Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Scale


This morning, Jane and I said our goodbyes and finally got back on the road. We had had a fun little detour in Modesto, but it was time to head on and see some more of the world. The next stop: Kings Canyon National Park!

Kings Canyon is, as far as I can tell, almost completely overshadowed by its big brother Yosemite to the north. Consequently, it is little heard-of and even less traveled, which is just perfect as far as I'm concerned. 

The park was originally created to preserve two regions: giant Sequoia groves, similar to those found in Sequoia National Park to the south, and Kings Canyon, the second-deepest canyon in the United States (second only to the Grand Canyon). It is one of the more wild national parks, forsaking bustling tourism for wilderness conservation. So while hiking trails criss-cross this park fairly handily, there’s a shortage of drivable roads. But that’s okay, because the roads that ARE here are really, really worth driving.

Holy cow, what a view.

Jane and I wound our way up into the mountains, heading to the scenic drive on the north side of the park. The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway climbs up through a rocky forest fairly quickly before spitting you out at the top of a pass, abruptly presenting you with sweeping spectacular views of a very Yosemite-like landscape. Sharp, rocky mountains march off into the distance as far as the eye can see, eventually blending into one dappled mass of rock and trees. Puffy clouds scud by overhead, seemingly buoyed upwards by winds coming over the ridges. A ribbon of asphalt wends its way around the nearby ridges, periodically disappearing and then reappearing a few hills over.

Also, there's a sign for ice cream. But there isn't any ice cream. The worst.

Most notable, though, is the feature for which this park is named: Kings Canyon. Rather than the wide, gently sloped, glacially carved valleys of Yosemite, the landscape here is cut by a dramatic slash in the mountains where first glaciers and then the Kings River have cut down through thousands of feet of rock with seeming laser precision. The scenic byway descends into this abyss, eventually reaching the bottom of the canyon where the river continues its eternal erosion. As you might expect, this road is full of wonderful twists and turns – just perfect for Jane’s upgraded handling.

We cruised along the blacktop, letting the road come up to meet us in the corners, stopping occasionally at turnouts just to admire the expansive view. But as we dropped down into the canyon, the road narrowed substantially even as the twists and turns grew sharper and steeper, and I found myself really having to pay attention. The Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is a deadly road, for some. High cliffs bordering one side of the road and steep drop-offs bordering the other side by a narrow margin is a recipe for disaster for those who might not take the road seriously, especially if you’re not watching your speed on the steep downhill. But a good manual transmission takes care of all of the brakework, so we had a nice easy trip down, eventually coming out on the flat bottom of the canyon next to the river.

Where the canyon walls loom close, one has a distinct impression of being swallowed whole by the earth. But it’s not until you’re at the bottom that you’re really reminded how small you are. We, as human beings, spend a lot of time thinking that we’re giants in control of the world. But it’s hard to think that when you’re looking up at thousands of feet of rock in Kings Canyon. It has a primeval feel to it, a kind of weightiness that reminds you that you are very small in the grand scheme of things, just a fleeting footstep on the flanks of an ancient giant. Even Jane – the car that always appears so much larger than life – looked minuscule.

Perspective is a wonderful thing.
Having been suitably overawed by the scale of my environment, I then hiked along the river a ways, admiring the lush foliage in marshy flats and the seclusion of the forest bordering the water.

Sometimes you just really have to take a picture of a yellow jacket nest.  Brave or stupid? I've concluded that you're brave up until you get stung, and then you're just stupid.

Someone had the right idea.

Something about this rock intrigued me.

 I found some ferns that totally fascinated me – the flat round dots that normally cover the bottom of the leaves were instead replaced by thick fuzzy lines bursting with spores. Seen through the right light, the leaves virtually glowed from within. I know it’s a silly thing to fixate on, but overwhelmed as I was by the vastness of the canyon, I was interested in looking for beauty in the small details.

Afternoon drew on and clouds started to blanket the sky, so I drove back along the byway, stopping at little turnouts to see waterfalls and interesting rapids.

Jane gained some new admirers.

This guy was remarkably easy to sneak up on.

We settled in for the night at our comfortable campsite near the General Grant Sequoia Grove. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking campsites – a good site is important for a good night’s rest, you know. I always look for nice shady sites that are convenient to get a vintage car in and out of (sometimes a tall order at some campgrounds), and close to water and bathrooms if possible. This particular site was all of these things, but as night fell I found that it had just one more thing that made it perfect: a spectacular view of the Milky Way through a gap in the trees. I quickly decided to use the site as my base of operations for the next few days, extra driving be damned. It’s not like a few extra miles will kill us at this point anyways. Fortunately, Sequoia National Park is just south of Kings Canyon – the two are frequently treated as “sister parks” – so I can reasonably check out both.

Tomorrow, I’ll go see some of the largest and most famous Sequoia tree groves in the nation. Can’t wait! Until then… Kelly signing out!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Jane Throws a Tantrum and I Make An Unexpected Detour

8/14 – 8/15/2017

Before I start this post, I’ve got some advice for you folks: if you have a car that maybe has a bit of a personality, that maybe doesn’t like being ignored… probably don’t ignore it when on a road trip. Probably that is a pretty terrible idea.

Moving on… the day dawned beautiful and clear in Lee Vining. Dad said his goodbyes and took off for the eastern Sierra Nevadas, and I went to the gas station, where I got to push start Jane again. Once that was accomplished, I looked a very long ways up the side of the mountain towards Tioga Pass, the nearly 10,000-ft elevation residence of the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. A smarter person would have gone, “Hmm, I’ve had to push start my vintage car the past ten starts, maybe I shouldn’t throw a steep uphill grade and super thin mountain air into the mix.” But I’m braver than I am smart, so Jane and I steamed up that pass with not a care in the world. Not even a tiny bit of trepidation.

Life was good until we hit the top, where I became aware that my fuel system was not quite metering fuel as it should. I became aware of this as I hit the line of 30-someodd cars sitting in line on the hill leading up to the pass, waiting to get into the park. I became aware of this because Jane abruptly stalled out there on that hill while in line.

Remember how I kind of have to push start my car most of the time these days? Ever tried to do that while parked uphill on a 13% grade, in a manual transmission muscle car, with a bunch of tourists impatiently waiting behind you? Because I have! I did eventually succeed in rolling back fast enough that I was able to make the transmission spin the engine over and get her started… and then I pulled up to exactly where I had been before, and had to stop for traffic again.

Have you ever tried to keep a car running when it will only run with the gas pedal pressed? Ever tried to do it while parked uphill on a 13% grade, in a manual transmission muscle car, with a bunch of tourists surrounding you? How about in a car that is notoriously easy to stall at low throttle due to a less-than-logically built motor? Because I have! And let me tell you… I failed. Doing the three-pedal dance on a hill is already hard enough before you throw altitude-related running issues into the mix. And I’ll be honest, I’m a pretty terrible manual transmission driver. I’m all brute force and no finesse. And finesse was definitely needed.

Eventually after three stalls and three pop starts, including two in which some guys tried to help push, I got tired of the whole thing and pulled off on the side of the road and trooped up the rest of the way to the top of the pass on foot (okay, it was only like 100 feet, so it’s not like it was a huge deal or anything). I asked the rangers to borrow their phone, whereupon I was informed that they only had one and that it was kind of in questionable operation. But eventually they did get it to work, and then I kind of had to figure out what the heck to do. You see, cell phones don’t work at the top of Tioga Pass or in Yosemite – it’s one of the wonderful few places in the US where you can be separated from the digital world. But this is very inconvenient when, say, you don’t know the number of the tow truck company. I didn’t really want a tow anyways, because Jane’s already had her one cushy ride of the year.

So I called my dad first, to let him know what the deal was. But he didn’t pick up so I kind of scrapped the idea of him coming to get me and run me back down the hill. At any rate, I wanted to go west, not back east. The eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas is remarkably devoid of towns and automotive shops. But the western side… well, on the western side lies paradise. Once you get west of the Sierra Nevadas you enter the Central Valley, home of more classic cars than anywhere else in the US. All I had to do was get 100 feet up and over the pass, coast downhill for an hour or two, and then I’d be right in the heart of it. And then I’d be able to fix the starting issue once and for all!

The problem was still that 100 foot expanse of road, which for Jane was inexplicably insurmountable. So I got to thinking that I would call my buddy Ken, who lives in Modesto. I figured he would maybe know of a tow company on that side of the mountains that could come grab me. To my surprise and infinite gratitude, Ken instead offered to come pick me up himself with his nice enclosed trailer.

“It’ll be about five hours ‘til I can get there since I’m up in Sacramento and will need to run past Modesto to get the trailer before heading your way,” he cautioned.

Yes, I am so lucky that I have friends who are willing to take off work and drive five hours to come pick me and my silly vehicle up from the top of Tioga Pass in the middle of nowhere. Be jealous.

I really didn’t want Ken to have to drive five hours to me. So I figured I would double down trying to get Jane started and make her stay started. Since there’s no cell service in Yosemite, I told Ken that I would just call him as soon as I got into service, and that if he didn’t hear from me, he should assume that I’m still at the top of the pass. He agreed and started heading towards me, and I returned to Jane with more than a bit of extra fire in my eyes. I was not going to make that man drive five hours, willing or not!

Well, I may not have been smart enough to fix this issue when it first cropped up, but I do occasionally have good ideas and I can occasionally work through things logically. I got to thinking, which is dangerous, but eventually concluded that part of my issue with getting Jane started was the high altitude and thinner air, which meant that the engine needed to spin over more times before it would start. Because part of the gear that interfaces with the starter was, by my estimates, completely gone, the engine kept cranking over to that point and getting stuck again, leading to a no-start situation. So I pulled the air conditioning belt off of the car, figuring that a lower load on the motor would probably help it start more easily and stay started. Who needs AC anyways??

Then I got out my ratchet and turned the motor over by hand like Henry Ford, periodically trying to start the car. After quite a lot of swearing and bleeding pretty profusely on the crank pulley (hand slipped and I lost a chunk of it to some unknown sharp part elsewhere on the motor), Jane started up! And miracle upon miracles, she stayed started with no trouble. Turns out removing that AC belt was just the trick. Well, that, and probably also the sacrificial blood.

I hopped in and hauled ass up and over the pass before Jane could change her mind, hanging the Parks pass out the window as I roared past the ranger station. The rangers cheered for me and waved me past the line, and then I was out on the other side. From here, it didn’t matter if Jane died entirely – coming down from Tioga Pass gives you about an hour of coasting time before you need to put the gas on again. But of course Jane was happy as a clam once more, and so we scooted through the park in good time.

I had planned on spending the day in Yosemite visiting waterfalls. Last time I was here back in 2014, the waterfalls were almost all dried up due to the drought, but this year they were running at historically high levels so I was excited to see them in their full splendor. But Jane took precedence and I knew that I had to get to Ken’s house to get that starting issue taken care of. Bummer.

As I zoomed down towards the valley, I noticed an unexpected increasing haziness. By the time I got to the main valley, I felt as if I was driving back in Canada again. Smoke lay heavy across the boughs of the trees, obscuring almost everything. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad – clearly, it would not have been a good day to go hike waterfalls anyways. I was later informed that crews were fighting three forest fires in Yosemite that day.


I called Ken from outside the park in Groveland. He was extremely surprised to find that I had gotten so far, and so opted to not go any further, instead waiting for me in the next town over from Modesto. So Jane and I scooted on.

Eventually I saw his truck and trailer at the edge of town and pulled up to say hello, leaving Jane running. The Central Valley is pretty flat, you know, and push starting is harder here! It was beyond good to see a friendly face. Ken owns a couple Mustangs and is one of my friends from “the California crew”, as I call them. He hadn’t made it up to Reno for Hot August Nights but I had actually seen him back in June when I stayed at his house during American Graffiti Festival. He and his wife, Gayle, are wonderful people and I always enjoy seeing them (even when I don’t need someone to help me fix my car…).

We scooted back to Modesto and had Jane stuffed in his shop by 3 PM. Ken gave me the number of the local hot rod shop and I called them to make sure they would have my parts in stock. Then I hung up and Ken and I dug into Jane.

Now, the problem with this whole issue is that the flywheel ring gear – which is the part attached to the motor that interfaces with the starter to start the car – can only be accessed by pulling the transmission and engine apart, since it’s sandwiched between the two. So it’s not a particularly easy job in the grand scheme of things… or it wouldn’t be, if I wasn’t 100% familiar with my car or if we weren’t two hot rodders.

Within an hour, we had the transmission out on the floor and the flywheel lying next to it.
Motivation is an incredible thing.

It was immediately apparent why I had been having so many starting issues. Almost every single tooth on the ring gear had been worn down by at least half, if not more, of its width. As every mechanic says: “well, there’s your problem.”


I laughed, of course. Sometimes that's all you can do, especially when you succeed at destroying a part so thoroughly that it's comical. The good news is that this flywheel is actually 54 years old, by the date code, and has never been messed with in its life. 54 years is a pretty long time for something to last, if you ask me. Now, I wish that I could have killed this gear at a time that wasn’t in the middle of a road trip at the top of Tioga Pass, but hey, that’s what I get for ignoring Jane. Never ignore Jane.

We concluded that I would just need a new ring gear – the flywheel itself appears good to go for another few decades – so I called back with the shop and ordered it for the next morning. Then Ken and I set about cleaning up the blood (his this time, not mine) and grease and transmission fluid. I also took the opportunity to also do a general check-up on the rest of Jane’s undercarriage. Unsurprisingly, almost everything was leaking to some degree or another, though nothing appeared to be major. I proclaimed her “right as rain” and we went inside to have some pizza.

That’s one of the best things about my “Mustang friends”, if you’d like to call them that. I’ve probably only seen Ken and Gayle a cumulative 4 or 5 days of my entire life. But that has never stopped them from inviting me into their home like one of their own. It’s always just felt like I’ve known them my entire life, like it’s the most natural thing in the world to suddenly show up at their house and know that they’ll feed me and give me a place to stay and help me fix my car. And that is just totally insane. Knowing that there are people like this in the world makes me believe in humanity as a whole. That there are people this genuinely good and generous – and that I’ve run into a whole slew of them, actually - must mean that there’s hope for us all.

After dinner we called our friend John, who also lives in Modesto, and he came over to hang out for a while as well. I had seen him up in Reno but hadn’t expected to see him again until next year, so that was great fun. It seemed so normal, hanging out in the garage in Modesto shooting the breeze with friends, that it almost seemed that I had taken this little detour on purpose. Maybe, subconsciously, I wanted some more time with friends I see all too rarely. Maybe Jane just wanted to go have a little visit. Or maybe this was really just all driven by me making the best of Jane throwing a bit of a tantrum.

I spent the night snug as a bug in their guest bedroom, dreaming sweet dreams in which Jane had quit being silly and was instead back to cruising the open roads without complaint. In the morning we ran the flywheel out to the shop to have them put a new ring gear on it.

“This thing’s over 50 years old!” one of the guys at the shop said.
“Yeah I know but it looks like it’s in good shape so I think I’ll keep it,” I said, feeling somewhat superstitious. Jane usually kills new parts I put on her, so I usually like to repair the old stuff if possible.

The old timer of the shop meandered over to our discussion and inspected the flywheel himself, then declared it good for use. So, victorious, I paid my $35 for a new ring gear and left them to put it on. The nice thing about vintage cars is that parts are cheap, when you can find them. And labor is free, when you've got enough beer and pizza and really good friends!

While we waited for the flywheel to be fixed, Ken and I decided we’d put a new thermostat in Jane since the old one had been occasionally acting up and not opening correctly (which may have contributed to my miserable first day experience at the beginning of the trip). We didn’t really have anything better to do, so might as well mess with the car. Jane was surprisingly lenient and required blood from neither of us for a successful installation.

We finished putting her all back together - flywheel and all - around 3 PM. Here’s a picture of what the new ring gear looks like, for comparison with the old one. I kept the old one to put on my Wall of Shame, of course.
Wow, look at those teeth! So nice and sharp.

At that point Ken and Gayle figured that I wouldn’t have enough time to get out to my next destination, Kings Canyon, without having to fight for a campsite. So they invited me to stay another night, and I gratefully accepted, wondering how I would make it up to them. I’ve concluded that I’ll just have to pay it forward someday, since I know they would never accept any kind of gift or payment from them for their help.

And that’s where we’re at now – I’m with my friends in the house, Jane’s in the garage with a couple other Mustangs, and life is good. Tomorrow, we’ll head out back into the great unknown and then I REALLY won’t talk to anyone for a few days. Until then… Kelly signing out.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Back in the slow lane


Regrettably, Jane and I’s time in Reno has come to an end. Hot August Nights drew to a close on Sunday morning with a strong whiff of hydrocarbons and a distant rumble of exhaust. As the day dawned, thousands of classic cars made a mass exodus from Reno, radiating out from the city in every direction towards an inconceivable number of destinations. These incredible remnants of past times faded back into the desert, eventually seeming to be nothing more than mirages, just wishful thinking in the mind of a suddenly lonely gearhead. It’s always sad seeing cars go. As all of that wonderful chrome and the flashy paint jobs and the rusty road warriors depart, I can’t help but think of the drivers. I’ve made so many friends, and it’s sad to think that I’ll have to wait another year – or more – to see them. Some of them I’ll never see again. But that’s life, I guess.

I strive to live my life to its fullest, to make each day – even the mundane days - vibrant and beautiful and full of adventure. It’s important to me to be able to share that with as many people as I can. By the very nature of my hobbies, many of my friends are people that I’ll only really see a few times in my lifetime. So I make it count when I do get to see them. The same applies for any new person I meet. Hot August Nights is one of those events where I really get to be the best that I can be, and I think that almost everyone attending likely feels the same way. After so much joy and enthusiasm shared among so many people, one can’t help but feel a little deflated afterwards. Fortunately, I have Jane to buoy me up. It’s hard to feel downtrodden when you’ve got thousands of miles left on an awesome road trip with a car like Jane.

The Reno fire department takes their 1929 firetruck home, complete with attached laddertruck. It is highly visible even from far away!

The laddertruck extension is so long that it needs a guy in back with a steering wheel so the whole thing can actually go around corners. How does the guy in back communicate with the guy up front? Mostly pointing and waving, apparently.

And so, after watching cars rumble out of town for a while, Jane and I headed south towards Mono Lake. More adventures awaited, and all we had to do was keep our noses pointed at the horizon.

Well, that, and fill up on gas. I had succeeded in not burning too much of it in the week of shenanigans, but still needed a stop at the gas station on the way out of town. And that’s when Jane started getting up to no good again.

Now, I was 100% expecting this. Historically speaking, Jane has always been on her best behavior when in the company of other classic cars, and has always been on her worst behavior directly following their departure. I’ve gotten all kinds of interesting things, from heater hoses leaking onto passengers’ feet to a suddenly slipping clutch disc. Last year when leaving Reno, I stopped at the gas station and then got to spend 10 minutes trying to fire her back up for reasons that still remain a mystery. This year, Jane decided that a reprisal of the starter’s Mt. Rainier performance was in order.

So I sat there at the gas station, growling back at the starter as it howled at me and made all kinds of terrible noises. Eventually I got out, put her in gear, and spent a bit rocking her back and forth until she rolled forward enough to turn the engine over a bit – and then she cranked right up, and off we went. Hmmmmm.

As I left town, dust rising in a cloud to obscure the way back, I thought about that a bit. Back at Mt. Rainier, Don had told me that the flywheel was really not in great shape, and that probably I should think about replacing it as the new starter would really only be a band-aid fix. And here I was, driving away after spending a full week fooling around with thousands of people who had the knowledge and ability to help me swap the parts out. Driving away from the one town that would be guaranteed to have all of the necessary parts to fix the problem.  Driving away from safety and out into the wilderness. It was at this point that I began to realize that maybe I’m not the brightest crayon in the box.

I am, however, possibly the bravest crayon. Or at least the stupidest.

So I kept motoring on, stopping once more for gas before hitting Mono Lake (and yes, I had to push start my own car at that gas station too). 

At Mono Lake, I met back up with my Dad and we explored the area together while I steadfastly ignored the starter issue. Mono Lake is a really peculiar lake – it’s saline (salty)! Several freshwater streams flow into it, and nothing flows out. So how is it that it’s saline? Well, dissolved salts are naturally present at low concentrations in the runoff and streams feeding this lake. Evaporation removes water from the lake, but there is nowhere for the salt to go (because there is no stream outlet), so the lake’s salinity increases. Pretty neat stuff!

This odd lake is host to a couple of very specialized animals: brine shrimp and alkali flies. The brine shrimp here number in the trillions and are an important food source for migratory birds. There are so many shrimp that scooping up a small handful of water at the edge of the lake will net you at least 5. It’s fascinating and kind of disgusting at the same time. Even more disgusting (and also still fascinating) are the alkali flies, which hang out on the shoreline and encase themselves in air bubbles to graze underwater. They don’t bite or bother humans at all, being more interested in what’s below the lake surface, but it is pretty gross seeing millions of them collected along the water’s edge. Here’s a picture, so you can go “Eww” too:

But wait, there’s more! I haven’t even gotten to Mono Lake’s most famous and peculiar features yet! But I’m getting to them now. Mono Lake is best known for its tufas, which are knobby limestone towers that jut up into the water column, rising up out of the water in shallow areas where lake level has dropped through time.

These tufas are created by calcium-rich underwater springs that expel out into the lake from the lakebed. As the calcium-rich waters contact the saline carbonate-rich lake waters, calcium carbonate (limestone) precipitates out. Over time, towers of limestone build where the springs flow. Think of it as a kind of upside-down underwater stalactite! Super cool.

Dad and I wandered around these for a while, but the average person can only look at limestone for so long (I’m a geologist specializing in carbonates (limestone), so I can look at these all day… but hey, I recognize that most people are not as silly as me). So we headed south into Lee Vining for one last dinner together before parting ways. We chose the Tioga Gas Mart, home of Whoa Nellie Deli, a critically acclaimed restaurant that for some reason resides in a small town inside a gas station. No complaints here, though – the food was EXCELLENT. I had the meatloaf.

And so concluded my last day in human company for a while. Jane remains grumpy, and I remain ostrich-like in my desire to bury my head in the sand and ignore the grumpiness. Tomorrow, I’ll head west through Yosemite National Park and my dad will head south to the eastern Sierra Nevadas for some solo traveling and photography of his own. Until then… Kelly signing out.