Sunday, November 26, 2017

Camping and Hiking in Big Pine: Our First Summer Trip up the 395

Camping was always sort of an afterthought for us, but when we finally camped for the first time in Big Pine in September, we fell in love with it right away.  We've gone a handful of times since, and within a few weeks of this first camping trip, we've already taken it to the next level by getting into backpacking.  Why haven't we done this sooner?!  Taking the time to camp out has been a really nice way to unplug for the weekend and relax while still learning and experimenting all of the time.  It's great having no screen in sight to keep us up and no alarms to set for the morning.   Wes loves building fires, new contraptions, and sleeping in the cold...I also found out that he loves foraging for sticks even more than any other human being I know.  I am the opposite, but somehow it still works: I love putting out the fires, getting back to the basics (cooking and passing the time simply), and snuggling up in our double-person sleeping bag...and letting Wes gather the sticks.

We had just gotten back from doing the Salkantay Trek in Peru, where we hiked with a group from camp site to camp site for four days.  It was a great introduction to spending time off the grid, and we both wanted to do more of that.  So as we planned our visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Big Pine, we decided to book a cheap campsite rather than a hotel room.  Might have been a little bit rash at the time, since all we owned was a basic Coleman tent lying around and two camping chairs...we didn't really own anything else related to camping.  But Wes said that he'd gladly figure out all of those logistics - the techy stuff and brand research that I can't bear to bother with.  All I had to do was to plan our excursions and hikes, which was more than fine with me.  Things felt super last-minute, but aside from a few broken eggs and forgetting to bring a bottle opener, we survived in the end!

Baker Creek Campground in Big Pine was where we ended up.  This was a good choice for us first-timers, since it was just a little bit off the main road with convenience stores right there.  Despite this, Big Pine is an extremely small town, so camping here still felt really quaint and secluded.  Our campsite was tucked into the trees against some rocks, right next to a running creek.  There were only two other groups camping there.  It was also nice that there was a picnic table, a fire pit, and a bathroom.

Baker Creek Campground was literally five minutes away from Coppertop Barbecue, our favorite BBQ pitstop on the familiar route to Mammoth (rated #1 on Yelp two years ago!).  We were pretty set on going there for our meals, but on the night before the trip, we decided: f*ck it, we're cooking.  So after work, we hit up an REI to buy a pocket rocket, fuel, and a compact cook-set designed for camping.  Then, we stopped into Walmart (conveniently located in the same plaza), where we ended up buying a knockoff Yeti ice chest and loading up a shopping cart with tons of food to cook.  Probably too much.  We weren't even sure if we were going to make a campfire, but then we saw that Walmart had firewood, so...there was the answer to that question.  We were on a total shopping spree, buying everything from ice packs to deli meat to bananas.  It was sort of exhilarating.  I felt like a chicken with its head cut off, bouncing around from aisle to aisle and wondering if we were going to forget anything.

By the time we were ready to leave, Wes had obtained sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camping pillows, a camping stove, fire starter supplies, and a camping lamp.  I'm glad that one of us had the patience to do the research and the initiative to not only purchase what we needed, but also to find these things for good prices.  Plus, he purposefully got stuff that was potentially good for backpacking too - so everything was ultra light-weight and cold-weather-proof.  I guess Wes always knew that we'd take this camping thing a bit further.

Also, we were total camp-cooking noobies, but we realized that it's pretty much exactly the same as cooking at home, with the exception of throwing foil parcels of food into the fire.  It was really the clean-up that's more difficult, especially after dark.

Wes was a total natural with getting the fire going, filtering water, and doing all of that survival business.  We were obviously having way too much fun with the novelty of it all, seeing that I have a ton of photos (of the most normal camping objects) to commemorate our first camping trip together!

The hike that we did on Saturday was also sooo awesome--probably my favorite hike to date.  We went to the Big Pine Lakes on Saturday and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest on Sunday.  It was like 100 degrees at Baker Creek during the day, but we were able to escape to higher elevations.  We have a billion photos from both Big Pine Lakes and the Ancient Bristlecones, but pictures don't even do these places justice.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Walking in the World's Oldest Known Living Forest

We had never known that literally the world's oldest creatures were waiting for us just over the rather bleak mountains to the East along the familiar route to Mammoth on Highway 395.  It's easy to overlook these mountains - usually, all eyes are on the grand, snow-capped Sierra Nevada, rising majestically to the West.  We would always catch a glimpse of the modest wooden sign for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest out of the corners of our eyes, but it's not one of those places that is talked about much, and no one ever seemed to be driving in the direction away from the Sierra Nevada anyhow.  We didn't really make it a point to figure out what was there until more recently.  I don't think that either of us were expecting to be so blown away when we finally visited the bristlecone forest this past Labor Day weekend.  We ended up returning a second time a few weeks later, in November, with my parents.

Looking like they came straight out of a Tim Burton movie, the dramatic ancient bristlecone pines high in the mountains of eastern California capture in their twisted, knotted, striated appearance what it's like to be alive for thousands of years on Planet Earth.  They have struggled through ice, wind, and who knows what else, and continue to live and breathe even now.  These trees are the oldest known living organisms in the world -- some of them are over 4,000 years old, and the oldest one is measured to be nearly 5,000 years old (date seeded = 2833 BC!).  It would have been awesome to know which one it was...but its identity is kept a secret for its protection.  To say the least, it was an incredibly humbling experience to walk amongst all of these powerful trees, and crazy to think about what the world might have been like at the time of their birth.

The bristlecone pine trees grow in a very windy and harsh climate up in the White Mountains, a desert mountain range across from the Sierra Nevada.  Given a choice between the two mountain ranges, I'd be hard pressed to find someone who would choose to live in the White Mountains over the Sierra Nevada.  While the Sierra Nevada mountains are characterized by lakes, cascades, granite cliffs, and leafy aspen trees, the White Mountains are a rocky, shrubby, and barren land.  It is hard to believe that things could manage to survive up there, but that is exactly why the Ancient Bristlecones are so amazing.  When we got up close to them, we were astounded to see that every tree is a unique work of art, gradually carved and painted by the forces of nature.  You can imagine how long it took for us to walk through these groves with our cameras.