Mexico-Alaska Part I Summary (Cancun to Seattle)

August 9th, 2010

After a day of errands in Seattle, I flew back home on June 4th and set out to finish writing up the stories in my blog.

This trip was longer and bigger than our 2007 NYC-SF tour and more varied in terms of terrain, weather, and culture.  I beat my previous records in distance per day (148 miles), speed (49.3 mi/hr), overall distance (4,819 miles / 7,754 km), and duration (76 days).  Biggest uphill:  Panamint Range in Death Valley National Park.

MM cycled 19 days and 1,107 miles, of which 8 days and 423 miles were in Mexico.

Here are some additional stats for those who asked:

  • Avg. daily distance (excl. rest days)*: 72 mi (116 km)
  • Avg. daily distance (incl. rest days)*: 65 mi (105 km)
  • Avg. riding days between rest days: 8.5
Longest days:
  • 148 miles! – day 46, Flagstaff, AZ
  • 113 mi – day 35, Midland, TX
  • 105 mi – day 33, Menard, TX
  • …in addition, there were many days over 90 miles.
Shortest days:
  • 29 mi – day 41, Magdalena, NM — due to strong headwind and a FedEx screw-up
  • 30 mi – day 58, Panamint Springs, Death Valley, CA — rode over the enormous Panamint Range
  • 36 mi – day 45, St. Johns, AZ — due to fear of frostbite because of below-freezing night after 3 snow storms and inability to dry clothes

Free vs. paid accommodations:

  • In Mexico:
    • 1 free hotel night
    • 24 nights in hotels or guest rooms (paid but pretty cheap)
  • In the U.S.:
    • 26 nights camping or staying with friends
    • 24 nights in hotels/motels
Seven rest days (not cycling):
  • Day 4, Merida, Yyucatan
  • Day 11, Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche
  • Day 22, Tampico, Tamaulipas
  • Day 31, San Antonio, TX
  • Day 42, Magdalena, NM
  • Day 55, Las Vegas, NV
  • Day 65, Black Rock Desert, NV
* A couple of days do not count due to non-ride-related delays: one day in Merida spent waiting for Masha’s plane stuck in NYC; the day we rode to Seybaplaya was spent mostly dealing with family issues in NYC.

Day 76 (6/2): I’m in Seattle. Going home.

August 7th, 2010

Seattle is ~75 miles away and I should be there tonight. As the day rolls on, I know I’m getting close to Puget Sound by the sheer number of towns and the steadily thickening traffic.

I’ve decided to pause the trip and return to New York.  The decision has been brewing for a while as I’ve been increasintly needed back home.  The second leg, Seattle-Prudhoe Bay, will be a piece of unfinished business for later. No regrets about not reaching Alaska in one shot.  Seattle is a respectable 2/3 of the way there and getting here has been an unforgettable adventure.

To make this last day more memorable, I opt to avoid the urban jungle between Olympia and Seattle and instead will ride to the western shore of the Sound and take a ferry directly to the city.

Normally each day there’s somewhat of a need to rush to keep the trip on pace.  Today is different.  I want to stretch this last day as much as possible, so I take my time enjoying the scenery.  The road gives me a parting gift:  I come to a dip in the hills and am presented with a fantastic view of Mount Olympus. On the other hand, now that the decision to go home has been made, I’m eagerly anticipating seeing my family and friends.

The weather has cleared but yesterday’s rain has left Blue Pony covered in mud and it drives me nuts.  Got to find a place to wash him before Seattle.  First, my friends from business school, Jay and Tonia, have graciously agreed to host me at their place downtown and I don’t want to get it dirty.  Also important:  I’ll be getting a bike shop to ship the bike to New York and I’ve learned that if you give them a dirty bike, they may treat it with less care than it deserves.

Day 75 (6/1): Montesano, WA

August 6th, 2010

When I cross the Columbia via the giant, 4-mile-long Astoria-Megler bridge, Washington welcomes me with the rainiest day of the  trip.  Not a dry minute today!  Luckily Highway 101 is flatter in Washington than back in Oregon.  Less hill climbing means a more comfortable (cooler) ride when all zipped up against the elements.

This weather finds a flaw in my clothing system.  After 3-4 hours, water has gradually seeped through my shoes and soaked my feet.  Now they slosh unpleasantly.  I’m amazed, however, at how good I’ve become at disregarding physical discomfort.  I’m enjoying the ride and paying no attention to my feet.

The light is flat and gray, making it hard to tell time.  Normally I like to have a rough idea of time to set my pace, but today I don’t care.  I’m still on Highway 101, but it’s empty and remote here in southwest Washington, so natually I enjoy it very much despite the complete lack of grand ocean views like Oregon’s.  I’m floating through a sea of green.

Water is abundant all around — as soft pillows of fog on the hills; as streams and rivulets flowing, seeping, oozing everywhere; as crystal droplets suspended on leaves and grass blades; and of course, as rain.  It nurtures a dense, overgrown jungle of grasses, wild berries, birch, maple, and tall stands of magestic spruce, hemlock and fir.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that not far from here, on Olympic Peninsula, lies the largest temperate rain forest in the U.S. (Hoh Rain Forest).  I consider doing a loop around the Olympics, but deside against it because it’s a big detour (two-three days) and because I’ve already been there a couple of times.

When I pass some pastures I notice with surprise that cows pay no attention to me, though earlier in the trip my bike would often scare cows away or at least give them a start.  Then it hits me: the 101 is a big cycling destination, so the cows simply have become used to bikes!

Signs of logging activity (mostly by the paper giant Weyerhauser) become more frequent.  Whole hillsides have been stripped of forest.  The scarred hills show various stages of regrowth:  from swaths of ugly stumps to young, 10-20-year-old stands of fir that have by now fully concealed the former devastation.  When I pass the stumpy hills I feel acutely alone, as if I’ve entered a room supposedly full of friends and have found it empty.

The road crosses a few sloughs and smal rivers.  They snake motionlessly in their wide floodplains as evening begins to descend on the Evergreen State.  I’m staying in Montesano, one day’s ride from Seattle.

Day 74 (5/31): Last day in Oregon

August 5th, 2010

Rain drums on my tent through the night.  It’s warm, dry, and incredibly cozy inside — I’ve taken care to pitch the tent perfectly — and I wake up fully refreshed.  The rain has stopped but the breeze from the ocean still shakes drops off branches, making it sound like it’s still raining lightly.

It’s a monochrome morning.  The Pacific is the color of steel.  White fog has settled on Cape Lookout.  Black bastions of hemlock create a very stark, Nordic look.  This reminds me of the first battle scene from “Gladiator”, where the Romans battle the Germanic barbarians.

My injured snail, fighting for his life throughout the night, has crawled down the tree and reached the ground.  He has left a slimy trail.  I’m glad he survived and yet I manage to inadvertently run him over with my bike, this time for good.  Talk about wrong time and place!

As I ride the ten miles to Tillamook for breakfast, the color palette deepens in the newly beginning drizzle.  In addition to the earlier grays, there are now all shades of green; they are succulent, bright, fresh.  I’m wearing my fancy new waterproof clothing, but even so it’s hard to find a comfortable temperature balance.  I’m dry but unpleasantly hot.

I win a free cup of cappuccino in Tillamook by unscrambling the word “ubiquitous”.  The cafe owner thought it was a hard word, but the ‘q’ gave out the ‘qui’; the ‘o’, ‘u’, and ’s’ gave out the ending; the rest was easy.  The morning gets even more pleasant when a couple pays for my breakfast.  They pay without even telling me and I barely have time to run out and shout my thanks as they’re about to round the corner.

My attitude toward the Pacific Coast Highway is readjusting.  I had set my expectations too high but now understand the highway for what it is:  a long, congested, beautifully forested mountain road with long stretches of boring flat fishing/tourist countryside and a few really nice ocean views.  The variety is what makes it overall an enjoyable place to bike.  Still, I probably wouldn’t do its whole length.

An older German couple in a colorful Cruise America RV pull up to me at a Cannon Beach overlook.  We strike up a conversation and I give them some pointers for what to check out down south (among them the North Umpqua Gorge, of course!).  As they’re about to pull out, they suddenly stop, the man runs up and gives me a muffin.  They pull out and stop again.  Now the woman comes out with two big strawberries, ”Here, take this for your legs.  One for your right leg, one for your left!”

Riding through a couple of tunnels.  The second one has a safety mechanism for cyclists.  You hit a button on the approach and a big flashing “Bicycle in Tunnel” sign come on.  But I don’t feel like interrupting my nice downhill roll so I fly through the tunnel without engaging the sign.  In any case the tunnel is safe — short (~300 m) and brightly lit.  It’s cool and damp inside; water drips from the ceiling.

Overcast sky.  Heavy clouds threaten to unleash a storm all day, but never do until right after I reach Astoria and settle in at the attractively named “Lamplighters” motel.  My window looks out onto the impressive Astoria-Megler Bridge.  I can see the dark headlands of Washington across the mouth of the huge, 4-mile-wide Columbia River.

Today I crossed the 45th parallel, the midpoint betwen the equator and north pole.

Day 73: Cape Lookout

August 4th, 2010

It’s a brand new day and my sadness about the RVs is gradually dulling, but the 101 continues to disappoint.  Now I see the ocean just 5% of the time.  Businesses, malls everywhere. It’s like being on Route 1 in the urban south Connecticut.  The traffic is heavy, especially between Newport and Lincoln City, but surprisingly, cycling feels safe.  The highway is popular among bike tourists, so drivers have become aware of us and are patient.  Plus there are ample signs (“Share the road” and so on).

I’m trying hard to raise my mood and what eventually helps is concenrating on the physical process of pedaling.  The sustained exertion feels good, even refreshing and stimulating.  The weather is great and the few ocean views are indeed gorgeous, especially when going over a “head” (or cape).

Several southbound cyclists (or groups of cyclists) come my way.  At first they are a novelty and we stop and chat.  But eventually stopping gets tedious and instead I just wave hello and pedal on.  Most cyclists are doing the 101 by itself, not as part of a longer tour.  Some groups are all-girls.  They are sweaty, red-cheeked, bright-eyed.  It’s sexy.

Late afternoon.  It begins to rain.  Three Capes Scenic Loop veers off from the 101 and hugs the ocean shore.  It’s a remote detour, but tired of all the traffic I take it and it does not disappoint.  The steep and winding forest road climbs over big capes and brings back echoes of the North Umpqua Gorge scenery.

I’ll be spending the night camping in tall conifers at Cape Lookout State Park.  The dark forest — hemlocks? — is inhospitable and even scary in the rainy night, but there are a few other cyclists camping nearby and I feel safe.

While locking my bike to a tree I notice that the cable has squished a big snail.  I quickly move the cable aside.  The poor thing is moving, but a deep crease runs across his back and there’s a big hole in his head.  Unfortunately it does not look like an eye or any other natural orifice.  Really sorry, little guy! I hope you survive and recover.

Day 72 (5/29): Pacific Coast Highway — so far a disappointment…

August 3rd, 2010

Finally I’m on the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway (the 101)! Many tout it as America’s most beautiful drive.  I’ve dreamed of cycling it for years; even hung a magazine photo of one scenic stretch on the wall above my desk.

When I get out of my tent this morning, the people who shared their campsite with me tell me that the campground host wanted to see me.  I presume it’s about payment.  But I didn’t occupy a separate site, so I leave without paying.

Heavy traffic.  A large proportipon of it motor homes of all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A few are the colorfully decorated Cruise America rentals, but most seem privately owned. I am amazed at their numbers; it’s as if everybody on the West Coast owned one and suddenly got out on the road.  Owning an RV is a pretty foreign concept to me.  You don’t see many of them back East.

If you look at a map of Oregon, you’ll see that the coast is peppered with campgrounds.  By Saturday night they are all full for the Memorial Weekend.  However, I’m on a bicycle and that puts me in a privileged class: state campgrounds have “hiker/biker” areas for non-motorized travelers.  These spots are never full.  No reservation needed.

I find the famous highway disappointing.  Expected to be riding days on end through death-defying hairpin turns hundreds of feet above a roaring ocean.  Though a few stretches do cling to massive cliffs and “heads”, a good 60-70% of today’s ride is through boring, flat, densely populated tourist towns.  For all the hype about the PCH, there are much more scenic coasts out there, for instance the Amalfi coast in Italy.  Today’s ride can barely be considered scenic compared to many other places I’ve seen on this trip, like Arizona, Utah, and the Cascades.

I stop for the night at the hiker/biker area of the South Beach state campground.  Predictably, all 270 sites of the huge campground are occupied by 270 RVs.  It feels really nice to bike in right past the “campground full” sign!

The place is lively, with voices and campfires everywhere, but a strange thing:  when I come out of the shower I’m struck by total silence.  It’s a little past 11 p. m. but all fires are out, music off, nobody in sight.  I close my eyes and feel like I’m alone in the middle of a forest.  How painful!  A Russian campground would have been alive 24 hours a day.  I feel pity for these people who are just brave enough to enjoy nature from the window of an RV on a paved campground and even turn in all at once at 11 p.m.  I pass no judgment; it’s their lives.

But I do take issue with two things in this picture:  (1) the fact that these people bring their children with them and teach them this perverted view of the outdoors; and (2) their environmental impact: just imagine a Greyhound-bus-sized motor home that is carrying a family of 2-4 people and even dragging an SUV (or sometimes the other way around).

Our ability to enjoy nature up-close is one of the greatest God-given gifts.  Disregarding this gift and fouling it up like this is sinful.

I go to my tent in the foulest of moods.  Beginning to hate this place…

Day 71: The Pacific!

August 2nd, 2010

I’m back to civilization, with all its traffic and non-scenic scenery, but it feels nice:  I don’t have to worry about water and food for a change.  I’m down to 400 feet above sea level, so it’s warm.  For the first time since Death Valley I’m wearing only shorts.   It even smells like summer.  The grass is long, leaves green, sun bright.  A light breeze is pushing me gently forward.

I cross a bridge over my old friend the North Umpqua. The river is still lively here, but wider and calmer than yesterday.  Soon it flows into the mighty Umpqua and the big sister subdues it altogether.  The Umpqua will take me west the remaining 25 miles to the Pacific.  The road hugs one of the big river’s heavily forested tall banks.  But yesterday’s dramatic scenery is gone.  The banks are not as steep and craggy.  The river is wide and calm, with an occasional stretch of lazily gurgling shallows. The Umpqua is up to 400-500 meters wide at its mouth in the town of Reedsport.

The west-bound lane is swollen with a million RVs and pickups pulling trailers loaded with ATVs.  It’s Friday, the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the Oregon Coast tourist season.  Throngs of offroaders are converging on the Winchester Bay sand dunes.   (I learn about the dunes later, but now I’m annoyed with the herds and intrigued by their ATVs.)

When I arrive in Reedsport I decide to turn south to Winchester Bay, counter to my northbound plan.  The ocean is just a couple of miles from here as a crow flies, but people tell me that if I continue north, the nearest beach access is 20 miles away, near Florence.

But getting to the ocean proves difficult.  It’s as if an invisible wall has risen between me and the shore.  People give me conflicting directions.  I sense unfriendly vibes from the locals, at times in the form of feigned ignorance, at times as misinformation, and at times as attempts to discourage me from going to the beach.  The tourists — the campgrounds are filled with the drunk ATVers — are friendly but genuinely ignorant.

The directions I get range from, “You can’t camp on the beach and all campgrounds are full for Memorial Day” to “There’s no beach access down this road,” to “The ocean comes inland half a mile up this road” (Wrong:  it’s the bay, not the ocean).

The night complicates my search and I almost concede that I should try again in the morning.  But heck no!  I didn’t bike 4,450 miles to reach the Pacific and just go to sleep without seeing it.  I can actually hear the waves crashing so painfully close.

My travels have taught me to double check directions by asking other people — unless my gut tells me that the person truly knows what he’s talking about.  Most often wrong directions come from well-wishing folks who are convinced that they are right, but are clueless.  For instance, two days ago a store keeper just east of Cascade Pass insisted that the pass was after Diamond Lake and even tried to prove it to me on a map, though the map was actually showing the pass as located before the lake.  And the places in question are just 15 miles from where the guy lives!  I’ve learned to nod, say thanks, and follow my own judgment.

Anyway, after two hours of circling around in the dark I finally find the beach.

Surprise:  instead of mighty cliffs like those I’d seen on Olympic Peninsula up in Washington and was expecting to see here, the beach is more like the flat, sandy Atlantic shore of Fire Island, New York.  The only difference is that things are a little bigger here:  the dunes and waves are taller, the beach wider, and there are more rows of surf breaks.  And the sky is a little darker and starrier.

But something else makes this place truly surreal in the night.  The Umpqua Lighthouse, on the side of a low hill behind me, casts an unusual triple signal.  One red and two white lights, unevenly spaced, illuminate the hill like the slow moving rays of a giant disco ball.  The engines and headlights of the ATVs zooming all over the dunes make things even stranger.

I easily find a campground with plenty of unoccupied spots, but the keeper is not there, so I find some people sitting around a fire and piggyback on their campsite.  After all, all I have is a small tent and I don’t need hookups.

I’ve left Roseburg and am riding north on highway 99, part of the densely populated I-5 corridor.  There are towns, cars, people everywhere but it feels nice:  I don’t have to worry about water and food for a change.  It’s warm; I’m just 400 feet above sea level.  For the first time since Death Valley I’m wearing only shorts.   It even smells like summer.  The grass is long, leaves green, sun bright.  A light wind pushes me gently forward.

I cross a bridge over my old friend the North Umpqua.  It’s still lively here, but wider and calmer than yesterday.  Soon it flows into the mighty Umpqua and the big sister subdues it altogether.  I turn off onto Hwy. 138 again, but not for long.  It joins with Hwy. 38 and is similarly extinquished.  The Umpqua will take me the remaining 25 miles west to the Pacific.  The road hugs the side of the big river’s heavily forested gorge.  But yesterday’s dramatic scenery is gone.  The banks are not as steep and craggy.  The river is wide and calm, with an occasional stretch of lazily gurgling shallows. The river is up to 400-500 meters wide at its mouth in the town of Reedsport.

The west-bound lane is filled with a million campers pulling trailers loaded with ATVs.  It’s Friday, the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the Oregon Coast summer tourist season.  Throngs of offroaders are converging on the famous Winchester Bay sand dunes.   (I learn about the dunes later, but now I’m intrigued and a little annoyed at the excessive traffic.)

Day 70 (5/27). The incredibly scenic West Cascades

July 30th, 2010

I can’t believe I’m already past the crest of the Cascades and it’s now mostly downhill between here and the Pacific!  When studying maps before the tour, I saw that I’d be going through a deep, winding gorge here, but I somehow assumed it would be uphill.

It briefly snows in the morning and I know that at lower elevations I’m going to get a lot of rain, but I’m so euphoric (to the point of giddiness) that I don’t care about any of this bad weather stuff.

I break camp and cycle a mile down the lake shore to the moderately fancy lodge/resort for a hearty breakfast.  Then after a short ride up the spur road back to Hwy. 138 I’m off on my journey through the mysterious kingdom of spruce and fir.

30-meter-high vertical walls of trees squeeze the road on both sides.  This live canyon meanders in long, sweeping curves and I’m flying on my bike, cool air rushing pleasantly around my face.

The forest here is drastically different from the pine forests back on the eastern slopes.

Sunlight touches a pine forest lovingly and paints it gold.  The sun freely, confidently enters the forest; the rays and the trees embrace and dance like childhood friends.  The air is warm with needles and tar.

Today’s forest is silent and dark.  The sun touches the trees but they proudly refuse to change their hue.  Very little light penetrates.  Those few rays that are let into the sanctuary are confined to its front chambers and step there discreetly.  The spruces and firs stand dense, united in their purpose:  to guard the forest’s Dark Secret.

I feel the forest magically drawing me into its interior.  I park my bike on the side of the road, step into the forest, and am surrounded by thick mosses hanging from branches.   Ferns cover the soft damp floor.  Everything is still and quiet; the light is dimmed, sounds muffled.  The cool air smells of damp earth and mushrooms.

This is an enchanted forest straight out of a Nordic or Russian fairy tale, replete with elves and Baba-Yagas.

The road turns west and the canyon of trees gives way to a real canyon — the North Umpqua River Gorge.  The gorge is spectacular and grand.  Huge black mossy cliffs prop up the sky and are lost in the clouds.  The scenery here is on the scale of Zion National Park’s, except that misty black forest covers the gorge’s walls.  At times the road lies deep in the gorge, next to the river; at times the river drops and churns hundreds of meters below.  I’m in heaven — never seen anything so beautiful in my life!

Suddenly I realize, as if waking from a dream, that it’s pouring hard.  My new waterproof clothing must be working perfectly if I failed to notice how the downpour began!  The sun and the clouds had been playing tug of war throughout the day and the clouds won in the end.

Over the 40 miles of the gorge’s length and almost 5,000-foot elevation drop, the North Umpqua picks up strength from many streams and waterfalls.  It’s a torrent by the time it reaches Colliding Rivers.  Here the North Umpqua makes a sharp left turn and collides head-on with the Little River, mixing its clear blue-green waters with the yellowish, muddy ones of the Little.

I reach the town of Roseburg and get a room in a cheap motel.  Tomorrow I should reach the Pacific, stitching the third major coast onto my “coast-to-coast” itinerary (the first two coasts being those of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico).

Oregon-Washington photos posted

July 26th, 2010

Check out the album.  Read captions.  Leave comments.

Day 69: the crossing of the Cascades

July 24th, 2010

I’ve decided to skip Crater Lake Nat’l Park.  It’s too high up and people tell me the roads are still closed due to snow.  I’ll cycle around it and cross the Cascades at Cascade Pass.  Though it’s the highest mountain pass in Oregon, it’s actually not that high, just 5,925 ft.  An amazing thing about the ride up is that the highway, OR-138, is absolutely straight all the way to the top! It’s the only straight-line road to the top of a mountain range that I’ve ever seen; not a single turn, let alone a switchback.

I pass several brilliantly beautiful peaks in the Cascade Volcanic Belt.  Among them are Mt. McLoughlin, Mt. Scott, and Mt. Thielsen (also known as Big Cowhorn), which sticks into the sky like a crooked accusing finger.

The day begins clear but heavy dark clouds arrive and cover the sky.  I successfully negotiate the 5-mile-long dangerous stretch of Hwy. 97 just north of Klamath Falls where the road is squeezed on the left by Klamath Lake and a railroad track and on the right by a steep cliff.  The area is prone to rockfall, so half the shoulder is taken by a concrete rockfall barrier, making the rest of the shoulder very narrow.  Needless to say, traffic is heavy as this is the only northbound route out of the city.

I play hide and seek with the rain most of the day as I finally enter the land of endless taiga.  After lunch, the left-hand turn onto the scenic and empty Hwy. 138.  It skirts the northern boundary of Crater Lake National Park and will take me across the Cascades.  Though I can now fully protect myself with waterproof clothes, I hope to not have to, because riding in them, especially uphill, is uncomfortably hot.  Magnificent pine forests cover the eastern slopes of the Cascades.  Interestingly, as soon as I get to the other side an start my descent down the western slope, the forest changes from pines to spruces and firs.  It must be due to the moisture that comes from the Pacific and is caught by the Cascades.

The weather finally catches up to me just after the pass.  I put on all my waterproof stuff and ride comfortably the rest of the way down to the beautiful Diamond Lake, where I’m going to camp tonight.  This reminds me of the time back in 2007 when Masha and I crossed the High Sierra (at Carson Pass) and camped at another mountain lake, Silver Lake.

It’s snowing.  I pitch  my tent in a cozy nook under the wide branches of a big spruce and occupy myself all night by trying to build the most aesthetically beautiful fire.  I’m an artist of fire and I’m pleased with the result.

The Cascades have been kind to me and I feel at home here.

Day 68: Kiven the sex shop owner (Klamath Falls, Oregon)

July 23rd, 2010

Rain is in the forecast for the entire Pacific Northwest for the foreseeable future, but the sky this morning is only partly cloudy, so I rush to take advantage of this lull and get as far ahead as possible.  Yet, I’ll have to put a brake on the ride.  Klamath Falls, Oegon is only 30 miles away. It’s the only decent-size town before Seattle and my last opportunity to gear up before crossing the Cascades. Therefore unfortunately I will have to spend precious time there, risking bad weather.

When I reach the Oregon state line, I’m about to take the usual photo of my lonely bike next to the welcome sign when I notice three farm workers taking a break nearby.  I run to them waiving my camera, asking to take a picture, but they are Mexicans who don’t speak English.  I immediately switch to Spanish without even thinking about it.

“¿Podria tomar un foto, por favor?” — I’m amazed how automatically this flies out of my non-Spanish-speaking mouth!  And I’ve left Mexico over a month ago.  Here’s the photo they took.  They stand there watching me and waiving long after I say thanks and good-bye and take off.

I spend several painful sunny hours shopping in Klamath Falls as bad weather slowly and ominously moves in from the southwest.  I end up cycling all over town from one sporting goods store to another before I eventually find the right lightweight rain shoes and pants at The Ledge (my mountaineering rain pants in New York are too heavy for cycling anyway, so I shell out for a new pair here).  The Ledge is a really nice specialty outdoors store akin to Tent & Trails in NYC.  The owner, Michael, and his staff are super helpful.

Finally I’m ready to leave town, but it starts raining.

A friendly man named Kiven invites me to have dinner with his family and spend the night at his house.  (He saw me sitting at a gas station studying maps and casting dejected glances at the rain outside — and felt bad for me.) Seeing that it’s already late afternoon and that I’ve had a relatively productive day anyway, I accept.

But it’s still early, so I first kill a couple of hours riding in the rain to the library, liquor store, and the waterfront promenade, using this as an opportunity to test my new rain gear and adjust the bike to it.  Yes, I asjust the bike:  the soles of my rain shoes are thicker than those of my normal shoes, so I raise the seat and expand the pedal cages.

Kiven takes me to his friend’s house and we drink beer there for a while. I do my laundry at Kiven’s and settle in for the night in his camper parked next to the house.  The soothing whisper of rain lulls me to sleep; the cool night air refreshes me for an early wake-up.

Kiven runs a sex/smoke shop and as a sign of his appreciation of my ride he gives me a useful gift from his inventory :-)

Day 67 (5/24): I clip the northeastern corner of California

July 23rd, 2010

A day of remarkable contrasts.  Miserable first half — elated second.

Straight out of Cedarville my route turns west and climbs toward Cedar Pass in the Warners (elevation 6,500 ft, vertical gain of 1,900 ft).  I have to turn west here and cross the mountains if I’m to make Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and get as much as possible of Highway 101 along the Pacific Coast. Both are major destinations on this trip.

Rainy morning.  Snow in the forecast at higher elevations.  My concern about frozen feet returns.  I still haven’t asked my sister in New York to mail me my waterproof pants and I have yet to buy waterproof shoes.  Have been delaying obtaining these items to save weight. Other things waiting at my sister’s are my gas stove, cook set and a few other survival items that I may need up north.

My plan is to get this stuff in Seattle before the extremes of Canada and Alaska.  Back in Texas it was ok to ride in the rain because we were at sea level and it was warm.  Here in the mountains I risk frostbite if it rains or snows, but so far I’ve kept my fingers crossed and for the most part have avoided trouble.  (St. Johns, Arizona was the one notable exception; but that snowstorm was unusual for Arizona this time of year).

But now my luck seems to have run out.  It’s raining and I have to pedal straight into the mountains.  I linger halfheartedly but realize that waiting out the weather is useless, so I head out.  The rain turns to snow at 6,000 feet; soon a full-blown storm begins plastering me with wet snow and I hurriedly stop to put on my jacket and gloves.  Luckily just as I crest the pass and begin my descent the storm abates and soon stops altogether.  My feet and pants are wet, but not soaked through.  So I continue pedaling, leaving it to the wind to dry me out.  Though wet and uncomfortable, I’ve avoided unnecessary stoppage.

The couple of hours of riding after lunch in Alturas are miserable, too.  In addition to the wet socks, the wind is in my face, the farmland is extremely boring, the shoulder is narrow and beat-up, and the road carries heavy traffic of stinky pig transporters and pickups with ultra-wide side mirrors.  I arrive in Canby with only 41 miles behind me and it’s already 4:30 pm.  The next town, Tulelake, is 52 miles away.  I will take Ca-139 here and ride north through Modoc National Forest. I haven’t camped alone in a wild forest yet on this trip and it gives me creeps, but I don’t have good alternatives — the town is too far.

But suddenly things look up.  The lady at the Canby gas station where I’m picking up provisions for the night hears my story and gives me my drink for free, plus adds a few energy bars on top.  I turn off onto Highway 139 and all traffic disappears.  The wind changes direction and now blows from the south.  A tall pine forest replaces the farms.  The warm evening sun tears apart the oppressive clouds and shows me my first glimpse of the Cascades through the trees (alas, it later turns out to be only Mount Hoffman, not the mighty Cascades).  To my surprise I make the 52 miles in under three hours and reach Tulelake at the edge of night.

Though at first I have trouble finding a place to stay, I end up camping on the back porch of the museum at the county fair grounds — a comfortable, dry, peaceful night.

Oregon lies just four miles away.

Day 66 (5/23): 4,000 miles!

July 19th, 2010

I wake up early to a sky covered with patches of low, sleepy clouds.  The surrounding ranges are freshly dusted with sugar powder.  The asphalt is still wet.  It snowed during the night and is clearing up now.

Masha is sleeping in; she has decided to go back to Reno.

Today I will pass the Burning Man office on my way out of Gerlach and cycle north on 447 (never been there before, yey!) — on my way toward Oregon across the northeastern corner of California.  I’ve been looking forward to this part of Nevada because it is as remote as things get and because here I should finally cross the 4,000-mile point of the trip.  The 85 miles of no services between Gerlach and Cedarville (in CA) rival the most desolate stretch of my 2007 tour:  Highway 21 between Milford, UT and Baker, NV.

Indeed, I see just 15 vehicles in the first 50 miles!

Big milestone: 4,000 miles! (Near Duck Flat, still in Nevada).  Just as I did at my 3,000-mile point back on the 2007 tour, I take photos in all directions to remember this remarkable place well.  It’s a typical Nevada desert landscape, but with three big snowy mountains:  Fox Mtn., Granite Peak (back near Gerlach), and Warner Mountains (up ahead, in California).

Finally I reach California (for the second time on this trip). The Nevada/California state line lies along Surprise Valley.  This valley is a miniature replica of Owens Valley, through which we rode a few days ago. The steep, snowy Warner Mountains flank the highway on the left; snowmelt from the range feeds lush green pastures.  But the eastern half of the valley, flanked by the Hays Canyon Range, lies in the Warners’ rain shadow and is yellow and bare.

It’s chilly; can’t be more than 50° F (feels uncomfortable for shorts and t-shirt).  When a cloud hides the sun, the temperature suddenly falls to 40°.  If I pedal vigorously, it feels like 5° more.  Uphill, +15°.  Headwind, -10°.  Most of today’s ride is in moderate headwind.  I make several adjustments to my clothing layers.  Still, the conditions change so frequently that it’s impractical to adjust the layers sufficiently often.  So I end up riding most of the day outside my temperature comfort zone, outside both extremes.

When I cross Surprise Valley and enter California, the highway turns north along the steep bluffs that form the foothills of the Warner Mountains.  A lone car parked on the shoulder at Modoc County mile marker 5 piques my interest. It sits empty above the 20-meter-high precipice.  I decrease my speed and look down over the embankment as I pass; there I see a middle-aged couple, buck naked, sitting in what looks like a hot spring where the steep bluff meets the valley floor.  They are talking quietly, towels folded neatly nearby.  They don’t notice me and my first instinct it to yell hello.  But they look so peaceful and absorbed in their solitude that I restrain myself and pedal on.

Refrigerator-size boulders are scattered below the road on the right, but the cattle fence is not damaged.  I wonder how frequently rocks spill from the cliff.

Eventually the land begins to flatten; farms start appearing more frequently on both sides of the road.  More traffic, too, though still pretty low.  Still, no services anywhere until Cedarville.

Hundreds of small animals scurry across the highway:  raccoons, mice, chipmunks, even strange birds that prefer to run rather than fly.  Stubby-tailed mole-like critters — ground squirrels, I later learn — bask in the sun but dash for their burrows when I approach.  The burrows pockmark the ground in large numbers. Rabbits sit still in the open, confident of their summer camouflage.  Groups of deer watch me tentatively from the distance.  Some take off and run.  Cows, lazily lounging in the grass, get up and turn to face me — a funny slow dance.  They are so cute:  thoughtful white faces on completely black or brown bodies.

A strange incident occurs when I get to Cedarville.  After dinner at a local cafe I am about to get on my bike to go looking for a place for the night but the bike feels uncharacteristically wobbly.  Flat tire!  Somehow, my front wheel got punctured while the bike was parked.  Go figure!  A group of teenagers were hanging out outside the cafe as I was eating and at first I suspect them, but when I take off the rubber for repair, I inspect it and find a tiny sharp rock lodged there.

Day 65: we explore the Black Rock playa

July 9th, 2010

We let ourselves luxuriate long past the normal wake-up time — we’re not in a hurry since we’ve decided to stay a full day here exploring.  But the heat of the midday sun eventually forces us out of the tent.

The main order of business for today is to drive onto the playa.  We’ve driven there before, but slowly and in the strict confines of Black Rock City’s grid.  The city is gone now until August, so the whole playa will be ours, with no speed limits or people.  We follow Rick’s directions to the dirt road that branches off of the gravel one.  Even more care is required here, as one wrong move can get us stuck in the sand/mud, with nobody around for miles to help us.  We slowly make our way north toward the playa, but eventually come across a deep puddle.  We could spend time figuring out how to get past it, but decide to first scout ahead to make sure there are no other obstacles.  We walk the remaining 300 m to the railroad and realize that with our car’s clearance we wouldn’t get over the rails.  Oh, well… We turn back, drive to Gerlach, and take the normal route to the playa, via the “12 mile access point” (12 miles northeast of Gerlach on route 34).  This is smooth sailing straight onto the ancient lake bed that has given us so many fond memories over the years.

By the way, as we drive to the playa, I notice that Masha raises her legs in the air every time we drive over cattle guards.  Turns out, it’s an old, fun tradition among the women of the West to avoid growing to be old maids.  Masha learned this trick from Devin Mattson’s mom and her friend when they were driving from Salt Lake City to Baker, NV to join us on our 2007 bicycle tour from New York to San Francisco.

The surface of the playa has already dried after the winter’s rains and is hard as concrete.  It is covered with a spider web of tiny cracks that formed as the fine mud was drying.  Hundreds of vehicle tracks overlay the spider web in all directions.

The amazing thing about the Black Rock playa is that its absolutely flat surface is so large:  you can drive 20 miles on it in a straight line with no obstacles.  Many land speed records have been set here.

We gun our car to 70 mph.  Then try with eyes closed.  It’s a little scary and a lot of fun!

Black Rock City’s pentagon should be somewhere here, and we’re curious whether any visible trace of it remains from last year.  We don’t see it, but likely it is because we are probably not in the right spot; the playa is big.

We want to camp tonight at another hot spring, and Fly Geyser is highly recommended by the locals.  It takes us some time to find it, but unfortunately we only get to see its towering bight-color shape and a tall plume of steam from a mile away — the owner of the land has selfishly closed the geyser off to public.  We contemplate climbing over the fence anyway, but there’s nowhere to park the car inconspicuously.   In the end we decide to get a room at Bruno’s motel instead, since tomorrow will be a long and treacherous day of cycling through 85 miles of desert with no services.

There’s an ultra-high-resolution satellite photograph of Black Rock City ‘08 on the wall at the grocery store in Empire.  To our delight, we easily find Phoenix Circle Village, the Burning Man camp that we organized, laid out, and built for the 200-person group of our friends from NYC.

Day 64 (5/21): Black Rock Desert; hot springs

July 8th, 2010

We’re finally in Black Rock Desert!  This is one of the main milestones of the trip and the place I’ve been anticipating especially eagerly, with warm and familiar feeling after the three times I’ve been here for Burning Man.

The 65 miles between Pyramid Lake and here flew by quickly, but in great anticipation.  It’s a straight-line south-north stretch in the long and narrow valley that contains the dry Lake Winnemucca.  I’ve always thought that Winnemucca had similar origins to the Lahontan Lake playa in Black Rock Desert, but turns out that it dried up as recently as the 1930s — not thousands of years ago — after the Truckee River was dammed near Fernley.

Masha drove her car ahead to Gerlach and I cycled alone on the pristine and empty desert road.  At one point I saw a herd of cows and did my usual silly shouting routine.  I abruptly stopped it, though, when passing close to a bull with sharp horns I realized that he was outside the fenced range.  I almost became a matador on a bicycle and my heart pounded with adrenaline for a minute there.

The dark, overcast skies were threateningly close to unleashing a storm, but the storm never materialized.

Anyway, we’ll spend two days here.  We buy groceries in Empire, drink a couple of beers in Gerlach, I store my bicycle in the back room at Bruno’s bar, and we drive east along the south edge of the playa to Frog Pond hot springs.  Our 12 mile drive is deliberate and slow, to avoid puncturing the car’s tires on the sharp gravel.

It’s interesting how the two villages, Empire and Gerlach, survive in this remote corner of Nevada in such close proximity to each other (6 miles apart).  They partition all commerce and thus complement each other instead of competing.  Gerlach has the gas station, motel, restaurant, club, and train station.  Empire — the grocery store and cement factory.  Also of note:  Bruno owns pretty much every business in Gerlach.

It’s an afternoon of surprises.  I’ve heard about the area hot springs but always thought they were a secret well-kept by the locals.  However, as soon as I ask about hot springs, the workers at the Empire store eagerly give me and Masha reviews, detailed directions, and advice on the safest way to drive there without getting stranded on the dirt roads.  We get to the hot springs and there’s another surprise.  The place is perfect — everything is clean, someone has stacked plenty of firewood, there’s an artfully designed burn barrel, the water is warm and inviting, the views amazing.  And yet, it’s completely wild, that is, there are no signs, gates, rangers — or tourists for that mater!  Masha and I are in paradise alone!

Windy evening.  It’s getting chilly.  Heavy mist moves in low over the playa and we can’t tell whether it’s snow, rain, or fog.  We open some beers and whisky, make a roaring fire, and dive naked into the delicious thermal pool.  Pretty soon it gets dark and the rain begins.  Heaven!

Tiny fish float around us and peck on our skin.  It’s a little yucky at first, but once you let go, the sensation can even be pleasant.  A scab on my elbow attracts them.  We look closer and realize that like a school of miniature piranhas they tear little pieces of the scab and actually swallow them.  Masha is grossed out but I’m not.

It looks like we’re going to spend the night alone, but we spot a widening circle of light on the nearby cottonwood from an approaching car’s headlights.  Masha gets scared (her usual fear of strangers in the desert), but I hold her tight and tell her that it’s probably some tourists like us.  Only our heads are above water; we shush and wait.  A guy pulls in, opens the trunk, pulls out firewood and puts some into our fire.  He doesn’t seem to notice our car and the fact that we have a fire going — that’s how matter-of-factly he’s moving about the site. He doesn’t see us in the darkness.

“Hey, what’s your name?” I shout out.

“Hm… Rick.”

“Are you shy around naked women?”

“Hm… No.”

“Then get undressed and get in.”

“Hm… Okay.”

Now there’s three of us; we share our hot spring, food, and alcohol with Rick and spend a pleasant night together by the fire.  Rick has not been to Burning Man, but knows a lot about these parts and the playa and gives us useful intel for tomorrow — we’ll attempt to get over the rail track and find a way onto the southern portion of the playa in our car.

Day 63 (5/20): Pyramid Lake

June 27th, 2010

Ed must be lonely in his middle-of-nowhere bar.  He wakes me up for coffee and we have breakfast together in his kitchen.

Today’s road, highway US-95, intersects the route of our 2007 NYC-SF bike tour. I even turn off onto Highway 50 and cycle a mile toward Carson City and back to relive a part of our 2007 adventure.

I’m in Reno’s and Carson City’s backyard, so the traffic is heavy and the ride nerve wracking.  Especially annoying is the rumble strip that takes up the whole width of the shoulder.  It forces me to ride in the vehicle lane.  Motorists don’t notice the rumble strip and assume that I’m using their lane frivolously — it infuriates them and they drive by dangerously close, at high speed, horns blaring.  Luckily, past Fernley I’ll take the remote desert highway 447 north of the I-80 corridor where I know the traffic is much lighter.  I’ve driven Hwy. 447 six times before for my three times at Burning Man, and I’m looking forward to cycling it.  It’s scenic and empty.

Masha and I meet in Fernley.  She has rented a car and will catch up to me on the way to Pyramid Lake after buying food and water at the local WalMart.

I leave the bustle of Fernley behind and begin my late-afternoon ride on 447.  To my immense surprise several Greyhound buses pass me by the time I get to Pyramid Lake.  Greyhound?! Here in the desert? Away from major roads?!  A local Indian at the gas station in Nixon explains that the company trains its new drivers here on an 8-hour loop on remote desert roads.

Masha overtakes me in her car, I catch up to her in Nixon (she’s napping), and we ride the last four miles to the southernmost tip of Pyramid Lake together.  She’s having fun by trailing me at 15 mph, big smile on her face.

Pyramid Lake is a favorite post-Burn destination of burners looking to cool off and wash off a week’s worth of desert dust.   It is as big as Lake Tahoe, but strangely without a single tree on the surrounding mountains.  It must be a way point for migrating birds, because flocks or geese and ducks land and take off constantly.  A cacophony of bird voices — or symphony, depending on your perspective — fills the air.

Three olive-green military cargo planes appear on a low-altitude trajectory over the lake as if mimicking the birds.  They glide slowly with quiet, confident engine noise like that of a modern air conditioner.  It looks like they’re about to land on the lake, but they disappear over the north shore.  Soon two of them return, one is missing.

It’s a chilly, windy night, but we are toasty in our tent anchored to the car on one side and piles of rocks on the other.

Day 62: Back to Nevada. Wabuska Bar.

June 25th, 2010

At the northern end of the fertile Mason Valley, by the old Union Pacific rail track, sits the 100-year-old Wabuska Bar.  Inside, the bar’s 82-year-old owner Edmund Muller rests in his wheelchair.  Business is down and I’m Ed’s only customer all night.  We sit with beers in hand; stories and history flow well past the normal closing time.  Ed used to run a water drilling business and drilled all over Nevada.  “Driest state?!  You drill anywhere and there’s water.”  He also tells stories of his army service in Germany after the war, about the Yucca Mountain controversy, Harry Reid, and so many other things.  I’m staying here tonight, camping by the side of the house.  Tomorrow I’ll be carrying Ed’s regards to another Nevada oldtimer, Bruno Selmic, up in Gerlach.

This turned out to be one of the more relaxing days of the trip.

This morning I say goodbye to the Sierras and head again into Nevada.  The next big mountain range will be the Cascades in Oregon.  I’ve been looking forward to Nevada because, among other things, I want more comfortable temperatures.  It was too hot in Death Valley (around sea level), too cold the past couple of days in the Sierras (around 7,500 feet elevation), and should be just right in Nevada (the average elevation in the valleys is 4,000 ft).

Another reason I’m looking forward to Nevada is its prevailing winds.  Back in 2007, on our roller-coaster traverse of the state east to west, Masha and I were constantly pummeled by crosswinds out of the south.  I figured that the narrow valleys must be acting as conduits that channel air masses in a consistent way. This year we’re riding north through here, in part to harness those southern winds.

The remote highway 182 spills out of Bridgport Reservoir and flows down the East Walker River Gorge.  A “No services next 70 miles” sign gives me a start, for I know that Smith is only 40 miles away.  Am I wrong or is the sign wrong?  I am carrying only two liters of water, but that’s not really a problem, since the road follows several rivers. The asphalt is old and beat up; I ride in a state of concentrative meditation for a while as I carefully pick my way through the cracks.  There are no cars, which is a relief after the busy Hwy. 395.

A lot of fishermen stand frozen waist deep in the water.  The cafe in Bridgeport where I had dinner and breakfast was called “Sportsmen’s”.  At first I sneered inside: these hunters, fishermen, and golfers call themselves sportsmen!  But then I realized my error in translation.  In Russian, “sportsman” and “athlete” are synonyms, but in English they are not.  I’m an athlete.  These guys are sportsmen.

I’m flying along the rushing river.  The last view of the Sierra disappears around a bend and the familiar arid hills of Nevada take over.  Soon the road turns 90 degrees and I climb the gentle-grade hill to Sweetwater Pass.  It’s all downnill from here.  Sweetwater is the last reminder that I’m still in the mountain country.  We’ve climbed at least one major hill each day since Vegas:  Spring Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Panamint Range, Argus Range, Sherwin Pass, Deadman Pass, Conway Pass, and now Sweetwater Pass.

At last the distance controversy is resolved.  I roll into Smith Valley after just 40 miles, not 70 like the sign warned.  My travel stories at lunch at the only store in town impress the folks there and they give me a t-shirt with the store’s name, Buckboard General Store.

A serious-looking mountain range separates Smith Valley from Mason Valley and I reluctantly brace for an uphill, but to my surprise, the Walker has sliced right through the mountain and the road hugs the river and runs straight down to Mason Valley below.  The gorge is narrow, winding, and steep.  The angry river churns class 2-3 whitewater.  I wouldn’t canoe here.

Mason Valley looks nothing like the Nevada I know.  Fed by the Walker and East Walker Rivers, it supports bountiful fields of alfalfa, onions, lettuce, and hay.  Rows of poplars — both narrow ones and wide ones — line irrigation ditches filled to the brink.  The poplars gladden my heart by reminding me of my native Moldova.  I’ve only seen them in two U.S. states, Nevada and California. It’s probably too humid for them back on the East Coast.

It’s night at Wabuska. The wind picks up and changes directions with such surprising frequency that I’m having trouble deciding from which side to anchor my tent.  I scout Ed’s property and find some logs, sawed but not chopped, and use them as heavy anchors.  This solves the engineering challenge.

By the way, I’ve invented a method for determining wind direction more precisely than sticking a wet finger up in the air.  It works like this:  you position yourself so that your back is generally facing the wind.  Then slowly turn until the noise in your ears is maximized.  Stop. You’re facing precisely away from the wind.

Day 61: the 3,699-mile point (NYC-to-SF distance)

June 24th, 2010

Darn, I wake up with a serious hangover.  I can only hope that the physical exertion and the cool mountain  air will help me get over it quickly.  I order the greasiest breakfast on the menu at the restaurant.  Yesterday’s Mexican boys are already hard at work in the kitchen; they are tough.  Arturo sees me from the kitchen, intercepts my check, and pays for my breakfast, then comes over and warmly wishes me safe journey.

The long-awaited 3,699-mile point is just six miles away.  I stop there to reflect and take a few photos, among them an unknown pretty mountain on the left; Crowley Lake and White Mountains on the right…

Today’s route hovers around 7-8 thousand feet above sea level and the air is cool, even cold, sometimes uncomfortably so, despite the bright sun. The pristine snows of the Sierra shine brightly.  John Muir called Sierra Nevada “the range of light”.  Range of light, indeed!  (even though Muir was referring to the orange granite at sunrise, not the snow).  Anyway, the Sierra continues to impress with great sights as I pass many notable landmarks — Mono Lake and peaks Mammoth, Matterhorn, Kuna, Dana, and Conness — and cross two mountain passes, Deadman (8,047 ft) and Conway (at 8,143 ft, the highest pass on Hwy. 395).

It’s all an easy downhill from Conway Pass to the town of Bridgeport, where I settle in at the Hotel Victorian, which is basically an old, squeaky house with a lot of antique furniture.  The house is both cozy and scary.  Whooooh!

Day 60 (5/17): Tom’s Place, Sierra Nevada

June 23rd, 2010

We’ve covered 3,653 miles so far on this trip and if all goes well, today I should reach the highly anticipated milestone of 3,699 miles — the length of our 2007 tour from New York to San Francisco.  Curious to see what’s around that milepost.

But, alas, not today.  First, I find good internet at the public library in Bishop and spend half the day blogging.  I continue riding after lunch and quickly bump into the second obstacle.  I had expected the ride along the eastern slope of the Sierras to be all relatively flat, around 4,000 feet elevation.  But all of a sudden Hwy. 395 shoots up onto an unexpected mountain ridge that spurs east from the Sierra, significantly slowing me down.  I reach Sherwin Pass, elevation 6,500 ft, after sunset as the temperature plummets.  Masha says she passed me on the bus as I was standing there trying to quickly put on my warm clothes with my frozen, stiff hands.  It’s amazing that just two days ago we were below sea level in 100-degree desert heat.

It’s almost dark by the time I reach Tom’s Place, a typical backcountry waystation like so many we’ve seen throughout the West:  gas, store, restaurant, bar and rooms.  Because it’s dark and unexpectedly cold, and there is nothing around for miles, I will stay here, just six miles short of my 3,699th mile.

There are a few patrons at the bar and I settle in for a beer or two.  This turns into a long night with the friendly Mexican restaurant cooks Arturo, Luciano, and Fernando, and bartender Cookie. I impress the guys with my Spanish and we stay late buying each other rounds.  How many rounds?  Nobody kept count!

But the guys have to get up at 5 tomorrow, so eventually we call it a night.  I put on my down jacket and take a long walk on the empty forest road before turning in at the “dorm” at Tom’s.  The temperature has dropped below freezing.  The night is starry, quiet, very peaceful.

Pretty, snow-capped mountains all day.  Another photoAnother one.

Day 59 (5/16): Owens Valley

June 23rd, 2010

Morning.  We linger again and are about to get out later than planned, but Masha finds the campground owner and he gives her a lift half the way up the mountain.  Though he offers to drive her all the way up, she insists on stopping sooner for fear of sitting alone on the side of the road waiting for me.  Frankly I can’t understand what the big deal is with being alone on the road — there are no maniacs here, just tourists.  Plus she still has the pepper spray I got her for Mexico.  Yet every woman we ask about this agrees with Masha.

We reach the top of the 5,000-foot-tall Argus Range relatively easily (a 3,000-foot elevation gain from Panamint Springs), in part thanks to the intricate switchbacks that make the scenery change all the time.  Yesterday was different:  the road to Towne Pass was almost straight, adding tedious monotony to the physical challenge.  On the other hand, yesterday’s summit was immediately followed by a swift downhill, whereas today’s turns out to be an endless hilly plateau that drives us crazy in anticipation of a downhill.  We pine to see the infinite snow-covered wall of the High Sierra, but it keeps hidden from view.  At last, it appears as the highway begins its long slide to Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt. Whitney.  We’re a little sad to be leaving Death Valley behind.

We pass the famous Owens Lake.  Back in the 1930s it served as a water source for the City of Los Angeles and was eventually drunk dry.  This caused frequent dust storms in Owens Valley.  LA got sued and lost the case.  Now the LA water department is pumping water back into the lake as part of a multi-decade Owens Lake environmental remediation plan.  But the dust still blows across the road and the sandy shoulders look like the Sahara.

The strong tailwind helps us pass the miles. Right before Lone Pine, the highway makes a sweeping left turn and puts us directly into an amazing view of Mt. Whitney, the Sierra, and Alabama Hills in all their glory. Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.  I climbed it with Yura last year before we picked up Masha and went to Death Valley.

By the way, notice that the route of our current bike tour is very curvy and twisty, unlike the 2007 tour’s.  I’ve planned it this way on purpose.  Back in 2007 we didn’t know our strengths yet and so chose the straightest/fastest way across the U.S.  This time, I’ve intentionally selected a route that covers specific points of interest to me.  For example: San Antonio, TX; Petrified Forest; Grand Canyon; Zion; Las Vegas; Death Valley; Mt. Whitney and Hwy. 395 in California; Pyramid Lake and Black Rock Desert in Nevada; Crater Lake National Park; and Highway 101 in Oregon/Washington.  That’s why our route is so winding and long — and very scenic!

Masha decides to stay in Lone Pine and catch up to me in a few days.  But I fly on the wings of the glorious southern tailwind down Hwy. 395 another 40 miles to Big Pine.  Magnificent mountains line both sides of the road.  The white Sierra with a black lining of pine forests — on the left.  The Inyo Mountains, bone-dry and devoid of vegetation — on the right.  The Inyos are in the “rain shadow” of the Sierra:  the Sierra stops all the rain and snow that come from the Pacific, and the Inyos get almost none.

I’ve been craving a shave and eager to cut my nails, so after three nights camping I allow myself to indulge in a motel room.  Masha has settled in a youth hostel on Whitney Portal Road back in Lone Pine.