Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Deliverance and Cycling Tioga Pass


During my recent camping vacation with my family I tried to get some bike rides in.  You may have read about my Ebbetts Pass ride.  I did one other memorable ride during the trip—memorable more for my difficulties than anything else.  My goal was to head south on Highway 395 toward Lee Vining, where I’d turn west on Highway 120 (aka Great Sierra Wagon Road), which goes over Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park.  In addition to the pass itself, I faced several challenges:  the Nabokovian dilemma; shortage of time; shortage of water; fear; even a missing receipt.

Nabokovian dilemma

I guess “Nabokovian dilemma” isn’t a household phrase … yet.  (Quick, send everybody you know the link to this post!)  I’m referring to a memorable passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, when he describes his boyhood mania for butterfly hunting: 
oooOne of [the characteristics of butterfly hunting] was the acute desire to be alone, since any companion, no matter how quiet, interfered with the concentrated enjoyment of my mania….  In this connection, I remember the visit of a schoolmate, a boy of whom I was very fond and with whom I had excellent  fun.  He arrived one summer night ... from a town some twenty five miles away.  His father had recently perished in an accident, the family was ruined and the stouthearted lad, not being able to afford the price of a railway ticket, had bicycled all those miles to spend a few days with me.
ooo On the morning following his arrival, I did everything I could to get out of the house for my morning hike without his knowing where I had gone....  Once in the forest, I was safe; but still I walked on, my calves quaking, my eyes full of scalding tears, the whole of me twitching with shame and self  disgust, as I visualized my poor friend, with his long pale face and black tie, moping in the hot garden   patting the panting dogs for want of something better to do, and trying hard to justify my absence to himself.
The dilemma here is simply the desire to be two places at once, in my case due to conflicting impulses to a) pursue my individual cycling mania and yet b) be with my family.  Like the young Nabokov, I sought to sneak out early.  I hoped to get in a couple hours of riding and then arrive back just in time to make pancakes on the camp stove—but I was pretty sure this wasn’t actually possible.

Normally, this conflict would barely have registered, but the campground we were at was, though very pretty, also kind of spooky.  When cruising around choosing a site we couldn’t help but notice how many of them resembled a shantytown or homeless encampment, or even an Occupy site (Occupy Eastern Sierras?).  Sagging, faded lawn chairs; ad hoc canopies; larger furniture; I could swear I even saw a car or two up on blocks (though surely this is the embroidery of memory).  One empty site was completely covered in broken glass.  Our kids were oblivious, only noting the wonderful little forest of aspen trees.  I came to realize how much I rely on nice cars, spiffy tents, and other newish REI-style gear to signify recreational campers like me as opposed to downtrodden folks who got nowheres to go.  I wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my wife would be to be abandoned in this place at dawn.  (It was obvious she shared my misgivings:  during our reconnaissance, she hummed the dueling banjo theme from “Deliverance.”)

Meanwhile, there was a fellow camper who had given us pause.  Erin first encountered him while depositing our payment in the unmanned registration box.  He wore a t-shirt that said, “If it weren’t for flashbacks I’d have no memory at all.”  He had a mean-looking dog on a leash with a choker collar.  Erin, though friendly to the guy, nonetheless cut to the chase:  “Can you assure me your pit bull won’t attack my kids?”  He denied only that the dog was a pit bull.  Later he came by our campsite and was friendly enough, describing to me in great detail a bike ride I might try the next morning.  He looked pretty much like a cyclist, but he also twitched and trembled, which made me wonder if the build of a meth addict might be fairly similar to a cyclist’s.  True, he had cycling sunglasses, sort of, but they were gas station Oakley knockoffs.  What if his suggestion of a morning ride was just a way to get me out of his hair while he robbed my family?  Of course you’re shaking your head at my paranoia, and rightly so, but I’m just not used to strangers in “flashback” t-shirts being so friendly.

Probably I’d have ignored all of this entirely had it not been for my ill-fated attempt that night to find water.  The campground map showed various locations of (albeit non-potable) water spigots.  At least we could use this to wash up and do our dishes; we didn’t have much drinking water.  I wandered all over the campground and couldn’t find a single spigot.  A pickup truck coming the other way passed me really slow and the front passenger asked what I was up to.  I explained I was looking for water.  He flashed a gap-toothed grin.  “Just keep going thataway,” he chuckled.  “You’ll find water.”

So I kept going and found myself in the campsite at the end of the line.  There was a kid of maybe sixteen sitting by the campfire.  I asked about a water spigot and he looked completely bewildered, even frightened.  “What?” he said, his voice shaky.  Suddenly two adults appeared, looking alarmed, as though I’d been harassing the boy.  At this moment I realized the kid looked exactly like Blaster, the huge scary gladiator guy from “Max Max:  Beyond Thunderdome” who, once deprived of his knight’s helmet, looks baby-faced and vulnerable.  I repeated my simple question to the grown-ups, one of whom engaged me in conversation while escorting me away from his campsite. 

He was gaunt and ponytailed and looked like a classic rock guy from the ‘70s who’s been ridden hard and put away wet one too many times.  “What site you campin’ at?” he asked casually.  Unwilling to divulge this I said, “Oh, down that way a piece.”  (My subconscious slippage into his vernacular almost had me saying, “Down thur a right fur piece.”)  He acted as though the notion of a spigot at this campground was completely absurd, but gave me elaborate instructions on finding the creek.  (Duh.)  I was afraid I’d have to take some false turns rather than lead him to my site, but eventually he stopped walking with me and headed back where he came from.  Dang.

One other thing.  According to the flashback guy, this campground had a resident bear.  This bear was normally unaggressive, but Yosemite-area bears are known to rip cars open like sardine tins to get at the food inside.  Flashback said that this particular bear could recognize a cooler.  Most of the sites had bear boxes but ours didn’t; I wasn’t about to ask a neighbor to share.  So I had to cover up our cooler in the back of the car and make sure we didn’t bring any toothpaste or deodorant into the tent.

Suffice to say, part of me thought it best to keep an all-night vigil with a large Maglite across my lap.  But the other part wanted that morning bike ride, so I went right to bed.

Shortage of time

I woke up somewhat early, but not as early as I’d hoped.  When I’m camping it takes awhile to find all my stuff, unlock my bike, etc., especially when I’m trying to be completely silent.  Plus, there was the matter of the pre-ride, uh, lightening ritual.  The outhouse was really far from our campsite.  I brought my own toilet paper, and good thing:  the outhouse had none.  Given the little aspen forest we were in, I might just as well have gone there.  As it was this outhouse offered nothing except a platform to sit on and a little privacy.  Oh, and of course graffiti to look at in lieu of a magazine.

But then, this was a special campground with special restroom graffiti:

And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
Noli me tangere; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

What? you’re asking.  Are you kidding?  Of course I am.  Just making sure you’re awake.  But those lines, from Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, did cross my mind for some reason.  Maybe it was the No-Doz.   Needless to say, most of the graffiti was totally unoriginal, like the old “Here I sit all broken-hearted” ditty (too vulgar for this family blog, but I could paraphrase it:  “Here I set, growing petulant, tried to defecate but was only flatulent”).  But then I came across this:

Yo momma is a myth
Atlantis is a myth
So yo momma is Atlantis

You may have guessed that I got out my pocketknife and carved below it, “This argument is not sound, because its first premise is obviously false.  Also, this argument is not valid because it commits the logical fallacy of ‘the undistributed middle.’”  But you would have guessed wrong:  I never, ever indulge in graffiti.  Besides, I couldn’t remember, that early in the morning, the name of the logical fallacy.  I could recall the logical structure the argument was surely trying to resemble—modus ponendo ponens—but what was it called when the mechanism was erroneously reversed?  Before I caught myself, I wasted a good many precious minutes pondering this matter (and related questions like “What kind of idiot thinks that’s worth carving on an outhouse wall?”).  Curses!

Shortage of water

It had been my idea to only buy only one 2.5-gallon bottle of drinking water the night before.  I’m just cheap, especially when it comes to bottled water, which always tastes uncannily like the tap water of the region (except in the Bay Area, where tap water tastes better than bottled).  In my defense, I had reasonably trusted the campground map showing water spigots.  Now, preparing for my ride, I had to decide how much water to deprive my family of.  I eventually set out with only one bottle.

No problem—I could just refill at the Mobil station at Lee Vining, where 395 meets 120, right?  Well, this gas station—perhaps because it has remarkably good food—tends to have a line at the cashier.  And a lot of motorists go through there.  What would I do if my bike got ripped off?  Walk ten miles back to the campground?  You must think I’m the most paranoid guy in the universe, but consider that along the roads near my home, there have been several recent cases of bike theft and even of cyclists getting mugged.

Plus, my bottle was just water, not energy drink, so I was relying on gels for sustenance.  Ever eat a gel without washing it down?  Didn’t think so.  It’d be easier to eat a sleeve of Saltines without water.  Of course I didn’t start pondering this until I was well underway, riding hard over an unknown distance toward Tioga Pass, a climb I’d only ever gone over in a car.  I had no idea what this ride would be like and how long it would take.


One problem with riding a road for the first time is worrying about traffic.  I had seen a pretty good shoulder on Highway 120 on the drive over on the previous day, but it only takes a short section of shoulder-less road to create a hazard.  Plus, I’d seen lots of these Cruise America rental RVs on this road.  The very idea of Rental RVs strikes me as dangerous, like discount sushi or amateur dentistry.  I recently watched a guy in a brand-new RV spend about 90 minutes backing it into his campsite.  He looked really stressed, as did his wife, standing behind it guiding him in.  She saw me looking, and to ease the embarrassment I said, “That’s a really great-looking RV.”  She replied, “Stick around … we may be selling it soon.”  Now, pedaling my way up the pass, I could just imagine a similarly hapless RV newcomer with no sense of the size of his camper whacking me without even realizing it.

If you’ve ever considered riding over Tioga Pass, I can tell you it’s just fine climbing it from the east.  There’s a generous shoulder the whole way up.  Heading the other direction (downhill towards 395), there are sections of the road where guardrails cut into the shoulder, but these are short; plus, you’re going pretty fast, so the likelihood of being passed at all is pretty low.  Even during the climb, very few vehicles passed me.  They tended to come in clumps:  half a dozen fuming SUVs stuck behind a Cruise America RV.

Another problem was the weather.  Despite having grown up in Colorado, where afternoon thunderstorms are a given, I stupidly set out without a jacket and now the clouds above were purple-black.  The air had that strange electricity you so often get at high altitude.  What is it our brains detect?  A constant shifting in barometric pressure?  The whiff of distant lightning?  A sudden increase in humidity?  The peculiar foreign wind of a storm system?  I wouldn’t say the sky darkened because it had never actually gotten very light.  A cold wind bullied me.  Here is what Tioga Pass looks like with better weather (I didnt bring a camera on the ride; this photo and those following it I took a couple days later, during the drive home).

As I reached 8,000 and eventually 9,000 feet of elevation, all this became stronger.  I was hit with that delicious cool-rain-smell.  And of course I was suffering.  While my conscience continued to nag at me (“What might be happening to your family back at that eerie campground while you pursue your pleasure/suffering centers?”), I begin to bask in the sheer epic-ness of this ride.  I, a speck of under-fit cyclist, seemed about to be caught in a thunderstorm at 10,000 feet on a little highway in the wilderness.

Missing receipt

It costs $20 to drive to and/or through Yosemite in a car.  Your receipt gets you unlimited access to the park for seven days … if you have the receipt.  I couldn’t find it the morning of the ride and decided to plead my case using other receipts we’d gathered (a rather expensive lunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room, and a batch of groceries that included day-old discounted sushi, which was disgusting) that proved we’d been in the park.  All this just to get past the toll gate so I could finish the last bit of Tioga Pass and say I’d done it.  Worst case, I could pay another $10, though then I’d have nothing to buy food or water with.  And this was looking like about a fifty-mile ride.  Hmmm.

In the event, there was a long line of cars at the entrance gate and I didn’t feel like bothering with it, especially since all manner of social outcasts, possibly including a bear, were probably converging on my family at that very moment.  So I headed back down the east side of the pass. 

The descent was sublime.  My wife and kids had felt something between awe and outright fear when we’d driven down it, but I’ve been descending mountain passes since I was thirteen and can’t get enough of them.  Descending Tioga Pass is sweet.  Good road surface, very few cars (not a single one passed me on my descent), and world-class scenery.  I even outran the rain (which did finally come to pass, but later in the day). 

Epilogue:  Mono Lake

Just a few miles from the campground, at the point in the ride when I needed to eat my last gel but had no more water left, I saw the sign for the Mono Lake visitor’s center.  I headed over there.  Here’s what you need to know about Mono Lake: 
  • It’s pronounced “Moe No,” not “Ma No.”
  • This lake is the breeding ground for 90% of the seagulls in California, due to a vast number of tiny flies that feed on an even vaster amount of salt-loving algae.
  • Those crazy crystalline formations, called tufa towers, are not made of bird dung (which is what I told my kids), nor is “tufa” the Paiute Indian word for “tofu.”  The formations are made of calcium carbonate (i.e., limestone).
  • There’s a drinking fountain right outside the doors, perfect for a paranoid and parched cyclist.

When I got back to the campground, my family was just finishing up breakfast.  Nobody had bothered them, not even a bear, and they had plenty of water left.

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