Donner Pass

The first photograph below was captured with my Lumix DMC-FX01 on September 29, 2007 in Donner Pass. Yep, that place.

Four of us from my riding group were on a four-day tour of Northern California. We had hit the road early the day before, riding from Riverside, through the Mojave Desert, then north on Route 395 along the east flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After a scenic detour through the Mammoth Lakes area, we stopped for the night at an inexpensive motel in Carson City, Nevada.

After dinner and a few beers, we went to sleep thinking about the road ahead: We’d ride further north on 395, then cut west across the Sierras, the northern end of the Central Valley, and the Coastal Range to the California Redwoods. After visiting the Redwoods, we’d turn back south along routes 101 and 1 through San Francisco and Big Sur on our way home. It didn’t quite go the way we planned, but what road trip ever does?

In the darkness of that first night in Carson City there was a short but heavy rain shower, then the temperature pushed down toward the low side of zero.

I happened to be the first one to walk outside in the morning, anxious to pack my luggage onto the bike and get rolling, but that idea stopped dead in it’s tracks when I saw our bikes. I called the others out of the motel rooms. “Hey. Come look at the bikes.”

We gathered on the sidewalk in front of the parking lot and stared at the line of four bikes. The rain and sudden freeze had encased them all in a thin sheet of ice.

We stood rooted to the concrete and stared for a half-minute, muttering in stacatto bursts of swearing, then stared for another half-minute punctuated by muted expletives while we collectively and silently  wondered which bike would be the one that wouldn’t start.

The hypnotic threat of bikes not starting finally lifted and we broke the ice off our machines. We started the engines one by one, listening while each bike turned over as slowly as a hundred-year-old man standing up out of a chair.

We let the bikes idle for several minutes while we packed saddlebags and strapped luggage down. The ice melted off the cylinders and dripped onto the ground, and steamed up off the exhaust pipes.

When we finally got on the road to Reno, it was cold. Damn cold. We watched the snow-coated fields along the highway, and pulled over to warm up three times in the 32 mile stretch. A photo of a snow-coated field beside Route 395 is shown below. It isn’t necessarily a great photo, either, but it illustrates the cold weather on the morning of September 29, 2007.

In Reno we took another break in the parking lot of a fast food joint. Once our fingers regained some feeling, we checked a road map and started plotting our next move. Rather than continue north on 395 where it was sure to only continue being cold, we’d go over the mountains through Donner Pass on I-80 and get to the Central Valley quicker. The Central Valley is always warmer than along the coast or in the mountains. It took us quite some time to get over the eighty miles of mountains, since we could only go six to eight miles before pulling over to warm up. At the stop where the Donner Pass photo was taken, we discovered that it was cold enough to take off our gloves and grab our exhaust pipes to warm up our hands. Normally, that action would have resulted in third degree burns.

From the time we rode into the Central Valley to the end of the road trip the weather seemed warm to us, though it wasn’t.

But it is the negative times that make the good seem so much better by comparison. And every ride since has been warmer than “the time we rode through Donner Pass”.