67.3 mi / 6:08:42 time / 10.9 mph avg. / 5964 ft. climbing
Staying at Tuolumne Meadows Campground
At 6 am on this Monday morning, 6600 feet up on the eastern slopes of the High Sierras, it was 36 degrees. I had a thousand foot climb to start the morning, and the mountains that yesterday were shielding me from the hot afternoon sun had implored their twins to block the warming rays of morning, so it eventually got as low as 33 as I rode. But once the mountains finally relented and let the sun pass above, it quickly warmed.
I rolled back down that climb into Bridgeport, where I stopped at the 1881 Coffee Cafe for three baked goods and (eek!) actual coffee (they weren’t doing smoothies for some reason). I spent a long time there Internetting and charging, since it was likely my last chance to be on the grid for a couple days unless I give in and pay Yosemite’s exorbitant rates for WiFi.
Then it was time for climb #2. When a 1600 foot climb that takes you above 8000 feet gets mentally logged as a “minor climb” for the day, you know you’re in the groove of playing with the big boys. In this section I began to see the true High Sierras rising to my right. I knew I would be spending a lot of time high in the mountains on this trip, but didn’t know how much of those mountains I would actually see rising high above me. Today I saw those mountains. And they made what I have seen before seem like molehills. I don’t know why, but it’s somehow counterintuitive to me that the Sierras get higher as you go south. But they do. And this was also my one chance to see them from the Eastern side, where they rise the highest and fall the fastest. The slopes are more gradual from the West, which is what I will return to after crossing back over through Yosemite.
The downslope of that “minor climb” brought an expansive view of Mono Lake far below. The low point of an endorheic basin (water comes in, but can never leave) it has these bizarre salt pillars growing out of it and generally seems like a place you really wouldn’t want to go for a swim.
Just past it is the town of Lee Vining, last stop before Tioga Pass, the trip’s biggest climb. That’s where the sequence of extraordinary events began. Actually, the chain began yesterday at the top of Monitor Pass, when the blonde with the calves recommended that I stop at the Mobil Station there for their amazing food. Say what? Apparently there is some high-end chef slumming it in a gas station in the middle of nowhere. She even mentioned fish tacos, which I may have mentioned are my food obsession of the year. Count me in!
Without that recommendation, there’s no chance I would have ended up there, since it’s actually outside the town on the south end (though directly on my route), and I surely would have stopped at one of the several restaurants in town and then never even noticed the gas station on my way out. The fish tacos, one with mango/pineapple topping and the other with some sort of coleslaw, served on a china plate at a gas station, were truly incredible. Even the beans were amazing. And the Mammoth 395 IPA (the US Route I’ve been on for the last day) was damn good too.
While I was eating at a table outside, a young guy, Colin, with an unloaded Trek, asked if I’d watch his bike while he went in. Sure thing. When he came back out, I found that he was staying at Tuolumne Meadows, in the Yosemite High Country, had just ridden down the 3000 ft. hill, and was about to ride back up it. My original plan for the day (and up until now I have nailed every destination exactly on plan) had me stopping at a National Forest campground just outside the Yosemite entrance and 10 miles short of Tuolumne. But already with my morning Internetting I had decided to shoot for Tuolumne (most of those 10 miles are after the pass), with the National Forest as a bailout. I said I might see him up there.
Just as he was rolling out to start the climb, he stopped, having a problem the the toe-clip on his pedal. A nut had come loose and gone missing. Well, I have nuts, and bolts, and all sorts of hardware and tools. So I gave him a nut and bolt and helped him install it, and then got him on his way. We talked a bit about good deeds, and I told him I was happy to have a chance to work down the debt of good deeds people have done for me on the road, even if just a small one like this.
So then it was my turn to start the climb, and that’s when I discovered that the Gods of Karma, ever-vigilant, are inexplicably determined to not let me get into the black in my Good Deed Account. Three pedal strokes out of the Mobil parking lot, a covered pickup pulls over in front of me with the driver motioning me to stop. Maybe he has some info about the climb? Out steps a blond surfer-looking dude, and he asks if I’d like him to haul my bags to the top. For real? His name is Erik, and he works for the park at, you guessed it, Tuolumne Meadows. I quickly ruled out the possibility that this was some scam to steal dirty camping gear, but I was more hesitant about “cheating” on the climb. Then I remembered that I had already done the same “cheating” with my parents hauling our stuff on the coast, so, yeah, awesome! But, for real? Turns out he’s a tourer himself, and his parents are even moreso (taking him on tours that he can’t even remember), so it was some generosity spanning generations. Literally no more than five minutes after my good deed, I was in debt again.
Even unloaded, the climb to Tioga Pass was still hard as hell (there were still points I was going less than 5mph), and I have no doubt I would have rated it harder than Monitor Pass. But oh was it awesome. Right at the beginning, in the hot sun, I got chills as the road pointed upward straight at the biggest mountain face I had seen so far. And then, unlike Monitor, this road is visible miles ahead of you as it curves around the wall of mountains, cutting into them like a belt. A belt with distant glints of sunlight reflecting off the ant-cars inching their way up.
I might have made it fully-loaded, and it might not even have seemed much harder in the moment, but I would have been ripped to pieces by the end. This way, it was one of the most energizing experiences of the trip, and after getting my photo taken by a park worker at the top, I actually found myself pedalling on the fast downhill. Grinning and pedalling. 9945 feet, the highest I’ve ever been on my bicycle, and more meaningful, I got there entirely under my own power after starting from zero, eight days ago, when I withdrew my hand from the ocean for the last time.
The truck was parked exactly as Erik said it would be, in front of the Tuolumne Meadows store. I grabbed my bags out of it, left a note of thanks, and then grabbed myself a bomber of that 395 ale along with other groceries. The campground has a “hiker” section rather than a “hiker/biker” section, but they let cyclists stay there too for the same $5. I found Colin there, we shared a high-five for a mutual job well done, and then I explained how I was able to get there not too far behind him.
The hiker area is huge, with probably 20 specific individual tables/fire rings/bear boxes, and it’s at least half-filled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hiker in a hiker/biker site, but here it’s nothing but hikers. Largely because it’s right on both the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail. I chatted with a few, and they seem just as social and friendly as bikers. I cooked up some pasta (including a giant heavy glass jar of pasta sauce), popped open a bag of Kettle chips so taut with pressure I can’t believe it hadn’t exploded already here at 8500ft., and found that 395 to be the best beer I’ve had on the whole trip. Then again, my taste buds may be a bit biased on a day like today, with life being as good as it is.