Day 26: San Gabriel Mountains, CA to Los Angeles, CA

September 28th, 2012

59.3 mi / 4:33:57 time / 12.9 mph avg. / 2034 ft. climbing
Staying at Laurianne and Brad’s Place

While the mountain-climbing part of the trip was effectively over yesterday, I lack access to a helicopter, so the top of a mountain is not a very practical jumping off point for my return to normal life. That meant I still had a ride into and through LA on the menu today, which I owas actually pretty excited about.

Laurianne, the sister of my old childhood friend Dave, lives in LA now, and she had been following along on my trip via Facebook. Some talk about meeting up for a drink had morphed into a very generous offer from her and her boyfriend Brad to spend the night at their place. This was at least triply-awesome. First, and silliest, it meant that I would spend every single night of my month-long trip without ever staying in a motel. I think my previous camping record was 14 days; I blew that away on this trip by camping 25 nights in a row, and combined with a night at Joel and Chika’s and now a night at Laurianne and Brad’s, it’s about the purest (not to mention cheapest!) way to spend a month away from home. Second, it meant that I would be able to break my streak of solitude by spending the evening with some cool people. And third, it gave some definition to my time in LA. The LA/exit portion of the trip is the one bit that I hadn’t pre-planned in excruciating detail, and that meant that I probably would have just defaulted to finding a motel in the morning, and upon arriving, would have slumped into the room, and spent the next 24 hours eating, watching TV, eating, and eating.

Only in the last few days had I remembered that I actually did have one slack day built in: it would have been bad news for the people next to me on the plane, but if I lost a day somewhere, I theoretically could have rode straight from the mountaintop to the Amtrak station, shipped my bike, and made it to LAX in time for my 2:45 flight. But now I would make something of my time in town (and give my seat mates on the plane and more pleasant-smelling flight!)

Last night’s campground was a lot nicer than I had been expecting; the area in the Angeles National Forest had been hit pretty bad by fire a year or two ago, and many of the areas are still restricted. So I pictured a campground with some scraggly brush and a few blackened tree trunks. But it was actually filled with nice healthy shade trees enclosing the sites, and even had a small stream running through the middle (and directly over the concrete campground road).
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And the whole “forest” was much nicer too. Some of the mountainsides were actually green, and wow, there were some serious mountainsides. That meant I still had a bit more up-and-down to do before hitting the final descent. I always knew LA had “mountains” around it (that Hollywood sign is widely visible for a reason) , but had no idea that there were 5-6000 foot Mountains just outside the city. That’s a similar elevation relationship as Denver and the Front Range to its west.
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The afternoon before, as I traveled south and up from the Antelope Valley, I noticed most cars were coming in the opposite direction. This morning, it was the opposite, and I guessed 10 cars passed in my direction for every one coming the other way. So hey, let’s count. In the 5 mile section to the Angeles Crest Highway, the count was 99 to 9. Darn it, 11 to 1, my estimate was just off! 🙂

So that clearly means these are commuters living in the Antelope Valley and working in the LA area. At an absolute minimum, that’s a 70 mile round-trip commute, which maybe isn’t crazier than a lot of exurb-to-city commutes in the country, but the craziness of such commutes is revealed with unignorable obviousness when you see them happening over a winding, nearly-empty mountain road that was only intended to be traveled by vacationers and forest service workers. To their credit, many of these commuters were driving relatively small, fuel-efficient cars, but nonetheless they are lifting at least 200 bowling balls up (and down) seven Sears Towers just to get to work every day. Insanity. Presumably they’ve done the math and found that this route works better for them than the longer-but-flatter main highway connecting the same valleys. Or maybe they just like the prettier and less mind-numbing drive, for which I can’t really blame them. But I can (and will!) blame them for living in an entirely different region from where they work!

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Hot new roadside litter of 2012, must've seen 100 of these through OR and CA

On the downhill I got my first view of the smog-obscured LA basin (though apparently far clearer than it once was!) and then suddenly I was dumped into the very pretty, high-class suburb of La Canada Flintridge, with greenery and flowers everywhere that I hadn’t seen since Portland. The town is still on the mountain slope, so on the main road running down the slope I saw my first runaway-vehicle ramps in a residential neighborhood. They aren’t actually ramps, instead, it’s a gravel/sandy median in the middle of the road that presumably drag your vehicle to a halt.

I wound down Chevy Chase Drive, looking at all the fancy houses, and then stopped in the very Armenian suburb of Glendale for library and lunch (Armenian-language section in the library! Armenian lawyer for hire!) Lunch was at BJs Brewhouse, a sort of commercial/chain place, where I got myself a 2400-calorie “deep dish” pizza for lunch (probably over 3000 with my 2 beers + salad). The pizza of course wasn’t anything a Chicagoan would recognize as “deep dish”, but I had to get it just for comparison, and it wasn’t bad for what it was.
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Then it was time to see LA! The lines of tall palm trees, the vagrants and suntanners laying about the greenery of Griffith Park, the iconic Hollywood sign, a cruise down not-so-glitzy Hollywood Boulevard, a roll through very-nice but surprisingly-normal residential Beverly Hills, past tourists and high school kids at Santa Monica pier, an observation the highest concentration of LA weirdos, freaks, and potheads at Venice Beach, and finally and most importantly, my long-awaited return, from heights unimaginable, to the ocean! I got myself a big old waffle cone from a Venice Beach ice cream shop to eat on my walk across the wide, soft stretch of sand, and under the California sun let the warm waves, so different in character than their Oregon siblings, wash the wear from my feet. Ahhhhhh. Life reset to zero. I checked to see if this ocean would spit my lost cyclometer back to me, but no luck.

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Historical relic!


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Just because no one gets their picture with poor Walter Callett!


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Then I turned around for a ride up Venice Boulevard to Laurianne and Brad’s place. LA is as spread-out as I expected, so at least 30 of my miles today were just touring the city, which I think gave me as good a feel for a place as you can get in an afternoon. I actually liked the place a lot more than I expected I would (and certainly more than all the haters of Northern California who frequently made a verbal or non-verbal commentary when hearing of my final destination!) I don’t think I’m ready to move there, but I can certainly understand why so many people have decided to. The cycling was actually pretty good too. On a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, when I was still in dawdling sight-seeing mode, even though there were no sights to see, I got passed by a guy with a messenger bag who clearly knew what he was doing. That inspired me to put the hammer down and take off after him. I couldn’t quite keep on his tail, but for miles never got more than half a block behind, and he did a great job of leading the way, pointing out opening car doors, crazy bus drivers, and generally giving me a lesson in LA cycling to follow. It felt awesome to switch out of touring-cyclist mode and back into (sub)urban-warrior mode, especially since this warrior was piloting a tank today!

I met Brad at the apartment, he helped get my bags and bike up inside, and shortly after Laurianne arrived home from work. I got a shower (not on a concrete floor, that I didn’t need any quarters for, and with an extensive selection of cleansing products!), and then we cracked some beers and caught up a bit. As I had hoped, they did a great job of thinking of LA places for dinner that would also be a good fit for a guy who just finished the most energy-intensive tour of his life, but first we got a quick look (and smell!) at the La Brea Tar Pits, because, you know, there are these primeval tar pits still bubbling away right in the urban middle of the 2nd-biggest metropolis in the country!

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Then it was on to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, proudly decorated with photos of President Obama’s recent visit, where I followed the suggestion of their logo that features a chicken and a waffle, and got, yes, chicken and waffles. Specifically, half of a chicken, smothered in gravy, and two giant waffles, smothered in butter and syrup. Oh my. Somehow the enormous lunch less than 5 hours earlier, nor the giant ice cream cone, had any effect on me clearing my plates (yes, plural).
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Then back to the apartment for some more drinks, laying about, catching up on both personal and world news, and even helping start my transition back into society with some Thursday night TV! I got set up on the nice soft couch for a night’s sleep, so glad I hadn’t used up this buffer day earlier, and thankful to Laurianne and Brad for helping draw the final period at the tail of my trip.

Day 25: Tehachapi, CA to San Gabriel Mountains, CA

September 27th, 2012

78.2 mi / 6:06:58 time / 12.7 mph avg. / 3858 ft. climbing
Staying at Monte Cristo National Forest Campground

I woke up exactly at 6am, and found that the ducks were still quacking away, though it hadn’t prevented me from having one of the soundest sleeps of the whole trip. When I hit the road, it felt like it was really late and I was way behind, but it was only 8am. The difference was the wide Tehachapi Valley didn’t have any nearby mountains to block the rising sun, so it appeared way higher above the horizon than I had become accustomed to.
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I took long, straight, Highline Road due east to leave the valley. It stays above and south of Tehachapi proper, so no more rants were inspired. I had a small lip to climb over to get from the Tehachapi Valley to the Antelope Valley. On that lip and running down the mountainside sits what I believe is one of the world’s largest wind farms, which reduces my haughty disregard for Tehachapians a bit, though I was happy that for this morning at least, very few of the turbines was spinning.
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Then it was a long, gradual 2000 foot descent into the true high desert of the Antelope Valley. Sprinkled with Joshua Trees, it’s so flat, they used to land Space Shuttles there, though a few pockets of mountains pop up in the interior of the pancake like bursting blueberries. The borders are defined by two geometrically inexplicable 5000 foot mountain ranges, forming a perfect ‘V’ that opens to the east. I descended from the northern range in the morning, climbed up the southern range in the afternoon, and spent the rest of the day inside Pac-Man’s mouth, which thankfully didn’t close on me.

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Joshua Trees, bare mountains, and a bright green field. One of these does not belong!

I stopped for Internet at the library in Rosamond, which is a huge, beautiful new building that stays closed and unused 4 days a week. Strange, because unlike Piedra, Rosamond is actually a pretty big community with car dealerships and chain stores and all that. Even though it’s in the middle of a desert.

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If you say so!

From there I headed south southeast on the perfectly-angled Sierra Highway. It, along with the railroad and the Air Force Base, form the eastern border of Rosamond and the other middle-of-the-desert cities of Lancaster and Palmdale. It was nice to crank along for miles and miles at a steady pace. Temperatures never really exceeded the low 90s, so it was far from the worst heat I’ve faced, helped by the fact that I remained over 2000 feet above sea level. Through Lancaster and Palmdale there is a long bike path paralleling the highway, and despite the fact that it was on the wrong side of the road from me, it was actually really nice, because the railroad next to it meant there were almost no traffic crossings. And it was even lined with trees and plantings to give a bit of cooling shade, something that was nowhere to be found on the road.

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A solar power tower! Maybe these people are greener than I thought.

As I slowed to take a photo of the Lockheed-Martin Skunkworks, I heard a “thup-thup-thup” on my front tire, and discovered something stuck to it. I pulled it off, and “psshh”, out came the air along with the thorny thing. Dammit! Not so much that I had a flat tire, but I had been hoping to make it through two consecutive tours without a flat. Oh well, some 2500 loaded miles on a set of tires (Schwalbe Marathon Supremes) before the first flat is pretty darn good.
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The front tire is the easy one to fix, so I quickly got that taken care of and since I’m in Southern California, made my way over to the In-and-Out Burger for a late lunch. Wow, they sure make ordering easy, with barely anything on the menu, but they had the 4 things I wanted: cheeseburger (double, of course), fries, a soft drink, and a chocolate shake. The cashier took note of my awesome cyclist tan, which he recognized from seeing on his cyclist friend. I made a grocery stop and a truly Mexican grocery where it was hard to find the white-man bread products, and then made a stop at the gas station to put more air pressure in my tires than my mini-pump is capable of. A sign informed me that California State Law requires air and water to be given for free to purchasers of gasoline. Does the attendant come out and just drop a quarter in the machine for you? I didn’t find out, since I hadn’t purchased any gas, so I just dropped my own quarter. Though now I wonder if I should have squirted a penny of gas on the ground and saved myself 24 cents!

Then it was time to climb the last Big Hill of the trip. At 2500 feet up into the San Gabriel Mountains, it would be the 30th climb of 1000 feet or more in 17 days. Since it was a state route, the grades never exceeded the range of my gears, so it was a nice “easy” way to go out.

On the way up, I found myself thinking of Greg Polerecky. He was one of the group of athletically-talented classmates of mine in elementary school. Due to my inability to regularly make contact with a baseball or shoot a basketball through a net, I learned at a young age that I was athletically inferior to guys like Greg. On the idiotic but culturally-unavoidable Jocks-Nerds Continuum, that resulted in a self-image that put me far on the “Nerd” side (truly, a badge I was never too ashamed to wear). But now that I look back, I realize I’m the guy who won the Gold Medal in the Cub Scout Olympics, I’m the guy who led my high school track team to a Conference Championship, I’m the guy who put down a 3:35 marathon just for the heck of it, and now, at 35, I’m the guy who is about to complete a conquest of the formidable Sierra Nevada Mountains. So maybe I’m a bit of an athlete after all. I really don’t need to stroke my own ego more than I already do, and there’s not even a strong logical reason to build that ego upon athletic accomplishments, but it’s nice to dredge up and clear out a long-standing misconception of myself from childhood. It’s just interesting to realize how ancient, fleeting moments like that can stick, and even though they mostly lie dormant, still have effects on our psyche. Of course I still can’t put a basketball through a net very well, and I haven’t tried to hit a baseball in years, but as long as I can keep my hands out of the equation I’d be happy to go up against Greg any time!

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Self Portrait

At the top, there was no elevation or summit sign, but that was fine, it was just me and the bike. I had 7 more miles to roll down to the campground, but for me, the day, and essentially the whole trip, was finished right there, 5000 above Los Angeles, in the warm glow of the late-afternoon sun. I was done, and although these mountains bent me severely, they never broke me, and of that I’ll remain forever proud. That means I still don’t know what my limits truly are, but I think it’s no longer necessary to explore any further. They are farther out than I thought they were, and hopefully farther than I’ll ever need them to be. And that’s enough for me. Let’s roll back down to the sea.

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(I must have realized I could finally relax my focus)

Day 24: Lake Isabella, CA to Tehachapi, CA

September 26th, 2012

60.0 mi / 6:24:47 time / 9.3 mph avg. / 7132 ft. climbing
Staying at Brite Lake Recreation Area

Last night’s enormous campground was deserted, as far as I could tell, so I was surprised that when I went to get an envelope to deposit my $20 fee, the sign said nope, no envelopes, a uniformed ranger will stop by to collect. Uh, yeah, fat chance of that. I had all the privacy I needed, so I spent another night out on top of the picnic table, and of course no ranger ever appeared. Given the complete lack of motel-nights and the dozen or so campgrounds where I’ve paid $5 or less, this is turning out be my cheapest bill for lodging ever on a tour. Not so for the beer bill, however!
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After spending what seems like weeks on nearly empty winding mountain roads where no cars pass you faster than 20 mph, it was quite a system shock to start the day with all the morning commuters hustling between the towns surrounding Lake Isabella at 60 mph, on a shoulderless road. I stopped at the McDonald’s in the town of Lake Isabella for breakfast, not for the taste, but for the speed, convenience, and WiFi. Seems like the first town in forever with chain stores. And geez, $4.99 for 1400 calories of Deluxe Breakfast? It’s hard to beat that, and made my $3.69 350 calorie smoothie look like a complete ripoff in comparison!

Today’s distance wasn’t long, and there were no giant mountains, but there was still a ton of climbing as the route basically bashes its way out through the folded southern foothills of the Sierras. There was also very little civilization, so I made sure to carry a Gatorade out of Lake Isabella along with my 3 water bottles.

The morning half of the ride was three climbs in the 1000-foot range, and since it was back on less-than-state highways (the Bodfish-Caliente Road), that meant sections of 10+% grades again. It seems like my phase of engine-difficulty is now well-past, so while it was hard, it was fun-hard, not sucks-hard. The route out of Lake Isabella continually informed me I was on a Dam Failure Evacuation Route. Pretty much the same idea as the Tsunami Evacuation Route signs from the Oregon coast I guess, though this disaster would be man-made. I found it curious that even though I’ve passed downstream of a few big dams now, this is the first I’ve seen such signs. Are those living downstream from Pine Flat Lake or Lake Kaweah just unconcerned, or is the Lake Isabella dam more likely to fail?
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The last climb was on a road that only appears on Google Maps if you zoom in really far. It’s odd, because the roads are like a lower-case ‘b’, where you start at the top of the stem, and want to get to the bottom. Google by default will take you all the way around the curve to get you there, rather than just continuing straight down. Usually that means the road is dirt, has a 40% grade, or is populated by an army of Nazi separatists waiting to shoot anyone who crosses their lands. I had done enough research to know none of that was true, but was still a bit nervous about what I’d find. What I found was a perfectly normal mountain road, in better shape than many I’ve been on recently. Weird.
It was all much more pleasant than I’d been expecting, largely because I was playing between 3000 and 4000 feet, so this open mountain rangeland was more oak chapparal than dessicated grassland. On the way down the big descent of the day that would take me to a place with no services ominously called ‘Caliente’, at 1300 feet, I spent a few miles pulsing the brakes trying to find the perfect oak tree casting the perfect shade on the perfect rock to sit and have some lunch. I think I found it a couple times, but too late, I was already too far past down the hill. The third maybe wasn’t quite as perfect, but it was still pretty good, and more importantly, I was able to stop for it. Even at the bottom, in full sun, I don’t think the temperatures broke above the mid-80s today, so I guess you’re not so ‘Caliente’ at after all, but huh?

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Lunch spot

One last brutal climb up from Caliente, and I made it to CA 58, effectively a superhighway headed up the mountain from Bakersfield. Sign said bicycles are not allowed. Hmm. I’m pretty sure this was on the Adventure Cycling Route, and I couldn’t believe they’d send anyone down a road illegally. I pulled out my maps to investigate if there were any alternates. I wasn’t worried about breaking their rules, but there was an endless mass of semi trucks grinding and huffing and roaring and wheezing up the hill in both lanes (literally more semi trucks in 5 minutes than I’ve seen the entire trip, it was astounding), often with their hazard lights flashing, and it made me wonder of the huge shoulder disappeared or something else strange like that. Then I noticed a big cell tower right next to me. Internet worked, and a quick search for “Adventure Cycling Sierra Cascades SR58” brought me to a thread at their forum where a local said he rode it once a week and never had an issue, and AC said the sign was put there in error and CalTrans had been informed. Alright! You’re awesome, Google! Onward! (a county sheriff did in fact pass me, and gave me no trouble).

Though the semis were struggling up the grade, it was a lot easier for me than what I had been on, so I was a bit sad to leave it when the local alternate appeared and dropped me into the town-in-a-building of Keane. This “town” was missing the gas station and 90% of the general store, but I was able to get the waitress to give me two big scoops of oh-so-good vanilla ice cream in a Styrofoam box (she thought I wanted it to go for some reason), and she filled my water bottles.

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Seems the local rises a bit faster than the main highway!

During the big climb to Tehachapi that followed, when I realized this was going to be yet another 7000+ foot day, I started telling myself a story to remind myself what 7000+ feet of climbing really is, and just because it seems to be happening frequently, that doesn’t mean it’s normal, and it’s important to remember that’s why this trip seems like so much work. It goes something like this:

Go down to your local bowling alley and pick up a 15 lb. ball. Feels like a nice heft, right? Now put that in a sack, and find 2 more to add to the sack. Do the same with a second sack, filling it with 3 more 15 lb. bowling balls (make sure you have some strong sacks!) Now pick them up, if you can, and walk over to the Sears Tower. Stand at the base and look all the way up to the top. Think about making it to those miniscule glass ledges way up there with all your bowling balls. Then stack four more Sears Towers on top of the first one, and imagine making it to the top of that. Of course there is no elevator, and remember, no air-conditioning in the stairwell either.

That’s a bit what 7000+ feet of climbing is. Of course I’m lucky that my 90 lbs. of bowling balls are sitting beneath me, so I don’t have to lift them as well as move them. And a bicycle, utilizing the ancient inventions of wheels and gears, is an incredibly efficient machine, so it moves with a lot less energy wasted than you trudging up an endless staircase. But still, that exercise helped return to me some perspective, and better, while thinking about it, 1000 feet had passed without me noticing it!

A railroad was running up the hill between me and SR58, and I soon came to one of the “Seven Wonders of the Railroad World”, the Tehachapi Loop, where the rail line does a complete circular loop over itself, roller-coaster style, in order to gain the necessary altitude without killing the trains. In other places the line also snakes back and forth to reduce the grade, which is something I do too when restarting from a stop on a hill that was just too much: I start riding perpendicular to the road to gain some forward momentum before turning uphill again. A marker noted that this rail route, completed in 1856 linking San Francisco and Los Angeles, greatly helping the growth of LA, averages a 2.2% grade. Oh, 2.2%! I’m so impressed! I wish my hard routes were 2.2%!
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Can you spot the cell phone tower? It might actually work 2000 ft higher where there are trees like that. Points for at least trying though!

Once I crested the hill, the empty road I was on suddenly became filled with traffic. Wait, how is this possible? I hadn’t passed another town, or a factory, or anything that explained what was suddenly sending all these people to-and-from distant Tehachapi. Oh, it was the houses. It was the “community” of Golden Hills, with houses sitting on big giant plots of land, not because they were doing ranching or farming, or because there was no room closer to the nearest businesses miles away in Tehachapi, but just because. So all of these people were running back and forth, probably 6 times a day, carrying at least two hundred bowling balls with them wherever they went. Of course not even the strongest and healthiest human can move that many bowling balls under their own power, so instead, they dig up rotting dinosaur meat from the ground and explode it to push themselves forward. Even if they don’t run out of dinosaur meat, the explosions are likely making their already-hot-and-dry lands even hotter and drier, and the whole thing just seems totally unsustainable. There was a nice bike lane along the road, but was there anyone but me on it? Do you even have to ask?

There has to be a better way. As hard as I work and as much energy as I take in and put out to move my bowling balls forward and up the Sears Towers, everyone else has to put out tens or hundreds of times more energy than that. Those semi trucks grinding up that hill were exploding so many dinosaurs that I’m surprised it wasn’t raining dinosaur blood from the sky, but on the whole they’re way more efficient than the guy in his Durango driving 10 miles to pick up a pack of smokes. The trains going up the 2.2% grade are even more efficient, so much that the sign says 36 trains a day still use that line constructed in 1856. Unfortunately that’s still not nearly enough, and the huffing-and-puffing trucks have to carry all the rest of the stuff that overflows from the trains. And what is all this stuff? I’m sure a lot of it is quite necessary, like the bread and cheese and ice cream that kept me alive and moving today. But all of it? Living for a month (and living an awesome, liberating, and joyful life) with all your possessions in the equivalent of two bowling-ball sacks really makes our addiction to stuff seem ugly and stupid and counter-productive. But of course I should not be casting the first stone, as I have often thought while riding how fun this same route through the mountains would be in my dinosaur-exploding Miata. Argh, hopefully we’ll learn and grow past this adolescence before it becomes too late.

Okay, back to the ride! I finally made it to some non-houses in Tehachapi, where I got my second early-dinner in a row. Mexican this time. Shut up, yesterday wasn’t “Mexican” just because it was tacos! This was full-Mexican, chips-and-salsa, margarita, enchiladas, and… a salad? I guess that’s how they roll here in Tehachapi. At the next table, a 60-something man spent their whole dinner regaling his poor date (?) with tales of every fight he had been in (or nearly been in) in his life. The short ride to the campground was surprisingly difficult, both because it reached the high point in the day and because it was into a strong wind. (ok, maybe the strong margarita had something to do with it too). It’s actually cool enough to be wearing my hat outside at night for the first time in a while, and there’s an enormous herd of ducks sitting on the lake quaking up a storm. Sounds like they go all night here!

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Day 22: Sequoia National Park, CA to Camp Nelson, CA

September 24th, 2012

94.0 mi / 8:16:21 time / 11.3 mph avg. / 7421 ft. climbing
Staying at Camp Nelson RV Park

Wow, what a morning! Dennis and I were packed up and on the road a little after 7am. He joined me southward for a few miles to go see General Sherman, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the tree world. For the third morning in a row, I felt pains in my stomach, but once we hit the road and started a climb, I felt like I was attacking it with twice the energy and speed of yesterday, so that was a very good sign.

As cyclists, we could pull into the entrance right next to General Sherman rather than parking at a remote lot like all the (non-handicapped) drivers have to. Like yesterday, we were the only ones there, and our timing was even better because we got to see the rising sun lighting the upper tiers of Sherman, giving a perspective you just would never see later on. It still seems odd to me, since most of the campground was awake and moving about at the same time we were, but I guess people just don’t think to go sightseeing right then. At first I was wondering if General Sherman would be just “more of the same” after seeing General Grant, but it’s a very different looking tree, and its positioning lends different perspectives, so I’m very happy that I saw both.
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Then it was time for Dennis to turn around and say our goodbyes, as every hill he went down meant a hill he would have to climb on his already hilly ride back. It’s too bad we couldn’t have had more time riding together, but it was great to have him around for even a short while.

Then I had a decision to make. A friend (Laurianne) had mentioned on Facebook that I should take a hike to the top of Moro Rock. It had already been something on my radar of “potentials”, things I looked at during the planning stages of the trip in case I found myself with a surplus of time and energy after the bike riding. Well, compiling that list of “potentials” has seemed quite silly in hindsight, as there has been very little surplus of anything on this trip, and I have frequently given myself a rueful laugh when recalling my pre-ride naivete.  Today was already scheduled to be another really long one, and adding 4 miles of riding and 300 feet of stair climbing would make it even longer. But, if someone calls a place one of their favorite places in the world, that’s a strong recommendation, and I was feeling really strong again, so what the heck.

As soon as I made the turnoff, it felt like the right decision. The narrow road went through the highest Sequoia concentration I had seen so far, with their rust-orange trunks signaling them out amongst the lesser, drab-brown trees, just in case their immense size wasn’t sufficient to grab your attention and let you know they are the Kings of the Forest.
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Moro Rock is a granite dome sticking off the side of the mountain, providing long-distance, 360 degree views, and a staircase has helpfully been laid in it to get you to the top. And those views were tremendous. To the east was the Great Western Divide, a sawtooth line of 12000 foot peaks truly representing the highest wall of the High Sierras. And to the west was the Kaweah Valley, nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, though much broader, giving a great perspective on the changes in the land with elevation, including the winding road I was about to take down into that valley. So yeah, totally worth it, at least at that point in the day!
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Then it was time to head down the giant hill. If the morning wasn’t already great enough, I saw a bear! (sorry Dennis!) Coming around a downhill turn, I glimpsed what I assumed would turn out to be just a bear-shaped log in the forest, but then when that log noticed me, he instantly leaped onto the trunk of a nearby tree! Then a couple seconds later after realizing it was just a puny human, he dropped back down and resumed rooting around on the forest floor, giving me plenty of time to stand and watch (and get some crappy photos) before he moved on. In all my travels and putting food in bear boxes, I’ve never actually seen a bear in the wild before, so it was great to check that off my list, and now interacting with one in real life will probably help reduce any imagined late-night bear-fears.
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Then it was time to continue the rest of the 6000+ foot drop. Soon I came to the road construction area, where there was an automated traffic light letting one-way traffic through every 20 minutes. I had known about this for months, and actually saved some journal-writing to give me something to do during the break. After 10 minutes or so, we began the stretch of several miles of rough gravel/dirt/stone road. I was nearly able to keep up with the cars (and the 15mph speed limit) but I have no idea what a cyclist going uphill would do. Maybe similar to what some jackass who had jumped the light going up had done:  pulled over close to the wall, prayed that no one would collide head-on, and then, as I went by, asked “are there any more cars?” Not when I started, but how should I know if any are coming behind me? Jackass.

The rest of the descent was a lot easier, but not a whole lot more fun. Way too many 10mph switchbacks meant that I was on my brakes much of the time. I keep trying to heed the signs that say “Use Lower Gear”, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to have any effect!

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Moro Rock

In the final stages, I went by Lake Kaweah, which, as a dammed Sierra river, is quite similar to Pine Flat Lake, but somehow much less foreboding. Maybe it was all the bright green vegetation in the broad valley.
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Once past the dam, I was down again at 500 feet in the Central Valley, in the fruit orchards of Lemon Cove. Oranges and olives were also popular choices. I had some long flat sections, making for the first time in days when I could crank along at an easy 18mph, rather than alternating between grinding at 5mph and coasting at 30mph.

I was feeling so strong that I skipped any potential stops in Lemon Cove and headed off onto 27 miles of deserted backroad through the Yokohl Valley. It was mile after mile of sun-parched yellow rangeland, with cattle huddled in the small bit of shade provided by the rare trees.  It was again hovering around and above 100 degrees the whole way through, but I seemed to be tolerating it much better than before. In the dryness, and moving faster than 5mph, sweat works very efficiently to cool the body, which surely helped. Like Lake Kaweah, despite the emptiness, the feel was less apocalyptic than the rangeland near Pine Flat Lake. There were nice gates and fences in this area, and no Nazis. Though at one point I saw what I’m pretty sure was gang graffiti on some boulders in the middle of nowhere, which made me wonder what really goes on out here. The worst part was that I underestimated the 2300 foot climb out of the valley by some 800 feet.

That meant that despite my efficiency, I had drained all my water bottles by the time I reached Springville, and when I stopped at the small diner there, asked them to just bring me a whole pitcher of water. In addition to my sub sandwich, they had soda floats with your selection of retro/bottled sodas, and oh man, was that good (I had a Sprecher Cherry Cola). Going back out to my bike sitting in the sun, its thermometer read 115, and when I poured another pitcher of ice water into my empty bottles, steam came pouring back out the top.

Then I was faced with a decision. Despite how good I felt, it was 3pm, and I had a 3900 foot climb left on my route, in this blazing heat. I briefly considered just taking a motel there in Springville, but that would have left me with a 6200 foot climb starting the next day, or completely giving up on my planned route. So I decided to just go for it.

The route goes up the Tule River, which is more an endless series of small waterfalls than a river, and made me wonder why the hell I calculated the hill as only 5%. Somehow my hill knowledge, which had been right on so far, was way off today. But as usual, I kept grinding, taking breaks, and slowly but surely neared my destination. As not usual, I was half keeping an eye out for pickup trucks and would have jumped at the chance if anyone offered me a lift up.

In the end, it wasn’t necessary, and I made it to Camp Nelson under my own power, only to find that the campground I was heading to was closed. Darn it. I knew there was a motel, so I decided to just go for that, but it was disappointing both because it would end my record camping streak at 21 nights, and because I had read that in the campground you can actually sleep amongst the Sequoias.

I pulled up to the restaurant/bar, where the locals on the porch encouraged me to come up for their tacos. Sounds good, but I first had to ask about the motel. They decided that at $149, it was too rich for my blood, and instead recommended the $15 RV Park right around the next turn. Ha, I hadn’t even thought of that! I rolled over, caught the friendly owner out turning on the sprinklers, he found a nice grassy spot for me, unlocked the bathroom, and turned the hot water back on.
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Sleeping amongst the Sequoias, or having a glorious hot shower after a 94 mile ride that I could stand under as long as I wanted? Tough call, but at that moment, the latter totally won. It was late, but I decided to head back to the restaurant to see if tacos were still on. Unfortunately they were closing up, but when I asked, the chef gave me one of the two plates he had wrapped up to take home, gratis. Awesome. The bartender had clocked out 10 minutes previous, but she was happy to pour me a beer and stay open, and we had a nice chat where she learned a bit about my tour, and I learned a bit about Camp Nelson. There was even a paper plate with some salmon on it, and they made me try some of that too. Once again, I got a lesson in how good people are.

I got back into camp, and once again knew immediately that the journal writing would have to wait until the next day!

Day 21: Kings Canyon National Park to Sequoia National Park

September 24th, 2012

29.8 mi / 3:08:03 time / 9.9 mph avg. / 2971 ft. climbing
Staying at Lodgepole Campground

After getting back from dinner last night at 9pm, I crawled into my tent and knew I didn’t have the energy to finish my journal entry, but since it was still relatively early I thought I’d lie there and listen to some music. Well, I didn’t even have the energy for that. I got my headphones out, but for a good 45 minutes could not even summon the motivation to put them in my ears and select some music. I would have quite liked to tune out the raging drum circle going on somewhere else the the campground, and I had the solution a foot from my head, but I just couldn’t do it. Eventually I just rolled over and fell asleep, and slept pretty soundly.

Today’s early-morning trek was to Grant Grove to see the 2nd (or 3rd,depends what sign you read) largest tree in the world by volume. Unlike the Coast Redwoods, which can be seen everywhere from the road, Sequoia groves are a lot more isolated, at least the really big boys. As hoped, I was the only one there, and I sat on a bench, ate some breakfast, and tried to comprehend the size of this 273 foot high, 40 foot wide tree. It really needs a house sitting right next to it to give you a sense of scale. What finally helped was imagining how much of an effect I would have if I spent a day whacking it with an ax. The answer I came to was “no effect”.

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Today was to be short day, so after returning to camp and finishing up last night’s entry, I finally rolled out at 10am, but then to only use the WiFi at Grant Village. My stomach still wasn’t feeling quite right, but it was better than the day before. And all of today was between 6600 and 7600 feet, so heat would not be an issue. Nonetheless, I still felt tired and slow for the 30 mile ride.

Part way through, at an overlook revealing distant peaks of the High Sierras on the opposite side of Kings Canyon, I met a guy who, shortly after asking about my ride, immediately offered me one of the jelly donuts from his bag of donuts. Um, sure, I’d be a terrible touring cyclist to turn down a donut! Then he even supplied a wet nap, and when I was about to leave, went back in his car to offer a peach and plum he had just bought. After he insisted, I took the plum, but left him the peach. It was really good later on.

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Most of the way through the day, I noticed that I would be fitting 3000 feet of climbing into this 30 mile day, so maybe I wasn’t quite as tired as I thought I was. But I still think I’m not at 100%. Like yesterday, there was nothing flat, but at least there were downhills mixed with the uphills. And the National Park/Forest land at this elevation was far prettier than yesterday.

I got into camp at 2pm, left a note for Dennis, and went back down to the market to do laundry and eat some food. What? A note for Dennis? Yes, he was going to be joining me in camp tonight! He is out in Milpitas for two weeks for work, and brought his bike with him. Originally he was planning a weekend overnight down to Santa Cruz, but changed his plan to join me here, driving and parking at 4000 feet, then riding up the rest of the way. Isn’t that cool? Thinking about seeing him tonight definitely helped during the ride when I was feeling most worn-out.

I finished my load of laundry (a mere $1.75 for the whole wash-and-dry), and 3 slices of pepperoni pizza (an outrageous $17, they must figure people will do their laundry after seeing the low price and then get some pizza while they wait!) Dennis hadn’t found me yet, so I went back to the campsite, only to find that he had arrived, which was good, but he was nowhere to be found. So back again to the village where we must have just crossed paths the first time, I found him just wrapping up some snacks. It was great seeing a familiar face. We got some provisions (including beers!) and headed back to the site.
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By that time, the campground was full, so it’s a good thing I got there as early as I did! The park newspaper actually says that the campgrounds rarely fill, which, if they printed it, I interpreted to mean they never fill. And this was the end of the season where things have already started shutting down (including other campgrounds in the park, which is part of the problem, of course). Even an employee at the store remarked that it had been dead up until this weekend when it suddenly got crazy. I wonder if the hantavirus scare at Yosemite has ended up redirecting traffic to the next closest park?

When I arrived at our site initially, a family at the next site over was walking right through the middle of ours to get to the bathroom. Okay, they’re used to having no one here, that’s fine. But then even after I set up my tent, defining our site a bit, they kept walking right next to it. So then when Dennis arrived, and set up his bivy sack 5 feet from my tent, and I saw them walk right between our tents, I mentioned this odd/funny behavior to him. To put a stop to it, he sort of positioned his bike to block that path. So then later on that night, we couldn’t stop laughing when, while sitting at the picnic table, we watched the woman avoid the bike, but nevertheless walk by within a foot of Dennis’s bivy sack on the other side! Some people! Otherwise they seemed quite normal, and I’d even talked to them a bit  about my trip, but somehow they had no campground etiquette. It wasn’t even that much of a shortcut vs. taking the road like a civilized person! Someone may have even walked right by Dennis’s head later on when the he was inside his bivy, but I forgot to ask him in the morning.

Day 20: Trimmer, CA to Kings Canyon National Park

September 22nd, 2012

51.86 mi / 6:10:2i6 time / 8.3 mph avg. / 7487 ft. climbing
Staying at Azalea Campground

The picnic-table sleeping worked just fine, I got a good sleep though it did get cool enough that I had to use my sleeping bag and not just the liner. Unfortunately I woke with a bit of an upset stomach, which was distressing because it brought back memories of food poisoning on my first tour and how swiftly and utterly it decimated my perfectly-running engine. I definitely don’t have time for any engine breakdowns; on the contrary, today I need my engine running almost as strongly as yesterday!
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The first 10 miles wound me around all the branches of Pine Flat Lake, mostly keeping me some 1000 feet above the water level. The whole stretch was again devoid of nearly all traffic. There are people who live in this area, though I’m not really sure why. It’s not like they live “on the lake”, they live on some dried-out hill way above the lake. I did pass one property with a pen of black pigs in the front, two vicious black dogs that luckily were held by the decrepit fence, and a black pickup truck with a swastika proudly painted on the door. I guess I know why they live here.
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First breakfast went down fine, but as I rode along it wasn’t pleasant to think about what I wanted to eat for second breakfast. But I knew I needed the calories. When I arrived at Doyal’s Store in Piedra, there was a pow-wow going on out front. It turns out the guy who leases the building is being evicted, and they were in the process of shutting down the store. Luckily for me half the shelves were still there and they were still open for business, but it might be trouble for a touring cyclists who comes by on this route next week, because there just aren’t many services in this area. The milk and granola bars and Rice Krispie Treats I got went down ok, so that was good news. Next to the store is the library, and together they comprise the only two non-movable buildings in the “town” of Piedra. It looked like it was open about 8 hours a week, but their WiFi was open and worked from outside so that was plenty for me.
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Piedra was at 540 feet, and I basically had to travel down and west to it just so I could cross over the river draining Pine Flat Lake, and then I would head back east upstream on the southern side. That “easy” climb of the day might have been as hard as the one 4 times bigger. 1200 feet at 8%, and since it was still a local backroad (with more free-ranging cattle), the grades were much steeper than on state or national highways. It seemed to achieve that 8% by alternating between 6% and 10%, which at least gave me a chance to “rest” on the easy sections.
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Coming down the other side, I went a bit off-route to Squaw Valley, because I knew I would need to refuel for the big climb. It was only 11:30, but my stomach seemed ok, and the pastrami sandwich I got at Bear Valley Pizza went down fine. The problem was the 3 glasses of Pepsi I had, which tasted so good in the already-hot morning, but would keep me filled with bubbles for the rest of the day.

Then I started the 5200 foot climb up to Kings Canyon National Park. Unlike the backroad climbs, this was a long, steady, 20-mile mid-grade (5%) climb the whole way, much like my climb up to Lassen. Except here, my thermometer hovered around the 100 degree mark and the pine-tree shade didn’t appear to cool things down until I got well over 1000 feet. With the heat, the climbing, the load of Pepsi, and probably my continuing stomach issues, it was difficult to be consuming the calories I ought to for such a climb. I was lucky to be able to refill my bottles at the Snowline Motel, one of the only places along the upper stretches, because I definitely was going through the water.

In short, it was brutal, and at least as hard as the day before, even though it was only half the distance. And that doesn’t even include the gnats. Ohh, you little fuckers. For hours they swarmed my head as I toiled on at 5.5 mph, buzzing around my eyes and ears and nose and mouth, making me jerk about, close my eyes, change my breathing, and expend even more energy than I already was. After half an hour of that, my clouded brain finally remembered I had insect repellant, but if anything, that just seemed to attract more of them. I tried to cut them a deal: if you want to eat my sweat, have at it! Land on my face, and suck away, I won’t even try to slap you! But no, the little assholes in their evolutionary idiocy just keep flying and circling and buzzing for no purpose but to annoy me. I unintentionally tried inhaling/eating them as a method of control, but that was ineffective against their numbers and just made me cough and choke. When I finally reached the park entrance station, I mentioned them to the lady taking my money, and she said “hold on” and ran to grab me a dryer sheet from her pack, which she said seems to have some effect on them. They had mostly gone away at that elevation, but I likely will have another chance to see if it works.
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I was pretty beat, so I slowly set up camp, and then went back out to Grant Village to get dinner at the park restaurant. It’s a relatively fancy place in terms of menu, and I got the braised short ribs with cream of asparagus soup. I was still feeling bloated, so it was hard work and took a long time, but it tasted really good and I finally got it all down. A German couple at the next table, Walter and Elizabeth, who had seen me on the road up (a whole lot of people mentioned that!) started asking me about my trip and eventually invited me to pull my chair over and join them at their table. They got me another beer (I was drinking Sierra Nevada and the Germans were drinking Budwiser!) and we talked for probably an hour about traveling, politics (American and European), and various other topics. So that was a nice end to a rough day, and even gave time to let my food settle a bit.

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This shirt was clean yesterday

Day 19: Yosemite Valley, CA to Trimmer, CA

September 21st, 2012

100.4 mi / 8:10:56 time / 12.2 mph avg. / 7618 ft. climbing
Staying at Trimmer Springs Campground, Pine Flat Lake Recreation Area

Yeah, so that’s why I needed to eat and rest yesterday. A fully-loaded century, through the Sierra Nevada mountains, with over 7500 feet of climbing. Riding from sunrise to sunset. By the numbers, it should have been one of the hardest days I ever did on a bicycle, but surprisingly, it wasn’t. Apparently all the hard work of the past 3 weeks made the hard work of today easy.

Well, “easy” is a bit of a stretch.

Since I knew today would be a long one, I was on the road before 7am. I got to see the Yosemite Valley softly lighting up, and got some different views because the one-way roads through the Valley take you on a different path on the way out. Tunnel View was the last sight of Half Dome and the rest; it’s sort of supposed to be your first view, as you emerge from a long tunnel and go “whoa”. But I was heading the other way. Cyclist tip: one-third of the way west into the tunnel, there’s a shaft that shoots off perpendicular, and leads to a rocky ledge where you could have your own, personal Tunnel View. It’s something only a cyclist would ever see, because you can’t stop your car in the middle of the tunnel!
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So leaving the valley was a 2100 foot climb, and after that, they threw in another 1400 foot climb for good measure. All before 10am. After leaving the park, the route went down local backroads for almost the entire way. Traveling along the southwest shore of Bass Lake was the first of these, and it was in fairly bad shape and constantly curvy with lots of smaller ups and downs despite following a lakeshore.

In North Fork (the exact center of California, according to them), I got a grocery store lunch, but since the grocery store had no hospitable area outside, I went a few blocks down to the library and sat and ate it on some steps across the street in the shade, along with an old dude smoking a cigarette. He gave me some info about the upcoming route, and generally helped define the huge contrast between the rich Bay Areans populating Yosemite, and the survivors hanging on in these small beaten-down towns of the western Sierra foothills. Let’s just say that the 2013 Ford Mustang Convertible is not the Official Car of this area. The library had good Internet though!

Leaving North Fork, I bombed down an insane twisty hill to the San Joaquin River at 1000 feet, all the while being assaulted by a blast furnace wind flowing up from the valley. Unlike his Central Valley twin to the north, the Sacramento, there was no town like Redding at the San Joaquin crossing. There was basically nothing but a power generating station and baking sun. Oh, and a palm tree. Some contrast from the morning pines of Yosemite!
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I had to take a whiz at the side of the road, and when I hopped back on my bike, suddenly I couldn’t see what was behind me! Ack, what’s going on?! My helmet mirror was missing! Nature had done its best to fight back against my desecration, and a prickly tree branch had ripped it from my helmet. It actually took a good five minutes of searching to find it, and it’s a good thing I finally did, because there were no shoulders today, and this doesn’t seem like a place with a lot of bike shops!

The climb back up to Auberry, some 70 miles in, went a lot better than I expected. It seems like I again have my body tuned to the point where the engine can run all day long. The tradeoff is that it can’t put out a ton of power, but that’s okay, because in a power struggle, these mountains will always beat you. In Auberry a guy mentioned that this was the coolest day they have had in some time, so my amazing weather-luck continues. I was expecting the last 30 miles through the heat and the hills at low elevation to be a brutal death-march, but it was surprisingly pleasant, and the fact that it was only 90 degrees instead of 100 probably had a lot to do with it. There were a lot of small ranches and farms, most of them for sale, but the people seemed friendly, waving from their cars as they passed carefully on the narrow twisting roads. And everything just had a golden glow in the late afternoon sun. The whistles from football practice at Sierra High were a comforting sound. I wish I could have stopped for some pictures of the landscape, but I was racing against the sun without a minute to spare.

The final 5 miles got less and less comforting. Traffic on the roads began to dwindle, the centerline eventually disappeared, and I entered an area with free-ranging cattle as the day’s light began to fade. I had to pass some cattle on the road, including little ones, and I was just hoping the bull was nowhere nearby. Because they threw in some 10-15% grades just for fun in the last couple miles, so I wouldn’t be outrunning anyone.

It’s exactly as I expected, but the campground on the man-made lake is desolate and isolated; figuratively, it feels more than 100 miles away from Yosemite Valley, and literally, it’s miles away from anywhere and anything. It’s nowhere anyone would want to stay, but today was all about staging for the climb back up to Sequoia. The lake water level is really low, which certainly adds to the desolation. But they have a free shower, woo hoo! I expected there to be no one here, but there is one other couple, which is kind of nice even if they aren’t social.

I took a shower and ate dinner in the moonlight, and am going to try my old trick of skipping the tent and sleeping on the picnic tables. It’s really quiet. About 10 cars have gone by on the road above in the 2 hours I’ve been here, and you can see and hear them from far away, and repeatedly, as they then wind along the twisting lakeshore for miles. Some yahoos on the other side of the lake just discovered the incredible echo, let’s hope they tire of that soon.

Photos!

September 20th, 2012

Day 16 and 17 now have photos, so go back and look at em again if you’d like!

Day 18: Yosemite Valley, CA

September 20th, 2012

10 mi / time / mph avg. / ft. climbing
Staying at Lower Pines Campground

Today, the first and only off-day scheduled in the trip, was a day to rest. And a day to eat. Maybe the latter being more of a priority than the former. I put down a quick 1600 calories before I even left the tent in the morning. Apple juice, banana, yogurt, 2.5 bagels, and a frosted cheese Danish.

Most of the campground seemed pretty accustomed to the “rising with the light” thing I’m used to, and if they weren’t, the explosive slams of all the dumpsters being emptied by the garbage truck woke up any stragglers. But hardly anyone was out in the park when I hit the trail at 8am. Which was unfortunate for them, because the temperatures were perfect, the light was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else out there.

Yosemite Falls, the spectacular waterfall seen from the valley floor, has stopped running by this time of year, so I went to see two year-round waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada. Vernal is a thin ribbon that drops right down the face of a sheer cliff into a round pool, as if it wasn’t expecting the road to end. So it’s a bit similar to Yosemite in that way (but not in scale). Nevada is more of a gusher, falling wildly and then splaying out on a granite slope halfway down. The trail gives a view of both falls from below and at the top, so you definitely get your money’s worth on the loop that hits them both. Vernal had this really cool Emerald Pool at the top, and then a Silver Apron, which is basically the world’s most-tempting, all-natural Slip’n’Slide flowing across a sheet of granite. There are signs all around warning that swimming isn’t allowed there, because of course this Slip’n’Slide ends in a fall to your death.
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At the top of Nevada Falls at 10am I took a break for 1000 calories of 2nd breakfast, consisting of the last 1.5 bagels from the 6-pack, some mini-donuts, and a can of sliced peaches in heavy syrup (and that’s the key, the store almost tricked me with some “lite” garbage!) The trip back was via the John Muir Trail, and luckily the stupid mule train headed down another branch just before I caught up to them. Around noon I rejoined the section of trail I started out on four hours earlier, but this time, it was crammed with people heading up, in the full heat of the sun, with the harsh light not doing Yosemite’s crags any favors. Maybe that’s why, yesterday, I felt like a lot of people I saw coming off the trails in the late afternoon had pretty grim looks for people hiking in such an awesome place. Start earlier, people!
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So a 7 mile hike that took me up (and down) 1900 feet might not exactly be “easy”, but I was done 5 or 6 hours before I’d normally be done riding. I lazed in my cool, pine-shaded campsite for bit, then hopped on the unloaded bike to see if there was anything interesting at Yosemite Village or the Lodge. There really wasn’t, and surprisingly, the lodge isn’t quite the architectural centerpiece that it is at many other National Parks. But I picked up some groceries for another 2000 calories back at camp. Ham sandwich on ciabatta, hummus, carrots, a load of chips, and a Limited Edition Mammoth brew featuring wet wild-grown hops.

Eventually the sun moved around a tree and began shining on my picnic table, but I wasn’t done eating yet so I grabbed my beer and bag of donuts and walked down to the river, found a nice rock to sit on, and put my feet in the cool, clear, flowing water. Ah, now that’s the stuff. When I finished my donuts and eventually mustered the energy to haul my ass off the rock, I took off downstream, just tromping right through the shallow water. I climbed on top of a big old stump, I walked down the length of a huge fallen tree and discovered at the end that it bounced like a diving board, I walked under a bridge and listened to my voice echo with a little girl playing there, and on the other side found a deep emerald pool where I finally couldn’t resist anymore, took off my shirt, stashed my phone on a rock, and dove in. Oh, so cold. And the sun so warm. And Half Dome watching me the whole time. It was perfect. It seems kind of dumb that my best memory from Yosemite will be not some epic climb up a cliff, or visually soaking in an otherworldly scene, but simply playing around in a river. But that’s what it is!
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I dried up, did some bike maintenance, then headed over to Curry Village’s Pizza Deck (which seemed to have an even higher German percentage visiting than the rest of the park that already seemed half-German). If I lowball my 8-slice sausage/mushroom pizza (plus yet another Mammoth beer) at 2000 calories, that puts me at 6600 calories for the day. The crazy thing is, it probably still wasn’t enough! I noticed lots of people with their phones out sitting on the deck at the building across the way, and hey, it’s because they have open WiFi! And the only power outlet I’ve seen in the whole park, and shockingly, no one was using it. I totally didn’t expect it to work, but it did. Service was a bit dodgy, which meant my return to camp was a bit longer after sunset than I wanted, but I managed to upload the last couple days’ entries. Back to work tomorrow! (no, not that work, the work where no one pays me and my accomplishments exist only in my memory!)
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Day 17: Yosemite National Park High to Yosemite National Park Low

September 19th, 2012

58 mi / time / mph avg. / 2500 ft. climbing
Staying at Lower Pines Campground

Last night I attended the Park Ranger Campfire Talk, because the amphitheater is right down the hill from the hiker camp, there’s a fire, and I still had a quarter of a beer and a bag of chips to put down. It was all about the history of climbing in Yosemite, and was really well done, even if the topic isn’t explicitly interesting to me. But one of the themes running through the talk was “why do we climb?” Even though they were talking about climbing with hands and feet rather than with a bicycle, a lot of the answers to that question were surprisingly applicable. I particularly liked the reason given by the junior ranger participating in the talk. She explained that she does it for the uncertainty. When climbing a challenging rock, she inevitably finds herself in a place where she’s uncertain how it will end. So it’s the journey to that uncertainty, and the satisfying return from it, that draws her to climbing. I don’t think that’s all of the reason for me, but it’s definitely some of it. It helps explain why I have generally designed each tour of mine to be more challenging than the last, which is a question that’s been percolating in my head as this trip has continued to push me to my limits.
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But today was not about climbing, because it was another “easy” day. Starting at 8500 feet in the high country of Yosemite, I would bomb down into Yosemite Valley more than 4000 feet below. Only trouble is, they somehow still make you work in 2500 feet of ups and downs before you finally hit the real “down”. I had to fight the urge to do a hike up in the high country before heading down, but I knew I needed to keep the day truly easy, to allow my body to rest up. And I don’t know of anything that’s a threat to Yosemite in the next 20 years, so I can do that next time.

Since I knew it would be easy, and also cold in the morning, I took my time rolling out of the tent. Which meant that I was still inside when a couple rangers came by asking to see the tear-off flap from my self-registration. I’d never had that happen before, but I can imagine they get a fair number of people not honorable enough to play by the honor system here.

The best part of the ride through the high country was in the beginning, when each turn or rise in the road gave a view of a new granite peak slamming into view from nowhere. At Olmstead Point, I got my first view of the iconic Half Dome, rising high enough above the Valley to be visible some long before I dropped down into it. At one point I saw a deer leading her two small fawns through the forest beside me. A minute later, a car came up from behind, just as they decided to bound across the road. I didn’t know to make some sort of signal to the driver, or do nothing to make him notice the deer rather than me. I chose the latter, and luckily he was able to get on the brakes quick enough, avoiding disaster. But only one fawn made it across with her mother; the other made a horribly pained cry as she was left behind, and kept bounding through the forest alongside me, afraid to cross in my presence. Finally she dropped behind and I assume safely rejoined her family.
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Later on the route hooked further north of the Valley, and essentially became a nice forest ride for 20 miles, but nothing particularly dramatic. The road surface was pretty dodgy and had no shoulders, and there was a fair amount of traffic; athough it moved slowly and carefully, those two factors combined meant that most attention had to be on the road, even though I was taking it pretty easy. I noticed that the 2013 Ford Mustang convertible must be the Official Car of Yosemite. I saw at least 20 of them before I started counting, and by the time I got to 40 realized there must be some explanation for it, but unfortunately I never ran into one of the drivers to ask. All I know is, better it’s that than the 1996 5th-wheel-towing F-350 diesel!

Finally I hit the real downhill, which I knew was the real one because it suddenly got hot, I went through the a tunnel, and then whoa, there is Yosemite Valley. I knew the cliffs would be huge, but they were even more massive than I expected. Even a FedEx truck that had passed me earlier was distracted from his mission and stopped at a viewpoint.

Once down in the bottom of the Valley, it’s a surprisingly long way to get to the end, much of it under a canopy of trees, where the mountains loom above you in secret. But then you hit the clearings, and there is El Capitan, and the is Half Dome, even more dominant from this vantage point. Rolling into my reserved campground at a nice early 3pm (which I was pretty proud to reach today considering I booked it 3 months ago and have been through 17 consecutive days of uncertainty-turned-to-certainty since then), I had a nice long chat with the woman working the entrance booth, who is an aspiring bike tourist. She mentioned that the crowds are suddenly down due to the Hantavirus scare, which I expected, but still, people are dumb. Oh well, more space for me!
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I set up camp for a couple nights, then cruised over to check out Curry Village. They have essentially a mini-REI there, and yay, the first place in 200 miles with CR2032 batteries for my cyclometer! It essentially stopped working today so my stats are estimates; hopefully the new batteries do the trick. A shower there would have been nice, but not for $5! I got a late lunch at the cafe, and then rode around the east end of the Valley, both on the roads and the bike paths. I did a short hike to the currently-dry Mirror Lake, at the base of Half Dome. A woman told me they had just seen a bear there, but no luck for me.
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I checked out the Ahwanee Hotel, where an older couple, impeccably dressed, stared grimly out of an enormous picture window while seated for their high-class dinner. Yeah, not the place for me. Instead, I stocked up on a boatload of groceries and brought them back to camp. I think tomorrow will largely be about refilling calories. Tonight, only 2 hours after my chicken panini and sweet potato fries, I put down another giant plate of pasta with the rest of that sauce, most of a big bag of chips, a quarter pound of baby carrots, and another bomber of that still wonderful Mammoth Lakes 395 Double IPA. I looked closer at the label today and saw that it’s brewed above 8000 feet with juniper berries and sage, and wild hops (when available), which goes a good way to explaining its awesomeness.

If there weren’t a couple trees in the way, I would have a perfect view of Half Dome from my picnic table. Instead, as it got dark, I walked 50 feet down and sat on a log in the middle of the Merced River, watching the last of the light fade on its ashen face.

Oh, and while there, I finished my beer and half a bag of mini donuts. While writing this entry I grabbed a bagel to munch on as I typed and thought, but suddenly I had finished the entire bagel before even picking up my tablet again. So I grabbed another one, and finished that about four paragraphs ago. I’ll see if I can save the rest for tomorrow.
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No dramatic scenery, but if you’ve seen Ken Burns National Parks, you might understand why this was one of the most moving sites of the whole trip for me.