Monday, August 29, 2011

Lake Tahoe

I wonder if it's possible to appreciate beauty in a vacuum, without reference to other things one has seen or read or heard. I imagine that it is, in large part because of scenery like that around Lake Tahoe. It seems to me that the splendors of Lake Tahoe would be perceived as gorgeous by everyone, no matter his or her frame of reference, experience or aesthetic preferences.

Huge (192 square miles), deep (at 1,645 feet deep, the second deepest lake in North America), high (surface elev. 6,229 feet), with cobalt blue water of extraordinary clarity (it's said that a white dinner plate at a depth of 75 feet would be clearly visible; I don't know if that's true since we didn't toss one in to find out, but glacial lakes are always astonishingly pure) and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Lake Tahoe is quite an eyeful. Glacially carved Alpine scenery is my favorite: its pristine magnitude is all at once majestic, serene, spectacular, evocative, and profound. There is no better example than Alaska, and the Lake Tahoe area is reminiscent of our 49th state, although on a far smaller scale (and with a lot more sunshine).

In fact, our first impressions of Lake Tahoe were somewhat spoiled by our memories of Alaska. It was rather like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time: the small, dark painting tucked away in a corner of the Louvre was underwhelming until we got ourselves intellectually revved up over it and examined it more carefully. Similarly, Lake Tahoe struck us primarily as not-Alaska until we adjusted our brains and used our eyes to take in what it was, rather than what it wasn't.

Don't miss the moon in this last picture. (Click on the pic to make it bigger.) These photos are all from the area around Emerald Bay. For some reason, I didn't take pictures of the craggy mountains surrounding the lake this time; if you'd like to see some of those in a different glacially created setting, click here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Unexpected Passion

No, that's not the title of a bad romance novel (although, plainly, it could be). Instead, it's meant to reflect the surprise I feel at having developed a little passion for hiking. When I first realized hiking was just walking with a fancy name, I was disappointed. But then I tried it to impress my daughter and discovered it could be delightful. Basically, it's walking amid great scenery with the addition of cool gear. What's not to like?

This year, I've gone from someone who disliked walking from the house to the garage to someone who can hike for up to six miles before I get tired and start visualizing Diet Cokes and comfy sofas. I figure that's really the same as being able to walk indefinitely on level ground at reasonable altitudes inasmuch as nearly all my hikes have been hilly and at high-ish altitudes - from the 2500 feet above sea level where I live to as high as 9500 feet. (Yes, that high-altitude hike was really hard; my lungs felt like they were gathering themselves up in preparation for exploding right out of my chest.) The two June hikes I enjoyed at just above sea level in Chicago were the easiest I've done - and I didn't even have SmartWool socks or hiking poles at the time.

There are only two things I don't like about these treks. One is loose-rock terrain that requires one to emulate a mountain goat, a difficult feat I don't handle well, probably because I am bipedal. The other is heat. It's way too hot in Las Vegas right now to hike at any time other than just before sunrise.

It's a testament to the sincerity of my new passion that I actually get up at 5:40 every other morning to walk a 1.25 mile loop around my hilly neighborhood. I hate getting up early even more than I used to hate walking; my preferred schedule is to go to sleep well after midnight and to get up around 10:00. I started this ridiculous (and in my opinion heroic) crack-of-dawn walking because it's impractical to head up to the mountains every day and I didn't want to be out of shape once it cools down and we have nine months of fabulous weather during which to hike the myriad trails around here any time we feel like it. I've continued it, though, because I find I crave it. I've felt this way about swimming for years, but it's astonishing to me that I now feel similarly about repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other.

As it turns out, the lower temps at higher altitudes are disappointingly still not low enough to make hiking a non-sweaty enterprise. We were on the Mount Charleston trails and at Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks in July, and we just got home from a week in Lake Tahoe. All were spectacular in terms of scenery, and Lake Tahoe provided the additional pleasures of staying at a super-deluxe resort, but for me at least, the brilliant sun in the thin air at 6000-9500 feet made even 65-degree air feel overly warm.

The only place it felt cool enough to hike enthusiastically was Wheeler Peak (elev. 13,065 feet) in Grand Basin National Park, which we drove up to on the way home from Lake Tahoe. The parking area at 10,000 feet was beautifully cool, and the splotches of snow on the peak itself also contributed nicely to the overall sense of chill. But it was hard enough
up there to breathe and walk from spot to spot to take pictures, and my hiking companion had a little stress fracture in his foot by then, so we lazed and gazed instead of exerting ourselves.

I've written about the beauty and geologic glory of Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon in other posts, but here are a few new photos from there:


(More on Lake Tahoe and Great Basin, including photos, in subsequent posts.)