Day One of the Gold & Fish Expedition
Altitude: 7054 ft. Stoke level: 7 Temperature: 75-47 degrees Conditions: calm and sunny
I sit here at the side of a gently flowing mountain stream somewhere off of Highway 4 in the northeastern part of Stanislaus National Forest. My prized Coleman propane lantern flares with its comforting hiss by my side. I’m at 7054 feet according to my altimeter. I found a plaque by the roadside that told me the name of this place is Hermit Valley. This was the first road in this area, built back in the gold rush days. Even though I am parked about 100 yards from the road, I feel like I am in the middle of nowhere. It’s a damn good feeling to have, let me tell you.
It is now 47 degrees, a bit nippy. Not bad at all, pretty much Santa Cruz temperatures. I’ve gotten used to cold conditions the last six months sleeping in my camper shell. The old me wouldn’t be able to handle the cold the way I can now.
I’m pretty sure that where I am camped is a beautiful place, as I’m typing this in the dark and can’t see much of anything around me. I was forced to stop here by necessity, every other place I had planned to stay is closed due to coronavirus. These little pullouts by the roadside are the only places you can camp. This is the first night of my mountain expedition, it has been a trying day to say the least. It is a blessing being at this peaceful mountain spot after I got the rug pulled out from under me however.
I finally heard back from the manager at the lodge today, at long last. He told me news that I had half expected to hear. It seems that even though the Alaskan state government has dropped the 14 day quarantine, our potential guests have decided to opt out of their reservations for the month of July. The lodge manager informed me that the lodge will not open on schedule. He has hopes that he can hold on to his bookings from August through September, in which case he will let me know of employment.
Damn it though, it just rips my soul out to have this happen. I pretty much expected it to be this way, so the shock is not as jarring as it could have been.
Of course this completely wrecks everything for me. I have spent quite a chunk of change on this whole Alaska thing, but honestly that doesn’t bother me that much. I’m more just let down by having my plans & dreams torched. This job was going to give me experience in what I want to do with my life, as well as funds to get my stuff out of storage and finally have a place to live again. I did everything right, I had a plan and now my life is in ruins.
Oh well, shit happens as they say. Fortunately, with coronavirus in effect fucking up everything, it was easier to deal with getting credited on my cancellations. Both flights and AirB&B’s had a credit option (minus the airline’s 70 dollar penalty for cancelling my flights) so I decided it would be best to have a credit than a refund. I’m still going to Alaska if I can, damn it!
Altitude: 7916 ft. Stoke level: 3 Temperature: 55-30 degrees Conditions: winds estimated 50-60 mph gusts
So you may have noticed that I’m labeling each day of my expedition with my altitude, general weather conditions and ‘stoke level’. This is more for my records, I think that describing these details really help to flesh out what I’m going through. The stoke meter is an idea I got from this off-road series I watched recently on Amazon Prime called Expedition Overland. It sums up where I’m at physically, mentally & spiritually on a scale of 1 through 10.
So after a rather nice first night, I woke up feeling pretty awesome. I had drank a lot of wine and was a little hungover, but the fresh mountain air and the spectacular scenery got me in a good mood. The despair that had dogged me yesterday had abated somewhat and I was excited about continuing my journey into the mountains.
I continued east on Highway 4 and was greeted with some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever encountered in California. I have driven down many beautiful stretches of road in this state and this one is definitely in the top 5 for sure. Most of the surrounding mountains were huge and still covered in snow. These peaks must have been 12 to 13 thousand feet, it looks like pictures I have seen of places like Alaska and the Swiss Alps.
My destination for the day was an off road trail called ‘Barney Riley’. According to my California Off-Road guide, it was an intermediate level of difficulty to drive. It was an eleven mile trail that ended at the Carson River, also it said that there were hot springs there at the end. This sounded like a good place to explore so I was excited to check it out. There was a possibility that the river could have gold, and maybe some trout as well. Plus it was pretty remote with great scenery, so it checked all the boxes as a place I wanted to experience.
After stopping in the quaint little town of Markleeville and getting my fishing licence (130 bucks for out of state, whoo-whoo!) as well as some trout-specific bait & tackle, I was ready to tackle the trail.
The weather was picture-postcard perfect at the start. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and winds were brisk, but not that bad. As I got further up the trail though, it got worse and worse and the winds picked up. I let out about a third of the air out of my tires to help with traction, but it finally got to a point where it was just too rocky and steep to continue.
One piece of advice I got from one of the many off-roading shows I’ve been watching recently is that when you start feeling uncomfortable with how the trail goes, just stop. I’ve got a lot of exploring to do and I don’t want to break something in my truck. No matter how bad you want to get somewhere, you have to respect the limitations of your machine. At this point I know what The Beast can and cannot handle, when I hit that point I know to back off. I don’t have the money right now to deal with costly tows and repairs so I’ve got to be smart about things.
So I looked at my map and found an alternate route that bypassed the rocky hill I couldn’t get up. I took the detour and while very narrow (obviously meant only for Jeeps) it was passable. I was doing good until I rolled up into this alpine meadow at the base of this huge hill that went straight up full of all kinds of nasty rocks. It was obvious that it was out of The Beast’s ability to scale, so I decided that this was going to be my campsite for the evening.
By this point the winds had started to blow to insane levels. My weather station doesn’t measure wind but it was similar to what I’ve experienced in tropical storms. By my best estimate it blew a steady 40 miles an hour with gusts occasionally going 20 to maybe even 30 miles over that. A late spring cold front had moved in over the mountains. I had been aware of this but never imagined just how frigid things would get.
It dropped down to the low 30’s pretty fast. My 6500 pound truck was getting rocked like it was in an earthquake, and my camper shell offered little protection from the chill. My stoke level plummeted rather quickly as a result. I was starving, but it was too windy to light my stove to heat food. I just burrowed into my sleeping bag hoping that eventually it would blow itself out. That never happened though, and I was paralyzed by negative thoughts and some pretty bad depression. If it wasn’t for the gorgeous surroundings my stoke level would have been zero for certain.
I finally forced myself to retrieve my Little Buddy propane heater from my cab and got that going. Thank god I had remembered to bring it. I borrowed it from my buddy, and it is rapidly becoming the unsung hero of my expedition. With a bit of heat going and some wine flowing, my morale improved somewhat. I have this amazing series from Amazon Prime called ‘Gallipoli’ downloaded on my phone so I put that on. Seeing what those poor ANZACS went though really put my situation into perspective and made me feel better about things. I got drunk enough to finally make me pass out. Wine saved the day once again.
Altitude: 6999 ft. Stoke level: 5 Temperature: 60-22 degrees Conditions: winds calm, snow flurries.
After a pretty decent sleep considering the circumstances, I got up possessed with the desire to get as far down the mountains as I possibly could. After not eating the night before and drinking quite a bit of wine (plus the altitude messing with me) I was in a pretty sorry state. The winds had lessened, and the weather had held which was a good thing. I could see that snow was beginning to fall to the east and was heading my way so I wanted to get out before that hit.
My desire to escape the mountain as fast as I could led me to a poor decision unfortunately. Instead of going back the way I came, which was rough but passable, I decided to take a shortcut to get me down the mountain faster. Immediately I was faced with very tight switchbacks, tons of deadfall that added quite a lot of new scratches to my truck, and a super narrow trail full of sharp rocks the size of soccer balls. There were a couple of points where I almost rolled The Beast, it took every ounce of my skill to navigate my way down the mountain.
Times like these, all you can do is just crawl along and stop frequently to scout out the best line to get through obstacles. I really, really wished I had a spotter for this kind of stuff but I had to just figure things out on the fly. It is very stressful knowing that you are committed to trails like this once you are going down them. When you are going downhill through bad stuff like that you know that there ain’t no way you’re heading back up the way you came. You just have to hope you don’t run into something impassable or you’re going to have a really bad day trying to extricate yourself.
Amazingly, I made it back down to the bottom of the mountain. As bad as it was, the confidence I got from making it through was worth it. My new all-terrain tires performed incredibly well, I never lost traction once. At the bottom, my new Viair air compressor brought all my pressures back up to road-ready status without a problem. At 150 bucks, the compressor didn’t come cheap, but it is an extremely important piece of kit I’m glad I didn’t skimp out on.
It was warmer at the bottom of the mountain, it was about 60 degrees and it was t-shirt weather. Around the Markleeville area, the East Carson river parallels Highway 4 and there are many lovely places to stop, fish and camp. I was tempted to stay another night and get my fish on, but all I wanted to do was to lower my elevation while this cold front was moving through.
I had a destination in mind, a couple of hour’s drive to the southeast was the town of Bridgeport. I’ve been to this area before 3 years ago and I really loved it. Outside of Bridgeport is the famous ghost town of Bodie that I had really enjoyed checking out. I had camped there high in the mountains and had the best time. There’s nothing but wide open BLM land up there so you can go shoot guns and do whatever you want to do far away from civilization. At about 9000 feet altitude, the night sky is absolutely phenomenal there. The Milky Way shows up as bright as a Las Vegas casino. You can’t ask for a better place to do night photography, I brought my tripod in anticipation to do this. I had last been there in August however, early June is a whole different beast to say the least!
I wasn’t going to Bridgeport exactly. There is a old townsite known as ‘Dogtown’ a few miles outside the city limits to the south. It was the first big placer gold site discovered in the eastern Sierra and it was settled in the 1850’s. It used to be a thriving little gold rush town but barely any sign of human habitation can be found there anymore. Located right of Highway 395, it was not as remote as I would have preferred for a camping spot, but it was a place that was not only mentioned in my gold field manual, it was also in my fishing guide. I’ve been wanting to find a nice warm place not closed due to coronavirus that had both gold and fishing going on so I was all about it.
This all being said, plus being at a lower altitude made this Dogtown place a no-brainer for a camping destination. As I am the Dogfish, Dogtown sounds like my kind of place, ha ha! So I set off down the mountain with great glee. Finally, I was going to be warm! Bridgeport had posted 90 degree temperatures the previous days so I thought I would be all good.
Well, like most things that happen when you travel, it didn’t work out as I expected. It was about 50 when I pulled into town. I needed to get ice and gas, the guy at the gas station joked about how it was so cold how could I possibly need ice? I’m like, “yeah dude, I hear ya”. A week into June and winter hasn’t quite left in this part of California.
It was easy to make my way to Dogtown and I was pleasantly surprised to have the place to myself beside one other truck. It is on Virginia Creek, a couple hundred yards downhill from Highway 395. I found a nice little nook to camp about 15 feet away from the creek. The relaxing sound of water flowing over rocks drowns out the noise from the highway, I like it. When I arrived, the first thing I did was go scout the creek for gold sign and the shallows look like they are littered with gold glitter!
Maybe they are gold flecks, they sure looked rather golden to me. My common sense tells be that they are probably mica or pyrite flakes, fool’s gold. From what I have researched, gold is heavy and sinks, it wouldn’t settle right on top of the silty mud I saw it on. I was tempted to break out my gold pans and start panning, but since I hadn’t eaten in a day I heated up some grub, ate, and then took a nap.
I woke up around sunset and the temperature had dropped quite a bit. Incredibly, snow flakes started to fall and I realized I was about to experience another cold-ass bitch of a night. My stoke level once again flagged, but I got out my propane heater and wine out again and I stabilized. It’s now one in the morning and as I’ve been writing the last three hours it has been snowing. It’s not bad, but there’s a nice glaze all over The Beast. Temps are now at 28, but my heater is keeping me at 58 on its low setting. I’m comfortable in two layers of clothes and a wine buzz.
The temps are supposed to start warming up after today, which sounds good to me. All in all, this trip so far has been much more trying than I had anticipated. With all the uncertainty going on with the world, my personal finances & life situation, I have been dealing with a lot on top of these miserable weather conditions.
To hell with it though. I am of the belief that the more misery you go through, the stronger you are coming out the other end. I knew this expedition would have its challenging moments. I also know that there will be transdescent moments as well in my future. If you are not struggling, you are not evolving as a person, I feel.
These past two years of my life have been nothing but struggle. It seems that for every good thing that happens, five bad things go down. I’ve never been so besieged by trouble and bad luck. However, I’ve never felt more resilient in all my life. Each hardship I have gone through makes me a bit tougher.
Last night in the depths of my depression, I swore that I’m getting to Alaska by any means necessary. I’m not going to let this shitty ass virus fuck up my dream. All of my life has lead up to this. I know it is my destiny. I’m tired of living in this reality full of mad, power-crazed cops, religious wackos, and political zealots on the left and right.
That is why I prefer the West to the South. I just need to find a place that is gun and weed friendly with ample fish and game. I know there are other western states that could fit the bill, but Alaska has always felt like it could work out for me. I’ve never been a fan of cold weather, but I’d rather be buried in a pile of snow than deal with this lower-48 madness any more.
Gold, money, cold, heat, fish, mechanical stuff, freedom…these are the things I relate to and feel strongly about. They are real and true aspects of this reality that you can grasp and hold on to, for good or bad. Everything else is just pure bullshit. I like to think about the poor 49’ers that didn’t have a pot to piss in whose steps I am following in right now. They died like flies all over this place where I am currently at, ironically where I am pursuing my own dreams at the moment. Life is crazy like that.
I’ve nothing but admiration for what they were trying to do, as my life has been leading me in the same direction as that bunch. One hundred and seventy years later and I’m right here having the same emotions those original prospectors must have had.
A wise man once told me that the meaning of life was to build one’s self up as much as you can, and make the world a better place than you found it. I’ve always believed in that advice and have always tried to advance in that direction. We are all cursed to live in interesting times, and we’re going to see how we make the most of it. Adversity can break the strongest of us, but it also can make us more powerful than we can we can ever imagine. I wish this for all ya’ll as well as myself. We shall see what the fates have in store for us all. I prefer to meet my destiny with my head held high and my candle lit into the sun…even though its glow is waxed in black…
…And there no doubts inside the Gates of Eden. I wish ya’ll love and light from the icebox.