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Life and Times of an itinerant slacker in Sacramento. Thrills, Spills Galore coming soon. Not to mention lots of opinions.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Yosemite Confidential - Beyond the Vistas

This posting is about the grimy details of our trip to Yosemite. Having never gotten our act together to do all the crazy booking ahead you need to do if you want to go on your own. It turned out taking the guided hiking trip was the thing to do. We never would have done so much and enjoyed it like we did if we had gone on our own. No pictures, because I really don't do the travel critic-writer thing.

We booked with New England Hiking Holidays, a company we've used before, for trips to Colorado and New Hampshire. Beyond marketing and booking the trip, everything was operated by Tahoe Trips and Trails. I thought these package trips worked out to be a fair deal. It was worth the extra price. Going on our own for the first time, we probably would have done about half as much, since navigating Terra incognito always eats up a lot of time. In any event, there is no cheap and easy way to do Yosemite. Staying in a room in or near the park costs from about $250 to $1,200 per night in season, and dinners out are $30 to $60. You probably could get car camping or housekeeping tent-cabins I the park for around $100 per night. I've always found managing the campsite takes a lot of time and we end up doing less when we camp. For me, this is a time to let a little loose and go “first class”. Every trip I have taken with New England Hiking Holidays has been money well spent.

The total driving time was 4 hours and 15 minutes, including an efficient yet relaxed lunch at a great Mexican restaurant in Merced. Driving time alone was about three and three quarter hours.

We ate at La Fiesta Mexicana (pronounced La Feeyesta Mayhicana). This place was far better than any Mexican restaurant I've ever eaten at in Sacramento. That is not a great prize, but this place was beyond good by any standard. Breakfast was still available (we're talking heuvos, compadres), so I had fried eggs with Chile verde, beans, and delicious homemade tortillas. They offered a choice of corn or flour tortillas, of course I chose the corn. It was a real surprise to see hot, freshly grilled tortillas. There is nothing as uninspiring as a mediocre tortilla, and no simple food as spirit-lifting as a well-made fresh tortilla.

The chile verde was perfect, the sauce fragrant with lime and chile. flavors covering the eggs. A few chunks of tender pork, stewed in the salsa verde, sat atop the mess. There was no cheese involved in the dish. It is great to be able to enjoy a Mexican restaurant plated meal plate without having to peel back greasy a greasy skin of, flavorless cheese. La Fiesta Mexicana did it all right. Plus, the young hostess had the most awesome bouffant type up do I've seen since LT Ryker of the Starship Enterprise. All this and mariachis at Sunday noon.

The first two hours to Merced was a straight shot down highway 99, which gos through a line of crummy cities in the central valley. After leaving Suburban Elk Grove HW 99 graces Lodi, Stockton, French Camp, Turlock, Modesto and Merced. These are not the most visually attractive cities in the world, but Modesto did look like it had some nice trees. Modesto and American Graffiti are linked in my mind for eternity.

In Merced, we turned East on HW 140 to cross the eastern edge of the Central Valley and climb into the Sierras. We turned on HW 49 and then HW41 to get to Tenaya Lodge just outside the Yosemite Park South entrance, which is more commonly known as the Wawona entrance.

Tenaya Lodge seemed like a nice place although it was a bit stuffy in a business meeting destination hotel kind of way. The location in the town of Fish camp is so far out of the way that I can't imagine anyone going through the time and expense to have a business meeting here. The place is very nice, but they did one thing that peeved me. They claim to offer free wifi. It's free if you want to look at their website. Anything else is $9.99 a day. Seems to me free wifi should be free wifi. No need to be ashamed about asking people to pay for a service. Free wifi but not internet is a little too cute for my tastes.

A while back, I heard a report on an NPR business show (I think it was Marketplace) that discussed disappointing results in selling wifi services to captive audiences. When people attach to the free network, and are asked to pay for internet access (get it, the wifi is free but, heehee, you pay to access the internet) they aren't buying. Even airlines must someday learn the lesson that people have a limit to how much chiseling they can bear.

Since we left early, we arrived a the lodge around 2:00 PM. We explored the property since we had a few hours to kill before. The lobby was large, clubby, and full of taxidermy. The rooms were nice, although we had to switch rooms since the door lock on the first room refused to lock. Everyone was very helpful, making it easy to change rooms.

The Package Tour officially began at about 6:00 PM, after the tour guides arrived with the guests they had picked up at the Merced airport. We and one other couple drove ourselves, since parking in Merced and getting picked up would have been inconvenient and not much less driving for us.

Our was meeting brief. We met the other hikers and the guides, filled out forms, heard a quick description of the tour. We were already busy talking with some of the other hikers before the guides arrived. We were fortunate that everyone in our party was nice and pleasant.

We had three guides, the normal staff of two guides and a third guide who was training either to be a guide or to be whatever the internet-age reincarnation of what we once called the travel agent. All the guides were nice. CJ was a fortyish guy well versed in the geography and geology of the Sierras, and a passion fro extreme mountain sports. He was able to deal with this herd of over age fifty hikers well He knew some jugglers I once knew and he had recently attended the inexplicable Burning Man. Brooke was a bit more talkative and full of blonde jokes. Brooke took charge of botany interpretation,; I admit most of the taxonomy went in one of my ears and out the other. Both Brooke and CJ looked like outdoor gear catalog models. Both Brooke and Cj work in alternative therapies. Brooke does Reiki and some other loosely defined touch-related therapies, and CJ does hypnotherapy.

Two of our fellow hikers were female Doctors, one a prim New Englander, schooled at Mount Holyoke and Harvard Medical School, and the other was a brash New Yorker. I was happy that we never had any exchanged accusations of quackery, or at least none that I heard. There were a few close calls.

The guides drove us about 20 minutes south for dinner at the The Narrow Gauge Inn. This is a pretty well respected restaurant in a complex that I guess has a narrow gauge railroad. It was too dark to see enough outside to be able to tell. The restaurant's interior was major upscale mountain kitsch, paneling, moose heads and all the rest. The food was good. We all sat at one big table, about eight guests and three guides (two guides and a guide in training). Each place had a menu card. Almost everyone chose the salmon, which was good. Everything else involved either beef or cream sauce, so my hand was a little forced. They had an excellent assortment of desserts. I had a piece of very light and fluffy cheesecake. It was good. Because of unexpected flight delays, the dinner was pretty late, so I didn't sleep well. It turned out that the dinners were the most physically challenging aspect of the trip for me.

The Tenaya has a great breakfast buffet. I had oatmeal with a little trail mix, some dried fruit and sausage. This was the second best breakfast sausage I've had. It had a real skin that “popped” when at the bite , and it was peppery and slightly juicy. The best sausage ever was at The American Club in Koehler near Sheboygan..

After two days, we are staying at the Yosemite Lodge, which is a bit run down but comfortable place to stay in Yosemite Valley. The restaurant at Yosemite lodge was pretty good. They had a pink-fleshed trout that was pretty light as restaurant dinners go and tasty. The room was dark, but it had an old-style mountain resort style that fit with its environment.

We ate dinner at the Wawona Lodge, I don't know why every old posh park hotel makes me think about The Shining.

The next morning, we started with an early breakfast, leaving the Lodge at 7:00 to drive about a mile to Curry Village, which is a complex of several campgrounds, some with permanent hard-floored tent structures, some with trailer hookups, and some for tent campers. It is a huge complex. Brooke had previously told me I would like the atmosphere. She was right. Curry Village has a gigantic buffet place where we had a great breakfast. There were a lot of kids around, which is something I hadn't seen at the lodges. I imagine the cost of visiting Yosemite keeps many young families away.

We shared a table with a tall, quiet and wiry man from Germany who was spending today preparing to begin an ascent of El Capitan tomorrow. He expected his group's ascent to take four days. That means three nights sleeping on the side of a nearly mile high vertical rock wall, not to mention carrying your wastes with you in a bag suspended from your waist by a very long rope.. He ate like he was preparing for a marathon. He reminded me of a younger Werner Herzog. I imagine the rock face will scream in painful angst.

Our last night featured an extra special dinner at the ultra posh Ahwahnee. We all had to bring special cloths to comply with the dining room's dress code. The lounges were classic 1920's park hotel style, reminiscent of The Shining. The dining room looked like a giant version of a Saxon Mead hall, which was fitting, since the otherwise dainty Ivy League doctor studied medieval British literature as an undergraduate. We ate dinner in fine restaurants throughout the trip. Funny that this was the one place where service was a problem. The dinners at the Mountain Room were excellent as well. The had the pink fleshed trout and it was wonderful again.

I approve of this trip.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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