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Day 9: Flash floods, Still Life Cafe, last bottle of Aussie wine

July 25, 2008

While a flashflood watch was in effect when we were fishing in the eastern Sierra south of Bishop, turns out it was a deluge the previous night which closed Highway 395 just north of Independence, and slowed traffic to an escorted crawl.

Even though this flashflood was 24 hours old, only one of four lanes on 395 was open and the thick mud, black with soot from last year’s fires, surrounded us; plentiful water flowed and had yet to run clear.

When I was growing up, we used to play “flashflood” in the small pool in my grandparent’s Bakersfield backyard. We would zoom around and around the edges of the pool, thick with grass and dirt, roiling the water until it carried us along. A flashflood was fun and exciting.

But in 1997, on my way home from Burning Man, I was caught in a flashflood on 395 in the Red Rock State Park area about 30 miles north east of Mojave. Perched high in my van, I watched in shock as the milk chocolate mud flooded down, filling the ravines, climbing the bridge, sweeping the highway.

Unless you’ve been in a flashflood or a major earthquake, you have no idea how loud these events are. In addition to the shock of watching the world go topsy-turvy, the ear-splitting noise stuns you into awestruck submission.

As the water receded from the road even as rain continued to pelt our cars, a 4×4 truck forged ahead, and slowly, gingerly, many of us followed, the water up to the hubcaps of my 79 VW westfalia. We didn’t get far before we saw cars nose dived into the ravine, then we were stopped by a police car at the top of the hill. Below us, a river raged, and the road was 3-5′ deep in mud. No one was going anywhere for quite some time.

Most people hung out in their cars. My bike was in the van, so I went for a spin down the hill in the warm rainy afternoon air, perfumed with wet sage and earth. The mud and water poured across, and I watched transfixed until a police officer insisted I return to my vehicle. I asked about the people in the cars and learned they were all right; a young girl returning from beauty college had lost most of her clothes, and was cold and hungry. I gave her something to wear, and using the van’s stove, I cooked us up some soup, then some mac’n cheese. Somehow, I had cell service, and I passed my phone around. At dawn, police led us though miles and miles of mud.

Seeing the remnants of this flashflood brought all those memories back; trailers, cars, odd items displaced and scattered by the flood. I was happy to drive up to the Still Life Cafe in Independence, park out front, and dash in. It looked like they were winding down for the evening, and I assumed that they’d been slammed with patrons stuck in Independence because of the road closure. Yes they would serve us, yes come in, yes, corkage is $10, no they hadn’t been unusually busy–most of the tourists headed to Subway across the street. Two tables had people enjoying their meals and another couple followed us in.

Those people who chose Subway over the Still Life missed out. The Still Life Cafe is a fine french bistro, originally located in the town of Olancha, near the shores of the Owens Lake. Back in 2001, we read a rave review in the LA Times, so on our next trip to Saline Valley Hot Springs in Death Valley NP, we planned our trip home around a stop for dinner there. The cement block building raised our eyebrows; the full establishment had us nod to accept a small table amongst the happy diners. We started with an appetizer of delicious chartcuterie, followed by a simple salad with an amazing vinaigrette, and the best pork tenderloin and fried potatoes ever. Manu Chau, with his distinctive multilingual and multicontinental stylings, played on the stereo.

When the restaurant lost its Olancha lease, it took awhile to find a new home and get established in Independence in an old wooden storefront painted a sunny mustard and with rustic antique furnishings and local paintings allowing for an annual visit.

Today we settle in and peruse the menu. In the past, we have enjoyed duck, rabbit, sausage, and other dishes unusual to our suburban, conservative restaurant scene (it is improving I must admit). I am attracted to the mussels which have sold out, and decide on bolognese or red meat sauce; the Big Monkey orders a skirt steak, and we chill the Only Son Barossa Valley 2005 Tempranillo. This is another varietal new to me, but familiar as spanish rioja, and I imagine it will work well both with his steak and my pasta. Once it has cooled off, we decide it’s good, dark ripe cherry in the glass (ahh a real wine glass!), not much of a nose to notice, a bit tannic …maybe it needs food to show it off more? The tempranillo does go well with our dinners. The herbs and flavors of my bolognese are complex and delicious and out of this world and I can barely get any because the boy wants it all!

However, after so many stunningly wonderful wines like last night’s Brothers in Arms 2002 shiraz, the 2002 RBJ Mataro, the Dead Letter Office, I am disappointed with this tempranillo. It could be a combination of factors–this wine is younger and different temperamentally than the more outrageous mataro and shiraz. It is more restrained, what I think of as more European in style, and made with a traditionally European grape. The alcohol at 14.9 is comparable to the others we’ve been drinking but more apparent in this wine. Maybe it needs more time in the cellar for more complexity to show.

After a very leisurely dinner (this is not a restaurant to rush through), we drive south another 30 minutes then climb a thousand feet out of Lone Pine on the Whitney Portal Road to the Cottonwood Road and Tuttle Creek Campground. The moon peeks through the clouds to outline the jagged Sierra ridge as rain falls. We choose a site where we can hear the roar of the creek and which promises shade in the morning from two young trees.

Our bellies full and content, all is well. Tomorrow we will have brook trout for breakfast!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2008 8:58 pm

    yes the world is stranging, by which i mean changing. i guess you’re noticing it too. mother nature’s getting a brand new beat. :)

  2. July 28, 2008 7:13 am

    we were just talking about how warm it’s been this summer in CA (SoCAl and eastern sierra I know form experience) and here on the socal coast we’ve had lots of sun in june instead of june gloom and july fog instead

    flash flood are typical though of the desert slopes of the sierra, and so is inky soot waters…again, we’ve had more heat so more fires so more damaging flashfloods….

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