Waking up in Mammoth Lakes, early, very early……..dark, frosty…….I decide to get packed up and on the road back over the Sierras to the warm side of California. I hoped for some good early morning sunrise shots of some tremendous peaks leading me up and over in the growing daylight.
I got Mono Lake.
Mono lake is another casualty of the consumptive need and greed that is Los Angeles. In the 1940’s, they began to divert the tributaries of Mono Lake to satisfy the exploding growth of the L.A. basin. Today, Mono, much like The Salton Sea near Palm Springs, lies fallow and coated with the residue that increasing salinity and dehydration brings to an ecosystem deprived of its natural water sources. Still, a dramatic, if frigid sunrise; the darkness hiding the bleak landscape that slowly comes into view as the day fully dawns.
By then, I was seriously in search of some HOT coffee and a place to stop but this was not to be. The road to Sonora Pass (Route 108 for those old Olneyites this was comfortingly familiar) suddenly cuts off to the left and the road ahead, now bathed in the early morning glow of a chilly sun, bore little resemblance to anything more than a paved, rutted path through outcroppings of oak, mesquite and rock. The signage was ominous, switchbacks next 40 miles, 26% grades (were they serious?? I’d seen 18% so far this trip but 26 was pushing it) and there was going to be no coffee no less breakfast until I reached the other side.
Even with heavy thermal gloves, my hands were suffering and the energy that you have to exert on the handlebars to maneuver switchbacks only helps to further deprive your fingers of all feeling. I actually stopped several times when there was a wide enough patch to set down and just held onto the manifolds on the running engine to try and regain some feeling. Frostbite or frying flesh? The tingling feeling is really quite close.
I never saw another human for the next 2 hours. No cars, no trucks, just the Marine Training Center a mile or two after leaving Rt 395. I silently wondered to myself if they used this site because it was Marinely rugged or if they would be there to come claim the remains of foolish bikers like me who aimlessly wander into the wilderness and end up………well……dead.
And then there was the wreck. After making it almost all the way over the actual pass, the road widens out a bit and therewas a heavy duty 4X4 Chevy, ass end down the mountainside, cradled in broken pine trees and devoid of much of its metal and chrome. A lone Marine, young enough to still have braces on his teeth, was walking slowly around the road about 300 yds past the truck. After stopping and seeing no protruding bones, no blood trail and hearing him apparently coherent, I gave him my water bottles to ward off shock and told him I’d send….well….the Marines, I suppose. He said another car had also passed and he hoped that help was at hand. About 5 miles on, a CHIP roared past me so I assumed all was then handled and I could again focus on where the hell was the end of this road and when could I thaw out.
Strawberry. That’s where “civilization” starts again. That’s where thawing would commence. Strawberry, home of the famous Strawberry Music Festival (in August when it’s warm I might point out) boasts a café! Yeah! Warmth, food and drink at hand, well almost at hand. Except for the fact that I cannot feel my fingers and therefore cannot operate the clip to get my helmet off. Really. Cannot. The kindly host inside had to undo me and help me get de-helmeted. Hot coffee was never this good, just holding the mug was enough all the while wondering just how long it really took to get REAL frostbite and was this painful, needle sticking thawing out a good sign or a bad omen? All good, oatmeal and on the road again.
And suddenly (well not so suddenly, actually) after a good many miles of gently graded downslopes through endless stands of pine I arrive at Hwy 49. This old gold rush road winds through the western slopes of the Sierras stringing together little gems of history with names like Angels Camp, Sutters Mill, Mokelumne Hill and San Andreas. This is where Dave’s and my fascination with getting home to California was born. I whizzed past the old Utica Hotel in Angels Camp, still deserted and waiting. This was the hotel we were going to buy, rehab and run! What were we thinking? How old were we even then? But the golden grass hills dotted with the dusty Live Oak clusters still hold an undeniable pull for me, even still. But not the visceral, heart rate rising jolt that they did in years gone past. It’s now a more reasoned and thoughtful pause. Mature? One can only hope so.
Colton calls, he’s off today! I drop all semblance of a day of lost reverie and scuttle off down the hills into Sacramento; sunny, familiar and Colton’s garden paradise waiting at the end of this very full and complex day.