The bus stop in Lee Vining was at the only restaurant in town. With no reason to go inside, I slowly rolled out passed the town’s only service station, a few houses, and a tourist shop boasting an extensive display of international flags. With town out of sight and about five miles behind me, I felt like my lungs had collapsed through my intestines and landed on my bike seat. I was dragging ass big time! The elevation was around 4500’ and my body knew I was not at 200 feet above sea level anymore.
Still, the scenery was great! The mountains to the west rolled lazily low and the ones more distant cut sharply into the horizon. A glistening white sheet of snow draped off the steep slopes. Oppositely, a plain of sagebrush pitched downwards toward a blue, tear shaped outline called Mono Lake.
Mono Lake is notoriously famous for just a few things. For one, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds frequent the area on a seasonal basis to feast on the tiny salt water shrimp species that inhabit the bitter waters, but for a good buzz kill, there were no birds in sight. Secondly, the lake sits in a volcanic basin, like in the bottom of a bowl. No waters flow out of the lake, just in, and that causes saline levels to rise dramatically. The salts react chemically with the soil’s limestone to form Mono Lake’s most famous characteristic, the tufas. Tufas tend to jettison up out of the ground and lake like small castle towers, some as tall as two stories high. My first glimpse of these tufas was in high school on a rock and roll video from the late 80s. The big hair band called Cinderella filmed a video to their hit power ballad, Don’t Know What You Got Til Its Gone, on the shores and amidst the tufas of Mono Lake. Eight years later, I found myself propped on the handlebars of my bike headed in their general direction with the motto for this trip being, don’t know where I’m going, til I’ve been there!
The chip-sealed pavement whizzed beneath my tires and I whoopty-dooed over the smooth, undulating surface of the land causing a brisk breeze to spawn hairy goose bumps on my toned forearms. Without passing a turnoff that headed to the lake, I cruised out to the only intersection of the day. With 395 continuing south, I had to veer east on State Road 120. Here at the crossroad a highly decorated grave stood guard over an empty parking lot. The grave was basically a pile of granite cobbles with a wooden cross for a headstone, but it sort of eerily beckoned a trinket or curio toll from whoever stopped to gaze. Unable to find a name for the person buried there, I ripped off a piece of label from a cup-of-soup and placed it atop the wooden cross. The label read, “Trader Joe.” Who knew the name might have stuck! Years later, the internet refers to the location as the gravesite of Mono Joe! Huh? Minutes later on down the road, another turn to the left appeared and I took it. Pavement turned to gravel and I descended to the mystical shores of Mono Lake. Boom!! Don’t know where I’m going til I’ve been there!
As S.R. 120 gradually climbed out of the lake’s basin, the gravel ground was comprised of white granules of granite and bits of brown lava. The topography was fairly flat and undulating, yet four chop-topped volcanoes resided just off to the south. Tall Ponderosa pine rockets shot out of the ground and everywhere looked like a great place to camp. I pushed on though, continuing to gradually gain elevation. The desire to hitchhike struck my mind and tempted me with every passing car, all four of them! Actually, I didn’t really want to get in a car, but the high elevation and a slight headwind insto-whipped me. After a couple more hours of climbing, the sun began setting in the background while the road made a big arc around on the level part of a high plateau. I was on Sagehen Summit and the elevation was a mere 8139 feet above sea level. No wonder I was so spanked!
There at the summit I caught my first glimpse of my initial destination, Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada, some 20 miles distant. With the sky wetted in soft bluish-purple hues, a pale cream moon loomed just above the mountain’s highest slopes. The speedy descent into the shade of the setting sun was cold. The wind stung my face with cold tears and a crisp bite. At the bottom of the long hill, there was a sandy pull out next to a very small stream. It suited camping purposes quite nicely. Nestling deep into my big down sleeping bag I slept quite soundly with the memory of my night in the Reno bus terminal completely forgotten.
The next morning, a tiny squeaking sound snapped me out of my sleep. A little chipmunk scurried near my head as though begging me to provide him with a breakfast. The air was very chilly and caused shivers. That shallow three foot wide stream was now a crusty layer of ice. As I mounted my bike and peddled onto the pavement, a small arched rainbow in the clouds seemed to say I was pointed in the right direction. Heading down a long straightaway, I came across a dead rabbit and attempted to pry off its foot… for good luck, of course!!
Without a knife, I yanked and twisted and pulled, but when the skin broke, it squirted blood from its leg which hit me in the cheek. With wincing eyes and a disgusted facial grimace, I opened my hand, dropping the bad idea along with the dead animal in the brush and continued on my way. A long straight stretch of uninhabited road finally came to a close with a splendid eight mile downhill coast that took me to the valley floor. With S.R. 120 intersecting with CA State HWY 6, I was subsequently slapped with an equally long 1.5% uphill gradient and a stiff 25 mph headwind. Ugg. As history would have it, small aircraft pilots from the southern town of Bishop battled those same gales and often changed course or waited out the weather before making it to their destination. Turns out they were trying to reach the same place I was going.
A warm wind and even hotter day led to exasperation. I felt dissatisfied with my lofty goals, which now seemed beyond reach. Dwelling on the desire to quit, I kept stone walling my mental will to persevere. At the California/Nevada border, I happened upon a vehicle and a couple bent over in the nearby scrub brush illegally harvesting cactus. As I explained the drear of my tale, they hustled and bustled to stash their contraband in their car’s trunk. The guy refused to lend any aid except the implication that I would reach my goal eventually. They got in their car, locked their doors, and drove off. I felt alone, finished, empty, and stuck in this huge valley of sage and gravel, cactus and sky, dry air and pavement! Overwhelmed and disgusted with my alternatives, I pedaled on, trudging into the wind. Within a matter of a few minutes though, my negative outlook changed and things began to look pretty peachy.
Oh, gosh, how my downtrodden attitude changed as I realized I was right on track. Nevada’s Boundary Peak access road lie just up ahead to my right, but instead I hung a left at a big water tank heading for a broken down building sporting a giant sign proclaiming Janie’s Ranch. The bicycle thudded over a cattle guard and spun in the direction of a rustic square building with walls like those found in trailer parks. In fact, the place seemed to be constructed of six or seven trailers all aligned in a row. Low and behold, it was! The dilapitation gave off a weird sort of haunted vide and with no prior knowledge of its history, I decided not to check out the architectural artifact.
Unbenounced to me, Janie’s Ranch was one of Nevada’s numerous legal brothels and functioned up until the early 1990’s. Located on 2.5 miles from the state line on Nevada HWY 6 between Tonopah, Nevada and Bishop, California, the ranch facilitated customers from near and far, even recieving guests by flying them in with the use of an adjacent dirt airstrip. Tales told that the local miner’s moral was pretty low in the area, so they would go to Janie’s to strike their own version of the ‘mother lode’. I know my moral was sky high when I arrived too, but for different reasons.
My presence alerted a family of docile ducks that puddled around and squabbled in a small rock pond in front of the house. Then a big old fat black lab on a chain blurted out in dog talk that his master wasn’t home. I explained that I was here to climb the mountain and that I needed to stash some of my stuff in the shed out back. The old pup regurgitated that his master wasn’t home, but that, yes, I could use the shed for a couple of days. “Gosh,” I replied, “Thank you very much.” He seemed to understand and answered with an approving ruff, so then I turned and headed for the shed a short distance away.
After stashing some of my things in the shed, I crossed the highway and travelled the well kept gravel road out passed the airstrip. Five miles into the foothills the maintained access road was gone and the increased gradient forced me off the bike. With the sun quickly setting behind my back, I had to plod up the steepening 4×4 road on foot. To ease the burden of my weighted bike, I attached a bungee cord on the rear bike rack to my backpack and push/pulled my bike the rest of the way up Queen Canyon Mine Road.
Evening quickly disappeared along with the visibility of my feet. Gazing up into a starry night, the skyline ridge on my right was getting lower. Intuition told me that this road was going to dead end soon . So instead of retracing my progress higher up, I decided to halt progress about three miles short of the trail head in the basin and straight-shot my own direct line up the mountainside banking on the hope that I would find the trail again high upon the ridge. My hunch proved right on, but the outcome would not be known until morning because what I did not foresee coming was a squawl of inclement weather.
As I hiked, the beam of my headlamp bore a hole into the night’s black curtain of darkness. Through the light, a silent turmoil pelted me with miniature bee-bee like snowballs the size of bean bag filling. With trekking poles in hand, I stomped up an unending snowy staircase until the feeling dawned on me that the night was getting very late. The final chore of the day was then to locate a piece of real estate large enough and flat enough to sleep upon. Settling quickly for the nearest location and knowing the cold air would not allow the snow to melt, I wiggled into my down bag and began counting sheep. When morning came, the sun ripped into my eyes like cracking the blinds and the ridgeline appeared not far away. Man, was I up there!
One of the best things about climbing in the White Mountains of the Eastern Sierras is the chance to see the ancient Bristlecone Pines, the trees known as the oldest living organism on the face of planet Earth. Each individual is a work of art portreying spiraling and heavily flamed colors that are due to very dense, resinous layers of wood. The White Mountain Bristolecones normally grow within the elevations of nine to eleven thousand feet which directly correlates with the species extreme durability and longevity. High up in this sacred forest, I spotted a long eared hare just like the dead one from the side of the road. Difference was that this animal brought joy to my heart and I did not worry about its mortality.
After ascending nearly 8000 vertical feet from where I left my bike the day before, I attained my goal of the 13,140′ summit of Boundary Peak. Because I stupidly left my snow shoes with my bike, I slogged down the slope’s waist deep snow drifts for the next six hours. The idea was to cut a much straighter descent route to my belongings. It worked brilliantly and the line arrived at the road a measly stone’s throw from the target. Miserably fatigued and aided again by the light of a headlamp, the bike rolled me down the canyon road and out into gaping valley under the ambience of a full moon.
Back at Janie’s Ranch, my presence once again alerted the ducks and the old watch dog, but neither cared. At the shed I changed clothes and cracked a 22 ounce bottle of Red Hook Double Black Stout made with Starbucks espresso. 1995 craft beer at its best!! With Neil Young performing his Harvest Moon album into my Sony Walkman, I ripped a hit off my travel bong and tasked myself with laying out my sleeping bag on a flat wooden door that bridged the sidewalls of a huge tractor tire tipped over on its side. There on the ranch, I fell asleep beneath a blinding full moon.
If polled, most sensible folk would agree… taking a Greyhound bus is not the best way to start a memorable holiday vacation. Most Greyhound experiences start off with negative emotions building even before leaving the house. A slight hope of optimism may flicker on the way to the station, but when the car door closes and one is left alone, the dread wells up again. Uneasiness persists until sitting on the bus and underway because people know that there is the slight chance of getting mugged while waiting in line to purchase a ticket. Though uncomfortable at best, there is the option to find a strategic location to wait out the time until boarding. Then without fail, when entering a Greyhound bus the first thing seen are the forlorn faces of the passengers. Nobody wants to admit that Greyhound is the only viable economic option for transportation, but that fact is written in their faces.
Buses are transportation for the downtrodden and under privileged and comprise quite a variety, but typical cast of characters. The majority of passengers sit silently, try to close their eyes, or read books. Normal people try to act comfortable on the bus, but there’s always that guy ruining their serenity and sitting just across the aisle. He is the outspoken and inebriated lowlife who knows full well that his foul mouth may get his butt kicked off before his destination. Who is further back? The couple who secretly steals nips and passes a pint of the hard stuff quietly between themselves. At the very back are the resident criminals, bullies, and tough guys who stare down anyone attempting to use the restroom. Being California, of course a couple of the middle rows are filled by Mexicans who look like seasonal migrant workers with their families. The men sit respectfully wearing white cowboy hats, thick but well groomed mustaches, butterfly collar long sleeves, faded wrangler jeans, and work boots. It is all to classic.
Everybody is judged when getting on a bus and I was neither a well-to-do trust fund baby nor a complete vagabond, but more like a hard working something-in-the-middle type. I got on the bus with a mission bringing a certain kind of neo-hippy niche to the table. At the station my hopes and dreams barely fit in an oversized cardboard bike box crammed full of biking, camping, and climbing gear. A black medium sized backpack had Star Wars and Grateful Dead patches sown on the sides. My toes wiggled in a pair of new, high tech Tevas and fuzzy forest green fleece socks. Instead of pants I wore shiny black spandex tights under my favorite baggy orange cotton shorts sporting the logo of the Denver Broncos on one thigh. To top it all off was a shadowed face of a Stormtrooper on a black Empire Strikes Back t-shirt. It was a look that exuded a cool and carefree confidence though not the heart was skeptical at best. This was, of course, Greyhound.
We left Santa Rosa with stops in Napa, Davis, and Sacramento before pulling a red eye run into Reno. Once underway breaking the ice with strangers was easy. Appearances seem to stem conversation and I didn’t mind telling a few people my plans for this trip. The conversations were short and concise, but the sleepless night in Reno’s bus terminal was long and hard and left me groggy the next day. Before the 7 o’clock sunrise, five travelling souls and a driver boarded another bus southbound on Highway 395 for Carson City, San Bernardino, and all points in between. With a chance to relax, I fell asleep knowing there was a few hours to recuperate before starting a bicycle trip where the I intended to climb to the highest measured point in the states of Nevada and California and tour an amazing national park called Death Valley.
When I awoke, we had obviously entered higher country. The views out of tinted windows revealed rolling hills of the eastern bench of the Sierras that for the most part were devoid of vegetation, yet blanketed by a fresh foot of snow from a recent storm. In the blink of an eye, the bus had not only arrived in Lee Vining, but the driver had emptied its cargo hold of my possessions and disappeared forever. Like a rude awakening, I was left on the sidewalk next to a resturaunt in the cool warmth of the spring sun under brilliant blue skies and stringy white clouds. Yawning and stretching, it was time to gather my wits as well as this mess of gear before me. Things needed to be neatly loaded onto this relatively new bike that I intended to ride approximently 250 miles over the next couple weeks.
By the time Rose Pedal was prepped and assembled, the mass was mondo!! Without skimping on the essentials for climbing and camping, it was funny to see how they packed so succinctly. Mountaineering boots, snowshoes, crampons, ice axe, trekking poles, bivy sack, sleeping pad and bag, food, stove, and water all became one streamlined unit on the bike. Unlike me, she was awkwardly rear heavy and rearing to go.
Back in the mid 80’s, Twisted Sister put out the craziest rock video to date. Twisted Sister was not supported by mothers and fathers, but the kids loved it!! In the iconic Twisted Sister scene, an angry father has his son backed up in a corner for not getting good grades or doing his homework or something. The man is frothing at the mouth and slowly and forcefully spills his spittled words, point blank into his son’s face.
“WHAT do YOU want to DO with your LIFE?”
Well, the skrawny kid jumps up, spins around in a half dozen circles and turns into a huge 80’s butt rocker clad in black and red striped motorcycle leather from head to toe. His permed curls stood straight up due to the full can of hair spray recently emptied on to his head. Now equally pissed off and towering over the dad in a thunderous cloud of smoke, he yells, “I WANNA ROCK!!”
That was a far cry from today, but those years are clearly etched into a generation’s memory. Back then new companies of BMX freestyle bikes lit up the scene across America with characters such as Radical Rick. Geeky skateboarders with their progressively cheezy fashions began ‘tic-tac-ing’ down the street and ‘ollying’ on and off curbs riding oversized foot rockets in search of the new neighborhood half pipe ramp. We had just started hearing about a guy who wore a yellow spandex shirt named Greg Lemond who basically was our first and only hope for road cycling in Europe. Back on this continent, the granola nation was enjoying breakthroughs in touring technology as if they’d just passed through the light at the end of the tunnel. “Dude, check this out, man!! This new Raleigh can shift gears from the handlebars instead of on this tube going down to my cranks. Naah-ha-ha-ha! Far out, man! That’s really slick.”
Nope, this new young generation wanted nothing to do with Bob Hope’s plaid knickered black and white TV lifestyle. Nor did they want the sequins or bell bottoms of thier disco parents. They wanted bermuda shorts, Vans, and half topped muscle shirts. They wanted Ray Ban sunglasses, jean jackets, and rolled up Levi’s. Popular rich kids drove trucks loaded with the off duty cheerleaders screaming in the back, hands waving in the air to attract attention from whoever was in that small and outdated, mid sized sedane in the lane beneath them. Muscle cars from the 70’s, cranked out White Snake from the speakers in the trunk. If you were old enough to drive, the California lifestyle of cruizing the strip was en vogue once again, but now it was in poe dunk towns across the Iowas and Idahos and South Carolinas of our nation.
If you did not have a car, parents didn’t worry back then because the bike wasn’t considered an X-game. Who needed a helmet? It was just a seven mile ride across town!! You either crossed the highway or you didn’t. Routes went through neighborhoods, wooded trails, dirt roads and alleys, or side walks! It was safe! You had been doing it ever since 1st grade.
Can we go to the store? Take your bikes!! Heading to the lake to jump off the cliffs? Let’s ride! Wanna go play hoops? Let me grab my bike. Take you to see a friend? No thanks, I’ll just ride.
The Pepsi Challenge was on, McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell were considered pretty good food joints, and drive thru coffee stands didn’t exist. Red Bull was called Jolt Cola and Rainier and Coors were craft beers. Drugs were cool to deal (or not) and a pretty descent way to make a living, pay for school, and keep the animal house lifestyle alive… til the guns went off and sent paranoid schizofrenics diving for cover. Things did get a bit out of hand and we reconciled in time. Through it all, there was the bike.
Years passed, but the ride didn’t change all that much and the cool thing about biking is that it never went out of style. Fads and fashions came and went, but biking withstood the test of time. It always moved forward, but remained the same. The shadows under the street lights and humm of the tires on the road are still the same as they were decades ago, though now way to many people are flashing LED lights off their handlebars and red blinkies on their backpacks, as though the extra attention is necessary. Personally, I liked NOT being seen in traffic and in cities.
It was tough back then. Seems like nobody truly missed out on tough times in some way or another. For one, divorce was sky rocketing. In my case, he was a preacher turned country-swing dancer and cheap thrills seeker. She was a stay at home mom waiting up late and living with a heavy heart. When it was time to play Leave It To Beaver, verbal blows started as whispers escalted to shouting and door slamming. She would end up worried about how to make a living in the future and he’d end up sleeping in the car by the field at the edge of the sub-division, because he wanted to remain near the family. What a way to stay close, huh?
Us two kids did not witness the brunt of their exchanges because alot of the problems took place before we got off the school bus and walked the hundred yards back home. But the tension felt like a cold empty house in a Russian winter. Forelorn and grievous, isolated, and starving. So, with my friends all within a few miles of the house, the bike seemed a logical way to get out of a bad situation and maybe even a few chores. There was like, twenty-six of chores to do every Friday, and if one of them wasn’t done right, money was getting deducted from the weekely allowance. Then there was the animals!! They needed attention twice a day. A horse, two rabbits, a ferret, the miniture collie, and three cats. A fire newt, two hermit crabs, four teddy bear hamsters, a dozen fish here, a bubble-eyed black gold fish there, not to mention the birds!!! Two parakeets, two cockatiels, two obnoxiously screeching lovebirds, a cockatoo, and the sweetest bird of all, Plum-head, the plumheaded parakeet also known as a ring-necked parakeet. Who wouldn’t want to get out of the house, right? The American dream! It all disappeared with time.
The bike was my solice. The retail stock bike was gone. Mine was pimped out!! The first visual feature of the bike was the highly coveted Haro number plate with the 70’s style number 7 that gleamed in the sun. With finish line black and white checkered flags along the top, the racing number plate commanded a $25 price at the local bike shop back in ’82 and can still be found on Ebay for up to a 1000 bucks! Whaaaaat? I KNOW!! The knobbied back tire went bald, and the balder, the badder! The standard straight seatpost became a stylish GT layback seat post and those generic chainrings turned into chrome Power discs. The standard imitation leather seat morphed into a new plastic Viscount Aero saddle for the ages! To top it off, I replaced those spokes with mags wheels too! And let us not forget — weight mattered, especially for jumps! That was when I was young.
We kept growing though. For many of us, bicycles got shoved into attics above the garage or even got stolen. Names like Gary Fisher became famous and Trek started building mountain style bicycles for adults, or overgrown kids. By then, the BMX industry was in its down swing and hybrid style cross-overs designs began popping up all over the bike world. We saw a huge expansion in suspension and aerodynamics in bikes as grown up nerds turned engineers began tinkering in their garages with all their new found wealth and spare time.
I’d moved on as well and was pretty much grown up too. After my second summer of processing salmon in a cannery located in Ketchikan, AK, I was a chewing tabacco and cigarette smoking machine, and a far cry from my old 115 lb soccer freak self in junior high. I had a DUI and a possession of marijuana charge under my belt, and my waist line bigger than the length of your average King salmon. Thankfully, most of my earnings was in a savings account back home, but with my final $1000 I had purchased a Haro mountain bike with platform pedals and nobby tires. $500 for the bike, $50 for a pair of used pannier saddle bags, and a $164 ferry ride to the Lower 48 left me with $300 to my name. So I decided that I would head south on my new ride and bike from Bellingham, WA, to San Fransisco, CA. I had three goals I hoped to accomplish. The first was to see my sister, mom, and step dad for a visit. The second was to quit smoking and chewing tobacco and the third was to go see the Jerry Garcia Band in concert!!
That year the NW had a beautiful Indian summer fall and after one month of riding and visiting a friend in Ashland, OR, I completed the ride and arrived in the Bay Area without seeing a drop of rain. I met my sister after she got off work and as she drove us home, she offered me a Marlboro light and I conceded. It had been a long ride and I thought I’d regress, but for a moment. After one inhalation, I gagged and disgustingly flicked the gross stick out the window, much to the surprise and chagrin of my sister. I was done smoking. Over the course of the ride I had depleted all but fifty bucks of my reserved funds. With the rest of the money, I purchased two tickets to see Jerry at his last concert in the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland, CA. Tah-dat!! All three goals accomplished.
Since then, commuting to work by bicycle is pretty much standard morning and evening procedure. Sure, the wife and kids came along and we had to purchase more than one vehicle, and of course, the bikes got neglected, but the years passed and the kids aren’t really that small anymore and the commuter has blessed this aging adult with a new found vibrance to the menial humdrum of daily life.
The recreational and transportational past time is always moving forward, but remaining the same. Biking never goes out of style. Fads and fashions pass but bikes just seem to keep rolling along with them. Bikes afford owners the right to dream. Ideas seem to fall out of the sky and onto the brain. Think about where we are at today!! Who knew that fatbiking would be the future for all forms of riding, right? I still haven’t fully bought in to fatbiking, but its here to stay and on the boom!
Where will you go? Where will biking take you? Who knows, but the bike changes will change you. My 13 year old son and I are going to take a ride in 2016. The plan is to ride a tandem across the country. The ride will forever change us. We will never be the same, but bicycling will remain in itself, unchanged. When the ride ends, wherever it that is, the question remains. “What do you want to do with your life?” My answer will still be the same.
I WANNA RIDE!!! RIDE!!! (rock-n-roll) I WANT TO RIDE!!!