. The weather is unpredictable at high elevation, and most of the time even high-tech satellite can’t predict how the elements will coalesce.

We were a month away from the official start of summer, and while I was hoping to see wildflowers unfurl and sprouts of neon green grass shoot up, the high sierra put on a completely different show during our 12 mile hike-failed backpack to Valentine Lake in the John Muir wilderness.
The first 3 miles were gentle enough as we worked our way up past the lush valley. We made it to Lake Sherwin, where the sleet blue gray water reflected the looming thick cream grey cumulus clouds above.
Lake Sherwin, 800 ft. long
After a quick lunch, we decided to keep moving up to Valentine Lake. The repetitive song of the meadow lark mocked me as I quickly realized my shorts and long-sleeved shirt weren’t going to cut it. But like any outdoor enthusiast my twisted soul rejoices pushing through those moments of physical discomfort. We followed Sherwin creek up into the narrowing canyon. As we climbed, gnarled windblown junipers exemplified the high country changeability we soon would experience.

 Patches of snow turned into 3 foot deep snow that covered the switchbacks leading up to Valentine. A beautiful sub-alpine pond offered a moment of tranquility, as rain dropped down to infinite ripples, and birds sang. 

As we looked at the snow obscured trail ahead, rain turned into hail, and all we could do was laugh.

Laughs evolved into grunts and cold legs, but at least I had boots on; our friend did the hike in Chaco sandals. We trudged on the last mile or so, breathing heavy, cursing under breath, but the view at 9,700 feet of the half mile long alpine lake left us all speechless. The scene eerily beautiful; a craggy snow laden granite basin filled with frozen translucent emerald water, where in some places we could see right to the bottom.

Valentine Lake is about half a mile in diameter, and sits just below 10,000 ft.

Me, thinking about granite, probably.
Evidence of hail still going strong at Valentine Lake.
After taking in the glacial sculpted view, our legs were goose bumped, but not just because the landscape was awe inspiring; we were pretty dang cold. So, we began the descent, slip sliding on snow bank down the canyon.

When we reached Sherwin Lake, where had dropped our backpacks, and planned to pitch our tent, thunder clouds rumbled overhead, and the odds were not looking in our favor. We debated hiking down, and spending the night in the van or sleeping by the lake, in hopes the weather would improve. After debating in the howling wind, the comfort of Dewey, our van won out. 

We scrambled down the trail to the lush valley. On the way home we spotted two mountain blue birds in the golden light. Just as we made it to Dewey, a half rainbow peaked out. Even though our original plan to backpack didn't pan out, the hike to Valentine lake was an amazing adventure, and probably our last chance this spring to see snowy alpine splendor before the snowmelt truly takes hold. 

As we drove away to a new parking spot for the night, I think of early American Indians who lived nomadically in the Mojave and the Eastern Sierra. I think of the miners who left their homes to pursue a life in the eastern sierra where the stakes were high; strike it rich or wear your body to the bone. Even though we’ve “developed” beyond the lifestyle of our nomadic ancestors, might there be wisdom in their wandering? We think so.

And not to say that we don’t have comfort in our van. We have a knock off Yheti cooler, that claims with a block of ice cold food for 4.5 days. So far it’s more like 4 days, but a luxury nonetheless. We have electricity thanks to a deep cycle marine battery, so we can charge our phones. But, after a total of three weeks of van life I’ve found co-habitating in a tiny space means an inherent battle with entropy. But more than that, it's accepting that living with nature means surrendering control. Switching our mindset from plan oriented to moment by moment, day by day. But, letting go feels good.


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