Arm Chair Road Trip Day 41: Tuolumne to Tahoe

February 28, 2021 — 1 Comment

tunnel view - pln

Our last day in Yosemite started out with bang. After spending weeks together in a car, in hotels, essentially attached at the hip — the stress finally crossed the threshold of human endurance. 

I’d been unsure about how to get to our stopover in Lake Tahoe that night: it’s not like there are tons of highways through the Sierras. I could drop back down into the Central Valley and take Rte 80 to Tahoe — a familiar ski trip route. I’d also considered stopping to see a friend in Grass Valley in the foothills. Both routes meant heading west to go east. In the end, we had to return to Yosemite Valley so Mtuseni could get souvenirs… probably the most meandering, inefficient way to get to Tahoe.

The dilemma over travel routes, the smoky-hazy Yosemite skies, the disappointment of the Bay Area, and general exhaustion had all coalesced into a crummy mood to start the day. So five minutes on the Wawona Road back to the valley, when Mtuseni made a snarky comment about I-can’t-remember-what… I Lost My Shit. We fought like we’ve never fought in a ten years together, screaming at the top of our lungs nonstop, all the way to the tunnel view. It was intense. Distressing. But in the end, it changed everything.

Read my New York Times essay about our brawl in Yosemite.

When we arrived at the tunnel view — for what I knew would be the last time — I was seething. We got out of the car and went in separate directions to get photos. Ironically, the smoke had cleared significantly; finally the full valley could be seen in all its glory. While the smoke was gone, the air between us was thick — but we managed to come together for a photo. 

After buying t-shirts in chilly silence, I headed toward the route to the northern gate, where we first entered the park. I felt a little sad; who knew when I’d return? Not wanting it to end, I pulled over for a last glimpse of El Cap. Mtuseni and I lay in the meadow at the base, pointing out climbers splayed all across the granite wall. We hoped to see three of them reach the top, but they took a break about twenty yards from the rim. Slackers! 


merced cathedral

My peaceful oasis along the Merced River between El Cap and Cathedral Rocks.


We stayed for about two hours — and the tension between us faded away. I took Mtuseni to the small beach along the Merced that I’d discovered while he was hiking the Four Mile Trail yesterday, and he understood that small things in Yosemite can be just as impressive as the monumental stuff. Finally, it was time to go. I knew there was a long drive ahead, and we’d stayed much longer than planned.

I’d set our location in the GPS and knew we’d be shooting directly east across the Sierras, but I didn’t look closely. Heading back toward the north gate, the GPS told me to take a right turn — and it all made sense. We would take the Tioga Road  through Tuolumne Meadows. I’d only been up there once, with a childhood friend in the mid-90s. It was a great trip.


Tuolumne Dan

Tuolumne Meadows with my late friend Dan in October ’94. Best pals since second grade. Miss you, buddy.


Most visitors to Yosemite, myself included, tend to stick around the valley. But the Tioga Road is stunning. You climb above the valley and come to a sweeping expanse of rock smoothed by glaciers and studded with boulders tossed there haphazardly thousands of years ago — with a backside view of the curving hump of Half Dome.

Beyond that, the serene grassy plain of Tuolumne Meadows. It reminded me of the caldera we saw in Los Alamos, only smaller. And colder.

After the meadow is the pristine crystal beauty of Tenaya Lake. Taken together, you get an entirely different experience of Yosemite on this route.


mtu Tenaya

Tenaya Lake is like a sapphire along the northern route through Yosemite Park.


On my previous trip, my friend and I turned around at the lake to head back to San Francisco. But Mtuseni and I followed the road all the way to the east gate of the park. I’d never thought about Yosemite having an eastern entry point! 

The last section of the Tioga is a steep and winding downhill route with stunning mountain views. It was hard to take it all in while keeping my eye on the road. At one point I noticed some large white patches on a mountain. Mtuseni insisted they were glare from the sun, but I knew different. When we got closer it became clear what they were, and Mtuseni got excited — it was his first glimpse of snow!


busters mkt

After the majesty of Yosemite, the banal reality of western Nevada. Buster’s wasn’t open. I don’t think it has been for a while.


After descending the Sierras, we drove for a while through dull flatland in Nevada. Because he slept through the drive down the San Gabriel mountains into Pasadena, Mtuseni didn’t get a “Welcome to California” photo — the gem in any American road tripper’s collection. He was happy to grab one at the Nevada crossing. 


Cal sign

One more for the collection! He lucked out after sleeping through our entry into California from Arizona.


Having been to Lake Tahoe on past ski trips, I knew it was in the mountains. But we were still in the Nevada lowlands. I couldn’t figure it out. Suddenly, we turned off into a small subdivision — with a mountain dead in front of us. Sure enough, the road headed straight up in an endless series of long switchbacks. We must have climbed 3,000 feet in ten minutes! It was wild to look down and see the small town we’d just left — now just a scattering of tiny lights in the darkening dusk. It felt like taking off in a plane.

After checking into the hotel, we headed out for a quick dinner. It was probably in the low 40s, the coldest temps we’d hit yet. The native New Englander in me was happy to have that first feel of cold fall air. Mtuseni, the South African, was not enjoying it. Lightweight!


tunnel view - pair

Finally a pic with a clear view of Half Dome! We managed to smile after having spent a half hour arguing in the car.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Arm Chair Road Trip Days 42 + 43: Waterfalls and Watering Holes « Long-Distance Dad - March 7, 2021

    […] Mtuseni, who’s generally pretty quiet, opened up about his life like never before. After our massive argument in Yosemite the day before, he let everything spill out, nonstop, for almost two hours. He was like an oil […]


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