Carson Pass - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

July 18, 2014

Carson Pass

The ranger station at Carson Pass. Where two trails meet: the Western Express and a cross-country walking path.
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THERE's always a little crowd at the top of Carson Pass. Coming from our side, the road overlooks a lake in the valley to the left and then, for a better view, winds to the left to give a still longer stare. In turning, the gradient increases, the surface crumbles and the erratic and rutted shoulder disappears.

It was nearing that bend that a truck driver gave a friendly, deep-throated cough from his hooter. I waved in acknowledgement and stayed firmly to the right to let another knight of the road come by. What I hadn't noticed, because the first truck had filled my mirror, was that another, slower truck was just behind. The first must have overtaken the second and the sudden sight of me riding even slower was what had prompted the hoot.

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The second truck was on me before I realised. It pulled alongside barely any faster than I was riding. We were in a stretch reserved for slow traffic, rivalling each other in sluggishness. I inched to the right and on to the loose, black gravel to let my rival pass. He must have thought me tardy - although I had no obligation to get off the road at all - and I could just see him looking across the cab and reaching out his right arm in a gesture of "Come on, am I supposed to get past?"

He didn't seem angry but, tired now and struggling, I grew concerned. The truck was high-sided and heavily laden. Too heavily laden. It moved barely any faster than me, moved to a wider stretch of gravel itself to let other traffic pass when the grovelling lane ended, then stopped completely.

My Worry Genes became concerned that I had hindered enough to bring him to a halt and that, innocent and within my rights as I might be, the driver was about to climb down and give me a mouthful, or worse. He didn't, of course; he probably needed to stop to get into his crawler gear. But stress is ever present on long, hard climbs in uncomfortable traffic.

In fact his load was too heavy for what he was driving. He must have managed a higher gear, only to find it too high and to have to stop to find the gear he saved for emergencies. I felt happier now but I could still imagine him waiting at the summit to take revenge. Nonsense, of course; if he was behind time going up, he wasn't going to make himself even later by parking at the summit. But the Theatre of the Skull is the most powerful because, like radio drama, the action is in your imagination and anything is possible.

The crowd at the top didn't include the driver. There were car drivers who'd parked and wondered what to do next, and Karen and her rescue ranger, and a handful of middle-aged women sitting by wooden tables with the air of wishing they had something to do. Behind them, one of those homely, single-storey ranger buildings that displays leaflets, maps and appeals not to start forest fires.

Then suddenly a couple emerged from the wilderness beside the road, topped tortoise-like by backpacks only slightly smaller than themselves. She was slim and light-haired, dressed in shorts, heavy boots, thick socks and a sleeveless, pale blue top. He too was around 30 but darker, underfed and with one of those moustaches you can only imagine he'll regret as he gets older.

"Welcome to civilisation," one of the hitherto under-employed women cried. She waddled purposefully towards them, as though they'd need help with the step to the concrete surround of the ranger station.

Karen's rescue ranger nodded in the direction of the hikers, now being guided to their own table. The walkers shed their packs and melted into their plastic seats and tucked into drinks and food that the women offered.

"They'll be walking from Alaska to Mexico," the ranger said with a mix of admiration and "still more of them". "We're right on the route and this will be the first contact they've had with the world for a couple of days. The women are all volunteers who spend their time looking after hikers. I'm supposed to be in charge of them but they're such a polished team that all I can do is sit and watch."

I went to talk to the hikers. I wouldn't want to walk as far or as remote as they were but a few days with a tent and a backpack wouldn't be unwelcome. I tried a conversation but got nowhere. Not because they were tired, of walking or talking but because, as so often with long-distance hikers, they were painfully introverted. Cyclists vary but they are rarely as odd as walkers. I reminded Karen how, while we were relaxing at the top of pass in France, we'd seen two hikers appear by separate paths from the same direction. Cyclists would have greeted each other and exchanged war stories. But these two contrived not to meet, continuing 50 metres apart, side by side but one slightly ahead of the other.

We are all in our own painful, individual world up in the hills, be we truck drivers, cyclists or hikers. But hikers are the oddest.

The start of the climb...
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...part the way up
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...and the very top
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