Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Monday, October 15, 2012

California, 2012, 4

 In which we climb a long way in a hurry, and meet the rodents

When you approach Yosemite via CA 140, as we did last time, the transition from plain to mountain is gradual, lasting many miles. Not so on 120. At Oakdale, the highway takes the first of a couple of incomprehensible right angle turns, lining itself up with the approaches, seemingly. A few miles on comes the second turn, and suddenly the land starts to climb. You cross a narrow arm of a large reservoir, Lake San Pedro, with its odd flotilla of houseboats, and then....

The road climbs over 2000 feet in five miles over a series of the hairiest switchbacks to grace anything called a state highway anywhere. It is two slim lanes, without guardrails, save in a couple of spectacularly suicidal spots. The other side is almost all ledge, save one bay ominously occupied by an auto junkyard.

Before the climb began, we'd passed through the curiously-named hamlet of Chinese Camp. That
name is the first sign you're passing through the worm hole. You reach the top of the switchbacks at Priest, an even more unimpressive wide spot in the road. Here the road that mirrored 120 across the gulch connects: it's called Old Priest Grade. It is even clearer here that some time shift has occurred, and no historic sign even commemorated the Old Priest.

A short way along 120 come the first signs of something called Big Oak Flat, which in theory is a place of consequence. (Anything of consequence in these parts has the word "Flat" in its name, which gives an idea of the topography.) Here the built environment elides quickly from 1940s roadside ruins to stone and frame buildings showing signs of much older origins,

A mile or two down the highway is Groveland, which turns out to be civically united with Big Oak Flat. Here the highway narrows to a slender street lined with false front buildings both frame and stone. Groveland is the metropolis of Big Oak Flat, whose chief claim to fame is the Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be California's oldest. The place began in the 1849 gold rush as Savage's Diggings. It became known as Garrotte after that, in honour of its many hangings. Later in the 19th century more sensitive residents renamed the place Groveland, evidently hoping to appear civilised in the eyes of the world. (Apparently they forgot to rename another hamlet in the township, which is still on the map as Second Garrotte.)

Going into Yosemite to the south, via CA 140, you pass through Mariposa, which also tries on the mining camp thing, but Mariposa is larger, more self-conscious and more self-referential. Perhaps because it's been the epicentre of several booms, from gold mining to tourism, Oak Flat-Groveland looks and feels more like the real thing.

After Groveland, the road passes through a succession of ponderosa forests and pastures, a landscape that looks lifted from the vintage TV series Bonanza. There were miles of this, the pasture gradually disappearing and the ponderosas closing in, and the altitude climbing.  Then we were at the Yosemite entrance gate. Em and I had prearranged that we'd use her season pass instead of my lifetime pass, but mine was ready in case she had mislaid hers: not needed. Before we pulled away, the ranger handed us our information packet: including the one on hantavirus.

How much better it would have been if NPS had led with this matter-of-fact material, and stayed with it. Instead, somewhere along the line, they lost control of the story, and any PR grunt can tell you it's all over then. As we soon confirmed, things had already reached the point where few NPS employees, and fewer employees of the services contractor, Delaware North, had any idea what was really going on. This was to cast a long shadow very soon. My spouse, as panic-mistress in chief, glanced at the sheet (her motion sickness precluded close reading). She pulled out the latex gloves, the bleach-based cleaners and the surgical masks with which she had provided us, and began to plan her assault on our shelter.

At Crane Flat, CA 120 turns east toward Tuolumne Meadows, Tioga Pass and the eastern slope of the Sierras. Oak Flat Road continues toward Yosemite Valley. We were now all on familiar ground.

One reason films and photos don't convey the reality of Yosemite is they must show only a small slice of time. Much of the park's wonder is that it's changing all the time. Slopes that were forested during our last visit were burnt over now, and others that had been barren two years ago were covered in new growth. The Valley has scores of rockslides a year (one happened later in the week we were there), leaving fresh scars and altering trails.


Still, the big stuff stays in place. Approaching by the Oak Flat Road, one is descending into the valley, which gives a different perspective than CA 140, which ascends the Merced River valley into Yosemite. It's a different flavour of oohs and ahhs.

Big state, California. What looks on the map like
a little trot over from the Bay to Yosemite is close to 300 miles. As a result, dusk was slipping over the ridges by the time we pulled up to the entrance to Housekeeping Camp, again our home away from home. It was decorated with a sight rare in Yosemite: a "Vacancy" sign.

The funky Housekeeping Camp is one of the few Yosemite venues not implicated in the hantavirus media panic: and why? First, we were told, the critical interaction between the carrier deer mice and humans requires enclosed spaces, usually living spaces. Housekeeping Camp shelters aren't exactly enclosed. Second, there need to be circumstances in which unusually large numbers of deer mice can thrive. The Sierra's  mild winter allowed the large numbers of deer mice to thrive, but other small mammals throve too.

Like the California ground squirrel. We in the east are used to squirrels living in trees, but the California ground squirrel is more likely to live under them. They are very similar in appearance to Eastern grey squirrels, and like them are very adaptable. With critters their own size and smaller, it seems they can be very aggressive, driving competitors out of the niche: competitors like deer mice.

Housekeeping Camp is crawling with ground squirrels. Local opinion had it that Housekeeping Camp had had no hantavirus problems because the squirrels had driven off the mice, or had slaughtered them before they could move in.

Our shelter was close to the Merced River, as planned. The kid population of the camp (speaking of pests) was greatly reduced, thanks to school being open, And it soon appeared that a large community of squirrels was living underneath our shelter slab.

When we unpacked, out came the gloves, the masks, the bleach pads, the bleach spray and the strong lights. Nothing would do except that we examine every nook and cranny. Having grown up in the company of meeces, I was the resident authority on the question of "is this mouse poop?" I answered, repeatedly, "no. Mouse poop looks exactly like a black grain of rice." At last I found some piece of dust or whatever that remotely resembled a mouse poop, and let the cleaning crew have at it. (One may read that the best policy where hanta is concerned is to leave well enough alone. You're welcome to try to convince my wife of that.) By the time she declared the shelter and bear box disinfected and safe to receive food, the last fragments of daylight were disappearing. Em drove down to the HQ and returned with pillows, bed linens and firewood. We were at last able to cook, eat supper and sit by the fire ring for a few minutes before an unwontedly late bedtime, as camping things go.

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