Once in a lifetime

That’s how often you’ll climb up and over Tioga Pass in late September then cross almost the entirety of Yosemite National Park and see less than fifty cars.

It was the most spectacular day I’ve ever had on a bike. The morning began with an extraordinary pastel creation as the sun broke onto the Eastern Sierras, and the remaining few miles I had to crest the pass to enter the park were punctuated with waterfalls, mountain lakes, and plenty of character building slopes. It was also windy despite the early hour, different from the calm of the afternoon before.

Through the gates and over the top I hit a howling 7-mile descent that froze everything but my hands, encased in thick woolen gloves.

Still not a car.

At the bottom of the descent there was a hut with cell coverage, so I burned the last of my phone and auxiliary battery posting blog photos. There would be no more service for a while anyway. The long miles through the park with nary a car on perfectly paved asphalt was unearthly. I had one of the most amazing places on earth entirely to myself in the middle of fall tourist season.

I’d been advised not to go due to fires, closures, and smoke, but the sky was as blue as it knew how to be. Sometimes you have to ignore good advice; this was one of those times that the risk paid a lifetime of dividends.

Somewhere along the way a fire did indeed break out. They posted signs saying “Lightning strike managed fire, do not report.” I didn’t and shortly got to ride through my first forest fire, in Yosemite, no less. The firefighters held up a traffic control sign that said “SLOW.”

“That’s easy” I cracked, eliciting laughs from the crew, who appreciated the slope.

At the end of the fire one of the firefighters flagged me down to talk about my bike. “I want to get a touring bike,” he said enthusiastically.

“I want to get a forest fire,” I replied.

“Maybe we could work out a deal,” he offered.

Although I was impressed with the park’s beauty, it made me wonder how much of it was special to Yosemite and how much of it was not clearcutting and whoring everything out to the lumber industry.

The road eventually forked and I headed towards Yosemite Valley. It was ten miles of amazing, twisting, eye-popping downhill without a single car. But the real shocker awaited. Having ridden so far and seen so much, and having traversed a huge swath of a huge park, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of why this place was so special. So wrong was I …

At the bottom I turned left and began heading upriver. This was the first big river I’d followed in a while and the massive trees suggested something was coming.

Still no cars.

I doglegged and entered the valley wholly unprepared for the majesty that smacked me in the eyes. Alone in the valley staring up at these stone giants made me wobble then stop in the middle of the road. No problem. No cars.

I berated myself for burning up my battery but lo, a couple of percent remained. I snapped madly, and finally a car came. One.

Ten miles of uphill awaited, so I slogged out of the valley, having the road to myself. I met a fellow tourist at the tunnel overlook and he kindly snapped a picture. “There’s nobody here,” he said, awestruck and made more awestruck by the delicious cigarette he was puffing.

“There’s us,” I offered.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “but no PEOPLE people.”

“Give it a week,” I consoled him, “They’ll be back,”

He brightened. “Yeah!”

A long time later I got to the top and started another 10+ mile descent to Wawona. It occurred to me that if you want the dessert you gotta eat the main course but then I thought about all the ferry services that take people to the top of mountain so they can downhill to the bottom, just like ski lifts.

You can eat dessert first, maybe, but it doesn’t taste as good.

So far the day had been perfect, with huge climbs, huge descents, wildfires, mind blowing scenery, and Chips Ahoy for lunch. The day wasn’t over though. I saw the Wawona campground was closed and chained, which meant no pesky camp host and no ranger. I rode around the barricade scouting a hidden spot to camp and realized that the campground had been closed for a long, long time.

All the water was turned off so I pedaled up and over to the B Loop, which was more deserted still. A herd of five or six deer jumped up and sprang off; they’d been comfortably lounging in the middle of the campground. That’s when I surprised the real camp host, a giant black bear, who lumbered out of the brush about twenty yards in front of me, then loped away.

I loped faster, my heart pounding like crazy. Didn’t seem like my kind of campsite anymore. I left and rode on but couldn’t find anywhere to camp, so I went down a dirt trail about a mile, set up camp, cooked dinner and climbed into my tent. As soon as the sun went down I heard a crashing noise nearby. Fearing it was the other bear’s cousin, I went out and detached my food pannier and moved everything farther from the tent.

If he returned hopefully he’d leave the bike alone, unless he had a tooth for carbon. Or for me.

And suddenly “no cars” didn’t feel so peachy anymore.


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10 thoughts on “Once in a lifetime”

  1. Jealous of your day knowing, all the while, that you earned it and I didn’t. Congrats on getting to see all that and can’t wait for the pics.

  2. I’m happy for you that you got to experience Yosemite like few ever will! I’ll bet the Yosemite bears are hungry, as it’s been a while since there’s been much human food there recently…
    I’m pretty envious of your day…

  3. crankyoldguyonabike

    One of my favorite places on the planet. You reminded me of good memories and kind friends in beautiful places. Thank you.

  4. Wonderful. I still remember my first visit to Yosemite Valley and being struck by the vast granite and the closeness of the walls. It is also quite beautiful in winter (and with fewer people).

    Speaking of cars, every spring Tioga Pass Rd is plowed. The weekend before it opens to cars, it is open to bikes only. I have ridden it once this way (the timing is never certain and there is very little notice from the park service, if any). Riding Tioga Pass out and back for 90 miles without cars and very, very few cyclists was the best single day on a bicycle I have had. No sound except the wind and occasional birds. Real wilderness except the road. And you cease worrying about whether a car will sneak up on you and snuff out your life or ruin your day. HIGHLY recommend.

  5. We had planned only 1, maybe 2 nights in the valley. We stayed 5 at .25 a night each. Could not get enough of it. We did have PEOPLE there, but it was easy to ignore them all.

  6. “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I can see only the overwhelming indifference of nature”. (W.H.)

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