Tuesday, November 1, 2016

~ California's Sierra Nevada ~

"Wildness is the lens to reveal our soul" ~ Robert Griego.   

Lone Pine is 48.2 miles from Three Rivers

The Sierra mountains split east and west like cutting butter with a hot knife.  Three Rivers is on the western side and Lone Pine is on the eastern side.  

According to Google, and as the eagle flies, Lone Pine is 48.2 miles away from my village of Three Rivers.  John Muir, on a slow and deliberate walk, may have taken the short route over several weeks, but on a motorcycle, I'll need to travel some 251 miles south, then north to Lone Pine, for my first camp. 

There are two routes.  The faster or the scenic one.  The route, that I choose, is east on highway 178 towards Lake Isabella.  In years past with our California drought, the lake has looked pitiful.  There are many curves to wake you up as you edge higher into the Kern canyon.  The Kern River is just below the road with fast moving white water.  There are several fishermen but I think the water is too fast.  The scenic route is rewarding and the canyon allows me to reminisce. 

When I was a kid in Barstow, my best friend Warnell and his family would take me fishing at Lake Isabella.  I don't remember too much about where we camped, but catching those crappies and bass was important.  For a ten-year-old, this was my first exposure to the wild and I loved it.  Baiting their hooks, untangling their fishing lines, and getting their fish might seem like work, but for me, it was an adventure.  Those are my thoughts, 57 years later, as I round the lake on my motorcycle.

Lone Pine Campground
Lone Pine is a springboard to some amazing motorcycle routes.  

Manzanar NHS, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, Death Valley NP, Devils Postpile NM, Yosemite NP, or Lake Tahoe.  They can all be easy day ride from Bishop.  My internal compass is pointing north, but at some point, I'll need to decide which way to go from Bishop.  My immediate goal remains, the Lone Pine Campground, Manzanar National Historic Site, and Bishop for the annual Mule Days.  After that, what will be will be.

My bike hums along, content, we have traveled this road many times.  The map marks it as highway 395, or the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.  I begin to tire a bit, looking over my left shoulder constantly at the massive Sierra mountains that John Muir called "the range of light."  Mile after mile, they seem to be in the very same spot.  There is snow on the tops and Three Rivers is just over there, my left arm points the direction, for no one else to see but me.  On my right, there are dry salt beds and tall mountains towards Death Valley National Park.

Jim Harvey and Bob Griego ~ Kearsarge Pass
Looking to the west, the mountains remind me about riding a horse in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  "There it is," Harvey shouts.  From the back of a horse, the view is captivating.  Mount Whitney.  I tell him that I plan to climb that mountain someday.  "Good luck, it will be a hell-of-a-view,"  he shouts back as our horses continue along the faint trail.  We stop at the top of Kearsarge Pass and look off towards Independence and Lone Pine.  Timeless.  The views are hard to describe, and they make me feel so alive, and that is all I can think of to say to myself.  Alive.  Simply alive.  This is the wildness I pursued all my life.  I thank God for this feeling that hopefully will last a lifetime, and then some.

Keith Griego, ~ Mount Whitney summit, 1988
Years ago, Denise, our son Keith, and brothers-in-law Alan and Gary climbed 14,494 foot Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the "lower 48" states.  

The views from the summit are enormous and panoramic.  To the west, lies the Sequoia National Park wilderness and to the east, the Nelson and White Mountains of Death Valley.  It makes me feel very small, vulnerable.  The air is crisp, and we breathe deeply.  We are in awe.   John Muir must have had the very same feelings, though I doubt he was breathing as hard.

There have been so many western movies filmed around here.  One look around, tells you that Jimmy Steward or John Wayne is just over there, staring up towards the peaks in front of us.  That's what I think about here, western movies that I've seen a thousand times.  The rocks are huge, round, and a perfect retreat for any cowboy of yesterday or today. 

Deep down, I am a cowboy.  These days I ride my iron horse.

The Lone Pine Campground is just ahead.  Campsite #23 faces towards the 7,700 foot Nelson Range in Death Valley and is perfect.  But honestly, right now, I am thinking about all the names I see on the campsite posts.  They are all Japanese.  Every camp site has a Japanese name on the post reserving the site.  The campground host is coming by, "Why so many Japanese names?"  "They were here for a pilgrimage of sorts; they went to Manzanar for a special celebration and reserved all the campground sites yesterday," he replies.  I knew about Manzanar National Historical Site but had never been there.  I'll be going by there tomorrow on my way to or from Bishop, so I'll find out.

The night is quiet, the skies are bright.  My fire burns clearly into the night and the stars are resting on the top of Mount Whitney.  A shooting star crosses the entire sky.  I wait for another one, perhaps the Japanese campers did too.

Sleep comes easy as I look for the next shooting star.  I think the coyote in the distance waits too or maybe the sliver of the moon caught his attention.  I think about the Japanese campers and what they must have been looking for in these night skies.  Perhaps, a glimpse into the past.  I can only imagine the talk around the campfire, full of respect, honor, an homage to family and friends who endured hardships beneath the ever watching eye of Mount Whitney. 

Mount Whitney Campground ~ site #23

Two scrambled eggs, diced Spam, green chili, one piece of bacon, and two tortillas are almost ready.  The hot water for my coffee, however, is first.  I love a hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning.  The view is breathtaking as my cowboy breakfast is ready.  The sun has not yet peaked over the Nelson Range and my bike rests for a perfect picture from my sleeping bag.  From ground level, the mountains look huge.  The campground is quiet, most are still asleep as the sun slowly inches over the Nelson Mountains.  After a hardy breakfast, I repack all my gear.  Any bikers know that what packed easily in the garage, goes stubbornly into new spots.  Thank goodness for bungee cords.

Mule Days parade proudly begins

Today, I'll ride to Bishop for the annual Mule Day Parade and team competitions.  The National Park Service teams, led by Nick Knutson, will be there.  These are the same crews who work regularly in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  Out there in the wilderness, few appreciate their work which is important.  They make hiking or riding horseback in the backcountry accessible and safe. 

Today, hundreds of people will cheer as they perform at these western competitions.

Sipping my hot coffee, I have still not yet left camp.  The Bishop Mule Days parade kicks off promptly at 10am I tell myself.  It is called the "longest, non-motorized, parade in America."  Yet, the views before me, slow me down.  There is just too much to take in all at one time.  The mountain, the Japanese names on the posts, memories of horseback trips, and me.  I sense that if John Muir were here, he would ask for another cup of coffee to remember the moment.  And so, I do the same.  Another early camper walks by and says "Good morning, where's your tent?"  "Slept here, pointing to the ground" is my reply.  "John Muir would have done the same, carrying a few hard biscuits in his pockets," he adds.  I do not say anything, but inwardly, it puts a smile on my face.

I'm running late so Manzanar National Historic Area will be for my return trip.  I promise.

Bishop is 60 miles away north along highway 395.  The view is breathtaking.  This, I think, is perhaps one of the most spectacular motorcycle rides in America.  Bishop is a western frontier town.  There are plenty of restaurants and motels and people walk the streets everywhere.  The pace has slowed down considerably and you immediately feel this western atmosphere.  All the cowboy hats are here for the Bishop Mule Days.

Erick Schat's Bakkery

Erick Schat's Bakkery is buzzing and perhaps one of the best attraction in Bishop.  The food is awesome and I stock up on some sweets for the road.  People stand in long lines to buy sandwiches, sourdough bread, and all sorts of sweets.  There is no hurry and they seem to be at ease at this iconic place.  I slow down and do the same. 

Bishop Mule Days parade

Bishop Mule Days competitions

Aussies on their Indian motorcycles ~ Bishop, California
The parade is awesome.  Cowboys, cowgirls, native American Indians are everywhere.  After the parade, I return to the La Quinta Hotel where I parked my motorcycle.  

Just then, two bikers roll in.  As they look at the full parking lot, I point over to my bike.  They quickly pull in behind me.  "Thanks, mate."  

They are riding Indian motorcycles.  "There are three more behind us," the first Aussie says.  "Thanks again mate," he says again as we shake hands.  

When I asked where they are coming from, the first rider says "LA.  Rented these bikes there and plan to ride to Death Valley, and then to Las Vegas for a bit of fun."  As the second rider gets off his bike, he asks "Why so many people here?"  They listen, as I talk about Mule Days and they are intrigued.  The Aussies are a masterful horseman.  "It sounds like lots of fun, we might go out there this afternoon mate, but need to get some food first."  "If you want some great food, try Erick Schat's Bakkery a few blocks down the road," I suggest.  Just then, the other three riders pull up, all on Indian motorcycles.  The first guy I talked too, wants to know where I'll be tonight.  "Up there, I point towards Sabrina Lake."  "Any motels up that far mate?"  I shake my head and I think he understands.  That was my goal until the weather changed and the sky began to spit snow. 

The NPS crews are major players at the Bishop Mule Days.  They, like some of the others, do this type of work day in and day out, in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  In years past, I've ridden with them in the backcountry.  They have taught me so much.  I yell loudly as they compete.  The individual scramble is about to begin.  I know that Nick will compete and I hope he does well.  A few years ago, he won the first place "all around World Packer."  As he rounds for the home stretch, I snap a picture, capturing the intensity of this year's second place winner.  I couldn't be more proud.

Nick Knutson on the home stretch

This is May in the Sierra Mountains.  The weather is unpredictable.  My Aussies friends are comfortable at the La Quinta Motel.  The White Mountains glisten strangely as the first rain drops begin to fall.  A few at first, then many more.

Robert Griego ~ Manzanar National Historic Site
It's time to "get out of Dodge."  Within five miles heading south, the rain comes down in buckets.  There was not enough time to put on my rain gear, so I am wet.  I'm not complaining but it is a fact.  By the time I reach Manzanar, the rain has stopped.  Manzanar National Historic Site will cause you to think about this time in our history.  So hard to understand, yet war can do that to even civilized Nations.  Our Nation may not be proud of what we did, but the National Park Service has done an outstanding job to right a wrong. 

This camp opened on June 1, 1942, and closed on November 21, 1945.  There were 10,046 Japanese Americans interned here.  It is painful to read the statistics.

I have many Japanese friends and family and it is hard to see what they endured at Manzanar below the snowcaps of Mount Whitney.  I will think more about Manzanar as I head further north towards Mammoth Lakes.

Devils Postpile National Monument - NPS photo
Devils Postpile National Monument is a lost gem along the Sierra crest.  Mammoth Mountain is heaven for skiers in the winter.  Devils Postpile is a perfect spot to relax, plan your next move, or camp for the night.  

A short walk takes you to the Devils Postpile formation and the 101-foot high Rainbow Falls.  The formation is a rare sight in the geologic world and ranks as one of the world's finest examples of columnar basalt, displaying an unusual symmetry.  The mist from the falls feels good as I look for those big rainbow trout.  I won't camp here tonight, but I make a mental note that this is an outstanding one-night campsite when going further north to Yosemite National Park.

My decision is clear.  Tomorrow, I'll head for Death Valley National Park, back past Bishop and Lone Pine.  If you have a motorcycle that enjoys dirt roads, head up towards Wild Rose Campground, about 16 miles from the paved road.  It sits about 4,100 feet, isolated, with incredible views and the camping is free.   

Crossroads into Death Valley National Park
Tonight I'll camp at sea level at the Texas Spring Campground, near Furnace Creek.  All amenities are here, and a campsite is almost guaranteed when arriving before 2pm.  As I look around, there are other bikers setting up their camp.  Be sure to go up to Dantes View, which sits at 5,478 feet.  From here, you are almost directly above Bad Water which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  I always pack shorts and sandals for some hiking to mix up things up a bit.  You need to be resourceful, changing clothes, at these times.

Into Death Valley National Park

The wildflowers, after years of drought, are in love with the recent rains.  Death Valley is best seen in the winter months or early spring.  Any other time, it will be hot, very hot.  I've done both, and I prefer the spring.  But when I do the summer trips, I always carry two liters of water, two Gatorades, and some food just in case.  This is a wild area and you must be prepared.  I always carry a lightweight tarp that can be made into a lean-to shade cover from my bike. 

The wildflowers are amazing.  Our intense rains have transformed this desert into a lake of flowers.  It is times like this when it is best to simply say "thank you, God."

Death Valley National Park with all its beauty

Death Valley National Park

With Death Valley in my rear view mirror, my ride back towards Lone Pine is not going well.  The wind is fierce and rain is hard.  I hope there is a campsite as I head for the Lone Pine Campground.  The sign says it all:  Campground Full.

"This boulder was home from the relentless night winds."

Earlier a few miles down the canyon, I saw a sign for the Alabama Hills, public BLM lands where dispersed camping is permitted.  The weather is turning bad, the wind is fierce.  I need shelter, and now.  I turn onto a faint dirt road.  The huge rock in front of me is perfect to block these ferocious winds.  Quickly, I rig a lean-to and place my gear to keep dry underneath.  The wind blows into night, along with intermittent rain.  The tarp keeps me dry.  In the morning, the view of the Sierra mountains is my reward.  Perhaps, it will last a lifetime, and then some. 

Leaving I glance towards the west, only to hear John Muir say, "Three Rivers is only 48.2 miles away as the eagle flies."

"The calm morning after a night of ferocious winds"

Robert Griego, Badwater Basin

Robert Griego, "sometimes, hiking is better."

View from Dantes Peak

Manzanar National Historic Park

History is reversed, Manzanar National Historic Site

Guard House, Manzanar National Historic Site

A glimpse into the stormy past ~ Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar National Historic Park

Cowboy, Bishop Mule Days

Native America Indians, Bishop Mule Days

Jim Harvey, on his 80th birthday, and Bob Griego

"The wild stampede."

"The race is too close to call."
Mount Whitney is just there

The summit of Mount Whitney ~ 14,496'

 Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

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