Solitude in the Sand

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god” – Aristotle

The sheer weight of stars threatened to bring the night sky crashing down onto the desert floor. How can light be so heavy? From the Laguna Mountains in the distant west to the nearby hulk of the Santa Rosa’s to my east, 180 degrees of the Milky Way’s whirling teeth smiled from horizon to horizon over the flat plain of the Borrego Sink while I pedaled beneath the incomprehensible mass of the desert night. For all I knew there may have even been a planet or two suspended in the milk up there, but there was no time to stop and look as I was no wanderer. I was a man on a mission.

For years I’ve wanted to ride this section of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the early morning hours and watch the sun rise over the land. Today was the day I finally set the alarm clock early enough to get it done. I’m not sure what quirk of personality allows me to think that a solo ride in an isolated area like this in the wee hours of the morning is fun, but the further I rode away from the protected cove of Borrego Springs the stronger the wind became and the less I questioned why I was out here in the dark. Despite the stinging sand that was beginning to flash in the rays of my headlamp like snowflakes in a snow globe, the ride felt right. Sleep and stinging eyes be damned I was happy to finally be riding through the desert night.

The wind had been calm as I descended into the desert near the town of Borrego Springs, but as I moved away from the mountains and out onto the broad valley floor it began to increase with intensity as it funneled down through Coyote Canyon from the north. Squinting into the distance I noticed a low smudge on the horizon in the direction I was headed. It could mean only one thing: a minor sandstorm was brewing out in the Badlands. I reached the turnoff for Inspiration Wash and headed deeper into night.

P1100769 Just as I had suspected, a minor ground blizzard of sorts was blowing as I pedaled across the track that cuts through this section of sand dunes. The sand hissed jealously beneath my tires on the breath of the wind. Thank you five inch wide tires for floating me through the unconsolidated sand in this area!

I knew from previous rides that this is an area where the washes run across the land like the goals and dreams of youth. Some flame out abruptly as immediate dead ends. Others wind slowly for miles before petering out at the foot of the mountains far from where they started with retreat being the only escape. Try as they might, few cut all the way through the Badlands with Inspiration Wash the only one that leads to the other side of the desert in this region. Where there’s a will there’s a way and Inspiration had somehow made it happen. I needed to follow Inspiration.

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As luck would have it somewhere along the way I had made a wrong turn. I rounded a corner and the walls of the wash closed in around me while the sand blew into my eyes. Crap, a dead end. Time to retrace my steps back to that left I took into the unnamed wash when I should’ve gone right. That’s life for you I guess. Soon I was back on track and as I slowly gained altitude the surroundings began to look familiar again. This time I had found Inspiration. After a few miles of slow climbing I reached Inspiration Point and sat down in the dirt to wait for the sun.

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Sometimes I get questions from people asking me if I’m ever lonely on some of these rides I take. In fact, I have no doubt that if someone had come around the corner at this moment and seen me they probably would’ve exclaimed “wow, that sure is a lonely looking guy sitting over there in the dirt all by himself”. From his viewpoint my seeming detachment from the world might declare me a wretched figure lost in the vastness of the badlands. But though I might have been a little cold, solitary and chomping on a Clif Bar for breakfast I was definitely not lonely. Loneliness is imposed by others. Being lonely requires a feeling of terrible isolation, of estrangement from a world that exists in only black and white. I had chosen to be out here. I was not lonely.

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I was here to experience glorious solitude. The scene deepened with a richness that played across the fissures and arroyos of the badlands as the sun began to rise from behind the mountains. While the wind continued to howl up here on the ridge at least the windblown sand was no longer a problem as I had risen above the worst of it, drawn as I was to the purpling of the sky as if by osmosis. The dessicated land watercolored in the pastels of dawn while my shadow, though faint at first, gradually sharpened and lengthened across the world with the rising sun. In an apparent contradiction, I had ridden Inspiration to Solitude rather than the other way around – though they both were clearly feeding off each other here in the soft light of dawn.

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Solitude is a rare and beautiful thing in this world and I was fortunate to have become a part of it, yet somehow still watched it from afar. Life is full of contradictions, beautiful contradictions. With my batteries recharged by the solitude I continued on to Font’s Point and took in the view. Mission accomplished.

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Navigating the Sierra Nevada Cloudlands

Whenever I get the opportunity to head to the mountains my eyes always turn skyward and marvel at the interplay of clouds and peaks. Like the moai on Easter Island searching for whatever it is they’re looking for just over the horizon, I trace the moisture as it’s thrust upward and wrung from the atmosphere by the hulking granite of the Sierra Nevada in cathedrals clouds of billowy cumulus. I stare in awe. Sure I probably look like an idiot with my eyes glazed and unblinking standing around looking at the hills, but I really don’t care how I look. I can watch this show for hours. I’m positive the moai feel the same way.

Which is exactly what I did last week during a ride up and over Tioga Pass into Yosemite Park and back: I watched the show. It was a glorious spring day for a ride with crisp air to breathe, cool water to filter from the streams and a show overhead on the great whirling diamond of the sky. In addition I also had the good timing to ride a couple of days before a late season dump of 12-18″ of snow closed the pass too. Although I’ve never won anything in the lottery I guess I’m a lucky guy. Just for fun, on the way up through the Eastern Sierra I also dropped in on the Alabama Hills for a fat bike excursion through the Mars-scape that exists out in the shadow of Mt Whitney. It felt good to pedal through the sand.

Two great rides navigating the cloudlands through miles of silent thought while riding some of the most inspiring landscapes in North America. Not too shabby for a guy that just finished his hip physical therapy and is starting to get back into shape.

Of course John Muir had already beat me to the cloud observations, it seems that guy thought of everything (something tells me he didn’t waste much time watching TV):

“Another midday cloudland, displaying power and beauty that one never wearies in beholding, but hopelessly unsketchable and untellable. What can poor mortals say about clouds? While a description of their huge glowing domes and ridges, shadowy gulfs and canons, and featheredged ravines is being tried, they vanish, leaving no visible ruins. Nevertheless, these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die…”

The next post will be about rocks. Wow, rocks and clouds – what an interesting blog huh?

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Finding Fat Bike Heaven in California’s Canyonlands

At over 600,000 acres Anza-Borrego State Park is California’s largest state park offering over 500 miles of winding dirt roads that trace many of the washes and canyons. Far from being a wasteland, it is a geologic masterpiece of raw landforms ripped and torn by erosion. Before I started fat biking I had never really given much thought to riding this area as sand and skinny tires are usually ingredients in a recipe for futility (not to mention that the park literature discourages biking here for this reason), but now that I’ve ridden most of the park I can proclaim it for what it is: Fat Bike Heaven. It’s a great place to ride, as long as your tires are fat and it’s not too hot.

Last week I had a few free days and the weather looked good (forecasted highs in the upper 80’s and low 90’s) so I planned a car camping overnighter to explore an old favorite (Fish Creek Wash) as well as a new area in the Borrego Badlands.  So in the interest of getting people out exploring the desert on something other than a fossil-fuel powered 4WD, here’s a photo essay of what can be found out there on a typical ride.  Trust me there’s lots more where this came from (if you look back in my blog you can find some other rides that give a flavor of the Coyote Canyon and Sandstone Wash areas).

Oh, I did not encounter ANY other traffic on either ride that I took – that’s almost 10 hours of complete solitude (amazing for California). So if you want a personal experience with the desert make sure that you are prepared with plenty of food and water, go midweek and enjoy the silence.  Most importantly, get out and explore!

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Meandering upriver into the Borrego Badlands. This is just below Inspiration Point.

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This was the result of a wrong turn in the Badlands. From what I’ve heard there are numerous fossils waiting to be found in these washes.

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The view from the top of Inspiration Wash. This was a fun descent from here back into the badlands.

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There’s not a lot of color left in the wildflowers this year as it’s been hot and dry, but there are still a few

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Though the wind had started to die down by the time I took this photos, here’s a little evidence of how windy it had been throughout the day.

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Back off man, this dune’s mine.

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Love the scalloped edges of these dunes.

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With so much wind and dust in the air the sunset was otherwordly.

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Aww what the heck, why not another another angle?

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Sorry, this scene deserved another angle to take it all in.

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“Primitive” car-camping in Fish Creek Wash: bacon, pancakes and coffee. Free camping is available throughout Anza-Borrego (see the park website for regulations). Even with a 13 yr old VW Jetta Station Wagon I was able to get far enough up the wash to find a great area to spend the night. Granted my VW has a lift kit and skid plate (no I don’t have a gun rack) so your off-road mileage may vary.

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Just another gorgeous day in the desert.

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Split Mountain, a well placed rock and a 10 second timer.

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A view of Elephant’s Knees from an adjacent hill.

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The hills in this area shimmer with mica shards

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Shattered concretions littering the ground in upper Arroyo Seco Del Diablo like forgotten Greek statues. Lots of petrified wood can be found up here as well.

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Water, water ummmm… no where.

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Fresh bloom on a great day to be a cactus. It’s very weird to be buzzed by a hummingbird (as I was) while in the middle of the desert.

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More concretions in Arroyo Seco Del Diablo. I was a little dehydrated by this point in the ride but there may or may not have been a caterpillar smoking a hookah sitting on top of this formation… I’m still not sure.

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One of the famous slot canyons of Arroyo Tapiado. This area is also home to one of the largest concentrations of mud caves in the world (of which I do not go into, the slot canyons are even a little too 127 hrs-ish for me).

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Concretions embedded in sandstone, ride the wave.

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Sorry for the selfie, but my fat head provides scale in this larger slot canyon about 1/2 mile down the wash from the first one I went into.

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Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me. Remember, gravity always wins.

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The Old Man and the Sea

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” – Ernest Hemingway

Despite the grand Hemingway references there’s not much of a story here.  No epic “Man vs Nature” struggle or any great drama just a morning ride down the beach at San Onofre State Park.  “Man vs. Sleeping in Late” or “Man vs Sand” might be a more appropriate characterization.  Just a few photos that capture the spirit of a beach ride less the crunchy drivetrain and ensuing maintenance that’s always required after a spin through the shifting sands of San Onofre. P1100095 I love riding this stretch: it’s beautiful, it’s uncrowded (on a midweek morning) and it’s always thought-provoking. The bluffs hem you in so that the only direction that can be faced is the sea and the horizon, and who among us isn’t forced to confront certain questions while facing the horizon. If you hit it at the right time of day and squint really hard you can imagine the beach as being your own tiny salt-infused universe, if only for the duration of a precious little curl of the waves lapping the edge of the space-time continuum. This morning the touch of early “May Gray” sullenness enhanced the scene. P1100083 P1100135 I am at a crossroads right now.  Big changes are just over that horizon and as I pedaled down the beach I thought of an article I had stumbled upon while idly surfing the internet the other day. Titled  “The Moral Bucket List” it had some interesting things to say.  Take a look if you’re interested in a thought-provoking read, I especially like the concept of “the stumbler”. Heck, while trying to get this shot of the wildflowers and my bike I stumbled a bit – it’s what I do. At least I usually stumble forward.P1100118 P1100123 A stumbler though I may be, it sure is nice to sit down over twelve hours later and still smell the salt air that engulfed me as I climbed back up the bluffs and into the dawn of a clear new day.  For a guy that’s starting to feel a bit old as I attempt to heal this nagging hip joint problem, I sure felt young.  Nice morning for a ride. P1100126 P1100128

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Searching

My brain has been a bit locked up recently, probably because I’m dealing with an as yet undiagnosed hip problem that has been dogging me for many months.  The physical therapy I’ve been doing is helping it heal (or so it seems) but I really hope to get a more targeted diagnosis with an MRI next week so that I can speed this recovery process up.  The lack of miles on the bike is starting to drive me nuts at this point!  I think while I ride, so lately I’ve been a little, well… blank.

So instead of thinking (and doing much more than a few rides each week) I’ve been reading and absorbing (or at least I hope I have) as I get ready to confront some tough questions.  I’d like to think this frustrated bikeaholic is priming the pump for some big decisions upcoming in the next few months… so primed in fact that I’m sure the decisions will flow like water from a mountain stream when the time comes.  But until my brain unlocks chew on some thoughts from Sterling Hayden (from his book, Wanderer).

“I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security.” And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.

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What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.

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The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.

Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life? ”

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Springtime in San Diego

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”- Jack Kerouac

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Snorts, Sighs, Bellows, Shrieks, Cheers, and Spoken Prayers

Was reading at lunch today and came across a concept that originated with Harlow Shapley in his book “Beyond the Observatory”.  In the spirit of the exchange of Argon atoms he describes, consider the following passages the next time you’re huffing and puffing while riding your bike up a hill… or walking… or sleeping… or droning out watching television… or wasting time at work… or reading the regurgitated thoughts of some lazy blogger who usually writes about bikes and stuff… or doing every single action of every single second of your life.  Kind of puts that crappy day you might’ve just had at work into perspective (for better or worse) doesn’t it?

“Since about 1 per cent of your breath is argon we can determine approximately the number of atoms in your next argonic intake. The calculations are really rather simple and straightforward, but to some readers this dizzy arithmetic is repulsive and I shall simply state the results. In your next determined effort to get oxygen to your lungs and tissues you are taking in, besides the nitrogen and oxygen, 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of argon; in briefer statement 3 X 10^19. (Count the zeros!) A few seconds later you exhale those argon atoms along with quintillions of molecules of carbon dioxide.

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“Now let us follow the career of one argon-rich breath in your next exhalation, let us suppose. We shall call it Breath X. It quickly spreads. Its argon, exhaled this morning, by nightfall is all over the neighborhood. In a week it is distributed all over the country; in a month, it is in all places where winds blow and gases diffuse. By the end of the year, the 3 X 10^19 argon atoms of Breath X will be smoothly distributed throughout all the free air of the earth. You will then be breathing some of those same atoms again. A day’s breathing a year from now, wherever you are on the earth surface, will include at least 15 of the argon atoms of today’s Breath X.

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“This rebreathing of the argon atoms of past breaths, your own and others’, has some picturesque implications. The argon atoms associate us, by an airy bond, with the past and the future. For instance, if you are more than twenty years old you have inhaled more than 100 million breaths, each with its appalling number of argon atoms. You contribute so many argon atoms to the atmospheric bank on which we all draw, that the first little gasp of every baby born on earth a year ago contained argon atoms that you have since breathed. And it is a grim fact that you have also contributed a bit to the last gasp of the perishing.

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“Every saint and every sinner of earlier days, and every common man and common beast, have put argon atoms into the general atmospheric treasury. Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Gandhi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets. We have argon from the sighs and pledges of ancient lovers, from the battle cries at Waterloo, even from last year’s argonic output by the writer of these lines, who personally has had already more than 300 million breathing experiences. Our next breaths, yours and mine, will sample the snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks, cheers, and spoken prayers of the prehistoric and historic past.

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California Greening

“‘The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream” – Jack Kerouac

There’s something about the recovery process from a bad cold or illness that awakens the spirit.  I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dealing with the worst cough I think I’ve ever had, so bad that I dry-heaved at one point from the constant, acute contraction of my stomach muscles in addition to coughing blood at its worst.  It was demoralizing. As a consequence I walked around for a good portion of January like a Roomba with a crappy attitude – my body was capable of day-to-day tasks but my mind was incapable of higher functions.  Sure, I avoided running into walls for the most part, but my soul was asleep.

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But now that I’ve turned the corner I feel alive again, much like the parched earth of southern California that is beginning to show signs of life.  The little bit of rain we’ve received this “winter” has been sucked up by the land and coughed back out in the hopeful kaleidoscope that is Spring.  I hope it doesn’t cough blood.

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Last night I rode after work for the first time in many weeks.  With the lengthening of the day I was able to ride through the sunset and watch the moon rise over the rim of the valley as coyotes called from all corners.  I can only guess that they were calling out to me and asking where I’d been. Though my conditioning may be total crap right now, that’s OK. Getting back into shape is the fun part, right?  There is color again in the hills and the climb out from the fog of the valley is illuminated as bright as day.

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Faltering Words on the White Rim

“The pictures tell the story, this life has many shades…” – Dropkick Murphys

As you know, I’m the kind of blogger that likes to form a story around my experiences.  Maybe tell a tale or try (usually unsuccessfully) to weave some sort of symbolic statement into the recounting of what is really just a bike ride – something almost all of us have done since we were children.  I find it fun and it’s a passion of mine, which is why I keep babbling away on these pages.  The truth is I’ve been sitting on these photos of my first ride on Utah’s White Rim Trail (yes, I will be back some day!) as I really want to write a proper story about what this trip meant to me.  It was a turning point of sorts, but finding the time to babble has been a little difficult as of late.  Take it from me, when life intervenes on your babbling time you’re on the wrong path.

So for now I’ll keep my mouth shut, post a bunch of photos and let the scenery speak.  Hopefully the sights of Canyon Country will motivate you to get out and experience a place you might have always wanted to ride but never quite ponied up the sweat fee.  If you’ve ever wanted to ride the White Rim but thought it too regulated, too crowded, too overdone, too remote, too tough, too easy, too everything… well you’re right, it can be.  But as with all rides, it is what you make of it.  The one thing that is certain is that the White Rim is one of those places where words are unnecessary, if not superfluous.  It’s just that gorgeous.

To give you a framework, I’ve posted the photos in the order that I took them.  I loaded my trusty Salsa Fargo up with enough water to drown a whale and then rode clockwise down Shafer Trail camping overnight at Murphy’s Hogback (where I grudgingly shared my dinner with a pesky kangaroo mouse whom I named Edward Abbey, the little son of a bitch). The next day I rode out through Mineral Bottom.  I saw only 5 people out there, a perfect November weekend in Canyonlands National Park.

By the way, one of the best photos I’ve ever taken (in my humble opinion) is mixed in – I got one right finally!  Enjoy the ride.

 

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Punched in the Face on Boxing Day

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

It was a surprisingly simple plan, especially for one formed on Christmas Day after drinking a couple of beers.  The next morning I’d drop my wife off to spend the day with friends in Mammoth Lakes and then I’d head off to a nearby area for a much-needed training ride before my upcoming trip to Idaho.  The forecast was calling for cold weather and living where I do, I need to take advantage of every opportunity possible to expose myself to it.  I’d ride for the afternoon then meet up with everyone for dinner: the perfect plan.

Put even more simply, the mountains were calling and I was listening.

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The Eastern Sierra of California is home to many volcanic features and one known as Glass Mountain rises from the eastern edge of what is known as the Long Valley Caldera.  The caldera contains the shattered geologic remnants of a massive eruption that occurred 760,000 years ago.  One of the largest calderas on earth, it’s roughly bordered by Crowley Lake to the south, The Sherwins to the west, Glass Mt to the east and Mammoth Mt to the north.  Named after the shards of black obsidian which litter the area, Glass pays homage to the unique geologic heritage of the area and if given the chance it will slash a bike tire or two to uphold that tradition.

I had always wanted to ride Glass Mountain but had never been motivated enough to drive out there, it’s just not the sort of place that most people seek out to ride when visiting the resort area of Mammoth Lakes (ok, I came close last year, but that’s about it).  In fact, most people would tell you that there really is no reason to head out there, except for the good people at Fat Bike Mammoth who recommended the area when I emailed them asking for some information.  Take a look at their site as they have a lot of good information about the area and are enthusiastic to the nth degree about fatbiking, well just “biking” in general.

Speaking of looking, I should’ve looked at the elevation profile for the ride before I started it.  Sure, it was only 20 miles long but the 3700ft of elevation gain packed into those miles might’ve changed my perfect plan a bit especially since I was riding a loaded fatbike in the snow.  Plus, my fitness is not the best right now (there’s a thin line between being a  fatbiker and just being a fat biker, if you know what I mean). Oh well, live and learn – at my age I should be a freaking genius.

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Back to the perfect plan… everything was going well on the ride as I chugged up the lower slopes bellowing like a burrito powered locomotive as I wound through a nice deserted valley or three.  Really nice open country up here with views that stretch forever in an almost infinite solitude.  It’s the type of landscape that introverts retreat to when they suddenly fall silent in a crowd – if you’re an extrovert you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

Facing the distant hulk of the northernmost peaks of the White Mts (which straddle the CA/NV border just beyond the caldera), the wind picked up precipitously.  The slopes above me were suddenly so steep that they obscured the low summit of the cinder cone known locally as Squaw’s Teat which, in addition to being my planned high point for the ride is one of those descriptive place names that pop up in obscure environs that just make sense when you see them.

The other reason I couldn’t see the summit is that a dark cloud had formed in the lee of the mountain as the winds howled straight out of the north like Norsemen hellbent upon destruction.  Whatever moisture was contained within the air mass was being wrung out by the Glass Mt range.  The wind was howling up there, not exactly what I had planned on for an afternoon jaunt in the hills.  A gust of wind blasted my face and I recalled that I had not packed a balaclava or anything to cover up my face with with on this trip.  The perfect plan was not so perfect after all.  Just goes to show you that you can be lulled to sleep when you live in an area surrounded by palm trees.

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I marched on as the wind howled and the trail suddenly went vertical around the 8500ft level… ok not exactly vertical but at least 25% vertical covered with crusty snow.  As a flatlander unaccustomed to this altitude, in these conditions that’s vertical enough for me.  Reaching the top of a minor ridge the wind hit me full force and almost knocked me over.  For the moment the ride hung in the balance.

I peered into my gps for guidance like a gypsy into a crystal ball.  On this lollipop loop route I was now about as far from the start as I was from the finish.  My thought processes went Joe Strummer and mocked my indecision as they sang “Should I stay or should I go” to the tune of the wind. Steadying myself in the face of the gale I decided to go for it, frozen face be damned. “If I stay it will be double”, so onward and upward I trudged (the conditions were no longer rideable).

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Perfect plans are rarely perfect and my preparation for this ride had clearly not been the best.  As I type these words nearly a full two weeks down the road from this ride the patch of superficial frostbite I ended up with on my nose from the combination of howling wind and near-zero degree temperature still has not healed.  Always bring your balaclava.  Oh well, it’s not the first time I’ve frostbitten my nose – good thing I was born ugly.  I won’t lie, it wasn’t a perfect ride but it was a lesson learned to be prepared even in sunny California.

But I will tell you that climbing up the final pitch toward the summit at just under 10000ft over ruddy, volcanic earth enveloped in the incongruously warm ochre of the setting sun while bearing the full force of the wind with snow streaming by and rime ice developing all over my body and gear while the clouds screamed around me, within me, and damn near through me was a perfect climax to an imperfect plan.  So perfect I didn’t even bother taking a picture as it was so damn cold that I would’ve frozen my fingers by even attempting to do so.  Even having to push my bike downhill through snowdrifts was pretty cool.  There is beauty in the harsh and the unusual even if you have to fully expose yourself both mentally and physically in order to experience it.

I descended into the dark back to my car and began to shiver the moment I stopped moving.  Reunited with my wife and friends 30 minutes or so later back in Mammoth Lakes, I finally stopped shivering.  Having pushed myself a little harder than expected I was dehydrated and devoid of energy, but as I ate I started to feel a bit better and reentered the fun little social gathering.  I sipped my beer and began to explain the scene on top of the mountain to them – the exposure, the winds, the earth – but the words rang hollow as soon as they left my mouth.  That moment was mine and there was no use talking about it. Switching to other topics, I emerged from my thoughts and basked in the warmth of the company.

 

 

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