Tuesday, April 7, 2015
THE ECHO SUMMIT ICE RIDE
I left Death Valley Monday at 8:30 planning to split the 450-mile ride home to the Sacramento area in half, perhaps overnighting in Bridgeport CA. Upon arrival there, Bubba (no kidding, that’s what it said on his shirt), the big (and I mean BIG) man behind the Shell Gas Station convenience store counter reported: “There’s a 90% chance of snow tomorrow.”
The ride out of Stovepipe Wells over the Panamints had been spectacular although the change in temperature from 68 degrees to 41 in a matter of twenty minutes was taxing on this rider. The thought of shushing the big BMW over snowy pavement in the morning hours seemed, well, stupid, so I decided to press on - perhaps also stupid after so many miles that day.
Heading north on 395 to the Carson Valley, the view west at the crest of the Sierra resembled the whipped topping on a blue caramel latte, only much, much angrier. In Minden, I threw on an additional layer of insulation under my riding jacket and headed up the Kingsbury Grade. The instrument cluster on the BMW Adventure tells the rider all kinds of stuff. I always have it set to give me the time, but if the temperature falls to 36 degrees the time reading goes away to be replaced by the temp and a blinking snowflake. The clock said 4:15. I figured that, if all went well and I didn’t end up in a ditch or over a cliff somewhere, I’d be past Echo summit and out of the cold by 5:15. An hour of freezing hell I could stand.
As the grade wound back and forth to the summit, I expected to see the snowflake’s frightening apparition at any time. But I didn’t. The pavement had been wet, but not quite icy. The new Michelin road tires that I’d just put on the bike more than served their purpose this late afternoon.
US 50 west coursed me through the high-rise casinos of South Lake Tahoe. Traffic was light and the minions of this concrete canyon were warmly tucked inside making donations to one-armed machines that rewarded them with tinkles and bells and flashing lights. Few braced themselves against the frigid outdoor temps at lake level.
At the US 50 CA 89 split, I headed west. Sacramento was only 98 miles away. Passing the Tahoe Airport, tiny cinders of white began to collide with the face shield on my Shoei helmet. The further I west trekked, the more these little bits of icy spittle tended to strike. The snowflake hadn’t appeared on the Beemer’s dash, but I recall from my first college geography course that temperature drops about three degrees for every thousand feet of elevation gain. I figured I’d be seeing something soon.
Highway 50 over Echo Summit wastes little time in gaining elevation. The road is a two-laner with a rugged mountainside jutting on my right and a catastrophic plunge into a canyon on the left. The flying crystals were thicker now and the fog on the top edge of my face shield had turned to ice. Still no snowflake on the dash.
My being ginger with the throttle meant that a collection of four wheeled conveyances was gathering to my aft. I tiptoed onto the shoulder at a driveway skirt to allow them to pass.
This, I would do twice. By the second time, the snowflake had appeared and the temp reading rapidly slipped from 36 to 35 to 34. The second time I shouldered, out of the corner of my eye, I watched the autos pass. In the first one, a dated Nissan Pathfinder, I saw about a ten-year-old boy, his mouth shaped like an “oh” pointing at me by striking the side window. Behind him, his fourteen-(or so)-year-old brother, sporting a broad grin, flashed me a “vee” as they powered past.
The road still did not seem glazed as I crept back into the traffic lane. Achieving the summit, the temp rose to 35. My sigh of relief further fogged my helmet. Moments later, as I am winding down the grade, the temp drops to 34, then 33, then 32. Steer, don’t lean, I said to myself aloud, further fogging that damned face shield. I cracked the thing open to let it vent and about a dozen ice crystals slipped under the rim and smacked me in the face and eyes. I blinked several times and considered prayer.
Three miles past Echo there is a sweeping downward turn. “Six percent grade next three miles,” reports the cautionary sign. I conducted a little of that college level geographic math and realized that in less than ten minutes, I’d be out from under the frigid squall.
And sure enough, by Twin Bridges, I was. It was 5:10. I spent the remaining trip down to Placerville passing the cars I’d let go by on the summit. I don’t know whether the little kid in the front seat waved as I whizzed by or not.
Good call or not? The following morning, rain was falling in the Sacramento area and the snow level was down to 5500 feet. Alone in a motel room in Bridgeport, California for what appeared to be two or more days with only a book that had yet to grab me for company, does not now seem the least bit appealing.
I’m delighted to have made it home.
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