Above: The climb up Monitor Pass
Day three: Wed. June 10th
We awake to dry but seriously threatening clouds. The sky everywhere is grey. As I slip on my cycling shoes, the first drops of rain fall. Okay, here we go. We slip out of the RV park and drop steeply off the bench where the town of Lee Vining sits—fast, cool. For some long, blissful minutes I harbor a dream of out-riding the storm. Perhaps it will stay more to the south, and we will somehow thread the needle. This dream lasts until the base of the serious climbing to Conway Summit. A determined, opaque, thoroughly soaking grey wall envelopes us, the rain suddenly steady. I put on Goretex tops and bottoms, slip the bags over my feet, and get down to the very wet business of getting up the pass. The rain builds and builds until it is a steady soak, sheets of water pouring across the blacktop, a virtual Ganges in the gutter. The pants and jacket do their job, however, and I’m warm, sweaty, but comfortable enough in short-sleeved jersey and short cycling pants underneath. In fairly short order, I round the final curve and catch up to Danny, waiting in the recess of a Caltrans materials building, his bike pressed up against a huge pile of grey gravel. He’s just barely under the overhang. I take the next bay to the left and pee around the corner into the dark broken rock. The rain comes down steadily and cold at over 8,000 ft.
We eat, shake out, watch a group of other cyclists coming up from the north. Two vehicles are waiting for them, some sort of organized ride. They’re soaked, too. After almost an hour, the rain seems to be easing up, so we make a break for it, and rip down into Bridgeport, eating the wet and road splatter, but eventually we punch out of the rain and cruise into town under a leaden sky waiting for the weakest of excuses to cut loose again. We dry out and coffee up in town.
The café occupies a beautiful 19th century brick Victorian. As we enter and my fingers throb and tingle in the warmth, we hear a loud voice. Sitting at the window table is a trim 50-ish man with grey beard prattling most voluminously into is Blue Tooth headset about some poker game. He’s by himself and stares down at his hands—“You’ve got seven cards, and….” These types always drive me nuts, but I had to take off my raincoat, use the restroom, and get me some brewed bean. This clown could wait. When all my duties were complete, I rejoined Danny in the seating area, and Blue Tooth guy was still at it. Well, doood, two can play this game. I shook out my plastic foot bags most vigorously. I talked to Danny in a loud voice, anything to disrupt BT dude. Eventually, he got up, never stopping his conversation, and walked out to the street. Jeez.
We shopped for dinner, picking up a couple of brews for later. These were carefully wrapped in sweaters and towels to maintain a suitable chill, which didn’t seem to be hard to do today. We stormed back onto Hwy 395, gunning for Devil’s Gate, our last pass for the day. True to our luck, we cranked straight into the guts of steady pouring yuk, the occasional big rig spraying everything far and wide. I found that my jacket hood could accommodate the bike helmet, so with this snugged down and the long visor I’d installed, I was able to keep my glasses reasonably clear. We regrouped on the summit.
“Hey, Danny. What do you think about pushing through to Walker and getting a room? Does it sound too wimpy?” I asked. He didn’t think so. Down it was. We cut sweeping turns into the Walker River canyon, granite crags, pines and boulders overhung by the brooding atmosphere. For a moment, caught up in the optimism of a break in the rain, we considered stopping, but wisely reconsidered and pushed on as the rain poured down again. Banking along the meandering white water, we soon broke out of the canyon and landed in Walker, taking the first motel we could find—Sierra Vista, cute cabins. Ah, the escape of a warm room! We could actually dry out. Dinner, the last two thirds of Terminator Three, and out for the count. We’ll be back.
Day four: June 11th
This was about the brilliance of a clearing storm, the deep scent of sage, and a climb to the heavens. After futzing with gear, packing, the usual morning chores, we lit out for the high country, a 3,000 ft. climb to Monitor Pass, one of the best cycling routes in North America. We reached the base by 8AM and dug in, the pass throwing a stiff punch early, a stout double digit uppercut to assert its superiority. We countered with a granny gear to the belly and winched up, out of the shadows and into a hot sweaty grind.
We took a break at the first hairpin, a bright stream nearby, the breeze in the aspens. We’d already climbed 1,500 ft. in the first hour. Do your worst, Monitor. We’re ready. The higher we climbed, the more the air cooled, a breeze came across the high ridges, clouds came and went across the sun—perfect conditions for the hard work. Stands of healthy green aspens covered the slopes, the angle of the grade weakened, we picked up some gears, and by 10:30AM, we had attained the summit. What a grand a glorious climb.
Then, the descent.
The drop to Markleeville on Hwy 89 from Monitor Pass is life changing. There is your puny, limited little life before this Drop of the Gods, and then there is the rich, fulfilled completeness of your life after. Until you’ve done it, you’ll never understand. Trust me. It’s that good. Sweeping turns, perfect pavement, mountains, meadows, snow and craggy canyon combine to inspire bliss and sublime flashbacks. Do it.
The alpine burg of Markleeville oozes quiet charm. A shining creek cuts across the south end of a collection of cafés that cater to the likes of touring cyclists, roadies, motorcycle groups, and the usual parade of fishermen, hunters, travelers and seekers. Don’t expect much from the market, but you won’t starve, and the beer is good.
We camped down by the creek in the deserted campground—amazing. Dunked in the river, lunch in town. Rest day tomorrow. These are the simple pleasures of the cycle tourist.
Rest day addendum: We are going to bake. We are going to fry. We are going to roast, sizzle, sauté, simmer. Looking like low 90’s for the swing into Nevada. Oh well. One must suffer for one’s art, mustn’t one?