Abiding by the High Sierra
Also a Train and a Bus Ride
The High Sierra is marked sporadically, unevenly, but thoroughly with moments of human failure. Twain never did become that lumber baron. Charlie Jones probably isn’t too stoked on how he influenced Monte Diablo Lake’s name change. Between the High Sierra Piute Highway, Cedar Grove to Independence Road, and Lone Pine / Porterville Highway, no one’s been able to cut a road to the west. Stories far more crazy and unsettling accumulate in these mountains, making them one of the few places left in the US where we remain unequivocally humbled. Sounds like a great place to go ride a bike, right?
In the clutches of hubris, daydreaming about the Eastern Sierras, I spent a lot of time on websites written in comic sans with outdated write-ups of OHV routes and related Garmin files. OHV like as in Off-Highway Vehicle, but not the fun kind you pedal. Comic sans as in, well, that terrible font flocked to by folks not encumbered with Design Thoughts. Whenever you’re researching super niche stuff, a site in all comic sans is a goldmine- a rounded, bubbly guarantee that this spot is packed full of valuable information by locals and experts alike, usually circa 2005. Anyway, next thing you know I’m sitting here looking at maps of the area covered in little route-squiggles, piecing together a path devoid of pavement from Walker, California, going into neighboring Toiyabe National Forest. Two weeks out, I find a blog for fat biking in Mammoth Lakes with routes galore, many of which overlap the decade-old 4x4 data. This kind of internet research serendipity is confidence-inspiring. At this point, all that’s left is to get a bike and hop on a train.
I’ve taken a lot of trains out west from Chicago. You could say I’m accustomed to the schedule these trains put me on. Falling asleep in Iowa farmland, waking up to my train arriving in Denver, stopping as it does to load in tons of people and giving me enough time to sprint into their fancy train station for breakfast- the train chilled in Denver so long I was even able to snag a book from the station’s book store. I love sitting on the train watching the country go by, but I think I love risking the train leaving without me even more all in the name of a vegan poptart and fresh-squeezed juice. Plus, getting my heart rate up and getting some sugar in me is the perfect start to the slow, beautiful ride that comes as we leave Denver and amble into the Rockies.
I have most of the landmarks you see memorized at this point. As prison escapees in the movies learn guard schedules, I’ve learned when the conductors will be on break so I can sneak on back to the fancy sleeper cars and take photos out the rear and through their meticulously-clean windows, the coach ones are never nearly as clean. I’m spoiled, I know, to have had the luxury of spending so much time on trains to learn these things, but despite how rehearsed the train rides can be I still just keep my face glued to the window, looking at all the cool rocks and trees. At the end of the day on this particular ride, I will have read four whole pages in that book I got, so distracted am I by the scenery. At least, until we hit Glenwood Canyon.
The Immediately-Forgotten Beauty of Colorado
WITH RESPECT TO GLENWOOD CANYON
There is nothing that ruins the majesty of nature quite like a highway does. They are hideous, these open wounds that we once valued over, literally, everything else in the U.S. All for the privilege of driving a car up to the nose of nature’s face and park on its forehead, just so we can scope out its hot bod . Glenwood Canyon is one of the grossest displays of this. The Manifest-Boomers love to tout how much engineering and money went into preserving the environment to let cars drive on multiple lanes and multiples tiers through it, unaware of the oxymoron that is an Eco-Friendly Highway. I guess you could say I’m not a fan.
The night prior I fell asleep in Iowa farmland, tonight it’s Utah desert. There is no sunset like the desert sunset, and not long after I’m conked out inside my sleeping bag. That’s a pro-tip, by the way, the sleeping bag. I somehow went years taking trains to places with a sleeping bag packed overhead, intended to be used when I arrived wherever I was gong, never thinking I could sleep warm and cozy on the train as I do in the woods.
This is fine
So yeah, then I was in Reno.
I love getting off a train in a brand new city. I still get that initial rush of fear that comes with realizing I’m completely alone. I know no one here, and I’ve got six hours to kill before I gotta catch a bus. The greyhound station is only fifteen minutes away. I’m on the sidewalk with a multitool putting together a four thousand dollar bike that has already received too many compliments from too many strangers. Reno is hot, everything is brightly colored, chromed, or sparkling gold, and it is dizzying.
Supposedly this stuff makes people want to gamble like crazy, probably at one of the casinos that make up like all of downtown Reno. It does not make me want to gamble like crazy, not even at one of the casinos that make up like all of downtown Reno. Maybe I’m distracted by going two days without a solid meal or that my sick-ass loaner bike has lost a headset spacer in transit. I need to solve these problems soon, but good lil’ millennial I am I shoot a quick pic through Snapchat first. It's silly, but this is why the internet is cool: five minutes later I’ve got a lead on a breakfast spot featuring french toast and bike shop recommendations.
Pink in the best color to paint your bike shop.
The Reno Bike Project has made a lot of other good decisions besides storefront color, including being a non-profit, providing free bikes to children of low-income families during the holidays, assistance to folks at or below the poverty level who need reliable transportation to jobs and school outside of Reno's limited public transportation, and hooking me up with a headset spacer. This is a sample of their generosity and philanthropy, the rest you can read about in that link a few sentences back.
The Eastern Sierra Transit Bus
Their website is clunky, they tell you to call ahead to make a reservation, which is not an option in their phone menu, but at least you can dial out for an operator. The driver’s demeanor is like all other bus drivers’, so no surprises there. Regardless, this bus is the key to a full public-transportation based route into the Eastern Sierra and that’s what matters most. The bus driver believes the Chumba Ursa’s 29+ tires will fit on the bus’s fold-down bike rack. As expected, they do not. I make friends with the only other passenger, who’s heading further down 395 to lead a wilderness therapy workshop. I remembered hearing in a Ken Burns documentary that Stephen Mather, the first direction of the National Park Service, used some kinda early-1900s version of this for his bouts of depression and it made me wonder what roll my escapes in nature play in my own emotional health. Conversation stays hard to maintain as the bus gets louder at highway speed and we find ourselves more interested in the views out the windows. In Carson City, a woman in her 60s joins us with a tote bag full of wrapping paper.
"I NEED YOU TO PULL OVER, I'M HAVING A HEART ATTACK."
I'm trying to convince myself that I didn't just hear that. The loudness of the bus gives me the benefit of the doubt. My new friend across the row is asleep, hiking boots still propped up on the headrest in front of her, book in her lap. The driver hollers back, eyes still on the road, that we'll be in Walker in ten minutes. Walker is my stop. The woman with the wrapping paper has started breathing heavy, sighing frequently, looking incredibly uncomfortable, and again leans forward to tell the driver she needs help. "Just two more miles hang on." From there everything seems to happen in the course of a second.
Our bus skids into the dirt parking lot of the Walker General Store, the driver abandoning us and running inside to call paramedics. The woman squeezes my hand as I help her into the store, and I say some kind of reassurances that there will be water, air conditioning, and I dunno but hopefully some kind of help that I can't give. Walker's a small town made of a few buildings along the highway, and the EMTs must be local given how fast they arrive. The "oh shit oh shit oh shit" mantra playing in my head stops abruptly as professionals take over, knowing which questions to ask and taking her away in an ambulance. The moment passes, the second is over, and time goes back to normal. The driver's inside on the phone, explaining to someone the situation, I guess to account for why he's running behind schedule. I walk back to the bus and unload the bike and bags, feeling weird as hell.
It's 3pm. My gps shows the planned route is just a quarter mile up the road. From here I disappear into the Sierras for four days. This is the start of my adventure.