Today was our biggest day yet.
While we had fallen asleep later than anticipated or desired, we were ready to knock out as many miles and feet of climbing as possible in our push towards Yosemite. We left Flynn’s and headed for Starbucks for a morning cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich. It’s delightful being back in territory where coffee is more than translucent watery swill. With caffeine and calories accomplished it was time to start our day. The first 6 miles had been retread territory, as we had backtracked yesterday to sleep at Flynn’s. Both of us wished that we had gotten farther the previous day and we were ready to recover lost time and distance by putting in a long stretch today.
The day promised 3 summits on our way to Bridgeport, California, the town before Mono Lake Basin. Bridgeport is approximately 83 miles away from Carson City. When we told Flynn of our plans to go so far he had called it “a big day” and recommended we consider Walker, CA the town before Conway Pass (and Bridgeport) as a natural stopping point. We thanked him for his warning and the advice on a delicious place for burgers and aimed to get as far as our legs would take us.
We left Starbucks and got back onto the main strip of 395. When researching our route we had been warned that 395 was a busy highway with often insubstantial shoulder. Not advisable for biking many said. After biking 3900 miles, you start to appreciate the shift in scale. Perception becomes distorted by the relativity of your previous experiences and roads you would have once considered unbikable become trivial. At the beginning of this trip I would have balked at the prospect of riding 35+ mph on a narrow mountain road with speed limits of 60mph and cars exceeding the posted signage. At this point in the trip if the shoulder is more than 3 feet wide, we are ‘comfortable’ riding alongside tractor trailers.
The distance between Carson City and Gardnerville passed quickly and easily. Knowing the next few days would be difficult and grocery stores would be sparse we stocked up on bars and water before continuing on. The first pass of the day was ahead and due to be the shortest and least intense. We went up and over with little ado and were soon cruising quickly down the backside towards our next climb. On the descent I decided to employ my artistic sensibilities and capture Genevieve from a lower angle. While this had become a time-tested technique, slight variations spelled trouble for the attempt.
Several weeks ago my headphone earbud had dangled out of my jersey pocket and been consumed by a hungry wheel, leaving me with only the left (roadside) bud still operational. While the right side earbud had always sat perfectly content, draped down my back, the left proved less cooperative. Regularly, it recalcitrantly migrated over the lip of my shoulder and dangled loosely over my arm. While this seems completely benign, during the course of a 10 hour cycling day, small nagging details can become distracting intolerable nuisances. I spent the days flipping the stubborn cord back over my shoulder, like a young girl tossing her hair incessantly throughout class. Yet despite my protestations, the cord refused to remain behind.
Today, was no different and in my efforts to take a photo it had once again managed to snake its way over instead of under my arm. Taking pictures while cruising downhill in excess of 30mph is a decision of dubious merit to begin with. With one hand occupied you are subjecting yourself to the mercy of fortune and have to hope nothing necessitates immediate evasive maneuvers. Likewise, when your phone wire becomes tangled and caught behind your bar-end shifter as you retract your phone and yanks it from your hand, you are left with little recourse other than to watch helplessly. As I realized what was happening, I did just that and saw the phone bravely belly-flop onto the fast moving pavement. The rear wheel was only too happy to expedite the phone's suicidal tendencies by subsequently rolling over it at high speed. I listened and watched in my rear view mirror to the crunch and subsequent grating sound it made as it continued to travel across the coarse surface.
Upon retrieval I was relieved to discover the phone still functioned and I had only cracked the glass of the front screen. A functional yet disfigured phone is much better than a lot of other alternatives. I wish I could say that the photo of Genevieve was a Pulitzer worthy snap but it was just one of hundreds of others like it.
Unfazed by the destruction of personal property, I think the dangling carrot of California and Yosemite kept me too excited to feel any real frustration. We were at the base of another climb, a moderately taller pass which guarded entry to Topaz Lake and the California border. Feeling great, we charged up the hillside, spurred by the exhilaration of knowing our final state line was only miles away. At the crest of the hill we looked down on the azure water of Topaz crisscrossed by the white lines of jet skis piddling across the surface.
We reached the state line and were dismayed by the anticlimax of the sign. Colorado and Utah and even Nevada had large and impressive welcome signs, where California’s blue adorned with flowers was a disappointment. We had both hoped and believed that the grandeur of our entry would match the magnitude of our trip. Regardless, we had crossed it, the last state line and entered our destination state. We were exuberant to have come so far via such a silly means of transportation.
Eager to celebrate with burgers and shakes, we pedaled the 12 miles down the road to Walker where we stopped at the HWY-395 favorite, Walker’s Burgers. Walker’s is a natural stopping point for tourists and vacationers headed towards Yosemite and it was filled with motorcycles, RV’s and families from a variety of countries. Upon our arrival, we were asked at least a dozen times if we had participated in The Death Ride , a bike race being held that day. We responded politely that we were not and fielded questions about our trip so far.
The enjoyment of the garden seating and shade was immeasurable. The relief of making it to California had left us high as a kite and we felt great, with plenty of daylight to spare. Opting to take in the beautiful afternoon and relax, we changed out of bike clothes and took a half hour nap in the garden. Awake and energized, we decided reaching Bridgeport would be no real challenge and we resumed biking.
Up, up, up into the hills we went, climbing through the Sierras. The motorists were respectful and gave us wide berth, likely owing to the enhanced bike activity that weekend. I can't emphasize enough how totally compelled I felt to bike today. There was no reservation, no unwillingness, my brain had commandeered my body and in its exhilaration suppressed any signals of fatigue or discomfort. The pass came easily, without effort. The scenery beset on all sides by mountains of varying height swallowed our tiny bikes as we rode up the second real pass of the day.
As we neared the top, it became apparent that we had overestimated the projected difficulty of the coming days. With beautiful weather, beautiful landscapes and inextinguishably high spirits the day still showed no sign of slowing and we were already past what was initially going to be a possible stopping point for our day.
The funny thing about hill climbing, is that mentally, you can trick yourself into extra miles. A concept we had discussed with Jonathan at length, the illusion of ' free miles '. Called such because once you have climbed the hill, you get to coast down the backside for free. When your entire day consists of tall mountain passes, it can become an endless cycle of 'free miles' because you feel refreshed by the time you've reached the base of the next pass. So then you climb that one as well, because why not? And who in their right mind is going to stop at the top when there are free miles to be had coasting down... and the cycle begins anew.
We were miles away from Bridgeport, CA, but ' free miles ', miles that were already bought and paid for and we just had to ease off the brakes to enjoy. Bridgeport is a town that I had visited with Chris Wood the previous summer and has served as the purple mountainscape backdrop of the blog for the duration of the journey. It was only too fitting that I had returned by bicycle and we gleefully shot down the hill, descending into the small ranching town, nestled in the mountain valley.
Shade, from the innocuous cloud cover overhead, was interrupted by brilliant shafts of light that radiated like spotlights over the edges. As usual, photos did no justice to the effect, but it was yet another example of the visual splendor we had enjoyed throughout the day. Also, as usual, I mooed at the neighboring cows as we rolled along the pastureland, trying to excite any receptive members of the herd.
We rode into town and set to finding ourselves another meal. When you ride cross country, you find that you do little other than stockpiling, burning and replenishing large calorie stores. We spotted a restaurant across the street with loaded touring bikes parked out front and we headed over, greeted by a gentleman who had already spotted us and was waving to get our attention.
He introduced himself and his friends and we learned that they had only just set out from the California coast 8 days ago and were headed to Boston! With four in the group, one was a gentleman on a solo tour, the other a friend who was joining them for just the California leg and the two outfitted with ukeleles who were attempting the entire trip, first to Montana and then East. We sat and chatted briefly before ordering food and contemplating the current course of our day.
The four had warned us that 395's shoulder became more narrow in the direction of Mono and in some places disappeared entirely. We were aware that this would likely be the case and thanked them for the advisory.
How do you feel?
- I feel great, what about you?
- I still have plenty of biking left in me.
The daylight was waning and sunset was rapidly approaching while we considered the prospect of starting another mountain pass which would certainly not be finished until well after dark. The midday nap had left us feeling rested and relaxed and the climbing to reach Bridgeport, while long, had been trivial in terms of fatigue. Our original plan had been to reach the base of Tioga pass at the end of the day the next day and start early in the morning to avoid peak vacationer traffic. We were way ahead of what we had expected and planned. If we took the road to Mono Lake Basin tonight it would mean that our Tioga Pass bid would have to start with either very little sleep or during the regular hours of the day. Undeterred we elected to set out and shoot for another century and our biggest day of climbing to date.
The evening sun had departed and dusk light was all that remained. 395 wound its way up the hillside and we made effortless progress in the cool evening air. Accompanied by a full-moon, the absence of daylight posed no significant challenge. We pedaled tirelessly up the hillside and were passed only intermittently by late-day travelers. The shoulder on the opposite side of the road was indeed small, but the climbing side of the road gave us plenty of space to stay out of traffic. As the night grew darker we watched the scenery drop away out of sight. We once again experienced the bubble phenomena. Similar to roads with windy bends where you can never see farther than 200' we cycled in a small radius of illumination. The only indicator of our remaining climb and distance to the top were the specks of head and taillights growing or diminishing as they traveled the road ahead.
At precisely 9:00PM I pulled out my phone and speed-dialed Jason. Back in Virginia it was rounding out midnight and thus his birthday. Climbing the steady 5% grade I did my best to sing off-key and then pant my way through birthday congratulations and conversation. He called me crazy and thanked me for the call. The cars driving past continued to soar upwards as if taking flight before eventually disappearing around the peak's bend.
We reached the summit shortly after 10:00PM and took an underwhelming summit photo. The question of where we would sleep had become a more pressing concern. The presence of bear-proof trash cans and warning signs had alerted us to the fact that we were back in black bear country. Lee Vining, the area beneath Yosemite around Mono Basin had experienced heavy bear activity already this year and rangers at the top of the pass told us the campgrounds were booked full. The necessity of a bear-box for food was frustrating and we considered our options while we rolled down the winding backside of Conway at blistering speeds. I was going so fast, that I had outrun my headlights usefulness and wondered what the outcome would be if I were to encounter a possum or some other creature in the roadway at high speed. Thankfully, it was a quandary I didn't have answered experimentally and we reached the basin floor in safety.
With camping options unavailable thanks to food storage concerns I came up with a brilliant suggestion.
What if we just went into the park? I feel great, what do you think about doing Tioga right now?
- In the dark?
Yeah! There won't be any cars, we can tack if we need, it's nice and cool, there's a full moon, we can totally do it!
The plan was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm on Gen's part. For her strengths in early morning functioning, she is less suited for pulling all-nighters and sleep deprivation. A lodge on the side of the road offered some possibility of sleep but I was still too excited by the prospect of doing 10,000' of climbing to consider it. The manager watched us weighing our options and did her best to entice us. She had an unoccupied room that she was willing to let go for 120 even though the regular rate was 150. We told her absolutely no way, we weren't interested, we had been camping happily and didn't want to spend 25$ an hour to sleep somewhere. She came down to 90. Gen offered 40$ and she understandably scoffed. We said thanks but no thanks and started examining google maps for where the primitive campsites before the entrance to the park were located.
You just need a place to store your food?
How much do the campsites usually charge?
Clearly, a shrewd businesswoman she was more interested in a lost opportunity to make money than the safe travels of two penny-pinching bicyclists.
Okay, you pitch your tent down that private driveway and you can put your bags inside the lodge for 10$.
The siren's song of Yosemite had grown no less potent. I once again expressed my desire to continue our climbing and have an enormous day of bicycling but Gen had already seen an available exit and there was no hope left for changing her mind.
- 10$ okay.
We headed down and pitched our tent at the foot of the private drive. A large derelict barn stood in the moonlight neighbored by a dilapidated boat and a classic car which hadn't likely moved since it was considered 'modern'.
We half-sunk our tent stakes in the granite hard dirt until the dull 'thunk' of bedrock indicated further hammering would prove pointless. With camp setup and food properly stored we retired for the evening. Ready to start the day with our entrance to the park along one of the most iconic roads through the Sierras and into possibly the most well-known national park in the country. A year later and I was almost back.