Lower the Heavens: Attempting to Summit White Mountain

We had set aside that Autumn weekend months earlier, just after having briefly met at a bike race called Lost and Found in late Spring. Matt was planning an extended bike commute through my town and asked to camp in my backyard. I told him sure, I have a fire pit, so it can really be like camping, but I’m going to barnacle onto that trip because it sounds fun. This trip took on many different names, with the goal to write some mockingly weird shit about it, and this one stuck: Tour of the Barnacle: The Chronicles of Holding On. The Barnacle Tour fell through, and a story that will not be told passed between then and this, but hell, we decided to stick to doing some exotic bike trip that weekend.

We settled on the Eastern Sierra. Why not. It triangulates more or less equally from our respective homes of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, and the allure, man, the allure of the Eastern Sierra. Just saying the words, Eastern Sierra paints a fragmented image, as if cut by shards of mirror of the mountain-lined passage that streaks across the valley floor, a desert that taunts the monsters with a wink o the eye, but damn, those mountains, those mountains don’t care, they hold their own secrets.

2011, Erin. This old man in short tie-dyed shorts and a royal blue sweatband walked off the dirt road, onto the pavement, and right past my effete and exhausted body reclined against a car wheel. He captivated me, and so I stared this wide-eye stare high society would consider extremely rude. But this wasn’t high society and he probably didn’t notice. He walked straight up to the snack table—it was at the top of the White Mountain paved road at the finish of a road bike race—and he asked for a snack in this voice whose crackling from lack of water rivaled only the dirt-filled canyons in his face. He looked desperate. They said no. Incredulous and horrified, yet with nothing to offer me, I just kept staring. Then we locked eyes, and his flickered in and out of this reality, in between his earthly thirst and this other world that knew things we don’t all get to know. I, embarrassed by my bold staring, blinked and looked away.

That moment is forever seared into my head. I saw in his wise eyes, I saw that he knew something from the mountain, and the desire to find that secret clawed at me ever since. I wanted to find what he had experienced on that trail. When Matt scoured maps and satellite images and suggested, “How about White Mountain,” this old man’s face reappeared in my head, with those flickering eyes still locked to my mind’s eye.

2001, Matt. I drove the entirety of the 395 with my dad. The steep river lined canyons and plants on the Northern side opened up to Mono Lake just before we drove into Mammoth on this road trip, which was also when the dirt had its first bite at my soul—that first mountain bike experience on those lifts shifted something inside me. We left Mammoth and drove further down the 395 to where the Eastern Sierra and White Mountains stared at each other in what seemed like a stalemate in my mortal perception. We never turned right or left off that part of the highway, I just stared in wonder with my youthful eyes.

“We have to,” was all I could say back.

“The summit is above 14,000 feet,” Matt said. “I think that’s the highest rideable unpaved mountain road in the continental US.”

We laughed at the fact that we may be confronting a summit whose superlative height and status of possibly being the highest rideable peak is man-made, knowing that we only wanted to find some profound nature and use the bike to shell ourselves enough to taste what seeded the wonder for both long ago. The highest rideable peak in the continental US. So, what is this human obsession for being or conquering a feat adorned with a superlative descriptor anyway? Why are we, as people, as outdoor wanderers, always talking about the first, the highest, the fastest, the biggest, the hardest? Is there no merit in just totally being, aware and respectful somewhere and anywhere on this Earth?

While we tried not to shift to a goal-oriented conquest, that knowledge made the route more alluring, but we still relished in just knowing that the arduous road might be enough to sift out the mystery of those hills. Rule number one: stay humble and respect what nature throws at us, we agreed. And even if we hadn’t set that, the desert has its way of commanding it of all those who try to take comfort in its wing anyway. 

“The Eastside, this trip will be…” we didn’t know how to describe it before going. “It will be something spectacular, and we won’t know until we’re there, en route, cracked and tested, inspired and far from rested.” “See you in the mountains.”

We both hit the road around eight on that mid-October Friday. Multiple fires raged in Ventura county and Yosemite that day, but the tranquility of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz offered us a calm start to the drive. Just as I settled into sipping my coffee to some mellow instrumental beat, the freeway turned to expose billows of smoke across the bay that gave me this death stare. I entered what I felt like a war-zone as wind whipping 70mph gusts grabbed me, shoving me up to this window to face memories from the Thomas Fire and my limbs went numb. Matt, driving from Santa Cruz, also endured a smoky medium that obscured what was usually a crisp view of distant mountains for most of his drive, offering him only the ability to see what was in closer proximity than what he typically zoned out to.

In a weird way, I enjoyed the chaos from the fires. Streets heading into the Los Padres National Forest were closed, and the traffic lights and power had been turned off. The wind brought up dust devils, smoke spilled over the foothills and streamed through the confused and scared masses as if they weren’t there. This was not generated from hate or scramble for power, but instead by natural phenomenon, albeit the propensity to burn seems to be exacerbated by human activity churning with the need to progress and driven by the want for more. So many of Ed Abbey’s words danced in the smoke framed power lines that ripped across the land. “They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness,” all but materialized in the haze that penetrated the Western foothills as Matt drove along the threshold between industry and mountain, hightailing it towards the entrance into the Sierra. This chaos sinks the heavy reminder upon us that we are not the ones in charge. That even though we can and do cause harm to the Earth, we cannot control it. Routine is checked and distilled. This chaos begs the question, “Why the hell do I need all of this, why do I do all of this?” Adrenaline takes over and obliterates over-thinking. Edging on survival mode in a way, reminding us that we too are guests, the assholes who neglect to say please and thank you. 

At that point, neither of us were totally certain we would make it out and into the Sierra Nevada. And, opposite from what we had anticipated, the mountains became still, predictable after forging through the chaos of nature making a travesty of society’s attempt to dominate. 

I got into Bishop about an hour earlier than Matt and turned left up to some street, I think it was Line street, looking for a park. I never found a park, but I saw a gas station whose sign that read, “Still Cluckin’ since 1969” inspiring me to crank my head enough to see a market. I went into the market and grabbed some camp vitals and a really warm looking Holden Caufield type hunting hat. A map of White Mountain that caught my eyes at the register, so I got that too. Back on the main drag, I walked up to a coffee shop with my notebook and the map to wait for Matt. I passed this dusty looking bearded guy annotating geological maps and wondered about his impression of me. Did he think I was some weekend phony from some hobunk city just walkin’ up to a Bishop coffee shop some Friday with a notebook like any typical delusional millennial trying to be something bigger? Well, whatever, I got a rooibos tea then started scouring the map on a couch, circling things that seemed important—like White Mountain and Grandview Campground.

At some point, the door opened and Matt walked in smiling, to say hi. Laughing at the fact that we pretty much looked like twins who never got used to dressing differently, both in cuffed jeans smudged with dirt, brown boots, wool socks, funky tee shirts, and duck-billed hats with bird patches on them—his a canyon wren and mine a kingfisher—I crumpled the map while attempting to fold it and got up to say hi. He ordered a coffee, and then met me at a table and I spread out the map. It was weird that it wasn’t weird, and that was awesome.

“Yup. Let’s camp there and just ride in.” He said pointing to a campground some 8,000 or 9,000 feet up White Mountain.

“Sure, why not.”

It wasn’t that haphazard actually. A couple of weeks before we’d mapped out option routes on the Strava, one starting from Grandview because we heard it had trees, a view, and toilets. We strategically threw a dart at a map. I had this ill idea of waking up at four in the morning and descending to the 395 to start the ride.. in retrospect I am very glad Matt talked me out of that with logic and route aesthetics, not with sanity, as he would have been game to embark on a course of that magnitude had it made sense.

With the ride planned for Sunday, Saturday would be full of getting the bikes and snacks dialed then dropping water somewhere along that road. We decided on Patriarch Grove, the name stuck out as a great place to shred on. I wanted to walk up there with bibs that had a strong propensity to give a good camel toe. Maybe it was the altitude, but the thought of walking up to Patriarch grove with a big camel toe sounded really funny to me. Matt didn’t get the joke, or maybe there wasn’t a joke, or maybe he did get the joke but just didn’t think it was funny.

Before setting up camp along a dirt road that paralleled the stream our dart landed on in the National Forest for Friday night, we grabbed burritos. He ordered a chicken burrito without sour cream. I began to order when he swooped back and switched to the veggie burrito with chicken, no sour cream. I then, in the monotone I use when wanting to make an unaccentuated joke, ordered the same thing but without cheese. Then he pulled the Harry Dunn card, “I crossed my mind,” and decided to get the exact same thing I had just ordered. The woman looked up at us both in our weird shirts and bird hats, brown hair and light eyes and laughed. We’re such idiots.

Driving south towards that creek-lined-road into the Sierra Nevada, the White Mountains eyed us with deceptive kindness through the quintessential pink hue of the Alpine glow. We both threw our arms out the window and whooped at the overwhelming beauty of the scenery we were now a part of for only and at least the weekend. Despite the short trip, being amongst beauty beneath the behemoths offers some residual energy that has a way of sticking around the soul for a bit, and we were pulling ‘till the dregs to get it all in at every moment.  The near-full moon was just a hair above the ridgeline and bounced along as we drove. It wasn’t like a circle bouncing along, it looked more like a pearly glass ball, ready to break if it hit to close to a pointy crag. Thank god that was just a trompe l’oeil, we don’t want the moon breaking now, do we. What would happen to all those butt jokes in this world?

“I guess they’d have cracks,” Matt had a good point.

We drove into darkness along this road that wasn’t as gentle as we had hoped. It wasn’t that bad though, but there was just one point that left us both for a moment with the thought, “Well, I don’t know if I can make it across that, but sure as hell know I can’t turn around or back out of this.” We had to make it, so we did, and found a relatively flat spot shared with blooming buckwheat and beneath the pinyon pines growing out the sides of rocks that had tumbled down from the top with the forming valley. We were in the middle part of the wide tongue of an alluvial fan.

Getting out of a car in a place like that sometimes makes you say banal shit like, “Well, here we are!” so we both probably said something like that. Matt probably said a pun actually.

We sat and watched the Fall sneaking into the Sierra and darkness descend on the White Mountains across the way. The mountain took these morphing lines of shadow as the setting sun gave way to the near-full moon. At some point, the burritos came out.  “Check to make sure that’s mine.” “You idiot, they’re the same.” “I know.” They were huge, so we split one, and continued to talk about I don’t even remember what, then we split the other, as the White Mountains stared at us being human, only noticing, without uttering an indication of judgment, approval or praise. 

I woke up just before sunrise the next day and got my coffee making stuff out so I could percolate a nice strong one to the rising sun. The flowering bushes glowed like little lanterns and the mountain behind caught the light before we could see, a subtle reminder the mountain sees something we don’t.

Matt has a poop shovel. He travels into the wilderness with it. Not too long after he made his coffee, and I was working on my second round, he got up and grabbed that shovel.

“You can use it if you want to too.”

“Isn’t it kinda gross to share a poop shovel?”

“You don’t get your shit on it! You dig a hole before pooping then cover it up after you wipe.”

“What if you don’t have the luxury of time to actually dig a hole before it comes out? Sometimes even getting the pants down gets down to a neck to neck race.” 

He shrugged, “That’s called top loafing, and heavily frowned upon in Leave No Trace principles”

So, he went and hid in a thicket of buckwheat bushes far enough away and did whatever he did. I think we all know what he did. When he returned, he replaced the poop shovel and put hand sanitizer on his hands.  Then he enjoyed his French pressed coffee with a dollop of organic cream.

We wandered up the hill towards the pine and along the river. I really wanted to see what those trees coming out of the rocks were all about. Matt wanted to find a path down to the creek. I also kept an eye out for treasures—I know you’re not supposed to actively look for nature-gifted-amulets, but finding them has this drug-like effect that opens up the something in this world and alters you forever. 

Matt showed me the pine needles on the pinyon pine and helped me distinguish how to identify them with their single needle fascicle, as opposed to the bunched needs you see on ponderosa pines and the like. Then I crawled up to the trees and he scrambled down to the river. I sat for a while and watched the sun illuminate this one rock projection that I could see through a hole. Across the way the White Mountains became more wrinkled with the intensity of the sun, taking on this cute little wrinkly purple hound face look. I also top-loafed up there.

Back at camp, we got into breakfast—two-day-old egg tacos I had made anticipating that the desire for real food would be strong on our big ride. Matt had better ideas than sustaining on three-day-old egg tacos for the ride day, and we had them for breakfast that day knowing we could make fresh shit the next morning. I couldn’t argue with that. So, we slopped up six egg, kale and onion tacos and burritos, all salty as hell for the hydration potential at altitude then grabbed bikes and tools out of our cars to dial our lobsters (bikes, for the layperson).

The lobsters themselves are pretty sweet. Matt has an aluminum seafoam green Rock Lobster cross bike with gravel gearing. He’s from Santa Cruz and races for Rock Lobster. I have a RAL-5024 blue S&S coupled Rock Lobster custom gravel bike that I designed with Paul. I’m not from Santa Cruz, but the magnificence of those frames knows not county-lines. We had some idea that the road may outgun these skinny rigid frames and less-than-beefy tires, but they were the only sensible bikes that we had in common, plus they were our favorite bikes that really contain a do-anything-you-want-on-it deal as long as you’re willing to really exploit the joints for suspension.

These epic-type and multi-day rides are pretty much second nature to Matt by now, so his bike bag and water holding situation was pretty dialed and came into the ready-go state fairly quickly. He had to change a tire and forgot he was running a tube in the defective one and didn’t bring a valve-core stem. Luckily I carry that kind of shit in my purse. It had an insanely small stem length, I won’t name the brand, but who makes valve-core stems that short? But! It still worked, sometimes that happens. I had never packed up this bike with a center-triangle bag, so Matt helped me quite a bit to dial that situation. Teamwork.

We packed up, made it down fine past that one tricky driving section and went back to the market next to “Still Cluckin’ Since 1969” and grabbed food to cook and bring on the ride. They had a massive beer selection, so we decided to get some post-ride beverages. I grabbed a barrel-aged sour ale, and I think Matt grabbed some Hazy IPA, which is the trendier and tastier choice? He didn’t get one of those warm Russian hats they stocked at the register, but he never complained about cold ears either, so I wasn’t annoyed.

It was pushing noon and we only had two more stops before heading up to the campground to set up camp, drop water and ride: lunch + coffee, and an outdoor store to get a three-liter hydration pack.

We walked into the Black Sheep coffee shop, they had great coffee, and the waiter was used to entertaining random adventure seekers. I think we entertained him too. We both got BLATS. I, for some reason, though there were two t’s and expected bacon, lettuce, avocado, turkey, tomato sando.

Then we went into the outdoorsy store. I snuck into my sandwich while perusing the bladders and surreptitiously bit into bacon. So many companies make water bladders, so I asked the clerks for a rec, and they were all about Platypus water bags. The woman looked super knowledgeable and outdoorsy, and the dude looked like the underground punkish type and a super talented rock climber, clearly in the know. And they both just went off, on and on about this brand. I had to get it. How could I not? Who goes off about a water bladder like that? It had to be good.

Then we finally branched off of the 395 and winded up highway 168 to White Mountain Road, driving forty-five minutes through cliffs, offering glimpses of the White Mountains and the Sierra across the way. At the intersection of the campground, Matt checked in. “Let’s go to the far side, it looks like there are toilets.”

“Good idea. Wanna just drive around so we don’t have to turn around here? It’ll be nice to see the whole thing too, maybe there’s one with a view.”

“Sounds good.”

Lucky for us, there were toilets hidden away on the more remote side of the campground too, so we pulled into a random vacant site a few down, then set up camp and got ready to do our water drop and a bike ride.

We got to Patriarch Grove and decided to explore these Ancient Bristlecones, or Pinus longaeva to Matt, by foot, with no time to ride that day… days are shorter and things took longer than we realized. While this grove hosts the largest Bristlecone, the oldest is a bit down the way and is named Methuselah. And, for the spirit of superlatives, California also offers soil to the tallest tree on earth, who we call Hyperion, and the biggest, sir General Sherman.

Bristlecones are some of the longest living trees in the world, the oldest on the mountain standing alive for almost 5,000 years! Imagine that, what they lived through. They’ve stood through the fierce storms and quakes that have made even mountains weep and surrender. Their trunks and branches weave and bend, some make loops, some split, some crash, and some just lay down an arm. This molding must take hundreds of years, imagine their conscious scale of time, talk about patience and enduring acceptance! The dead ones stand years past death, tall and proud next to the living, who share space next to their undeniably present ancestors whose lessons they thus cannot ignore. The fine grain demonstrates their incredibly slow rate of growth and resulting density. Parts of the tree are lined with darkness, and at that age, who knows what could have happened to cause that. Maybe it was ancient fire, lightning, or maybe just aging wood or a bacterial friend doing their best to fix their situation. These trees personify the mysterious contradiction of the desert’s allure that draws you into its unforgiving space.

Matt got pensive and started taking pictures and reading the signs. I kept wandering and around, and then when we met up again, he showed me the tree dubbed, “The Patriarch.” It was discovered in 1948.

“Nineteen FORTY-EIGHT!” I screamed. “FORTY-EIGHT!”

He looked at me and realized what I saw. He knew that the number of times and ways I’d seen the number forty-eight that week had already wigged me out.

We walked around The Patriarch and then back onto the path. Matt walked the perimeter, reading the signs and appreciating the natural history. I tromped across it and paused at this fallen log with two holes, one on each end. At a certain distance and angle, it felt like you were staring into the eye sockets of the holes. Where is that wormhole that leads to the secrets of this mountain?

Neither of us was the type to let any sunset pass unappreciated, so both agreed to find a scenic pullout to enjoy the setting sun outside and upon a pile of rocks, despite the frigid temperature quickly settling in. It was beautiful to watch, and guilt crept in as I admitted to myself that watching it set over the Minarets from the top of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth offers more awe as the sun pretends to set in between relief in that range.

While Matt was focused on taking photos, I ran back to the car, threw off my clothes and added a layer of wool underwear before redressing. No way in hell was I going to let it get any colder before I had to bearskin in order to wooly-up.

As we drove behind a rocky mound on the right, blocking the setting sun, the view opened up to the left where the full moon was starting to rise. This moon, it crept above those piled purple hills, into the baby blue horizon of Earth’s shadow and into the crepuscular pink of the Eastern sky. We shrieked and whooped in unison. Holy shit, above the folding desert hills, rose this bold and bright yellow moon, showing off all of its texture, defiantly imperfect, never asking for permission or acceptance. It sure as hell never gave an apology for challenging the sun and blocking the stars with its light, taking away handholds into understanding our place in this world, driving some to lunacy. Like the desert, it shook us while drawing us in.

As we turned away from the East and it momentarily set behind a mound to our left, four deer ran across the gravel road and up and over the mound. The last deer stopped at the top and curiously turned his head and stared. He watched for an extended moment before gracefully trotting down the backside and out of sight. 

We pulled up into camp, got our warmest jackets on and went to grab the makings for dinner. Some dude from another camp came up and started shooting the shit. I was over on the table while listening to Matt be polite and make small talk, thank goodness because I’m not the kind of person who makes small talk with normal strangers. But then the asshole in me got this idea—should someone steal the water we dropped at Patriarch Grove, we’ll surely need some at the gate… and this kind stranger was heading to the gate. So, I went over and introduced myself, found out his name was Tom, then asked him if he’d mind dropping a jug of water at the gate. He was stoked to help! What kind of humans we met on this trip! I hope, despite my inward despise at how humanity behaves in masses, that my fondness for people manifests in practical ways such as this man’s did when he delightfully agreed to help us out.

As we sat on the table, drinking magnesium to relax, mitigate muscle cramps, and also for peace of mind that altitude would have less of a handhold to mess with our pre-ride routines. I looked over to see nearly a forty-eight carved out on the table and shrieked.  Well dang, there it was again. It was missing the four’s leg on the right-side line, so Matt grabbed his pocketknife and finished that auspicious number. Magic has this way of permeating the mundane.

The music got dull, so we put on an Andrew Bird station on Pandora, and while going through the motions required to clean up camp this tune started and caused us both to pause. Matt had just shut his car door, holding a clean towel in his hand—he was a lot tidier than I was, and a clean towel day two on a camp trip was something that I noticed and that left me incredulous—I was walking back to the table after taking a load of perishables to my cooler when we both paused. This song started with a strumming build-up that boiled something mysterious and nonchalant. Then the guitar struck at the same time as these whispering cymbals. I’m usually the type to resonate with the beat of a bass guitar, but this whisper caught me off guard. That guitar struck Matt, transporting him to that feeling that he somehow knew existed when he first tasted dirt years ago in the mountains across the way. We looked at each other and in unison started jumping and dancing around camp. After the five and a half minutes song ended, we ran to the phone playing it, turned up the volume—luckily it was connected to the JBL with a subwoofer—caught the name and jammed to it five or six times more throughout that night. It was Lower the Heavens by the Donkeys. A song whose tune would carry us along while its name deftly haunting us the following day. Turn it on, we dare you to.

The next morning, when I opened my eyes it was five, and mistaking a car’s rear brake lights for the onset of a wild sunrise, I jetted out of bed, made a strong cup of coffee and hauled my blanket and notebook to a spot overlooking the Palisade range, where the sun would rise. It was still dark at this point and the moon still created the shadows. Orion, the Pleiades, Taurus, and Cassiopeia circled above, I’m sure more did too but those were the only ones I could identify. I sat on a ledge and finished my coffee while watching the first rays of morning challenge the moon and the shadows shift from East to West while the silhouetted Palisades unveiled its texture and depth. Again, the flowering buckwheat buds picked up on the first light, and then that orange sky contrasted the receding hills. I felt the devil urging me to run back and get my phone to take a photo, and I have to admit, I started to do that but didn’t get far before I said fuck it, I want to see this in real life. I wanted to store just it into my memory for the sake of that gripping beauty of nature for itself, and not grab an image that could trick me to think for an instant it reflects any part of me because I was there, as we do too often by our bragging and boasting images pure awe exploited.

I stopped at the latrine on my way back to camp. Then made some more coffee when Matt brewed his first. We got our bikes ready and made breakfast to Lower the Heavens, then lastly kitted up with preparations for a long, unknown day ahead.

We had to get a bit creative to carry all of the gear, food, and water we needed to feel comfortable embarking on this journey. I’m not going to indulge you on all the items set out in a square… that type of hackneyed organization and detail bore me… not being critical here, it may just be because I could never arrange my shit in a perfect square, so I don’t understand it.  Those images make me want to shmear it all as if painting in sand and scream for the disorder.

And just as nine struck we pedaled away. Our plan the week before had been to roll out at seven, the night before it changed to eight, then the sub-freezing morning illuminated by an illusory October hue messed with our sense of time and nine organically became go-time.

We turned left up to White Mountain road and found our own paces and cadences, both trying to slow-roast our bodies straight out of the freezer. We stopped before the pavement, it was only around twenty minutes in, to de-garb and we struck up a conversation with some motorcyclists. Each stop sucked up time, but I wasn’t watching time though, so I have no idea when we hit the gravel. 

Do you know those gravel rides where you’re itching to zone out to the gritty crunch beneath the wheels? That was not the sensation we got as we crossed the threshold of asphalt to gravel, where instead this washboard peppered with baby head rocks slowly turned its head with this sneaky smile and a lifted brow that said, “Hellllllo there! I hope you enjoy your stay,” as anticipated, but not as bad as feared. That’s the cool things about thwarting and diving into self-indulged fears, once you hit them, they end up not being that bad, or maybe they are and you just end up being more resilient than you realize. I bet both happen to all of us.

And the road went and went. Up and down. Matt and I were riding together on our own rides. Pulling ahead or falling behind, concentrating on the present moment while listening, waiting for that subconscious reel to go off in the head. Matt kept track of the elapsed time, miles and intermediate points, calculating the reality of making it, while I had forgotten the distance between our destination, let alone any of the pre-planned stopping spots. I was so focused on just going while trying to find the spirit in the surroundings. Looking left at the mountains across the 395 never got old. I wanted so badly to resonate with this high desert. Instead of that meditative state, my ride became a timeless string of beaded moments. I kept asking the time and distance, but his responses held little practical meaning to me at that point.

The road turned paved again for about a quarter-mile. While driving up to the water drop off the night before, we assumed this paved section would offer relief. Turns out, this paved section is a pitch so steep, it had us riding sine waves up it.

We got to the Patriarch Grove turnoff and pulled off to the sign where our waters were stashed. They were still there! The day was teetering on cold, so we hadn’t been drinking nearly as much water as anticipated. We didn’t refill the bladders and instead, we drank from the jugs and refilled the bottles. I pulled the BLAT I had made in camp—Bread, Lettuce, Avocado, Turkey Sandwich… the one with bacon was better—and the aluminum had sheared right in half. It appeared to have been cut by an Exacto knife.

We made a pact to flip it by three regardless of where we were, to make sure that we made it back before it got too cold and dark. The mountain would get far below freezing and that night predicted winds.

Then we kept going! I returned to my timeless churning and Matt pulled ahead. We talked less on that section of the ride, both zoning out to the rhythms we were each trying to find.

The peak crested to this moonscape of shattered rocks and I gazed at this beautifully barren landscape weaving while pointing to the peak. My senseless sense of going without thinking was checked as I pulled alongside Matt and saw his reality stricken destitute stare. He was waiting for me at the top but also waiting to make the call about the next step.

“We’re not going to make it.”

“We still have time to ride and get further.”

“Is there even a worthy destination? This seems just as good as any. I don’t want to turn around somewhere random.”

Matt has an interesting set of rules, a concept that seems almost foreign to me. I’m not saying I’m immoral, I have a strong moral compass, and that to me obviates a reason to make rules… plus, rules piss me off. And, I’m not saying Matt uses rules to supersede moral, I guess he uses them to describe them. When we discuss this topic, it’s like we’re arguing over the need for apples or oranges to make blackberry jam. Anyway, one of his rules is, if you’re not doing a loop, which you should try to do in any bike ride, then it should be a cleanout and back and the turnaround point has got to be a destination. Where mine is, I trust I’ll know when I need to turn around and head down a random road at a whim. I’m sure I’ve lost seeing some epic destinations because of that mentality, and I bet he’s missed out on certain stumblings of a thoughtless ride because of it. But, at this point, he needed a virtuous turnaround point and I needed to find virtue in movement; we both needed inspiration.

Matt had packed a small speaker in a handlebar bag that serenaded him through the ride. Both facing this impasse of ennui, we let Lower the Heavens rip through the speakers. As the song built from pause over the first minute, we took in deep breaths of our desolately beautiful surroundings in and agreed that this was what we needed at that 12,000-foot moment.  As if resonating from the heavens itself, the song struck down like fire and lightning at one-minute-eight, having us throw down our bikes (well okay fine, we placed them drive-side up on the ground,) then jump around, arms in the air, leaping up into a nearby scree field in our cleats. After a few rounds, the energy was up enough to make it at least to the turnaround gate we would not cross.

That ended up being the highest point we reached on the ride. I guess that song brought some form of salvation we could grasp down to us as if knowing we wouldn’t make it to the top.

On the way to the gate, we stopped by this rocky semicircle that seemed to provide a wind block and fire area for people up there in dire weather. It was also full of poop, but I didn’t notice that until after I had sat down and put my bare hands behind me as a prop and Matt pointed out that animals used it too.

“How can you tell.”

“The ground is covered in scat.” He sat on the wall behind me.

At that point, I wanted to turn around and head back. I had become exhausted and nervous for the ride back, plus I could tell the thin air was getting to me. I had had my ride. Yet, according to the map, the gate was less than a quarter-mile away, so we had to. And so, we did.

That last descent was short, and by that point, we had gotten so used to the navigating rocks and washboard road that the descent became playful and fun. The vista that opened up at the gate gave solace in our decision to make it to the gate. I am sure as hell glad I did not miss staring at the snowcapped mountain range while standing humbled next to a foreboding fourteener with our bikes up displayed against a rusted gate.

Our camp neighbor, Tom, had left the water there, and we still did not need any, so we crossed out our names and placed it at the restrooms, in hope that it would save a fellow wanderer in need. Then we finished our BLAT’s out of sheared aluminum and realized that we could make it back in time to make it to these hot springs before they closed.

Despite knowing we had made the right decision for safety and sanity, a regret that felt so autumn with its tangled consolation nagged at my core. I wanted to know the mountain. Are there things we cannot grasp no matter how much we search, scratch, and ride for them? This mountain, it’s not that exotic of a destination and people ride it on a regular basis, but regardless held something so mysteriously close to its core that I could not find it. I wanted to drop into the zone, find that lucid line us unsettled movers search for in sport. Instead, this mountain mirrored the implacable that was hard to stare at.

The out and back of the ride is not an up then down, it’s rolling up then rolling down, neither offering respite. Loopiness wandered into the spaces carved out by exertion.

“There’s this Dalí. The desert floor is staring at me. There’s this abstract, long-legged horse. I feel like that horse, with my limbs all stretch out,  and I’m walking along next to these long-shadowed rocks embedded in this desert’s sand.” It was actually an elephant from Los Elefants. My limbs felt light and detached. Matt stared at the ground listening to this exhaustion-driven-unironic-monotone for a few beats, then looked over, squinted his eyes, superimposing the abstraction. The moment between poured out like thick syrup, then he replied, “I’m effervescent.”  I think it was then that we started pretending to have fun hopping around the rocks, levitating on our bikes in this bout of momentary levity.

Maybe he said evanescent, I don’t remember. Even if I did remember, in that state, I would have confused those words anyways. Maybe he went into that timeless desert. Either way, we were still re-approaching around the highest point of 12,000 feet, and this time with a goal flipped from summiting ostensibly the highest rideable mountain in the US to making it back in time to back up camp, drink beer and make it down to the hot springs below.

The elevation started to drop after that, and excitement mixed in with the exhaustion, although struggle persisted. Fatigue hit me and Matt had to wait at the top of the last climb back. That road never gave any consolation—the washboard, sandy, rock-strewn road required concentration while strumming the nerves, and of course, the climbing over that much elevation gain at elevation took its toll hours into the day. The big temperature change and high elevation messed with the hydraulics of Matt’s brakes, making him skirt down the mountain with just half a rear brake. He blew through his rear pads and when he nearly ran out of all braking, we dropped back to around 9,500 feet and 20% of his front brake came back online as the ambient pressure started to return.

Just as the angled morning sun of October deceived us into thinking we had the luxury of time, this same angled light lit the mountains with an extended golden hour that swept across both ranges and through the immediate rocks and trees as we navigated the final stretch. Once we hit the pavement, it was all downhill, and we just rolled on down as if all there had been was just a road to follow.

And then we made it back to camp! Despite not making it to the top of the highest rideable peak in California, we still felt like we had just accomplished something bigger than ourselves. Yet, relief stood out more than the typical emotions one expects to embrace at the end of an endeavor that merits use of the diluted term adventure. We cheered our prize beers and drank them to take it all in.

And, the hot springs. Driving again, I followed Matt down the mountain through the serpentine maze of rock walls against a backdrop of the Sierra range, where the true natural yet still contested highest peak of the continental US stands staring. He charged down the hill, taking lines like a true mountain biker, with the goal of making it to the hot springs before they closed at seven. Don’t be fooled by the word resort in the name of these hot springs, which at first made us wary. The little place down in Bishop turns out to be this funky, outdoor pool frequented by locals and full of anachronistic charm. 

If you are inspired to hit up this establishment, take this advice: do not put your towel on the floor unless you are okay with drying off with a dingy shower curtain. The ground looks like fake grass from a cheap golf course and is supersaturated with water and will not leave even a corner of the towel dry upon contact. And, they’re very strict about closing at seven on Sundays and make you leave the pool with enough time to be out the door by the moment the hour turns.

Back squatting along a hillside in the National Forest, we made the remainder of our dinner food and watched the scenery go through its show.

Popcorn clouds, a moniker for stratocumulus clouds as Matt pointed out, filled into the bright night sky. The changing atmosphere reconciled any remaining unrest from not making it. We realized that we’d have probably still been on that mountain road, freezing, cold, tired and hungry.

The next morning when I got up at pre-dawn to watch the deep purple mountains be still with the lightening horizon, Matt’s good morning call surprised me, as I had awakened before him every other day.

“Morning! I just dawn poo-trolled!”

He was walking back from behind this little rock grove, poop shovel in hand. We made coffee, neither one of us felt like making a big deal out of breakfast that early. We both felt “responsibility to system” bleeding back into the corners of our internal sense of self and place; we had to get back onto the pavement and into buildings. We shared the remaining time with coffee, with the sand, the rocks, with the mountains, the trees, the buckwheat and desert flowers.

Then we both just left, I went south towards Santa Barbara and Matt north towards Santa Cruz.  I stopped at a familiar gas station in Big Pine and showered. I was heading into work that day, so I pretended to wash my hair with just water then spit cleaned my boots and rubbed lotion into them to cover their dirtbag core just enough to walk back into the routine of daily life, making sure to leave enough of a grit inside to nag at the souls of my feet as reminders to never get too comfortable. I drove straight to the office, put on a hat to cover my greasy hair, “Sorry I’m late.”