Pinions and Peaks

For years, Wildwood Expedition has (informally) kicked-off our annual travel in May. Starting with Overland Expo West (OEW) in Flagstaff has become our mainstay within an ever evolving, multi-week route through the desert southwest. Overland Expo is an annual, multi-city exposition owned and operated by Lodestone Events. By early April 2020, our hope diminished with the COVID’s rapid spread. Scheduled gatherings across North America were cancelled or postponed. So, without surprise Lodestone pushed to late July.

As summer 2020 came into focus it was with deep disappointment that the rescheduled OEW was cancelled all together. Our plans vaporized one again. The Wildwood team now had weeks cleared on our calendars. We returned to the drawing board to create an on-road/off-road travel route that would be relatively close, exciting, and new to us. But there were constraints that we would have to work around. For example, July 2020 brought:

  • National Parks: Closed.
  • State Parks: Closed.
  • Restaurants, destinations, and attractions: Closed or heavily restricted.
  • Weather: hot and dry.

Our situation was further challenged by emerging social dynamics. As experienced in other resort communities, we observed a sustained increase in non-resident occupancy. Outdoor recreation locations experienced an overwhelming increase in reservations and attendance. Retailers could not keep shelves stocked with camping equipment. We’d heard similar stories from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, and Montana. The Sierra became a hotspot for those looking for relief from their social entrapment. Our best kept secret spots had become trampled by July 4th.

As a result, we built a travel plan around reaching remote locations at high altitude. We believed we could set ourselves up for success by pursuing solitude and social distance.

With a very loose itinerary focused more on the experience of shared travel we departed for a lake near the sierra crest, which is also a personal favorite that I hadn’t visited in several years. Good luck was on our side! We found the lake mostly deserted other than a small camp of fishermen. The weather was spectacular, the trout were excited, and paddling our SUP and innertubes beneath the amphitheater of volcanic spines cleared away months of quarantine anxiety. After several days of observing natural cycles we were inspired to our continued southerly coddiwomple

Once on pavement, all eyes focused on Bishop and resupply. A wildfire above Tom’s Place between Red Mountain and Wheeler Crest coated the southern sky in ruby smoke that prophetically set the scenario for the latter end of summer.

Personally, Bishop has always been a well of excitement. An outpost and the last stop before venturing into remote and wilderness territory. Adventure. Similar, for me, in many ways to Moab.

This time through was different.

The air was different.

 The vibe was different.

This seemed more like a post-apocalyptic dystopian screenplay. A good portion of town was closed and apparently had been for some period of months.

A sizable collection of travelers gathered in the parking lot of the supermarket. There were of all types, milling about, seeking information, and procuring sundries. They were overlanders, families with camp gear loaded high, built-out and organized off-road vehicles, vans, Subaru’s, SUVs, and campers, all poised to set off for somewhere. Based on the decals and license plate frames, a good portion came from southern California.

We spoke with a fair number of people. They were all ‘escaping’ suburbia. Most were usure of where they were headed. With so many closures there was a lot of rhetoric such as “we’re heading north, or east, we hope to find a ‘good spot’ for a while”. Wanderers seeking an oasis of normalcy that they would be unlikely to find. Ultimately, they would discover the same situation in Reno/Tahoe or east through the desert in Salt Lake City and the Utah backcountry as they had encountered on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.

We went about our business of preparing for the next 3-4-day interval. The weary eyes of the locals reflected the vibe around town. They had been through a lot. Clearly, they were exhausted from mandates, restrictions, sickness, supply chain interruptions, increased transient volume, a constant state of cat-like readiness, and struggle to remain solvent.

West of town, our climb up towards coyote flat was dusty, steep, and technical. Difficult, yet easily achievable by any four-wheel drive with off-road tires. The stresses of the valley shed away as we passed 10,000 ft and set course for a small alpine lake at the western fringe of the flat. Danny was in the lead and spotted a good camp in a grove of pinions. We prepared dinner, then watched quietly as the sun passed behind us, and started a small, contained fire to keep out the evening chill.

Our subsequent days were spent exploring the flat in the vehicles. Albeit dry, vegetation at this altitude remained lush. Hawks chased a disinterested badger near a creek. Deer roamed. Several abandoned mines complexes remain tucked into the perimeters of the plateau. Some are mapped while others were ripe for discovery. Our boys noted the remoteness and geological obstacles of the region. They commented on how establishing and operating mining communities here must have been formidable during the best of conditions, even without the outright brutality of winter.

Despite exploring several potential other trails, we found no reasonable southern alternative back to the valley. So, we backtracked the same route that we’d used to climb in and then made a slow, controlled, and smooth descent without incident until the last of the switchbacks. At this particularly narrow, steep, and exposed section of trail a group (12-15 vehicles) of excessively excited, questionably prepared (included a rental SUV on stock tires), shockingly unskilled, and etiquette-negligent drivers began their ascent. Instead of holding their convoy on wide open flat terrain and allowing Danny and I to complete our remaining 200yds, they pressed forward forcing us to take position on a precarious precipice to allow space to pass. We wished them safe travel and speculated the amount of body and suspension damage that group would collect.

Once in town we stopped and refilled our pantry then proceeded eastward across the Owens Valley towards the White Mountain Range. Grandview campground, which is operated by the US Forest Service and is the only established camp in the White Mountains, was closed and barricaded with concrete blocks. Closure notices plastered the barricade, anti-closure graffiti has been sprayed across the entrance.

The visitor station at the Bristlecone trailhead was shuttered, still winterized from the fall of 2019. To our relief, the trails within the Ancient Bristlecones grove remained accessible, to our relief. Finn, the youngest member of the team, associated each of the oldest trees in the grove with his favorite superheroes. (Not sure how Methuselah appreciates being renamed Gecko Muscles, he’ll just need to adapt.)

The late day sun filtered through a band of wildfire smoke bathing the White Mountain ridgeline in a crimson-sienna glow. Days earlier we had anticipation campground closures and prepared by scouring some maps for a suitable dispersed spot. These efforts payed off in the form of a secluded corner at the edge of the ridgeline looking out over Bishop to the west and the Owens valley to the north. There was not another soul to be found. This was a location that I will always look back upon and wish we’d stayed longer.

We spent the remainder of time on the road meandering around different places perhaps a little less spectacular but enormously rewarding, nonetheless. We dodged a few thunderstorms and cooked around campfires.

Upon returning to the Tahoe Basin we were immediately reminded of why we adamantly sought to step away (above and beyond our innate desire to travel). Our hometown had been suffering the same strain as Bishop. Arguably, Tahoe, because of its size and diversity of accommodations, may have more capacity and flexibility to cope with the sustained influx of visitors. Natural systems have a carrying capacity, communities are no different. In the case of Tahoe, Mammoth, or Bishop, that capacity has been greatly exceeded and the degradation to the system, or community, is visibly apparent.

All these events lead to questions of sustainability and an ethical conundrum. We (Wildwood Open Lands Foundation and Wildwood Expedition) strive to encourage others to experience special places of natural and cultural significance. We want travelers to have a positive experience and retrievable memory that leads to a personal connection. Our hope is that the collective of individual experiences ultimately transcends to conservation of those unique and beautiful resources. Now that forces resulting from the pandemic have led to a social scenario whereby an increased populous seeks those places, we must question the resilience of the mechanisms and professionals in place who are entrusted to steward those precious resources under these conditions.

A second dynamic that has propagated from 2020’s market shift in recreation impacts the maturing ‘U.S. overland vehicle & outfitter’ industry. From our observations, the bulk 2020’s influx of outdoor and wilderness interactions has been enabled through vehicle dependent and vehicle supported travel. Therefore, the underlying mechanisms for an innovation and growth boom to those organizations who operate in the space, have fallen into place (assuming all other economic variables hold steady). The vehicle dependent travel industry, in the United States, has historically been driven (no pun intended) by the disposable income of predominantly middle-aged men in the upper-middle income bracket. Will that core demographic shift to another market segment or open broadly across several demographics?

Furthermore, while the tangible product of this evolving industry are vehicles, accessories, and equipment, what they really sell is freedom. Freedom defined by an adventurous and exploratory experience / lifestyle, that has deep appeal into mainstream culture, particularly in the contemporary United States. This vision of freedom is predicated on unrestricted access to open spaces. Therein lies the challenge. It will be interesting how the industry finds balance of sustainability between consumerism, tourism, and conservation. We shall see. It is a genuinely exciting time.

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