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We meet at the top of Skyline Drive, above the funky, ranchette village of Three Rivers, California. The morning is cool, the sun still procrastinating in the depths behind Case Mountain and the Great Western Divide beyond. A rafter of wild turkeys grazes on the neighbor's lawn.
I refuse to be intimidated by the locals' gleaming fleet of deluxe full-suspension rigs. They offer me a loaner. I decline. I'm used to being the only one on a hardtail from back at the end of the 20th century. I like the way it climbs; I know how it handles in the narrows; I know exactly how much torque it takes, when I really need it, to get out of my clips. If nothing else, I trust my gearing. But when these guys saddle up and without equivocation point tires across a narrow ramp feature right there in Mark Hirni's front yard, I should (but don't yet) see my impending humiliation.
At the end of the street, we ride through the Bureau of Land Management gate and settle in for the long climb up the old Salt Creek fire road. It's 10 miles up to the first sequoias but we're not going the whole way—not this time. Coming from Mammoth Lakes, at 8,300 feet (on the other side of the range), I feel strong and chatty, buoyed with extra oxygen. We talk about how the BLM picked up all this land in a series of trades with local ranchers beginning in 1979, how certain areas were highlighted for mountain biking only in the late 1990s. The entire complex comprises about 14,000 acres, rising from 1,200 feet of elevation at the gate, through a series of oak and chaparral ecosystems to six distinct sequoia groves, to the summit of Case Mountain at 6,818 feet and the southwestern edge of Sequoia National Park beyond.
You could go from here to the summit of Mt. Whitney, and from there another 200 miles to the northern edge of Yosemite National Park without crossing another road (though you'd have to ditch your bike at the first park boundary). Aside from the total eradication of grizzlies and wolves and Indians, and a pock mark here and there from some failed effort at finding gold, the place is much as it has been since the end of the last ice age, eleven-odd thousand years ago.
Threading his way through coyote scat, Chip Chapman, an architect from Visalia, not winded in the slightest, recounts his inventory of local mammal sightings: horse, deer, bobcat, black bear, mountain lion. "You don't really want to see a mountain lion," he says.
Tom Brown is a contractor and woodworker. Aaron Cochran is an engineer for the phone company. They live down in Visalia too, but do their best to meet Hirni and others to exercise their mounts up here every Sunday morning—and every Wednesday night too (the latter with full night-lighting equipment on their handlebars and helmets).
"The best time of year is late fall and early spring," says Tom, describing the bounty of waterfalls in the spring, the gnarly creek crossings and the buckeye bloom. "The worst time is late spring, when the weeds are over your head and you can't see the trail." And of course there are certain days in July and August when it's just too hot to do anything but sit around and drink beers.
We pass the so-dubbed Three Amigos at a switchback where we trade the last of the cool, still morning for full sun-exposure and a slightly mitigating down-canyon breeze. Phil Fortney, who is head of maintenance at a State Mental Hospital in Porterville and a die-hard member of the Skyline Dawn Patrol, shows off his glistening new drive train. "Check out the bling-bling," he says, describing his recent checkered past with a series of clunky, noisy chain rings. "Now I'm stealth, man." The only thing he spends more money on than his bicycle, he says, is on his kids' private education.
At a picnic table at a place called the Corral, at 2,760 feet, beneath the shade of an oak, we regroup, drink water, look out at the valley and the mountains, and munch on energy chewies. From here on out it's singletrack and fast. Chip and Tom are gone before I'm even clipped in. Aaron graciously plays sweep down the Cable Trail and back up to Bear Junction, at 3,000 feet, bareheaded and scornful of his helmet until it gets serious. And then it gets serious.
Down we bounce along the Creek Trail, through jagged gullets of mossy granite, across upended meadows of blooming yellow tarweed, on trails little wider than a front tire, slipping and skidding on beds of dried oak leaves. I'm glad I'm not trying to follow a map. I'm on Tom's tail as he leaps through a cleft in the trunk of an ancient oak. "The Octopus, if you choose," he says. I choose not.
Then we're into a downhill minefield called Chutes & Ladders. Aaron watches me wrangle my rig back from a teetering nose-wheelie off a dry rapid—barely. But around the next corner it's over. I catch a rut, land hard on my helmet, in the weeds, with my bike on top of me. I have burrs by the hundreds in my hair, in my shorts, in my socks. I've skinned my shoulder and have blood dribbling from my knee.
My nerve's gone and my equilibrium's shot, but I'm good. I wobble down to where the others are waiting. I've been afforded a terrible glimpse of a future in which I can no longer ride a bicycle off-pavement, in which I am old and frail and unpleasant to be around. And then I go the way of the grizzlies and wolves and Indians: into oblivion. "That was awesome," I say. These guys and their buddies built these trails. They've been riding up here for nigh on 12 years. It's not fair. "I'm gonna have to come back and try that again sometime," I say, dreaming already of spring, when the grass is green and the world is softer.
After a while we get through the unforgiving rock gardens and onto a trail called Old #1, the very first to be laid out for riding bikes on, back in the '90s, when the sport was still civilized. The old cowpath rolls and sidehills pleasantly through the grass at a nice four percent, then jumps the road. We portage a barb-wire fence, cross a dry creek on a narrow plank bridge, and eventually glide back down to the gate. Well-chastened but also inspired to get back on my game, I throw my antique ride in the truck, hose some of the local landscape from my wounds. There's courage left in me, I know. I just have to find it.
Or maybe I need a new bike.
BETA: Skyline Drive leaves CA 398 from the Veteran's Building on the north end of Three Rivers. The BLM gate is at the end of the road. Parking is limited. Be respectful of the neighbors. Don't block driveways and don't leave trash. All trails are intermediate to advanced. A basic trail map is available for download, but I highly recommend trying to tag along with the locals first, on Sunday morning. Keep an eye out for poison oak, mountain lions, and armed marijuana farmers. Bring spares, tools and water. Yield to horses and hikers. Leave open gates open and closed gates closed.
From The Explorer's Guide to Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada, 2nd. Ed., by David T. Page. Copyright © 2011 by David T. Page. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.