May 19-20, 2007
This past weekend Jobst and I rode over the Sierra, no big deal if you don't mind climbing 20,000 feet. As I discovered, you can complete this 210-mile ride on only three 100-mile rides, but bring the Advil. After reading Jobst's deposition, I decided to tell what else happened.
The Sierra Ride odyssey really begins on a Friday around 3 p.m., no later. That's because the drive to Sonora, our starting point, requires joining the migrating weekenders and hordes of Central Valley residents who drive 50 million miles a year to and from San Francisco just so they can own an affordable house.
That drive is taking longer and longer and costing a heck of a lot more with gas at $3.40 a gallon. I arrived a few minutes early and waited for Jobst to get his act in gear. We chose his 1991 white Volvo wagon over my dilapidated 1989 Mazda 323 with no leg room.
As it turned out, his car has a bent right front wheel that vibrates around 80 miles per hour, which is his average driving speed on the 580 autobahn. But I didn't notice anything, except that his electric windows are wired backwards. Down is up and up is down. Is that Swedish engineering or what?
Just beyond the Dumbarton Bridge we hit traffic. Choosing 880/580 over 84/Niles Canyon, Jobst immediately regretted his decision as we crept along studying truck license plates. Did you know that today's giant trucks have dual exhaust pipes when they really only need one? Someone came up the bright idea that two looks a lot sexier than one. That and the latest "gangster cars" from Chrysler occupied our thoughts.
We had plenty of time to contemplate these worldly concerns. Eventually traffic started moving and we sped over Altamont Pass as Jobst pointed out the transcontinental railroad and about 50 other railroad lines. I can't tell you all their names, but rest assured it probably has the word Pacific in it, or a direction -- Western, Eastern, Northern, or Southern.
Central Valley withers
Driving through the Central Valley it's not hard to understand why it's only a matter of time before this country imports all its food. You can't grow food on housing tracts. We digested that grim reality over a giant sandwich at Quiznos in Oakdale.
We arrived at Inns of California in downtown Sonora on Washington Street where we gladly paid $114 for our room. Glad because this weekend every motorcycle rider in Northern California drove to Sonora and surrounding towns for Motorcycle Appreciation Month. No doubt this "hog" bill motored through Congress on the political wheels of the honorable Senator from Wisconsin. We heard plenty of hogs and half of them stayed at the Inns of California right outside our door.
After a fitful night for me and the usual deep sleep by Jobst, dawn came about 20 minutes early with the rumble of a Harley taking off. We proceeded to pack our bags, wolfing down food before rolling away at a few minutes to 6 under clear skies and a temperature of 50 degrees.
I immediately found 10 cents and the coin collecting competition got into gear. More on that later.
Although the roads were empty, a bakery truck or some such vehicle had to buzz us as we headed to Columbia on Hwy 49. Jobst showed me where he met up with Bruce Hildenbrand on their independent 1993 "endless rides." Bruce had spent the night in Columbia and headed over Tioga Pass, while Jobst spent the night in Sonora and rode up Hwy 4 to get to 395. Later that day Jobst, after enjoying tailwinds the entire way, met a tired Bruce, who spent the day battling headwinds, before Bridgeport on Hwy 395.
We rode through Columbia where, sadly, the Foster's Freeze had been replaced by a restaurant. Jobst and friends enjoyed many a cold drink here after a long, hot day of riding down Hwy 4. Parrotts Ferry Bridge over New Melones Reservoir had its fair share of swallows and as a bonus, an Osprey nested at the top of a tall, dead tree near the shore.
We climbed up a steep piece of road across the bridge, passing the old highway to our right. I remember taking that bumpy, narrow road years ago. I can't say I like the new treeless way any better. Fortunately traffic was light.
Highway 4 rush-hour traffic to nowhere
On Hwy 4 traffic picked up as we continued uphill. Where were all these people going? At one point it felt like a freeway as waves of trucks and cars headed up the hill. To work? Fishing? Beats me.
I took the quiet Utica Powerhouse Road while Jobst stayed on 4. It's more of a climb on Powerhouse, with one section of 13 percent, but some nice houses line the road and the small hydroelectric plant offers an interesting sight. Jobst trailed me by only a few hundred yards as I merged onto 4.
Ancient skis and saws at Camp Connell store
We continued past Avery and Arnold on the way to Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where we saw no skulls, but plenty of smoke from campfires. Beyond the park we stopped at Camp Connell store so Jobst could buy a dozen 20 oz. Pepsis and guzzle a bottle, or two. He carried a shoulder bag even though he had a Carradice seat bag, all for that precious Pepsi. Jobst bleeds Pepsi.
The owners enjoyed hearing Jobst talk about the "Death Ride" and its origins. I told them to Google "Jobst" and they would find plenty more. I took photos of the store's ancient wooden skis, which shared space with logging saws on the ceiling.
Back on the road, we continued the long grind up to Bear Valley. We stopped once to photograph a brilliant red snowflower. We would see some more on the descent from Donnells Overlook. The grade holds steady at 5 percent forever, or until reaching the Patchen road maintenance station a few miles before Bear Valley. In the modest ski resort we stopped and enjoyed a bite to eat. Jobst ate a burrito and downed another gallon of Pepsi while I drank root beer.
We contemplated the recent announcement of grandiose plans to build a huge ski resort here. Lots of luck. One thing for sure, skiers have a nice, wide road to drive up, including Hwy 207 to Mt. Rebla, up Hwy 4 a couple miles.
The road narrowed as we headed down to Alpine Lake. Snow lined the lake, but it was ice-free. Beyond the lake the road tilts up to 14 percent at the iron gate that lets you know the climb to Pacific Grade Summit is underway. Fortunately, the climbs are short.
Advil stops leg cramps
It was somewhere around Mosquito Lake and the Pacific Grade Summit that the leg cramps started. I immediately took two Advil. No more leg cramps. I felt better and on the climb up Ebbetts Pass. I had no problems, even on the steepest final climb. Jobst stopped to drink more rocket fuel to get him to the top. We stopped for a bite to eat at the summit, with the annoying cattle guard. Are there really any cows up there?
Kinney Reservoir, about one mile and 400 feet downhill from the summit had a layer of ice, more than I would have imagined for such a dry winter. Jobst stopped to take my photo as I rode by. Jobst described how in the early 1970s he and a group of bike racers reached this point only to discover snowplows hadn't finished clearing a way to the summit. Jobst rallied his followers and proceeded to walk through the deep snow for more than a mile. They made it and so was born the "Death Ride." Racers told stories of their ordeal and decades later someone started an event in Markleeville using the Death Rider moniker.
We proceeded at high speed down the narrow, twisty road with granite cliffs one one side and Silver Creek Canyon on the other. We stopped again to take a photo and enjoy the view down the canyon. At our final stop on a tight turn, Jobst looked over the edge and showed me the ancient Cadillac that crashed decades ago. Of course this place is called Cadillac Bend.
Only one more climb. Monitor Pass on the west side offers long sections of 13 percent, a hot canyon, and plenty of headwind. I fell into survival mode at about 4 mph, Jobst just ahead. We passed a group of riders on mountain bikes who were going even slower. How can that be? We inched our way up the mountain, Monitor Creek its usual orange color from ancient mine tailings. Work crews above us on Loope Canyon Road were busy grading away.
I took a break and enjoyed an apple along with the view of Sagehen Flat and Heenan Lake below. Not a bad place to watch the world go by. Rested, I continued up the hill and joined Jobst at Monitor Pass summit where a white tombstone backed by aspen said 8,314 feet.
55 mph without a helmet
We blasted down the eastern side, buffeted by the usual head- and sidewinds. That didn't stop Jobst from reaching 55 mph. We stopped at creek in the trees so I could fill my water bottle. Nearby Slinkard Valley used to be such a lovely place until the big fire in 2002 that threatened Walker.
On Hwy 395 we had a wonderful tailwind for a mile or so, but the wind died down and even went against us at times. We soldiered on and around 5:45 (114 miles) arrived in Walker, my legs just starting to cramp. Toiyabe Motel offered comfortable beds and lots of cross winds from windows on both sides of the room. We paid the $67 bill and got ready for dinner at the swank Walker Burger across the street. We wolfed down our delicious food in the tree-lined courtyard with an abundance of chirping birds frolicking among bird feeders and bird houses. Jobst drank another gallon of Pepsi and I finished off a $5 "Big Gulp" shake.
A night in Walker
That evening we had no trouble sleeping, except for the next-door occupants who stayed up all hours watching TV. A couple of swift bangs on the wall and "Turn off the damn TV!" by Jobst put a stop to their nonsense.
In the morning we faced the grim reality of not having a hearty breakfast to greet the day. The restaurant next door proved too much work for the owners and now it's for sale. We backtracked a mile to the Walker Trading Post. It wasn't much, but at least we had some food, and gallons of Pepsi. Jobst found a driver's license on the ground and turned it over to the store owner.
Walker River gave no indication that it was low on water after a dry winter. The roaring river rushed past us as we headed up the canyon into the usual morning headwind. At least it wasn't as bad as 2005.
Jobst pointed out the dirt road high up on the hill where Brian Cox and John Woodfill rode a few years back. Hwy 395 was closed so they had no other choice. It connects to Hwy 395 two miles beyond Sonora Junction. Brian and John were surely snakebit on their ride, but we had our own snake to contend with. A dead rattlesnake on the edge of the road prompted Jobst to stop and harvest the rattle.
Our destination was Sonora Pass, so we turned right at the junction, looking for the yellow-headed blackbirds that call this home in the marshes lining the road. We saw a couple speed by as I stopped to take some more Advil just in case. On past the Marine Corps base we rode, noting that this was anything but rugged living for the troops. Looks more like luxury condos.
We enjoyed the view of Pickel Meadow and Walker River, a ribbon of blue rushing down the snowcapped eastern Sierra. "How are we going to get over those mountains?" I asked. We would soon find out.
Sonora Pass at 3 mph
The real climbing begins around Wolf Creek as this steep section prepares you for what's to come. We rode past the former Leavitt Station store, now just a flat stretch of ground across from the Marines' climbing area. Of course, anyone who has ridden up Sonora Pass knows where the fun begins. At the base of the big turn we stopped for some more rocket fuel. Jobst drank a gallon of Pepsi and I ate a candy bar. Waiting for the rider is 708 feet of climbing in 1.1 miles. I saw 22 percent flash by on my inclinometer as I managed a walking speed of 3 mph.
Fortunately we had spectacular weather with refreshing mountain air and filtered sunshine, perfect for climbing. We continued up the pass, which isn't exactly easy in the middle section. It has several steep turns that can be tricky when wet during a descent. They led up to the final half-mile before the summit, which includes an amazingly tricky left turn for someone going down. From the summit you can easily reach 50 mph on the 20 percent grade. At the bottom you'll see a short uphill. Great, something to slow you down. Only it's not enough to slow you down sufficiently without riding the brakes hard for the upcoming tight left turn.
Riding uphill is a different story. Jobst took my photo as I rode ahead. While it's steep, it's half as long as the lower section and before we knew it we were at the summit sharing the road with motorcyclists. Although this has been a dry winter, we saw plenty of snow. We took the obligatory photos and then sped down the pass, negotiating the tricky Golden Stairs 18 percent grade, followed by another steep grade of more than 20 percent to Kennedy Meadows.
In Dardanelle, where we usually grab a bite to eat and Jobst buys another gallon of Pepsi, we found a shuttered store. I stopped to eat the last of my food and drink some water. Jobst rode ahead looking for Pepsi.
We joined up on the long climb to Donnell Lake Vista Point where the Stanislaus River backs up thanks to public works. We looked down from the overlook and noticed water levels a little lower, but not that much.
The ride to Strawberry may seem like a big downhill, but it's not. It has a lot of climbing and long flat stretches. Only in the last mile does the descent begin. We stopped for food at Strawberry Store and once again Jobst downed a burrito and two gallons of Pepsi.
After the break and insightful observations about VW vans, we headed uphill to Cold Springs and then started the long downhill to Sonora. On the way we saw gawkers looking over the edge of a canyon next to the long-abandoned Sugar Pine Ski area (?) where 108 splits. A vehicle had gone over the edge and tow trucks were on the scene.
With continuing cool mountain air, we turned off to Twain Harte and took the old highway 108. It was a nice diversion from the busy 108. It brought us back to 108 and more fast descending next to some disagreeable rumble strips.
We rumbled down the road and turned right at the stop light at Peaceful Oak Road to pick up the 108 bypass. It felt like we were on the 405 heading through LA as we looked down on Sonora. That took us back to Washington Street and a short ride to the hotel, 97 miles later, 3:30 p.m.
Jobst pulled out a fistful of gnarled coins that looked like they had been through a belt sander and declared victory. I rang in with 36 cents, but at least my coins were legal tender. And so ended another Sierra Ride. Time for a Pepsi.