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  • leepanecki

Turning the Corner - Weeks 1 and 2

Ah the classic reality check - always unexpected, never enjoyed, but eventually appreciated. The past few weeks have been a reminder of how fragile this journey really is, relying heavily on good health, fair weather, and mechanical reliability. Late season snow and cold temperatures canceled almost every single one of our early trip plans. The 4Runner’s rear shocks both blew on the first day. I managed to cut off the tip of my thumb and burn the rest of my fingers on a hot camp stove. Kathleen has a hip injury and I picked up achilles tendonitis, putting the kibosh on our backpacking plans. If there was any glitz and glamour to this year-long road trip, it's been swiftly washed away by farcical misfortune. It's funny now, and I can tell you the exact moment when my perspective on these mishaps started to change...

After getting snowed and rained out of Oregon, we headed back to California in search of warmer temperatures and Sierra peaks. Since moving west, Kathleen and I have become card carrying mountain people, and the less time we spend at elevation, the more grouchy we tend to get. At day 12 without a summit, the grouch factor was off the charts. Our chosen remedy was to wild camp at the top of Mt Hough - a mountain bike destination north of Downieville to which neither of us had ever been. The summit was accessible by forest road, and the first 95% of the drive was fun, beautiful, and generally uneventful. The stress was melting away, but unfortunately, the snow at the summit was too. The last mile consisted of a shelf road, slightly pitched toward a cliff, with several inches of slush and mud covering a steep 12% grade. It was gnarly - and there were several tracks from other vehicles who previously tried to get up and failed. One track in particular slid dangerously close to the cliff, so we decided to park at the bottom and hike the last mile to see if this summit campsite was really worth it. What we found was stunning. A 360º panoramic view of the Sierras. Sightlines straight to Lassen Peak, a nearby volcano. An alpine lake surrounded by ski chutes. Birds of prey divebombing from the cliffside. 5 freaking bars of service! Kathleen said it, but we were both thinking it - “We’re getting this fucking campsite.”

The first half mile went surprisingly well. The 4Runner found grip in 4lo, with a locked center differential keeping us moving forward. As we slowly made our way up the incline, we reached the location of the sliding tracks. Immediately front and rear wheels started to spin, and the truck started sliding laterally toward the cliff. I let off the gas, feathered the brake, and thankfully found traction and stopped. Kathleen hopped out to survey the situation. I kept my foot on the brake, concerned that with only the e-brake engaged, we’d continue sliding. We were hosed if we couldn’t make forward progress - backing down the hill wasn’t an option with the truck’s kicked out angle on the shelf road. For all you off-road aficionados, I do not have a rear locker, winch, or Maxtrax (those come on the next vehicle), so our only options were to dig and try to find traction.

Kathleen dug diligently, scooping slush from under the spinning tires and replacing it with rocks and branches. I should mention that there are no photos or videos of these events because of what happened next - as I feathered the clutch for a second attempt, the 4Runner found traction, lost traction, slid again, and lurched even closer to the cliff. As Jeremy Clarkson would say, some poo might have come out. I looked up, saw Kathleen with her phone out, and yelled “I’m about to slide off a goddamn mountain and you’re taking pictures??” So yes, no pictures. Not my best moment. Instead, Kathleen dug deeper, trying to find solid ground under the snow and filling the holes with bigger and gnarlier branches. Later we dubbed these ‘organic Maxtrax’, available for free at your local national forest. The 3rd attempt was net-zero, gaining some forward progress but immediately losing it to the slide. The 4th attempt was the same. The 5th attempt saw very slightly more progress, by holding the e-brake and creating a poor-man’s rear locker. At this point an hour had passed, the 4runner had straightened out, and I told Kathleen that we really should just back down and take the loss. To which Kathleen responded, soaked with sweat from laboring at elevation, “We’re getting this fucking campsite!”

Attempt number 10 was magic. Kathleen had dug out all 4 tires along with a path in front of them. An entire forest ecosystem of organic Maxtrax lay under the truck. I balanced the clutch, e-brake, and gas. Kathleen leaned into the taillight and yelled as she pushed as hard as she could. Slip, grab, slip, grab, slip, grab, grab, grab, GRAB! I dared not stop for fear of losing momentum, but I heard massive triumphant screams behind me. I wish I had a picture of the maniacal creature that I saw fist pumping in my rearview mirror - it was truly a sight to behold.

Things have been different since that moment. We’ve spent the last 3 days enjoying our most epic and hard earned campsite, inaccessible to all those who attempted to get up after us. We’ve gotten into a relaxing groove of mountain biking, short hikes, reading, and lots of picture taking. My ear took a half step back from the forefront of my thoughts. Suddenly it’s easier to keep the faith, because the trip has already been worth it. These last few days have been a blissful reset, and a welcome reminder of all the good that some solitude and a mountaintop view can do.

Here are some photos from the last few weeks, in roughly chronological order:

Our first real night camping, near Downieville

The Downieville Downhill

Short hike at Shasta

First encounter with freezing weather

Klamath Lake, Oregon

The last remaining Blockbuster, Bend OR

Snowy ascents in Bend

Falls outside Bend

Kathleen, pooping

Near Susanville, CA

Dixie fire devastation

Crystal Lake views

Kathleen's organic Maxtrax

After 2 hours of digging and sliding to get to the top

The promised land at the top of Mt Hough

Racing the 10 second timer

Our rock chuck pal

Cruising down the Mt Hough downhill

Alpine meadows at the bottom

Obligatory trail selfies

No caption can explain how gorgeous this was

Because one can never have too many sunset pictures


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