Oasis doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. If you’re going to name a place Oasis there are certain expectations; maybe I’ve been inculturated by Scheherazade and Looney Toons, so what? When I think of an oasis, I’m thinking about palm trees, lapping blue waters, swaying hammocks, genies and coconut cocktails delivered by chilled out turtles in sunglasses and palm frond caps; you know, the works. This Oasis had none of that, no genies, nada. It is just an intersection of two roads, some fences, a few trees, and a shot-out camper I am sure has seen its fair share of tequila-fueled self-destruction. Aside from that there wasn’t much of an oasis in Oasis. We weren’t planning to hang around anyway, Oasis is where the eastern section of the 168 starts/ends and where we started our ride.
We spent the previous night in Brown’s Town Campground, an RV park just outside of Bishop. We slept under the stars, kinda falling asleep under the undying blue light of the moon. This was the high desert in late May, and we were sacked out deep inside the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. Normally there would be no reason to expect any evening precipitation, but this was a Yonder Journal trip, and seasonally incorrect weather is part of our M.O., so in the middle of the night when it started to sprinkle on us it was a non-surprise surprise. The rain was rascally and continued just long enough to wake us up and send us rifling through our gear to set up some makeshift tarps. Most of the crew set up something slightly professional, but I just pulled out my tent’s rain fly and rolled myself into it.
We arrived in Oasis around 10:00 AM the following morning under a vengeful sun irradiating the countryside. Outside of the few trees in the immediate vicinity, the rest of the landscape was scorched earth: baked chalky hills quilted with dimpled sagebrush. We unloaded the van, screwed with our bikes, took photographs, made jokes and set off pedaling in a dead-still dry heat. No wind, no help. The road leaving Oasis ran directly into the hills to the west where it disappeared.
“This was like riding in a sauna, and the heat weighed on us like a great cloak, suffocating any ambition.”
Thankfully the climb was short and our legs were fresh so it wasn’t too long before we reached Gilbert Summit at 6374 feet. From there we looked down on Deep Springs Valley and across to the White Mountains in the west.
As we pedaled, the layers of clothing we had buried deep in our bags during the first climb were dug back out. We were hit by the first series of short showers just as the wind and the grade began to pick up, serving us a chilling wind/water combo that only a few hours before would have been a godsend. Now it served to remind us of our lack of sufficient clothing. As we climbed into the canyon leading up to Westgard Pass we came across a motorcycle accident. A totaled black Honda Goldwing was piled onto the back of a flatbed tow-truck and by the time we arrived the rider had already been taken away, there was no indication of his condition. Three shocked riders stood away from their parked bikes scratching at the ground while they stared with glossed eyes at the crowd of motorists, the car-choked road, and the darkening desert.
The climb up the east side of the White Mountains is steep, beautiful, and claustrophobic. The asphalt rolls over natural water bars and through tight openings cut between rock walls. The weather conditions continue to decline and we are splashed with bursts of frigid mountain rain, but the climb passes quickly and we reach the plateau at the top of the range. To strictly follow the 168 we would descend the west side of the Whites into Big Pine and go back up the 395 to Bishop. That would be the short option, the easy option, the smart option. Alternatively we could ride up through the Bristlecone Pine Forest and descend down Silver Canyon. In terms of length the two routes are almost dead even, but the Bristlecone route would take us up to around 11,000 feet, adding another 3,000 feet or so of climbing. With the precipitation giving no hint of letting up it seemed that the right thing to do was to to gain elevation—get above the storm you know?—while steering clear of any services or shelter.
If what we were experiencing earlier in the day could be described as bursts of rain, our afternoon inclement experience through the Bristlecones was a prolonged blast. The weather morphed into a rain/hail tag team; the hail tenderizes the skin, raising sensitivity and creating a higher tactile awareness perfect for magnifying the heat-degrading effects of its partner, the nearly frozen rain. Our pace was slow and forward progress was further interrupted by repeated moments of roadside bivouacking as we took shelter from the downpour beneath the sparse, gnarled canopies of the world’s oldest trees. At the time there was a distinct lack of wonder concerning the existence of these ancient trees.
“Bristlecones, if you are out there, we didn’t mean it. We know you’re cool, we know that you’re worthwhile, glorious, and amazing. You just have to understand that when we were there, those cuss words, those cutting remarks and put downs, those weren’t us, that’s not who we are. That was the bad decision talking, the cold bones talking. What I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t you, it was us.”
At one point I looked over at Dylan who was shivering, his flannel shirt and jean shorts soaked through “You alright bud?” “Yeah, yeah… I’m totally cool.” What sarcasm, what a sense of irony! I am glad he had the grit to stick with the existential humor shtick because none of us had any kind of gear to offer up. This kind of knowing check-in is common during a difficult journey, no one expects to be surprised by the answer, all we are looking for is a vocalization that verifies our shared experience, an agreement that we have all resigned to the point where we share a tolerable level of misery, and that despite our hardship we will continue to remain thoroughly in cahoots.
We continued to climb, hoping the visitor center would be open and dreaming of hot chocolate, dry carpet, and an environmentally-controlled user experience catering to human comfort while simultaneously providing a degree of ancient arboreal education. I was so looking forward to an in-depth look at the wonders of phloem and xylem or experiencing a dioramic representation of the golden marmot’s spiritual life. Like most dreams, this one would not come to pass. The visitor center, our sanctuary, was closed. The climb had spread out our merry band and we needed to regroup. In order to keep from freezing as riders straggled in, we did push ups, wrapped ourselves in aluminum foil and laid on the hood of a stranger’s truck, still warm from the long drive up the mountain. From here it was only a few miles to the cutoff where we would catch the Silver Canyon road and plummet down the west side of the Whites.
At this point we were over 10,000 feet above sea level and altitude was randomly attacking our herd. Ty and Erik, two of our strongest, were feeling it the most. Nausea, headaches, shortness of breath. And the bitch of it is that you can’t prepare for it. Not on our budget, at least. The last couple of miles before the descent were the slowest of the day. The road was a mess with snow melting into large, unavoidable puddles.
At this point we were above the clouds, or at least the clouds weren’t above us. The snow muffled sound from our surroundings and the rumble of our tires quickly faded out of recognition. During those moments our path was difficult, quiet, and serene.
“At the fork before the plunge we gathered in a white field under a bright sun; some of us hacked, some of us wheezed, and together we took in a grand horizon of mountains and clouds stretching away from us like ripples in a pond.”