Day eight: June 15th
What is wrong with me? Why do I strain at the pedals, fight gravity in the burning sun on a bike with load tipping the scales at 80 lbs. or more? Why do these miles slip by in slow, sweaty effort? Why do I smile and think that I am astoundingly lucky to be here? Clearly, there is something wrong with me, an extra chromosome kinking my helix, an infection of the brain, a flaw in my character. God help me, but I love this shit.
We awake to a stillness that was missing for the first part of the night when a mighty wind came down off the mountains and thrashed everything in town. We fill our guts with Whoa Nellie Deli goodness in the midst of a fevered rush, crowds crowding, a slick band called String Theory busting out jazzy, bluesy, Celtic and blue grass tunes. We have to crank hard downhill to get back to the RV park. But now, at 5AM, all is still, the earliest possible light knifing into our camp with little to block the sun on the horizon, many dozens of miles away. Danny is way ahead of me, almost fully packed, then fully packed as I’m still shoveling cereal and slurping coffee from his cup, mine having vanished somewhere in the gale, a coin for the ferryman. Dang, that was one of our best backpacking cups, too. I’ll have to order another one when I get home.
We start slapping blacktop shortly after 7AM, rolling into a 40+ mile day of rolling climbs, although Deadman’s Summit will work its magic for over 1,000 ft. of elevation gain. There is no question that we could make it to Bishop and home today, but dropping into that caldron of molten lead in the afternoon sounds crazy even for us. Dawn patrol for the last day makes much more sense, so it’s Tom’s Place today and a long afternoon curled up in the shade of a Jeffery pine, where I write these words.
The day is brilliant, not a whiff of cloud nor a single contrail in the dry atmosphere. Danny and I leapfrog across the landscape, slicing through tall pines, gaping at mountains with lingering snow, too soon to be gone for the year. But there are the Whites, hanging on still to the big dump they received in May. We feel like we’re cycling within view of the Himalayas, those peaks in white so remote and inaccessible.
The traffic is light on 395; sometimes there isn’t a car in sight, and when a vehicle does zoom by, the usually wide shoulder makes it a non-event. I think of my and Jodi’s ride down the Icefields’ Parkway in Alberta back in 2012. The riding here in the eastern Sierras is almost as spectacular but with better road conditions and far less traffic. This route, from Lone Pine to Carson City, needs to be recognized as a national treasure with some significant improvements put into sections of the route to make it more bicycle friendly. WAY more people should be riding this country. With the exception of roadie day-riders, we only see three other long-distance human powered travelers: Two loaded cyclists on different days and German Jesus with dog and a dolly, who makes a plodding appearance in Lee Vining as Danny and I are hanging out at the RV park. “Hey!” cried Danny, “There’s that Jesus dude!” That’s one determined evangelist, ja.
Eventually, we peel off the main highway and take a nearly deserted route to Hilton Creek, Crowley Lake, and the last significant climbing of the day. This is where I strain and grin like a fool. At least it keeps me in shape. There’s utility in that. I do think the UN would freak out if we made Gitmo prisoners ride up mountains like this for which mental patients such as we eagerly volunteer. I can hear tin-hearted Dick Cheney smacking his lips in pleasure: Yeah, that’s it. Forget the water board—too easy on ‘em. Let’s make ‘em pedal Monitor Pass on a fully loaded recumbent! They’ll be begging us to talk after five minutes. But I do this by choice, by preference. This sick puppy dreams of such struggles. So it goes.
About noon, I turn into the shade of Tom’s Place, grab an orange juice, and revel in the shade. It’s good to pedal, but it’s also good to stop. Danny arrives and we celebrate with burgers in the restaurant. Later, we crank up to the campground and this delectable shade, the breeze singing in the pine needles. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Tomorrow, we rise before the sun and plunge into the valley ahead of the rising mercury. This tour is almost over.
Day nine: June 16th
Four thirty AM, and somehow I emerge from the clutches of the Sandman to see the faintest light on the horizon. I struggle to sit up, grab my headlamp, and start packing. It always seems to take over an hour between first wakeup and first push of the pedals, so I fight the urge to go back to sleep. By 5:50AM, we’re zipping down from the campground, sun on the high peaks and now pouring in golden intensity into the valley. Oh, how I hate to leave.
In moments, we’ve tipped over the edge, gravity’s claws hooking deep, the wheels spinning furiously. I pull ahead, loosen my shoulders, and nervously finger the brakes. No time for mistakes, no room for error. A crash at 40 mph would be gruesome. Therefore, I will not crash. The bike and I are old friends, comfortable with our moods, responsive to each other’s movements. I know what she can do; she knows I’ll keep the speed below ludicrous. I’m grateful for the dual discs slicing the chill air in the canyon, the trees blurring. I channel the late great Dean Potter for a few seconds. I don’t have a wingsuit, but I’m flying just the same.
I bottom out in the darkly shaded canyon and begin a short but serious climb to the last summit of the tour. It’s a bear, full-on granny gear spinning. Above, a band of sun ignites the volcanic rocks. Bring. It. On. Danny pulls up behind and starts to gain on me, but at the top we discover one reason for his failure to overtake: a flat on the trailer. He can usually beat me on the climbs—but not with a dead tire. We patch it in a trice and throw ourselves into the wild curving deliciousness beyond. Mt. Tom’s outrageous bulk commands substantial visual real estate, but the sinuous curves bring us views of the Whites, the dark gash of Owen’s Gorge, the broad flat valley and the inviting square of green denoting Bishop over a dozen miles away. Bank, brake, accelerate, for a couple of minutes, I have no motorcycle envy. We are children cut free on a 2,000 ft. super slide.
Except for a gentle bump on 395, virtually all of the remaining miles are very gently downhill or dead flat. When a sign indicates Bishop, 9 miles, we know they have a very short life expectancy. Massive cottonwoods overhang the road at broad intervals. Mostly, we are engulfed in brilliant light, the morning still cool as we’d planned. It’s the best of all possible endings. By 7:30AM we pull the brake levers for the last time and dismount next to the truck in a quiet neighborhood. Danny and I grin, shake hands, a little stunned that our adventure has ended.