Sierra Song, Part II

As I sat and drained the last of my second bottle at the Mosquito Flat trailhead, the headache washed over me, reminding me of my lack of acclimation and need to drop, post-haste. Mosquito Flat is the highest elevation I’ve gained by bicycle without prior altitude acclimation. It’s as high as I’m willing to consider, which is why I never really engage friends’ invitations to do the Triple Bypass or Mt. Evans.

The descents of these mountain roads were generally something other than what I had hoped for. With few switchbacks, cars could overtake me, even when I was doing 50 mph. That was less than fun. And due to the often steep grades, it was easy to spend miles at or near 50 mph. Because I didn’t know the roads and because rock fall was common, I eased up on the speed in many places.

The most enjoyable descent of the bunch came in a surprising location. I had expected Onion Valley, with its many switchbacks, to offer the most Alpine-like descending, rock fall made the descent a greater challenge than expected. It was Lower Rock Creek where the road was clean, the turns frequent and the grade steep but not crazy steep where I most enjoyed the drop. I could do that five-mile descent on a daily basis and not get tired of it.

I keep asking myself what my takeaway from the trip has been. I went to recharge my battery. Between work for clients, editorial for peloton magazine and posts for RKP, I had composed some 50,000 words—about half a novel—in less than three months. For the first time in my professional life, I had exceeded my bandwidth and was paying for it. The time alone (my family was in New Mexico visiting friends) gave me a chance to read, stare at maps and go to bed early, all salves for my fatigued brain. But I keep returning to the thought that I should have uncovered some larger truth, larger than knowing that next time I shouldn’t pack the car until I have a compact crank installed on my bike.

Answers rarely appear like sodas at the bottom of a coin-operated machine, though questions arrive even more easily. There was a moment that haunts me, though. As I descended from South Lake there is a mile-long stretch where the gradient is nearly 9 percent. My speed, already in the 40s, climbed to a max of 52.7. That’s not the fastest I’ve gone, but something unusual happened as my bike accelerated. Somewhere in the high 40s, while I could still feel gravity pull the bike to greater speed, chills washed over me as if I’d had some intense emotional experience. I looked down at my arms and legs and could see goose bumps standing on my sweaty skin.

Research has shown that flow states and the chills are cousins, that those who are prone to experiencing chills tend to be more open to flow states. None of that explains what happened. My sense, at the time, was that I’d passed some sort of threshold, that it was some internal analog to passing the sound barrier. How or why I’ve no idea. It was a one-off experience, at least, so far.

All I’m left with is confirmation of a truth I hold to be self-evident: The mountains are a place of discovery and mystery and what comes from those encounters can never be guessed, which is why I keep returning.


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  1. todd k

    Thanks for sharing these experiences Padraig! I used to get a somewhat similar feeling back when I used to do long solitary hikes in the desert. On occaision I would encounter a very earie calm that came with a specific type of solitude under specific conditions. I would essentially find myself in a state of hyper sensitivity at my awareness aware of being in a specific moment at a specific time. It was generally the combination of my needing to aware of my environment (desert, desert creatures, cactus,rock) and conditions (heat, loose footing, finite water, loose terrain, distance) that would make me susceptible to the flow of the moment.

  2. Mark


    I’m sad to say that I’m mostly an ex-roadie these days, although as I approach 40 my body is starting to urge me away from the running, even trails, and back to the siren song of the bike. In running or backpacking or cycling, though, I can say from personal experience that an epiphany is not something that can be summoned. Even during the times and places that seem like they would be entirely appropriate. They will almost never come when you’re busy or distracted or overworked (mentally), however. They do seem linked, at least in my own history, to a combination of physical work (but not to the point of complete exhaustion) and time and space for recovery. While it’s almost impossible for most of us these days, if you can get a block of five to seven days, you’ve got a better shot at finding some of those revelations. But still… they can’t be summoned.

    While you’re down in LA, don’t forget about Mount Baldy and Glendora Ridge Road. They’re not the Sierra, but they’re pretty sweet.

    If you’re willing to travel farther, head out past Riverside to the roads that head up to Idyllwild. Start at Banning and head up 243. If you’re just out for a climb and want to suffer a bit, go as far as the Stone Creek Campground and climb the one-lane paved road up to Marion Mountain campground. That will finish at about 6800′ with some serious grades in the last couple miles. Otherwise, keep going past Pine Cove and drop into the town of Idyllwild. If you’re masochistic, make the climb up North Circle drive to Humber Park and the Devil’s Slide trailhead at 6400′ and quite steep at the end.

    In Idyllwild, get high-quality snacks at Gary’s Deli or more substantial food at Cafe Aroma, and stop in and say “hi” to the fine folks at the Hub cyclery. Disclaimer: I used to live in Idyllwild still consider the people there friends, but they’re seriously worth speaking up for. It’s a great town, the most Sierra-like of SoCal.

    (Padriag, if you feel it’s best to delete/edit that last bit, feel free.)

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