I am in hell.... or what I imagine hell looks like. The sky filled with smoke glowing an ominous dark red. For the first time on this long Tahoe to LA and back trip I’m generally worried about my safety. But let’s start from the beginning, how did I get here…
The early September air is cool and laced with the smoke of the dozens of wild fires raging across California. Ahead along the eastern sierra mountains snow clings to sheltered slopes in a desperate attempt to hold on until winter’s return. I am headed south from Truckee California to LA along the backside of the Sierra in a valley that runs parallel to Death Valley. It is a route I’ve taken a number of times but usually in a one day shot. This trip will take longer with some more exploring and some writing. It actually started with a day trip out to the Black Rock high desert earlier in the week to ride the playa (where Burning Man is held about this time annually except this year). Mountains and desert, empty, intimidating and at the same time so inviting.
The West was in a middle of a huge hot and dry period, which contributed to it being one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. The day before heading to Los Angeles, it hit a record high of 120. Crazy and definitely not motorcycling weather but a huge cold front was coming through and I planned to ride the cold wave back to LA.
Earlier in the week, I decided to head out in the morning to Gerlach NV, the jumping off point for the Burning Man. The wild fire smoke was keeping desert temps low in the morning and I was missing the playa. I was also very curious what Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert looked like without 75,000 people descending upon it. If you have read my burning man blog (click here) you know how much I love Burning Man and the environment in which it is held. The Burning Man organization was strongly discouraging people from camping out on the playa this year because of COVID-19 and the lack of infrastructure that normal is provided during the Burn but I thought people would still go.
The ride out was truly amazing. I’ve obviously done it a bunch of times before on the way top Burning Man including once on a motorcycle but this time it was different. It was completely devoid of the traffic and people and because I wasn’t so focused on getting to the Burn, I was able to really take in the beauty of the valley that leads in to the Black Rock desert. The road ran through the Paiute Indian Reservation, past gorgeous Pyramid lake and down a beautiful desert valley with an amazing variety of colors and rock formations. The cool weather was making it all the more special and the ride triggered a lot of great Burning Man memories that I am sure contributed to the desert high I felt.
As I approached Gerlach, a dusty little high desert town, I didn’t know what to expect. Usually I see it bustling with burners but now the town was completely empty. It was very strange to say the least. I continued through town and out to the playa. Normally during Burning Man, there is only one entrance that is choked with playa dust kicked up by long lines of cars and RVs. Today there were multiple entry points and zero vehicles (and no dust)! I pulled right on to the dry lake bed and it felt like I was on the Bonneville salt flats. Way off in the distance I saw a smattering of vehicles spread across miles of flat open playa. Without all the vehicles, art and structures, and people, the desert looked immense and beautiful.
After taking it in for a while I headed back to Gerlach to grab lunch and a cold beer. After hearing all the warnings about going, I was a little apprehensive about lunch. I headed into Brunos, a legendary bar and was greeted with a huge hello. Not surprisingly, Burning Man represents enormous revenues (and philanthropy/ donations) for the tiny town and the absence of the festival this year really hurts. The locals were very excited to have visitors despite Covid so I was glad to have stopped. After a delicious gut busting burger and fried Okra, I headed back to Truckee to beat the rising heat. What a great day trip!
A few days later I was off to LA. Usually about an 8 hour ride along highway 395 and the back side of the sierra, I was planning on stopping in Mammoth for the night (about half way). The route I chose was down 89 running along the western shore of Lake Tahoe. It is a beautiful scenic road with great views of the lake. My favorite part is near the southern end where the road becomes a small high strip of land that runs between Emerald Bay and another lake. An unbelievable view for sure. 89 continues south past South Lake Tahoe through Markleeville and some of the most incredible and empty wilderness I’ve seen in the sierra. The vistas coming down the mountain in to the valley were just amazing. 89 ends at 395 just north of Coleville. A wildfire had been burning west of Coleville and Walker but the wind had shifted blowing the smoke and fire risk west. I passed one field filled with firefighting helicopters and firefighter staging sections. The resources thrown at these fires was incredible and the firefighters and pilots are truly brave people. South of Walker, 395 runs through a shallow gorge and along the beautiful Walker river before emptying out in the valley floor. I had the road to myself and the curves and scenery were terrific. The next section was pretty uneventful running through the cool town of Bridgeport to Mono Lake. Mono Lake is a huge body of water near Lee Vining (western portal into Yosemite).
Mono Lake is a saline soda lake formed at least 760,000 years ago - which makes it one of the oldest lakes in North America. The lack of an outlet caused high salt levels in the lake and make its water alkaline (similar to the dry lake bed of the Black Rock desert playa). Brine shrimp and alkali flies thrive in its waters, and it provides critical habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and flies. Historically, the native Kucadikadi people (a band of the Northern Paiute Indians), ate the alkali flies' pupae, (Kucadikadi means "eaters of the brine fly pupae") which live in the shallow waters around the edge of the lake. When the city of Los Angeles diverted water from the freshwater streams flowing into the lake, it lowered the lake level, which imperiled the birds. A legal battle ensued that eventually forced Los Angeles to partially replenish the lake level.
Social and Environmental Consciousness
Normally I write about the environmental issues impacting the places I visit to raise awareness but the west coast fires need no help raising the profile of impact of global climate change. It is real, it is here, and we will all be impacted adversely at some point. Do what you can, do a little more than you can and be vocal about the need to cut greenhouse gases, recycling, using less plastic and consuming less generally. If we all pull a little, we will move a lot.
As I traveled to Gerlach and south along 395 I traveled through a lot of Indian reservation land and I wanted to share a little about the tribes that inhabit them. As it turns out one Indian nation spanned almost of the areas I covered on the trip, the Paiute Indians. The Paiute inhabited the Great Basin that runs from Oregon down along the California Nevada border. The basin has some of the most unforgiving lands in the US (the Great Basin includes Death Valley) so the Paiute were actual a large number of individual tribes each generally centered around food and water sources and the names of the tribes were based on what they ate, (as mentioned above, the Kucadikadi of Mono Lake were “brine fly pupae eaters” and there were many others including the “trout eaters” which were from the Snake river). The arrival of European settlers introduces a number of the same ills that befell other Native American Indians: disease like small pox, reduced lands and a more sedentary lifestyle, as well as battles that that were not usually won by the Indians. The Paiute seemed to have adapted better than most, integrating with and working for the western farmers. Unfortunately this adaptation along with multiple relocations to different reservation lands seemed to have dispersed the tribes. From a relatively uninformed outsider’s perspective, the impact appears to be that the Paiute do not seem to have the same type of centralized community and strong cultural identity the other western American Indian tribes seem to have. That would be a shame if that is the case
Continuing on my journey I passed through Lee Vining toward June Lake. Normally I pass the lake by on 395 but this time I took the June Lake loop road south and I highly recommend this detour. The road runs right into mountains past some beautiful smaller lakes and camping areas then curves through the lake town of June Lake back towards the highway. I will need to stop there for a night another time to explore it!
Back on the highway Mammoth was not far. Mammoth is a terrific ski mountain but not my favorite mountain town. It is fine, but is a bit disjointed and it just doesn’t have the charm and character of other mountain towns in Utah or Colorado. That being said, there are beautiful mountains and lakes surrounding it, and great bars and restaurants I enjoy visiting. Some of my favorite include the Mammoth Tavern in Old Mammoth (great food and bar scene pre-Covid), Shelter Distillery (maple whiskey sour is my go to), Distant Brewery (great sour beers) and Mammoth Brewing Co for some more fresh beer and a Cali Bowl (to be a little healthy).
I stayed in Mammoth for two nights to write and hike. Unfortunately the wild fires closed the entire Inyo National forest which closed all the hiking! I ended up hiking the bike path up the mountain to the lakes, back down to Distant for a beer flight and BBQ Chicken panini (delicious) then back to my hotel in the village. 7 miles and I felt it!
Although the fires were burning all around the wind while I was there pushed all the smoke out and I had beautiful weather. The morning I left though, the smoke returned. A great stop but glad I was headed out.
Bombing south the next town was Bishop, way down the mountain from Mammoth. I usually blow though Bishop but stopped this time at Erick Schat’s Bakkrey. I’ve passed this place a bunch of times but never stopped. It will be a mandatory stop from now on! I am of German descent and a German bakery is right up my alley. I had a BLT Avocado sandwich on unbelievable fresh sourdough bread. It was fantastic.
Back on the road south I had the unusual luxury of time and decided to take a detour to the western edge of Death Valley (to see my blog on a previous trip to Death Valley click here). Iode down 395 to Lone Pine and then diverted to Highway 136 that connected to Highway 190. That led in to Panamint Springs and an incredible section of desert vistas and mountain turns. I’ve been this way once before coming from Death Valley and it was amazing motorcycling. Beautiful views, big sweeping, as well as tight hairpin turns and no vehicles... perfect.
Once down in the valley I swung south on Panamint Valley road to Searles Valley, a depressing and smelly desert mining town I couldn’t get out of fast enough. Other than that town the rest of the ride was beautiful, rugged and really remote. Of you travel this route, bring water and make sure you have plenty of gas because there is nothing out there!
I cut across 395 and then on to highway 14 just outside of Ridgecrest, a surprisingly large town in the middle of the desert. The rest of the ride was just a sprint across the Mojave desert, normally baking but this time tempered by wildfire smoke and eerie desert glow. Traffic slowly builds as I approached Palmdale and through Angeles National Forest before joining interstate 5 and descending into LA and home.
After a little time on LA to decided to ride backup to Truckee and finish writing my travel blog from that ride. I had planned to stop back in Mammoth for the night as I had on the way down but when I arrived early afternoon the town was shrouded in smoke. I checked in to my hotel and found out that the “Creek” wildfire that was raging out of control in the mountains pretty far off to the south and east was headed this way. Apparently the wind had shifted and was steadily picking up, and the forecast was for the wind to worsen overnight. My oldest daughter, (the one who is way more responsible that I) had heard what was going on and was berating me to leave immediately. Now as most people who know me know, my general motto is “safety 3rd” so I wasn’t sweating the fire too much and I had prepaid the hotel so my cheap self wasn’t walking away from that so quickly... I did hear that the air quality had dropped from “unhealthy” to “hazardous” (had never seen that before!) and my lungs were feeling it a little already though. After a lot of careful thought and more calls from my daughter I decided to head north toward Truckee and away from the fires. As I turned north on 395 the skies started to darken further. Soon I was enveloped in so much smoke the sky blackened and then started to glow red... not good. At one point I had my high beam lights on just to see and all around me thick pieces of ash were falling. It took about 40 minutes to come out from this and it was the weirdest feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom. I thought for sure I was going to run right into an inferno. Crisis averted and I made it home safely.
This ride between Truckee and LA is a terrific example of how much diversity in terrain, road, and climate California offers. From the cool high mountains and lakes to the sweltering desert, the ride gives you everything and if you ride a motorcycle, I highly recommend doing the route over a few days to take it all in, with plenty of detours for curvy mountain passes...