Sierra Cascades – Mohave Desert to Sequoia
8 July – Mojave Desert
I am one week in and have covered four mountain ranges, 340 miles and 38,000 feet. Desert, mountains, tarantulas and booger-toes. LA has shown an unexpected side to me but I feel well rested and ready to get back on the road.
Rather than cycle back through the city and up the Angeles Crest again to the Sierra Cascades’ turnoff I take a train to Newhall and make my way around the base of the mountains to rejoin it at Palmdale. There is a pleasant-looking road on the map that follows a windy river so this all seems like a grand idea. When I get there the river is long-dried up, and has been since 2005 apparently. That should have been obvious the moment I stepped off the train – it is more barren than it here than it has been anywhere previously. The brush is scattered loosely and most of what is to be seen is baked, sandy earth.
The hours drag but eventually I make to Palmdale and rejoin my planned route. A raging tailwinds whisks me towards Lancaster and the flat plains of the Mojave Desert. The roads carve the land into square plots of precisely one mile by one mile. I have never seen such a lonely city; the scale makes me feel so small I want to scream but they wouldn’t even hear me at the next store.
A straight, flat road carries me for twenty miles towards Tehachapi but to reach it I have to turn West and cut across the vast grid. The tailwind instantly turns into a violent crosswind. There is no shoulder, only a thin slither of tarmac between athe verge and a viscious rumble strip. Between the wind and the wake of passing lorries I am buffeted one way and the other and an abrupt juddering chatters my teeth if I stray too far. Empty plots lie like unsolved pieces of a sodoku and in them grow Joshua Trees. They look like the trees Dr. Seuss would find on an alien planet; all jumbling spines and nonsensical, twisting angles. Hares bound between them through the low brush.
I sleep on one such empty plot underneath a Joshua Tree and a crescent moon. The night lights of Lancaster rim the horizon to the South and all around me I can see dozens of miles to distant mountains.
9 July – Lake Isabella
The Tehachapi windfarm is the largest I have ever seen. Hundreds – thousands – prickle the hills in front of me into the distance and just as many more appear each time I crest a hill or turn a bend. There are 4700 of them in total, spanning multiple generations of technology. Old ones like propellers on little scaffold towers whir at great speed underneath the tall, white Dutch models, thrumming in unison like a beating heart and casting swooping shadows over me. There is something vaguely unsettling about such great masses turning at such a speed, and turning they are; yesterday’s tailwind has turned into a furious headwind. I am approaching the turbines from behind, unfortunately, but on the plus side some whispy clouds filter the sun. They are the first and last I will see in a good while.
The town of Tehachapi beyond is like an old frontier town, with swing-door saloons and a clapboard train station. I opt for a cheap service station breakfast, however. The place is called ‘Loves’ and each time a customer walks in the cashier calls, “Welcome to Loves!”, in a relentlessly earnest voice. Why are Americans so upbeat? Does forcing a happy facade slowly make it true or does it follow naturally from a cheery disposition? I heard recently that when McDonald’s opened their first branch in Moscow the training of the staff was a real struggle because to look a stranger in the eye and smile was considered either suggestive or disrespectful. Over time the customers grew used to it, though, and began to reciprocate. Now Russia is #17 on a global ‘friendliness’ index, only two places behind America. Food for thought. My face rests naturally in a squinted scowl, unfortunately, but I will try to remedy this.
I also take the time in Tehachapi to post home a package of equipment that has proven unnecessary. The heaviest items are a solar charger and battery pack but the USB charger on my dynamo-powered headlight seems to be ample to charge the phone i navigate by and write this blog on. Few things are as satisfying (to me, at least) as trimming the fat of my baggage on tour. To a student, it is like the feeling of closing all your browser tabs of research after a piece of coursework is finished. One of the joys of cycle touring is reducing your possessions to a minimum that you cannot do without. More generally it is about reducing your life to the bare necessities – your worries are reduced to what you are going to eat, where you are going to sleep and then just turning the pedals. You may be hungry, tired, lonely or lost but your troubles are in the here and now, not hanging over tomorrow, and so you truly live in the present.
As I continue northwards a new kind of landscape reveals itself. Tall dry grasses hanging with golden seeds carpet the earth blonde; the world is cast into sepia and I feel as though the back of a giant labrador, its fleas the golden-mantled ground squirrels dart into their burrows on my approach. Or perhaps I am a louse inside Donald Trump’s wig. Deciduous trees, rather than pines, are dotted here and there and sunflowers grow by the verge.
Rows of mountains emerge on the horizon like rising tiers of upside-down egg boxes and the 800m climb is a real struggle. Instead of getting fitter I feel like each day I am becoming weaker with exhaustion and only when I’m atop the tallest mountains is there amy respite from the heat, which is creeping up to the high 30s.
I think my diet is the problem – I have been consuming a lot of rubbish food, masses of sugar and not enough carbs. The stores in the towns I pass through mostly sell hotdog buns and tinned food. Often there is no fresh fruit or veg and there are no bakeries or anywhere to buy decent bread. The cheese is of the squishy, orange-square variety and the ham and salami does not bare thinking about. My pot is not big enough to cook pasta and cous cous is hard to come by. People tell me Trader Joes is the place to shop but I have not seen any get. It is all very expensive too. It would have been expensive even before the recent plummet of the pound. Knock British food is you like but our supermarkets are better than any I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Between the high price and the often-miserable selection I have not been eating properly.
I pass through a ramshackle town of corrugated iron and decorations made from hub caps. Children whoop from the back of a truck and a cow stands stubbornly in the middle of the road. I aim for a ‘V’ in the mountains below and after passing through the valley find Lake Isabella and a real, running river. It is the first I have seen in California. I hope this means I am nearing greener pastures.
10 July – Sequoia National Forest
I arise at 5am once again to make myself scare from my campsite down by the river as night becomes day. Along with the exhaustion of my muscles I am building up a deficit of sleep, too. I stop by an outdoors shop in Kernville for some retail therapy to lift my mood and leave with a Henschel Hat – wide brim, brown canvas and mesh sides for ventilation. It works wonders. Plus, now I really look the part; with my flannel shirt and shades I feel like town sheriff. At least in my mind. All I need now is a toothpick to chew on.
Up the Kern River I go but soon stop for a dip, scrub and a nap. I’m not the only one enjoying the water; big families are out with whole arrays of barbeques, coolers and gazebos wedged into the small area by the water’s edge. Two men with the demanour of the large skinhead from American History X splash are splashing about but I manage to fall asleep anyway.
The climb into Sequoia National Forest is therefore left to the hot afternoon. I get several punctures from small thorns in the front tire along the way. On a recent tour across South Korea I got many punctures in just a few days so I swapped the rear tire for a Marathon Plus but I thought swapping the front one too would be overkill; I regret that now. I make it up the mountain eventually though and as I rise over a crest the forest unrolls before me. Rough Camping heaven! Right away I spot a suitable camping area on a rise beside the road and deside to call it an early day. I check that no traffic is coming (rangers patrol up and down the road) and haul B up there. It is flat and soft with fallen needles but most importantly it is well hidden. It is my first night on the road that I feel truly safe from discovery and can rest easy. Conversely, this is bear territory so I hang my food and toiletries from a branch away from my camp. I string my tarpaulin between two trees and tonight sleep under shelter for a change.
11 July – Lake Keweah
There were strange noises in the night. I was awoken once by a sound like a man doing a velociraptor impression. I expect it was a deer; I have learned firsthand what unexpectedly frightening noises they can make. It got cold too, very cold. I can see my breath in the morning. I have a lie-in, get going and eat breakfast by a small lake next to a ranch. The water is perfectly still and sits like a mirror until ducks flap across it. A pair of mule deer appear just twenty feet away. There is a slight mistiness to the morning; the picture is serene.
As always, there is more climbing to be done. The giant sequoias thrive only at high altitude and the Trail of 100 Giants begins at 1900m. They are the largest trees I have ever seen – because they are the largest in the world. I will see even greater examples tomorrow, however. On the trail I find a bluejay feather and stick it in my hat, realise I look like Peter Pan and take it out again. At Ponderosa Aspen the road tops out and I begin the uninterrupted 1800m descent. The land turns golden brown once again and the roads turn terrible. By the end of the day my bits and pieces feel battered and bruised. At the bottom round hills rise abruptly from flat pastures like the burial mounds of Silla kings. A Lion King sunset fades behind lemon, peach and pomegranite groves on the outskirts of Exeter while I continue to Lake Isabella where, after dark, I find a ropey camping spot on a shelf of dry grass above the road.
12 July – Sequoia National Park
My appetite must be catching up with my daily routine because I have eaten without trouble a pint of porridge, a footlong sub and a donut for breakfast. I climb to the entrance to the national park and am appalled to discover that I have to pay $15 to get in. $15! To be fair, it turns out that the facilities are very good. I am hot and tired and stop at a picnic site, rest my head and fall asleep. When I wake up I find a cold bottle of water next to me. An ember of joy glows inside me and I drink it in one. I set to work finding and patching slow punctures in my tubes – those devils that you can find only by submerging them in a sink of water and looking fir the bubbles. When I return to my bench a young man is sitting there; “Do you want another water?”
“That was you? Yes, please.”
“If I had a cold one I’d be sharing that with you.”
I intimate that I am sad there is no beer.
“… but how about a little medication?”, he waves a pipe stuffed with weed.
“Oh, no thank you. I’d never make it up the mountain!”
And so I head off up the mountain. Basement Jaxx lend me strength this time. It is a beast of a climb – 1900m up zigzagging switchbacks. I get another puncture. I cry a little. The valley I have come from disappears below and forested mountainsides appear above. Even higher are the High Sierra’s bald, granite domes. The back of my left knee flares up -one of a myriad of knee pains that have arisen since San Diego – but it is tolerable. More pressing are the rivets on my Brooks saddle. The sweat that has soaked into the saddle over the last weeks has caused the leather to crack and sag, leaving the sharp edges of the rivets exposed and pressing into my backside. It is quite uncomfortable.
Up and up and up and I rise into the forest. Sugar pines and sequoias tower above me, their canopies shading me with the mercy of an angel’s wings. I climb higher. Stopping for a breather, a truck pulls up and a lady steps out to take photos.
“That’s quite a climb!”, she says, or something in the gist.
“Yes”, I pant.
“There’s a ways further to go; we ought to pull you up!”, she half-jokes.
“You know I’ve always wanted to do that but never had the opportunity”, I look her in the eye.
She looks a little nervous, “… do you want to?”
So I grab onto a handhold on the rear of the truck with my right hand and cling on to the handlebar with my left as she accelerates up the gradient. It is harder than they make it look in Alleycatz races; I feel as though my arm is going to be tugged off. Passing drivers wave and cheer. After a while she pulls in and offers me an actual lift in the back seat but I tell her that I have cheated enough for one day. There is also the reason that to enclose me within a small space right now would mean to suffocate the whole family.
Under my own steam I make it up to General Sherman – the largest tree in the world. It really is massive, a monstrosity of red, gnarled bark with crooked branches sticking out from the upper reaches as though an after-thought. Standing underneath the tree it is difficult to get a sense of its scale. It is hard to get to grips with the statistics too, so here they are in relatable terms; the tree is taller than a twenty eight story building and weighs more than four fully loaded jumbo jets. It is as wide as a London bus is long and it is older than Jesus.
Further up the road is Lodgepole, where there is a market and a campground. After a large chocolate bar and an outsize can of something cold and sugary I feel much better. A sign outside the campgrounds says they are fully booked, as I expected, and I know none of them from here do hiker/biker walk-ins but I decide to try my luck. Full of sugar and freshly energized I roll over to the ranger’s window at the campground’s entrance and say hello. I smile my most winning smile and lay on my thickest British accent and try to persuade the lady to allow me to squeeze onto any little bit of spare space. She ums and ahs and says she might be able to let me sleep next to the car park but she and I both could get into trouble.
She is on the fence when a car rolls past and a lady calls out the window, “You looking for a campsite?”
“You can have lot 37 if you like, we don’t need it. You can have it tomorrow too, if you like”
I pitch my tarp, buy some beers and head over to my angelic neighbours to share them around. Barry, Gale and Carol become great friends. Instead of drinking my beer I end up eating their tacos (delicious) and they explain that they come here every year but other family were unable to join them this time and hence the spare lot. They booked six months in advance; you have to for the most popular national Parks in summer. There are bear warnings everywhere, mostly to do with locking your food in the bear-proof metal cabinets in each camping lot and my new friends tell me that in previous years bear have been all over the place and often wondered into the campsite. Not this year though. I was quite worried about getting eaten by a bear so I am relieved to hear that there are only black bears left in California and they very rarely attack people; they are shy creatures by nature.
13 July – Sequoia NP
And so I take some much needed rest in this idyllic location. After Carol’s homemade granola for breakfast (delicious and nutritious) I take a desperately-needed shower, my first since LA, and wash my clothes. My flannel shirt in particular, I suspect, was beginning to harbour it’s own ecosystem.
Then I take a long nap in the shade. I wake up at three and go for a walk through John Muir’s “Giant’s Forest”. The giant sequoias really are humbling, their bases great elephants’ feet rooted beside the slender sugar pines, straight as arrows and the tallest of all pines. Their cones are lighter but longer than those of the coulter pines I met earlier, often exceeding a foot in length. The thick smell of resin hangs in the air.
The forest reads like a history book of fire and lightning. In their higher reaches the sequoias bare great scars and burrs the size of boulders where they have been struck while at their base many are scorched or even hollowed out by those fires of such ferocity that even their thick, fibrous bark could not resist. What is remarkable is that even those that are cored by fire to leave blackened caves inside large enough to sleep in continue to live for hundreds of years, their green foliage above proof of it. And, indeed, bears do hibernate inside these tree-caves over the snowy winters. All that is left of other once-great monarchs are jagged spires of onyx, sap burned gloss black and looming over the forest like Saruman’s tower.
Yet fire is crucial to these gentle giants. Their cones, small enough to fit inside your fist, crack and open under the heat of fires from below and rain seeds (themselves the size of flakes of oats) onto the forest floor. They soak up the nutrients from the ash and often grow in clusters, particularly when a fallen giant has torn a hole in the canopy to allow light down to them. When they grow closely enough they even merge into one, with two or three trunks rising from seemingly one giant base.
The forest floor is scattered with toppled trees, fallen cones, granite boulders and ferns which sprout like green rivers where snowmelt trickles down the mountainside. Despite the altitude the air is calm and the atmosphere is serene. Everywhere I look is like a wood etching – an impossibly contrived arrangement of natural beauty. I am beginning to see where John Muir was coming from when he wrote his seminal work, My First Summer In The Sierras. He trekked up here as a young man in 1869 and was so awed by what he saw that he started The Sierra Club, whose campaigning lead to the creation of protected national parks in America, from whence the idea spread across the world.
In the evening I drink more beer and solve the world’s problems with Barry over the campfire until late.
14 July – Sequoia NP
Carol left yesterday and Barry and Gale leave today. Lot 37 is reserved until Tuesday though so I decide to stay another night. I am reluctant to leave; and to think, I was going to tick-off General Sherman and sail by this place with only the sights from the road to say I’d done it. Now I realise how criminally wasteful of the opportunity that would have been and I will have to take time off to appreciate Yosemite too. It is just as well I am ahead if schedule, too. I am two weeks in and have another seven and a half to reach Vancouver but I have covered about a quarter of the way.
In the morning I hike up Tokopah River to the falls at its end. The water rushes crystal clear over a rocky bed and the light aquires that hazy quality as it strikes low through the trees at an early hour. The last of spring’s flowers are scattered here and there; white lilies, purple lupines and brilliant red flowers with names like Eaton’s Firecracker and Applegate’s Paintbrush. A rustling ahead alerts me something behind a rock and out steps a stag with great rounded antlers like a moose. It walks towards me and strolls past without a care in the world. Soon the layered granodiorote of Alta Peak reveals itself between the treetops, 3440m high. In places it is jagged, in others smooth and domed, following the process by which outer layers detach and crash down to the forrest below then inner layers expand. I can hear the falls now and the way becomes rockier. Lizards sunbathe on the rocks and a fat yellow-bellied marmot sits by his nest. The crickets here sit silently until they take flight, during which they produce a staccato zapping noise like a taser being fired. Snowmelt fuels this waterfall and all life in these mountains over the summer months of draught. It is hard to imagine in the blazing heat that persists even at this altitude that there is somewhere above where snow lies.
In the afternoon I climb Moro Rock, another great granite dome. At the bottom a frisson passes through the crowd that steps off the shuttle bus. Four hundred steps people whisper to one another in hushed anxiety. Pah! I think. But after only a few steps I find my breathing quickening and my pulse rising. It is as the signs say; the thin air at this altitude makes exertion tougher. No wonder these climbs have been so sodding difficult! From the top I can see all the way back to Lake Keweah, way down in the valleys below and just visible in the distance. I am amazed that I managed all that way, especially since I was going so slowly. On the other side lies the Western Divide, the ridge of mountains that includes Mt. Whitney. At 14,000’ it is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States (not Hawaii or Alaska). Thankfully, I will not be climbing it.
That evening I drink some more beer from the market and chat to my new neighbours. If it sounds as though I am drinking a lot it is only because American beer is extremely good. This is actually a bit disappointing – I had hoped it was one area where we had a one-up on the Yanks. Any shop that sells beer has a fantadtic selection from across the country and each is better than the last. Even Coors Light is better than Carling. The other thing is that mysteriously beer seems to be the only thing that isn’t marked up in small or out-of-the-way stores. Even a 7.5% Sierra Nevada Torpedo is half the price of a Gatorade!
15 July – King’s Canyon NP
Sequoia is joined to King’s Canyon as a national park. To go down into the canyon means climbing back out later because it is a dead-end road and there are no buses but I decide to make the detour. After Grants Grove it is a long descent down 2000’.
Whole mountainsides were decimated by the McGee fire in 1955 and the graveyard of burnt trees still stand testament. The straight trunks of pines, stripped of branches, stand like rows of headstones while the twisted, blackened branches of manzanita reach from the earth like the contorted fingers of Pompeii victims. The fire was so devastating because the Parks Service policy of nondiscriminatory fire prevention had allowed masses of fuel to build up on the forrest floor over the years. Now they light controlled fires and only fight those that become out of control.
It seems like the Parks Service have not always been very wise, actually. An informational video on bears in the Sequoia showed how the Parks Service used to dump food to encourage bears to come out for the entertainment of spectators. The bears became dependent, however, and competition for our high-fat, high-sugar foods turned them aggressive. They would fight and sometimes adults would even devour cubs in front of visitors to the park. Dozens were be shot by rangers each year too as they pillaged campgrounds and broke into cars for more food. The practice was stopped after popular protest and now, to be fair, they go to extreme lengths to keep bears wild.
I drop below the tree-line and mountains of sheer rock stand on the other side of the valley. A white river rages so far below that I cannot detect the motion of the water; I can only hear the torrential current. This is the river that has cut Kings Canyon, the other end of which was demolished by a glacier.
Down in the canyon the road follows the racing river to a lodge nestled amongst the spruces and firs. As I eat my dinner by the creek birds with blue mohawks dance around the sand in search of ants to peck at. The animals all seem so at ease with people here. With clear skies every night I have watched as the moon has grown from a slender crescent to nearly full. It hangs large over the trees behind the water and the scene is so picturesque I wonder if tge life as s mountain man is the life for me. I suspect the grass is always greener on the other side though.
16 July – Pine Flat Lake
My days of rest and good eating have allowed my fitness to catch up with my daily demands and I rise out of the canyon and back to to Sequoia NP in third gear over just a few hours. The tips of the mountains are lit by the rising sun and when I get higher up the light shines through the peeled bark of the manzanitas so that it appears as shards of blood-red stained glass from a depiction of the crucifixion. I ride by a dead snake on the road and hit the breaks after I pass with the realisation that it is quite alive. It is a High Sierra Kingsnake, I now know – not a Coral Snake as I was earlier told.
Back at Grants Grove its then down winding switchbacks past corrugated iron shacks and trailor homes hidden in the trees. It is Saturday and a queue of traffic waits at the entrance to the park as I exit. It’s down into golden grassland again and the heat rises accordingly.
At Bear Mountain village a pizza joint is offering a 14” pizza for $11. After baulking at $4.50 they were charging for a single slice under a heatlamp up the mountain this seems like a no-brainer. This will keep me going! Big mistake. There may be men who can enjoy a 14” pizza to themselves but I am not one of them. It is deep-pan American style and laden with cheese and at slice seven things start getting uncomfortable. The waitress offers to box it up for me to go but I take this as a personal slight and push on. At slice ten I realise I have made a mistake but it is too late to go back now; as an Englishman abroad my behaviour reflects on all my kind and I must not bring shame upon my country. By slice number twelve discomfort has turned to pain but there’s only one slice left…
I waddle outside and lie on the grass. My breathing is shallow and I feel sick, so sick. Worse than the worst hangover sick. To lie on my back the splaying of my belly hurts. To lie on my side my other internal organs seem to he crushed. I feel desperately thirsty after all the cheese but my stomach can hold nothing more.
Half an hour later things are not improving so I reluctantly rise and get back on my bike. I still have ten miles to Pine Flat Lake where I believe there will be somewhere to camp. Thankfully it is not uphill. The going is slow and painful and I shortly pull over and throw up in a ditch. Next, I nearly run over a rattlesnake that is basking on the road. After an eternity I find a reasonable camping spot, lay out my things in a daze and lie down. I wonder if my binge-eating has coincided with the onset of giardia or some other form of poisoning from bad water.
I drift off but sleep fleetingly, waking to the sounds of animal footsteps around me. The crushing of the dead grass makes them sound closer than they are, or does it? Is that dark shape a creature staring me down? I groan and hit the ground but there us no sound of the steps receding. I drift off again.
17 July – Bass Lake
I wake in the morning feeling OK. Thank God. I came down with a stomach-illness while on tour before and it took weeks to recover from, ultimately calling an end to the trip. Nevertheless, I am humbled by the power of pizza and will treat them with more respect in the future.
Today is a big day because it is my last in low-California – once I rise towards Yosemite I will be in the High Sierras for weeks to come. The desert and these golden grasslands have been novel and beautiful in their own right but I am tired of the heat. I am also tired of the velcro grass seeds that I have to tear off my legs with little clumps of hair and the harpoon shaped ones find their way into every inch of sock-fabric (exposed or not) and refuse to leave. This morning I even pluck out one that has gone right through the insole of my shoe.
On the outskirts of Auberry a woman calls hello and I stop to chat. She says she runs a nearby casino and tells me all about herself and her daughter. Then she shows me the scar on the back of her neck where she was more-than-grazed by a bullet when a jealous ex-partner decided to play Russian Roulette with her. She stood and resisted at the pivotal moment. It takes me aback when strangers share such personal stories with me. Am I afraid of opening up or am I just respectful of personal boundaries? A sense of reserve sets me apart as British, I feel.
It is easy in a land where the people speak your same language to underestimate cultural differences. The most conscious check on my behaviour I must make here is not to swear or use the lord’s name in vain. It is such a casual thing at home but people just don’t do it here – not a single person I have met, at least.
At Kerckhoff Lake I stop for a rest. Teenagers scream at one another from jetskis but I am tired enough to sleep and need my energy for one final, hot ascent to North Fork. Respect for another’s peace and quiet is very much another British quality, I have learned.
At North Fork the forrest begins and I shudder with relief; I ought to high and cool from here all the way to Oregon. Beyond is Bass Lake and I celebrate at the store/grill with yet more exceptional beer as I watch the sun dip and set the tops of the pines, then the lake, ablaze in orange. Tonight is a good night. Rather than pay $32(!) at the campgrounds I lay out my bag on the beach and watch the lake go dark and the stars emerge.