The Mono Hot Springs Incident: The Importance of A Good Travel Companion

The Mono Hot Springs Incident, aka The Importance of a Good Travel Companion on practicalwanderlust.com

One of the most important people you will meet in your life is your travel companion. Maybe it’s a friend, neighbor, romantic partner, or family member. They are the person you match with when you adventure. Do you like the touristy stuff? Are you on the hunt for art, nightlife, or food? Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to just lie on a beach with a beer and go with the flow. All of those are valid travel styles, but they don’t always go together. Find yourself a partner for travel that you mesh with. I was one of the lucky few who found that travel partner in my life partner.

 

As you can probably tell, Lia is beyond pragmatic. She plans with the precision of an architect. Gear is researched, bargain bought, weighed, field tested, exchanged, tested again, recorded, catalogued, and then put into our packs. Destinations are curated from all over the internet and thrown into our ever evolving itinerary. She books hostels, transportation, activities, etc. as soon as possible. If you think it’s too much, believe me, it isn’t. As she’s said before, the planning is part of the fun. It builds excitement!

 

I am not as thorough as she is. I get overwhelmed by too much information. I’m also chill to a fault. Where we match up is I am really good at following a plan. She does the setup, and then goes on autopilot while I move the pieces she planned. So she can get really stoked on research and using credit card points or whatever, and then shut off her brain while we’re traveling. The cherry on top is  that we both want to do the same things on vacation.

The importance of a good travel companion.
Adventure Partners for life!

We didn’t realize we were perfect adventure partners at first. We had to find our stride. And we found that stride after a diabolical rock, a totaled car, mountain stoners, a broken French Press, and a 10 hour ride in a tow truck.

 

It was our first Memorial Day as a couple. We’d been dating for 6 months. Lia wanted to do something fun and outdoorsy with 2 of our close friends,  H and T, so she planned a trip to Mono Hot Springs in the High Sierra because it was the only campsite that wasn’t book 2 weeks before Memorial Day. This was her first time organizing a camping trip.

 

From Oakland, it should have taken us about 6 hours, including stops, to get there. Our friends came over in the morning, packed up Lia’s car  – named Fiona – and we were off. About an hour out, H realized she didn’t pack the pump for her air mattress. Yes, air mattress. H has since gotten better at roughing it. Anyway, we stopped at Walmart to stock up on supplies that we would never use, and hopped back on the 5. We reach the hills and it was a solid hour of climbing into the mountains. When I say climb, I mean I put all of my power on the gas pedal so I could go 15 MPH.  By this point, a good 4 hours in, all  of us were getting hangry. No one wanted to be the one to choose a place to eat, so instead we all passive aggressively argued over which place to stop for food and when. Finally we stop for some overpriced sandwiches and start feeling a little better. We were about an hour and a half behind schedule, but who cares? From a geographical standpoint, we were only about 40 miles away. I was so hopeful back then.

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According to the directions that Lia had printed out from Google Maps, we needed to take Kaiser Pass: seven miles of narrow, cliffside one lane road that must be taken at no faster than 10 MPH. We had heard that this road would be clearly visible right when you get into town at Huntington Lake. No way you can miss it, we heard.
Long story short, we drove right past it.

 

Panoramic view of the snow capped high Sierra Nevada mountain peaks as seen from Kaiser Pass on the way to Mono Hot Springs.
The view of the High Sierra from Kaiser Pass was  worth 10 hours of driving.

 

We pull into the tiny little mountain town of Lakeshore (on Huntington Lake) and get firewood – because as everyone should know, buy your wood where you burn it! We should have asked the desk clerk where we needed to go next, but hindsight is 20/20 and my stubbornness is a 10. We drove on. Lia remembered that she read something about “You’ll hit the road as you turn around a corner near the lake.” Well, lakes have a shitload of corners. We kept driving. We went past the last campsite in town, but we knew we were camping somewhere away from Huntington Lake. I called BS. We turned back around and looked for Kaiser Pass again. This would be a good time to let you know we printed the directions and a small version of the map; we did not have cell service. At one point I found a map on a public restroom wall, but  unsurprisingly, it was no help. I went all the way through town again and turned back around. Future me would find out if I  would have driven four more miles, we’d have found Kaiser Pass.
At the time me said screw it, let’s just keep driving and see if the road materializes (solid plan). We turned around yet again and drove through town for the fourth time. This time we kept going until that road turned into a mountain pass. We went about 15 miles in the wrong direction  at 10 MPH before we found enough cell phone service to realize we were all collectively the worst. Poor H and T, mind you, had two giant bundles of firewood each on their laps during this pointless circling through Huntington Lake, and had no room to move since we had packed far more than anyone needed for a camping trip.

 

Finally we found the damn pass and made our way carefully up the mountain, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the view of the Sierra Nevadas spread out below us. By the time we finally reached the Ranger Station to check into our campsite, it was closed. So we checked in with the tiny visitor’s center on Kaiser Pass, hoping for some good news. There wasn’t any.

Kaiser Pass near Mono Hot Springs in the high Sierra Nevadas, California
Kaiser Pass looking inaccurately innocent.

 

We decided we would go to our campsite anyway. We reserved it after all. We agreed that we would drive back down in the morning and check in properly. After a slow and treacherous descent up the mountain pass, and listening to “Bound 2” by Kanye several times (because it is Lia’s most hated song), we reached camp. Our trip, which was supposed to take 6 hours, took just north of 10. We set up our tents and our hammock, and had a really great first night of camp. We packed way too much, but that at least meant we had a pretty cushy set-up.

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The next morning, Lia and I hopped into Fiona and took off for the ranger to check in. To give you an idea of the pass, you reach Mono Hot Springs about four miles before our camp down the windy Kaiser Pass. A mile past our camp in the other direction is the Lake Edison parking lot. I turned left (stupid stupid Jeremy) out of camp and in a couple minutes we found ourselves at Lake Edison. Damn. Wrong way. No matter. We didn’t go that far. I tried to make up for lost time by going way too fast for this road; probably a break neck speed of 20 MPH. We hit a turn and as we came around I saw the object of our undoing: a giant, smoking glob of magma bred in hell and mined by satan himself.

 

Really, it was just a sharp rock…maybe a foot tall, probably less.

 

We drove right over it and heard a loud screech followed by “ca-chunk,” which is car language for “I’m dead now.” I have a habit of trying to keep it together even when clearly nothing is okay. Lia suggested we stop and look but I said it’s fine. We’ll just keep going. The check engine light went on. All good here. A smell of oil. Seems normal to me. The temperature ramped up. That’s weird. Must be the heat here. Then the car died. For good. Little fighter made it 5 miles down the mountain. RIP Fiona.

 

This is the face of someone who has just totaled their girlfriends car 10 hours from civilization.
This is the face of someone who has just totaled their girlfriend’s car 10 hours from civilization and is gripping onto anything he can for dear life.

 

In a turn of fate, the heavens smiled down and the couple driving directly behind us were
locals. Rugged, grew up within 10 miles of here, fought a bear once and lived to tell the tale style mountain locals. They had seen this kind of thing before (apparently broken down Bay Area residents aren’t a rarity around these parts).  Not only did they diagnose our car problem (leaking oil tank), help us push the car down the 1 lane road to a turnout, and let us borrow their phone – which was using some kind of local mountain folk satellite service – but they even knew the towing company guy personally, and helped us reserve a tow truck for the next day. Then our good Samaritans gave us a lift to the ranger station, where we had been headed. Wanna know the worst part of this whole ordeal? A ranger had already checked in with our friends AT THE CAMPSITE! We didn’t even need to leave! Fiona was sacrificed for NOTHING.

 

Still in disbelief of the whole situation, and knowing full well Lia would break up with me for killing her car, we accepted a ride from our heroes back to our campsite, listening to their stories about the area and trying not to be alarmed by the amount of weed they were smoking while they drove. Back at the campsite, we filled in H and T and introduced them to our new favorite people. Like angels from stoney mountain folk heaven, the local couple offered to share with us a joint and some day old pizza that they happened to have in their pickup truck, which we accepted gratefully. Afterwards, they offered yet again to give us a ride, this time down the pass to Mono Hot Springs, our original plan for the day. We opted to ride in the back of the pickup truck, which was the greatest idea ever. They had a mattress in the bed of the truck (mountain folk camping!) so we piled in and enjoyed the incredibly scary, but incredibly fun ride to the hot springs before bidding our new favorite people ever goodbye. Thank you, incredibly kind stoner mountain folk. I hope our paths cross again one day.

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The hot springs were underwhelming – essentially just concrete holes built into the side of a hill – but the river was pretty. After a few hours we decided we should hike back to the campsite. But when we asked a hot springs employee about the hiking trail, he took one look at us – 4 hipsters with “Bay Area” and “no cell service” written on our foreheads in invisible ink, lugging the sleeping bag H bought at the gift shop to go on her air mattress – and strongly suggested that we not take the backwoods hiking trail. Instead, we had to hike up blazing hot Kaiser Pass in the sun for four miles. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the gift of “hiking” up a mountain pass, but I don’t recommend it. The most heartbreaking thing was we could see a trail of Fiona’s oil the whole way up. The whole time, I heard the ghost of Fiona saying “Look at what you did!”

 

River at Mono Hot Springs in the High Sierra Nevadas, California
The river, which is way more enjoyable than the actual hot springs at Mono Hot Springs.

 

The next morning, T accidentally broke Lia’s French Press against a tree. It seemed like an appropriate way to say goodbye to the campsite. (Side note: who brings a french press on a camping trip?? We were such rookies.)

 

We packed up and waited for the tow truck at the entrance to the campground, as per their instructions, at promptly 8am. Three hours later, we hear the unmistakable sound of a tow truck. Lia has the titanium, her-majesty’s-secret-service level of AAA insurance, so we had a lot of free tow miles. Unfortunately Kaiser Pass is in a state park, so they have to charge by the hour until you reach Huntington Lake. (The real moral of this story is fuck Kaiser Pass.) When it was all said and done, it took the truck about 7 hours just to do Kaiser Pass, at roughly 3MPH. It cost over $500 to go 7 miles. In my mind this was all more kindling for the inevitable break up between me and Lia, since your boy here did not make much money at the time.

 

Moments before the French Press tragedy, at our campsite in the High Sierra, Mono Hot Springs.
Moments before the French Press tragedy, H reflects on the importance of having an air mattress in the High Sierra.

After about ten hours, we found ourselves in Fremont, CA, where a mechanic upon which we pinned all of our hopes for the survival of Fiona was located (spoilers: Fiona was totaled. We ripped open the oil pan and by continuing to drive, we caused an electrical meltdown.) Unfortunately, the mechanic closed about 5 minutes prior to us arriving. We left Fiona in the parking lot and took an Uber home, which cost us roughly the GDP of a small country. All in all, it was a pretty eventful Memorial Day.

 

We learned a few things from that trip. Number one is never take Kaiser Pass anywhere, ever. Number two, our camping trip planning really got stepped up. Three, always have a backup plan for getting lost. Study the area around where you’re going. If you need to grab a road, make sure you know what is after it, in case you miss it. Four, add some wiggle room on your arrival time. Things happen. And five, locals are the best.

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Most importantly, I learned the importance of a good travel partner. Not only did Lia NOT break up with me, she didn’t even get mad. She likes to joke that the moment she realized we should get married was when she wasn’t upset that I totaled her car – that’s real love! Even though the hot springs were kind of a letdown,  we got lost everywhere that we tried to go, Fiona died a terrible and expensive death, and T broke her french press, it was still a fun trip that we were all able to laugh about. Oh, and H and T were both bridesmaids at our wedding.

 

Since the Fiona incident, we have become in sync as travel companions. It is almost a guarantee that something will go terribly wrong while traveling: reservations could get lost, you could lose cell reception, your car might break down, a storm might hit, you might get mugged. Having a good partner can alleviate the stress of these situations and help you both make it through. No matter how crazy a situation we find ourselves in, we figure out a way to get through it together, because we’re damn good partners.  And that’s the importance of a good travel companion.

10 Comment

  1. So heartwarming to hear how in sync your partnership is. Would you ever consider swapping roles in terms of who does the planning etc haha?

  2. Sounds like an ordeal. Totally agree that planning is part of the fun. You sound like my husband and I. I do all the work and he just does what he is told lol.

  3. Lia says: Reply

    Somehow it just never works right the other way! Jerect did the prep and planning for the Ecuador portion of our trip to South America, but there was still details that he wanted me to fill in because it was too confusing for him. And when we show up, regardless of how much research I did, I will be lost without him putting that information to use! I get lost just driving myself home from work. Finding my way in a foreign country? Forget about it! So I do all the heavy lifting before we go, and then blindly follow him around like a clueless, lost puppy dog when we are there. It just works best this way!

  4. Lia says: Reply

    Jeremy basically follows the instructions of past me when we get to our destination because when I'm actually there, I am totally useless! I just do what I'm told, or else we both get terriby lost. So we both have to hope that my research and planning has been substantial enough to help Jeremy figure out what he needs to do, because my brain retains none of it. I just blindly follow him around lol. In the case of this post, I didn't plan well, so we got lost for 10 hours and then broke our car. That ones pretty much on me. Whoops!

  5. GOOD LORD what a trip!!! Hahah I love the way you write!!!!! And how much of your girlfirends shit you accidentally broke lol….poor Fiona!!!! Glad you guys survived and are still in love hahah

  6. It's not a proper travel story if everything goes according to plan 😀

  7. First off, you guys have such a cute story and I'm happy that you found your travel stride together 😉 Second, the mishaps in travel are what make the best stories… which you clearly know haha. And still sounds like a great trip!

  8. Lia says: Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Johna says: Reply

    What a great travel story! As people as say, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that aren't planned ������

  10. […] make it even more enjoyable. If you’re lucky, your travel partner is also your life partner.  I lucked out.  For my husband and I, travel is something to be anticipated and planned. Not too much – […]

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