Bike Mountain, Make Wilderness - Part 4
Navigation of the washout is far from easy, the only reasonable choice is to completely unload the bike and ferry it and my gear down the embankment, across the stream, and up the steep and sandy opposite bank. The entire process takes 40 minutes. I cover 30 yards. The road on the far side of the creek steepens sharply on the other side, and I can’t get started on the bike. Head down, straining, I dig in and push upward. Careful attention goes to each and every step, making sure the steepness of the grades doesn’t send the bike reeling back to topple me. After a deep grind up to more level terrain, I get back on the bike and start pedaling.
Again, I find momentum just as I reach another creek crossing—and another complete washout of the road . . .
The maps do not say anything about washouts. This is why I’m here, to find things like this and document them. So despite the most immediate need to get up and over the pass before dark, this is where I’ve got to stop, take stock, and properly document the facts of this place. My argument, when I return with completed maps and photos will be something like this: Is it really worth the time, expense, and trouble to maintain roadways in a place where nature asserts itself so aggressively? Does this road serve a greater good that justifies its existence, or are we better off leaving this landscape to its own devices?
Pictures taken and coordinates plotted, I’ve got to get down to the immediate business of crossing another ravaged drainage. Steep embankments and deep sand be damned, the last thing I want to do is spend the next hour covering a measly 20 – 30 yards. Against better judgment, I point the bike over the edge and let gravity do its work.
It’s not that bad, really. Once set in motion, 400 lbs tends to hold a line. But I don’t make it far up the other side before I’m reminded that 400 lbs on two wheels does not float over sand. I manage to stop and hold the bike in place before I lose any ground, but it takes everything I have to keep it there. Off the bike, legs buried in the sand, I bear down and hold my position with all the resolve I can muster. With a mighty shove, I bear into the bike and gain a precious couple of inches, clamp down on the front brake, and pause. Breath heaving, I remind myself how much I do not wish to be belly-up under water with this thing on top of me.
And so it goes—push, brake, rest-push, brake, rest—ratcheting up the bank inch by difficult inch, until somehow, miraculously, the front tire finds its way up and—yes!—over the lip of the embankment on the far side. A couple more deep digs and the rest of the bike follows. I slump down next to it, wasted, and take a break. According to the map, I’ve gone less than 1/2 mile. I finish 70-mile MTB rides back home with more energy than this. It’s a decidedly inconvenient and uncomfortable time to remember that I chose to be here, and I chose to do things this way.
So I make a new choice: try not to think about the 200+ miles of this that lie ahead.
As night creeps down upon the range, I’m nearing the top of the pass and settling into something like a rhythm. Rhythm invites thought, and I'm thinking about the time ahead. Before this trip is over I’ll have crossed many more passes and survived just as many barreling freight-train descents. I’ll scare the living bejesus out of scores of elk, a bobcat, a mountain lion, and the ever-present coyotes, and I’ll witness a hawk and eagle pitted in a mid-air duel. I’ll become hopelessly lost and then found again, cover hundreds of miles of utterly remote and often unmapped roads, and stumble across a thriving polygamist colony. I will unknowingly evade a three-day sheriff’s manhunt (of which I’m the quarry) and eventually return to find my car broken into and the 12-pack of beer I left behind, untouched and ice-cold in the nearby creek.
For now, head down, I keep pedaling upward and thinking about why I’m here. Is it just to be alone? To prove a point? To find some trace of freedom and adventure? To find which side I’m on-- bikes, or wilderness?
I love riding my bike, but I need to know that wild places exist. Freedom still comes easy on a bike. But in these days when outdoor lifestyles have become more image than everyday reality, we live far-removed from the land that still sustains us. And precisely because we’re so suburbanly sprawled, genuine adventure is becoming as endangered as the creatures who call our dwindling wilderness their home.
The heave of my breath and the creak and strain of the bike startle a pair of golden eagles resting in tall meadow grass near the top of the pass. They lift from the grass and swoop toward me, dwarfing me in the sunset shadows of their enormous wings. They’re near enough to touch. Remembering an old Zen proverb, my desire for the relentless climb to end evaporates in their presence:
Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
The eagles slowly rise, becoming black stars above the ridgeline,
and I return to my work. I’ll keep biking this mountain, hoping that
in its own small way my choice, my action, will make wilderness.
[Top - Grinding toward the final pass of the tour, Tungstonia Summit. This summit divides the hot and dry southeastern portion of the range from the wetter, rockier northwestern quarter. Photo: David Smoyer.
Top right - Surprise neighbors. Photo: localcrew
Above right - Columbine. Photo: Davide Smoyer.
Bottom left - One of only a few bristlecones holding fast to the highest ridgeline of the Kern Mountains. Photo: localcrew.]