Moving East With the Murk

A predictable circumstance of this trip: that we’d see at least patches of wildfire smoke as we travel east. I mean, we’ve all seen the stories this summer, and the fires in California and elsewhere are still putting out major volumes of particulate matter. Even so, the image above, a screenshot of the map at fire.airnow.gov, is sobering. (That little blue dot at left center of the image is where we are now.)

Beryl Markham’s memoir “West With the Night,” an account of her history-making career as an aviator (including the first solo east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic) came to mind.

We’re now traveling east with the murk. Not nearly as hypnotically poetic as the image of flying into the twilight and the unknown. But we’re chasing our own sort of twilight adventure.

Road Blog: Lee Vining to Ely

A pyrocumulus cloud rises above the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe — 85 miles from this vantage point at Panum Crater and Mono Lake.

I started out last night with a mini-exploration of the names of the towns where we started and ended, Berkeley and Lee Vining.

Lee Vining is known to lovers of the eastern Sierra and habitues of the greater Yosemite region as the town that’s perched just above the shore of Mono Lake and at the foot of the road across Tioga Pass, the highest highway route across the Sierra. According to one local account, the name Lee Vining had its origins in real estate marketing. A landowner in the area was subdividing his property for home lots and didn’t think the existing name of the place, Poverty Flat, would do much for his venture’s prospect. He wanted to call the community Lakeview, but the Post Office informed him the name was already in use. His next choice was Lee Vining, a Gold Rush-era prospector who had operated in the area.

I’m recapitulating all of that just to say there is no neatly tied-up story to explain the name of Ely, Nevada, where I am tonight. “Ely,” pronounced “EE-lee,” not “EE-lie,” could refer to any number of men who had some influence hereabouts in the late 19th century. It’s late, and I’m not up to weighing in on who might have had the strongest claim. The rest of what I can tell you about Ely is that it’s a mining town — copper mining has been its mainstay since the first decade of the 20th century, and one of the landmarks you encounter as you approach town on U.S. 50/The Loneliest Road in America from the west is a series of immense man-made mountains consisting of mine spoils. They suggest the bases of incomprehensibly large, unfinished pyramids, mostly dun-colored but with variations in the shading of the earth packed into the towering, symmetrical slopes. Somehow, those gigantic, well-sculpted features — t that not made an impression on me during past trips through the area. They did today.

***

The daily highlight: John and I ate breakfast at the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining — it’s a well-known destination for trans-Sierra travelers — then spent a couple hours hiking around Panum Crater, near the south shore of Mono Lake. The landscape is austere and exciting, and for John, who is a glass blower by profession and vocation, it was extra-cool to see the all the obsidian, black volcanic glass, strewn in huge masses in the crater’s center.

One startling sighting was a rapidly growing mass of pyrocumulus generated by the Caldor Fire, a good 85 miles away near Lake Tahoe. We didn’t encounter smoke ourselves until we were well on the way to Tonopah. From there, we drove up Highway 376 through the Big Smoky Valley, which was too socked in by wildfire smoke to see more than the dim silhouettes of mountains on either side of us.

Tomorrow, maybe: Golden Spike.

Road Blog: Berkeley to Lee Vining

August 30, 2021: Half Dome from Olmsted Point, on the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park.

From George Berkeley, 18th century philosopher, slaveholder, and eventual inspiration for Manifest Destiny, to Lee (or Lee Roy) Vining, Gold Rush-era prospector and sawmill operator. And now us, tucked away in a little motel at the foot of the Sierra. What a 300 years it’s been.

With just a little packing to do and a few errands in the offing, we cast off our lines at 11:30 a.m. to take to the open road. But first, a couple more errands. Then we returned home a bit later to grab a couple things we had forgotten. Then we cast off again, and the winds, along with Toyota hybrid technology, carried us clear across the state, up and down Yosemite Valley, over Tioga Pass, to this place named after the sawmill guy.

We haven’t been flooded with out-of-town visitors in the last couple of decades, but when someone from back in the heartland or Atlantic seaboard has shown up on our doorstep, I’ve generally had a couple of things I really want them to see: San Francisco Bay from the vantage point of the ferry, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Berkeley Hills and maybe Mount Diablo, the Oakland Coliseum, the Mission (the neighborhood, not the church) in San Francisco. It’s an idiosyncratic list that makes me think about all the cultural treasures I’m leaving out.

Yosemite is another of those “must-see” destinations, though it can be overrun with other folks who have the same idea and could be seen as a bit of a cliche. But I’ve taken a couple nephews who were making their first trip to California up to the national park for a quick look and a short hike up from Tioga Pass, and I’m convinced it’s the kind of experience that will stay with them. In a good way. It certainly sticks with me.

Which brings us to today. The original plan for the launch of our Berkeley-to-Chicago-by-way-of-sugar-beet-Minnesota road trip was to stop at Lake Tahoe. But the lake has been socked in for most of the last month with hazardous or near-hazardous levels of wildfire smoke. And now a wildfire that has spread relentlessly for more than two weeks appears ready to vault the Sierra crest and run down toward the lake shore.

So, ignoring the feeling that this looks like I’m trying to escape facing a disaster that’s threatening tens of thousands of people, I looked for an alternative route east. Yosemite is it. And for the most part, it felt like a better day than anyone has a right to expect in the midst of our multiple calamities (see yesterday’s post). The weather was hot, but once we climbed into the foothills from the San Joaquin Valley, the haze we saw from wildfire smoke grew less and less. Yosemite Valley was magnificent as always, a show of light slowly transforming monumental granite. The drive up to Tioga Pass was sedate and sunset crossed the peaks around us and dusk ascended.

Then a quick run down Lee Vining Canyon to Lee Vining the town and a motel stay. If I haven’t said it clearly: really a fantastic day.

Tomorrow: Tonopah and the Loneliest Road.

My brother John. Olmsted Point, August 2021.

Road Blog: What a Time

What a time to venture out on a trip across the country.

The pandemic rolls on. Those who persist in questioning the gravity of a disease that has killed 638,000 people treat straightforward precautions — masks, vaccines — as political acts that must be challenged.

My adopted home state is in the grip of a vast wildfire disaster, which is being visited upon other parts of the country as a dense layer of smoke and hazardous air .

A catastrophic storm has blown in off the Gulf of Mexico into Louisiana.

A war we’ve walked away from after 20 years has erupted in what could be a bloody finale or an entirely new and dire chapter. Only the human cost is clear.

I could go on. I haven’t even mentioned the seething mess that passes for our politics. But as U.S. tourism boosters have been saying for more than a century: See America first.

My brother John and I are headed out on a cross-country drive in the morning. More on that to come., including why we’re doing this at such a fraught moment.

Inbox: Salmon Extinction Alert

A (slightly edited) email that just landed in my work inbox from John McManus, the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association:

Dear Reporter:


If you’re covering the news from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife documenting the lethal effects of the drought on federally protected winter-run salmon, consider this from CDFW’s updated winter-run data file (which you can download from:  https://www.calfish.org/ProgramsData/ConservationandManagement/CentralValleyMonitoring/CDFWUpperSacRiverBasinSalmonidMonitoring.aspx

7-6-21: Continued hot weather above 100 degrees for periods in late May, early June  and past two weeks continuously will lead to depletion of cold water pool in Shasta Lake sooner than modeled earlier in season.  This hot weather is leading to more demand downstream for water (flows from Keswick Dam from 8,500 to 9,250 cubic feet per second on July 4th).  Previously modeled season long cold water availability scenarios used steady flows in the 7500 cfs range  from Keswick.  Those earlier scenarios had very high expected juvenile mortality due to warm water later in August-October that would be lethal to incubating eggs and alevins in the gravel.  This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season.  Counts of carcasses continue to indicate a large run of winter-run this year. Unspawned fresh females for the season are 71 with an overall percentage of 12.3% of all fresh females this season were unspawned.

If you are looking for a quote for a story, consider this one from me:

“Californians should be alerted that the extinction of a native salmon run is underway right now as a result of government inaction to stop it.  State and federal water managers have apparently decided it’s politically inconvenient to reroute short water supplies to prevent extinction if it means a few less acres of crops.  We’re losing winter run salmon right now and the fall run salmon that supply the sport and commercial fisheries will be decimated too.  Californians who care about the environment need to hold government officials accountable for allowing the loss of the state’s natural resources on their watch.”

What Your Rain Gauge Says About You

The measuring tube from an official CoCoRAHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) rain gauge. There’s nothing in it.

To answer the question implicit in the title: I really have no idea.

But your rain gauge, be it an expensive electronic home weather station variety for which you’ve shelled out many hundreds of dollars or a humble plastic tube that you read manually, will tell you one thing for sure this winter in California: It’s been much drier than normal throughout our rainy season, and it’s dry now.

So far, our backyard gauge has caught 6.83 inches of rain since last July 1 (which is the “rainfall year” that used to be the standard for the National Weather Service in California; a few years ago, the agency switched to the “water year,” which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. For what it’s worth, I recorded exactly one one-hundredth of an inch (.01 inch) from last July 1 through Sept. 30; the Berkeley normal for that three months totals .31 inch).

Where was I? Right — 6.83 inches of rain since last July 1. The Berkeley “normal” for July 1 through March 8, as calculated for the “official” Berkeley station on the University of California campus, is 21.49 inches. One way to look at that: We’re about 15 inches short of our “normal” wet season rainfall. Another way: We’ve gotten just 31.8 percent of that “normal” precipitation.

I’d love to be able to compare my numbers with that station on campus, which has been keeping records since 1893. But I can’t right now. The Department of Geography employee in charge of the weather station and sending data to the public National Centers for Environmental Information database retired sometime in the last few months, and the most recent available numbers from that station are from last September. I’m told that the later data will be forthcoming … soon.

Since the UC Berkeley info isn’t available, I’ve checked to see what other nearby CoCoRAHS (Community Cooperative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) rain watchers have recorded and compared those to the official Downtown San Francisco record for the season.

One gauge, 1.4 miles to the northwest in Albany, has recorded 6.99 inches since July 1 (.16 inch more than my gauge); another, 1.6 miles to the southwest in South Berkeley, has measured 6.39 inches (.44 less than mine). And San Francisco’s Downtown station, which has the longest continuous rainfall record on the West Coast — going back to the summer of 1849 — has picked up all of 7.41 inches since last July 1, or 39 percent of normal.

A look at the California-Nevada River Forecast Center makes it clear that our local percentages of normal — figures in the 30 to 40 percent range — are pretty typical across our slice of Northern California:

Percentage of “normal” seasonal rainfall recorded from Oct. 1, 2020, through March 8, 2021, by way of the California-Nevada River Forecast Center.

One other observation for now, by way of Jan Null, a former National Weather Service forecast who works as a consulting meteorologist. As he noted last week, California is in its second very dry winter in a row and we have a recent historical parallel, from 2013, that we can use to measure advancing drought effects across the state:

That Corrosive Effect

Monterey Avenue, Berkeley.

It’s the day we have an apparent victor in the presidential race. As a journalist working for a middle-of-the-road outlet that doesn’t hold with political activism — not something I’m arguing with for the purposes of this post — I’m not given to broadcasting opinions on the record. This preserves an appearance of fairness in the way I approach my work. Not to say that the appearance is an illusion, because being open to new people, facts, ideas and opinions, to listen, to try to understand them, weigh them, judge them and convey them fairly is central to the work.

But having developing a habit of thought like that also makes me constantly check myself and my own conclusions and to approach many — most?— claims I encounter in the world with at least a little skepticism. So on a day like this, when so many people around me — friends, family, community — are celebrating, I’m not inclined to join in the party.

As I wrote a friend earlier, my pessimism is not to be easily tamped down, and I think the celebrations are a little premature given the reality that our defeated incumbent seems determined to put up a fight before acceding to the will of the voters. Foremost in my mind are fears about what the next chapter of the election battle — the recounts and the court fights — will look like and how much damage the disappointed loser can still do to the government and our democracy while he still controls the levers of power.

The net effect is a little corrosive to any sense of joy I might have. Yeah, the celebrations are ongoing, and it’s good to see the people around me relieved and happy. I just can’t stop myself from thinking, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As my friend said in regard to the current occupant of the Executive Mansion, “Two and a half months is a very long time for a wounded sociopath of his magnitude to occupy the presidency.”

Speaking Approximately, This Is Historical Titillating

This is an old blog that has mostly outlived its relevance, if any, though I know in the back of my mind it’s out there and every once in a while I’ll read back on something and think, “Not bad” or, “How the heck did I miss that typo?” I still write the occasional post, though only a handful ever get any readership to speak of.

The site still gets lots of comments, though — spam comments, by the dozen every week, most promoting some sort of fly-by-night Viagra site or athletic shoe site or transparently dumb money-making scheme. I’m sure all of them are the product of bots of some kind that spit out nearly random words and hit enter, then move on their relentlessly mindless way to the next rarely visited site. Because there’s a spam filter on the comments, they don’t get published. It’s a small pain to go through and delete them all from the filter queue; that’s not something I need to do, really, it’s just sort of a rote, mechanical chore, and I only read enough to make sure there’s not an actual comment hidden amid the garbage.

Taking a look at the spam queue last night, I realized that perhaps I’m being too harsh in my judgment of comment quality. After all, it’s usually quite complimentary of the high and very helpful nature of everything I’ve ever published. So, as I delete the latest mini-volley of spam comments, here are some of the choicer ones:

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Special Airline Edition: Reply Stop to Cancel

Jet fuel leaks from the starboard wing of Alaska Airlines Flight 1213 at O’Hare International Airport, Sept. 23, 2019.

We were in Chicago for a wedding last week and flew back to San Francisco on Monday. We got to the airport in plenty of time and discovered our flight was a little late. No worries.

We found a place to sit that had a view of the plane’s parking space and of the jetway at our gate. The incoming flight was later than advertised, finally pulling up and shutting down maybe 25 minutes late. I watched as the jetway was extended toward the plane to allow the arriving passengers to escape their confinement. But the apparatus stopped about 10 feet short of its target. The ground crew tried to retract it and re-extend it. They couldn’t get it to close the gap.

As the minutes went by, I was imagining the slow burn the passengers stuck on the plane were doing. I was wondering whether someone would appear with a couple of planks for people to walk across from jet to jetway.

What actually happened , after 20 minutes or so, was that two guys from American Airlines showed up. One of them got a step ladder and set it up adjacent to what looked like an electrical box on the jetway. Then he climbed up, took a “hundreds of Americans die every year doing stunts like this” stance, with one foot on the ladder and the other on the electrical box, and fiddled for about 10 seconds with a switch. He climbed down and signaled to someone to give the jetway a try. This time it worked. So at about 5:50, roughly 35 minutes after the plane parked, and about the exact time Flight 1213 was scheduled to pull away from the gate for the trip to San Francisco, the arriving passengers could get off.

An American Airlines technician climbs up a ladder to fiddle with a switch on a non-functioning jetway at O’Hare Gate G6.

It took about 30 minutes for everyone to make their way off the airliner and for a cleaning crew to race through the aircraft and straighten it up. Then it was our turn to get on, and I’m guessing another 20 minutes or so to hustle everyone on board. We pulled back from the gate at about 6:40, 50 minutes late, but not a disaster.

Once we were pointed toward the taxiway, but still just 50 yards or so from the gate, we had to sit for awhile to get in the takeoff queue. I was sitting pretty far back, looking out the window on the plane’s right side. Suddenly, liquid began spouting out of the wing. A lot of fluid. It kept going. What was it? Water? That didn’t make sense. Jet fuel? that wouldn’t be good. While I was pondering this mystery, which I thought someone ought to point out to the crew, someone else a few rows ahead of me said, “Hey! Look at this! Something’s coming out of the wing!”

That got a flight attendant’s attention. She looked out a window. Another crew member said, “Call them and tell them.” One of the flight attendants reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.

The liquid kept cascading to the ground. The flow gradually slowed, then stopped. Hard to say how much spilled onto the tarmac. One hundred gallons? Five hundred? Eventually, the flight’s captain got on the PA and confirmed that we had been seeing jet fuel spilling. More than once, he suggested that it had been a normal occurrence and tried to explain what happened. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded like an issue with having failed to properly balance the fuel load between the aircraft’s tanks and that a valve had opened — to relieve fuel line pressure? — and released fuel onto the ground. (As I say, I’m not sure I understood the details. I’d love to have an Airbus mechanic explain it again.)

In any case, we had to go back to the gate so maintenance technicians could check out the issue. Then the plane took on additional fuel. Then paperwork had to be done. The plane was opened up so people could wander around the terminal if they liked — but not too far! — and maybe grab a snack. The woman setting next to Kate and me came back with pizza slices.

All of that consumed another two hours. Kate and I did not leave the plane, though we got up a couple times to stretch. Finally, all the checking and rechecking was done, the wandering passengers were called back, and at 8:40 — now nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, we again pulled back from the gate.

All that stood between us and actual flight now was the long line of airliners waiting to take off ahead of us. The wait for our turn turned out to be another 40 minutes, making our departure nearly three hours and 20 minutes late. I was hoping Alaska would spring for free beer, or at least beer nuts, as compensation for the delay. No such luck.

Long story short: We made good time to SFO, and were off our plane by 11:35 p.m. (1:35 a.m. Chicago time). I had visions of making the last cheapskate BART train back to the East Bay. But by the time we had collected our bags and made it up to the AirTrain for the ride to the BART stop, it was too late. We wound up taking a Lyft ride instead — kind of a treat, actually, and we didn’t have to schlep our bags the last couple blocks home from the station.

I was thinking about complaining to Alaska as all this was unfolding. But then I got a personal message from the airline that came in just as our plane landed. It made me feel kind of … well, see for yourself.

‘Above All … Keep Moving’

I heard the beginning of this quote from Tim Dee, a British nature writer and BBC radio producer who I’m going to meet Sunday on a panel about one of his books. It’s from Kierkegaard, and I find the observation about sitting as compelling as the one about walking:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”