Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: A ride over the hill leads to pot of golden leaves

Fall colors offer a backdrop for the Leaviitt Meadow Pack Station. Highway 108 begins with concrete and pavement in downtown Modesto, but it’s an entirely different road as it heads into the Sierra and particularly over Sonora Pass to the eastern slope.
Fall colors offer a backdrop for the Leaviitt Meadow Pack Station. Highway 108 begins with concrete and pavement in downtown Modesto, but it’s an entirely different road as it heads into the Sierra and particularly over Sonora Pass to the eastern slope.

Highway 108 begins in downtown Modesto as an amalgamation of concrete and pavement and heads up McHenry Avenue. Then it veers east through Riverbank and Oakdale toward the foothills and mountains.

It ends 120 miles to the east, where 108 T-bones into U.S. 395 in the high desert of the eastern Sierra.

More often than not, Modesto and other Valley residents tell me they have never been to the other end, never driven over Sonora Pass and never have taken the time to take in some of the most beautiful scenery in the state, if not the world. They include longtime Modestans as well as relative Valley newcomers. They include neighbors and friends and co-workers. (I would suspect most don’t even realize they’re on 108 when they are cruising McHenry, which we all know is illegal except during Graffiti Weekend).

If you’ve never been over Sonora Pass, you’re missing out. The eastern slope is at its most spectacular right now, with the aspen leaves turning a gold that, with the slightest bit of breeze, glitters against the green of the fir and tamarack trees. It’s a trip that can be done easily in a day, and for little more than the price of a tank of gas and a picnic lunch.

I drove over Sonora Pass on Friday, seemingly for the millionth time in my life. No matter how many times you see the fall colors, they wow you and remind you never to take them for granted. That explains why some folks return year after year and never get enough of the view.

A couple of miles east of the pass’s 9,628-foot summit, Ted Sayre of Los Gatos photographed a stand of aspen along Leavitt Creek.

“I’d shot the fall color twice before,” he said, beneath trees that bore a reddish hue at the tops. “This makes it the third year I’ve shot this particular grove. You get lucky sometimes.”

A bit farther down the road, Gordon Bonar of Huntington Beach pulled his BMW motorcycle to the shoulder, set up his tripod and some pretty powerful-looking gear, and began snapping away.

“Every year for the past 20 years,” he said. In fact, most years, he comes up twice a few weeks apart just to make sure he gets his fill. As he photographed a particularly brilliant stand backlit by sunshine, a couple of cars passed by.

“They don’t even stop,” he said, shaking his head. “They’ll roll their windows down, stick their iPad or iPhone out the window to take a picture and won’t even get out of the car to enjoy it.”

Indeed, the mountains are a photographer’s mecca any time, but especially now. Just down the road, Rick Fitzgerald and his wife, Stacy, stopped just above a long switchback to take some shots of the West Walker River, and the stand of aspen lining it. The Virginia City, Nev., residents were on their way to Mammoth Lakes but made the detour up the hill, knowing what the ride offered.

“We just had to get out and get some fall color,” Rick said. “It’s gorgeous.”

You don’t have to be an expert photographer to get great shots. Most cameras do a suitable job. I am not a photographer and wouldn’t know the difference between an f-stop and an “F-Troop” rerun. The brave new world of newspapering demands that I pack a camera, and I’ve taken some pretty decent photos if only by accident. My two simple rules: Use the “auto” setting and – pay attention now, because this part is really important – make sure the lens is actually pointing at something or someone. If I stick with the game plan, chances are I’ll get something usable.

Atop the Sierra, and in these conditions, it’s difficult to take a really lousy picture, though the steep terrain might not be the best place for a cellphone selfie: One wrong step backward and it’s a long, long way back up the hill. In traction.

Friday, the colors provided a golden backsplash to the still-operating pack station at Leavitt Meadow, to the horses grazing in the meadow, and to a long-abandoned pack station at Devil’s Gate, a few miles south of the 108-395 junction. Wood buildings and fences, weathered by the deep snows and high winds, display their vulnerability to the elements.

The colors framed the buildings of the Marines’ Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickle Meadow and resembled an artist’s palette on the mountains to the south. But it is a limited-time engagement. By the end of this month, most of the leaves could be down. And the first big snowstorm usually closes the pass for the season.

Sure, there will be fall color in Modesto over the next month or so. The ginkgo leaves will turn yellow. The liquidambars and Chinese pistache leaves will turn red before piling up on the streets and sidewalks and plugging the storm drains.

But there’s nothing like the drive over the pass, to see native trees in all of their fall glory, and the other end of the road that is Highway 108.