Winding down The Cousin’s trip: The Rim Fire

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The Rim Fire started about three weeks before The Cousins were slated to arrive at Tahoe. At the end of the get together, Michele and I were going to take one of The Cousins – Marion, a British photojournalist now living in France – to Yosemite, so I started watching satellite pictures to see where the smoke was going. It was startling how fast the fire grew.  It is changing now, but – for years – our National Fire policy made the fire problem worse. Smokey the bear and Bambi insisted that we put out all fires. Meanwhile the forests continued to produce kindling so that, eventually, when a fire started it would be much more powerful and destructive than if we had let nature take its course. This was one of those new, bigger, fires.

Michele went back to Napa to be with her mother, so I ended up alone with Marion on the Yosemite leg of the trip. For three weeks minus one day, Yosemite was clear and Tahoe was smoky, then – one day before we headed south through Nevada to the backside of Yosemite – the wind changed.

Driving south through the Minden-Gardnerville area, the west looked clear as we passed the very spot I had abandoned the Range Rover this spring. Only now I am looking at the view rather than a radiator hose. Every time we pass grazing cattle with mountains in the background, Marion wants to stop. It is an iconic western scene for which I have become so accustomed that I almost don’t see it. Now, seeing the same scene through Marion’s eyes, it seems almost exotic.

Rim Fire-2181A little while later, we get to the Nevada-California stateline with the obligatory casino. I have never stopped here in – maybe – more than twenty five trips, but, today, the timing is perfect for lunch. The view is great and the food is cheap (to get customers in, I’m guessing).
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I read recently read that dance clubs like XS at the Encore resort in Las Vegas are now making more money than gambling. Not here. Here gambling is still the draw; OK, gambling and the $6.99 all you can eat lunch (which, strangely enough, was better than the upscale restaurant  we ate at in Reno the night before). And, even at that, the gambling area was dismally empty.

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Running south along the eastern edge of the Sierras was a little like running along the Dagorlad Plain outside of Mordor. Looking at Matterhorn Peak  and Sawtooth Ridge from Bridgeport was not comforting.

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Neither was looking down on Mono Lake from the viewpoint near Conway Summit.

Rim Fire-2207However, it was not until we got to Tuolumne Meadows that the full impact of the smoke from the fire really hit me. Everything was just dark and dead. The Tuolumne sparkle was gone. The Range of Light was dark and cold. I was shocked both to see my beloved Sierras this way and that Marion’s first impression was so dismal.

Rim Fire-2218  Sunset at Olmsted Point was a little better but not much.

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That night we were supposed to meet Nicole, Claudia, and Christian’s family at the Whoa Nelly, in Lee Vining for dinner, but we got our signals crossed and semi-missed them, which seemed very appropriate.

Rim Fire-2219Highway 120 was closed at Yosemite Creek – or thereabouts – because of the fire, so my old plan of going over Tioga into Yosemite Valley didn’t work. My new plan was to spend the night in Lee Vining, where we had a reservation made before the fire, and then drive around the fire if 120 remained closed. It did and the next day, we would drive north and cross the Sierras at Sonora Pass and then pick up Highway 120 and go into Yosemite Valley from the west. It was cumbersome – 200 miles of mountain roads, more than 4 hours – but I kept telling myself that it was a pain in the ass for me but this fire was disaster for alot of people, So stop complaining.

In the morning, we had an early breakfast at Latte Da where the day was bright and almost clear, and then headed north and then west into Mordor again.
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By the time we got there, the Rim Fire was mostly contained and on the west side of the Sierras, we ran into Thank You signs.

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Finally, at the Rim of the WorldView Turnout on Highway 120 – which is probably where the fire’s name came from – we saw the burned out hillsides of the Tuolumne Canyon. The size of the devastation was breathtaking, it went as far north as we could see.

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When I was a kid, we were taught that a fire killed everything in its path (and it is easy to believe when looking at the just burned out Tuolumne Canyon). In school ,and TV ads, we were shown movies of poor Bambi left motherless by fire. However, sometime during the 1980, the BLM or the Forest Service changed their policy and started letting wild fire burn as long as they weren’t burning people or buildings. There was alot of pushback on the new policy by traditionalists (as recently as 1988, most people were up in arms when the BLM let the Yellowstone fire burn). Now, everybody is starting to understand that fires are a necessary part of the natural cycle and the forests need them to stay healthy.

We saw the proof shortly after we drove by the devastation of the Rim Fire, when we saw the rebounding site of the 2009 Big Meadow Fire.

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The whole purpose of this drive was to get Marion into Yosemite and now it was becoming obvious that it would be smoke filled. There were times during the 60s that we went to Yosemite Valley almost every weekend. We would backpack in the Highcountry and end the trip in the Valley. Or take the shuttle to Glacier Point and walk down past Nevada Falls and, ending in the late afternoon, walk down the Mist Trail.  It was magic.

But that was a long time ago and I had forgotten how spectacular Yosemite valley is. It was smoky and the light was flat, but Marion was still able to catch a bit of the grandeur.


We were still able to see climbers on El Capitan (helpfully pointed out by people with binoculars).



We were still able to drive to the Tunnel View parking lot at the end of the day to copy Ansel Adams (without waterfalls and clouds).

Yosemite Valley Adams


We were stll able to enjoy Yosemite along with everybody else.


2 thoughts on “Winding down The Cousin’s trip: The Rim Fire

  1. Great photos and story, thanks! I flew SFO-BOS on Sept 20th and saw the smoking ruins from 30,000′, the air was choked with smoke. While back East it rained in the Sierra, so when I returned BOS-SFO on the 23rd it was almost clear perfectly clear, with snow on the peaks; quite a transformation. Your report from ground zero is much more telling.

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