Ghost Towns, City Lights, And The Smoke Creek Desert
Last month, adventurers Chris Collard and Del Albright backed a borrowed Jeep JK up to the big steel fence at the Mexican border, aired down the tires, and embarked on an epic all-dirt trek to Canada. This month, we follow the Border-to-Border boys through the Wild West ghost town of Bodie, to the Biggest Little City in the West, and along the tracks of 1840s explorer John Fremont.
Threatening black thunderclouds spilled over the Sierra Nevada and into Mono Basin like a tsunami, warning us of the impending deluge. I glanced over at Del and said, "Don't even think about it-you're still not sleeping in my tent." Temperatures were dropping, Del had been setting up his ground tent each night, and I'd be crawling up into a warm and cozy rooftop hacienda (an ARB Simpson II tent) with Radar to keep me warm. Sheets of the aqueous onslaught hammered against the rhythm of our windshield wipers as we made our way around the eastern edge of Mono Lake on a sandy-to-muddy two-track. With his usual swagger and mischievous grin, Del looked back at Radar and said, "Buddy, you're a dog, and I might pull rank tonight!"
Two days earlier we were sponging the sweat off our temples as the sweltering heat of Saline Valley baked our cerebral gray matter. We were heading to Bishop, California, where we'd join the Eastern Sierra 4WD Club (ES4WD) for an Adopt-a-Highway conservation project. The trip meter clicked mile 647 as we passed a set of giant radio towers south of town (think "a Dish Network satellite dish on Red Bull steroids" about 150 feet tall). With another couple of thousand miles of dirt roads ahead of us, the order of business was this: Restock sundries, address some suspension issues on the JK, and hook up with the ES4WD guys for dinner and a map review.
The original suspension on our Jeep JK Overland was fine until we burdened it with a half-ton or so of gear (toolbox, Hi-Lift jack, Expedition One fuel cans, a 40-liter Front Runner water cell, camera gear, an ARB fridge/freezer, etc.). Normal stuff, yes, but it rendered the tail end of the JK as springy as an old Dodge Dart with the shocks removed. And while they did give us the vehicle (okay, it was a loan) and we shouldn't complain, the Overland, which is a prototype concept rig, hadn't had a true, fully-loaded shakedown. This was it-thousands of miles of America's backroads. The flipside is that the guys at Jeep actually wanted some real-world feedback.
I called Scott Brown at Jeep Communications and let him know the JK needed a set of heavier progressive coil springs and a 50-percent-stiffer rear shock. By the time we arrived in Bishop, Poly Performance had lined us up with the right combination. A quick stop at the Bishop Automotive Center, and we were right.
Road Kill, Glass Mountains, and "Saving Mono Lake"
Mile 647, Bishop, CA. Lat N37º 21' 46": Rising into the clouds almost 10,000 feet from the valley sagebrush and stretching north-south for more than 400 miles, the Sierra Nevada ("snowy mountains" in Spanish) stood as a formidable foe for western travelers of the 1800s. Today, winter snows still close all roads in the 300-mile swath between Carson Pass and Tehachapi, and the eastern towns such as Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine are all but isolated from California proper. This was also the case for early Wild West mining towns such as Bodie-our next destination.
Getting in and out of Bishop cost us only eight miles of pavement, and we were back on Diablo Mine Road, a dirt track leading towards Crowley Lake and the site of the conservation project. After filling a few dozen large garbage bags with everything from cigarette butts to two-month-old road kill, the ES4WD crew led us up a track through the Glass Mountains to the north. Tall sage and salt grass yielded to pinion and juniper, and our Garmin GPS indicated 9,916 feet, the highest elevation of our trek.