Friday, April 20, 2007

As Good As It Gets: The Perfect Day Ride

55.8 Miles/3,500 ft. Climb

Sometimes the stars align, the winds shift, and the patron saint of cyclists smiles down upon us. This ride was one such occasion. I had a free day to myself before I wanted to be at my mother's place in Carson City, NV, to visit and help her pack for the big move. She was leaving her home of the last ten years, the place where my father had died. On the forested Sierra crest visible from her front door, we had scattered his ashes. She liked to look up and see that place and think of him--though she is not physically capable of walking to the crag where we had set free the dust of his body on the clear mountain breezes.

So this trip had some meaning beyond the usual good times I found in the peaks and valleys of the East Side. This was one of my last trips up to Carson City to visit her there and stay in the house where I last knew my father.

Although I had strained mightily on the three day tour to Kennedy Meadows with Jodi, I was keen to get in one more classic ride on the way north, so I left Jodi at Pearsonville and drove up through the hot desert afternoon--freaky hot for April 2nd, the low 90's down in Creosote Country. The warm weather and good forecast held promise for excellent conditions up high where I wanted to ride, the Jeffrey pine and sagebrush volcanic lands north-east of Mammoth. The cycling gods blessed my bittersweet journey, and I was given a day to cherish.

The night before was frosty cold at 7,000 ft. I huddled in my bag as long as I could, but the growing day would not be put off. I turned on the heater in the van and got dressed, brewed coffee. Clad in a down jacket and thick polar fleece pants, I went for a walk in the bright April dawn. The Sierras were glorious in their winter white, gullies, ridges, gleaming craggy crests of snow and rock. From a high knoll, I could see the White Mountains, too. A typically dry range, this time it held a snowy mantle and lived up to its name. The sun climbed and warmed me. Finally, it was time to pack and drive to the start of the ride. In short order, I pulled into the June Lake turn-off and parked at a deserted visitor center.

I extricated the HP Velo Street Machine from the van and busied myself with dressing, collecting gear, applying sunscreen--the habitual stations of the cross for all my rides. To the west, a snow-plastered Ritter Range pierced the blue sky. In the parking lot, I stood in fantastic warmth. The heat of the sun cut through the high, cool air.

My route was simple: From the first (southern) June Lake turn-off, head north on Hwy 395 (huge shoulder/light traffic) to Hwy 120 and take that east to Sagehen Summit, over 8,000 ft. high with views even the Olympian gods could not improve. From the summit, drop back to 395, jog north to the other end of the June Lake Loop Rd, and follow that back to my vehicle--the one that burns petroleum.

What transpired was a waking dream of effort and solitude, cycling nirvana. The smooth shoulder of 395 carried me quickly down the few miles to 120. Once I left the main north-south route, I left virtually everyone behind. Thirty five, forty minutes at a stretch with not another soul on the road. I paused frequently for pictures and wide-eyed gaping. I stood in the middle of the road and didn't give a damn. Mono Lake mirrored the sky. Distant ranges, rank upon rank, faded into silences unexplored. The bike clicked and whirred and carried me upward through a landscape painted by Salvador Dali: stout Jeffrey pines jutted from a light gray sea of pumice spread beneath soaring cinder cones ringed by broken teeth of harder rock. I was keenly grateful for this smoothly paved trail through an otherwise unrideable country. A cyclist hitting the shoulder here would go down in an instant. Although there might be some wisdom to the adage that leaving the path is the way to find one's path, it's bad advice for pedal-powered pilgrims in this neck of the woods.

Too quickly I reached the summit and drank in once again the panorama of my favorite place in the world, my one true home. Okay, mate, down it is. The descent was hampered by cross and headwinds, but even so, I arrived at the base in minutes, concluding a pitch that had taken me over an hour to climb. I was struck yet again by the strange bi-polar disorder of bi-cycle travel, how one aspect can require so much effort, so much muscle-burning, soul-searching struggle, while the other is simple as sin. Here's the rub: Do we need the pain in order to enjoy the pleasure of surrender to gravity's insistent desire? If the path to enlightenment is as difficult to walk as a razor's edge, can it be accomplished with spoked wheels and a chain? The philosophy of kinetics does not yield easy answers, especially when the philosopher is clipped to an HP Velotechnik Street Machine Gte and hurtling downward through Dante's Vulcan playground. No time for deep thoughts, Captain. Hold your line, dodge the dragons, and flee these infernal regions! Down, down, down...

Jog right on 395, left on the Loop, into the snowy peaks and granite gaps. Switzerland? Norway? Fie on foreign soil. This Range of Light folded me into it arms and held tight, a gentle climb and cruise lakeside, a safe passage through avalanche-prone narrows, precipitous alps draped in snow looming impossibly high. Warm sun and cool winds swirled across faceted lakes and flashing cascades...and I was virtually alone. Everything was shut down--too little snow for skiing, too early for the swarms of summer campers that infest this area from June through August. Chalets and motels stood empty. Vacancy signs hung everywhere. A lone dog wandered down the road.

I, however, was slapped with the steepest climbing of the day, hard, ornery rollers that tested what was left of my reserves. I took the signed bike route, which avoids the main hamlet of June Lake but, of course, offers more climbing. Still, the views were grand, the road empty. Then the hills gave up, checked out--TKO, recumbent cyclist! I zipped down the last hill and so back to where I began.

I camped out in the sage and enjoyed a fine German lager while clouds danced on the highest summits. It's not just me, I don't think, but hasn't the St. Pauli Girl gotten hotter over the years, retooled with a bit of the Cosmo aesthetic? Not that I mind, certainly not. Still, some deep thoughts are worth considering after the riding is done.

Mammoth Mtn. and the Ritter Range

The bike just prior to launch

Beginning the big climb to Sagehen Summit

Hello Dali Land

The Jeffrey pine forest

An open basin before the summit

The sweet sign of success

High Sierra vista:The craggy dark peaks are the Ritter Range

The road to June Lake

Give me a bike to match my mountains.

The point of the journey

Camp after the ride

Parting shot