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Going for Broke on the Scenic Route to Tahoe

TAHOE CITY -- The checks are in the mail. About 130 million American households have received or will receive federal tax refunds, up to $300 for individuals, $500 for single parents and $600 for couples with or without children. As the first envelopes began reaching mailboxes, we sent three Times staffers off to see what sort of vacation this windfall might buy, even though many personal finance counselors say the smartest thing to do is pay off debts before launching into any discretionary spending. Craig Nakano and Susan Spano, traveling solo, had $300 each to work with. Christopher Reynolds and his wife had $600. All agreed to leave their frequent-flier miles at home, to do without the hospitality of family or friends, and to resist the urge to stay home and spend it all on air-conditioning. Here’s how they did.

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My tax refund trip was a failure, but not just because I overspent the limit by $50. I could blame the tight budget ($300 isn’t much to go on) or grouse about the rebate (spend the surplus on highways and national parks, I say). But the fact is that I planned the trip poorly.

I wanted to drive from L.A. to Lake Tahoe and back, mostly along U.S. 395, a total scenic knockout of a road east of the High Sierra, and I thought I could do it in four days. I didn’t realize how grueling the trip could be or how deeply frustrated I would become when I was too rushed to stop at such places as Manzanar, the World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans near Lone Pine, the Eastern California Museum in Independence or the ghost town of Bodie north of Mono Lake.

Clearly, my eyes were bigger than my wallet.

I’m no stranger to budget travel. In five years of writing a column about it, I made some terrific trips on a shoestring to such destinations as Morocco, French Polynesia and the Brittany coast. During those frugal years, I learned that accommodations are a big drain on the budget, requiring travelers to make choices: They can take their time on a trip and spend as little as possible by staying in inexpensive hotels and eschewing creature comforts, or they can spend less time away, checking into nicer places and indulging a little.

I wanted to stretch that $300 as far as it would go, so before leaving home I found modestly priced accommodations, and I took a little cooler that I nursed like a baby. It was stocked with egg salad sandwiches, sun-dried tomato pesto, Parmesan cheese, a tomato and two peaches. I took pasta, peanut butter, bread, water and a bottle of Scotch. I also packed Ginny Clark’s excellent “Guide to Highway 395 Los Angeles to Reno” (Western Trails Publications, 1990).

On reflection, it’s wrong to say my trip was a bust because 395 never let me down. It was as continuously stunning as the Pacific Coast Highway (absent the surfers, of course), with jagged 14,000-foot pinnacles of the Sierra to the west and the arid 11,000-foot Inyo and White mountains to the east.

I left my office downtown around noon the Monday before the Labor Day weekend, turning my tiny Miata north on Interstate 5 across the San Fernando Valley and then northeast on California 14 over 3,225-foot Soledad Pass in the San Gabriel Mountains. I immediately found the scenery thrilling as a tangle of yellow, brown and bone mountains tightened around me. On the descent into the Antelope Valley, I stopped at the Lamont Odett Vista Point to eat an egg salad sandwich and view the Mojave Desert, which I was about to cross. A sign there pointed out the San Andreas fault; below me the aqueduct that takes Owens River water into L.A. gleamed an unnatural shade of blue.

I had driven California 14 before to Death Valley, loving the way the roads along the way head off forever on straight shots through the desert. Just when you’re about to get bored, 14 plows through Red Rock Canyon about 150 miles northeast of L.A., with its tilted cliff faces striated like Neapolitan ice cream. As the Sierra comes into view to the west, 14 yields to 395 and you enter the Owens Valley, in the hot, dry rain shadow of the mountains.

The region has a compelling, sad history. Settled by some of the first California pioneers, who produced apples, honey, corn and grain with the help of irrigation from the Owens River, the watershed of the Owens Valley was turned into a desert as stark as Death Valley when the waters of the river were diverted to L.A. in the 1920s. Still, the valley’s features are a geology lesson, with volcanic cinder cones like 3,952-foot Red Hill and lava flows like Fossil Falls (both about 25 miles south of Owens Lake) as weird as any in Baja. But I did not take time to stop.

I did pull in at the cottonwood-shaded hamlet of Olancha, just south of Owens Lake. There I chatted with Gus Niepagen, the owner of Really Good Fresh Jerky, a roadside stand that also sells honey, pickles and olives. In a valley full of anomalies, he is one, a German-Italian from New Jersey with permanently suntanned skin.

Malika Adjaoud Patron, a 39-year-old Frenchwoman who runs the stylish Still Life Cafe next door, is another. She left L.A. seven years ago, little intending to open a restaurant that serves such delicacies as goat curry with basmati rice and roasted pork tenderloin with caramelized onions. “We are in a very strange area for this sort of bistro,” she freely acknowledges. So here was my choice: another egg salad sandwich or a bite at this little bistro. When you come upon such a place in the California desert, you have to seize the gourmet moment. So I had smooth country pate with cornichons and a lemonade for $13, plus tip.

From there it was about 50 miles to Independence, along the west shore of Owens Lake, an alkaline sink with no outlets that’s haunting in its barrenness. At the north end of the lake, near the town of Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills come into view, 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney towering above them. This highest peak in the Lower 48 is visible only from the east, which is why it remained unknown to white settlers until 1864.

I had driven about 250 miles, and constant ogling of the Sierra to my left had given me a crick in the neck. So I was glad to stop at the Winnedumah Hotel in downtown Independence. The 24-room bed-and-breakfast, built in 1927, is, to my mind, nearly perfect in every way, comfortably renovated but not too tarted up, with a welcoming lobby full of deep couches and easy chairs, western prints, Indian rugs, crockery and paper flowers.

Emma Garza greeted me at the old-fashioned front desk. She and her husband, Joe, run the place for their daughter, Rose Zrelak, who bought the hotel in 1999. “We volunteered to work here for six months and never left,” Emma says.

My first-floor chamber had a high queen bed with a firm mattress and a pink rose-patterned spread. There was a sink in the room and an attached bath, but no air-conditioning or TV. Still, it was a bargain at $50. I slept soundly, dreaming of the hike I planned for the morning.

It’s true that the best things in life are free, like hikes in the High Sierra. After breakfast at the Winnedumah, I drove 14 miles west into the mountains on gloriously switchbacking Onion Valley Road, lined with bright yellow wallflowers and dizzying views over the Owens Valley. At the end of the road there’s a parking lot and the trail head for the 23-mile path over 11,823-foot Kearsarge Pass in Kings Canyon National Park. In about an hour and a half I went 2.2 miles to Gilbert Lake, where I napped on a rock and ate a peanut butter sandwich. Coming down took just 45 minutes, but I was hot and sweaty when I got back to the car.

Relief was 35 miles north of Independence at Keough’s Hot Springs. The mineral water at this funky little oasis, built in 1919, doesn’t smell like rotten eggs, and the pools--one small and hot, the other bigger and cooler--are emptied and scrubbed weekly. People laze there for hours, and at one end of the big pool, water sprays 10 feet in the air, producing a delightful and constant downpour.

Soothed by the thermal water and squeaky clean from a shower, I drove north on the last of my 155 miles as the valley narrowed and got greener. U.S. 395 becomes a four-lane highway around the Mammoth Lakes ski area. Just before the town of Lee Vining on Mono Lake, I turned west into Yosemite National Park on California 120, which climbs 9,941-foot Tioga Pass, the highest automobile route in the Sierra.

This was my first time in Yosemite, and the road from Lee Vining to Tuolumne Meadows was unforgettable. In a dozen miles, it takes you out of the desert into a meadow bisected by a river, surrounded by snowcapped peaks.

At 8,600 feet, Tuolumne is the highest subalpine meadow in the Sierra, studded with rock domes. Less crowded than showier Yosemite Valley, it is what the national park calls a “wilderness threshold,” with myriad trails leading to high wild places and six camps, where meals and tent accommodations are provided for long-distance hikers.

Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, reachable by car, is one of these. It has a dining hall, bathhouse and 69 sturdy canvas tents on concrete platforms, without electricity or private baths, along the north bank of the Tuolumne River. Mine was delightful, spotlessly clean and thoughtfully equipped, with four beds, made up in linen and Army blankets, candles, a card table and wood-burning stove, all for $53, plus tax, single occupancy.

At dinner (salad, barbecued chicken, baked potato, vegetables and rolls for $16) and breakfast (two eggs over easy with toast and hash browns for $6) in the dining hall, I met many hikers who had been coming to Tuolumne Meadows for years.

The next morning I climbed 9,450-foot Lembert Dome on a 1.4-mile trail that starts near the lodge. From the highway, its sheer rock south flank looks unscalable, its summit like a good place for a four-wheel-drive commercial. But the path leads around to the north side, where a breathless scramble puts you on top of the world.

I could have avoided the disappointment of the third day of the trip by heading west on California 120 through the park and south to L.A. on Interstate 5, stopping for the night somewhere in the Central Valley. But I stuck stubbornly to my plan, going back over Tioga Pass and rejoining U.S. 395 in Lee Vining, where I stopped briefly to get a close look at the weird limestone tufa towers of Mono Lake.

From there my third day’s drive, 175 miles in all, took me along the glorious gorge of the West Walker River and then northwest on winding California 89, over 8,314-foot Monitor Pass to Lake Tahoe.

From the Emerald Bay vista point on the southwest side of the lake, Tahoe looked gorgeous. But as I wound around the lake’s western shore, my eyes started burning and my nose clogged. The horizon vanished in a thick haze.

By the time I turned off California 89 onto California 28 and reached Franciscan Lakeside Lodge, a pleasant little cabin compound in Tahoe Vista, I realized that a forest fire was burning nearby. It turned out to be a then-uncontained 16,000-acre blaze 25 miles west of the lake.

I had booked a cabin with a kitchenette for $65 at the Franciscan lodge on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Prices usually begin at $85, but this cabin was discounted because it was right by the highway. I thought I could bear the noise, with earplugs. As soon as I opened the door, I knew I was wrong. It was feet away from the road but noisy enough to be on the median. Another cabin was available in the trees north of the road for $85. Disheartened at the additional expense, I unloaded the car, cooked myself a pasta dinner and went to bed, without the prospect of a swim or even a walk.

I woke on my fourth day knowing I needed to get back to L.A., by Interstates 80 and 5, a 500-mile drive with scant scenery for leavening. I felt miserable.

Now that I’m home, though, things don’t seem as bleak. The bad parts of the trip have faded; the good parts--the Still Life Cafe, Onion Valley and Tuolumne Meadows--are worth cherishing. I’ve sworn off peanut butter for a while, but I know for a fact that California is a golden state.

Budget for One

Gas--$69.97

Winnedumah Hotel, one night--54.50

Tuolumne Meadows,one night--61.09

Franciscan Lakeside Lodge, one night--93.50

Admission, Keough’s Hot Springs--7.00

Entrance, YosemiteNational Park--20.00

Dinner, Still Life Cafe--16.00

Dinner, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge--19.10

Breakfast, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge0--6.89

FINAL TAB--$348.05

* Winnedumah Hotel, P.O. Box 147, 211 N. Edwards St., Independence, CA 93526; telephone (760) 878-2040, fax (760) 247-1324, Internet https://www.winnedumah.com.

* Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Yosemite Reservations, 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno, CA 93727; tel. (559) 252-4848, fax (559) 456-0542, https://www.yosemitepark.com.

* Franciscan Lakeside Lodge, P.O. Box 280, 6944 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista, CA 96148; tel. (800) 564-6754 or (530) 546-6300, fax (530) 546-0348, https://www.franciscanlodge.com.


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