A Solo Sierra Sprint

Traffic tends to wake me up at 4:30AM on the weekends. Not because of the noise or the lights, but because I have a special disdain for sitting still on an endless asphalt roadway. Sometimes I think it’s impossible to escape the clutches of the Bay Area, but with the help of a really loud alarm clock and sixty-four ounces of super saturated coffee (jet fuel) the mountains don’t really seem that far away.

It was mid-October and the leaves had just started to change on the east side of the California’s Sierra Nevada. If one has seen the golden hues of aspen reflect off the surface of a granite framed alpine lake, going to extreme lengths to witness this graceful and sublime change of foliage doesn’t seem all that bizarre. I wanted to go alone. I just had a wonderful summer in Colorado full of rambling around with friends, but having recently moved back to California, I needed to ground myself back where mountains became an integral part of my life. To be honest, I was afraid of leaving Colorado to come back to graduate school. What would I do without the half an hour access to pristine alpine lakes and towering peaks? The first part of the drive was easy. The jet fuel injection system was running at full capacity as I passed the blinking wind turbines silently spinning on Altamont Pass. Almost simultaneously, the low fuel light for my truck came on just as the last drops of liquid energy flowed out of my thermos. I was between the coast and the Sierra. The vast of expanse of the agricultural powerhouse that is the Central Valley extended in all directions. I stopped for gas and some burnt gas station coffee and went on my way.

The early morning sun penetrated the thick valley air bathing everything in a warm red hue. On the horizon, you could just start making out the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. North of Yosemite and south of Lake Tahoe, I’ve always thought that Highway 108 was the secret passage way to the Eastern Sierra. The grade steepened as the valley floor faded out of view.

Euphoria. At around 5000 feet, when the Black Oaks had vanished and stands of Incense Cedar and Ponderosa Pine had taken their place, I rolled down all the windows. The cab filled with a rush of cold, crisp, sweet and lucid mountain air. One deep breath of this air is enough to make the trip worth it.

I was headed to Blue Canyon Lake and this late in the season wasn’t expecting to see many people. Just below Sonora Pass, I parked my truck in a pull off and started looking for the unmarked trail. After locating the path, I crossed the stream and headed up the canyon. The willows lining the creek had already started to change colors giving the entire canyon a beautiful golden streak.

After following the stream for a few miles, I was greeted by a snow covered glacial cirque surrounding the deep aqua waters of Blue Canyon Lake. I sat down and cracked open a warm can of PBR. At first, I thought I was the only person at the lake, however, I looked up on one of the ridges and saw a group of people waving. One of them starting to come my way.

“Are you Jake?” asked the descending hiker.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not only did I not expect to see anyone, but I really wasn’t expecting someone to call my name. It turns out, one of my classmates from graduate school was on the ridge and he had somehow recognized me from hundreds of meters away. I scrambled up the rotten volcanic rock to the ledge where they were sitting. The colors of the lake changed slightly as my viewing angle got steeper. We all traded stories and marveled at the alpine setting in front of us. As I was saying goodbye, I realized I might not have gotten that view if I was completely alone.

While descending the trail, I decided I was going to stay at Buckeye Hot springs for the night just outside of Bridgeport. The drive down to the east side is spectacular. Alpine meadows filled with aspens change to pinyon pines surrounded by sage brush as the road plummets thousands of feet to the valley floor. There is one particular hairpin turn on the road that allows travelers to pull off and peer into Leavitt Meadow. The large alluvial flat is filled with a mosaic of pine and changing aspen. Dark reds crown many of the aspens giving them the appearance of unlit matchsticks. A man who was also parked at the pull out approached me and askd to take a picture of the Marine Corp Mountain Warfare Training center at the end of the valley.

“It’s been thirty years since I’ve been back here,” he explained. “I drove out from Florida just to see this meadow again.” He wrote down his email and handed me five bucks while thanking me for the picture. He drove off as I wondered about the mysterious magnetism of this special place.

Just as I was about to leave, a car pulled up and two women stepped out. We exchanged a few comments on the beauty of the valley and the accompanying colors before I got back into my truck. Roughly 30 minutes later, in a completely separate pullout, I heard a very friendly “Hello!” It was the same women from before. Again, we talked about the colors and I went on my way. Before setting up camp at Buckeye, I decided to make a quick trip over to Travertine Hot springs and watch the sun go down over the Sawtooth Range in Hoover Wilderness. I grabbed another warm PBR from my truck and settled into one of the hot stone pools.

Not twenty minutes after I arrive, I hear the same very friendly “Hello!” I looked up and saw them rounding the corner with one of the biggest picnic baskets I have ever seen in my life. We started chatting and I learned that they were both elementary school art teachers at an Italian immersion school in San Francisco. One of them, a painter, was on an eastern sierra quest to capture the ephemeral fall colors. A bearded man with long hair joined our conversation. He was taking a break from his months long Pacific Crest Trail journey. He admitted that he was behind schedule, but he didn’t seem to mind. The two Italian elementary instructors graciously invited us to partake in their picnic of cheese, bread, olives and wine. There was no shortage of stories and blissful conversation as we watched the sun set over the Eastern Sierra.

When I woke up in my truck the next morning, something felt off. I was tilted at an angle even though I was positive that I had parked on flat ground. Upon inspection, I found out I had a completely flat tire. I walked around to each encampment asking if anyone had a portable air compressor. I found some vanlifers packing up camp. They kindly lent me their compressor which I returned with the five bucks the man had given me the day before. The tire was hissing slowing and I guessed that I could probably make it to Bridgeport before it went completely flat. I rolled into the Shell Station with some air still left in the tires. No place in town sold patch kits so I decided to just throw on my spare. Throughout the process of changing the tire, I had upwards of ten locals offer their assistance or stop by to chat. It seems like everyone I’ve encountered on the east side are just plain nice. After my spare was in place, I started down Highway 395 towards Mono Lake. The yellow and oranges of the aspen were in stark juxtaposition to the brown sagebrush hills on the steady climb up to Conway Summit. I had my sights set on Lundy Canyon, a beautiful sierra valley full of water falls and aspen groves.

The last time I was in Lundy Canyon, I attempted to climb Lundy Pass, but was turned away by sketchy conditions and bad weather. I was determined this time to reach the top, but was also nervous about going alone due to the semi-exposed nature of the climb. I navigated through the streams, falls and tangles of yellow willow brush admiring the roaring falls spilling over the granite.

 At the bottom of the initial climb up the pass, I stopped for a moment wondering if it was a good idea, considering it was already 5:00PM and I had to be at school the next morning back in the Bay Area. In the middle of that thought, a dog came rushing up the trail followed by its two owners, a young couple that lived in Mammoth. They too were slightly apprehensive about going up the pass, but after some discussion we all decided to go up together. Steep scree fields, frozen water falls and snow bridges dotted the landscape as we made our way up the side of the canyon. Kuna, the couple’s pitmix, was torpedoing snow fields and couloirs while we marched onward. We exited the canyon and watched the towering summits of North Peak and Mount Conness glow in the background. We had made it. We all agreed that none of us would have sent it if we weren’t all together. I laughed at myself as I realized how surprisingly social my solo sierra trip ended up being.

After dropping back into the canyon, we said our goodbyes and I made my way back to my truck trying to mentally prepare myself for the five-hour drive back home. As I sat in my truck thinking about the last 48 hours, I realized something. I had encountered over twenty-five new people in the last two days and every single one of them exuded kindness. The rugged beauty of the Eastern Sierra is obvious with its granite peaks, gushing streams and magnificent vistas, but what makes this place special is what it does to the human spirit. Once you have tasted the east side, it’s impossible to disentangle it from who you are. The simple way I describe it to people is “It gets into you.”  

For more #GOATworthy stories, visit our friends at Backcountry.com. #ChaseYourGOAT

Published: December 13, 2017

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Jake YoungExplorer

San Francisco

Adventurer, Photographer, Impact Investor. I work with companies that want to have a positive impact on the world around them.