I awoke reluctantly, submerged in pure white linens and the cushy softness of hotel pillows. I was wrapped in comfort. My eyes took in the dim light as my brain tried to recollect where I was. After five days on the road, disorientation began to set in each morning. You know the feeling—coming out of sleep bewildered by unfamiliar surroundings. Oh yes, I remember now. We stopped in Visalia last night but it wasn’t our goal. That’s how the day played out on this April Escape mini-trip, though.
Still sluggish but gathering some coherence, I began to picture the day ahead. I was determined to get back to camping. The comfort and luxury of a hotel room is marvelous, of course, but that wasn’t what I set out for on this trip. I was fixated on the luxury of sleeping under the moonlight, immersed in the sounds and smells of the outdoors.
That motivation drove me out of bed earlier than usual. I took advantage of the hotel suite to spread out and do some yoga before another muscle-stiffening day on two wheels. Over breakfast, I scoured my campground app for options. We would move towards the Groveland-ish area where there are several campgrounds that might work.
Route: CA 198, CA 216, CA 63, CA 180, CA 168, N Friant Rd, North Fork Rd/CA 206, CA 145
We set out from downtown Visalia, refreshed from showers and a good night’s sleep. We also set out thinking we knew Visalia’s roads better than we did. Riding back out the way we came in, we didn’t realize we’d missed our route north until we were way off course. There were moments of conversation between us in our headsets, as you can imagine. “Hmmm… shouldn’t we have made that turn by now?” and “This doesn’t seem quite right.” Clearly we weren’t as awake as we thought, since we continued on in the wrong direction.
Eventually we stopped to regroup. Sure enough we were already way off. No matter. We embrace the surprise discoveries that unexpected detours can reveal. This case was no different. Looping back to catch our intended path, we rode through grove after grove of orange trees. The blossoms filled the air with their thick scent, so sweet it was nearly overwhelming. Bees filled the air as well, smacking into our arms and chests as we rode.
Deciding on an end game for the day:
It was an excellent ride but slow going with lots of farm equipment using the roads to move between the orange groves. The detour to get out of town cost us time. Getting to Groveland would be a stretch. And we didn’t need or want to push hard on this trip.
By the time we descended from the foothills back into the valley we were tired. We’d been riding non-stop and needed a rest. We kept riding through to Clovis, looking for a one-stop solution for lunch, fuel, and camping rations. We eventually found it but not before getting wrapped up in aggressive Clovis traffic.
Over lunch, we rethought our plans and found a new camping destination not far from Clovis. We pushed on to Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. I had managed our navigation for most of the day as fatigue beset my dear man. Now it was my turn to be cared for. I was cooked. Looping around and around the campground to find an agreeable hammock camping site was about to push me over the edge into full-on “fuck this” mode. We were tired and decisions became an ordeal. So he took the lead and stopped to chat with the campground host, Shirtless Steve.
That worked out well. Steve pointed us to the sites best suited for our gear and protection from the evening winds. We chose a site from the few he recommended and it turned out to be one of the best campsites I’ve ever had. It overlooked the lake with trees ideal for hanging our hammocks right next to one another. And because it was the middle of the week in off-peak season, the campground was nearly empty. It was glorious.
Problem-solving, MacGyver style
Camp setup was fairly simple and we were soon only concerned with how to chill beer and wine in the cool lake water. The wave action precluded simply setting them at the water’s edge as they would quickly drift away. We needed to get creative with a bit of MacGuyvering. With my dear man’s Rok Straps and a hastily emptied Eagle Creek packing cube, I had my solution in short order. We would have passably chilled beverages with our dinner.
For all of our foibles that day we ended having one of the best camping nights ever. I felt light and free. I set up my camera for a time lapse over the lake, something I haven’t done in ages. We embraced sleep nestled closely together in our hanging cradles. In all of our travels, this was our first night ever camping off the motorcycles together. And it was amazing.
- Fort Miller Campground at Millerton Lake State Recreation Area, Friant. This is a gem of a campground, especially if you can catch it when it isn’t busy.
Route: CA 145, Rd 211, CA 200, CA 41, CA 140, CA 120, CA 49
We packed up camp slowly, taking in the scenery before we left and basking in the delight of our time at Millerton Lake. But it wasn’t long before we were under attack. Resident Columbia ground squirrels had their sights set on our food. And they were clever little boogers. They worked together, distracting us on one side of camp by initiating a chase while others snuck in from behind to boldly jump into our gear in pursuit of a yummy treasure. Even when we caught on, they circled, waiting for us to drop our guard so they could run their next gambit.
It was exhausting and certainly evaporated our desire to linger. They were clearly better at this game than we were. I had a lengthy inner-rant about the campers who feed these animals and/or don’t keep their food secure. The squirrels are not at fault; they are simply going for the easy meal they’ve learned exists around humans.
The internal rant faded as we finished packing and set out to ride again. I left with some sadness knowing this would be the last camping night of this trip. But Yosemite was ahead. We wouldn’t stay there but we would ride into the valley, have lunch, and soak in the majesty. Amidst the traffic, of course. You have to accept that if you want to visit a marquis-level national park.
Bring on Sonora:
Yosemite Valley was as stunning, as always. Then it was time to move on. One of the only plans we made on this trip was for our last night to be in Sonora. We wanted to revisit the fabulous Bourbon Barrel whiskey bar to cap off our adventure.
We didn’t make a reservation at our favorite hotel, The Sonora Inn, until we arrived in town. That’s typical for us—a safety net in case we don’t get as far as we planned on any given day. The Sonora Inn is a wonderful historic hotel. And it has its quirks because of its historic nature. So when I called and was told the elevator was out of service, I was not only unsurprised, it was a non-issue. It’s not fun hauling all of our gear up stairs but not a deal breaker. The desk clerk asked if I wanted second or third floor. Under the circumstances, that answer was clear, “Second floor, please.”.
Oh, silly Val! You forgot this isn’t a “normal” hotel. The Sonora Inn has wonky floor levels. We were assigned a room on an odd half-floor. We had to schlep our bags from the back parking lot to the front of the hotel, up the stairs, then to the back of the hotel, and back down the “half-level” of circular stairs to our room. It was a fucking expedition. Had I chosen the third floor, life would have been much less exhausting. Not fewer stairs, but less distance and easier going. Lesson learned for the next time in Sonora!
Surprise in Sonora:
The next issue? Fuck me if the Bourbon Barrel wasn’t closed for a construction project. It was one of our main reasons for returning to Sonora. But we’re flexible travelers, right? So we moved on in hopes of finding a new experience in Sonora. We found it at Emberz, thanks to an excellent bartender. As we often do, we enjoyed a leisurely tapas-style dinner at the bar.
A couple of cocktails into the evening, a rather animated woman sat down next to us. We often chat with our bar-mates on the road but this one was more memorable than others. The evening transmuted into a counseling session about her boyfriend woes. Therapist Val was in order, it seemed. I hope I was helpful. She’s a nice lady, her situation unenviable and both parties have a lot of issues. We wandered out of the restaurant many hours later a bit shell shocked for the experience but all the more grateful for our healthy relationship.
- Yosemite National Park. Really, what else needs to be said? It’s Yosemite. It’s spectacular.
- The Sonora Inn, Sonora. Wonky floors and fussy elevator be damned, I love staying here.
- Emberz Wood-Fired Foodz, Sonora. Good food, great bar staff. A nice place to spend an evening in Sonora.
Route: CA 49, CA 88, Hwy 395, Hwy 50
The road home:
Day 8. Heading home. I’m somewhat notorious for saying home is a four letter word. That was before embracing my amazing life in Nevada with my dear man. While having a home base isn’t necessary for me, what I have now is an incredible sanctuary. Even so, re-entry is a task to be handled carefully. The ride today would be a mental exercise. To shift gears and embrace the next phase of travel. This trip was meant to be an antidote to that. And now it was ending.
Our route on the final day was about getting home. What lay ahead was a familiar ride from Sonora to Dayton along CA 49 and US 88. Familiar doesn’t mean boring, though. After the biggest breakfast in human history at Riderz in Sonora, we set out.
Highway 88 is the southernmost trans-Sierra highway that the state keeps open year round. And even though it was late April, snowbanks clung to the hillside along the route. A reminder that I was far from my lifelong stomping grounds in the southeast.
We rode. Sometimes silent. Sometimes marveling at the sights together by talking through our headsets. There’s always a somberness to the end of a journey, though. Wondering what would happen if you just kept riding, responsibility be damned. We went home, of course, collected the adventure dog from the sitter and returned to our daily life.
- Riderz Family Restaurant, Sonora. Super nice folks running this little restaurant connected to the Sonora Inn. More food than is humanly possible to eat in one sitting.
- Carson Pass. This is a fabulous ride peaking at 8,652 feet. Stop and enjoy the view. It’s worth it.
- Caples Lake. It’s glorious when the lake comes into view along Highway 88. Take the time to stop and marvel.
- Mad Dog Cafe, Woodfords Station. This little cafe is spitting distance from home and a frequent stop for us on a day ride over Monitor Pass. Stop, grab great food, take your chance on a lottery ticket.
Thanks for following along on the April Escape series! I hope you found out about some places you’d like to visit. Like I said early on, this trip was about refreshing some of my stagnant travel routines and skills.
I only ended up with two nights of camping which is slightly disappointing. It’s ok, though. I have enough information now to know what I need to refine in my setup. More importantly, I have renewed confidence about getting out on the bike this way. More thoughts on that to come. Stay tuned.