Nevada Part 2: The Massive Drive – Brian and Lena

After two nights in Reno, we had a short drive to nearby Lake Tahoe, which straddles the borders of California and Nevada. The enormous lake is 72 miles (115 km) around and 1,645ft (501 m) deep. The water is 99.99% pure and reflects vibrant blues and emerald greens below the surrounding 11,000 foot (3353 m) mountain peaks. Lake Tahoe holds a special place in Lena’s memories of family holidays there, and she was excited to share this treasure with everyone. We stayed in an AirBnb on the Nevada side in a town called Incline Village. This gave us proximity to restaurants and markets, as well as breathtaking trails and hidden beaches along the east shore. After time on the road, dusty hikes, and hot beach days, we ended up really appreciating the ability to do laundry in the condo! 

There are so many cool things to do on the lake, and we only had two days and two nights, so our general plan was to cover as much in as little rush as possible. Some of the more exciting activities like the treetop canopy walk and clear bottom kayaks had an age minimum of five years old…and Noodle is only four. This turned out to be the case often on the trip, and our frequent claim was, “ We’ll just have to come back.”

After a big shop at Whole Foods, an impressionable drive over Mt. Rose Pass, and settling into the condo – we decided to head into the woods. Lena consulted some excellent blogs for advice, such as Nevada Moms and Hike It Baby, and we decided to take the trail to Monkey Rock, which is in the Spooner Backcountry area of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. The route is quite popular and not difficult, except we accidentally took the shortcut to the top, which meant we climbed (er, dragged the kids) 400 feet (122 m) pretty much straight up in about a quarter mile distance (0.4km). It was totally worth it. The granite outcropping at the top offered fun climbing opportunities for the kids and some heart palpitations for mom. Apparently one of the large boulders is shaped like a monkey head, but Bug and Noodle were unconvinced. They eventually found their perfect nook to take a rest, and we all enjoy the sweeping views while the adults sipped some cold beverages. 

On our way down, we decided to detour to the lake for a dip. We cut down to the Tahoe East Shore Trail for a short distance to cross under the highway and found the trail access to the aptly named Hidden Beach. The sandy cove is dotted with smooth boulders and offers shade (for part of the day), sun and ample splashing opportunities. Although a bit surprised at how freezing Tahoe’s waters truly are, Noodle spent most of the day wading in the sandy shallows while Bug chased crawfish in the rock pools. Having exhausted the kids and our snack supply, we eventually trudged/hiked the mile back to our car. Given our specific restaurant criteria, we eventually found an open cafe with outdoor seating and vegetarian options close to our condo. Sadly, the mediocre meal ended up giving us all our only bout of food poisoning of the entire trip. 

Despite tender tummies, we awoke determined to explore all the personalities of the lake and headed south. Our high spirits on arrival to South Lake Tahoe were dampened on learning that rides on the gondola at Heavenly Ski Resort were closed in anticipation of bad weather. Adults and kids had been excited about the Ridge Rider Coaster down the mountain, and only a few fluffy clouds sat atop the peaks. We decided to curb our disappointment with delicious Mexican food and afternoon margaritas at Azul-Latin Kitchen before some souvenir shopping.

Sensing the kids needed a nap, we hopped back in the van and followed the south shore to iconic Emerald Cove. One of the “American” things Anna wanted was have her picture taken with Smokey Bear, who became famous in the 1940s and 1950s with the slogan, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” These signs are located in National Forests all over the United States and broadcast the fire danger in the surrounding area. Lucky for Anna, we were able to fulfill her dream. And the kids were fascinated watching a Forest Service crew load up their fire truck before heading out on a call.

After obligatory photos at the overlook, we parked at the Vikingsholm Trailhead to take the short but steep one mile trail to Emerald Bay Beach. Bug and Noodle loved spotting wildlife and collecting sticks on the way down, and they had a blast exploring the beach. Though not open for tours, we peered in the windows of the quirky Vikingsholm Castle, which was built by an equally interesting heiress, Lora Knight, who literally bought Emerald Bay and had her Scandinavian-inspired mansion built in 1929. We shared a small picnic as the afternoon sun faded and reluctantly left when the imminent storm finally blew in.

We hyped up the storm a bit to keep Bug and Noodle moving up the trail, but aside from some lightning in the distance, we actually avoided rain as we rounded the east shore. Finally, at Carnelian Bay, an incredible rainbow peaked under storm clouds illuminated by the setting sun. It was a stunning end to a stunning day. We were too exhausted to eat a real dinner, and everyone went to bed early in anticipation of our much-hyped route across the desert the next morning. 

We try to keep Bug and Noodle informed of upcoming plans so they are not surprised and can ask questions. We had been telling them that we would stay in the van the whole day because we had to drive a long distance across Nevada. A new term was added to our family lexicon when Noodle concluded that it was going to be a “massive drive.” He was right. It took about 14 hours to travel from the northwest corner of the state across some of the most desolate areas of the country to the southeast corner and into Utah by the end of the day. 

We didn’t want to just blow through. We were determined to see the sights and appreciate this strange slice of Americana. First stop was Tonopah. Highlights included the Clown Motel, famous for its creepy clown museum, and the Old Tonapah Cemetery, which revealed the harsh reality of silver mining in the early 1900s. Lunch at the Tonopah Brewery proved one of the best barbecue stops for Brian and Anna, and they compared all others against it for the remainder of the trip. Despite lacking options for vegetarians, Lena enjoyed a cold beer on tap.

Second stop was the International Car Forest of the Last Church located in the nearby town of Goldfield. Goldfield is what is known as a living ghost town. In the early 1900s, it was the largest city in the state but now houses a population of around 300. This outdoor art installation consists of cars, trucks, and busses often jutting out of the desert sand at odd angles. The vehicles are covered in fascinating graffiti that provides a colorful contrast to the stark surroundings. The story of the installation is that local artist, Mark Rippie, wanted to create an open air space for artists to leave their mark and set the Guinness World Record for the largest car forest (which apparently is a thing). Bug and Noodle loved chasing lizards, exploring the auto carcasses, and asking endless questions about all the exposed machinery.

From there, we transitioned to The Extraterrestrial Highway, which gets it name due to the fact that is goes right past the Nevada Test Site. This is the location of the fabled and mysterious Area 51. Depending on your source, Area 51 can be described as the location where the US military develops and tests new secret aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, or where the US Government keeps proof of alien life and the UFO that supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Anna had only a cursory knowledge of Area 51, so we wanted to show her some exciting sights and perhaps have an alien encounter or two. Unfortunately, what we saw a lot of sage brush, some cows, and a few wild burros. Interesting side note: The burros’ ancestors carried people and supplies across the harsh desert during silver rush and were left behind when mines dried up and towns collapsed. The animals are now protected under Federal Law as living symbols of our history. 

Summer storms chased us most of the way across this long section, which created incredible contrasts in light and gave depth to the endless vistas. Occasionally, we passed through small towns that had seen better days. We wondered about the people living so differently than us, and contemplated the bravery of settlers in the 1800s choosing to cross this barren landscape in covered wagons. This spirit of adventure and openness to the unknown is something we know well as expats living off-the-beaten path. 

Our last stop before ending in St George, Utah, was at the Alien Research Center in Hico. The building is in an old Quonset hut with a two story tall metal alien guarding the front, that Bug and Noodle named Fred.  Sadly, we arrived ten minutes before closing time and weren’t able to chat up the store clerk about her extraterrestrial beliefs and the interesting folks who stop in to buy t-shirts and alien tequila. Moreover, a flash flood warning had been announced for the area, so she was eager close shop and head home. Nonetheless, meeting Fred inspired a litany of questions from the kids on our final stretch to St. George.

Despite Lena being born in Carson City and Brian working in Las Vegas for six years, the massive drive across Nevada revealed even more quirkiness about the state that we both love. Later in the trip, we returned for a very different type of American experience in Las Vegas. But we have so much beauty to share about the National Parks in Utah before we get to that!

A Journey Through Nevada Part 1 – Lena and Brian

After our time in San Francisco, our first stop on our Best of the West Roadtrip was “The Biggest Little City in the World.” There is one main route to get from the Bay Area to Reno that involves taking the interstate I-80 and without fail getting stuck in traffic around Sacramento. However, there are several smaller state roads through the mountains that are opened seasonally and technically take longer but are breathtakingly scenic. Lena had taken one such road almost 20 years ago and always wanted to do it again, so we decided that this was the perfect opportunity. State Highway 4, also  known as Ebbets’ Pass, is a narrow road that winds over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Originally a Native American trail, the route was explored by Euro-American fur trappers and later became popular during the silver and gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s. Today the route offers an alpine paradise for summer camping and lake sports and winter lodges and snow sports. 

Crystal blue lakes and jagged granite peaks marked the way through tall pine forests. We stopped numerous times to take in views and smell the air. The kids were less excited than the adults, and somewhere along the drive Noodle broke off his headphone jack inside his iPad. For the entirety of our three week roadtrip, he stoically watched the device with no sound. Or fought with his brother while sharing his screen.

Needing to stretch our legs and alleviate the iPad drama, we stopped at Lake Alpine to dip our feet and let Bug and Noodle run wild. There were many other groups lounging around the shore. The kids befriended several dogs and the enthusiasm for games of fetch was mutual. It is alway interesting to see them interact with dogs when we come to the United States. In many countries where we have lived and traveled, canines are not considered family members and are often unpredictable. Therefore, Bug and Noodle are generally interested but hesitant, so it was sweet to see them splashing around and laughing with the gentle pups. As we sipped cold beverages and waded around in the freezing snow melt, an adolescent bald eagle swooped low across the lake. Conversations ceased and all heads raised to watch the majestic creature soar overhead. 

The drive dropped from pine forest into high desert as we entered Nevada. Farmhouses turned into suburban neighborhoods turned into city sprawl as we passed through Carson City and entered downtown Reno. Our destination, The Whitney Peak Hotel, is the only non-gaming hotel in downtown Reno. Unfortunately, the coolest feature, an exterior climbing wall that scales sixteen floors of the hotel, was closed due to COVID restrictions. Thankfully we arrived on a Friday night, and the little city was buzzing. After an alfresco dinner along the Truckee Riverwalk, we strolled the streets. We observed Reno’s history and future colliding as trendy hipster bars sat next to dusty pawn shops that sat next to second-rate casinos. The crowd consisted of homeless beggars, bachelorette parties, and hopeful locals. We got a huge kick out of the vintage cars cruising, and the El Camino with hydraulics was most appreciated by Bug and Noodle. We actually really enjoyed our quick stop and can see why Reno is getting attention as an under the radar place to visit or live. It’s filled with independent small businesses, surrounded by incredible nature, and inhabited by a mix of friendly longterm locals, returners, and transplants. It’s definitely on our list for a future home if we ever move back to the US long term.

We spent Sunday visiting Lena’s birth family in Carson City. The story of Lena’s adoption is long and inspiring….and we will definitely get into that in another post. But for brevity, let’s say that it is always special to connect with her birth mother, Nancy, and all the extended family. We especially enjoyed watching Bug and Noodle connect with their cousins. Everyone is so welcoming and it is such an easy crowd to slip into. They welcomed Anna with open arms and gave her the perfect American family gathering. Aside from meeting such wonderful people, Anna was quite stoked to encounter an overflowing plate of perfectly fried and frosted donuts.

After an amazing weekend in Carson and Reno, we were keen to get back into nature and set off early on Monday morning for Lake Tahoe. We packed so much into our two days around the lake and took so many photos that it warrants it own post.

The Best of the West – Brian and Lena

Our summer holidays are traditionally complicated affairs. In between visits across all the branches of our family tree, we cram in “American” sights and experiences that we hope are impressionable for Bug and Noodle. The whirlwind trip home always leaves our hearts full, as we cherish the time with our families, but we also leave exhausted and ready for a vacation from our vacation. Thus we saw a silver lining in deciding to stay in Tashkent for the summer. As much as we wanted to see our family, it was just too risky to cross borders and potentially get stuck, as happened to so many international teachers last summer. 

Until our school director sent the email. Toward the end of the academic year, he informed us that he believed it was crucial for our well-being to be able to leave Uzbekistan, especially since everyone except the new hires had been on lockdown in Tashkent the previous summer and not been home in two years. He assured us that the school would support us should returning prove difficult. This was such a relief because colleagues at some international schools in other countries had received threats of losing their jobs should they leave and not be able to return on time. Unfortunately, not all our colleagues in Tashkent were actually able to go home. Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand were (are) enforcing a strict hotel quarantine at the expense of the traveler. On top of the psychological and financial burden, some were flat out denied because their turn around was too short. 

Not only did we make the last minute call to spend the summer in the U.S., but we were actually adding a member to the Wandering Thomsper circus. Our colleague Anna was unable to get into New Zealand, so we offered our extended family and a once in a lifetime trip to America as a consolation prize. Since she had never been to the U.S. before, we felt obligated to make her visit amazing. Thus we spent several late nights sketching out a route and booking accommodations for our five week epic Best of the West Roadtrip.

Our plan was to balance nature and urban, see the major sites, and introduce her to some real life Americans. We began with a few days in San Francisco visiting Lena’s family and preparing for the trip, then headed across the border to northern Nevada for a mix of nature and more family. After a long trek through the vast desert in search of aliens, we ended up in Utah for ample exploration of National Parks. Next, we hit southern Nevada to indulge in all things Las Vegas. Because we love long drives, we backtracked to the “Giant Ditch” in the ground known as the Grand Canyon and pushed on to Central California for vineyards and time with Brian’s family. The final stretch brought us up the coast to Cambria, Monterrey and finally back to San Francisco. The journey ended with nine days of nonstop action in the city by the bay.

The trip was so epic and the photos so awesome that we’ve decided to break up the recap into several posts. Get ready!

Heading for the Hills – Brian

Nature is an anchor for our family. Lena and I share parallel childhood memories of camping and trips to national parks. Lena was a Girl Scout, and I was an Eagle Scout. I spent a university summer at Rocky Mountain National Park as an Environmental Educator, and my first job after graduating was for the US Forest Service. Our honeymoon was camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and we first tested the waters of family camping in Sai Kung, Hong Kong when the kids were 1 and 2 years old. Our favorite social distancing activity in Mexico was trekking through the jungle surrounding Sayulita to spend long days lounging under makeshift shelters on empty beaches. Socially distanced urban hikes around San Francisco injected the monotony of shelter-at-home with fresh air and endless views.

By the time we found ourselves in Marin, we were surrounded by incredible outdoor opportunities living at the base of Mount Tamalpais and down the road from Samuel P. Taylor State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. When word got out that Lassen Volcanic National Park had re-opened, we were ready to hit the road. However, we struggled to find clear information about which campgrounds were open. The ones that took reservations were all booked. Clearly we were not the only family itching to get away. Despite not having a secured spot for our tent, we tossed our gear in the trunk of Mimi’s car and headed to the mountains. In addition to sleeping in a tent and roasting marshmallows, Bug and Noodle were extremely excited to see volcanoes. Of course they were expecting active eruptions, and we let them relish in that excitement before crushing their dreams.

Luckily, we were able to claim a first-come-first-serve spot at the Southwest Walk-In Campground, which is located near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest corner of the park. This was an ideal location because the Visitor Center has a shop selling hot coffee and cold beer, and its on the main park road. Regarding the campsite, we had read about black bear danger so we were prepared with our bear canister, but each campsite comes with a large bear-proof storage cabinet. It also offers a sturdy picnic table and metal-ringed fire pit. Our site had minimal shade, so we were glad to have an extra tarp over our table. Although technically a hike-in campground, the parking lot is a two minute walk from the site. The restrooms were open and offered flush toilets, sinks and soap for handwashing, a utility sink to wash dishes, and secure bins for refuse and recycling. In addition to the snack shop, the Visitors Center also has a ranger station, gift shop, very clean restrooms, amphitheater, and a (closed) exhibition area. Although the Ranger-led programs were canceled due to COVID restrictions, we had informative and friendly conversations with the appropriately-masked rangers as they passed through the campground and greeted us at the Visitors Center.

There are many great trails in the park. We started our exploration of the park by hiking the 3.6 mile round trip to Mill Creek Falls since the trailhead was steps from our campsite. This is a moderate trail that rises and falls gently as it winds through huge red fir trees. Sadly, the white bark pines along the trail and throughout the park are being decimated by blister rust and mountain pine beetles, and many have taken on the orange tinge of dying trees. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle loved the creek crossings, insect sightings and opportunities to climb on fallen logs. They also got to test out their new hiking poles, which were a short-lived novelty that ended up clipped to our backpacks. By the end of the hike, Noodle was whining on my shoulders and Lena was a fountain of positive talk about perseverance as she dragged Bug up the final ascent. We are still working on pacing ourselves. Due to its elevation and thus late season snow, the most popular Bumpass Hell Trail and Hydrothermal Area were still closed in early July.

Surrounded by nature, we encouraged the kids to notice details and voice their curiosities. These are skills that we believe are important for lifelong learners and should be honed consciously. Without toys or gadgets, the boys noticed everything from beetles to clouds, asked a million questions, and played creatively with the tree stumps, sticks and rocks around us. We also just spent time watching birds and staring at the campfire. Embracing nature has many health benefits, such as increasing attention span, decreasing stress (and thus lowering cortisol levels), and improving the immune system. Quite the antidote for being stuck indoors during a pandemic. 

We were particularly excited that the Junior Ranger Program by the National Park Service was still available during our stay. In its modified form, the kids were able to complete a highly differentiated interactive booklet that included various activities to document observations about geology, ecology, and human impact on the environment. In non-COVID times, they would have participated in Ranger-led hikes, attended presentations in the amphitheater, and viewed exhibits in the Visitors Center. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle were excited to find and classify rocks, identify features of different trees, match animals with their tracks, and consider how our choices affect nature. Their work was rewarded with an official swearing-in ceremony led by a real Park Ranger. After raising their right hand and promising to protect the park and all natural spaces, each child received a special badge. Of course we bought the adorable Junior Ranger vests.

Naturally, we were all excited to see volcanoes. Lassen is unique because it contains all four types of volcanoes in the world. The biggest is Lassen Peak (10,457ft/3,187m), which is an active plug dome that last erupted between 1914-1917. The park also contains clear examples of cinder cone (aptly named Cinder Cone, at 6,896ft/2,102m, final eruption in 1666), shield (Prospect Peak, at 8,342ft/2,542m) and composite (Brokeoff Mountain – also called Mount Tehama by local tribes – at 9,235ft/2,815m, which became extinct 387,000 years ago). However, these dormant or extinct specimens just looked like plain old mountains to the kids, and Noodle was disappointed he didn’t get to see “Mountain Lassen ‘derupt.’”

The main and only road through the park is the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which begins at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and winds up and down throughout the park to the Northwest corner around the Manzanita Lake Area. This 30-mile drive hits many of the highlights in the park from hydrothermal areas to dramatic views to frigid alpine lakes. 

Our first stop was the Sulfur Works Hydrothermal which we smelled long before arriving. Even wearing masks, the odor was nose-melting. Both Bug and Noodle were amazed by the boiling mud pot, which was located right next to the highway. They couldn’t get enough of the idea that liquid hot magma was making the mud boil. 

After getting back into fresh air, their next excitement was experiencing snow for the first time in their lives. It was just some dirty drifts on the side of the road, but they were ecstatic – until they felt it. They instinctively made snowballs, but Noodle cried when his ungloved hands turned red. His verdict was, “Too cold.” Melting snow means freezing mountain lakes, and I couldn’t resist an invigorating plunge into Lake Helen.

The road’s varied altitudes pass through multiple plant life zones. It begins in the red fir forest, which also includes lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and western white pine. Then the sparse subalpine zone, which is the upper limit of tree growth, offers gnarled white bark pine and mountain hemlock growing as “flag trees” (branches growing on only one side) that hint to the challenges of long winters. Finally, it descends through verdant meadows, winding creeks, and red fir covered in lichen. 

The breathtaking drive ended at Manzanita Lake, which is also the location of the park’s largest campground. The lake added another breathtaking component to our endless views of snowcapped mountains and towering trees for the past couple of days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim due to warnings about river otter attacks. However, Bug recently learned about fishing and this was his first real attempt. For several weeks, the kids had been practicing their casts with toddler-friendly training poles in our backyard. Alas, no luck catching a fish in Manzanita Lake (though tons were jumping), but they happily reeled in many sticks and aquatic plants.

Since everything was going so well, we decided to tack on a few extra days in a slightly different location. After stopping at Lake Almanor to check out the real estate, we headed east to the shores of Lake Davis in Plumas County. We settled on a US Forest Service campground called Grasshopper Flat and pitched our tent in a huge site with direct access to the water. With no real plan at Lake Davis, we ate slow breakfasts on our private peninsula, swung in the hammock, checked out the quaint town of Graeagle, and took another attempt at fishing. Noodle was over fishing by this point and contently played with “boats” (sticks and leaves) in the calm shores. On the other hand, Bug was determined to catch a fish – a large bass to be specific. I ended up accidentally catching a small sunfish on a test cast after a rod repair, and I went from father of the year to heartbreaker after Bug failed to catch anything and was devastated. He did not like the life lesson that fishing is about patience. After three days of relaxing lakeside, we were ready to head home. The shower blocks were closed and we were caked in six days of dust. Even the kids were begging for a bath. Had we been able to wash, we probably would have stayed longer. 

The week was perfect. We played in the dirt. We breathed fresh air. We went on long walks. We laughed. And we said thank you for all the gifts we share together. It’s been a few weeks since the trip, and we’ve sent off all our camping equipment in our shipment to Uzbekistan (only to learn that we will actually be in California for quite a bit longer), so naturally Bug and Noodle have begun requesting another camping trip.