Saturday, June 18, 2011

Well, I'm home

Sorry for the lack of updates during the last part of my trip, but after leaving Lone Pine everything started happening far too quickly, and so I didn't really get a good chance to sit down and write without the feeling that I'd be doing everything a disservice without knowing how the current episode was going to play out. Now, though, I know how it all ends (admittedly, right now I don't, as I'm writing this the night before arriving home, but, well, at this point, my vehicle had better not break down again or else, well, that'd be very, very bad).
So, where I left off: I'd just arrived in Lone Pine. My first two days in Lone Pine were spent sleeping in and gathering supplies. I needed food for my hike, albeit not much, and I decided I wanted that food to have the option of being hot, so I got a tiny camping stove (this has the added benefit of being able to quickly melt snow into drinking water). I also needed to pick up a bear canister, due to their habit of eating food brought by campers (and, on quite rare occasions, the campers themselves), and I needed to get my permit from the ranger station in town. All of this took only a very short while, and the rest of the time was largely spent reading and then fixing the muffler on the bike, as it'd gotten further damaged.
Quick note as to the construction of the muffler system on a Nighthawk: It's a two-cylinder engine, and it's got two mufflers. They emerge at the top front of the engine, one on either side, and then curl down the front and then beneath the bottom of the engine, just off to the sides, and continue on back to the rear of the bike. The mufflers themselves don't start until behind the engine; everything in front of that is just pipe directing gases. Beneath the engine a pipe goes across between the two mufflers, to redirect the flow in case either one gets blocked at the end (at least, that's what I think its purpose is). Overall, the system (or at least the part of it with which I was concerned) is a capital H shape.
The previous damage had been that one of the connection points between the pipe, muffler, and bypass pipe had completely failed – each part was broken off from each other, so there were three bare pipe endings just sort of sitting there in space with a small gap between them. Fixing such a junction is hard, because there's no easy way to wrap anything around it and get a perfectly opposing anchor point.
Sometime after the accident in Utah but before arriving in Lone Pine, the bypass pipe had fallen off, leaving both mufflers with holes. Based on the gas mileage (good on one tank and then bad the next), I think it happened somewhere either shortly before or in Death Valley. Despite the fact that, technically speaking, this problem was worse, two holes instead of one, it was significantly easier to fix – the holes were bigger, and there were two, but by hose-clamping pieces of sheet metal around the pipes, they were as good as new (minus the lack of the bypass, meaning I had to make sure no hooligans stuck potatoes or anything like that in the mufflers). It was eerie how quiet the bike was – coasting back from Whitney with the engine idling (due to there being a mile of elevation loss in 13 miles of road, I only needed to actually use the engine at the very end), I couldn't hear it over the wind.
Anyway, motorcycle fixing accomplished, and reading accomplished, as well (I finished The Lost City of Z, a good book about the Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett), it was time for Mt. Whitney.
I decided before starting that 'd hike to Trail Camp and no further. Trail Camp is at 12,000 feet, six miles up the trail from the 8,000 foot or so trailhead. It's the last campsite before the summit, which is at a bit over ten miles along the trail, and at an elevation of 14,497.61 feet (although on a summit that's probably covered in dirt and gravel, I don't know how they measure the elevation to an accuracy of a hundredth of a foot or, roughly, the thickness of a nickel). It's also the last spot that was reachable (safely and sanely, even by my distorted standards of each) without an ice ax (pretty self explanatory) and crampons (spikes you strap onto your feet). I don't have either of those, and I decided to not rent them as a way of forcing myself to stop at that point.
I left town shortly before eight and arrived in Whitney Portal, the base of the trail, at shortly after eight. There isn't anything there except a store selling last-minute essentials, which in my case meant a map (I thought I had sent mine home, although I later found it at the very bottom of my motorcycle dashboard bag) and breakfast. I'd read on the online forums about the delicious pancakes made by the store, so I ordered one of those. I thought it odd that the menu listed pancake, singular, and not pancakes, but once it was prepared I understood: the singular pancake was probably sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter and in the middle approaching an inch thick, and when draped across two paper plates only slightly overlapped it still hung off both sides (long-ways, of course). I ate a small amount of it and saved the rest in a ziploc bag for later (although I never did end up finishing it).
Breakfast and map acquired, I set out up the trail. The first part wasn't that much different from trails in the Blue Ridge – the section I hiked had a gain of 4,000 feet over six miles, which isn't that much different of a grade from something like Humpback Rocks (although, for comparison, this hike started at roughly 2,500 feet above Virginia's highest point, Mt. Rogers, which is about 5,500 feet at the top).
The first part of the trail was, I'd say, even easier than Humpback – the slope was shallower due to the large number of switchbacks (only around two dozen, though – one late section of the trail, past Trail Camp so not a section I hiked, is called the 99 Switchbacks, but even that's an understatement, as it's actually somewhere in the 140s). That stretched about two and a half miles up to Lone Pine Lake, the point at which the permit became necessary (although the ranger who's supposed to check them wasn't there).
There had only been a few spots before the lake where the trail had snow, but past the lake it was almost non-stop. The first section was a winding trail through rocks and snow to get up to the first main campground, Outpost Camp, at three and a half miles along the trail. I'm not sure how good of a campground this actually is, as it seemed to be not much more than a shrub-filled swamp with a few dry spots at the west end, but there were tents there, so I suppose it counts.
I chatted briefly with the ranger, who was walking the trail instead of just waiting at Lone Pine. He didn't check my permit.
From this point on, it was entirely snowy, icy slopes. Immediately out of the campsite, the trail was a series of switchbacks, but because of the snow, the only viable route was straight up, cutting across all of them (it was tough to tell that it was even supposed to be switchbacks). This point led to a trail over some large rocks, at the end of which was a long, tall slope of snow, periodically interrupted by massive boulders. It was less intimidating than the slope up to the summit of Mt. Elbert, primarily because I'd already climbed Elbert and thus knew that it was doable, even by someone inexperienced like me, but the fact that I was carrying 57 pounds on my back (they have a scale at the trailhead) certainly added a bit of difficulty.
This section was about a mile long, gently tapering off at the top until where it reached Trail Camp, and it took me about an hour. A relatively sizable lake lies right to the side of the trail, and it was barely visible, just discolored ice.
Overall, it took me about six hours to make it the six miles to Trail Camp, which is, somehow, faster than the predicted pace. The rule I've heard is to assume an hour for each two miles and an hour for each thousand feet of elevation gain, but given that I knew I only had to do six miles and not the full ten and change to the top, I could move a bit faster.
Just as I was walking into Trail Camp, it began to snow. Not terribly heavily, but enough that by whenever in the night it stopped, it had left a noticeable amount, maybe a quarter inch or so, on previously bare surfaces.
At Trail Camp I found a spot surrounded by some improvised rock wall and began to set up my tent inside it, but there weren't spots to properly secure the stakes, so I had to move to slightly more exposed ground twenty or thirty feet away. I left my stuff here and climbed up onto a nearby slope (the southern face of Woten's Throne, a big rock formation towering a few hundred feet over the camp) to look for a better spot, either on the slope or visible below, but I couldn't find one. Upon returning to boulders next to the trail, it took me a good ten minutes to find where I'd left my things, despite my things including two bright red poles stuck vertically in the ground in, as I said, an exposed area.
Note to non-mountain-people: When I talk of a landscape with boulders, you might initially think of a field with a big rock sitting in it. This isn't quite what it's like. Imagine taking a handful of dirt and a handful of gravel, mixing them together quite well, shaking it all up, and then pouring this into a bowl (and then, of course, make everything a few hundred times bigger). That surface, with dirt and buried stones all intermixed so that there are flat spots of dirt, mounds of stones, and plenty of places where there's a mixture of the two intermingled, is what it's like.
Anyway, that's where I camped. I had everything set up by around five, and after cooking dinner and doing a bit of clean-up from that, it was six. I was tired from lugging myself and a third of my body weight all the way up to the camp, but I knew if I went to sleep right then I'd wake up around 3 am. Had I been continuing to the summit in the morning, that'd have been perfect, but as I was just hiking down, I didn't particularly want to wake up before sunrise. I read the introduction to Tom Sawyer, and then lay there for a while thinking my usual middle-of-nature philosophizing while listening to the snow land on the tent. It was somewhere in the twenties outside, or would get there overnight, but my sleeping bag (a zero-degree mummy bag) worked just fine at keeping my warm.
For someone who enjoys camping, I actually sleep really badly in tents. Not sure why. The fact that I never carry a pillow probably plays a role, but I also like to splay out a lot when I sleep, and sleeping bags and narrow sleeping mats atop cold, rocky ground really don't mesh with that desire. Anyway, despite a rather sleepless night, the morning came. I slept enough, somewhere between three and six hours, I'd guess, after lying there for between nine and twelve. I'm quite good at keeping myself entertained with just my thoughts (anyone who's gone on a long-distance motorcycle trip probably is, or else the hours with nothing to distract you, not even music to listen to, just the road occupying a bit of your brain and your body fully constrained by the task, would drive you mad) so it didn't bother me.
I awoke in the morning to find that the snow had stopped. My portable weather radio thingy with built-in thermometer told me that the current temperature was 27 degrees, and that was inside my tent, so outside was probably a degree or two colder. Keep in mind, if you've lost track of the date in this narrative, that this was the morning of June 8th.
I got up and explored a bit more up on Woten's Throne, but I didn't get very high up before I didn't feel safe climbing on the icy rock. When I go back to climb Whitney in a warmer month I'll take chalk and climbing shoes and go to the top. Technically speaking it isn't that tough, certainly not worse than a 5.7, and there's probably a route up that isn't even a 5. Still, more than I wanted to do that morning, improperly prepared, carrying a camera case.
I packed up camp and headed down. No bears had attempted to get into my bear canister, luckily. Even though they're kinda designed for that sort of thing, I think I might have a hard time getting my deposit back on the rental if it had massive claw and teeth marks in it.
There's a small lake at Trail Camp (it's more of a pond, but the map calls it a lake). Without a map, you would've had absolutely no way of knowing about it, due to the snow. I hope the ice is thick enough to support a person's weight, but I certainly didn't search it out to find out. On the way down, the new snow had also made the significantly larger lake below Trail Camp (I think it's called Consultation Lake, but I could be wrong, however shocking that might sound) completely invisible. It just looked like a flat, surprisingly level and rock-free meadow.
I took two wrong turns on the way down. Neither was really an issue. The first took me down a steep snow- and ice-covered slope instead of down the switchbacks above Outpost Camp, but it was interesting, it gave me a chance to do a bit of glissading, and I got to see the remains of my first natural avalanche (as opposed to the tiny one I prompted on Wheeler Peak). It was different than the Wheeler one, anyway: whereas that was nothing but loose snow, a liquid flow of it, this one seemed to have been more a rockslide of blocks of ice and packed snow, far less fluid and probably less graceful but more intimidating. Either way, it seems to have happened during the night, so probably no one saw it to tell one way or the other.
Below the avalanche (below as in farther down the slope, not below as in buried by) was Outpost Camp. On the way up I had climbed to one rock overlooking the Camp, to get a good view of it, and on the way back I did so again, but with a different rock. From this rock I slid down to another and then planned to make my way across the slope to the far end of the camp.
One important fact to realize is that, because of the snow the previous night, the ground was four layers: there was the ground itself, rock and dirt; there was the underlying dense snowmelt from the winter, there was the crust of ice atop this that I discussed in my explanation of postholing (which luckily only happened once or twice on this hike, with no ill consequences), and there was that night's snow. This made getting a good foothold difficult, if the slope was too steep: the snow atop ice was quite slippery, and due to the large discrepancy between daytime and nighttime temperatures the ice crust was thick. It's these conditions that make an ice ax useful, as you can easily drive its serrated pick through the ice to get a hold if you start to fall. Getting through any other way is difficult, and can't really be counted on in a time of need.
However, I was rather in that time of need. Because I'd reached my spot by sliding down a slope too steep to walk, just retracing my path wasn't possible. Likewise, going straight down wasn't possible, because I had no way to self-arrest (slow my speed of descent) without an ice ax and it was too far, and onto too uneven a pile of rocks, to slide. I had to continue on sideways, but I could barely stand on the slope, even after driving the edges of my boots into the snow/ice as far as possible (these are the conditions that make crampons useful).
If I had been forced to go down, I probably could've made it. I would've tied as long a cord to my pack as I could've managed and slid that down first, and then just aimed for the best spot and prepared for the impact at the bottom. However, I did have one tool, or pair of tools, that might be useful, and those were my hiking poles, which, however silly I thought them before this trip, have actually proven to be quite the lucky addition to my gear.
I was, mostly, able to drive them through the ice crust, due to their relatively sharp steel tips (not sharp, per se, but small, about the size of a ball-point pen tip, so capable of generating great pressure). About two-thirds of the time I could get them all the way through and also into the couple feet of snow below, but other times I could only get them partly through, embedded a few inches. When they went all the way through they provided a perfectly stable handgrip, but when they went only partway in, they held if I had my feet planted and were iffy otherwise.
By leapfrogging these over each other a foot or two at a time, I was able to slide over to the next rock pile, and from there to the final one at the end of the slope overlooking the camp. From there I could reach the proper trail again, and continue down.
(I should clarify here that although the slope was too steep to walk across or control my slide down, it was by no means a vertical wall or anything approaching it. Taking into account the fact that people are terrible at judging slopes, it was probably 45 degrees. I'd guess it to be steeper but people normally vastly overestimate. Regardless, try turning an ice rink to the slope of a staircase and see how you can manage, even if it seems not that bad when thinking about it in the abstract of just 45 degrees.)
From here I made a similar poor choice of path when descending to Lone Pine Lake, but the snow here was easier to get a grip in and the ice was easier to pierce with the hiking poles, and I had more practice at this point. After Lone Pine Lake, there were only a few spots of trail left. It was just hiking the last few miles down the gravel trail through the trees, down the switchbacks, back to the trailhead, and then biking back into town. I had skipped breakfast because I didn't feel like cooking, so I went across the street from my motel and had one of Lone Pine's delectable veggie burgers. Seriously, that town has awesome veggie burgers. Every place I went (a whopping total of three, including the Whitney Portal Store but not counting the Subway) had them on the menu, and the two I tried were both delicious.
I packed everything up and mailed a second box home, making it so that, surprisingly enough, I actually had some empty space in my bags for the first time during the trip.
I decided at this point to change my plan. Well, I decided during my malaise in Leadville to change the plan after Whitney, but it wasn't until this point that I made my new plan: head out to the Pacific, specifically, Monterey, then ride down the Pacific Coast Highway to a bit north of LA before cutting east to Austin, Texas, due to suggestions from multiple friends, and then from there, home, through the south on some route that would intersect my old roommate's Bike And Build trip. I booked my places to stay through Austin, at two KOA campgrounds and then a motel in Austin itself (I was also spending one night along the coast, but that would be at a national park campground that didn't accept reservations). From Austin, then, it'd be another three days of riding, and then I'd be home.
Heading out of Lone Pine, the ride started out going pretty well. The chain on the bike had developed a bit of a habit of coming off the rear axle, doing so twice on the way to Lone Pine and then once shortly after leaving. It was probably due in part to the accident on Pike's Peak, as it happened then, and the accident in Utah certainly didn't help, either, as it happened there, as well. After this it was loose, so a bad combination of braking and shifting gears while moving at the right speed would knock it loose. Easy enough to fix, but annoying.
Well, about two-thirds of the way to Monterey, it came off again, and this time got stuck somehow such that I needed to remove one of the side panels near the engine in order to jiggle it around to get it back in place. Unfortunately, I didn't have the tools to do that, as I needed an 8mm socket and I only had a very cheap 8mm flat wrench. Luckily, after being stopped at the side of the road for upwards of an hour, a guy passing by stopped, and happened to have the right tools. However, even though it was temporarily fixed, the chain really needed either seriously tightened or replaced.
I managed to make it to Monterey, although about three hours later than planned, and due to that and weather conditions I bailed on the campground idea and instead opted for a motel. In the morning I took the bike to a repair place (morning #2 starting in a bike shop), and they replaced the chain, and suggested that I get the rear sprocket replaced as soon as possible, too, although they didn't have the proper one in stock.
In Monterey, while waiting on the bike repairs, I walked over to the ocean and dipped my fingers in the Pacific, about two weeks after swimming in the Atlantic.
As I was leaving Monterey, I noticed that the rear tire was showing serious wear. Specifically, the rubber in one spot had worn away far enough to expose the underlying fabric (rubber on its own is pretty strong, but the added reinforcement of fabric or metal embedded in the rubber makes it even stronger). This is, to put it mildly, not good, as that means there isn't much tire left, and when it's the drive tire on a motorcycle that's doing five hundred miles a day at 60 miles an hour, that's not going to last very long. Blowouts on cars suck. It can damage the rim and, if the conditions are bad, can jeopardize your control of the vehicle. Blowouts on motorcycles, especially at highway speeds, are many times worse, due to both the fact that it's one of two tires instead of one of four and the fact that while cars are inherently stable, with their default position being upright, motorcycles are not. If you just stop doing anything to a car, it'll drift to a stop eventually with no real issues. If you just stop managing a bike, for example, if your attentions drifts for a few seconds because your tire just burst, the bike loses balance, and that isn't good. Quite bad, in fact.
I was already on the famed Pacific Coast Highway, CA-1 along Big Sur, at this point, and I figured (correctly, there isn't any surprise disaster coming, at least not yet) that I had enough tire left to make it to San Luis Obispo at the south end of the desolate (human-civilization-wise) stretch of parkland.
The ride was beautiful. The winds at points were annoying, but that's the case with most roads, and given that this was right along the coast, it easily could've been a lot worse. The only problem I ran into was that I wanted to stop every few miles to visit the beach. I'll need to visit some other time when I have a week to see just that hundred-odd-mile stretch of road. Maybe I'll try it on a regular bicycle instead of a motorcycle.
Anyway, I made it to San Luis Obispo to the south, with just enough time to go by one of the motorcycle shops. They had the right tire in stock, but they didn't have time to install it that night. I said I'd be back in the morning and went off to find a motel.
I have a problem where I lose track of time like it's my job. When I'm doing something largely untethered like this trip, it's even worse, as I drift in both time and date. When you combine that with the fact that I don't know the schedules for random west-coast universities, you get the result that I had no idea it was Friday, and Cal Poly's graduation was the following morning in SLO. Finding an open room, okay, that actually wasn't difficult. Finding an open room for a price I was willing to pay, though, wasn't possible, so I had to go a town or two north and stay in a park service campground (which still cost as much as a cheap motel). When I got back into town the next morning, the size of the section of fabric wear on the tire had increased substantially, from maybe an inch long to four inches long, going through two separate fabric layers. Given that my next stretch took me across a few thousand miles of desert, it was a good thing I caught the problem when I did.
I got the new tire and I set out, headed east for the first time that trip. I had a reservation at a KOA in Blythe.
Here's a hint: I don't know if it applies to everyone (well, I know for a fact that it doesn't, but anyway), but if you want to ensure that you'll run into mechanical difficulties that mess with your schedule, make a reservation at a KOA. They have a mystical power of just picking up a sledgehammer and going at whatever means of transportation I'm using (well, so far just the bike).
Anyway, I was rolling through the Desert Cities (the stretch of I-10 in California from Palm Springs to Coachella) when, all of a sudden, the bike engine starts rapidly losing power. I pull into a gas station (the last one for twenty miles, as the bike luckily started dying less than a mile before the last exit of the cities) and see large quantities of oil all over, well, pretty much everything around the engine. I refill the oil, turn the bike back on, and confirm, yep, it's leaking oil. A lot. And due to the engine temperature, I can't do much, so I head inside to let it cool down for a while. After it's all cooled down, I make sure the oil is at the proper level and turn it back on. No oil seems to be leaking, so I head back for the interstate, three quarts of oil and a gallon of water crammed various places in my bags, as I'm heading into twenty miles of desert, and still have 90 miles to get to Blythe.
I just switched to present tense instead of past. Oops. Well, I'll leave it like that. Just don't think I didn't notice.
Anyway, I'm heading out of the parking lot, but the power doesn't seem right. I glance down and, yep, still leaking oil. I head into the nearest town with a motel, Indio, a mile or two to the west, and wait.
The next day is Sunday and nothing's open, so I just wait and nap and read. I finish Tom Sawyer and start The Screwtape Letters (I want to like C.S. Lewis, but he's just terrible at that whole “subtlety” thing), but that's not terribly interesting.
Monday comes. I take the bike to the shop and walk over to the nearest bookstore, well, the nearest store with books, which is a Target, and pick up The Devil and the White City, about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It's excellent.
I read and nap more that day, and in the afternoon get a call that, well, the bike could be fixed, but it'd take at least a week and cost at least $700 in labor, before parts are taken into account, and it'd need a good deal of those. Basically, the engine needs completely redone. I pick it up from the shop and get it to limp back to the motel, but it isn't making it home under its own power.
I'd talked over this possibility with my parents the previous day, and had settled on a somewhat strange plan for if it was unfixable, or if it'd take too long to fix (I have work in Pennsylvania starting on the 23rd, and it's a four-day bike ride from Indio to Charlottesville, so there was only a week to get it fixed, and even that'd really be pushing it). The plan, as you may have noticed in a Twitter update I posted, was to mail it.
Well, not technically mail. I used UPS, not the USPS.
The following day, Tuesday the 14th, was a fun day. First thing in the morning I walked to a rental car place and picked up an SUV, and from there I promptly went to UPS to get boxes, Home Depot to get tools, and Target to get ziploc bags for bolts. I then spent the next seven hours in the parking lot of a Motel 6 completely disassembling the motorcycle, part for part. One box held the wheels, one held the body panels and the assorted bolts and small stuff, and one held the frame and the electrical system, as well as the shock absorbers. The gas tank got its own box. Originally I'd been planning on having the engine be my airline carry-on, but it was too greasy, so I wrapped it in some trash bags and headed into the UPS store to ship some of the boxes and pick up boxes for the engine.
When I got boxes in the morning (and then again at lunchtime), I had made passing reference to the fact that I was shipping a motorcycle, but I don't think they quite understood what that entailed. That trip, I carried in two boxes, one about 70 pounds, one 82, and both large enough to fit several bodies (possibly with a bit of dismemberment involved). I just brought in the raw gas tank and got a box for it and packed it on the spot, as it was small and easy to pack. I was about to purchase another couple boxes and some bubble wrap when the guy at the counter pointed out that they'd box up whatever you brought in for a couple bucks. I let out a probably somewhat disturbing laugh and walked outside, and walked back in from the parking lot carrying a 90-pound engine, still with cables, hoses, and kickstand attached. I set it down on the counter and just said, “Have fun.”
He found it entertaining, luckily, or else I'd be preparing right now for one of my packages to be mysteriously lost in transit.
I had to take in the final box, the one with the wheels, the next morning, as it wouldn't all fit in the back of the Jeep at the same time. I then dropped off that rental car and immediately picked up another one, as I needed to get to LAX for my flights home this evening (the first one of which I'm writing this during). While waiting to pick up the second one I read an article saying that, although I had found it absurdly hot, Indio and the area was actually going through an abnormally cold year:there had only been one day out of the first two weeks of June that was over 100 degrees, and that was the previous day, when I'd spent seven hours in the sun on asphalt disassembling the bike, at 108.
I took my time getting to LA, as I had to check out of my motel at noon but didn't depart until half past midnight. I had an excellent lunch at a little taco restaurant in Indio (one good thing about being so close to Mexico is that the Mexican food is delicious) and took three stops while driving to read a bit. Upon arriving at LAX I checked in, and found that my bags were slightly overweight, by a total of about four pounds, meaning instead of costing $60 to check them, it'd cost $160 (I'd basically just shoved my camping backpack in one duffel bag and the saddlebags in another). I'd need to get them down to 50 pounds each to prevent that. After much shuffling, including switching my FiveFingers that I'd been wearing with the boots I'd packed and deciding to sacrifice my shampoo, bottle of water, and sunscreen, and packing one FiveFinger shoe in each bag, I got them each to come in at 49.5 pounds. I checked them through, carried my daypack and motorcycle helmet up through security, and flew home.

Now that the detailed travelogue is done, time for all the inevitable philosophizing that naturally springs forth from adventures like this.
One thought that's been on my mind a lot in the past week has been that I need to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I've read a passage or two in philosophy classes, but only a few pages. However, it struck me, both while just riding and actually doing maintenance, how necessary a sense of focus and calm is when traveling extended distances. For the riding itself, you need to be able to remain focused on the road, completely on the road, while at the same time have your mind free to wander. If it isn't free to wander you'll burn out far too quickly, or at least I would. Riding isn't a stimulating enough activity (except on Californian highways, due to lane splitting being legal) to occupy me for the ten hours a day it sometimes had to, and so my I know have four pages of story ideas as well as seven different iPhone apps to write, as well as a song to attempt to compose. For the maintenance, you need to be able to pull together what you have with you, your knowledge of what's wrong, and your ideas about how to make it right, in order to do a quick patch on a 350-pound hunk of steel and rubber that'll soon be carrying you and a hundred pound of projectiles immediately behind you down the road at 80 mph (not that I would ever break the speed limit, of course). It takes confidence in your abilities and a calmness to ride anyway, even if you know things aren't perfect. Now, it wasn't quite this intense for me, as none of my fixes were the sort that'd cause a crash if they failed, but I think I could have managed if they had been.
This adventure stood in stark contrast to my last big adventure, Vietnam, in that this one was almost entirely transient, moving quickly from place to place, whereas in Vietnam we spent over a month in just one city (and then traveled around, to be sure, but the big part of the Asia section was just in Hue). Afterward we went to Europe, which was moving around, but staying in each place for longer.
As long as I can remember I've broken adventuring and wisdom-gathering in general (of which I consider adventuring a subset) into two groups. (These are by no means groups that I came up with myself; I'm certain they are not, and that I heard them somewhere else, although I'm not positive where. It may have been a book by Jostein Gaardner about Christmas that my parents used to read me each year, but it may also not have been. Anyway, point being, not my original idea, I just like it.) The way I remember it being explained was as a comparison of two desert wise men. One sits on a camel, and travels all across the world, learning a little bit about everything there is to see. The other sits atop an astronomy tower and, night after night, studies a single constellation, perhaps a single star, until he knows it completely, in and out. The analogy to adventuring should be clear. Having now tried both, I think I prefer the latter, and hopefully I'll get a chance to do more of it. I want to return to Vietnam and spend a lot more time there. It's a beautiful country, and there's something about the culture that's also quite intriguing. It'd help to learn Vietnamese (or at the very least French), but I have a few years until I'd be able to return anyway, so if I can work up the motivation, I'll give that a shot.

Well, that was the trip. I'm sure I'll write more about it when I post photographs, but that probably won't be for another day or two as I still need to transfer them over to my Mac and then sort through them all. (Also, I apologize if there are any typos or misspellings in this post, but it was primarily written on the plane ride home, which means I'd been up for twenty-four rather busy hours, and as such was a little tired.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The past four or so days

Sorry about the long time with no post, but once I got back to Leadville from Colorado Springs I was pretty busy for a few days.

After leaving Leadville I went to Taos, New Mexico. It's a little tourist town in northern New Mexico primarily centered around outdoorsy stuff in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, and just general southwestern-style Indian-themed stuff for people from Colorado who don't want to have to go too far south. I rolled in about midday after a mostly uneventful ride. I had a bit of trouble balancing all my bags on the bike, as I had accumulated a bit of stuff in Leadville, but I managed without crashing.
Upon arriving in Taos I realized I had a voicemail message on my phone (it's hard to hear anything above the sound of the engine of the motorcycle, especially with a somewhat-busted muffler). I'll write a whole post about that message later, but in this case later probably won't be until the end of the summer.
Once in Taos, I dropped all my stuff in a motel and set out in search of maps of Wheeler Peak, the hike I wanted to do the next day. After the troubles on Mt. Elbert I wanted to make sure that I had a damn good map.
I was able to find a quite good one, in what seems to be Taos's only outdoors store (the only one of which I could find any mention, at the very least). The cashier warned me, though, that there'd be two feet of snow on the mountain above 10,000 feet (that is, the entire length of the trail). A bit more than I'd like, but I wasn't going to let the weather stand in the way of another hike. This one was only to a bit more than 13,000 feet anyway, so at the very least there was less height to climb.
Someone in the restaurant I'm in just ordered a Miller Lite. It should be pointed out that I'm here for breakfast on a Sunday.
Anyway, after getting the map and a guide to the hike I headed back to the motel and got to sleep early, as I wanted to wake up before 6 the following morning. That didn't quite happen.

I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and managed to make it to the trailhead by 8. The trailhead was in the Taos Ski Valley, a small town (I believe the population is ~47, no joke) in the mountains outside of Taos that is, as you could probably guess, primarily concerned with skiing. The hike broke down into two parts. The first two miles was a hike up to William's Lake, a small (one or two acre, I would guess) lake at a hair over 11,000 feet. It was an easy hike, the kind I'm used to from Virginia. Elevation-gain-wise, even Humpback Rocks is more difficult (and as for the altitude, I was pretty much completely acclimated to Leadville's 10,000 feet at this point). I stopped at the lake for a breakfast of trail mix and to watch the chipmunks scurry around. Taos Ski Valley has chipmunks like UVA has squirrels. It's awesome.
Once I was ready to go I checked my GPS to see how far it was from there to the summit. It said about 4,000 feet. Not that hard. The hard part (that you already realize if you've been keeping track of all the numbers I've tossed around) is that there was also 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
(Aside: For those of you who don't have experience hiking tall mountains, for each 1,000 feet, imagine taking the stairs to the upper observation deck of the Empire State Building. It's about comparable.)
There was a trail that led from the lake to the summit along a slightly longer and less steep route (it probably stretched the distance out to a mile and a half of lateral motion), so I took this. The main change was over the first 500 feet of elevation gain, which wasn't too terribly much steeper than the earlier part of the trail, but it, like the trail up to the lake, was covered in fairly deep snow. On the way up, it was still early (I got to the lake around 9 and headed up around 9:15), so postholing wasn't too much of an issue.
(Another aside: “Postholing” is one of those terms used on internet forums that's never defined. If you've ever been hiking in the winter in an area where there's season-long snow cover, it doesn't need defined, as once you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Over the course of the winter, when the temperature gets above freezing, the uppermost snow melts, seeps down, and re-freezes, leaving a fairly strong top surface but normal fluffy snow below. If you're lucky you don't break through the top surface and it's just like walking on rough ice or dirt. If the ice isn't strong enough, you sink straight down, into snow that can be up to a few feet deep, as if you've just stepped into a post-hole. It happens more in the afternoon after the snow has had a chance to melt, but hasn't refrozen over the night.)
After that, it hit the last mile or so, where there was still 1,500 feet to gain. The first quarter or so was spent getting to the treeline, hiking up the rocky side of a chute of snow. After that, it was more rocks, just a steep, steep rocky slope, occasionally having to cross a bit of snow. There was a fair amount of snow, maybe a quarter of the mountain, but it was easy enough to avoid. The wind was strong, probably upwards of 60mph at the top, but not unmanageable (it was nothing compared with Pike's Peak).
Once I got to the top, I realized that the southern side of the mountain had significantly more snow – although it gets more sun, I guess the strong wind out of the north melts more snow. The summit itself was snow-free, except for a bit underneath some rocks piled to mark the top.
Also, marmots! It's good to know that no matter how good humans get at climbing mountains, marmots will be better. There were, in addition to the countless (okay, not countless, I did count: eleven, I think) marmots I saw on the way up, three just chilling on the summit as I approached. They scampered away once I got too close, but they were just sitting there, enjoying the view from 13,000 feet.
I got to the top a few minutes before noon, so over two and a half hours after leaving the lake. I stayed for a few minutes to take pictures before starting down a bit after noon. The first part of the descent was on the slow side – the highest part of the slope was nothing but talus and scree, so it was important to keep a steady footing while descending (although there were certainly parts where I felt like the illustration from the Magic card Avalanche Riders).
After that first part that was only rock, it sped up. The snow was avoidable, if I had wanted to avoid it, but that really didn't seem fun. There's a technical mountaineering term called “glissading” (not to be confused with the ballet term of the same name) that's basically a fancy-sounding French word for “sledding down a mountain without a sled”. Theoretically you do it with an ice ax to keep your speed in check, but I didn't have an ice ax, so my feet and my hiking poles had to do. And they worked masterfully – although it had taken me nearly three hours to get from the lake to the summit, it took me less than an hour to get down, because of the 2,000 feet I needed to descend, I'd estimate that at least a thousand of those were just sliding down the snow.
Back at the lake I took some pictures of the chipmunks before heading down. New Mexico is a really good state for seeing rodents: in addition to the marmots and chipmunks on Wheeler, I saw my first prairie dog in the wild in New Mexico, and also saw, although by no means for the first time, plenty of rabbits.
I got lunch (gazpacho) at the Bavarian Restaurant, conveniently located at the base of the trail (which happens to also be the base of the ski lift), and headed back to Taos proper. I did a bit of souvenir shopping for people (a reminder to people who have reason to believe you'll be getting something: keep in mind that I have highly limited packing space). Then, random work that needed to be done and then packing, and bed.

Desert Solitude:
The following morning was shipping a box of stuff home to Virginia so that I had less stuff with which to bike, and setting off for Shiprock, New Mexico, and then Page, Arizona. Shiprock was cool to see – it's a massive rock formation – but it was just a quick stop to admire it and take a few pictures. After that, on to Page.
Page is best known as a town set up to house the workers building the Glen Canyon Dam. As some of you know, I rather like Edward Abbey, and Edward Abbey rather hated Glen Canyon Dam, as he loved Glen Canyon, which was effectively destroyed by it (the canyon is still there, but it's now completely filled with water and known as Lake Powell). I wish I could've seen Glen Canyon, as from everything I've read it seems like a beautiful place, but such is life.
I camped there, and in the morning set out for Lone Pine, California. It involved crossing more state lines than any other day, I think (although it was only tied for most different states visited, at four), as I went from Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Nevada, to California, back to Nevada to fill up (so I didn't run out of gas in the middle of Death Valley), and then back to California.

A Surprising Lack of Mormons:
As I was going through Utah for the first time, the road twisted its way between a bunch of different mesas and hills that I just couldn't resist the urge to see closer up. I turned off onto one of the dirt side roads the cut across the desert, a rocky, tire-rutted trail across the sand, and less than a mile in, I crashed.
Not too bad, mind you. My wheels got trapped in a deep tire track left at some point that the road had been muddy, and the track turned before I was able to stop the bike, and I crashed. I wasn't doing more than fifteen miles an hour at this point, probably not more than ten, but the bike tipped over onto its left side (same as on Pike's Peak) with me still on it. The gear-shift pedal lever thing got bent, but I was able to bend it back to almost its original shape, and the left mirror shattered. With a ballpoint pen, the casing for the mirror, some electrical tape, and a supplementary convex mirror from an auto parts store I was able to make a passable replacement. I also lost the left passenger footrest (it didn't come off in the accident, but must've gotten loosened and fallen off sometime later), and the muffler repairs all got knocked around so as to be pretty much useless. I picked up more muffler tape but haven't had a chance to re-patch it yet (probably later today).

Pulp Fiction:
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. I got annoyed and frustrated in Nevada in the section leading up to Las Vegas (now my second-least-favorite metropolitan area, just ahead of St. Louis). Way too many tractor-trailers. If any of you ever happen to drive a truck, please keep the following in mind: if you're going roughly the same speed as a small motorcycle, let the motorcycle be in front. Although it makes no difference to you, driving behind a truck is exceedingly difficult, due to the turbulence created, and as a result we either have to continually play leapfrog with you to avoid it, or slow down and let you get significantly ahead. This holds true for large motorcycles, too, but they've got enough power to just straight-up pass you and keep going. Small bikes such as mine max out at roughly 55-85 mph (depending on steepness of road, amount of luggage, and wind), and so we're stuck if you're doing the same speed as us, because on the interstate we're going as fast as we can.
Rant over.
Anyway, after that, Nevada wasn't too bad. After Nevada, after getting to California, I realized that, unless there happened to be a gas station in the middle of Death Valley, it was highly unlikely that I'd make it through with the amount of gas I had left. I turned around and had to backtrack about forty miles to the nearest service station (however beautiful the midwest and the southwest are, the barrenness is annoying when you're traveling with a 4-gallon gas tank). Tank filled, I set off into Death Valley, only to find that, about twenty miles in, there was, in fact, a gas station. The gas was $5.459 a gallon, but I'd have payed it given that I only would've needed two gallons, and that would've saved me about an hour and a half of driving time. Such is life. Next time I'll know.
Driving through Death Valley was fun, although it was also a little scary. I don't know whether it would've been better or worse to do it during the daytime, instead of the pitch blackness that I had. If it'd been light I could've seen the road a bit farther ahead, but I could've also seen over the side of the road, which, especially after Pike's Peak, would've been a bit scary (despite what almost all of my behavior seems to indicate, I am actually somewhat afraid of heights). It's called a valley, and yes, in the sense of having mountains on either side, it is a valley, but when you think of a valley, you, like me, probably think of a low place between two strings of mountains. It's true that Death Valley has low points – at one spot, I was over 100 feet below sea level. However, it then rises up to almost 5,000 feet, before dropping back to nearly sea level and then rising back up over 4,000 feet again, all in the course of twenty miles of road. I'm sure the views were excellent, but as it was as close to pitch black as I've ever come in nature (excluding one cave in Ha Long Bay where I literally hit my nose on the wall in front of my face), I couldn't see them.

After that, Lone Pine, California, in Inyo County. Inyo is notable in that it contains both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater) points in the continental United States. I passed a few miles northeast of Badwater yesterday, and on Tuesday I'll be hiking to within a few miles of the Mt. Whitney summit. Due to the snow conditions, I won't be going for the top. It's advised that only those with significant winter mountaineering experience attempt the summit, and I have none, and am traveling alone (and, admittedly, don't much feel like looking for a group to join, as I like doing the hikes on this trip alone). So, I won't be going for the top, just one of the lower base camps. (To see the importance of experience and the potential risks of failure, go to the Wikipedia page for Mt. Whitney and look at the picture. There isn't currently that much snow, but still a significant amount.)
So, after arriving in Lone Pine, I checked into a motel and quickly passed out, because yesterday was a very long day. Today is planning and preparation and relaxation, as will be tomorrow.
I've taken photos of stuff the past few days, but because of the difficulties of working with them on this computer, I'm just going to hold off on posting them until the end of the trip. Speaking of which, where should I go next? I feel like changing the plan, so suggestions are welcome. I'm currently in eastern California, about the middle north-south wise, and after leaving here on the 9th I've got about 10 days to make it back to Charlottesville. I can ride upwards of 600 miles a day. Any suggestions?

Full post tomorrow, I swear...

I know I've been continually procrastinating on writing a blog post and said I'd write one tonight, but due to a string of things I didn't get into Lone Pine until just a short while ago, and as I woke up at around 6, I'm quite tired.  So, bedtime.