It's been 9 or 10 days since I left Yosemite but it feels a lot longer. The landscape and climate have changed dramatically, the mountains have shed their cool forests and have become barren, stumped with boulders and shrubs. The air is hot, dry and dusty, and the heat of the valleys between the mountain passes makes for tough going. I look kind of OK in this photo, but was really pretty wiped out after a steep climb. I found that hat by the side of the road but have since lost it again:
The riding has followed this rough pattern: climb for a day or two up a Sierra mountain pass to 7 or 8 thousand feet, drop 20 or 30 miles down into a valley, cross this in 30-40 degree heat, and do it again. The extended climbs have taken their toll on my left knee, which almost gave up on me a couple of days ago while climbing out of the Yokohl valley. By the time I got out to the top and started to roll downhill I choked up a bit, almost crying tears of relief because the hill had hurt so much. I remember thinking that whatever comes next, it doesn't matter because I'm now a stronger person, mentally if not physically.
The last few days have been more about the people I've met than the riding or the landscape though. In a town called Three Rivers I called in at an RV park expecting to pay top dollar for a pitch, but Kevin who greeted me charged me 5 bucks and introduced me to some whitewater rafters who'd been drinking all day, and gave me good food, drink and company. It turns out Kevin had first hand experience of cycle touring, he once cycled to all the major baseball stadiums in the States.
The next evening, at a lakeside campground, a party of RV campers invited me to dinner. Most of them were retirees, ranchers & farmers from the nearby city of Bakersfield. Bud, who invited me over, was 82 and loved saying 'I bet they don't do that in jolly old London'! He drank Jack Daniels all night and had a beer in his hand at 9am the next morning. I sat with them drinking beers till dark, watching the bats flit round, listening to their stories including one from Russell about navigating heavy farming equipment down narrow side roads by starlight to avoid main roads and paying tax. Viv, who brought me food, had a good story about chasing someone off her land with a shotgun. They advised me on country music (but not the dope-smoking kind).
The next day I decided to rest my knee at the first campground I got to. This was up a 20 mile, 3500 feet climb. I got up there, very slowly, and had to rest my knee every 15 mins by the end. At the campground I met Bruce (middle name Alan!), who almost immediately offered me dinner, a shower and a night in the spare room of his holiday cabin in among the Giant Sequoia trees. I'd earlier cycled past the biggest of these giant trees, which is called General Sherman, and is bloody enormous - the BIGGEST TREE IN THE WORLD! (I can hear Bud now; 'You won't find that in jolly old England!'):
I had some great conversation with Bruce, learnt a lot about the local flora and fauna, and about the history and customs of the West, including hospitality. The rule used to be 'you never let a man leave your door without food or water'-this was out of necessity, due to the distances peopled used to travel between between settlements. Bruce's family, like millions of others, came to the West to escape the dust crisis in the early 20th century. Bruce drove me up the hill in the morning, showing me the spectacular view of the mountains from Dome rock on the way.
His knowledge of the mountains is fantastic, he grew up driving cattle on It's slopes so knows them well. I was lucky and grateful to meet him.
After cruising downhill to Kernville I met Tom, a firefighter-turned-teacher, who likes to go cycle touring with his wife Cathy in their holidays. They gave me a room for the night and pizza, and called their cyclist friend John round to discuss my route. Both Bruce and John have warned me off the desert sections of my planned route, It's now too late in the year for my Arizona sections. Apparently the heat near Phoenix will hit 40+ and not cool down at night, and equally bad is the lack of shade. Camping is getting hot enough in Southern California, never mind Arizona:
Following this advice, I've decided bus it to Las Vegas. I've considered riding east from Lake Isabella through Death Valley but this again is probably not sensible (the hottest place in the USA, and windy to boot). I'll probably follow my planned route a bit further to Yucaipa, then cut off to San Bernardino and ride a Greyhound from there to Vegas. From Vegas I'll either cycle or catch another bus to St George, and from there east past the Grand Canyon through Zion towards Colorado, where the temperature will be more comfortable.
All this of course depends on the recovery of my knee. I've given it 2.5 days rest, which, with lower mileage and making sure I keep to lower gears, should get me by. In order to avoid the heat I have to stick to high altitudes which means harder cycling. Fingers crossed my knee tows the line! I hit the road again tomorrow, for the time being I'm loading up with calories in my office for today - McDonald's (free wifi). I couldn't stay away for ever!