When we met up with Daniel Mansfield of The Adventure Project for our San Bernardino National Forest mountain hike last month, we arrived with one burning question in mind. Our common mission is to get people out and exploring all the amazingness the West has to offer. But Daniel’s mission is, more specifically, to get people out into the mountains. So the one thing we needed to know was…if he could choose just one place in all of California to take someone to experience the Best of the West, where would it be? Without missing a beat, his answer: The Eastern Sierras.
We were a bit surprised by this, having never heard particularly much about them ourselves. Everyone knows and loves the Sequoias, Yosemite, Mammoth, Big Bear—all our resident beauties. But “Eastern Sierras” wasn’t readily rolling off the tongues of our hike-loving friends. We had to know: what was it about THESE mountains that made them stand out so far above the rest? There was only one way to answer that question. Road trip.
Three weeks later, Sarah and I are loaded up in the Prius Brigade with our fine art photographer friend, Gina Cholick, headed to Lone Pine, CA to meet Daniel Mansfield and T.A.P. videographer Michael Peters at another undisclosed gas station for another mystery adventure into the mountains. We’ve chosen this night to take in the peaking Eta Aquarid meteor showers, offshoots from Halley’s Comet that move at lightning speed and are difficult to see with the naked eye. But with the dark new moon, we might just be able to catch them. We roll into tiny Lone Pine and saddle up to The Adventure Wagon, that huge silver tank we’ve come to know and love so well, and off we go in pursuit of another adventure.
Just past Lone Pine, the landscape opens up to an undisturbed view of the Eastern Sierras, Mount Whitney standing proudly behind them in all her white-snow-capped glory. They are, to put it lightly…astounding. My breath actually catches when I fully lay eyes on them. Giant looming majesties all dressed in white. The highest peaks I’ve seen in person, simultaneously awe-inspiring and deeply humbling. A few turns later, the pavement disappears and now we are bumping down a dirt road through what appears to be sprawling desert rock-formation mountains similar to Joshua Tree. It boggles the mind, this stark and immediate contrast: dry desert rock mountains set right up against the snow-covered Himalayas. It feels like we’ve suddenly beamed into a science fiction novel. Surely we’ve left California to find ourselves on some foreign planet. I check the sky to count how many suns are present, just to be sure. To my surprise, it’s still only one.
Having arrived at our campground in the Alabama Hills, Daniel and Michael are quick on the draw—an entire camp set up before we can even unload the trunk. Tents are staked, fire pits are dug, logs are loaded and we are ready to go. Apparently, mountain men know how to get things done. With camp set, it’s time to waste no time. Daniel is on a mission to get us up into those mountains before the sun sets. We bump our way back towards the main road—The Adventure Wagon zooming along the rugged terrain like it ain’t no thang while Prius does her very best off-roading routine slow and steady. We come face-to-face with the mountain peaks again as we swirl up into them, climbing fast and steep.
We arrive at the base of Whitney Portal and explore a gushing waterfall, all snowy white from the early May storm that just passed through. Up here, the temperature makes an abrupt drop. We pile on the layers as we take to the snowy waterfall on foot. Looking up, it’s still inconceivable how far the mountaintops loom overhead, as I discover that Mount Whitney is actually the tallest peak in the entire 48 contiguous United States. Standing below her 14, 505′ here, it feels fitting to take a moment of quiet to pay some deep respects to Her Majesty.
The sun is setting fast and we want to get down before dark, so back down the mountain we go, stopping halfway to take in the view of the sweeping Alabama Hills desert terrain and the peachy pink mountains beyond. After some quick impromptu bouldering, we’re speeding back down the mountain until we find ourselves at the base again.
We get out of our cars to take in the sun as it sets behind Mount Whitney and her Eastern Sierras brethren, lighting up the mountains and sky in the facing distance. Winter white mountain peaks and the palest blue sky behind us, dusty rose arid desert in front of us…it’s as if the land literally split into two worlds, colliding side-by-side in the center where we stand. It makes no logical sense. All we know is that it’s stunningly beautiful. So we take it all in with quiet wonder and amazement.
Back at homebase, the stars begin to peek through the night sky as the guys build a campfire. We set some Lentil Veggie Chili on the camp stove and throw some potatoes on the coals to bake. Then we sit back and relax, occupying ourselves with good tunes and good conversation until our meal is ready. The chili is healthy, light, delicious and deeply satisfying—pre-cooked lentils mixed with chopped zucchini, squash and tomatoes, served over baked potato insides then topped with avocado and hot sauce. But Sarah’s Baked Banana S’mores really put these campfire eats over the edge. We split bananas down the center length-wise inside a piece of tinfoil, then put dark chocolate squares and marshmallows on top of the banana, close up the foil and throw it on the fire to bake. After a few minutes, we open up the hot banana and crumble graham crackers on top, then eat the whole warm gooey deliciousness with a spoon. The best. EVER.
With food in our bellies and lightness in our hearts, the night is just getting started. We pile into The Adventure Wagon for a drive over to Mobius Arch to try to catch some of the meteors. We hop out and go on foot deep into the rock formations of the Alabama Hills, finding the arch looming overhead through the darkness. We climb up the rocks and then lay back, eyes on the skies. The meteors are fast enough to miss completely if you blink and the cloud cover rolls in and out, creating a dream-like other-worldly blurred reality. Where are we? Does time exist? Does space? Judging from the look of things, I’m pretty sure we’ve leapt through reality all together. Perhaps we find ourselves living now amongst the stars, like Le Petit Prince. Wherever we’ve landed, I am happy to stay here forever.
But with beds waiting back at the tent, we do end up heeding the call of the homestead and head back to our camp and her own unique starry skies. The clouds part upon our arrival, revealing a blanket of stars so bright you could almost read by them. The Milky Way arches above our campground, keeping loving watch over us as we finally bid the mountains goodnight.
We wake up the next morning still inside the dream. The enormous mountains ahead of us boast a fresh dusting of white snow, still shrouded in low-hanging clouds that hide their highest peaks, clearly not ready to unfold themselves from their blankets just yet to greet the morning sunrise. The mountains, like us, want to sleep in for just a few more minutes. Camp stove coffee and tea help to get the day started as we nibble on fruit and yummy gluten-free muffins that healthy baking goddess Gina brought. But this is just the appetizer. After we break down camp, there’s a real morning mountain meal to be had in town.
We hightail it into Lone Pine, finally getting a chance to explore the tiny main street and its quaint wooden storefronts that instantly transport you back to the Gold Rush. But we have one stop in mind: Mount Whitney Restaurant, a rustic diner that boasts “the best burgers in Lone Pine.” Offering beef, turkey, chicken, ostrich, venison, elk, buffalo and veggie burgers made fresh, they ain’t messing around with that title. Michael orders the burger and gives it big thumbs up while we dive into breakfast fixings. I’m won over by any food spot that offers free biscuits & gravy on the side of your meal like toast…and this is no exception. Light, fluffy and delicious in every way, I’d come back here in a heartbeat for all my mountain comfort food cravings.
With a little more daylight to burn before we have to return, we head off into Whitney Portal to explore some back hills, taking in our last sights of the gorgeous Eastern Sierras. With so little foot and road traffic present, it’s a joy to be able to run around like children freely, just drinking in all the beauty that surrounds us.
We continue winding our way through the back roads, finding caves built into the mountain walls, leftover remnants from some old mountain-dwelling community. These hills are a continual, ever-changing mystery. We never know what else we might find behind each turn and shift in landscape. It feels like being on a treasure hunt, with each new experience the grand prize.
It’s time to head back home, but there’s still one stop to be made. Just off the 395, a large red cone-shaped hill emerges, starkly different from any other form in the surrounding landscape. This is Red Hill, the resident volcano, and the black lava rock tossed around its vista makes up the intergalactic-looking Fossil Falls. We climb across the lava rock on foot until we reach the giant chasm at the center of the grounds—dark, shiny, metallic—isn’t this where Superman came from? Doesn’t this very rock itself give you superpowers? We sit at the canyon’s edge as grey clouds begin to gather overhead and the weather turns dark and stormy to match the deep slate of the stones. And we all fall into quiet reverence for this unfathomable beauty before us. Nothing to be said or done, but just sit here and soak it all in. And I remember Daniel half-joking that being in the mountains is his form of meditation. As a meditation teacher myself, we laughed about it, but I also get it. Being in Nature is the purest form of Presence. We should all be so lucky to get to call these beautiful, awe-inspiring mountains our mecca, our church, our holy place.
We drive home feeling lucky to have experienced another epic, gorgeous, soul-stirring adventure with The Adventure Project. The only question on all of our minds is: when’s the next one, and where? You know wherever we go, you’re riding shotgun with us! Can’t wait to share our next adventure with you!
Happy Adventuring! ~love, Sirens & Scoundrels
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Contributing Photography by Gina Cholick
Contributing Photography by Michael Peters
© 2016 Sirens and Scoundrels