Keys to Freeze: California
Words by Megan Healy, Photography by George Eklund and Megan Healy
A decision had been made some time ago along this tour that my partner in crime George and myself would throw out the itinerary and plans once we hit San Francisco and we’d go on from there with open minds and open hearts. Come what may, we said. Recognizing that we had the power to tweak what wasn’t quite a perfect fit was an invigorating sensation and has made our tour all the better. Fresh, new, surprising, like a fairytale you’ve never heard before. We’re in it, and it’s been an oh-so phenomenal way to take us into sweet, sweet summertime.
Before arriving in San Francisco and changing our pace and further feeding our wanderlust, we crossed into California from the peculiar rock canyons of the greater Las Vegas region and headed straight for Death Valley. I had never been there before and I expected vast nothingness, salt flats maybe, mirages, animal carcasses, and the like. Our time there was eye opening to say the least. I saw every geological formation that I didn’t know existed on this earth, tons of different coloring as we entered and approached the entrance from the east. The visitor center had a thermometer that read 108 degrees fahrenheit. A fairly cool day before summer really kicked in. We set up camp at 190 feet below sea level without our rain fly, and we fell asleep to the biggest nearly full moon I’ve ever seen.
From Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells the next morning, we flew along the rolling hills hovering around sea level at last. The idea was to beat the heat and get to higher elevation before mid day. Instead, we got to sea level in great time, and then enjoyed free coffee and shaded rocking chairs outside of a general store for a few hours too long. This brought us to our climb up and over and on the way out.
To get to our next campsite we would face an eighteen mile climb up to Towne Pass just under 5,000 ft. Alright, doable we thought. Doable took the form of a very lengthy ascent filled with fits of climbing induced crazed laughter and, in my case, a few solo dance parties just to remind myself that I was alive. We eventually eased our way to the top only to be met with great headwinds and… could it be? A rainbow? Those headwinds rolled in a single rain cloud to the driest place ever and greeted our descent from the pass with a killer color show to guide our way.
Between Panamint Springs and Towne Pass we saw even more amazing rocks and colors, deeper and darker this time, and had the company of impossibly fast and loud flying jets alongside the road. If we hadn’t felt like we were stuck in some far off Star Wars parallel universe before, the military training jets whizzing and zipping by sure didn’t pull us back to reality much.
Now, follow closely as you may not believe that this makes any sense, I sure didn’t, but two days after leaving Death Valley and our 100+ degree temperatures, we had our first real snow day along the Eastern Sierras. Going from below sea level to the foot of Mt Whitney was jaw dropping enough, but to wake up from our host in Bishop further along up the road made for a double take. The last thing I heard before I fell asleep for the night was something along the lines of “oh, we don’t get much snow here and we haven’t had any this year.” Cheers to the unexpected, the snow was falling heavy and had no intention of stopping. We fully embraced a snow day before heading towards Yosemite. Tioga Pass had opened just days earlier and had already temporarily closed again because of the snowstorm. It’d been a dry year up until this point, and we were left in the eastern town of Lee Vining waiting to hear our fate. Would we get to conquer Tioga, or would we have to find a way around a different way? Lucky for us the pass opened up for a small window of time between storms and we got our chance to climb to 10,000 ft and see what Yosemite was all about.
Talk about a change of scenery. To come from Death Valley and ride into Yosemite Valley within the same week left me in a stupor. I don’t think I blinked the whole time for fear of missing the continuity of the changing landscapes. Getting from Tioga Pass to Yosemite Valley alone felt like we’d visited several different places all in one day. From the chilly, windy top of the pass down into forest lined roads opening up the expose the park’s granite playground. It went by in a flash and I can’t wait to get back to explore the area more. Maybe next time without everything I own weighing me down.
To make it to San Francisco we descended from Yosemite Valley down to Mariposa where I had a very empowering encounter with the crew rebuilding the parts of the road that were lost to a rockslide six years ago. All day we were passed by trucks hauling rocks and dirt. Towards the end of the day I noticed that more and more of the drivers were giving enthusiastic waves and nods. I thought nothing of it but all became clear to me by the end of the day. We were staying at a campground that was a temporary home to those crew members and they invited us over for ribs. I opted out and set up camp as to avoid explaining that I am a vegetarian who is also probably allergic to the barbecue sauce. George went and came back with a grin on his face, come to find out he had heard my favorite quote of the trip to date. “Oh, you’re the guy who was biking out there? Your wife was kicking your ass on those hills all day.” This satisfied me to no end.
Onward to San Francisco it was, passing the golden valley and complete flat terrain for a bit. It was then that we could smell the ocean air, and we followed it to the Bay Area to enjoy a ten day layover full of cooking in a real kitchen, exploring the wonder that is Marin Headlands, figuring out the hard way that the numbered streets do not increase as you go north like they do in New York City, and gearing up for the second half of our Florida to Alaska adventure.
I fell in love with San Francisco before it was time to pedal our way north. I hadn’t been back since 2010, the final destination of my very first cross country ride. Leaving again was made easier by the company we managed to keep. We were able to drag long lost friends out on the road with us for the ride up to Pt Reyes National Seashore. Over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the woods, we found our way to an enchanting campsite in a cloud. We climbed up a muddy mountain to get to our campsite, had a quick damp dinner, and went to bed.
This deep slumber would last approximately an hour and a half when I heard a little scratching at my door. We had read that the raccoons and skunks were pretty aggressive thieves so we made sure to take every precaution in putting our aromatic goods in the food locker, but for some reason we had a visitor. Assuming it was a raccoon, I shined my headlight over to my rain vestibule and saw that it had a white stripe and I immediately fumbled the light off and went down to burrow into a brainstorm session. How do you get rid of a skunk?! They have all the power! It never crossed my mind before this moment that getting sprayed by a skunk was a remote possibility on this trip, but clearly I was mistaken. I was frozen as the all powerful stench holder decided to use the side of the tent as a slide for the next half hour, repeatedly climbing up and sliding down. At one point I was convinced it had somehow managed its way into the tent, but luckily that was not the case, though I am certain I stopped breathing for a spell merely at the thought.
The skunk would come and go a few more times through the night, but graciously left us smelling of our normal stinky selves rather than of its unique cologne. What it was after, I still will never know. Having camped inside a foggy cloud all night everything was a bit damp making packing up a slow process, but we eventually did so successfully and made it down into town for warm coffee and dry air. From there we made plans to head towards the Avenue of the Giants.
I have a deep and profound love for most things that tower over me and make me feel like an ant. Such is the case with the Redwoods of northern California. We wove our way through the trees along perfectly inviting rollers and stayed in a couple great hike in bike in campsites. I lost most sense of time as the sun was always muddled by a canopy of ancient trees, and I didn’t mind one bit. The fuzzy sense of time left us with the freedom to have a morning s’more campfire and all day to hike around without worry, and to sip the cheapest camp wine til we fell asleep. It was a dream.
Coming out of the northern Califonia Redwoods, we would inch closer to the Oregon coast. We had spent so much time in California and it was hard to believe such different landscapes all belong to one name. From the Death Valley desert and mars-like rocks, to the Eastern Sierra valley and snow days, through the golden valley to get to the magical Bay, up through San Andreas land and flip flopping from the 1 and the 101, between coast and wine country, and finally through the awe inspiring redwoods, we had traced so much of the state and still hardly seen the half of it. Our California days were numbered, but they left us refreshed and energized to tackle the rest of our time on the road, and we had a feeling everything was going to be just fine and what was ahead was sure not to disappoint.