Revisiting Yosemite

It’s hard to believe it’s already September. The summer has flown by! In many ways, the pandemic has messed with my head. In particular, the long stretches of stay-at-home due to the virus, the fires, rioting have got me accustomed to staying home. I often laugh that some days accomplishment means, “I got out of bed!”

But alas, the summer is flying by. This summer, the Sierras have mostly been off-limits due to the Dixie and Caldor fires putting massive amounts of smoke throughout Eastern California. It’s heartbreaking to see all of the devastation in an area I love so dearly.

Back when I first started riding and new to California I often had Taco Bell. The same meal has doubled in price since I started riding (Yet still mostly tastes the same).

Recently, we had a slight wind shift that started pulling that smoke towards the Bay Area. While everything north of Highway 4 had poor air quality, everything south remained smoke-free. A couple of weeks ago, my boss said, “if you need to take a Monday off and go riding to take care of your mental health, just go do that.” With that advice in hand, I was out the door with the city of Bishop as my destination.

It’s been at least a few years since I’ve been to the central Sierras. I can’t remember the last time I took the motorcycle out the 580 freeway towards the mountains. Manteca was a quick hour on the freeway. From here, it mainly was two-lane roads through the agricultural Central Valley. Oakdale is the town that captures the essence of this part of the valley for me. It’s a smaller town with just under 23,000 people, with agriculture at its core. Fast food restaurants, feed and tack stores, and signs of its agriculture industry line Highway 120 through the town. I told myself I’d stop at Bucksworth Western Wear on the way back as it’s a piece of Americana I wanted to experience.

Leaving Oakdale, Highway 108 (Sonora Pass) and Highway 120 (Tioga Pass) travel together for about 25 miles. I didn’t know if I wanted to cross over Sonora or Tioga Pass. Sonora Pass was about 50 miles longer. I do love the ride going east over Sonora Pass with its slow rise and quick fall. However, Tioga won out as I was running a little later than I wanted to on the clock.

As I was beginning to climb into the Sierras, it started to get warm. The sun was to my back, and the promise of cooler temperatures due to altitude was up ahead. Old Priest Grade Road is a short, but fantastic piece of pavement. It’s a steep climb up Priest Grade with crazy good twisties that should not be missed. You’ve got to time it right though. It just takes one slow car to ruin the moment. Cars like to go up that road to save miles, but many of them aren’t ready for the technical nature of the climb.

The gas station I wanted to stop at in Groveland went out of business. Crap! I decided to keep pressing on words even though the low gas light just popped on. About halfway through the reserve, a Valero station popped into view. One quart of Gatorade Zero down, and I was ready to go again.

Upon entering Yosemite, I saw that the temperature at 100°. The GS confirmed that. Tomorrow, however, it was predicted to be 104! Wow! That is one for the memory books. On my V-Strom, I never wanted to put stickers all over my motorcycle. On the GS, that philosophy radically changed. Every major place I go, I like to collect a sticker or two for the bike. Today’s journey includes YNP: Yosemite National Park! Tomorrow would likely have a scorching backtrack to San Francisco.

Yosemite now has a reservation system. To get into the park, visitors must obtain a permit from the National Park Service. The National Park Service is limiting the number of people in Yosemite due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you don’t have a pass, the Ranger will issue you a “pass-through permit.” The permit allows you to cross through the park. However, you can’t stop and do anything within the park and only have two hours to exit.

Today’s ride through Yosemite was far from usual. Unless I’m in a hurry, I always like to stop at Crane Flat for gas, Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, and occasionally Tuolumne Meadows. Due to my provisional pass, I skipped over Crane Flat at the start of the journey. What surprised me, however, was the sheer lack of traffic in the park. The permit system made Yosemite great for motorcyclists! I’ve not seen the park this empty in the summer, ever! Several years ago, when the government shut down, the park was equally empty, but it was also mid-October, and the park is demonstrably cooler, and fewer people come to visit.

I rolled the dice at Olmsted Point. It’s a beautiful view of Half Dome, the crown jewel of Yosemite. While the air quality was good, upper-level smoke added a little bit of haze throughout the skies. Half Dome was visible and lovely off in the distance!

Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows would have to wait until next time. I always like to swim in the lake, which would’ve required a significantly more involved stop. While I had the time on my pass, I didn’t want to draw undue attention to my presence in the park. I didn’t have the receipt the rangers usually attach to your windscreen. Tuolumne Meadows, while beautiful, fell to the same fate on this trip. It was time to get to Bishop.
By the time I got to the east gate at Tioga Pass, the rangers were flagging traffic without validating passes. I waved and started heading down the mountain. This section of Highway 120 drops about 4000 feet over 7 miles. The road contains high mountain peaks and sheer drops off to the right as the pavement squiggles throughout the canyon.
The 395 bends along the eastern side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It switches between windy two-lane and lazy four-lane all along the mountain’s eastern flank. Today’s section was entirely lazy four-lane :-). It was a 60-mile journey with an additional 3000 feet descent into Bishop.

Bishop is a small, isolated town in eastern California, just a stone’s throw from Nevada. Bishop is the terminating point of US Highway 6 which travels across the United States to Provincetown, Massachusetts.

I’m always humbled at how vast the distances can be out west. Tonopah really is 112 miles away. There’s nothing major between here and there. Benton, CA is 35 miles away but doesn’t always have gas. The intersection of US 6 and US 95 is devoid of any civilization. Back east, two major federal highways crossing would at least include a gas station. Many of us in my riding community joke that Bishop becomes the hottest gay destination the second week in October for the “Queer Biker Invasion Of Death Valley.” Provincetown hosts the famous Bear Week in mid-July. Two small towns. Two gay destinations. Both separated by a highway that time passed by. One day I’ll get to see the other end of Highway 6 for Bear Week.

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