The final stretch of Tejon pass broke free from desert brush covered hills to open expanse of golden fields. The fields, harvest cut weeks before, now brown without water, paralleled the freeway. Big rigs, dwarfed by the hills of the I-5, now huge since they are the tallest things around. First 80 miles out of Los Angeles by 9:30am, not bad. Only another 138 miles to Fresno. With such bleak scenery ahead, I start a game: inhale (not too deep since this area has some of the worst smog around) and guess which crops are planted in the fields that line the freeway. Long stretches of nothingness make me question, Why did I want to take this route? Because I have never ridden over Hwy 120. So I twist on the throttle and point north toward Yosemite.
My motorcycle, loaded with camp gear for the weekend, enters the park around 2pm. All the notices about finding a first-come –first-serve campsite by mid-morning were right. There was nothing available in the park so I head north, then east to ride over Tioga pass. I stop at each crowded campsite along the way, some down gnarly roads I thought would have potential openings, but to no avail. Further down the road, I twist and turn, stop to take picots, get back on the road, and slowly make my way along the road, in line behind other gawkers. Reaching the peak of 9,943 ft., the highest in California, I could see the sun getting lower in the sky. I need to find a place to set up camp for the night. Exiting the park without sentiment, shelter my main priority; I try sites further down the road. Nothing. I reach the mobile station at Lee Vining, and what a hoppin’ place on a Thursday night. The band is just getting started, but I stay only long enough to fill my tank.
My goal was to spend a night amidst the trees, in solitude, and decompress from LA before heading off to a weekend motorcycle rally. That was proving to harder than planned. Feeling mildly defeated, that somehow it was no different for me than hundreds of others who couldn’t find a spot in Yosemite; I decided to ride another hour toward Owens valley, my Friday night destination, to a known campsite with others.
One last attempt at June Lake sealed my fate of riding into the night. There was a spot open, but more than I wanted to pay for a single person, surrounded by so many smiling faces eating ice cream, enjoying their family summer vacation. I was here for a different reason. I was exhausted, and grumpy, and didn’t want to spend the night around such happy, laughing people.
The light was falling; a dusk of light purple and orange lit a small, but familiar sign. The universal tent symbol and an arrow pointing left. If there was an official campground, I never found it, but a few miles down this sparsely marked dirt road, I found camp in the wilderness. Blocked off from vehicle access, my two wheels easily made it around the tree post barrier and I parked for the night. Stashing my bike behind the thickness of trees, I attempted to hide my orange side packs from the main road.
Exhausted from 12 hours in the saddle, I quickly set up my tent in the last of the light, chowed a scrumptious dinner from a can that I needed to hours earlier, drank a beer I now happily waited in the long line at the Mobil station for, then lay down to watch the stars flitter in a blackened sky. They sparkled in a way I never get to see in Los Angeles. This is why I rode all day. This is the wilderness I was looking for. Shortly, but still with one ear open to my surroundings, I fall asleep.
Break of the morning light through the trees washed away much of the despair I felt arriving at camp the previous evening. Choosing a destination too far away, too busy to drop by, pushed me to ride 12 hours and 422 miles, which meant my ass was sore, and my mind was tired. With weariness compounding, I wondered why was I doing this again? Putting myself through the trouble of finding a campsite on a busy Thursday summer night. Why do I need to spend so much time by myself? This drives some people nuts, but I thrive on it. I enjoy the silence of the night, looking at the stars shine, watching the squirrels scurry about, hearing the birds sing, watching the ants search about the ground. Some days it’s hard to be solely responsible for all your own decisions, especially when they were so logically wrong from the beginning, but I do it. Eventually, I make it work.
I enjoy the morning sun, warming spots where it touches the ground. I slowly pack up and make my way to Owens Valley. It was then I realized I had slept only 15 min away from my destination, a rally of dual-sport individuals. I arrive as late risers are still preparing their bikes for the rides of the day. I set up camp before they are off and ask a group where they are headed. They invite me along. I hesitantly accept, noticing their bikes are lighter or more powerful or both than mine. Still, I thrown on my helmet and jacket and we are off to ride trails around Bishop for the day.
I understand the feelings of defeat yet again. That is me yesterday. This is me today. My body hurts. My bike is in need of repair. This is what I get for exceeding my limits. I want to be a better dirt rider, but I have never gotten along with sand. And I got a mouthful of it today.
At 40mph, I was twisting and releasing the throttle, feeling my rear tire fishtail through 6-inch deep sand. It was a moderate incline, but I felt myself loose control of the machine. I jumped to the left side as the bike went down, but not quick enough at that speed. I landed on my chest, face digging into the sand, the consecutive crack of vertebrae in my neck echoing inside my helmet. Pain shot through my front side, then my back left shoulder. I gasped for air as the wind was knocked out of me on impact. “Take off my helmet,” “No,” Ami replied, “Lay on your back.” I wanted to remain in the fetal position, but I listened and stretched through the pain to shift to my back. Once I slowed my breathing and returned to a calmer place, he helped me sit up and I could remove my own helmet. With his Israeli accent he asked, “You Ok? You have broken bones? You coughing up blood? No, then you ok.” Accompanied by another rider in the group, and after the initial shock subsided, I mounted my bike and followed the roads back to camp.
As I sit recovering my sore, overextended muscles and bruised ribs in a nearby hot spring, I was exchanging stories of the day’s routes with a motorcyclist I just met. Upon hearing the recount of having to turn around after my fall, he joked, “What, cause it wasn’t a girl’s trail?”
I used to disregard sexually defining remarks, but I found some truth in his crass statement. On the trail to Coyote Flats, a skilled rider was instructing me how to make it through the deep sand: where to stand on the pegs, how to lean back, how to shift weight on the sides, how to rev the accelerator to lift the front tire. As I sat on the ground, shaking sand out of my helmet, Ami said, with a stern pronunciation, “Your problem…you are not aggressive enough. You fear the sand; you don’t go fast enough, you are afraid of falling, so you do. You need to ride in charge.”
And there is my dilemma. I am not instinctually aggressive or commanding and my riding, as a woman, reflects that. So, I understand “the girl’s trail” I am not set up, mentally or physically nor is my motorcycle, to be riding those trails. My 400lb KLR is too cumbersome for me to handle. There have been many before that have suggested I start with a smaller bike. But this is the one I have. So do I go smaller or go home? Neither. I go where my KLR will take me. Not saying women can’t or shouldn’t, since there are certainly those out there who can and do, I am just saying I have reached my comfort of ability on my motorcycle. I will stick to forest service roads and enjoy the scenery.
So on Sunday, the big day to explore White Mountain and the reason why we are all here, I take the long, yet “easy” dirt road to the research station. I enjoyed the 18 miles of hairpin twisties through the Bristlecone Pine Forest to 11,188 ft., followed by another 18 miles of dirt and gravel road through beautiful green rolling hills lined with late blooms of wildflowers ascending to 14,252 ft. I see many riders up top, all ending at the same destination, just varying in routes to get there.
The return ride downhill was just as scenic and desolate, encountering just a few courteous vehicles on the road, which let me pass. As slow as cars go, there is a certain speed, generally much faster, that is more confortable for a motorcycle to maintain on gravel roads. Just as I hit the paved portion descending the mountain, the motorcycle sputtered to a stop. In the morning I decided I didn’t want to carry the extra weight of a full tank with an already heavily packed bike, so I took this chance. I turned the gas tank to reserve and fired up my single cylinder. Once I gained some momentum, I pulled in the clutch and coasted when I could down the mountain.
Fueling up before finally departing back home, 5 o’clock found its way into the day. It was many hours later than planned, but the ride to WMRS was well worth it. A few hours and 178 miles along the highway, I watched the sun dip behind desert mountains. I kept looking ahead into the falling light, noticing how dark the day was getting. I watched as headlights of passing cars light up speed limit signs, reflecting bright white, but none was coming from my direction. Somewhere on a very barren Highway 14, I had no headlight, no high-beam, no taillight. Luckily, there was an exit 2 miles ahead, just as the road was returning to civilized occupation. Under a street lamp in a Jack-in-box parking lot, I unloaded my cases and pulled my seat, looking for a blown fuse. Amidst the mess of wires, I found what I was looking for. I don’t know if it was when I dumped the motorcycle in the sand on Friday, or the jarring gravel terrain of Sunday, but the connection was cleanly severed. A joke another KLR rider made months ago echoed through my head, “really, was he trying to kill you?” referring to the electrical work my ex-husband did. I never got around to soldering the connections, and have no visibility (to see or be seen) on a dimly lit highway was enough reason to revisit this idea. I cut the wires, replace the connectors, turn the key, and I have light for the remaining 80 miles to home.
The experience along White Mountain was well worth the troubles of the rest of the weekend. There were times when I questioned my abilities to make it through the long road to Alaska and back. Yet in the end, I still want to try. I want to see what I encounter along the way. I will get to know the ups and downs it brings. I will travel many roads to get there, but more so, I am looking forward to the adventure.