You can see Castle Crags from I5: they’re the fairy-tale spires that sprout from the forest just south of Dunsmuir, the detour there’s never time to make. Here at last, I listen to the semis rattle the state park campground all night and set out for the capital-W Wilderness in the morning. The fog of my breath goes gold in the sun.
The difficulty is, there’s a man stopped in the middle of the trail in front of me. Tall and broad-shouldered, he wears combat boots and fatigues with a white tank top, though it’s cold enough that I’m still in gloves. He’s standing and watching something on his phone with the volume all the way up, laughing loudly at it every so often.
The laugh is not right, nor are the angles of his body, the shape he makes between where I am and where I want to go. I wait downslope hoping he’ll move on—like a bear—and when he doesn’t I approach as loudly as I can, dragging my feet in the dry needles and rustling my jacket. It’s no good: when he finally registers my third “good morning” his head snaps up and he spins around in surprise. This movement is not right, either, ends in a half-crouch on his back foot with his arms spread wide. Even having anticipated this, I flinch.
Once I’ve smiled politely past this man—who says nothing, who stares— I want distance. This isn’t rational or compassionate and because I’m alone I don’t care. I book it for the tree line, where I know the look of blue day against granite will feel safe.
An hour later, though, the same impulse that drove me out of the woods has drawn me up the slabs much farther and more steeply than I can easily reverse. That wasn’t intuition back there, I realize now. I’m half-sliding and half-falling to the bottom of a rock chimney that I knew going up would be trouble going down. I have nothing so useful as good sense. What I have is just misplaced affection, a homing instinct for the sky.
I’ve left blood on the granite and sit for a while with my grated palm in my mouth, peering down the long drop to the highway where toy trucks are crawling up the pass. To the south I have a clear view of the trail switchbacking through manzanita. I can pick out two ascending parties, the man in fatigues returning down—
—and the Earth’s face upward for my inspection.
Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting
Not even fear is ours alone. I imagine an ancestor standing watch, over an empty moor, maybe, over a desert tribe. It came from somewhere, sometime, the conflation of vantage and safety. At some point it might even have made sense.
I do a lot of walking here, to be honest, in deep duff and up silly-steep Jeep roads, sliding out of my shoes, down stair-step boulders too technical for me even on my new bike. But it doesn’t matter; Bear Valley is dreamland—Tahoe without the crowds. We find a walk-in campsite on a Saturday afternoon (?!) and encounter two other riders all weekend. That’s heavenly.
Emigrant Wilderness, 7/6–7/7
Three things I watch through binoculars, my new toy:
I’m looking down onto Relief Reservoir, puzzled. As well as the rippling scales of wind-driven water, the cobalt canvas breathes with strange plumes of swirling white. Shoal of fish? I spin the wheel into focus. No: pollen from the pines on the slopes above, invisible where it falls in their shade and sparkling where it finds the sun. The effect is that the lake reflects a phantom forest, moonlit clouds drifting behind shadowy trees. “What do you see?” asks a man on the trail behind me. “Pollen,” I announce, as this seems the more sensible answer. He’s still looking at me like I’m nuts.
Something slinking and bounding across a ledge on the other side of the river. It’s long and nearly red, not a bear, not a fox, not a mountain lion or a bobcat. I’m resigning myself to a Loch Ness mystery when I remember the binoculars, fumble them frantically to my face (which way?) catch the creature just before it vanishes into a crevasse. Pine marten: rare treasure.
I’m reminded of the inscription over the door of Bass Pro Shops in Manteca, where I’d stopped for paracord and cultural tourism. “Welcome fishermen, hunters, and other liars,” it says.
But it was a marten, I swear! I saw his face!
This is the old-school cross-country we were promised, cliffside catwalks and boulder-strewn switchbacks, barely-there trail petering out into meadows and bogs. It’s a playground for my riding partner and a minefield for me: I crash all of 45 seconds into the descent on Sunday after catching a pedal on a log cut. (“I thought that might happen,” he says as he lifts my bike off me.) My knee balloons as the rest of me deflates proportionally; again I walk most things and again I don’t mind because this place is insane for flowers. There’s Washington and Mariposa lilies, blazing Indian paintbrush, drooping irises, neon fireweed … sunflowers as far as the eye can see.
Halfway down the Downieville Downhill, where the river runs turquoise beneath the oaks, I find a half-rotten box “RIGGED WITH EXPLOSIVES.” It contains leaves and a small pile of mismatched cycling shoes. I would very much like an explanation.
On the deck of the Mills Peak lookout the next day, one of us makes an innocuous comment about the view. “I’m made of views,” replies the ranger from behind the door, “and I’ll show you what I mean.” He returns with a notebook and recites a poem that starts somewhere in the Grand Canyon and ends on “the snowmelt of their birth.” I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to a man in a tower who reads you his poetry, I realize, especially when he retreats to his cot and starts playing harmonica.
I stop in Sacramento on the way up to visit a friend with a yard and power tools and instruction for #vanlife-ing my RAV4. She’s eating keto and therefore so do I; by the time I arrive at Donner Lake the next evening I’m so ravenous for carbs I inhale an entire Mountain House meal for two and a bag of chips. Conceivably this is why riding the next day feels so hard. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We have summoned “Shuttle Bob”—the man, the myth, the legend. Driving this stretch of road yesterday, he says, he hit a snake, which somehow cartwheeled underneath his truck and onto the grill of the one behind him. Bob watched this whole drama unfold in the rearview. Darnedest thing.
I assume this story is not entirely accurate, just as the “Killer Kern” did not claim 43 lives last year; just as the drownings were not all of drunk off-duty guides who’d forsaken the embrace of a lifejacket or a good woman. Nevertheless, I can see the hapless rattler limp and airborne in the mirror as clearly as I see the green water churning in front of my eyes, the last snatch of a tilted horizon before the crush of the last and deepest dark.
Bob thinks I’m one of the guys, which is often my aspiration and anyhow fair enough: I’m misgendered now and then in civilian clothes, never mind plaid baggies. Curiously, though, his conviction persists even after I speak—even after I inquire pointedly after the name of the Beautiful Yellow Flowers edging the switchbacks on Sherman Pass.
“You’ve all ridden Cannell before?” he asks us.
“We have, she hasn’t.”
“He’ll be alright,” Bob says.
I am. The last time we came to Kernville my knee or hip or something couldn’t hack it—so even gasping at the altitude I am grateful to be here now, to skitter down gullies chewed up by dirt bikes, to pinball off the baby-heads and whoop at the berms. The namesake “plunge” roars down toward Lake Isabella across a tawny canvas strewn with granite and splashed with wildflowers—a view that may kill me if I try to take it in without stopping.
Speed and color, I decide, is my wish for the summer. Time to fly, while the days are long. I want to go fast and see beautiful things!
Here my sins against stoke included napping in the shuttle van instead of riding Hardesty and getting so pissed off at Middle Fork—the most miserable, deadfall-strewn, mosquito-ridden bushwack I have ever (barely) pedaled: 57 bites accumulated while sweating it out in a jacket—that I opted for a fire-road climb over a second singletrack descent. This did at least get me to the treeline, where Oregon finally starts to look good. Also on the bright side: Alpine, as always; a fun new stopover loop in Klamath; and great company.
Emigrant Wilderness, 8/12–8/13
Quick trip, the granite bright and the wildflowers extravagant. I would consider this my masterclass in third-wheeling but for the presence of Pickles the very helpful blue heeler, who made us four. At night we all watched the perseids smudge war-paint on the sky.
On the Tahoe Rim Trail we found a dog, a beautiful blonde husky with fur like latte art and eyes like the center of a nebula—not sorry, both are true. It was hot and collarless and wandering in the woods. I was leaving my second voicemail at an animal shelter when its owners (we assume) pulled up in an F150 and snatched the animal back without a word. “You should fucking say thank you, assholes, go to hell!” I yelled after their rising dust as the boys cringed. On reflection, this outburst stemmed from an upbringing on both sides of the pond: I take manners seriously, like a Brit, but escalate like a red-blooded American.
At camp we found … a hailstorm. We fled to dinner in town and watched rainbows over the railroad tracks.
And on Donner Summit we found a giant bonsai garden and a geocache. In it, among other things, were letters to a couple—both dead, the wife just recently—whose friends had hiked to the peak to scatter their ashes. “Thank you for being part of my memory. Seven of us have made the trek this morning to pay our respects. … We uncorked a bottle of $5 wine that tasted like $50. We love you, my friend.” Point in my favor, I managed not cry about that one until I got home.
Ventana Wilderness, 9/2–9/4
From a dirt road pullout high on the ridge, I watched the setting sun drop shafts of light onto the crinkled Pacific through holes in a lid of wildfire smoke. I saw my first tarantula, held my palm to peeling manzanita, and hid in the tent from black flies worse—honest—than anything I can remember from Africa. I revisited Cone Peak, under very different circumstances, and on the coast side of the mountains drove Highway 1 between the mudslides for a preview of the end of the world.
It will be alright, I decided, when it’s all over. This road, these cypress, California, will fall slowly into the sea. The whales will breach with no one watching out where the sky and the water meet, in the same blue haze. A warmer wind will stir the palms. They’ll get too tall to be true.
In the interim, driving home through Fort Hunter Liggett, every massive, moss-draped oak was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.
Concisely: I live for elevation, die at altitude; cursed Mills Peak on the way up, sang its name all the way down; didn’t want to get in Packer Lake and then didn’t want to get out. The usual.
I mostly want to note this insane candy-corn fungus. How does this happen?
Aside from the fact that its main event was mountain biking, the best part of this particular bachelorette party was that these girls were content to Let Me Do Me, no pressure. They toasted with wine and I with tea; they painted their nails while I fastidiously arranged all the polish in a spectrum. ROYGBIV.
At first the trees were radiant, benevolent. I knelt in the needles at their feet and considered praying, probably did. But later on the wind picked up—so gradually I didn’t notice my own rising unease until I lost my GPS track, stopped to pull out a map and registered the muffled howl through the canopy and crack and groan of trunks disappearing into the dark. Small branches rained down around my head as I bolted out of the woods, and though I’d planned on staying for the night I was so relieved to find the car I fled home instead.
As I drove south watching the gale flatten the parched grass along the highway, there was a distinct moment I thought to myself, this would burn like a motherfucker. When the next morning I discovered that it in fact had, there was an infinitesimal and awful moment in which I imagined I had ignited Sonoma County with my mind.
I don’t know why I can’t accept that it is winter here, or that I’m too slow to ride with these guys any more, but on the strength of my denial I pushed my bike through snow and hauled it over and under an endless obstacle course of downed trees. I rode literally half of what everybody else did and still was so tired by the end of the weekend that I hyperventilated at Ten Barrel when the waitress informed me they’d run out of giant cast-iron cookies. They hadn’t, either; this was just the boys’ idea of a joke.
On this trip, I see and declare the coolest thing ever on average once every two waking hours. A sampling:
1. Plow-cut snowbanks fifteen feet high, pickups crumpled inside. It’s like driving alongside a giant slice of ice-cream cake.
2. The shrouded mountains falling away into the desert, like this:
3. Hundreds of sheep scattered across a dead-level pasture. Literal sheep, but everywhere you look one is doing something different: bleating, eating, scratching, kneeling, all under the drifting shadows of fleecy clouds that look just like them. Am I in a Far Side cartoon?
4. My friend the Montanan rolls a tractor tire down a gravel road. It wobbles drunkenly, rights itself, keeps going and going out of sight behind the sagebrush.
5. Abandoned mine works, lumber and wrecked and rusted metal strewn about a gully of ankle-deep gravel so steep that in places I’m clawing up it on all fours. The Montanan, as one might expect, had a childhood full of such excursions and doesn’t want to go any higher; I didn’t and do. We’re about to argue about this when—
6. Fighter jets come howling low and fast down the valley floor. There is an astonishing, unreal moment between seeing them and hearing them and then the thunder rushes into my ribcage through my open mouth. It’s awesome.
7. At Alabama Hills the bright dry washes are full of wildflowers, red-white-yellow-purple-blue. My allergies are horrendous; I can hardly open my eyes; nevertheless I’m belly-down in the sand peering into the blooms with the smile I later realize is the way you’re supposed to look at a (human) baby.
8. A very efficient foot pump for an air mattress.
9. High above the jumbled lava rock at Fossil Falls, a flock of pelicans is dancing a massive, silent ballet. As each bird turns it flashes briefly black and silver, then disappears completely, then reappears in white. The movements are unhurried but the choreography unreadable, animated by invisible intent: the cloud coalesces and evaporates, divides itself, floats back together, rises and falls away.
It’s hypnotic, holy, surely; it feels physically difficult to drop my eyes from the sky to the sand. In the afterimage of the birds I think I see the sleepy flutter of a jellyfish, the roll and ripple of grass in the wind.
10. A 1995 Suzuki Samurai JL, white with pink Dixie-cup accent squiggles. Here my enthusiasm is tinged with some regret for my own vehicle, which has neither the 4WD nor the flair.
11. Joshua trees, hundreds along the highway. We’re going fast so they’re coming at us like aliens, on cruise control so it feels like a spaceship.
12. The Kern River like I’ve never seen it before, a swollen, bottle-green juggernaut. It’s hurling froth and spray over boulders and hapless cottonwoods, roaring down the canyon under the sun.
I want to mention Manzanar, also, although it obviously doesn’t belong on this list. It would have been a different kind of detour a year ago, let’s say that.