For the full photo diary for this part of the tour please click here
It’s a funny old business this long distance solo cycle touring lark! A couple of days ago I managed to cycle over into Yosemite Valley. Right up to the Visitor information lady in Mariposa at the base of the road into the Park, people have been telling me for weeks that it couldn’t be done at this time of winter. Yet here I am, sat in the busy Yosemite Lodge lobby in the Park I’ve been dreaming about ever since I developed a fascination with rock climbing and mountaineering. So why is this self-perceived hard-man of the cycle touring fraternity holed up in a hotel lobby and not out exploring the landscapes that have inspired countless outdoor enthusiasts? The short answer is ten hours of rain followed by, up to this point, another twelve-hour dumping of serious snow. The longer answer leads me into the ups and downs of a long distance cycle tourist.
I felt invincible the day before yesterday upon finally realising my ambition of cycling up into Yosemite Valley. Having negotiated the final 1,000 feet of the 4,000 foot climb on icy roads restricted to vehicles with 4WD, snow tires or snow chains, I landed in the valley as something of a celebrity. I’d obviously caught the attention of traffic that passed as I pumped my way up the ascent, braving the literally freezing temperatures in just a short-sleeved jersey. An unusual sight at this time of the year my appearance in the park was met with fascination by park employees and the public alike. Whenever I got off the bike I was met with random congratulation from strangers who have no idea of my endeavour and curious enquiry from those with a deeper fascination. I cannot deny that although slightly tiresome the attention was very flattering. At one point I found myself the focus of a queue of people…I just wanted to go and eat my lunch!
That night I lay in my familiar old tent relaxed at the thought of a lie-in. I have broken my stealthy camping ethic and am treating myself to some time in Yosemite Camp 4… a bank breaking $5 a night! Looking over my photos of the day and marvelling at the crisp blue skies and the iconic face of El Capitan jumping from my camera screen, I felt on top of the world. Surely there was nothing stopping me getting up in the morning and scaling that mighty wall before sundown.. hell I could even try it one-handed! I was where I wanted to be and where I wasn’t supposed to be, a combination that I’ve learnt brings me incredible satisfaction.
Ten hours later reality woke me with a stinging bite on the arse: I remembered the crippling back pain that is adding an hour to my morning routine and taking miles off of my days. I was confronted once again with the broken zip on my tent door, an issue Hilleberg have been helping me with and one that has taken mind numbing hours out of my life. The 40% chance of rain became a 100% reality. The front hub on my bike was still broken and in need of replacement… and I still stank from days of unwashed cycling. Life suddenly didn’t seem so rosy, so after a depressing morning wasting precious funds trying unsuccessfully to call home I decided to cut my losses and retreat to the internet. A sound move that turned out to be; I sat for hours watching the rain pour out of the sky, delaying the moment when I’d have to return to the tent and cook up some dinner. When I did eventually move the new precipitation on top of the previous snow cover had me swimming to the camp ground. I was glad of the waterproof Scarpas and gaiters I’ve been carting around with me and equally delighted to find a few other hardy souls cowering beneath the small shelter of the toilet awning. By 9pm I was in the tent watching water slowly seep up from the saturated ground sheets. Steeped in self-congratulation once again for the decision to use a synthetic sleeping bag I heard the onslaught of the rain on the tent fabric subside to a gentler patter; the rain became snow. My relief was short-lived as soon the outer walls of my home were caving in on me under the weight of frozen water. Thus ensued a night of fitful sleep interspersed with sessions of kicking the inside of the tent walls to remove their burden of snow. Still, an enjoyable night nonetheless and one that my equipment got me through unscathed and bristling with positive moral.
Temperatures are set to drop from here on in. There is a rumour around camp that we’ll be hitting a low of -18 degrees celsius in the next couple of nights. A grand opportunity to test really test my equipment and body beyond its limits. Having decided to stay in Yosemite until 2011 maybe it is becoming obvious why cycle tourists steer clear at this time of year. Although I look forward to perfect winter hiking conditions in a couple of days time I’d rather be out there now. I am pleased with my decision to be here; I’d rather be up here with the option of retreating indoors that camped in a ditch somewhere wondering what the hell I’m doing. There is no rush, I am free and happy to be camped in one of the worlds stunning valleys under a fresh sheet of beautiful pure snow.
I cannot deny that such emotional waverings have been following me around since leaving San Francisco. The last week and 250 miles have had me on a roller coaster of emotion. I knew that spending time with my Mum and Dad would inevitably lead to a good-bye. Subsequently, the first two or three days out of San Francisco left me psychologically vacant and longing for familiarity and love. With Christmas looming, did I have my priorities in order? Am I a coward evading my responsibilities and simply running away from the relationships I have and should be having? Although my commitment to the tour never wavered, my conviction certainly did. By day three my foot was hurting again and I was mentally adrift, it was time for the touring gods to send in the guardian angels. First there came Nick who caught me on Mines Road pumping water out of a roadside puddle. Retracing the route of the Tour of California and riding in the tyre tracks of Lance Armstrong on a heavily loaded bike left me hungry for breakfast but without a hope of finding the water to make it with. Nick sorted out my water issues and I pedaled on. A few miles down the road I boiled up ready for breakfast when Nicks truck pulled up and he got out brandishing a bag of breakfast goodies. It touches me that people should take the trouble and go out of their way to help me like this.
I eventually ended that day in Deer Creek Campground, part of Frank Raines Regional Park under the stewardship of Laura and Dick, the second draft of angels. On hearing my story, Dick offered up free camping and I duly settled in to a couple of nights and a day off to regroup. A couple of evenings in Laura and Dicks motor home with a stiff drink and probing conversation combined with a day off under blazing sunshine to redress my focus issues. It was an added bonus that Frank Raines is an Off-Highway Vehicle park where folks go to attack fierce-looking trails on all manner of motorised ‘toys’. I was grateful to Dick for giving me a tour of the trails in his ‘rail’ and for the conversation offered up by the many motorcyclists who were visiting. I rode away on Christmas Eve refreshed from the break and rejuvenated by the refreshing morning sunshine.
Despite a glorious morning descent into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Valley, Christmas Eve ended in a damp corner of McConnell State Park with very frayed nerves. Pedalling the uninspiring flat, straight roads of the valley farmland I encountered the menace of untethered uncontrolled dogs. Along J-17 every house seemed to house dogs, most of which wanted to kill me. After the first few times snarling dogs chased me down the highway trying to bite my legs and heels I became positively scared. These animals weren’t just chasing me, they were actually attacking me. From then on until I rode up into the Sierra foothills on Christmas day, every house along the road was approached with trepidation and nerve wrangling fear. I’d be filled with dread and push hard on the pedals, not to deter the dogs, but only to end any encounter as soon as possible. Luckily I survived this gauntlet and lived to see the end of Christmas day.
Despite being dog bait I actually rather enjoyed Christmas Day. Having snuck out of McConnell state park undetected I was met by a glorious sunrise. During my ten-mile spin to breakfast I travelled in the knowledge that at that very moment my entire family, young and old, would be sat around a table enjoying their usual Christmas lunch. Sure I wished I were there but by this time I had rationalised my longing. I will not be on the road forever and although likely to miss next year, these are memorable absences on what I hope to be a long list of Christmas gatherings. Also, it is easy to forget that to be at home with family over Christmas would also bring the rather less desirable trappings of ‘normality’ and the overhanging dread of nothing but a return to work on the horizon. The reality of my Christmas day was pushing up hills into a ferocious headwind, fits of hysterical laughter as to the absurdity of my situation over lunch and camping by the side of a road at 2,500 feet while being whipped by a cutting wind and torrential rain. With terrain resembling the moorlands of England I didn’t feel too far from home, nostalgically recalling a November tour with my mate Alex.
I’m glad the emotional hurdle of Christmas is over and am looking forward to 2011 when everything will return to normal and I can get my head down and ride on down to Death Valley. All in all I have regained my focus and am enjoying making use of the freedoms I have constructed for myself. There is no doubt that I have been forced to acknowledge some weakness over the last week but am encouraged by the source of these depressions. The longer I spend on the road the more I grow to appreciate the love people have for me and acknowledge that I in return have a lot of love to give. Perhaps not particularly British, this increasing realisation is forever redefining and honing my hopes and expectations for my post tour life.
Now to enjoy the winter delights of Yosemite… and at some point I must take a shower!