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.