Cycling the Americas V: Getting too Deep in Yosemite
A fork appeared in the road ahead, one leading up the mountain and the other heading down. I pulled over, tried pissing my name in the powder – the dot in the ‘i’ still eludes me – and pondered the climb ahead. Then I pumped Kraak and Smaak on my little speaker and psyched myself into a frenzy, pedalling up toward Tioga Pass and the desert beyond.
A single kilometre up the road, a cop pulled up beside me.
“Where’re you going?”
“Lee Vining,” I replied.
“The road’s closed, I’m afraid,” he said with a smile. “Do you have an alternative route?”
“What is up there that will physically stop me from going over the pass?”
He frowned now. “Well, two things: the snow is one – there’s a foot or two of it on the road up there. And secondly, well, the law.”
Hard to argue with that, but man was I mad at him. I was determined to reach the deserts that lie east of the Sierra Nevada, and the blocked road would mean a 600-kilometre detour down through California’s central valley and around the foot of the mountains. Didn’t he know this? Why wasn’t he doing anything about it? Who did he think he was?
So I took the lower fork down into the Yosemite Valley, a gash through the mountains lined with granite spheres with names like El Capitan, Sentinel Dome and, the darling of a million postcards, the aptly-named Half Dome.
From the valley floor it feels like being in a gargantuan stadium. As I rode from campground to supermarket to trailhead and back, I imagined myself in some kind of Hunger Games scenario, with bloodthirsty fans stacked on the cliffs above baying for gore. By night I sat about fires with climbers and road trippers at Camp 4, a tent city of hikers, climbers and the occasional cyclist. During the day I climbed tracks that scale the valley walls to find a sitting spot and while away the afternoons. Sitting on those cliffs and looking upon the Yosemite Valley from above is to know a fear that goes way beyond that of a slip over the edge. Let me try to explain:
About 100 million years ago, the magma upon which we float bubbled and spurted up into the bedrock around present-day California, solidifying into granite and forming strange shapes buried deep below the earth’s surface. Over the next 30 million years or so, the volcanic mountains that the magma had created eroded away, leaving the granite exposed on the elements. Not long after (just a few tens of millions of years) the continental crust east of the Sierra Nevada stretched, forming a series of dramatic ranges and valleys running from north to south. Meanwhile, the wind, streams and glaciers worked the surface, scratching and grinding away at the exposed rock.
And there I was, 23 years into a life that will, at best, reach a mere 90 or so, munching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my legs dangling in the air. A speck in one generation among thousands, a mote of dust within one of 8.7 million other species currently scratching out their lives on this one planet among an unfathomably vast universe full of planets. The Sierra Nevada and the Yosemite Valley were born deep beneath the feet of dinosaurs. As you read this, there are mountain ranges, valleys, oceans and continents being formed that the human race will be around to map, explore and exploit. All of our lives will flicker away and it won’t mean a thing. Sitting up there with jelly smeared across my face, I was small and afraid. “So what do I do now?” I asked myself aloud.
I came down from the mountains and into California’s central valley, a flatland packed with endless orchards and farms.
In Orange Cove I asked a moustachioed gentleman with thinning hair if there was anywhere nearby where a tent would go unnoticed and unmolested. He spoke little English, so I tried again in Spanish.
“You mean like a house?” he asked.
“Sure, if the owners are OK, I could camp in their yard?”
The man – his name was Fernando – dialled a number and asked someone if a cyclist could camp in their backyard. He offered the phone and a voice gave me directions to a house.
Stella met me out the front of her home and introduced me to her family, nonplussed by a grimy stranger showing up at her doorstep. She fed me beef and string beans and kept a steady supply of hot tortillas on my plate. When I ventured outside the men of the family – sons Ray and Carlos and nephew Eric – offered beer and a swig or two from a bottle of Mexican brandy.
In the morning I emerged from a bedroom I’d shared with an unseen snorer to find Ray, nieces Becca and Britney and several children had slept scattered about a cramped living room. A lot of people call that little place home. I rode with Ray as he dropped Eric’s daughter Brianna at school and afterward he shouted me my first ever torta from the Pollo Coritado market. A torta is basically a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with meat or chili, vegetables, cheese and guacamole. When NASA sent the Voyager spacecraft out into the cosmos with information about earth and the human race for any extra-terrestrial beings it might encounter, they really should have included a torta or two as a gesture of goodwill.
“What’s your cause for doing this ride?” asked Ray back at his Mum’s place, and I talked about the uncle I lost to pancreatic cancer and my fundraising or the Cancer Council.
“That’s pretty weird because, well, I’m in remission,” he replied. He’s recovering from colon cancer and putting on weight, which the doctors tell him is a good sign.
“Maybe that’s why you’re here,” he said.
I looped down through Bakersfield and turned north into the Mojave Desert. The occasional semi-trailer blasted by and for long parts in between there was only the hum of my tyres on the road. To one side a plain of thorny bushes stretched out of sight and to the other, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada sat watching. I wasn’t afraid anymore, just humbled. Humbled by insignificance in the face of titanic forces sculpting the world around us. Humbled by silence in the desert. Humbled by the kindness of a family dangling far closer to poverty’s bandsaw than a privileged middle-class kid like me has ever known.
How can I possibly take myself so seriously in the face of all this? How can any of us? We’ve convinced ourselves we’re all so special but it takes just a look at something like the Yosemite Valley to come to the terrifying realisation of our triviality.
“What do I do now?” I asked myself again and now the answer seemed simple: be good to the living things that surround me, love those that evolution has trained me to love and have some fun along the way. Fuck the fear. I’ve embraced insignificance. It feels bloody fantastic.
Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.