Cali – Napa to Yosemite (2 of 3)

Napa on a motorcycle was a fun jaunt, but really not our cup of tea. The food and accommodations were world class. The vineyards were full of history and interesting people. The wine was ‘fab’ as they say. But the riding was mediocre. Simply stated, IT CONTAINED NO RISK, NO FLAW, NO CURVE, and NO CURSE. It’s a plateau, flat farmland, PERFECT for growing grapes, the soil, its acidity, the humidity, blah blah blah…. It’s the curves that we thirsted for in California, not the Merlot. So it was decided to get up on the 1st day of 2018, take one last jaunt through the grounds of the Meritage Resort and Winery and pack our bike and roll.  A fresh day, a fresh year, a fresh destination with fresh curves. To start it off with the second phase of our vacation aboard the big Electraglide. We were heading to “Yosemite National Park”, where we would stay a few days and celebrate Ms. Mandy’s ??th birthday, at Americas favorite National Park. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t going to all of the sudden pull out a tent. I scored us a room at the Ahwahnee Lodge, the nicest hotel in the National Park system. Recently renamed the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel” after a legal mishap with its name licensing last year. I’d been to the Ahwahnee with kids before and lots of luggage, so crossing the bridge of mandatory jackets and dresses in the dining room was something I hadn’t yet worked out. Remember, 4.7 cubic feet of luggage space on the bike. I jumped on the available “last room” in an instant the day before by phone.

Given our elevation climb we depended upon gps and weather reports hourly to guide us there. The month was January. Winter. Gobs of snow had already fallen in the Sierra Nevada’s, which blocked our way through the mountains eastward to the park. Most mountain passes were closed for the season and our only safe passage was from the south. And THAT would only work if it didn’t snow that day inside the park, which it already had that week, though the roads were clear but wet now. We carefully picked our access point, relying on phone calls to Forrest Rangers at stations around the park and on sketch cell service on travel blogs and local weather reports. One Ranger warned me not to attempt it. We got cut off from him! Temps were dipping into the teens at night making the slick roads impassable after dark to anyone so daytime travel was our only option. As soon as the sun rose we headed east but were cut off of from using our original plan to access the Yosemite National Park on  Rt. 140 through places like “Mariposa” and “LeGrand”. It was only a day’s ride, but probably the trickiest logistical day I ever spent on a motorcycle. Only because the odds were so great, the risks were real and we had EVERYTHING to loose. I had a passenger I was responsible for, I had a hundred pounds of gear on the bike, we were 1 wheel drive on a rental, meaning NO snow could be tolerated to our destination and we had only 8 hours of sunlight as the sun sets at 4:30 in the Sierra Nevada range of California in January. Off we went. An 8 hour ride and 8 hours to do it in, no breaks, no stops, no mistakes. A CURSE chased us down the road, I never looked back. Neither did Mandy, my trusted copilot and cheerleader. Hope propelled us forward.

It all went smoothly at first. We immediately hatched plan “B” after the weather turned on plan “A” to get into the Park via the 120 through “Buck Meadows” and “Forresta”. We turned right instead of left at a noontime crossroad, changing our course, dipping south, adding 50 miles. The pressure was on because not only was the insanely expensive hotel booking (The Majestic Yosemite Hotel) ‘non-refundable’ but more importantly, once past a certain point of no return, about 100 miles out, there are NO accommodation until we get fully to our destination, deep inside the park on the valley floor. We turned our Gerbing heated gear up and pushed on. The electric jackets and gloves were life savers. We had triple layered legs with thick hunting socks and still felt a chill despite all that. I closed all the vents in the fairings upper and lower. I pulled my girl close and twisted the throttle cautiously after a quick prayer to St. Christopher, my patron Saint of travel.

The riding was stupendous, dare I say breathtaking despite the cold and the ominous gray skies. A single snow squall would ground us road-side at a pull off and I even packet a secret tarp to hunker under in case we were stranded by the bad weather. I did not disclose this to Ms. Mandy who smiled optimistically, even excitedly as we trudged onward and upward. I do not think she, to this day, understood the risk we had undertaken. I do not recall a bike trip I’d ever taken, anywhere in the world, where so much depended upon on us arriving at our exact destination at an exact time. There was no plan C, and I was feeling the pressure. The tarp was not really a plan, just a survival tool. I was thinking scary thoughts like the reintroduced North American Wolf populations to the woods and forests around us. The unpredictable winter storms that dump feet of snow within hours. The many winter deaths (3 or 4 each season) from unwitting travelers to the reaches of the park, unprepared. The early sunset that turns the now simply wet and runny road to ice sheets until melted by the sun mid morning the next day. The elevation entering the valley was palpable. Our ears popped and the bike got sluggish. We finally reached the first ranger station at 3:00 O’clock in the afternoon and were advised by a surprised Ranger we were the first motorcycle to enter Yosemite Park in 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR. The Ranger shook his head and asked if I were an experienced rider. I nodded yes, and he told us we had 40 more miles to cover inside the park before the sun set in an hour and a half. No cell service between his gate and the “Lodge”. With 25 mile speed limits needing to “be ignored” he said, if we were to make it to Yosemite Village and our hotel through the forest before the roads iced over. They were puddle wet from snowmelt, which was copious on both sides of the shoulder in the barely 33 degree temps. He seemed reluctant to let us pass, but did. He cautioned us not to stop or take our time. The parked snow removal equipment at the Ranger station had me swallow hard as it was giant machinery seen only in ski towns out west or at the airports in places like Buffalo or Denver. I hoped it went unused for a few days. The Ranger took our money and wished is luck. He advised there was a wreck involving a car that went off the road from a sandy curve 20 miles up, but it would be cleared by the time we passed. It was. We wound up the mountain roads past thousand year old redwoods and deer the size of elk. We saw NO cars pass in either directions although we knew the hotels in the village were full. We were crazy? What did everyone in heated cars with 4-wheel drive know that we did not? Could we get there in time for dark? Can I really sleep at a pull off in a blizzard if one squalled up the valley onto us? I hoped never to know, but I was prepared to do so. Was Ms. Mandy? I didn’t ask.

We motored for exactly one and a half hours without saying a word, without stopping, sometimes without breath. The weather held. The temp held. The skies teased us with a freckle or two of flurries on occasion. We stopped quickly at the “Half Dome” lookout almost to our lodge. We adjusted gear and checked the bike, snapped 3 or 4 photos and swallowed hard and pushed on the last mile. The sun had set. The headlight became necessary. A final twist to the Gerbing gear switch squeezing every last drop of warmth from our jackets. Asian tourists at the pull off stared at us and took our picture. Crazy Americans I’m sure they thought to themselves (In Chinese probably). We steadily motored the last mile to the hotel and arrived precisely at 4:30 pm. It was dusk but not fully dark. A big 6 point buck nibbled greens poking through the snow on the lawn where we parked. It was surreal. HE was 20 feet from us. I captured it on video with my phone. He, not a care in the world, me, sweating and a bit shaky. The temps held at 33 degrees. It was about to plunge and secure everyone in the valley exactly right where they were. I kicked the jiffy stand down where it froze to the pavement that night. We quickly unpacked and made our way to the lobby where the clerk gave me an actual metal key to our room. What hotel still has those? A haunted one, that’s what.

The rustic hotel was for the likes of Teddy Roosevelt. Who actually stayed there. We walked up onto hearths and stood in the  giant fireplace boxes 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide. The chandeliers were 100 years old and constructed by hand by long dead and nameless craftsman. The only thing inspiring more awe than the curves into that place were the views from the valley floor near our hotel. Our balcony looked right up at Yosemite Falls cascading 2,425 feet down to the valley floor. You could walk the halls and feel the ghosts of guest’s past including the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Judy Garland, Will Rogers and the never ending list goes on. I walked out to the frozen bike 1 last time before dinner and a mist had sealed the bike in a thin veneer of ice. I couldn’t even open the frozen saddlebags for fear of breaking them. I’d have to get a tooth brush from the concierge. At those prices, give me two. It was the only night on our trip that I didn’t lock the bike. I feared I wouldn’t be able to unlock it in the am. Besides, who would steal it? Everyone who walked past it shook their heads and stared as they shuffled to their warm rooms. Who rode that here? I’m sure they pondered.

We dined on cheese and wine in the informal dining room. Mint tea and off to bed. We made it! My most harrowing journey complete. Exhausted we fell fast asleep. Not before I almost laughed out loud thinking of the folly of it all as I lay in bed that night with Mandy. I wondered if she understood the risk as did I? I hoped not. The recklessness of it all in my hindsight. Although that’s always 20/20, and quite boring. Sometimes, when the time is right, and the risk is right, a recipe for a ride presents itself. To fail, disaster, to succeed, triumphant bliss, TO HELL WITH A CURSE. And off to sleep with nothing but miles ahead and memories behind until a new day dawns with fresh curves and new challenges. Embrace them both.

Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home.  –Irish

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