By Ryan McNerney
“Riding? You’ve got thicker skin than I do; my KTM is hibernating until it gets warmer,” one of the locals told me as he filled his truck’s tank. The air temperature had been steadily dropping as I approached Lake Isabella on 178, and I was glad my Olympia jacket and pants came with insulated extra layers. “Hope you’re not heading east, or you’ll have to go through that storm!” He gestured towards an approaching wall of menacing grey clouds I had noticed on my way into the town of Lake Isabella. Well, shoot. He and two others warned me that the pass was already icy, and with that I knew I’d have to cut my trip short.
A quick Google search brought me to the campground down the road. I was in luck as all of the tent campsites were available (shocker)! The woman running the main office took pity on me and was even kind enough to offer me a space heater and an extension cord so I wouldn’t freeze when the temperature that night dropped into the 20s. What a saint! So I made my way to my campsite, laid down my cheap Harbor Freight blue tarp, set up my diminutive single-person backpacking tent, layered up and crawled into my sleeping bag just as the first raindrops started to fall.
It was a little cramped with some of the bags off my bike occupying the tent’s limited floor area, but with the little space heater cranked to full blast I couldn’t care less! As I formulated my escape plan, I realized I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The next morning was supposed to be sunny only until 10:00, at which point it was supposed to start snowing and continue until after sundown the next day. Since the campground’s main office didn’t open until 9:00, I’d have only an hour to check out and start heading back down 178 before hitting more nasty weather, or I’d be stuck for another night.
After waking up the next morning warm and dry to crisp, fresh air, I packed my bags and loaded my camping equipment onto my bike. At 9:00 I returned my space heater, left a good word with the front desk about the lady who checked me in the previous night, warmed up the bike and headed off. Not 30 minutes into my trip, the sky had already turned slate grey and a light drizzle had started hitting my visor. The raindrops quickly turned to big fluffy snowflakes. Great. I pulled off to the side of the road to mull things over for a bit. I definitely wasn’t happy to be seeing snow, but the situation looked manageable upon closer inspection. The road had a few hours of sunlight on it that morning, and the flakes were melting immediately upon hitting the road surface. On top of that, a car or two would pass by each minute, which I assumed was helping keep the asphalt warm.
So with that comforting though in mind, I put my right blinker on (my bike’s closest approximation of a hazard light) and continued down the mountain, careful not to ride in the center of the lane. I kept my speed down and went up an extra gear to smooth out my throttle input. Thankfully the other vehicles saw I wasn’t having such a great time and went around me in the passing lane. When the road went down to one lane each way I made use of the turnouts to let cars pass, and even garnered a few “good luck” honks.
Every time I pulled over I dismounted and checked to see if the snow was still melting on impact. About halfway through Kern Canyon the snow turned back to rain and I breathed a visor-fogging sigh of relief. With the worst of the trip behind me I was able to enjoy the scenery a little more, recollecting that one scene in Skyfall and feeling nowhere near as suave as Daniel Craig in his wool peacoat.
Continued in Part 3.