Horizons Unlimited Mariposa – Days 5-7

Saturday, September 23

Horizons Unlimited met all my expectations. I met a bunch of cool new people, heard wonderful stories of travel to near and far-off lands, and got some inspiration. But reality awaited, and I needed to go home.

Mariposa was a neat little town with lots of history. It has the oldest county courthouse in California. In fact, the county still uses the original one-room courthouse with all the original furniture from the 1800s.

As I do when I travel, I stopped at the local constabulary, in this case the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, and traded for a shoulder patch for my collection.

Mariposa County Courthouse
Mariposa County’s Original Jail

My original plan was to go all out and do one long day on Sunday morning after HU finished. I had to be home to take Alicia to the airport because she was leaving for a work trip. On Friday afternoon I came to the realization that doing a 450-mile trip all in one day with a fairly hard deadline was probably not the best idea. I didn’t want any potential delays to get in the way. Plus, I’d be by myself for the whole trip.

Good decisions …

I decided I would leave Saturday afternoon and break the trip up into two legs. I worked out a plan of where I would stay on Saturday night, leaving me nearly all of Sunday to finish a much shorter trip home.

I went to a couple presentations on Saturday morning. I listened to Christopher Baker talk about his travels in Cuba. I bought his book and got him to sign it. I then listened to Lynda Lahman talk about managing fear. The takeaway: Don’t dwell on the bad stuff, or it will happen.

I packed my camp up during breaks between presentations and I headed out around noon. Dave, Greg, and I had planned to ride into Yosemite Valley while we were in Mariposa, but it never happened. I couldn’t be so close and not do it, so I planned my route home to take me on a loop through the valley and back out on Highway 120. Even if I just did a lap of the valley, it’s still a wonderful thing. Thank you to my wife Alicia for the idea!

I said goodbye to the new friends I had made and headed out of town. Greg had gone to do laundry, and was not at the campground. I kept an eye out for his bike as I passed through town, but since I didn’t know where the laundromat was, I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t find him. A text message would have to do.

I rode out on Highway 140 toward the valley. Traffic was unusually light for a weekend, but I had no problem with that.

I rode into the valley and felt that same sense of awe I had the very first time I went to Yosemite. There’s something special about seeing things on a motorcycle.

I headed up for the obligatory photo at Tunnel View on the southwest side of the valley. This tunnel view vista is different from the one on Big Oak Flat Rd.; you can actually see all the landmarks of the valley: El Capitan, Half Dome, and Sentinel Dome. Unfortunately, the viewpoint is also very crowded. I squeezed the bike in to find a place to park. Luckily, a group of Harleys were just about to leave the parking lot. I parked my bike right next to the curb, because when you’re on a motorcycle, you can park just about anywhere. I snapped a few photos of the view with and without the bike and went back downhill.

I emerged from the trees at the bottom of the road to Tunnel View and was greeted with a vast expanse of the grandeur of the valley. Everything seems larger when you’re not confined to a steel box. The valley looks like a painting. I snapped a few pictures of the bike with Half Dome and headed toward the Village Store and visitor center.

Traffic in the valley sucks. People are stopping all the time, and there’s just a lot of cars all going in one direction because the road is a one-way loop. My “quick” lap of the valley turned into two hours, putting me a little behind what I had planned. Oh well ….

Climbing out of the valley, I suddenly felt a chill in the air. The valley floor is at 4000 ft, but the road out climbs up to about 6200 feet at Oak Flat before descending back down. I stopped to put on a sweatshirt under my jacket, then continued west.

I passed through hilly terrain much like on Highway 108 a few days earlier. I rode through small communities whose only current purpose appeared to be providing lodging for travellers to Yosemite.

Soon I reached Priest Grade. There’s two roads at Priest Grade – the current highway and Old Priest Grade Rd. On the east side, you start at about 2500 feet, and you drop to about 900 feet on the west side. On the old road, is steep and narrow, covering the drop in a little under 2 miles. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles with smoking brakes. The current highway stretches the drop to about 5 miles, making it easier on the brakes – or so you would think. The “new” Priest Grade road has more than 100 curves and hairpins – sort of a mini Tail of the Dragon – so it may not be that much of a brake saver. I took the new road. It did not disappoint.

Priest Grade

At the bottom of the grade is a town called Moccasin and Don Pedro Lake. Don Pedro Lake is one of the many reservoirs in the area that provides drinking water to much of southern and central California. There’s a bridge that crosses the lake, and it was undergoing repairs. I noticed the edges of the bridge were no longer there. A K-rail will be the limit of your road today.

Highway 120 starts to become boring after this. By the time you’ve reached the town of Oakdale, you’ve hit the Central Valley. Curves disappear, as do hills. You’re left with flat, straight roads the rest of the way. The upside is your average speed goes up.

My destination was in the California Delta, a park called Brannan Island State Recreation Area. By the time I hit Oakdale, my GPS was estimating I’d arrive at about 6:45 pm. Sunset was at about 7 pm. That’s cutting it close to not have to make camp in the dark.

I took some side roads through farmland, smelling cows, and other assorted animals, and at one point green onions. There’s a lot of different smells in the Central Valley, but I can’t recall ever smelling green onions. I was pretty much the only vehicle on these side roads. Plus one for the shortcuts!

I came out on Highway 99 just south of Stockton. I slabbed it on 99 for a few miles and turned onto Highway 4, in the heart of Stockton. By this time, the sun was low in the sky, and it was an adventure in visibility with the sun shining directly in my eyes. I turned onto Interstate 5 to slab it for the next 10 or 15 miles.

I-5 needs some major work. The concrete is crumbling, leaving large seams and big missing chunks in all the lanes. I dodged semi-trucks and pulled off at Flag City in Lodi to make my final run toward camp. Oh lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again. A quick stop to grab some dinner, and I was heading west into the Delta.

The road west in the Delta was another exercise in trying to see. The sun was even lower, and directly over the center of the road. The builders of Stonehenge couldn’t have lined it up more perfectly. Maybe I should pull over and sacrifice a virgin or something.

I made it to Brannan Island just as the sun crossed the horizon. I wouldn’t have much time to locate a campsite and get set up. I circled the park once looking for the right spot before settling on one right next to the entrance gate. I figured I’d be getting up early and getting on the road. Might as well make for a quick exit.

I got everything set up and sat down on the picnic table for a dinner under the light of an LED headlamp. Canned chili and pistachios with Diet Pepsi – the dinner of champions. I topped it off relaxing with a cigar in the dark.

I found it a little strange camping solo after spending most of the week with Dave and Greg. However, there was something to be said about sitting there alone with just the sounds of the Delta to listen to, and a sky full of stars to stare at.

Just before turning in, I realized I should have looked around a little more before deciding on a campsite. It was a 200-yard walk to the closest bathroom. During the walk, I found several empty campsites in much closer proximity. Convenient isn’t always better. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature.

Day 5: 210.8 mi. Total Distance: 1031.02 miles

Highways Taken: CA-140, Big Oak Flat Rd., CA-120, County Highway J9, County Highway J7, CA-99, CA-4, I-5, CA-12, CA-160