The Cajon Pass is Southern California’s link to the high desert. Approximately 12 miles of winding, climbing, multilane highway, often packed with traffic as the tractor-trailers head north towards Nevada and commuters make the often triple digit commute from the only area with a relatively decent home price to a far away job in a city surrounded by homes that cost three times theirs. Early Sunday morning though, the lanes are nearly empty, the air is crisp, and as the sun rises and peaks through a smattering of rare storm clouds left over from the night before, I smile. It’s the first time I’ve smiled in weeks outside of playing with my dogs. Work, family, all the normal stress factors that can drag a person down have weighed heavily on my mind. Nothing unique, but enough that I’ve been tough to be around. The road is dry, the sun is out, the air is cool, it’s beautiful. And I’m on the road.
I’m just an escort today, leading a friend out of town as he heads north to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. He’d been planning this ride for a while, and when he sprung it on me a few weeks prior I instantly offered to lead him out of town. I was honored and excited when he suggested I tag along a for a night or two, whatever I could manage. A trip like this had long been on my list, I just hadn’t yet made the time for it. A third party played with my emotions all the way up until the afternoon prior, changing the destination from Northern California, to the Grand Canyon, back to Northern California, then to Utah, where I drew the line and backed out, and finally back to Northern California where I jumped back in but on a limited timeline. What was going to be a couple of nights on the road had been dashed to a quiet weekend at home, then returned with compromise to one night, and I was going to make the most of it.
As a surprise rainstorm rolled through the Southland on Saturday, I did my best to ignore the weather reports. The best I could do was be prepared to ride through a downpour. Worrying about it wasn’t going to help anything. Chhun, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea of what we’d run into, and where. I tossed a 10 year old, unopened rain suit into my kit, a relic from my old rock buggy days. After getting caught in a surprise overnight snow storm in the high desert one year back, I no longer COMPLETELY leave these things to chance. Preparedness when moto camping can run the gamut from ultra light backpacking gear, to Thailand style piles of gear strapped to your machine. I was going for something in between, breaking in some new backpacking gear and dusting off some old favorites. While product reviews will come later, suffice to say that I’ve also got some new favorites.
The miles tick by pretty quickly when the weather is this nice and the roads are this open. We pass through the remnants of a 19th century silver mine Sin City. One smile leads to a few more. We pass the exit for a famed Naval Weapons Station. The stress and concerns start to slip away, replaced with epiphany and insight. We pass Whitney Portal, literally the entry point to summit Mt. Whitney. It starts to feel real. The miles tick by and soon we’re in Bishop, home of Schat’s Bakery, Mahogany Smoked Meats & Jerky, and Holy Smokes BBQ. After my helmet filled of delicious BBQ scents while passing through Big Pine, I felt compelled to convince Chhun that we need to stop for lunch at Holy Smokes. That doesn’t take much effort though, and we’re soon lying on a lush grassy knoll in a park just off the main drag, sleeping off a meat coma. Half an hour to rest our eyelids turns into a little more, but it’s pleasant out, and what are we in a rush for? I’ve got all day, he’s got all week.
I’ve been wanting to stop at a hot spring off the 395 since learning that they were really a thing that you could just…pull up to and enjoy, so I found a few to choose from. We choose one that’s a little further, but puts a pin on the map setting a pretty solid first day of mileage. Back on the bikes, we roll past the last of the scrub brush and rocky land as we start climbing towards Mammoth. The change is substantial. Tall trees. That are green. We don’t get much of that in Southern California these days. To match that rarity, the clouds overhead have gotten darker. Dark enough to sprinkle on us, but the road gods are smiling upon us and the sprinkles stay sprinkles.
Nearing our destination, we pull off to visit Mono Lake. Millions of years of geologic activity has combined to form the Sierra’s, and while the current lake is believed to have been formed 760,000 years ago, signs of greater water depth are visible. Volcanic activity continues within the vicinity, with the most recent eruption occurring a mere 350 years ago. The most recognizable feature of the area is likely the tufa’s, limestone and travertine pillars rising from the water.
With one last winding ascent, we drop into the town of Bridgeport. A spec on the map, as many towns are on this route, it’s also home to one of many hot springs in the area. A short dirt road off the highway leads through Forest Service land, and though the sign reads “No Camping”, I interpret various statements I’ve read to mean that we’ll be ok setting up camp on a pullout near the springs. It’s been a long day. We’ve covered nearly 400 miles, and while nowhere near a record, I couldn’t be happier to stake a claim at Travertine Springs.
Just around the bend is the first of the pools. With such direct access, and so close to the parking area, it’s often full. Another 50 yards or so down a trail and over a spine is another series of pools, and if you keep wandering, a fairly private pool with log benches can be found. Despite being a Sunday evening, the springs prove to be a popular destination. a conversation is struck with another visitor who ends up being from my home town. He moved to Chico for school and has stayed after graduation. Our two wheel trek impresses him and he gifts us each an ice cold beer, which couldn’t be more welcome. Between the warm water, the cold beer, and the intermittent sprinkles still falling from the sky, we barely notice the persistent mosquitos. Dinner is simple dehydrated backpacking meals, which aren’t bad either, but best of all they’re quick to prepare. The sunset is pretty fantastic, even if the sky is mostly grey and cloudy. Soon we’re visited by a local sheriff, who straightens me out on my uncertainty over our campsite. Technically, we’re not supposed to stick around. Camping is limited to the pullouts prior to the sign marking the area. But I’m feeling lucky.
Every car that idles past on it’s way to the hot springs while we’re tucked away inside our tents could be the one that makes us break down camp in the dark. We hold our breath waiting for a door to slam shut, followed by boot steps in the loose dirt. But, we’re left alone throughout the night. I haven’t had as good a night’s sleep as that under the stars since….ever. Having spent many nights in the desert, I’m a convert for the Sierra’s. I could lounge around all morning, but Chhun’s got a couple of states to cross, and I’ve got a wife and a few pup’s waiting for me at home, so we break camp, heat up some breakfast, and head to the gas station. It’s the start of something big for Chhun, now he’s on his own and it’s REAL for him. There are route choices to make, and nobody else to set the pace. Roads he’s never seen, views he’s never imagined. And I’m jealous.
I exit the highway and head towards Lake Tioga, the east entrance to Yosemite. It’s beautiful, and the skies have cleared for the most part. It’s tough to top Yosemite, and anything nearby is soaked in a similar beauty. The fuel injection on my Honda shines here, at over 9,000’ in elevation. I don’t notice any power loss, even with the added weight of my kit. Again, i could lounge and consume the view all day, but I’ve got to get home to those pups, so it’s back to munching miles.
A brief stop at the bakery for a donut and some fresh coffee, another to fill up the tank and scarf a sandwich in Lone Pine. Then straight through to Adelanto, back to the outer edges of home. On any normal day, this would be a long ways from home, but today I’m practically home already. I’ve timed my return perfectly for afternoon traffic, so Google Maps routes me on a 30 mile detour to save time. The rain had flooded the roads, and though the water cleared quickly it left sediment on the asphalt. On the few turns I have to make, I’m glad for my recent time at a flat track school up north. The street tires that contribute to the phenomenal fuel economy don’t have anything to offer in the way of traction on the loose surface. That’ll be something to address for another trip. One with a campsite further down the dirt road. Further from signs telling me where to setup my tent. Further from the headaches and the traffic of my day to day. For now though, this was 36 hours and just over 800 miles of pure, unfiltered pleasure. I can’t run from it, it’s the same thing you and all of my neighbors face everyday. There has been no greater understatement than “It could always be worse”, but a short break to refresh my reserves and clear my head was needed.
My wife was at the vet for a follow up with one of our dogs when I pulled onto our street, so I parked the bike in the garage and shed my layers of protective gear as I waited. When they walked through the door and I got to see the surprise and excitement to see me on both of their faces, well who couldn’t smile at that?