May 9, 2020:
“Also, if you’re interested, riding from Mammoth to Tahoe and back in June…”
This non sequitur caught me off guard. It was also exactly what I’ve wanted to hear for a while. I have long admired the big days my buddy Connor puts in the mountains. Slipped in the middle of casual conversation (mostly about bikes) between two friends, was the invitation to join in on one of his epic adventures. An invitation to partake in the fun, madness, joy, suffering, and glory.
“I’d be so down. I’m so honored. Would be a rad way to spend my 30th birthday”
This is a pretty weird year to turn 30. Well, to be fair, this is a weird year for anything. I have always enjoyed marking the passing of time with a feat of endurance. What better way to spend a birthday than reflecting and making plans for the future in the mountains? Also, what better way to give Father Time the middle finger and spend time being grateful? This trip would give me plenty of time in the saddle to take stock of my life and chew on some things. Plus, it’d be an outrageously fun time with new friends and an old one.
The first step would be to find a bike. I wanted something light, reliable, and quick. Researching and purchasing the bike, bike bags, ultra-light sleep set up, cycling kit, etc. took hours. Every time I did this it gave me something to look forward to–and made working from home amidst Covid-19 less taxing. Every purchase was a reminder of how little I knew about long-distance bikepacking which both worried and excited me.
380 miles. 24,000 feet of vertical gain. It was hard to wrap my head around. Primarily a climber and trail runner, I got into biking when Covid-19 hit as a way to get out of my bubble. Quickly tackling 60 miles rides with no stops on my Specialized AWOL, a steel frame bike that would never break any land speed records, I felt like 120-140 miles a day wouldn’t be too crazy. That naivety probably saved me since it became abundantly clear that the hurt for me comes after mile 80, especially if that’s when the biblical wind storm hits you…
I drove from Colorado to Mammoth June 11th. The only non-Mammoth resident on the team, I rolled into the town (a place I love dearly) wide-eyed and exuberant. I couldn’t believe I was back and that in a matter of hours we’d be hitting the road. Still, the whole way there I felt extremely guilty for traveling during the pandemic. The pang of guilt would hit me pretty often as I thought about my family back home. I got to Connor’s house and we quickly caught up while packing our bikes for a test ride. We took the fully loaded monsters out for a quick spin and not 100 yards from Connor’s house I shifted and my chain was off both the front and the rear. We haven’t even left yet and my new bike is giving me grief. This can’t be a good sign. Later when the entire group met, Mitch the mechanic adjusted the rear derailleur, and my issue was resolved. We all settled in for a half-assed night of rest as we anxiously awaited our 5 am wake up call. I didn’t sleep at all. Awake, incredibly nervous, and excited at 3AM all I could think about was starting the ride to put an end to the anxious anticipation.
Our plan was to meet in town at the bagel shop, grab coffee and breakfast, and head out. When Connor and I arrived to meet Mitch and Josh, the shop was closed so we biked our first mile to an open coffee shop in town. After a quick breakfast, we truly set off.
It was surprising how fast the first 30 miles happened. We zipped into Lee Vining’s Latte Da Cafe for a second brekky consisting of breakfast sandwiches on house-made focaccia. We were then faced with our first big climb of the trip, Conway. Looking out at the familiar Mono Lake area, I finally felt calm. This place means so much to me. I lived in San Francisco for almost four years and drove this pass so often to get to and from the East Side. I have a playlist named after the place. I cried in my car missing home at this very spot. It felt like seeing an old friend. The slow methodical pace afforded me the time to actually look around and observe this place that I would normally zip past.
At the summit, we began our long descent past Bodie, into Bridgeport. Realizing every foot we dropped, we’d have to climb back up on day three. We lucked out with construction traffic metering, dropping into the notorious Walker Canyon with no cars. A total blessing considering this stretch of highway’s shoulder leaves much to be desired. We were like kids yipping and laughing through the canyon. We rolled into Walker, California just in time for Walker Burger fries. We devoured our food as the wind picked up and we all prepared for battle. I remarked that the flag on the pole was violently whipping the wrong way. However, as we set off once again, we got lucky with a miraculous tailwind powering us up to the Nevada State line. The state line marked my first century and we had done it in a quick five hours forty-five minutes – with full bags to boot.
Leaving the state line is when the luck turned. From then onwards it was unbelievably windy. Like, pedal-as-hard-as-you-can-downhill-because-it-now-feels-like-uphill windy. The wind broke up the group and the young guns took off to descend into Gardnerville when I realized, alone, on the ugliest stretch of highway of the whole trip that my rear was flat. I walked probably a mile to get out of the corridor and find any small patch of shade or shelter. I found a tree and a driveway with a stone wall for me to assess the damage. I called the group and they just sighed one word… “Uber.” I didn’t think there was any other way out of the situation. I was only 10 miles from the end of the ride but the wind was insane and my spirit was admittedly a little broken. In my frustration, I called up my buddy Biz, whose ranch we were staying at in Minden and requested a pickup. I then realized I didn’t want an asterisk next to this trip. Like a mad scientist, I tore the bike apart with the wind howling.
The homeowner whose driveway was now my workshop rolled up. I apologized and told her I was almost done and I’d be out of her hair soon. She replied, “You’re not in my hair dear, I just feel bad for you! That looks terrible!” I laughed, it was pretty terrible. I called off the pick-up and texted the group that I was back in action and descending. Battling 60 mile an hour gusts and side rails that felt a little too close to comfort I limped into town. I wasn’t ready to eat but did my best to stomach some Thai food. The 6 miles to Biz’s ranch felt like they took forever and I was realizing my right IT band or knee was in some serious pain. Usually, I felt this pain only because of running. I’ve never felt it on a bike. At the ranch, we were met with friendly faces of Beth and Biz and their dogs. Biz offered the entire crew ice cold Coors and water and even offered up his house for us to sleep in. We politely declined as we didn’t want to be in their personal space, especially with their newborn. Plus, the grass looked plenty inviting to lay down in. That’s when we noticed a fast-moving storm coming in over the mountains. We made back up plans to sleep in the barn with the dogs and after catching up and getting a ride into town for an after Thai food dinner pizza, we settled in for the night. Exhausted, I slept like a champ.
First pedal stroke. My knee is killing me. Doubt began to creep in. Just pedaling into town for coffee I had no idea how I would fare on the biggest climb of the trip – Kingsbury. 11 miles with nearly 3k of sustained climbing. Every turn of the crank was lightning in my knee. I began to think, “Maybe today I will make it to Tahoe but I won’t make it around it. It’s still pretty rad if you rode from Mammoth to Tahoe.” I figured worse comes to worst, I could come back to the ranch, rest the knee, and prepare for the ride home. It was a defeating thought. I felt old. Despite feeling at peak fitness, I had spent most of the first day chasing the younger crew ahead of me. Nothing is harder on the mind than feeling like you’re behind. They made it look so effortless. As we started up the climb my knee relaxed and the pain subsided. I felt good again. Midway up the pass, I had another flat. A quick patch and we were on our way to the summit. That’s when I felt a cold damp wind hit us. The forecast called for cold weather. It had even snowed in the high alpine the night before. “This is going to be a long day” I thought. Dropping into Tahoe, Mitch got his first flat. Connor and Josh were already at the bottom and knowing how it sucks to be repairing alone, I opted to stay with Mitch.
Unfortunately, it took us 45 minutes to fix as we made the discovery that his bike was not running tubeless as he had thought, and the tube patch didn’t hold. Once we got back to Connor and Josh at the cafe it was clear we needed to make up time. My biggest mistake of the trip was not to fuel up as I had planned to at that stop. My breakfast of a lousy whole wheat bagel and a few sips of coffee were long burned off. Once we began our loop around Tahoe and after some rolling hills, I felt depleted. I needed food. Knee pain was back in full force. At any given time, I was probably 50-100 yards behind the crew, acting as my own wind block, watching them cruise. They completed a climb way in the distance and I exclaimed out loud, “I can’t do this.” When I rolled up to the group Mitch said “Do you want good news?” He then said we were halfway done with climbing and a quarter of the way with distance. They probably didn’t know but I was about to throw in the towel for that day. Somehow, even though I had been told essentially I still had 100 miles to bike and 4k vert left ahead, the “good news” did boost my morale. The whole slog to Kings Beach all I could think about is “If I can’t do this, who do I know in Tahoe that can drive me back?”
So much doubt, so much negativity. The cold wasn’t helping either. Pretty sure it still wasn’t above 50 yet. Miraculously, after inhaling a pizza and an order of garlic bread and rehydrating I felt like a new man. Plus, I looked at a map, and either I’d continue around as planned or go the way I came, either way, I was biking 100 miles to get back to Kingsbury pass. So it was time to commit. Shut up legs. The day got better and better. Once we got to the California side of Tahoe, it had become sunny and the cars were less ruthless. I had biked this section in the past and I knew what lay ahead and how beautiful it would be. I felt strong cruising into South Lake and questioned why we stopped at a gas station for food again. Connor reminded me of the nearly 1000 foot, steep climb back up to the top of Kingsbury and so I opted for two candy bars. It was the right call. Sorry for ever doubting you Connor. We all felt strong motoring back over the pass and bombing down Kingsbury at 54 miles an hour. We got back into town later than we wanted so our only dinner option was Taco Bell. I wasn’t too mad about it. Bags stuffed in our jackets, we pedaled back to the ranch in the dark.
We woke up before dawn and packed up the bikes. Unlike day 2 where we didn’t have to have our sleep set up, we had to reattach the weight to start the return trip home. Again, we began pedaling and the familiar pain returned. I kept positive saying that it would subside as I warmed up. After all, it had done so the day prior. The pace out of Gardnerville was heavenly. We were all in the same groove and the steady climb went by fast. Before I knew it we were bombing down to the state line. I felt great and we hammered into Walker back to Walker Burger whereas the ultimate act of kindness, the ladies there turned on the frier early to get us some fuel for the day ahead. Good thing too because the stretch to Bridgeport would have been crushing without “proper” fuel. Ice cream and fries at 10:30 am – breakfast of champions.
We pedaled through Walker Canyon with the first bout of heat on the trip. Not to mention, this time we were sharing the road with cars. If there was a section to worry about cars, this was it. Emerging from the canyon, the crew shammy buttered up and I think it’s safe to say, we all felt like new men. We powered on to Devil’s Gate Pass, the archway back to Bridgeport. I felt so good and with a solid playlist humming in my ear I led a pull up the pass. At the top, my knee reminded me who’s boss. I was in a world of hurt again. I limped into Bridgeport and if it weren’t for the stop to meet with Connor’s friend Dane Mulligan, who was on shift for the county EMS, Bridgeport might have been where I truly ended. We had time to chat and relax and I spent it stretching and massaging the IT band and knee. I went from literally not being able to pedal to feeling ready for the remainder of the ride. Leaving Bridgeport, we were over halfway mileage-wise, but still had the last big climb of the trip: Conway. The grade was hot and slow, but we stuck together and soon found ourselves staring at Morrison, Bloody, and the other familiar peaks that marked the end of our journey.
Descending Conway was pure bliss. I felt like I had a handle on the knee pain, and was ready and able to finish the trip up. Then we hit a section between the end of Conway and Lee Vining where the shoulder was closed due to rock slides. Connor leading, we decided to push really hard for about three quarters of a mile to avoid sharing the road with cars. Once the shoulder reappeared my knee was once again pissed. I had gone too hard. Lee Vining was close so I turned my brain off as we pedaled onward. Stopping at a market, I got a giant veggie burrito. I was not at all concerned that it might ruin my appetite for dinner in 30 miles when we got back. No chance.
Leaving Lee Vining, I dropped back and pedaled solo from there to June Lake. I’d like to say it was intentional but Josh was feeling god-like and decided to drop the hammer. At that point, I just couldn’t hang. However, since our pace had been so quick the whole trip and I had been in my head, I hadn’t really processed things. I had been very present the entire ride and thinking only about the current moment. How I felt. How many more miles. How much climbing left today. I hadn’t done any of the deep thinking I thought I’d be doing all along. Something about 30 more miles till home hit me. One mile for every year of my life. Some of the miles flew by, and some of them crawled. I remember being 15 and how long that year felt to finally turn 16 and get my license and drive. I remember how it felt like yesterday that I was 26 spending my first birthday back in Colorado running up a 14-er. I pedaled through the open expanse between Lee Vining and June Lake Junction and I became so thankful for this unbelievable beat down. I said aloud “I hope I have so many adventures like this ahead. But if for some reason I don’t, I am so lucky to have had this experience.”
Maybe I said this because in today’s insane world you don’t know what will happen. Or maybe it was because I not-so-secretly hoped I would meet someone and have kids – which is a whole different adventure entirely. All I know is it felt incredible to take a moment, in the moment, to be grateful. Pulling into June Lake Junction, I saw Connor and Josh hanging out. After a quick water refill, we were on to the last leg of the trip. We descended Dead Man’s in fighter plane formation and turned off to Mammoth Scenic Loop. There were three soul-crushing mini climbs but the sunset coming through the pine trees did a fantastic job distracting me. Before I knew it we were dropping into Mammoth. Pulling up to the brewery there were so many people there to congratulate us. As an outsider, I was so jealous of the community of this small town. I craved it and I made it a goal for the next year to find my own back home. After 380 miles and so many hills climbed, it was finally time to rest.
If you spend time near the mountains, I’m sure you’re familiar with afterglow. Once the sun dips over the peaks, pink, red, and deep purple hues radiate over the skyline. This is my favorite time of the day. I feel like I’m basking in the afterglow of this extraordinary experience. I’m now home in Colorado. A week ago this moment I would be descending into Lee Vining. As I mentioned, I didn’t get the chance to think deeply while on the trip. I’m definitely not upset about it. I spent three whole days completely immersed in the experience. I felt every moment of how hard it was. I felt pain. I felt exhaustion. Now, sitting here, all I can feel is pure bliss. I feel a tremendous amount of satisfaction and I have a renewed sense of grit. I am strong. This is something I often try to tell myself but it’s hard to listen. I’m not sure what’s next but as I said a week ago, “I hope I have so many adventures like this ahead. But if for some reason I don’t, I am so lucky to have had this experience.”