Smoke, Gravel, Lupine, and a Big Mountain
From Warner Valley, outside of Chester, CA, I turn onto an unmarked gravel road. I ride this road for nine miles and pass springs, streams, and Wilson Lake. The last time I took this route I was heading in the opposite direction three years ago, on a whim, in order to bypass a busy and longer stretch of road. I looked at a map the night before and felt confident enough that the gravel road cut through mountain valleys and pastures back to where I began riding that day.
Forest fire smoke had been stinging my lungs for hours, causing me to cough on the higher passes. I had already climbed hors categorie Mount Lassen and was dead tired when I passed two big dudes, one dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, and the other in high-visibility orange. They sat on ATVs in the middle of nowhere, without hunting equipment. One of them says something to me, but I don’t understand and don’t stop. I smile, wave, and ride on. It was getting dark and I was alone on a backcountry gravel road, let’s just say I wasn’t here to make friends. Five minutes later I come upon an intersection of five gravel roads. None of them had any signs, and of course I had no map. I was stumped, if I picked the wrong way I could be stuck out here in the Collins Almanor Forest all night! As I am deciding which road to take, I hear the distant drone of vehicles. Shortly, camo and high-vis pull up, look at my steel road bike and chuckle, “That’s the wrong bike for out here.” Three years later I know that my Tarmac SL4 is the perfect bike for this ride. They point me in the direction home.
Five miles later, near the North Fork of the Feather River, a pickup truck with a few dudes slowly approaches, heading in the opposite direction. I don’t remember if it was the driver drinking a Budweiser or the man standing in the truckbed with a loaded crossbow who said, “You didn’t scare all the bucks did you?!”. Of course not sir. I hurry on.
Three years later, I expect to meet the same such characters, but I don’t see a soul. I turn off the gravel, from there it is just a few miles of rolling hills to the base of Mount Lassen. Once inside the National Park, I pass Sulfur Works, where boiling mudpits spew sulfur into the air. I can still hear and smell gurgling mud after passing several bends in the road. Fifteen miles from the base I see alpine lakes and fields of lupine, signs that I’m near the summit. The last mile goes by reeaally slow. Once I make it to the top, I quickly turn around and head back to my unmarked gravel road.