Sunday, August 29, 2010


IN THE HIGHEST REACHES of the Sierra, in the region of Whitney Portal and Kearsarge Pass, the human inhabitants are comprised mainly of sinew. Perhaps some bone upon which to hang the sinew, but mainly sinew. They drape their lean bodies in breathable fabric that expels sweat but guards against the sun's cancerous rays. Food they carry on their backs. Feet are shod in Vibram and heads topped with broad-brimmed hats that would make John Wayne bust a gut.

“Pilgrims,” he’d spit. “Damned pilgrims.” He’d rein his big sorrel round and ride off down the mountain.

I MENTION THE DUKE because six miles east by road and about 6,000 feet below, John Wayne and John Ford conspired to bring the west to the masses. The rolling hummocks of the Alabama Hills still provide Hollywood with its greatest on location location.

Advised by Henrietta, the proprietress of the Mt Williamson Motel in Independence, I straddled the BMW and headed south to Lone Pine. At the light, a right turn placed me on Whitney Portal Road some thirteen miles from the trailhead. The paved strip heads straight for those Alabama Hills and then lilts over some and around others. With each crest or turn comes a new scene. One had the Duke dwarfing his pony. One had Jimmy Stewart trying to talk sense to Henry Fonda who cracked and ate pecans. Chuck Conners spoke to a little boy who called him “Paw.” And John Ford yelled into a megaphone, something about getting a camera positioned while the shadows were just so.

Past this playground of imagination, the road rises in long, steep stretches, perhaps a half-mile at a clip, only to arrive at a hairpin nearly 180 degrees and head upward in the other direction. This it does until the breadth of the Owens Valley, as well as much of its length, is spread beneath one’s feet. The town of Lone Pine, perhaps forty bocks in total, can be covered by a thumb at arm’s length. The century-mark temperature has cooled with each increment of elevation gain. The flora transitions. Sage, mesquite and creosote thins. Tiny thickets of willows cluster in gully bottoms where shade must predominate. Further up, those protected areas yield stands of white fir and Ponderosa Pine. Pinions bravely grow in dry, windy, exposed areas.

Whitney Portal Road zigzags toward the crest. The view with each switchback captures a little more breath than is returned. Three sharp granite arêtes rise from the spine of the Sierra; gleaming testaments to the eons-old conflict between uplift and erosion. Whitney is one of them – highest point in all of California. Lone Pine Creek cascades from above. The meadow at its rest is lush.

Within a mile-and-a-half of the trailhead, cars begin to litter the shoulder. Subarus, Toyotas, VWs, a Saab or two; but mainly Subarus: the sorrel ponies of the twenty-first century. At the trailhead, no parking remains. I quietly putter the BMW through two or three graded lots unable to find a spot large enough to lean the motorcycle on its side stand. I note the pilgrims. The ones made only of muscle and clad only in labels from Sierra Designs or REI or Royal Robbins. In most parking lots, the GS Adventure will raise an eye. Appreciatively, someone will say, “Nice bike.” Or “Beautiful, man.” Or “Where’re you headed?” Here, the pilgrims’ eyes remain down. The occasional one who looks up, does so with unmasked scorn and disdain. John Wayne in reverse. Had they but cotton in their mouths, I’m sure they’d spit.

RIGHTFULLY SO. My journey to the top indeed stole my breath, the views panoramic, with pictures dramatic. But the adventure I had enjoyed, the exploration in which I’d engaged, would neither tax me nor try me in the manner confronting those scaling California’s highest reach.

I will return from a good trip with good stories. The pilgrims will return with better.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

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