November 21, 2015
I loved the cabins at Mono Lake. The night was spent planning our route through Yosemite with Michael and I pouring over maps and a laptop that had to be tethered to my phone to get any kind of internet connection. I’ve definitely moved toward traditional maps on this trip with our version of “the conch” being a Rand McNally map of California. Much like the kids all alone on the island, the days leader would take the map and lead the way to our collective destination. Michael and I would trade off day to day and the system worked wonderfully.
The road into the cabin was dirt and rocks and provided a some great fun first thing in the morning. Down the steepish grade and onto the highway, I already had a huge smile on my face. The light at Mono Lake was incredible. As we’d rolled in the previous day we were being chased by dark clouds that were tumbling over the ridges of Yosemite and the lake was dark and mysterious. This morning it was wide open for all to see with its strangly contorted spires rising playfully from the waters edge. The sun was a deep red and low on the water which made everything golden. Something about it was deeply moving and joyful.
Into Lee Vinning for some breakfast where we enjoyed some pancakes and a demonstration of Michaels magic skills. We laughed like kids at that breakfast. There had been some strange anxiety in the air the previous day – it was heavy. Perhaps it was some of the fear wrapped up in being where we were or the worry of having to deal with things going sideways. Whatever, this days mood was off to a much better start!
We were pretty excited about Yosemite. I’d done a fair bit of climbing some years back (I was skinnier/fitter then. Shoosh.) and I always loved watching movies of people climbing El Capitan. Off of HWY 385 we rolled onto Hwy 120 (Tioga Pass) and we almost immediately greeted by strong cross winds and a small rock slide. Welcome to Yosemite!
Through the cloud of dust we twisted through an amazingly diverse landscape. Often we’d be flanked by a lush meadow on one side of us and a huge slab of granite to the other. The rocks seemed to change at will – one moment soft and bulbous, the next – sharp spires rose high into the sky. Others seemed painted with a wide brush and were ever-so-slightly out of focus. I’ve never see mountains so willing to be individual. The rockies in comparison are massive and daunting but somehow unmistakably “the Rockies.” Here, it’s different.
Our path wove through the range and HWY 120 did not disappoint in any way. The vistas were stunning and the road twisted and turned like few I’ve ridden. Some of the switchbacks were so tight it felt as if you’d see the back of your own bike if you just turned your head a little more. And it’s not that they were just tight – they steeply dropped or rose mid-turn and had a camber that would make a Nascar driver feel right at home. There was a dance at work in negotiating them – a balance. Too fast and you’d end up in the wrong lane. Too slow and the bike felt like it was falling away from you. Look to closely and all you’d experience ground-rush like a skydiver. You needed to look way ahead to make it all feel right.
In the distance the trees started to disappear and a haze rose from the valley floor. The smell of smoke filled our helmets and we were into the second forest fire of the trip. Some firefighters we standing roadside and Michael (the Bulldog) pulled over to get the story. The crews were performing a controlled burn and for the next 20 miles we meandered slowly through burnt-out trees, smouldering forest beds and the occasional flare-up.
We detoured south a ways to say “Hi” to El Cap and he didn’t disappoint. He’s a giant whose face looked like it was made with long, soft shards of rock that reached into the sky. The crowds were gathered at his feet, pulled to the sides of the roads in all directions. We moved on to Ahwahnee Hotel for a mid-afternoon cuppa joe.
The Ahwahnee Hotel is one of those amazing mountain hotels that you visit, drink coffee in and never stay at. The price per visit is astounding but, the hotel itself and the views it provides are second to none. We sat on the back patio facing a wonderful mountain and sipped on coffee while we took it in. The main dining area is grand and the fireplaces are straight out of a Bronte novel. You could easily imagine them roaring as heavy weather closed in all around.
Leaving the Ahwahnee was fairly easy though chaotic. The crowds and tour buses clogged the roads stopping unexpectedly and turning erratically as people feverishly tried to snap pics in every direction. Paying attention was the name of this game. Soon enough we were back onto the flowing lines of the 120 and heading towards Sonora.
The road out of Yosemite and toward the valley floor was made for motorcycles. The corners were tight but just made sense, rythmically. You could flow from one to the next with little thought. It was like the last corner let you know exactly what to do with the next. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom.
We pulled into Sonora looking for a place to stay and, thanks to Don Henley, the place was packed. With all the hotels in town booked we headed back to Jamestown and booked in at the Country Inn – a flea-bag hotel for sure. With no toilet paper, four of the rooms five lights burnt out and parts of the mattress actually eaten by something with a penchant for foam we thought the room couldn’t get worse. But it did! At about ten we laid down to snooze and they started renovating the room above us. Drills humming, contractors swearing and heavy footsteps thundering. A call to the front desk didn’t help – I was told not to worry as “…they’d only be working a couple more hours.” What the fuck?! A hotel that waits until late night to do its work. The earplugs went in and we were soon asleep regardless.
Up early, we packed up and left the hotel in a hurry – perhaps we were hoping to out-run anything we may picked up from the rooms. Today we were heading back over the Sierra Nevadas, through the Stanislaus Forest and onto HWY 108 – the Sonora Pass – to meet up with HWY 385 for our push into Tahoe. Tonight would be our last night on the road with our dear friends.
We stopped for morning coffee at Alicia’s Sugar Shack – an amazing find right on the 108. The coffee is great, and her food was even better. A great start to the day. After chats with a few of the patrons we were back in the saddle and enjoying more of the same from the day before. Long sweeping sections gave way to tight technical parts. The views just seemed to get more and more grand. We stopped for lunch in a cute little town called Markleeville. Michael, with a huge grin on his face, looked at me and said “Just when you think the roads couldn’t get any better.” And he was completely right. California had given Nita and I some of the best roads we’ve ever ridden. Anywhere. And yet, somehow, they were still getting better.
As we sat and watched bike after bike pass and wave, a chopper pulled in and one of the most bad-ass looking dudes we’ve seen got off. He was giant, had a limp (from being shot, obviously) and had a slightly cleaner Danny Trejo look about him. It turned out he was a welder, bike builder and a super nice guy though truthfully, he’d have been a scary guy to bump into in a dark alley.
South Lake Tahoe was busy. Oktoberfest was underway which meant our early arrival was prudent. In just a few short hours the winding roads towards the hotel would likely have a bunch of well-lubricated folks navigating them.
We decided to treat ourselves to something we’d never done to celebrate our last night together with Michael and Nuri. A quick sweep of hotels online showed low rates for almost all of them – including the Ritz! We decided we should check it off of our bucket list and since we’d spent the previous night in a flea-bag hotel we felt we’d earned it. When we pulled up we were treated like rockstars by an amazing group of gents at the door. We were obviously punching above our weight-class at this venue but they all made us feel right at home. We were *so* out of our league that a man we talked to told us about how he’d gotten into trouble from his wife for buying an island without talking to her first. AN ISLAND! “Holy crap” is about all I could muster.
Our rooms were beautiful, and the attention to detail was incredible. Coasters were made of paper that felt like cloth and had a non-slip coating on the bottom. Since we were newlyweds there was a chilled bottle of (good) champagne waiting in the room with a letter from the hotel. Michael and Nuri had a plate of chocolate strawberrys waiting for them since it was their anniversary. The tiny details went on and on. This was the honeymoon suite!
We parked up the bikes, and enjoyed our last night together as a team. The next day Michael and Nuri would start their ride back to San Francisco for a flight bound to NYC and Rising Wolf Garage and we’d start heading east on the Loneliest Road – HWY 50. It was the next and final phase of this amazing trip.