The Little Winter That Was

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April 13th 2014
Published: April 14th 2014
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Fontenellis Lake in JanuaryFontenellis Lake in JanuaryFontenellis Lake in January

The going rumor at this point was that there was no snow. In fact the lapse rate on the few storm events we did receive was record steep. At about 2200 meters, the world turned white as usual and the skiing was great.
Water is always a fierce issue in the American west. Through the doings and undoings of the last century, we have managed to steer our course to a place where few of us are immune to the concerns of drought, water rights, gerrymandering of vast drainages, and their consequences on our often overabundant lives. This becomes especially evident when one or more of the core elements in this increasingly strained system fails to fall into climatological norms. Nowhere is this more evident than in California, where the largest agricultural nexus in the US and several of our largest and most sprawling cities must compete for water that comes from as far away as Colorado to keep the machine wet.

When winter does not produce snow for the great ranges of the west, nearly everyone in California feels the defecit. As we staged to make another break for Central Asia, talk of domestic water restrictions, federal disaster relief, and impending wildfires weighed heavily in the air. Yes, Americans use more water to take a daily shower than most Tanzanians use for a family of four to survive for a week. The mere fact that we do not have to carry it
Half Moon Cirque looking like any other epic yearHalf Moon Cirque looking like any other epic yearHalf Moon Cirque looking like any other epic year

Having lunch in the sun in t-shirts, staring back up at our lines.... We could have imagined a bigger winter, but at times like this, it was pretty hard to complain about our hand of cards.
for hours on our heads allows us to use and abuse it (indeed, take it for granted) as if it has no limit. But this does not make it any easier to cut back when the situation demands, despite seemingly acute awareness that running out would be a disaster. Every culture, and every individual has a unique perspective and these perspectives are difficult to change. A wise person once told us that perspective is everything. You're right Michael, it is hard to deny.

In Tahoe we have a perspective that is quite unique. Many of us left our families, our friends, and our birthplaces to chase a dream. We came from big cities, flat suburbs, and hic-towns all over the globe to come get a piece of the big Sierra Storm King action. Others were born and raised in the lovely basin and decided to stay and keep living it up in one of the world's truly beautiful places. Summers in Tahoe are known to bring day after day of blue skies under the ever persistent high pressure ridge of the Pacific coast. Many of us say that we came for the winter but stayed to run, ride, climb,
Scratchy approachesScratchy approachesScratchy approaches

Making it happen on the way to the snowline.
and just plain laze under towering pines through the summer. But when the fall comes and the ridge retrogrades under the pressure of big pacific storms..... It's on, and the fire in our hearts melts the winters cold like Lodgepole burning in a steel stove.

When winter wimps out, for several seasons on end, our woes as snow lovers are less than half as serious as those we must face as water drinkers, fire defenders, and food eaters. However, we cannot discount our loss when we are deprived of something that we see as integral to our satisfaction and heart's content. To some who read this it may sound odd and even silly, but skiing means a lot more to a certain group of people than could ever be described. Just setting here thinking about it has me tearing up despite the jovial nature of the Turkish coffee house around me. To some people, for reasons perhaps too ephemeral to divulge, this simple act of sliding over frozen water crystals is a curious mixture of movement, heritage, martial art, moment, and countless other emotional stimuli that push chemicals around in our brains. When the wax grips, or the edge bites, or we find the sunrise in a lonely skin track, it illuminates something that conveys inexplicable meaning. Now I am crying.

So what do the two of us do when the snow does not come? Well first of all, the snow usually comes at some point, if only in minute quantities, and it hangs around for a while in the dark recesses of north facing slopes. So we run, and we walk, and we scramble, and we eat pizza, and we find that small patch of snow tucked away in the sub-alpine forest on the summit of some peak that we would normally never ski. Then we bust out our plastic boots and rip that heavily faceted stuff! We hit a few rocks and logs. We scream like wild children. We learn that Manzanita is actually quite slippery. Then we hike back up and do it again. When the day is done, it is time to share a beer, finish our pizza, and hike home in t-shirts. The fact that we hiked up a thousand meters with skis on our back to ski a couple hundred and walk back down is inconsequential. We have changed our perspective, and a few weeks later, with a little more snow, when we hike a few hours to ski perfect corn on our favorite peak, it feels like the winter is epic. And it is.

Aside from all the hiking with skis, boots, poles, beer, pizza, and sometimes a shotgun on our backs, a long winters unemployment gives us plenty of time to concoct a summers outing. We cover our floor with maps and make a plan. We confirm our plan with the two-year-old next door, find a cool person to take over our flat, apply for visas, and convince a stout third to join the peleton. Then the real planning begins as wheels come together, parts come in, checklists get checked and bags get packed. JamesFrames came through for Maggie, our new riding mate, with a rapid build on another frame. The welds were still practically hot when it went in the box for Istanbul but, with a few minor tweaks, it has joined the world of long-haul touring in the coastal ranges of Asia's far western shores.

Our time in Turkey began with an all out race against the setting sun in rush hour traffic. We assembled at the airport and blasted out for the ferry dock hungry for kebabs and a safe place to keep our bikes. Looking back on it now, asking a totally green bike tourist to push it hard from kilometer one on a high speed freeway was a questionable decision but she handled it like a pro as we confidently threw out arm signals and cut off lane after lane of impatient commuters. Thanks for blowing your horns folks, it was nice to know you were aware of us. After an hour we were on a ferry across the Bosphorus headed for our host's flat in hip Bostanci. Pink sunset illuminated the ancient skyscape of Sultanahmet. The planning was over and the ride had begun.

We made ourselves at home in the lovely flat of a total stranger named Kerem who had left the keys hidden in the yard. This sort of trust is typical of hosts on Warm Showers; a couchsurfing-like hospitality network composed of touring cyclists with a place for other riders to crash. Within an hour we had washed the airline from our bodies, located a local Iskender joint, and filled a table with delicacies. Turkey is the quintessential eaters paradise with one great meal after the other washed down with the worlds best tea. In the days that followed, Kerem showed us a hip and subtle side of Istanbullu life. The city is one of the world's largest and following a local around was pure luxury. He gave us countless insights into modern Turkish life, recent political events, and of course, a plethora of rich foods.

No amount of time with Kerem would have been sufficient, but the time to ride casually drew nigh. We took the ferry over to Yalova where we had arrived from when we rolled into Istanbul for the first time in 2010. It was strange and fitting to be on the same street for a moment and then off into new terrain. It set an appropriate sense of continuum as we began a ride that will ultimately link up our last ride to the Atlantic with our 2012 ride from Bishkek to Saigon. Our first camp found us a bit tired and sore but all in one piece and well fed. The days that followed took us west to the Dardanelles, through the ruins of Troy, and out to the Island of Bozcaada where we killed a few bottles of local vint. The Aegean was a bit cold for swimming but the views were lovely and the crowds had yet to move in for the summer. Ahead in the road we faced the challenge of riding through Izmir, a massive city on the southwest coast. None of us were keen to maneuver another metropolis if we could avoid it and so we took a series of ferries via the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios before ferrying back to Turkey safely south of Izmir.

Heading to Greece was not in the original plan but the simplicity of the move was appealing and we were curious about what that part of Greece might be like, so close to Turkey that hopeful migrants have been known to make the swim for a chance of a new life in the EU. Whether or not Greece was a good edition to the Euro zone is the topic of much ongoing debate and we had no trouble imaging why. On our arrival in Lesvos we found that a transport strike had delayed our ferry to Chios indefinitely. This is old news in Greece and came as no surprise. With those six hour work days and three hour lunch naps, life is tiring and a nice strike is a classic Hellenic way of taking an unplanned holiday. We took the news in stride and rode off for the northern reaches of the island. What Greece lacks in work ethic and the quality of it's bread is more than made up for in terrain. The hills leading to the northern coast were big and offered serious views over the sea back to Turkey. We wound our way up to Molivos through massive karst landscapes, passing through tiny hamlets so set back in time, it was hard to believe they would accept our Euros. The descents were full-on supermoto and gave us the opportunity to lean hard and put it on the line at 60 klicks with a turquoise sea at our feet. In the evenings we camped under the shadow of stony ruins, and feasted our salty faces on olives, cheeses, and pork sausage; a luxury we will probably not have again for half a year.

After two days we received word that the strike had ended. We ate a few Gyros and took the first ferry to Chios, knowing that we would arrive late in the night and have to find a camp spot in the dark. We rolled off the ferry and shot out into the dark looking for a spot we had found on satellite images. We tried to move around the castle walls of the old city but soon found ourselves trapped in the maze of tiny alleys that typify a classic medieval citadel. After rolling right through a group of late night diners in a swank café, we found a stone staircase to the top of the fortifications and lugged our bikes up. We had been feeling pretty bold on Lesvos camping in the grasses by touristic ruins but this spot took the cake. Here we were, in a field of wild fennel, squarely atop the bastion wall of the fortified city! We looked around to insure we were not intruding on a gypsy enclave, and made camp. Looking out to the harbor a few hundred meters away, the ferry was just pulling up lines for departure to the mainland. The passengers on the rail were so close, they seemed like they were waving to us. We had our tents up before the boat had left the port and we settled down for a good sleep, giddy at finding such a unique spot.

A few days out of Turkey were about as much as our trio wanted to spend. Greece was not unfriendly, mostly, but a bit terse and a bit expensive. The friendly toots and waving hands of the Turks were replaced with honks and the passionate throwing up of hands as if to say: "how dare you slightly obscure one lane of this virtually empty rural road, I'm late for my three hour lunch and fresh out of cigarettes!". Reading a bit about the past decades tribulations, it would seem that the very prospect of Greece as an EU member state has been an odd mixture of high risk and high cost investment. Based on our two brief visits in the past years, and numerous articles we have read, it seems strange to try to blend two cultures of work ethic so disparate from each other as, say, Germany and Greece. Perhaps the resultant composite GDP and it's ability to content with much larger economies was worth the bailout but.... the last time we checked, barrels of oil sell for dollars all the same. In the end, whether the large experiment of the union works out or not, it also seems hard to imagine that anyone we met on those little islands, so far from the metropolises of Central Europe, will have any cause to jump up from their espressos and be any more industrious. Life is slower in the Aegean, and that seems just fine for them.

The half hour ferry back to Turkey was a little rough for a small boat but nobody vomited and our bikes did not roll all over the deck like the wheeled luggage of fellow passengers. We staggered off the boat and found that we were the only passengers wanting to immediately clear customs verses having a tea first. Time was short and the sun hung low to the horizon. We needed to find a camp but first, we needed a bit of food and water. We stopped at a small store and were immediately greeted with the kind of Turkish hospitality that had been absent on the other side of the waters. Soon we were sipping tea, touring the family restaurant, chatting away in a mixture of Turkish and German (neither of which we actually speak) and talking to the son of the owners via telephone in Atlanta. We had to get out of there and find a place to sleep, which we did, barely finding the perfect spot as darkness descended. Setting there with our mezza spread out on plastic grocery bags, the sound of evening prayers travelled softly on the wind. Maggie summed up our thoughts succinctly: "I feel like we've come home". And come home we had, at least for this chapter of the tour. Of all the cultures we have traversed, Turkey is truly special. We do not know what will happen as we roll east as we have heard mixed reviews from other riders. As for now, we are feeling pretty much at ease rolling through the roads of a culture that strikes an uncommon blend of hospitality and respect for our space.

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14th April 2014

Too bad I can't be with you !
Very nice report about your adventure travel. Nice pictures and it looks like you do learn something new each time you're exploring the sometimes same regions. The fist impression is not always unchangeable, politics is not good info most of the time. Have fun and be safe....all 3 of you, Joe.

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