Oakhurst to Lone Pine and Cerro Gordo (Oct 25-26)

I awoke at a decent time for once, and busied myself with packing. And repacking. The new compression sack was wonderful, and I was downright giddy about it. Unfortunately, the resulting cylinder, while smaller than my dry bag, was too oddly-shaped to fit inside it. Boo! Eventually I gave up and left the dry bag with Ramsey. I’d need to find another way to keep my clothes dry. He suggested that I seek out a waterproof duffel bag from a military surplus store, and thus I gained a quest for the day.

I left later than I had planned to, and scampered over the hills and down into Fresno.  While there, I grabbed some toe socks, a spare tube and patch kit, and a waterproof duffel bag at various shops. I figured that these things wouldn’t be too common in small towns. It was late afternoon by the time I left the city.

After a few hours of boring highway, I found myself at the entrance to the Kern River canyon. The hills were on fire with the setting sunlight.

I was excited to be on the road to Lake Isabella, and happy to be off the 99. This road snakes along next to the Kern River and is quite fun!

Darkness was looming, and fell before I reached the town.  I stopped for a break and texted Pete to let him know I’d be in quite late. I loaded up the directions to Nip’s place in Lone Pine and headed out. Creeping over Walker Pass in the darkness, there were lots of sharp, slow corners.  It was cold at this elevation, even this far south! The nearly-full moon illuminated countless peaks all around me.  It was surreal.

I was grateful when the road made its descent into the valley and joined up with the 395, the air warming considerably. A brisk hour of riding later and I found Nip’s place, pulling in around 11 PM.  I was given a quick tour and was quickly overcome with sleep. Nip had even made me a bed! Awww.

The next day, I awoke fairly early, although both Pete and Nip were up far earlier. I heated up some soup I had with me for breakfast. Delicious!

Stopping at a visitor center on our way out of town, we checked on road conditions and grabbed a map of the area.

We took off across the highway, past nearby Keeler, and stopped to air down our tires once we left pavement. We commented that Pete’s rear tire seemed to lack knobbies. He called it an experiment. Fair enough! Looking back the way we came, Owens Lake glinted in the distance.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this ride. Pete had said that it would follow a dry wash and I said that this “did not inspire confidence.” But, you never know until you try! The road wound up into the mountains.

The road was washboarded but fairly gentle, evenly-graded gravel. A bit steep.

We stopped for a quick break, and enjoyed the nearby derelict mining structures.

At one point I stopped and had no front brakes. I was so startled that I just slowly slid backwards a few feet until I stopped. Thinking that maybe the vibrations had somehow introduced a bubble into the system, I pumped the brake a few times and it started working again. Just… not very well. Well, I’d check it at the top.

We pulled up to Cerro Gordo and I checked my brakes, immediately discovering the nature of the problem. A bolt had shaken loose on the washboard and was lost to the desert. Without the bolt, the caliper had slid half off of the rotor, which was why my brakes had felt spongy. The caretaker, Bob, rolled up on an ATV and Pete and Nip chatted with him a bit.

I explained my problem to Pete, who asked Bob if he had any bailing wire. Sure enough, he came back a minute later and generously offered us the use of a big roll of it and some pliars. Pete set to work.

Before I had too much time to consider whether this was a good idea, Pete was done! The caliper seemed to be solidly attached with the thick wire, and everything cleared the rotor. Pete said that he didn’t think I’d have any problems until I could get back to Lone Pine and pick up a spare bolt for it. Thanks Pete!

We looked around at Cerro Gordo for a bit. Silver was discovered here in 1865, and it led to a small, bustling little town which survived until the 1960s, when the machinery was removed. In its heyday, $13 million in silver and lead made its way down that dirt road we’d just come up, making it the most productive silver mine in California. A few of the original buildings remain, and they appear fairly well preserved, no doubt a testament to the hard restoration work of its caretakers. As it’s private property, you can rent out some of the buildings, including a restored hotel.

I love ghost towns, so I would have liked to spend more time exploring, but we had a lot more riding in store!

I have to admit a bit of trepidation. This looked really steep, and according to Pete, this side of the “road” never gets graded, so it would likely be worse further on, due to erosion. This was going to be the wash he warned me about earlier. With my front brake held on by bailing wire. Well, I suppose we would deal with problems as they arose…

The road quickly degraded, filling with large rocks and ruts to avoid. I stopped frequently to give myself a chance to decompress, and attempted to mostly use my rear brake to slow down. This wasn’t always an option, as the road was quite steep in places, and to be frank, I was often so concerned with making sure the bike stayed upright and not wrapped around a tree that I completely forgot about the bailing wire. Some parts had sandy gravel, and I began to miss the large rocks.

I was terrified. There was a lot of cursing. It was usually repeated, chanted as if a mantra: “Shit. SHIT. Shit! No. Nonono. Left. GO LEFT! Okay. We’re okay. Good bike. No. Slow. Go slower. THIS IS NOT A ROAD!!” I feel that letting this out helps to release stress, so I don’t attempt to censor it, but Pete seemed to find it amusing when he noticed it.

Eventually, I started to get the hang of things. I started to relax in the few spots where I had the opportunity to do so. Things got a bit easier. However, I was still pretty relieved when we finally reached the bottom. Pete made it look easy, even without knobbies. I was jealous.

The landscape around us was scrubby desaturated desert, small bushes and Joshua trees were the only vegetation for miles. After a quick break to rehydrate and have a snack, we were off again. The less severe grade allowed me to actually use the throttle for once, and I felt like I had more control. The trail seemed to get better for a time. I secretly hoped that the washes were behind me.

“At least this part isn’t steep!” I muttered to myself. “I’m sure it will be much better from here!”

… Damnit.

Erosion had reduced the trail to a cavernous rut. I stopped to consider my options, and yelled out to Pete, “How do I do this?” I had never dealt with this kind of problem before. He explained that I could either hug the side of the trail, and not stop, as there would be nowhere to put my foot down, or sometimes the better method is to just ride in the rut and hope for the best. It was nerve-wracking to be unable to stop, but I made it through without dropping it. This was not the only one of these that I had to deal with this day, and it never got any less scary. I frequently had to stop and consider my options, or wait for Pete and Nip to pass me so I could watch the routes they took.

After some scary sand patches, we stopped to look at the map. Nip and Pete had a difference of opinion about what direction we should be going.

At one point the road was straight-up missing, a 5-foot chunk had washed away, and we had to go around. We followed tire tracks up the trail, as it seemed to get increasingly narrower, tree limbs occasionally smacking my bike. I mentioned that I didn’t think this was the right way, when we stopped next. “Trucks wouldn’t be able to get through here, it’s too narrow.” Nip insisted that we were going the wrong direction. We doubled back and tried a different route, going up the side of the mountain. This was steep and felt especially treacherous, with the rocks, ruts and long drop off to the side.

It was getting late, and Nip was concerned that we wouldn’t get out of the valley by sunset. Pete consulted his GPS, which suggested roads further ahead. We took a look, and they were even more steep and treacherous than the ones we’d been on. No thank you. Eventually we decided that we’d taken a wrong turn further back, so we carefully picked our way back down the mountain and back a few miles the way we’d come. This time, we found the correct route.

Ahhh. After the day’s tribulations, finally getting into second and third gear felt like a breath of fresh air. This road was well-graded, and even though I had to be careful of the occasional sandy spot, I stood up and managed to maintain a pretty quick pace (20-30+ mph) as we raced the setting sun.

We met up with the arterial road in this part of Death Valley, Saline Valley Road. This too was fairly well graded, and standing up became a necessity as we jostled over big chunks of what looked like decrepit asphault and through dips and potholes. All too soon, we found pavement once more.

Pete and Nip were in more of a hurry than I was, and sped along Highway 190. I hung back and went at a more leisurely pace, enjoying the setting sunlight on the mountains.

One thing that Pete said really stuck with me.

“I’m having a really hard time figuring out where to aim. I’ve never had to do this before! Usually there’s… a road.”

“Do you know what technical riding is?”

“… Riding in difficult terrain?”

“Technical riding is putting the tire exactly where it needs to go. Not where it wants to go, but where it needs to be to navigate around obstacles. You need to look further ahead and start making decisions faster to line that up.”

This was by far the most challenging riding I’d ever done, and I was proud that I didn’t drop the bike, crash, or give up out of fear. I may spend a lot of time being terrified, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also having fun (roller coasters scare the crap out of me too), and over time as I get more skilled, the terror will become blunted through gaining confidence and sheer desensitization. This day re-calibrated my concept of what I was capable of riding on, and I never would have attempted anything remotely like this solo.

All in all, it was a good day!

1 Comment

  1. joe cowart said,

    December 26, 2012 at 1:07 am

    great write up. I love it out west.

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