Conquistador of the Useless

I was in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. It was 10 pm and I was stretching my weary bones in the parking lot of the Bishop bus station after a tortuous, traffic-snarled weekend escape from Southern California. I had blown out of work a little early and made the drive up Rt 395 with all of my socal peeps who were thinking along the same lines. Most of the cars I had seen on the road this evening had been packed with skis and snowboards headed to the ski areas at Mammoth or June of course, but I had my bike.

“What a bunch of lemmings”, I said to no one in particular, “let them have their lift lines”. The silence of the parking lot mocked me.

Now, I like to play in the snow as much as the next guy but I had different ideas for this weekend. Damn the torpedoes I was going snow biking. All I needed to do was find some quality snow. I probably needed to stop talking to myself too…

Continuing the “in the dark” metaphor, leaning up against my car was my brand spanking new bike: a Surly Pugsley. I had just completed the build 2 days prior and had but one short ride under her oh so sultry fat tires. I had even laced up her voluptuous wheelset myself. The only maintenance I had done after that first ride was to tweak her nipples a bit to true her up, so she seemed content. The build was sound. Still, I was a tad hesitant to trust my mechanical skills and head off into the remote area I was planning to ride, but sometimes you need to throw yourself off that cliff. I guess I’m a lemming in my own way.

OK, I should get this out of the way: a Pugsley is first and foremost a snow bike (though any loose surface is her home). Sure, I live in San Diego County far from quality snow biking terrain, but I have plans for this bike… ones that involve cold places and big miles. But those are future plans and now was the time to live in the present. First thing first, I needed to ride this sucker and practice some things. I needed to find some snow! Only darkness and my own fears of heading into unknown terrain were holding me back. It was time to go.

Like trying to strike up a conversation with that beautiful woman who has thrown you the occasional glance from across the bar, I had a good idea of my ultimate destination but only a vague idea of how I was to get there on this ride. All I had to navigate by was the star of a rumor and a line on a map really. I had heard that there was a trail that connected the Black Canyon Truck Trail with Grandview Mine near the White Mt Road, but could only guess where it might be by looking at the topo maps for the area. Eventually I wanted to hook up with the White Mt road and ride up to one of the research stations that the UC system maintains up there for high altitude research. I guess I also could have just bought this ride a drink or two and driven my car up to 9000ft and ridden from there, but what fun would that be, right? Where’s the intrigue?

Anyway, in winter snowcats occasionally track from station to station along the spine of the mountain – I envisioned that the packed paths they leave in their wake would be perfect Pugsley terrain. I’d spend a few nights practicing my bivy skills, and then head down Silver Canyon back to Bishop. Armed with a waypoint programmed into my GPS of what seemed like the likely area to make the jump from Black Canyon to Grandview, a fistful of batteries for my headlamp and enough gear for 2 nights on the ground, I rolled into the night. The whirring of my monster truck tires filled the crisp Owens Valley night air like the undertone of a humid day beneath the high voltage lines in the cheap part of town. The occasional metallic crackle of a thrown stone clinked off the underside of my new frame as I found my way out of town on the chip-sealed road.

After a few miles the pavement turned to dirt. Heading due south, I could see from across the valley floor a long line of cars continuing northbound on 395 at this late hour on the way to their crowded winter wonderland. My road turned east and I left the line of cars far behind as I began the climb into the gaping mouth of Black Canyon. The metaphor was complete. I headed into black.

I’ve ridden a lot in the Eastern Sierra and every canyon has the same feel to me, especially in the dark. A wide alluvial fan beckons the rider into the fold with a gradual, soothing incline as the climb remembers the slowing of the water that gave birth to its rise. But true to their waterborne genesis, they continue to climb ever upward and gradually increase in gradient as they mercilessly progress toward the heights from which their water descended. Embodied in the flesh of what were once their waterbound stones, they are Life incarnate: they never get any easier.

A couple hours of climbing later snow patches began to appear and the Pugsley silently rejoiced by wallowing in a crystalline bath. My GPS told me I wasn’t far from the potential link-up trail, so when the walls of the canyon opened up slightly I found a snow pillow upon which to rest my bones. Whenever I sleep under the stars on a clear night I make it a point, no matter how tired I may be, to fight sleep until I count the first falling star. This night, I saw seven without trying even though I was dead tired. A just reward for a long day…

I searched to no avail the next morning for the linking trail that I sought. Lacking anything better to do, I continued up into Black Canyon as I knew it eventually intersected White Mt Road. Old mining trails scar the landscape in every direction in this area. It’s easy to feel alone in a place where you haven’t seen a human for many hours (in fact, I saw no one the entire time I was up there), but beasts of burden have traveled these trails for years in search of wealth from the earth. Today, a new beast of burden moved slowly along the rocky paths in search of a new type of fortune…

…perhaps it’s all in the thousand year perspective of a bristlecone pine what fortune really is. 

As the altitude increased the snow deepened and I began to follow in the ATV tracks that had been left in the snowpack beneath the most recent layer of snow from the last storm. It looked to me like either 2 of them had gone through the canyon, or one had gone up and then back. I was hoping for the former as breaking trail is never fun. I passed more signs of past human habitation in the unforgiving high desert landscape.

The climb steepened to Push-a-Pugsley territory, especially as the effects of the increasing altitude began to grab hold of my physiologic capacity like an asthmatic beating an old man with his own cane – there was a whole lot of lame struggle and wheezing going on. The ATV tracks abruptly stopped in the snow just below a notch in the rock that seemed more like a ski descent than a trail. I pondered my options… either go up or go down. Every great ride has this point, the crux where the choice is to back down and retreat or to move forward and break through. For the moment I chose not to choose: I broke out my stove and sat down to melt snow for water in the sun and enjoy the view.

I find moments like this to be addictive. These moments are my drug. As Joe Simpson (author of “Touching the Void”) once asked, “Why ascend a mountain by its hardest route when you can simply drive up the other side? Why be a conquistador of the useless, a compulsive addict of the absurd?” To this I add, why bomb ever more difficult downhills or search out even longer, more difficult climbs on our bikes? Why bother?

The 18th century theologian and philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed a theory he called “Deep Play” whereby what the player stands to lose is completely disproportionate to what he can possibly gain. In circumstances like this there is the struggle of continuing upward and the physical deprivation entailed, or the knowledge of perhaps putting oneself into a potentially dangerous situation on an unknown trail in an isolated place to set against, according to Simpson, “the transitory pleasure of a summit, the thrill of the adventure, the fleeting satiation of an irrational desire. The fact that the desire can never be completely gratified is the addiction. Perhaps the desire is rooted in the very absurdity of the undertaking. It is so wonderfully pointless and meaningless that it has to be done.”

Of course at the time I had no thoughts in my head other than “I’m thirsty” or “my lungs feel like they are about to explode” as I have already fumbled through this mental calculus many times before and I was living in the moment. The only choice was to go up. 20 minutes later, standing in knee deep snow manhandling a 50 lb bike up a 35+ degree slope, “get to the top of this incline and let’s see what’s around that next corner” ruled my world. For it’s only later, whether sitting in our comfortable homes or driving six hours back to them after the ride, that we contemplate the motivation at the root of our actions.

Around that next corner the ridge presented itself to the Sierra Nevada as seen across the Owens Valley. Motivation was found, but I never see the light until days later it seems.

Finally, at just over 10,000 ft Black Canyon emptied onto the flat near Schulman Grove and I linked up with the White Mountain Road. Just as I had imagined the snowcat had done its job well and I rode off toward Patriarch Grove in the late afternoon sun.

I think I’ve babbled enough at this point. As bad luck would have it the snowcat track did not go as far as I would’ve liked and at the top of Silver Canyon I was faced with the choice of either pushing my bike many, many miles in deep snow or heading back down to Bishop. I headed downward. The deep drifts that had collected there presented their own difficulties but at this point it really didn’t matter. I had pushed through the crux of a wonderfully pointless and meaningless undertaking. Fittingly I finished as I had started: in the dark.

“In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait” – Sartre

thanks for reading

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