Friday, September 28, 2012

Follow the squiggle

Just back from TRX class. Alissa is a tough instructor and her class sometimes renders me useless for hours. My brain goes on hiatus. That's OK, it will get easier...

Did you know that 15 minutes of intense (but not grueling) exercise can help with memory? Yeah, some researchers in Copenhagen - where the cycling infrastructure is brilliant - found exercise helps commit something you just learned to long-term memory.

They asked the subjects to try to copy a squiggle. Half then cycled for 15 minutes and half sat around eating donuts. (OK, I made that part up. Kinda hungry.) The cycling group did slightly worse remembering the squiggle path after only an hour than the other group (see TRX comment above). But then they remembered it better after a day, then after a week, than the donut-eaters.

So to commit a specific motor skill to long-term memory, exercise right after trying it.

Hopefully I have been leveraging this by retracing all the local bike roads!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This is not a trail

The morning after I got back from Yosemite an email message from a place I used to visit regularly was waiting. They didn't actually say "would you please just go away" but it felt like that.

After every trip this year there has been a similar message. Route 66, SuperTour, now Yosemite. Different sources, unrelated to the trip, same idea. Can't escape what's going on at home. In the message content it is difficult to locate compassion or understanding. I'm not saying it's not there but it's not jumping out at me either. There isn't really a 'we're in this together' kind of vibe. It's more like "when things don't work out it's your problem not ours".

Sure I might be misreading the vibe. For the sake of this post suppose I'm not.

When bad things happen, especially when the badness is hard to quantify or prove, people stop showing up. Institutional mechanisms, like private disability insurance, fail. Doctors jump ship. Employers can't fulfill their legal obligations.

They can choose whether to be involved. Good to be them.

There are some metaphorical similarities between this place and Tenaya Canyon in Yosemite. The remote canyon we were hiking above a few days ago. Hard to tell from the picture but there are no trails, no official ways through. Getting 10 miles from Tenaya Lake to the Snow Creek trailhead requires skills most of us don't have. The entrance to Tenaya Canyon has a sign that says:

Warning—/this is not a trail/travel beyond this point is dangerous/ without climbing equipment./ Return to Tioga Road.

And on the map:

Hiking in Tenaya Canyon is dangerous and strongly discouraged.

This language attracts some daredevils, looking for the forbidden. Lots of people have been rescued, some killed. The National Park Service responds by disclaiming any liability from what hikers do in Tenaya Canyon. If you get into trouble there, it's your fault. The difference being, those who enter Tenaya Canyon do so by choice.

John Muir actually sustained a head injury in a fall here, and was saved by some bushes. He climbed out the next day with a concussion, and some difficulty. Here is an account of what it takes to get out intact.

Navigating brain injury is a lot harder than it looks. No trail. Mandatory rapelling. Navigation issues. Immersion in water. Black flies and rampant poison oak. Welcome to my world.

Brain injury survivors don't choose Tenaya Canyon. It chooses us.

The natural habitat of ursa major

Every night the Big Dipper reveals itself overhead. Masked by the tall pines, but still visible.

Our final morning in Yosemite begins like the others, with sun on Sentinel Dome and shady cool in the trees. Then:

  • first thing, a Curry truck idling its V8 several feet from tent cabin
  • stump coffee derailed by boil-over incident
  • $4 for Curry coffee (with a queue slower than the stump)
  • annoying Curry employee keeping vigil outside tent cabin, waiting for us to leave
  • chastising from same employee for leaving key in lock (while in cabin)
  • navigation issues reaching Tunnel View

We set off for Inspiration Point with energy, seeking reliable things like dirt and rock and sky.

Promptly miss a switchback covered in rocks and lose the trail. Bushwhack cross country, traversing rock slabs and manzanita scrub. Follow cairns, or ducks, left by previous hikers. Curse the National Park Service for minimalist signage and budget cuts. Encounter bear scat. Lose trail entirely with a sheer 200-foot drop below. Opt to retrace our steps, head back to the car.

Then, the wrong turn reveals itself! We reboot and head uphill again, enjoying a proper, shady beautiful trek for 1.3 miles. The noise of tour buses and Harleys and humans below is swallowed up by wilderness. Halfway up we cross what used to be the old road, Wawona Road. Abandoned in 1933, it's now part of the trail system.

Finally at the top, a view. There is only one view from here, the one everyone comes for.

At the mouth of Yosemite Valley, looking east toward El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, Sentinel Rock, Half Dome.
We toast a proper farewell, with crackers and cheese and apples.

This flat spot was the viewpoint along the old road and a surprising amount of pavement remains. We fend off a persistent mosquito and then yellowjackets... Somehow they just knew we'd show up. Every day good weather brings a steady procession of humans to this spot. The insects have learned and adapted to our patterns.

A successful outing. We salvaged the day and took photos. It was an uneventful descent back to the car.

Except a minute or two down the trail we cross paths with a young couple heading up. They are a little breathless and shaken. The guy volunteers that they saw a bear next to the trail about 10 minutes ago. He looks both excited and scared, emotions outpacing his language skills. I say, there are no bears in France, and they both nod.

There are no wild animals of any kind in Europe. Over thousands of years humans killed them and settled their habitats. Gone. That's why all the Europeans get in an airplane and then a car to come to Yosemite. 

Several minutes on we encounter a woman standing with her back against a tree. She asks if we've heard about a bear on the trail (yes) and seen her husband heading up (yes). She looks a little uncertain and wants to head down but not alone. The bear is apparently 3 or 4 switchbacks down the hill. She waits for her husband, we press on.

Whatever we were talking about it must have been interesting. But a bush next to the trail is clearly shaking. The bear pokes her head out of the manzanita for a second, checking us out. She has a thin face, cinnamon brown, smaller than expected. I call out hello, then start moving back up the trail. I'm not actually sure it's an adult bear. And that's worrisome. I start checking out the bushwhacking options to give her lots of room.

While we discuss the bear ambles up and away, slowly and deliberately. She's an adult, on the small side but large enough. She moves gracefully with hardly any noise, even through the brush.

At the end of the trail a Scottish couple sits on a rock, gazing at the hill. In sight of their tour bus. Someone told them a bear was right there at the parking lot, someone saw it a few minutes ago. The guy wants to see a bear in Yosemite. His wife looks less sure. I say, these bears are largely after food. You could spread peanut butter all over yourselves. Here, I have some trail mix, you could scatter it around and wait. They smile nervously and say no thanks.

If you come to Yosemite Valley seeking solitude you will be disappointed. This place is filled with humans trying to reconnect with something meaningful. Humans are the only creatures here not seeking food, not trying to survive. Our agenda has nothing in common with the bears and lizards and insects and birds. We are trying to find our primitive selves and quiet the human noise. We seek them out even as they avoid us. 

If you come to remember how small humans really are, how unremarkable and even mediocre, THAT feeling will surely find you here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

One thing, many things

Campground skulking and stump coffee went smoothly this morning. Deliciously legal, illegal coffee in the tent cabin. Mmmm.

Today's hike led us along Mirror Lake (which is dry) toward Tenaya Canyon. Then up the rock wall toward Snow Creek Falls and the high country. Granite slopes and domes as far as we could see. According to the ranger this is the steepest trail in the valley. The idea is not to reach the top, although that is possible. From here you could hike for days...

For 3 hours we didn't see another hiker. No one else wanted to spend their afternoon going vertically up and vertically down. We had the lizards and a few insects for company. The lizards flourish here on the steep south-facing rock. They flick quickly, freezing as we pass.

Whenever I lift my head, there is granite. Above, Basket Dome and North Dome. Across the canyon, Ahwiyah Point and Half Dome. It takes a while to identify Half Dome though. It does not look like anything but a sheer wall of rock from this angle.

(Not knowing the name of Ahwiyah Point it became Elaine's Nubbin. Just for today.)

That was a first lesson in backpacking. Never count on orienting yourself visually, the way most flatlanders do. The mountains transform themselves depending on your position, light and weather, time of day. Even a familiar landmark like Half Dome can shift its shape and go incognito. It can be unsettling, almost disturbing, to know where you are and to not know at the same time.

You quickly come to terms with the concept of perspective. And that we all have one.

Gazing long at something familiar that you don't recognize, the granite itself starts to reveal many forms. It is the crushed sand under our feet, a slippery dark plate rising directly in front of us toward the high country. It is folded layers that look almost soft like water, a sharp arch chiseled away by a glacier.

At the same time, one thing and many things. Some of them unknown.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

River of mercy

The Merced River

First thing this morning I tucked a stove and fuel canister into a bag and headed out to find a spot to make (illegal) coffee. In Curry Village there is No Cooking Allowed. So I'm strolling under the morning light on the granite domes of Yosemite Valley, trying to hide in plain sight. Trying to look cool. Skulking!

This is how far I've fallen, people.

It's not like there's zero risk, either. Official personnel abound...

I found the spot, a flat stump across the street. While the water boils I look down and see 2 burn marks. Must be the Cooking Stump! An campground vehicle passes and I slump down, trying to hide the stove with my leg.

Thank goodness the stove has a heat exchanger and is REALLY fast at boiling water. 

Despite plenty of excellent, illegal coffee, my photos of today's hike look like every other tourist's photo of Yosemite. The camera is not really a suitable instrument for this place.

What is a suitable instrument, you ask? 

On foot it's possible to really slow down, notice the barks of different trees, the path of water across the trail (when it rains or the snow melts). 

Think about where that other fork in the trail goes (Mt. Whitney). Watch a hawk far above ride a thermal up the glacier-scoured rock face. Look at the sky.

Today what I noticed on foot was the many species of trees living here. Lodgepole pines, firs with scaly bark as tough as armor. California bay, with its fragrant oval leaves. Scrub oak, making out a life in pulverized granite dust.

The river makes all this possible but it's not always easy or straightforward, surviving in this environment. Tree roots go whatever direction they need to in order to find water. Horizontal, or through the seams in the rock.

I could relate to that. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Life design and rocket science

This week posts are a little scarce...I rode my fixie twice. Once to go to the gym and then this morning to see this:

At least 10,000 people were out on the Stevens Creek Trail this morning, saying goodbye to Endeavor. It was a bit of a circus getting through on a bike. But a bike was definitely the best way.

All the Google bikes are out here on the levee...
In high school I thought I wanted to work on the shuttle program. Had a huge poster in my room and a paper model of the first shuttle, Columbia. The flyover at Moffett was in part to honor the work done there designing the shuttle tiles. I met a couple of engineers from that program before the first shuttle ever left Earth. In college my math and science grades were good enough to be like those NASA engineers, but I never did close the loop on my dream. 

Ames Research Center, where I once wanted to work.
To start with the upper division physics and engineering profs seemed less-than-welcoming. Other less-then-welcoming factors were rampant in my life at that time. I opted to get out alive, opted for a smoother, cheaper path. My degree is in English, with almost a minor in math. A lot of foreign language work. I probably should have done linguistics, or just stuck with math.

This week macro questions on life direction have loomed large. If you have ever engaged these questions in a rigorous way, you know what it is like. It is a daunting process, looking at where you came from and where you might go next. Trying to learn from mistakes.

Life design is really not a linear process. It's more like the path of Endeavor this week, loops and connect-the-dots and approximate timings. Try to end at the right place and time, hitting the highlights as best you can. Rocket science is actually easier, in my opinion.

So, I'm not a rocket scientist. I'm not a Googler. What's next?

Monday, September 17, 2012

My kingdom for a cool, dark room

The New York Times ran this story on Saturday. TBI is totally on their radar; there must be at least one journalist on it.

Points that ring true:
  • The injury was more severe than indicated by the Glasgow Coma Scale.
  • The whole family is affected.
  • "I was waiting to get better".
  • It helps to be in cool, dark rooms.
Summer is the hardest season and we're just about through it now. I don't sleep deeply in summer, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night. Other times I'm walking around looking normal but not processing or thinking normally. 

Sunlight is irritating and the irritation gets stored in my brain like it's a battery. When I try to go to sleep at night, there it is. My mind feels perpetually on, alert. Sound tiring? Yes.

Last Tuesday our weather was cooler and more overcast than usual. That night I had the best, deepest sleep in months. 

Hopefully, relief is coming.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Playing hooky

I'm fresh out of goals for the year.

Yesterday I blew off an official ride. A brevet that I might have signed up for in January. The start was in Davis (120 miles from home) and the date crept up fast. Didn't know how to verify my name was on the list. Didn't even try.

In January the idea was to set up some rides in the fall, for motivation. Didn't occur to me how easy it would be to blow off a meaningless milestone.

After a lazy morning Danny asked did I want to go for a bike ride! My first thought was the tandem. I'd rather stoke, making no decisions and pushing my little heart out. Compared with a single bike, physically a lot harder and mentally a lot easier. It would be great to just follow...

The tandem option was quickly nixed. A combo of back pain and insufficient fitness. :-(

Clearly time to pull the Waterford out of the garage and clean it.

Wow. These past few weeks the Waterford has been a trusty servant on dirt. It might still be carrying bits of Oregon soil... The frame is dirty enough, but the drivetrain is ugly with a black mixture of lube and fine sand. Chain links aren't supposed to have those little clumps in them. Get out the blue paper towels, cleaning products, Q-Tips, and new lube.

An hour and a half later with Danny somewhere out on a ride, my lower back is screaming. Many black, mutilated Q-Tips lie on the ground. The drivetrain looks (almost) new again...

For back relief I suit up, fill a water bottle, and head out of the neighborhood. Somewhere. It turns out to be a classic Loop ride, with Stonebrook and Moody for hills, 35 miles. Not a brevet but not junk miles either.

Some advantages of starting a ride at 4:15pm:

  • On Sunday the roads are almost deserted
  • No pressure to go over the hill to the coast
  • Temperature perfect
  • No need for sunscreen

On the road come thoughts of other rides to do. Mt. Hamilton in October with Allan. Fall is beautiful in Big Basin. Touring north to Humboldt County, maybe with camping gear.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Let's move...

Regular exercise is key to rebuilding your brain. This article says so.


At present, no medication has received approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of any neuropsychiatric consequence of TBI. The lack of FDA approved treatments in this population is, in the opinion of the authors, a reflection of medicoeconomic issues rather than of the science relevant to the development of such treatments.
So says the NIH, in a report that is the subject of this post.

If there were a magic pill I would gladly take it and disappear into my life. Fold up this blog (fun though it is). Quit going to Hacker Dojo, where the sign says "Unattended Children will be given to the Goblin King". Or, perhaps be hypnotized by the enormous sculpture of red, yellow, and blue foam noodles hanging from the ceiling...

A lot of pills for other things can also lend a hand with recovery from TBI. What's missing are the official guidelines on how to use them. Up in Canada the medical establishment comes out and says that.

(This is a useful, balanced summary, by the way, if you're researching pharmacological options. The only big hole I could see is recent discoveries concerning progesterone.)

So, depending on your perspective there's either no magic to be had, or nothing but magic to be had. On the no-magic side, you aren't gonna go to an MD (even over a period of time) and come out better. Not gonna happen.

On the all-magic side, the lack of FDA guidelines means that doctors can prescribe whatever the heck they think will help. Literally! They don't have to justify why or what, or how they followed up. Get out the magic wand. Or shotgun. Or whatever metaphor you prefer.

Here in the pill-happy US you would think this expressive freedom works in doctors' favor. But they seem pretty ambivalent about charting their own paths. Not because they're reluctant to use me as a guinea pig - if they are I never noticed. No, it seems to be more self-protective, whether they're quick or reluctant with the pills.

Dr. H didn't prescribe anything at all for 2 years, when I showed up with light and time-shifting issues. Then he suggested Ambien (no thank you). Dr. M. told me to stop doing so much exercise, especially yoga. (No words on caffeine, the actual source of my agitation.) Dr. A., of course, was ready to put me on an SSRI. Only Dr. H. had anything like the multidisciplinary, collaborative approach this paper recommends.

It all amounts to something like a religion among practitioners. You never really know what's going to come out of their mouth and when, revealing their personal strategy and beliefs. I just hate those moments, when the snake slithers out of their mouth. Those are the times I almost wish I were uninsured, so I wouldn't have to sit there and listen. I'm not that into someone else's religion, when it comes to science.

Here's my own pharmacologicae:
  • Caffeine
  • Aspirin (helps with amnesia-like memory gaps, probably caused by caffeine)
  • Omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids
  • Melatonin
The goal is to use all of the above while regenerating neurons, via strenuous exercise. Neurogenesis. That's my science. Or religion. Whatever.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mixed (up) terrain

West Alpine Road, several miles still ahead to the ridge. Late afternoon sun on the golden hills. Head down, Bonnie says "Well this is the hardest 90 miles ever".

My legs had to agree. They begged for (and got) the little chain ring. The pedals were turning over but without any pop. If there had been a need for some reason to stand up and suddenly generate power...

It's been 15 years since Bonnie and I first rode together. It's been Tunitas, Sweetwater Springs, Mt. Hamilton. SuperTours, Davis Doubles, a 6-day tour in the mountains near San Diego, the (unofficial) Big Sur Ride. All multiple times. Our legs have the same definition of hard.

The human brain and body have this in common: they adapt. But there's a flip side, too. An adaptation that gets repeated a few times can become a pattern. Can become a rut.

The start and finish of today's route is the Old Familiar. Woodside to Pescadero and back. The route that many cyclists here have done a hundred times. We can do it half-asleep (and sometimes do). It's not exactly easy but our legs know the drill.

But the middle of today's route had some special stuff. Dirt roads in Big Basin that I'd never ridden before. Hard. Brain and body had to work, work, work.
We still don't know what we're getting into...
Sheer physical challenge:
  • Sustained climbs on fire roads
  • Many pitches of ~20%
  • 45 unpaved miles on a road bike (25mm tires)
  • 8900 feet of elevation gain
Mental challenge:
  • Surface analysis and bike handling 
  • Carrying enough food and water
  • Disorientation, not knowing what's ahead, being prepared for anything
  • Focus all day long, especially on 2 fast descents at the end

Mark and Jim climb Gazos Creek Road.

Debra and Bonnie on an abandoned airstrip in the wilds of San Mateo County.
The day ended with a screaming fun time, descending Skyline and 84 with abandon. Just like a video game.

There was some neurological fallout of this adventure. The past couple of days have had some light-headed moments. (This also happened after SuperTour.) My sense of taste temporarily left me; food tasted like dirt for a little while. (This also happened after the accident.)

But the last couple of nights I've been dreaming more than usual. It's as if my brain is saying 'hello, we're here! We're engaged...'

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Toward solitude...

Sunday our hike to the swimming hole passed a sign: Reds Meadow 18. Only 18 miles! That's one long day's hike. Reds Meadow is a major stop and resupply point on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Suddenly the name Mammoth Trail means something. It's not just a random name. The trail we are hiking could take us right to Mammoth Lakes. To the John Muir Trail and the eastern Sierra. Holy cow. Our campground is a gateway to the backcountry.

Again I want to just strap on a pack and head out into the Sierras. There's nothing really calling me back to hot, crowded Silicon Valley. All that human stupidity. It's a relief to escape. It would be so easy to spend a whole summer up here in the high country. John Muir would definitely approve...

It's getting late in the season. Probably too late even for a one-week trip. An early storm always comes and catches hikers off-guard in the fall. It happened to a former colleague and although he died doing what he loved I'm sure he would have chosen differently, given the chance.

This year, the hiking will have to be a vicarious kind.
Part 1 Hiking both sides of the Minaret Mountains
Part 2 Exploring old mines in the Minarets
Part 3 (yet to be published)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tourists for a day

Miraculously, last night we slept in a developed campground. Clover Meadow Station, nearly 3 miles down an unpaved road. The trip was worth it. Ah the luxuries of running water and pit toilets!

We are at around 7000 feet and from here it's all rolling and downhill to Bass Lake (exception: one 2-mile climb).

Next, a stretch of un-pavement just ahead. Probably 10-12 miles long. We don't know exactly where it starts. Or how rideable. Rutted or loose dirt? Rocks? Sand? Mental prep for worst-case scenario...

Every October the Grizzly Century uses a cross road to avoid the un-pavement. That's why we're here, in a sense. Self-supported is the only way to experience the entire scenic loop. If the unpaved section is grueling, there will at least be sights to see:
  • Jackass Meadow
  • Portuguese Overlook
  • Globe Rock
  • Jones' Store at Beasore Meadows (unofficial, but they have burgers)
  • Fresno Dome and Cold Springs Summit
Jackass Meadow is huge and no doubt impressive in springtime. But it's September now. The ground feels a little crunchy and fragile, like tundra, and the grasses are yellowing. A compadre is mooing loudly at the cows and saying the word "jackass" as often as possible. After a quick stop it's back onto the bike...

The road surface proves to be not bad, not bad at all! Quite doable, really. Mostly it is packed dirt, sometimes with a swath of old pavement to ride on. When cars pass, the fine dust kicked up by their wheels is something to avoid. The drivers are mostly cautious and friendly.

About halfway through the unpaved section, Portuguese Overlook. This spot looks south toward Shuteye Ridge, which we followed yesterday (on the far side). And in the other direction, some fabulous granite rock formations that look old, with folded worn edges. They keep watch over the vista point as well as the valley and ridge in the distance. 

View north, alpine rock formations.

View south, subalpine valley and Shuteye Ridge.
The information sign says we are following the boundary between sub-alpine and alpine climate zones. To the right, rocky terrain with sparse shrubs; to the left, a dense fir forest. Steep hillsides in the forest make for strong thermal currents, an ideal environment for raptors. Thermals let them hunt longer and more efficiently.

This topography is also ideal for drawing snow. Next month snow will start to fall and the amount will not be trivial. I enjoy the warmth on my shoulders a little more, knowing it is temporary. In the alpine zone the air is light, the sun intense.

Flashing from the right a bird coasts low and fast across the road. Toward the forested hillsides. Dark grey color. Confident, looking forward. Raptor. Peregrine falcon, maybe. It's shaping up to be a lovely ride.

As the surface improves and becomes pavement again, the bike picks up speed. Especially downhill, the weight of the panniers make the bike go fast. This presents a sightseeing challenge! It's more dangerous now to look around and harder to stop. Globe Rock is definitely worth the effort of both those things.

It's visible from the road but looks so extra-terrestrial that a short hike is in order.

What water can do, by freezing and thawing.
Many years ago the Mono people ground acorns here. The grinding holes remain, small deep dents in the granite. Did they say to each other, "meet you at the big round rock on a pedestal"? Wonder what that sounded like in their language?

Jones Store, packed with tourists.
Several miles down the road, an unmistakeable scent: hamburgers cooking. Are hamburgers an indigenous food? Does anyone care at this point? 11:30, empty stomach, animal instincts say "stop". 
Every human within 20 miles is here!
They have 3 people in the kitchen and still it takes 45 minutes to get a huge, delicious burger. We're not back in the city yet. I'm OK with that.

The burger enables the 2-mile climb to Coldsprings Summit. Skipping the detour to Fresno Dome enables a 10-mile screaming descent and runaway bike. A screeching, white-knuckled stop at the shoreline of Bass Lake. A tourist day in a tourist destination! 

At the lake the Labor Day holiday-makers have their ice chests, lawn chairs, umbrellas, boats, and who knows what else. I am completely, utterly, blissfully happy with a shower (yes, with soap).

Lessons of yesterday

Sometimes it's good to write things down for next time.

  • To figure out where to camp, one of you go left and the other right. Then come back, compare notes, and the group votes. It's a good process.
  • Those US Forest Service folks earn their money. They protect us from ourselves in out-of-the-way places: getting lost, shooting off too many guns, growing marijuana on federal land.
  • Yellowjackets are mean creatures. Deet works on yellowjackets.
  • Following Jim to the swimming hole is always an adventure. There may be steep slopes, prickly bushes, dust up to your ankles, and route-finding. It's all part of the package.
  • Granite Creek might be more granite than creek. In these cases, just follow Jim.
  • When I miss dinner and you insist on describing the buffet feast you just had, I'm not a nice person.
  • Cooking s'mores on a grill is a good idea, until someone throws something on the fire to make it flare up.
  • Eat s'mores every night. Life is short.
  • Your body doesn't sleep well unless it's hydrated.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

You can take it with you

This morning we climb out of Rock Creek campground, 5000 feet above sea level. Past the swimming hole from last night...up and up!

We'll be climbing all day long. At first I didn't take the route description too seriously: 'lots and lots of hills'. That was to scare off newcomers.

It's also true. The first and second days are all uphill. Tonight we'll be camping at 7300 feet.

Not that it's ugly. In fact with each passing mile the scenery becomes more epic, more beautiful.

For a few minutes we've been getting peek views through pine trees of granite domes to the south. At Mile High Vista, we are primed to take in a real view. Everyone stops here.
Jim and Mick stand a mile in the air. Elaine takes a photo...
Mt. Ritter, the Minarets, Mammoth Mountain...three huge chunks of wilderness. Usually you hike for days to get this kind of panorama. The top of Mt. Whitney. Sawtooth Pass. Here, almost too easy, at a pullout by the side of the road.
Just below the landscape profile the sign reads If you are searching for solitude your destination may very well lead you to one of the many wilderness areas in our great state.

Mick is inspired to bring out his map.
A sense of recognition, awareness, like a bell ringing far away. A shift.

If you are searching for solitude...

Not being alone, solo, separate. That's easy enough to find. At the doctor's office, lawyer's office, dealings with insurance companies and the state. Trader Joe's, the gym, the library, the local coffee hang-out. The expectations, rules, assumptions of others. Structures that don't make sense. Even on the Internet, you can be disconnected.

This is more like a solitude of spirit. Almost unknown in daily life. A calm heart, like-minded souls for company. Things in correct relationship to each other. A path toward acceptance. Quiet. You can go anywhere and take that with you.

Today I'd be content to just head off into the backcountry. With Danny, who loves these mountains.

Eventually it's time to move on. We have the remaining miles to let everything sink in. No one says much. But we all know.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Beef jerky and s'mores

First into camp last night, Jim and I enjoyed our pick of tent spots. We set up as night fell, then went for burgers and beer at Miller's Landing. Others started late out of the Bay Area, or took the train to Merced and rode 50 miles. They began arriving at 10pm, as I fell asleep. 

At breakfast a Ruby Red Chai teabag and a Via packet serve as friendship offerings. So far, so good! We are 13 campers. I'm surprised to recognize Peter, from SuperTour last year. Another familiar face, besides Jim.

We need to stow the cars and pay for parking. It's not clear how to do this, and by the time bureaucratic tasks are complete it is 10am. I'm not worried. My thought was, this will be an easy tour. ~35 miles a day, 3 days. Even with all this gear on the bike, it should not be hard.

For someone who usually rides solo, it feels a bit different (and nice) to roll out with a group.

This route has a reputation for being poor in services and rich in scenery. Well, it's a warm day and by the time we stop in North Fork at the one and only store, Lis and Jim are talking ominously about 'the long climb' coming up. My reaction is to buy beef jerky. It's pretty much all that fits in the saddlebags at this point.

A guy comes into the store and asks if there's a Wal-Mart in North Fork. The clerk has to tell him no. The nearest one might be in Madera. Can't imagine Wal-Mart trucks coming in here on those narrow winding roads.

It is a long uphill. 24 miles to be exact. Thankfully a scenic byway offers plenty of diversions. Our first stop is at Redinger Overlook, above Redinger Lake. Lots of hydroelectric projects in this neck of the woods. The San Joaquin River is watering and feeding many folks downstream. A redtail hawk screeches and circles above us at the pullout, rising on a thermal. 

Just to our right lies the Exact Geographical Center of California. A road goes down, then up over the ridge, then down again to the center marking. On this hot morning, no volunteers for exposed bonus miles! We'll just gaze in its general direction...

The center is over that little ridge in the foreground.
More climbing, but as we go up the scenery gets wilder and more profound. Traffic is light to non-existent. Lunch is at the Ross cabin,  one of the oldest standing homestead cabins in California. Also a fabulous, shady lunch spot.

Mick wheels his bike to the cabin for lunch.
When he was 25 years old, Jesse Ross came from Missouri to the Sierras to escape the Civil War. It was 1860. With more Americans lost in that war than in any other war in our history, migrating west might not have been a bad idea! In the late 1860's he homesteaded a piece of land 1/2 mile from where the cabin is located today. He used skills no one has anymore to hand-split lodgepole pine trees into cabin-ready lumber. The homestead is marked on an 1859 survey map of this area. In those days it was quite hard to reach, but well-known.
Hand-hewn lodgepole pine.
Ross also planted an extensive apple orchard. After lunch we looked backward a little ways down the road, and there is still an apple orchard at about the right spot (where the cabin originally stood). Kind of amazing, 150 years on. 

Up the road Jim and I reach the Rock Creek campground. Our little group does not have reservations, so it's up to us to scout the best options. I tour the entire campground and locate a multi-family site. Jim scouts free camping off a dirt road, one mile up the hill. The group chooses Rock Creek for its amenities (running water and pit toilets).

We set up tents and hike a mile uphill to a swimming hole. Another camper mentioned  natural water slides, and after bushwhacking our way upstream we are not disappointed. 
I'm too chicken to slide down the granite, but many are brave enough. The water feels cool and refreshing. After a dip you can hang out on the rock, letting the stored warmth of the sun radiate back into your body. It feels good to get rid of some of the dust from the road. It's obvious too that this group has plenty of expertise with swimming holes.

Back in camp the conversation is about 2 things:
  • new people who try to come on these trips, and the various outcomes that befall them
  • bears stealing our food
We are out in the back of beyond (as Aussies say). Far from organized civilization. In many ways, that's a good thing. But in addition to tents, sleeping bags, food, etc. we were encouraged to bring bear canisters. I don't own one, didn't have room to carry one, so didn't bring one.

Tom devises a pulley system with ropes to hang panniers from a tall fir tree. Ingenious. The panniers are too close to the trunk to be effective, but I don't mention this. I hang my own food in a plastic grocery bag in a young tree, too small to be climbed. Within headlight distance of my tent. That's all I can do. 

Jim is right; he says that bears are not in these campgrounds because they are hunted here. It is National Forest Service land, not a national park. Bear season (bow and arrow only) has already started. The bears stay away from the bait. This must be so because there are no bear boxes for campers' food. Even the campground dumpsters are not secured.

Tom brought fixings for s'mores, enough for everyone. He is carrying all kinds of stuff! Jim gathers wood and builds a fire. We make good use of it, for warmth and roasting marshmallows.

The Summer Triangle is overhead at 9:30pm, framed in a space between the tall pine trees. Wish I could stay awake, savoring the air that is good to breathe, the forest that shelters us. But a cricket-like creature sings a creaky song, singing me to sleep.