Highway 49 – The Gold Route Road Journals: Day 5

Six dudes, five bikes, one van, five days, 400 miles, more than 160 years of history and arsenic bugs. These are The SAG Wagon Confessions.

by Don Stefanovich

DAY 5: Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Led by photographer Scott Markewitz, the crew rolls into a rest point along Tioga Pass. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Led by photographer Scott Markewitz, the crew rolls into a rest point along Tioga Pass. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

We woke in our tent-cabins to a definite chill. The granite monoliths surrounding us had not yet allowed the sun to enter the Yosemite Valley, but its glow was evident on the upper ridges. We stood in line with trays for breakfast then found wooden chairs in the crowded lodge. I felt like a kid at camp.

After taking advantage of the valley’s dawn-lit backdrops for some photo-ops, the crew made a painful—yet prudent—decision and loaded the bikes in the van for a shuttle trip up and out of the valley, retracing the last leg of yesterday’s ride. What was a thrill-ride finish yesterday would have been a hellish slap-in-the-face start today. There was still plenty of elevation to gain during the final stretch of the trip up and over Tioga Pass to Mono Lake.

Scott Markewitz gets his angle. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Scott Markewitz gets his angle. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Once out of Yosemite Valley, I roll the Ford into a last-chance, log-walled gas station at the top of the hill where we are to rejoin HWY 120. After unloading and reassembling the bikes, the guys cram last-minute convenience-store calories. Not one to be left out, I secure a supply of buffalo-chicken-nugget jerky for the road.

We play leap frog again as they grind up Tioga road, past old-growth pine forests carpeted with ferns, already turning yellow beneath the evergreens, and pristine mountain lakes.

Above 8,000 feet there are patches of snow on the ground from an early October storm.

Over 9,000 feet the sun can’t erase the bitter bite of the thin air.

At nearly 10,000 feet, snow-shrouded peaks tower above the tundra-like Tuolumne meadows.

Then, the climbing is done.

Roadside, at one of the highest points along Highway 120, they layer up for the last descent. After Scott snaps a few last shots in the fading light, I once again throw the hazards on and block traffic as they carve down toward Mono Lake. The remaining sun spills over the cliffs, bathing the riders in surreal side-light.

The sun sets as the final descent toward Mono Lake begins. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

The sun sets as the final descent toward Mono Lake begins. / Photo by Don Stefanovich

Tony flats only 100 yards from the bottom — the lake already in sight — and throws his bike in the van. He can see the finish. It counts.

Then — in a Mobil station parking lot next to the alkaline lake that is home to the recently discovered ‘arsenic bugs’ that changed the very way we define life — it’s over.

We capture a few celebratory group shots with the limestone tufa towers of the lake glowing in the dusk behind us. There are few words in the lot of the Mobil station. Locals pumping gas and buying lottery tickets look on with bemusement as the boys’ celebratory ritual begins.

They drink. They eat. They change. Five days and nearly 400 miles are summed up by group hugs, tall cans, peanut-butter pretzels and bare asses.

Das Ende.

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