“Spit in your eye I will defy,
you’ll be afraid when I call out your name” – Iron Maiden, The Prisoner
I’d been climbing for about an hour when the banshees began to wail from somewhere near the vicinity of my bike’s bottom bracket. At first the noise had been but a minor creak and an occasional groan, slight enough so that I wondered if the sound wasn’t emanating from inside my old, battered knees. But as I slowly ground my way up the sandy roads in the lower reaches of an area known as ‘Buttermilk Country” in California’s Eastern Sierra, the dryness of the atmosphere and the toll of many hard miles on my drivetrain began to reveal themselves. With each pedal stroke the wail grew louder until the keening filled the still air to the tempo of my cadence, a doleful screeching punctuated by the steady patter of sweat dripping on my top tube. Something was wrong. I pulled to the side of the road to investigate and confront my demons.
As I did, yet another car passed me and blanketed me with a fine layer of dust. The Buttermilks are a popular bouldering area and on this gorgeous morning many cars had passed me while making the commute up from Bishop in the valley below to play in the sun. I dug out my multitool and began to check for loose chainring bolts to see if they might be the cause of all the sorrow on my bike. Even though the morning was bright my brain was a little fuzzy as I had left at 2AM and driven up from Southern California so that I could squeeze this planned overnight ride into the weekend. Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting too old for this stuff.
As I worked in my sleep deprived daze a gleaming Land Rover zipped by at a high rate of speed, skittering momentarily across the washboards. Bracing for the dust cloud to hit me like a dustbowl era Okie from Muskogee I silently cursed into the sage, my grapes of wrath growing heavy and dusty, dusty for the vintage. Doesn’t anyone show common courtesy to slow down on dirt roads so as not to “dust” other people any more? Resigned to my plight I recalled what John Steinbeck once wrote: “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do”.
I fiddled with the bolts and did the stuff I needed to do in the dirt. In the distance a VW campervan with British Columbia plates approached with an obvious death rattle emanating from its clapped out suspension. In the spirit of kinship that binds the mechanically downtrodden they stopped and inquired if all was ok with me . Having heard the staccato of their tie rod chorus I wondered to myself if all was ok with them. Assured that I was fine they continued up the road, once again reaffirming what I’ve known all along: VW drivers are an empathetic bunch. It comes from having to fix their cars so much along the side of the road.
In fact the reason why I was back up here on this ride was that a month or so ago I had made the drive up to the Sierra only to have the alternator on my own VW give up the ghost about 50 miles south of here, destroying a planned 4 day trip. This flying weekend trip was meant to make up for that debacle, yet here I was again messing with a mechanical issue. All the bolts seemed fine, so the culprit was probably my bottom bracket. Momentarily losing my cool I spit on the cranks like a Sicilian grandmother cursing a heretic and walked away from the bike with my hands on my hips. Hmmm wait a second, suddenly I had an idea.
Why not squirt water on the bearings to shut them up? True it wouldn’t last long and I’d probably have to do it over and over, but it would beat listening to that damned squeal for hours and hours. I sucked some water from my Camelbak and spit it out all over the bearings. Jumping back on the bike, I continued riding. The screeching slowly subsided, then went away completely. Success.
Within a few minutes I passed the parking area for the most popular bouldering area. Preening in the sunlight like Patagonia peacocks, the occupants of the Land Rover had spilled out into the dirt and arrayed themselves like something out of a clothing catalog. I noted the license plate frame that surrounded the California plates: Newport Beach Motors. Socal people, just like me. Well, geography doesn’t always make people neighbors. True, I have some Patagonia gear (while pricey it’s great stuff, and the photography in their catalog is astounding) but at least mine smells like sweat. I turned my head from the scene and pedaled my gear-laden beast higher into the foothills of the Sierra, pausing only to wave at the people in the VW van who had stopped to help me. They gave a thumbs-up to me as I vanished into the morning.
Above the bouldering area the road degenerated into a rugged jeep track and within a few miles the trees appeared as I was enveloped in light.
Though the cottonwoods had been bright down in the valley, the aspens were absolutely in their glory up here in the higher elevation creek drainages that dot the flanks of the foothills, as was I as I rode through this section. I had no set itinerary for this trip, the only plan was to ride until dark, sleep, then wake up and ride some more. Life simplified.
The weather forecast was perfect: 60’s during the day and 20’s during the night with zero chance of precipitation. I had even left my bivy at home. The feeling of going light on gear is always invigorating, especially when there is lots of climbing involved as there always is on rides in this area (I guess I should say “relatively” light as I brought enough goose-down to be comfortable overnight). Considering there was a full moon I probably didn’t even need a headlamp, but it’s best to be safe.
As for riding the fat bike, well they eat up the sandy roads and old mining tracks that trace this landscape. It’s hard not to think of those that have tread before you as you follow in their path in a place like this: there are so many footsteps forgotten amidst the toil for mineral wealth of the many mining prospects that dot the earth. Was all that work for naught? I pondered this as I fought gravity up the occasional climb, my only payoff the solitude of a lovely Fall day. As long as I spat water onto my bottom bracket to quiet it all was right in the world. I will defy.
But in the end I had not gone light enough. As light began to fail from day I found myself crawling up a steep slope headed toward an area known as Coyote Flat. I had considered riding across it toward the town of Big Pine then looping back as I have done a few times in the past, but above 9500ft the crusty snowfall from last week still remained and my sea-level accustomed lungs were screaming for oxygen. The banshees I had banished from my bottom bracket had now migrated to my lungs. Seeing as how I still had 1500 vertical feet to go until the top of the ridge I really didn’t feel like pushing through the snow. Feeling that there’s no sin in that, I applied Steinbeckian logic and did what people do: I turned around and headed for the safety of the valley to find a comfortable place to sleep. Sometimes there’s virtue in a good night’s rest.
I’ve ridden this area many times, so I knew where some possible spots could be found. As I rode back through the valley a herd of deer marched just ahead of me, occasionally looking back over their shoulders to judge my position. Eventually they ran to put distance between us – I don’t blame them as my bottom bracket was groaning again. All the color had been drained from this valley years before by a wildfire that had scorched the land, but as if to provide contrast and prove that nature renews a flock of mountain bluebirds moved through the scrub while joining me on my journey. I’d never seen so many of them in one place before. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-Ay, my oh my what a wonderful day.
I continued through the valley and crossed a brook to reach the other side. Ice had begun to gather where the current was slack. In the clearing up ahead lay one of the areas I had hoped to sleep, but off to the side was something else: a deer carcass almost entirely stripped of meat. Yay though I had just ridden through the valley of the shadow of this death, I feared being eaten if I slept here for I was definitely not the meanest son of a bitch in this valley. That right was reserved for the mountain lion that undoubtedly had him or herself a nice meal here. Remembering the herd of deer anxiously looking over their shoulders at me just a few moments ago, I did the same at the shadows gathering behind me.
I decided that the best thing to do was to put a few miles between me and the carcass before sleeping. Out of sight, out of mind. Continuing onward I was entombed within the columns of an aspen mausoleum as alpenglow lit the jagged peaks of the basin ahead of me and the soft light radiated throughout the grove. The enchanted forest was alive with aspenglow and the rustle of leaves.
I rode the final miles in darkness beneath the light of my headlamp until I found an agreeable spot beside McGee Creek. Perhaps all those miners were not nameless after all. Settling in beneath the stars I paused before sleep to try and catch a glimpse of a falling star, at least that’s what I told myself: I was shaken by the sight of the deer kill and was listening for footsteps in the dark. Soon the full moon rose over the distant Inyo Mountain range to the east as it’s done so many times without me and will do so many times again when I am gone. It obliterated my stargazing as its harsh light held dominion over the clearest of skies that only the most elevated of places will ever really know.
Practically wincing from the glare, I pulled my mummy bag over my head and hid from the well-lit night within shrouds of nylon. This member of Humankind, this “thinking animal”, tried not to think: tried not to think about deer carcasses and bones, that is. Eventually I drifted off to sleep only occasionally waking during the night to the sounds of twigs snapping… or maybe they were bones. No matter how bright the night is sometimes you wish for a campfire.
Luckily, dawn eventually arrived to the sky long before the sun did so I quickly packed my gear at first light for one final ride up a spur that dead-ends at the base of the Sierra. With my bottom bracket screeching louder than ever I rode into an amphitheater of bloody peaks as the teeth of the mountains took their first bite of day. Following completion of my final seemingly pointless climb, I finished the weekend’s circle of life with a descent back to Bishop and a late breakfast complete with a second helping of bacon. Inserted back into my usual place on the food chain, all was once again right in the world and I thought no more of things that go bump in the night.