Sunday, September 13, 2015

June Lake, California: Hello, America!

There was an idea we tossed around during our five months of travel.  We had to figure out how to get ourselves and our bikes back to June Lake from my sister’s house in the Bay Area.  Last March we left both our cars at home parked snugly in the garage and crossed the Sierra using buses and trains.  Our idea was, if we weren’t too burned out, if the weather was right, and if we had the time, that maybe we could bike back home. 

When we left Copenhagen the coolness of autumn had already arrived.  When we stepped outside of the terminal in Oakland it was sunny and blazing hot like it can so often get around Labor Day in California.  And the forecast was for another week of hot weather, at least ten degrees above normal for early September, which translates to 100+ degrees in the San Joaquin Valley and the western foothills of the Sierra.  So our idea morphed, and we decided to take the train to Sacramento and a bus to Truckee and start our trip from there.

Outside the train station in Truckee with signs heralding the best of America -- money, internet access, and bathrooms that are clean, free, and with toilet paper!

After four years of drought, the low level of Lake Tahoe were shocking. Boat docks to nowhere.
It took us five days to get home.  It was an adventure, and we are glad we did it.  There were a couple of tough passes and it was challenging.  John came down with a cold on the day we left my sister’s, and he did it all with a nose running like a faucet and a raw throat.  Despite the hanndicap I still could not keep up with him on the big hills!

The first night we stayed in a small walk-in campground just south of Tahoe City in the west shore of Lake Tahoe.  It was a warm day and we took a dip in the lake.  All summer we heard the news reports of fires burning in the mountains, but our afternoon of cycling from Truckee was relatively clear.  Overnight, however, smoke drifted in from a new fire and we had hazy conditions on the rest of our journey. 
Check this pass off the list!
The next day we met our first challenge -- crossing over Luther Pass.  It was a huff, but what takes hours to go up is a quick but thrilling descent on the other side.  We dropped down to Highway 89 where we knew there were several campgrounds.  We went by one that had a rusty old gate and look closed.  We ventured in, and it must have been closed for years. There were a few picnic tables around, but half the campground was destroyed from floods many years ago.  So we wheeled down next to the creek and had a wonderful campsite.  Just like if we were backpacking, peaceful, with rocks for sitting and the place to ourselves!
Our campsite in the abandoned campground.
Monitor Pass was the challenge for the next day and the highest point on the journey at 8,314 feet.  It took us all morning, crawling up that grade.  When we neared the top I looked back at the sign for the downhill traffic that indicated an 8% grade for six miles.  I am glad I didn’t know that bit of trivia before we started.  On the other side of the pass we dropped 3,000 feet down to the Walker River, and the temperature must have increased 20 degrees.  We had a Popsicle to celebrate and took skinny dips in the Walker River.  Camp was on a hidden spot in the sandy floodplain.  We slept like logs that night, we were so tired.

Monitor Pass, check!

Heading down into the smoky haze towards Walker Canyon after crossing Monitor Pass.
The next day we were in Bridgeport by noon, had lunch, and then pushed on the Conway Summit.  We were so hot we stopped along the way to dip our shirts in the creek and put them on wet to cool down.  But by the time we were just below the pass and before our shirts even dried, the clouds came in and it started raining.  We sought shelter under the eave of the CalTrans building at the pass.  John got a bit drenched because he had to cycle up the road to intersect the creek to get water for the night, and he thought he timed a break in the action, but it started to really rain hard shortly after he took off.  We got down a short way and camped in the rocks at a place we knew about with a full view of Mono Lake below us.  But it rained and then the next morning it was really smoky, a bit disappointing.  We were home by noon, and we just got in the door and it started to pour again.  And it rained on and off the rest of the afternoon and again the next day.  We were so happy to be home and indoors!
Our last breakfast overlooking the smoke in the Mono Basin from just below Conway Summit.
After bike touring for months in Europe and then doing the same thing right away in America, the cultural contrasts between the two are apparent.  On both continents we often were approached by people who were curious about where we started, where we were going, how far we travel each day.  But in America it seems like the people who ask often had a story they wanted to share of a past trip that they still remember and wish they could repeat.  It happened at the train station, outside the grocery store, and even on the side of the road.  One couple stopped their car and waited until we pulled alongside and asked if we needed water.  She had done a bike trip across the country and knew the value of small acts of kindness. 

And then there was the man in his 70‘s in a flannel shirt and blue jeans sailing down Monitor Pass as we were laboring our way up.  At this point in the upward grind I was filled with less than positive thoughts.  My inner voice was asking --  whose idea was this, anyway? Why is it so hot? Maybe I’m too old for this?  When he saw us he braked and stopped.  He offered encouragement and told us it was only 1,200 feet more elevation gain to the pass.  We smiled and nodded acknowledgement, since oxygen was in short supply at that moment.  An then he said he so admired what we were doing, that he had also done many bike tours in years past, all over Europe.  He said they were the best years of his life.

I couldn’t agree more.
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