We’re not even past Manteca when I wander carelessly into an argument about climate change and the primaries. It ends poorly, with one friend red-faced and seething in the driver’s seat and me in tears, confused—but not really—at how easily I make people angry when I’m only playing a game.
A neutral third party, child of schoolteachers, tries to mediate from the back. It is gently suggested I tend to belabor semantics. (Moi?)
“Listen, have you ever seen Star Trek?”
“I’m not Spock,” I protest, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I’ve heard this one before. “I have feelings.”
Chief among them: I’m tired. In trying to make up for a summer lost to my new job, I set a rat-a-tat cadence of shoulder-season trips I didn’t really have the energy to take. The weekend-warrior maneuvers have always been hard: fractious Friday-night logistics, restless sleep, pre-dawn alarm. Sixteen or so waking hours of the good stuff before the reluctant slog back to reality, straight into the glare of the sun bleeding out in Central Valley smog. Those drives are so much longer than they used be, the dread of the Monday so much heavier in my chest. This late in the year the days are short and cold along the edges.
So what I want to do, if I’m honest, is crib from notes on another day I didn’t feel like trying very hard and have brunch on the deck of the Jamestown Hotel. My friends will not say no to me, now that I’ve scared them by behaving like a girl—so I order French toast and inform them we will be here for a while.
Our waitress is a grandmotherly type in sensible shoes and a black butterfly-sleeved blouse. I can see her pausing over it at the sale rack, a scene so vivid I realize I may cry again when she arrives to take our orders. She moved to Jamestown after a divorce, she says, doesn’t miss him or the city or a single damn thing. She works when they’ll have her. She likes seeing people find a moment to breathe.
The boys make steady progress on biscuits and gravy. When the server returns to distribute the remains of the mimosa pitcher, she just grazes their glasses before chugging the lion’s share into mine with a wink.
“Ready to roll?” one friend asks me tentatively as I finish my drink. We’ve got another hour or so in the car and they want to ride. “No,” I announce gravely. “I want to go antiquing.”
We get to Pinecrest eventually. I bail on a long cross-country route in favor of dozing by the lake like a civilian, guzzling sun in the brief afternoon hours that still look like summer. The crowds are manageable now, and if you keep out of the shadows it’s warm enough.
I do ride a little: just the short stuff, more a vague gesture at the French toast than anything else. There is a moment after dropping in from a road crossing when my friends and the trail turn directly into the setting sun. As they pull away from me they are cast suddenly into silhouettes against their own rising dust, lit deep orange and red through the trees. I hit the brakes, taste the dirt settling on my tongue as I watch them disappear into plumes of light.
Between the first time out and familiarity a lot of Forest Service fire roads look the same. In this case, I’ve confused the ascent of Pinecrest Peak with the long slog up Mt. Hough, which is at least five highways north and much, much harder. When I realize this—after dragging my feet and dreading the climb all morning— I’m so pleased I don’t mind when the trail peters out, that I can’t remember how to mountain bike, or even when the boys lose me in the woods.
There’s still snow up high and it’s too early for the flowers . But from where I sit in the hammock in the campground—inhaling queso fresco, talking shit, breathing woodsmoke—summer is on.
My still-new job and the misguided decision to take allergy drugs mean I arrive in Oakridge—one of my all-time favorite places to ride—in a state of irritable lethargy bordering a medical concern. At the fish hatchery I’ve been hyping for weeks I make it through just three holes of salmon-lifecycle-themed mini-golf (you see why I was excited) before staggering off to sleep on a bench. Later I watch Fourth of July fireworks reflected in the inky river, in part because it’s beautiful and in part because it takes less energy than lifting my head.
Apart from some outstanding trails, Oakridge has a few through-streets, four or five trailer parks, and an often-shuttered Chinese restaurant we’ve always regarded as a kind of joke. This time around, we stop in. Sean has heard the proprietor is in fact the onetime personal chef of Jackie Chan, and that he can be plied with tequila into provisioning off-script dishes and entertainment.
As the DD (for all of four blocks between dinner and motel) I suspect that Mr. Lee is not even remotely as drunk as he’s pretending to be—or serious when he insists we come to stay with him on a dumpling tour of Taiwan. But the food is excellent and his advice is worth considering. The secret to matrimonial bliss, he says, is to transfer your assets to your spouse outright and then encourage her to spend however she likes. “I tell my wife: You like it? Buy it! Just buy it! But if the money’s gone, it’s gone. That’s all you.”
He has arrived at this understanding over the course of several marriages, each of which cleaned him out. He met his current wife when she cut his hair at a salon. He came back daily, nothing left on his head to cut, asking her out until she capitulated. Wrong word?
His father-in-law tells him he’s an idiot. “Maybe I am,” he tell us, “but I’m happy.”
Even if if you don’t count the long stop at the logging museum—where I buy a bird-shaped water whistle and a train t-shirt declaring me “ALL STEAMED UP”—it takes us 12 hours to get home. The combination of holiday and construction traffic has turned the highway rest stops into stations of the apocalypse: idling trucks and fractious dogs and children, bickering in a dozen languages, overflowing toilets and trash. I spend the week that follows wistfully browsing real estate.
The season’s nearly over and we haven’t been backpacking once. We get it together just enough for 18 or so hours in Emigrant, a tease. I’m dizzy and wheezing from the altitude, but the light in the morning‘s a balm and the water, once I inch my way in, a cool caress.
This trip has two offenders. One is Maddie the dog, who limps and lags and pants until she cons me into lobbying for the removal of her backpack—and then bolts off into the woods like a track sprinter. The second is the garbage human flying a drone over the lake.
“NO DRONES IN THE WILDERNESS,” Ryan yells down to their Instagram-able hammocks on the shore. This of course is all anyone can do. But vivid fantasies of a sharp shot from a BB gun—also, obviously, not allowed in the wilderness—down to the bite of granite on my elbows, the pop and the whine and clatter of the wounded machine—carry me all the way down to the car.
I’m sick and sitting out the first day’s ride as a sort of sacrificial offering, as if a cold can be negotiated with. Walking alone in the woods instead I encounter a snake, an encampment, a creepy pile of rotting clothing, and a stretch of trail that smells suddenly and powerfully like a railroad track. There’s no reason for this that I can see. Just Gold Country shadows and ghosts.
Back in town I watch two kids—maybe nine or ten—as they record a third cannonballing off the bridge into the river. They take turns working the cell phone and shuttling the performer’s Crocs back and forth. They debrief. (“So-o sketch, bro. That one was so sketch.”)
It’s a nontrivial jump with signage strenuously forbidding it. I wouldn’t have tried it at their age, and though I think I’m braver now I know I’m not brave enough. Over the course of what I’ll call my career as an editor I have by coincidence worked on three separate pieces featuring an interviewee who paralyzed themselves jumping into rivers or lakes, and the act of dissecting each scene down to the comma has given cliff-diving and the like a special place in my anti-repertoire, the things I will not do. I’m glad when the kid quits for pizza.
When I ride, even somewhere familiar, I take very few bridge-grade risks. The consequences are too high, and the payoff—given that my bravest moments on a bike are routine for everyone else—almost nonexistent. So when I crash these days it’s usually somewhere unexpected: in this case, on a flat, fast corner 30 seconds from the car. I’ve been trying to hold Ryan’s wheel. I insist it had been going, up until that point, pretty well.
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)_/¯