Monday, February 27, 2012

Death Valley Days—A Hectic Last Morning in the Park

The mountains were sheathed in mist and there were clouds in the distant sky as we got an early morning’s start from our motel in Lone Pine, having had leftovers from the previous day’s breakfast in our motel room so that we could get going before the Alabama Hills restaurant opened at 7 AM.

After a brief stop at the visitor’s center at Furnace Creek so that we could pay for our days in the park — amazing that one of us should be old enough to qualify for the lifetime senior rate – we arrived at Golden Canyon shortly after 9 AM for a morning’s walk.  Again, the canyon walls were relatively close near the entrance, then they opened up as we walked further in.

Many of the walls were filled with tiny crystals, broken off near tourist level, but visible just above the level where most tourists could reach up to touch them (photo below).
We hiked beyond Golden Canyon, past the Red Cathedral overhead, 

having in mind to hike up to Zabriskie Point for what promised to be stunning views.  As we got higher, we could look back over Golden Canyon and across Death Valley to the Telescope Peak / Wildrose Peak area where we had been hiking the previous day.

But again, my lack of exercise for the past month caught up to me, and the going was slow.   We stopped at the Manly Beacon, where we traded photos with another hiking couple.  Nancy assumed that its name was an oblique reference to its shape, but in fact we learned later that it is named for an historic figure who helped lead some Forty Niners away from certain death in the valley. 

Time was growing short for us to get back to the family birthday party that was our reason for coming west, but we wanted to see the Artists Drive, a one-way drive where the rocks were brilliantly multi-colored.

So we headed back down to the parking lot, where we looked across the valley to the Wildrose Peak area in the Panamint Range:

On Artist Drive, we saw black/browns and whites as we drove in from the main road, 

then reds, greens and blues as we got further in; there was a large basin of mostly dry lake bed visible in the distance.

As we walked back to the car, we could see Telescope and Wildrose Peaks across Death Valley

Another mile up the road was Artists Palette, a particularly intense area of multi hued rocks

As we drove along, I was especially impressed by the greens and blues among the rocks

Finally, we got back to the road, and headed toward the south end of the valley, then out to the main highways. We vowed not to stop, because it we were already going to be late for the family gathering.  But we had no choice but to slow to a crawl, because as we passed the Coyote Spring, we were approached by a pair of beggars; we did not intend to feed them, but we also didn’t want to run them over.

Thus ended our Death Valley vacation, as we drove across the Black Mountains and the Greenwater Range -- more pretty countryside -- into Shoshone, then down to Baker and back to LA on I-15.  The time was too short, but it was worth the trip.

Proud Bird -- A Lavish Brunch near LAX, but with a Deceptive Price

The day of our early afternoon flight home from our trip to Los Angeles for a family party combined with a trip to Death Valley, we met up with Ron Luckerman, a Reed College classmate whom I had not seen, so far as I can recall, since being graduated in 1973.  We wanted to eat near Los Angeles International Airport so we wouldn’t have to worry about driving a distance after our meal, so he made a couple of recommendations, and we chose (OK, it was my choice) the champagne brunch at the Proud Bird URL. The web site advertised a slightly lower price ($26.95) for brunch diners who arrived before 10, and that suited us fine given our flight time.  Ron reported that he could not make a reservation before 10:30, but that he was told that if we showed up early they would try to seat us.  And, in fact, there was no problem getting in, because there were still scores of free tables when we arrived a bit after 9:30.  

The place was a gas, with about a dozen 30's and 40's airplanes parked outside the restaurant, and hundred of vintage photographs of famous aviators and other figures from aviation history.  

The quality and quantity of the food was excellent, with dozens of fish, vegetable and meat dishes sitting in steam table fashion, plus stations for freshly prepared omelets, pasta, tacos/tortillas, waffles and bananas foster; then a table full of fresh fruit and other item to dip into a chocolate fountain, and huge spreads of baked desserts and pastry, not to speak of cold and hot drinks including cappuccino.  Being careful not to stuff myself, I was unable to try more than 20% to 25% of the available items, but I was still close to stated when we left.

I recommend this brunch, but there was one aspect of their pricing that bothered me as a consumer. In addition to the advertised price, we were charged a 15% premium which, the restaurant explained, was charged not as a gratuity, but to comply with a Los Angeles city ordinance requiring all tenants of the airport authority to pay a living wage of $15 per hour to the staff.   A slip that came with the bill, and a footnote on the check, stressed that the 15% would not be paid to the staff as a tip, but was being imposed “instead of a price increase”; the legends urged customers to tip generously.

I complained strenuously, and was told that the policy was posted near the front door (I had not seen that), and was explained on the restaurant’ web site. When I continued to object, the manager took it off my bill.  So this is something a customer should push for.

I went back to look at their web site.  In fact, there is no note about the premium on the page listing the prices for their brunch and the disclosure on the page about their menus mentions a "15% service charge" without disclosing that it is simply a premium on their price, not an automatic tip for staff.

It is as if, being part of the airport operation, this restaurant has adopted the deceptive practice of many airlines which advertise low prices that they achieve by concealing takeoff taxes and fuel surcharges and other fees.  But a new federal rule forbids airlines and discount travel sites to advertise fares that exclude such fees, and the same truth-in-advertising should apply here.  Great to pay your staff a living wage, including health insurance, but the way you make the money to pay a living wage is through your advertised prices, not by hidden fees that are advertised only with asterisks -- and deceptively advertised, at that.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Death Valley Days -- A Full Day in Death Valley National Park

After an early breakfast near our motel in Lone Pine, we drove nearly two hours to reach our major hike of the day. As we came down out of the Inyo Mountains, we stopped off at Father Crowley Overlook Point we got our first look at the Panamint Valley (and the Panamint Range beyond) down a broad canyon
Then another long drive took us down into the Panamint Valley and across to the foothills of the Panamint Range.  Our plan was to head for Wildrose Peak, which was recommended as a possible mountain hike until Telescope Peak is free of snow; at its 11000 foot elevation, that mountain is usually not hikeable until May.
We paused at the trailhead to look at a set of eight kilns for making charcoal for use in a 19th century mine

then hiked upward. Sadly, although our destination was clear of snow, much of the trail at the lower elevations was covered with snow, which had iced up from being crossed by hikers on other days. It made the hike up tough going.

More than that, I found myself out of breath from a combination of the elevation and being out of shape, having just recovered from a broken foot.  I felt lucky to have recovered in time for our desert vacation; but in the end, a few weeks of regular soccer and just plain walking to and from work every day would have left me better prepared for this hike. 

As we hiked upward, we looked over toward Telescope Peak, which although not completely covered with snow after a relatively dry winter, was still showing a fair amount of snow on the ground between the trees.

As we reached the crest of the first set of ridges, we took in the marvelous views down into Death Valley and across to the Amargosa Range,

and back across Panamint Valley with the Sierra Nevadas in the distance.

We stopped at a saddle maybe 500 to 700 feet of elevation short of our destination, which was sufficiently snow-free that we could have made it had we been willing to spend our entire day on this hike.

But we wanted to see other sights as well, so we stopped for a nice midday snack of fruit, nuts, cheese cookies left over from our Valentine’s Day open house; the view from our perch was nice.

Next, we drove across the Panamint Range through Emigrant Canyon

to reach our next destination: Mosaic Canyon, just before the small village of Stovepipe Wells.
This began as a narrow canyon, with the walls so close that we could barely walk through.

But after the first several hundred yards, the canyon broadened and we were able to sit down for a lunch of leftovers from our Thursday lunch and dinner, without having to worry about blocking the way of other tourists. 

Then we walked another mile up the canyon, up a series of dry waterfalls until we found our way blocked by a high falls.

We could have taken a route around to the left, but the shadows were already gathering on the canyon walls,

and we wanted to move onto to the spot we had selected for watching the sunset.

As we drove back to the valley from Mosaic Canyon, we could see that destination – the Mesquite Flats sand dunes

This sunset experience had been recommended by Eric Goldman, a colleague whose experiences in Death Valley a dozen years earlier had formed one of my basic guides in planning this vacation.   (The AAA Death Valley Guide Map was also invaluable).  As we drove up, there were about a dozen other cars in the parking lot, but the dunes were extensive enough that we found a set of dunes for ourselves,

and felt pretty much out on our own as the sunset grew brilliant, and the dusk gathered. 

We stayed until the light was gone, and only the fairly new moon and a couple of planets were visible in the sky.

We drove back into Stovepipe Wells and had an adequate dinner at the Toll Road Restaurant  in the hotel complex.  The ancho flavored shrimp with linguine was tasty; there weren’t many shrimp, but the dish featured a terrific medley of vegetables (spinach, cherry tomatoes, and peppers) and again the portions were too large to finish at dinner; the leftovers made a great lunch the next day as we began our drive back to Los Angeles.

It was pitch black as we drove back toward Lone Pine – much of the way was straight, but the twisty roads in some sections seemed more sinister knowing how sheer some of the dropoffs were. We stopped again at the Father Crowley Overlook, this time to look up at the sky. The sky was clear and there wasn’t any ground light for miles around.  The sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way as full as we had ever seen it. There were so many stars visible in the sky that we couldn’t find many of the familiar constellations.  We gazed for several minutes, enjoying the stillness, before we got back into the car to drive back to our motel in Lone Pine.