Highway 49 – The Gold Route Road Journals: Days 3/4
Six dudes, five bikes, one van, five days, 400 miles, more than 160 years of history and a ‘resort casual’ dress code. These are The SAG Wagon Confessions.
by Don Stefanovich
DAY 3: Monday, Oct. 17/DAY 4: Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011
I find it somewhat fitting that as I write this, I sit, sipping coffee in Priest Station Café — a little joint co-owned by noted rock climber, mountaineer and author (and fellow adrenaline junkie), Conrad Anker. Old country bluegrass spills out of speakers, a cover of National Geographic featuring Anker sits next to me and the ice axe he used to ascend Everest hangs on the wall. The address says I am in Big Oak Flat, but the name deceives. This coffee shop sits atop a little hill known as Old Priest Grade — a portion of Highway 120 we hit just after veering off the 49. It reaches a staggering 22 percent but never levels off more than 14.
The Ford Triton V8 grunted in protest as I wheeled the E-350 to the top of the hill. The riders, without a morning coffee stop or any real breakfast, struggled with each stroke, but for all their effort looked as if they were standing still on the steepest pitches. It is this sort of thing — perhaps more than the great many miles covered each day — that leaves me in awe of the team I am supporting. I use the term ‘team’ loosely — they aren’t competing for anything, really. There is no official sponsor of our journey. There is no world record at stake. They’re just doing it because they can.
The previous day hadn’t been any easier. I gave the group a head start Monday morning, and when I finally gave chase, I shook my head in disbelief at the hill I pointed the Ford up right out of Placerville. It leveled off a bit, rolled through the countryside, then another hill. And another. “I’ll catch them soon,” I thought. “They couldn’t have gotten too far.” When I caught them, they were already rolling into Jackson for lunch, more than 31 miles away.
Beyond Jackson the road narrowed. Leading into Angel’s Camp and beyond, there was no shoulder, and more than one logging truck passed within inches of the riders. Just beyond an enormous bridge spanning New Melones Reservoir in Calaveras County, Kevin broke a spoke (more precisely, the spoke just popped while he was standing near the van at a rest point). We threw his bike in the back and raced into the setting sun toward Modesto, more than an hour away, for the nearest bike shop still open. Although not an exact replacement, the good folks at Fun Sport Bikes were able to make something fit on short notice to keep Kevin rolling. We went to sleep that night with a mixture of relief and regret, knowing that the trip was more than half way over.
I finished my coffee at Priest Station and met the crew in Groveland for lunch. Just beyond, Brendan flatted. Two flats and one mechanical in four days and over 250 miles — could be worse. Several miles later, we sat in the shade, just inside the Yosemite entrance. More than 6,100 feet of vertical had been surmounted already, with 24 miles to go for the day.
The last of those 24 — descending into Yosemite Valley, scrubbing over 2,000 feet of vert — were perhaps for the riders, and myself, of the most rewarding of the trip as we sank into the pines, impossibly massive granite walls rising above us. I blocked traffic so that they could make the most of the turns, carving with an entire lane at their disposal. And in return, I got to view a stunning panoramic descent in high definition, widescreen, via an E-350 windshield.
That night, six dudes in plaid shirts (‘resort casual’ required a collar) dined in the Ahwahnee — a five-star restaurant in the historic hotel after which sets of The Shining were designed — while piano medleys of songs by the Doors, John Lennon and Led Zeppelin filled the grand hall. Behind the keys swayed a man in a tux, top button undone, bow tie slightly askew. I looked around and wondered if the stiffs and socialites recognized the tunes. Then I smiled. It didn’t matter.
To be continued…
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