Day six: Sat. June 13
A handful of slacker mosquitoes fancy a drink, but I’ve got other plans. With a mighty smite, my hand crushes the mosquito dream. So it goes. We’re camped beside the East Fork of the Walker River. The sun has left the high ridges, and, finally, a cool has settled into this remote canyon. Today hinged on a whim, and the payoff was grand.
I crawl from my one-person tent at 5AM to find Danny already packing his tent. A man on a mission. We have some big hot climbs to do today, and we want to hit them as early as possible. Shortly after 6AM, we’re pulling away from the campground, rolling through the silent town, and attacking the first hill of the day, a 700 ft. stinker to test the coffee pulsing through my veins. We enjoy the perfect new pavement, and I overheat after putting on too many layers down in the chilly damp of the creek bed where we spent the last couple of nights. I relish the cooling descent to Woodfords and another thrilling roll along Carson River Rd. past stout pines and vertical cliffs of chocolate basalt. In no time, we’re motoring north along Hwy 88 then cutting over to Hwy 395, the Mother Road, my home no matter where I live.
Warm climbing straight into the sun makes for journeyman cycle touring. Scruffy ridges of sage and pinyon pine rise on both sides of the road. To the west, the massive Sierras dominate the skyline under a clear sky. Sweat and spin, sweat and spin, these will be our reality for most of the day.
Danny drops me, especially after I pause to adjust a brake pad in the vain hope of curing a squeak that was coming on in the last day. Quiet climbs are now punctuated with an annoying little sound. Later in the day, the gremlin will vanish most mysteriously. I keep my eyes on Danny hundreds of yards ahead and keep my cadence up. By mid-morning we’ve cracked the bugger and cost down the south side, inhaling a few well-earned fast miles. We coast and crank due east on Rt. 208, straight into the wild heart of Nevada. At a rural store, I connect with Jodi briefly. She’s astonished to be almost done with her job, quitting after almost ten years. It’s got to be hard, strange, and a relief all at once. I feel disconnected, in another world staring out at a vast sage basin. It’s already 80 deg. F. in the shade. Time to get moving. We scarf down a couple of ice cream bars to get us up the next pass.
The road is classic Nevada blacktop—a heartbreaking straight shot all the way, miles of incline mocking us, taunting, demanding, but alluring, too. On the other side is the Smith Valley and our next camp, an RV park on the Carson River. But something happens on the way to RV heaven. A breeze makes the heat bearable. The climb falls with ease. I dig into the grade and love the effort, feeling challenged, alive, happy. At the summit, I know what we have to do.
“Hey, Danny, what do you think about going past Wellington? It’s so early. We’ll be at the RV park by noon. I don’t fancy sitting around there all day.”
“We’ll have lunch in Wellington?”
“Sure, of course.”
“Then why not?”
Good man, that Danny. Always up for the next adventure. Damn the heat. We’re going big.
We burn gravity into Wellington, shot-gun peanut butter and honey sandwiches and an apple, get some cold bottled water at the local saloon, and plunge into the hot sage beyond. At times, the air feels airless, and sweat pours off my arms and down my neck, but clouds are building over the Sweetwater Mountains and spreading partially over the valley. Occasionally, a delightful pool of shade washes over the road, and we pedal for several minutes in bliss, only to ride out the other side and back into the full glare and heat of the sun.
As we near the mountains and the serious climbing, I stop to take a couple of pictures. I don’t see Danny again until near the summit. We pedal in our own worlds, gearing down, straining, watching the thunderheads swell and bulge over the high peaks to the west. At one point my feet are simply burning, so I park the bike and creep into the shade of a nearby pinyon, munch a bar, and take in the silent wilderness of trees and sky. How far ahead is Danny now? I don’t worry. He’ll wait at the top. Tops and turns, that’s the rule for waiting for either of us to catch up. Tops and turns.
Once again I press the pedals and prey the clouds ahead will shade the road. A chaotic flock of swifts suddenly fills the sky, darting and chirping, towering clouds and heartbreak blue as a backdrop. Wild irises dot the green meadows beside the road. Perhaps once every ten of fifteen minutes, a solitary car passes. I hardly notice them. The sky, the mountains and storm, the heat, I’ve pedaled into a feverish dream, and I never want to leave.
At last I turn a corner and see the unmistakable silhouette of Danny on the crest above. He sees me and moves on. I take painful bites out of the increased steepness ahead but choke it down nonetheless. Soon I’m by Danny’s side. He explains about a low front tire. We figure—wrongly it turns out—that we can nurse it down to camp. I pump it up while he steadies the bike. We push for the top. As I hoped, the massive spreading grey mass has cooled the high country, and we pedal more comfortably, break the last high point of the day, kicking off into a miles-long descent through a landscape of thunderheads, sheets of rain to the east. We seem to be threading the tempest. A brilliant, ragged lightning bolt rips the sky and vaporizes a tree on a distant ridge. I study the spot for some time as I coast gently into the valley. Wildfire? It looks like smoke is lingering, but the country is still damp from the huge storm we cycled through, and nothing seems to catch fire. I hope for the best and resolve to enjoy all these hard-earned miles. In a stunt impossible on a conventional bike, I cross my legs over the boom of the recumbent, and stretch out, wishing I had a cold beer to sip as I enjoyed the scenery. What joy!
I’ve far out-paced Danny with my greater aerodynamics, and he’s nowhere to be seen in my mirror. I hit the bottom curve and swing due south to gain the East Walker drainage, the big clouds grumbling their complaints. My complaint? A chip seal job on the road. Not the worst I’ve seen, and it will improve in a couple of years through wear and tear. But still….
I climb and descend gently, deciding to wait for Danny at the California border just a mile ahead. I round the corner and leave the chip seal and Nevada behind. And I wait. And wait. And the storm is closing in. And I wait some more. Where is this guy? He should be here by now. I worry about the flat, or another flat, or Danny being knocked off the road somewhere. Rain starts to fall. I rig the bike for storm, don rain gear, and flag down a car that is coming from Danny’s direction. A little desperate, I say, “Hey, have you seen a guy back there on a bike?”
“Yes,” says the main in the white cowboy hat and thin mustache, “he’s right behind me.”
“Great!” I say, and pat is truck as he pulls away. I walk back along the road, and there, at last, his Danny—pushing his bike. The front wheel had suddenly gone flat a mile or so back, and he figured we’d meet up eventually. We fix the flat in the spitting rain and head out, the hour getting on. We still had a couple of miles to cover.
Finally, Danny finds the bridge access to the other side of the river, and we roll down the dirt and find camp just beyond the water. Hallelujah and pass the Ramen, brother. We’re done for the day. We each went down to the river and doused and doused and washed off the heat and miles and strain. The storm shifted to the south east and faded away as is the habit of summer tempests. We pitch camp, eat, and retire to our tents as darkness falls into the canyon.
Now I write sitting up in my little tent, the wind in the pine needles, the river rushing gently a few yards away. The incense of sage fills the air. It’s been a great day, certainly Danny’s biggest touring day, and a stout one for me, too.
4,700 ft. climbing.