The Detour

Dave - @11:30 pm

Sometimes on a road trip, things don’t go entirely to plan.

Today was a big day – a long drive, with two national park visits. We wanted to get from Las Vegas to Oakhurst near Yosemite, but rather than take the boring interstate route, we decided to take the scenic route via Death Valley and the Tioga Pass. This route would be about the same number of miles, but take a few extra hours and be considerably more interesting. The Tioga Pass is the route that cuts through the Sierra Nevadas to Yosemite, and rises to 12,000 ft above sea level. So we’d be going from several hundred feet below sea level in Death Valley, all the way up to 12,000 ft in a few hours. Very exciting.

Another point about the Tioga Pass is that it shuts for winter and normally opens sometime in May, once the snow has cleared. We knew about this and had done our homework, diligently checking the Tioga Pass web site every few days until it finally opened on May 4th for the summer. Just to be on the safe side, we checked again before leaving Vegas and found it to be clear.

Since it was a long drive (450 miles, the longest yet), we got up early, packed our substantial Vegas winnings and hit the road. The first few hours were through the desert and were fairly nondescript until we hit Death Valley, where it started to become interesting. Our first port of call was Dante’s View, which overlooks the park. The view from here is stunning, and we’d picked a particularly good day to see it. The salt deposits on the “lake” look really eerie in the morning sun.

The road we wanted winds through the valley itself, so we followed this next and watched the temperature notch up slowly from about 60F to 90F in the space of a few miles. We didn’t do much in the way of exploring in Death Valley since we wanted to keep to schedule, but stopped a few times to look around.

Published photographer pauses to work her magic on lizard.
Published photographer pauses to work her magic on lizard.

After Death Valley, the road rises over some mountains, down another valley and into yet more mountains, before turning north to follow the Sierra Nevadas for several hundred miles. This was a lovely drive, with snow capped peaks on one side and rugged, harsh desert mountains on the other. It goes through a number of really quaint Californian towns, each of which had a distinct character, very different to towns in Nevada or Arizona.

Eventually, we reached the town of Lee Vining at the east end of the Tioga Pass. The plan was to stop here to recharge our batteries, have some lunch and take a look at Mono Lake, the lake that Lee Vining sits on the shores of. Unfortunately, here’s where the plan started to break down…

As we were entering Lee Vining, we noticed that the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with low clouds and light rain showers coming in off the mountains. And sure enough, just before the Tioga Pass turn off, a sign flashed up with the dreaded word “Closed” in big flashing letters.

Before panicking, we stopped at a garage and assessed the situation. The garage attendant told us that it had been closed in the last hour or so because of bad weather up in the mountains and that the forecast was bad for the next few days. In fact, it was going to get significantly worse the next day. Driving around town, we realised that we weren’t the only ones affected by this – the local garages were packed with people clutching maps and looking forlorn. This clearly wasn’t anything new, since our garage attendant gave us a photocopy of a hand drawn map showing us our options: drive more, or wait.

The drive option looked daunting – a four or five hour trip around the top of the mountains and back down – and the wait option seemed hopeless. The weather looked set in, and we risked being stranded in Lee Vining over the memorial day weekend or having to miss Yosemite entirely. So we discussed it and decided to press on. I was feeling pretty fresh, and we’d end up arriving only three or so hours after our intended arrival time. We’d be knackered, but still on track. We pressed on.

Our first option was to cut across at the next pass up, but this turned out to be closed as well. So we continued north to the next one, which as luck would have it, was still open. Actually, I’m not sure that “luck” is the right word here, since the road was pretty harrowing to drive over and the speed we took it at probably lost us some time. We decided to exit this road onto a thicker looking road in the atlas which we reasoned would be quicker, and abandoned the twisty turning hell of mountain passes. Unfortunately, this road was not much better – fifty miles of single carriageway, misty, snowy, attention requiring road. All with no mobile signal to speak of, and very little traffic on the road. On the bright side, it was still daylight.

Fifty miles of this…

After many hours, we arrived on the other side of the mountains, though still a fair distance north of Oakhurst where we needed to be. We stopped again to assess the situation, rang the hotel and let them know we’d be late. The hotel owner chuckled with the air of someone for whom guests being stuck on the wrong side a mountain range is a regular occurrence and let us know the late check in procedure. We were comforted by this, saw an end in sight and decided to press on for the final 120 miles. We were, however, a little confused why the sat nav was giving us an estimated arrival time of three and a bit hours for a couple of hours worth of distance, since the roads looked good and it was getting late so there’d be no traffic, but we set off again.

About an hour in, just after it became properly dark, we hit the most daunting road I’ve ever driven. A mostly downhill road, single carriageway with endless switchbacks and vertical drops, mere feet away from corners without guard rails. The road was fairly well trafficked though, but no less terrifying for it. Being dark probably helped though, since it hid most of the drops from us. This went on for about twenty or thirty miles, but it felt like several hundred and in the end Michelle had to prise my fingers out of the steering wheel rubber. But we’d made it and Oakhurst was now a mere thirty or so miles away on relatively good roads.

Not the recommended route from Las Vegas to Oakhurst.
Not the recommended route from Las Vegas to Oakhurst.

On the outskirts of town, we allowed ourselves to relax a bit… streetlights, civilisation, the hotel showing as three miles away. Then suddenly, the sound every motorist dreads – the unmistakable sound of rubber flapping against road. We looked at each other in confusion and pulled over. A flat tyre! Of all the things to happen, after 14 hours of driving, in the middle of the night!

I think if this had happened on the mountain road we’d just struggled through, we might have curled up and waited to be rescued. But we pulled ourselves together, found our roadtripper spirit, gingerly moved the car into a fortuitously well lit car park and set about some unexpected repair work.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and say it was entirely smooth. I’m also not going to pretend we didn’t need to confirm a few things with mobile YouTube as we were going, but considering that this was the first time that either of us had changed a tyre, I think we did a pretty good job all told. In about half an hour, we had the flat off, the spare on and were packing up just as a couple of local drug dealers were pulling into the car park to do business. We were also wound tighter than a pair of two dollar watches (as they say around these parts) and crawled the last few miles to the hotel with our newly diminutive fourth wheel, not entirely trusting that it wouldn’t come loose or explode or something.

Car now has a tiny wheel that may fall off.
Car now has a tiny wheel that may fall off.

But we eventually made it! Fourteen hours after setting off, 646 miles added to the Latitude history and with some much needed car maintenance experience under our belts. We paused only to note that the hotel we’re staying in was lovely, to have Michelle use a rubber mallet to force my joints to bend properly again and finally collapse into bed, wondering how on Earth we’d get the car properly on the road tomorrow and stay on schedule.

Road trip!

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