2023 Desert Pilgrimage: Day 1, Merced to Three Rivers

Where the pilgrimage finds Tom and Pete contemplating our good fortune…

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

To Reacquaint With or a Pilgrimage To?

Preparing for our 2023 Desert Pilgrimage required planning to ensure comfort when we pitched our tents on each of the four nights on this five day late winter tour of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Death Valley, and Western Nevada basin.  We covered some 1,215 miles not unlike how John Steinbeck prepared Rocinante for his nearly 10,000 mile trip of 75 days to reacquaint himself with the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light.  These were his goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.  He took his dog Charley along for company.

Our goal was to take a journey into known and familiar as well as unknown or foreign places we have rambled through for so many years without freezing with Pete along for company. And as a pilgrimage is defined (and noted in the previously published preview of our Desert Pilgrimage on sisyphusdw7.com), we would be in search of new or expanded meaning about ourselves, about others, about nature, and a about higher good through the experience which would lead us to personal transformation.  All this, after which Pete and I, two humble pilgrims a decade-plus older than Steinbeck, would return to our daily lives of household chores, motorcycle YouTube videos, our families and dog and cat friends, and an ever disappointing Warrior’s season following the defeat of the 49ers. 

It’s a good thing baseball season is just around the corner.  You know, hope springs eternal and the pitch clock promises to give me back wasted minutes watching major leaguers tug at their various appendages while mugging at the camera in a paix de dieu between pitcher and batter… Go Giants!

Day 1, Merced to Three Rivers Friday, February 17, 2023 

Merced to Three Rivers

What’s it take to travel 1,215 miles in February on a motorcycle to the desert in the winter?

Pictured is the gear I hauled including the tent, ground cloth, sleeping bag, camp blanket, down jacket, air mattresses (a Thermarest pad and a Klymit Insulated Static V Lite insulated pad), JetBoil stove, fuel canisters, and the now infamous, REI Flexlite chair.  

Infamous Flexlite chair?  Yes.  I manage to tumble over both entering and exiting the chair wherever it is used regardless of slope.  And, no, it has nothing to do with the “rehydration” portion of the rehydration, relaxation, and reflexion ritual observed at the end of the day; the 3R’s we’ve come to perfect as camp has been made, whereupon victuals are scarfed, a fire set, and we sit back to enjoy the canvas of stars and planets and examine the nature of the day’s expanded meaning about ourselves, others, nature, and a higher good made possible by the day’s experience on the motos which would lead, hopefully, to some sort of personal transformation. Oh, and that acrobatic chair entry and exit. 

Maybe my issues with the Flexlite, aside from just enjoying the night sky with a cold brewski and conversation with Pete, may have to do with trying to keep from cascading into a hypothermia-induced inability to think clearly or move well, the result of shivering, feeling very tired, confused, with fumbling hands, suffering memory loss, with slurred speech, and drowsiness.  You know, any five of the seven hypothermia symptoms that mirror typical male geezer behaviors after spending the day on a motorcycle.   Pete doesn’t seem to have the same issues with his Walmart folding camp chair. He’s older than me too.

Absent from the picture are the additional clothing, tools, technology, and other assortment of “stuff” that added approximately 85 pounds of gear in the panniers, dry bags, and tank bag to the 25 pounds of the armored jacket, pants, helmet, and boots worn for protection while riding.  Including my weight, I added 290± pounds to the svelte, 473.6 pounds of the Kawasexy Versys.  I added 61% of the weight of the bike just in my nalgas and gear.  That’s a whopping 864± pounds when you add in the fig and Kind bar snacks.  Given the high center of gravity of the bike and all of the gear, it makes for anxious low speed maneuvers on stable, much less unstable, ground, paved or otherwise.  I do my best to avoid the Flexlite manuever on the loaded Kawasexy.

Our first day of the 2023 Desert Pilgrimage began with an approximately 180 mile day from our home-sweet-home in the San Joaquin Valley, Merced, to the foothill community of Three Rivers, the portal to Sequoia National Park.   

Pine Flat Reservoir

Backroads are our preferred pavé.  Santa Fe, various numerical roads in Madera County, Daulton, Friant, Millerton, Auberry, Maxon, Trimmer Springs (Pine Flat Reservoir pictured), Piedra, Elwood, Kings Canyon, Dunlap, Dry Creek, and Sierra are but a few of the names of the interconnected roadways you can see in the Google Map link. Check out the street view option on the map to see more of the terrain.

We arrived at The Hideaway campground in Three Rivers on Sierra Drive which just happens to be on the Kaweah River; the Kern and Tule rivers nearby. Pete has become the master selfie photographer.  The pic does give you an idea of what an 864± pound Versys touring outfit looks like. I requested that he take a picture of the campsite, me, and my rig.  Pete decided to improve the empty campsite photo with one of his mug in focus, in the foreground… 

We had set up camp after nearly 8 hours of undulating foothill and mountain twisties in a nearly empty campground.  There was a large canvas teepee with a wood stove chimney billowing smoke, a large brush pile, and us–our two tents and two chairs.  As we were making our way to the Totem for dinner and to procure campsite provisions for the night, an SUV with a roof tent showed up.  We don’t mind neighbors. 

Loves us our Totem

Pete had his buuurrrgggerrrr alotment for the trip and I enjoyed the first of two BLT’s.  The Totem isn’t fancy but the food is scratch made with good ingredients and the bar is well stocked with a variety of craft beers and wines.  As with most eateries near a National Park, there were the typical mementoes, camping supplies, bundles of wood, and tire chains for sale.  

All of the patrons were decked out in the latest winter outdoor fashion as we sat somewhat awkwardly adorned in our motorcycle gear.  You know what they say about ATGATT (all the gear, all the time).

A Smokey Bear approved fire

It was now dark and we returned to our campsite to enjoy the “3-R’s” with a cozy fire.  We managed to take up 5 campsites along a shaded rockwall figuring no one would show up this late in the day, but low and behold, a family van circumnavigated the campsites settling on one along a fenceline that wasn’t ideal, however, we weren’t going to cede the campfire that we had set safely away from our tents.  

The family consisted of two parents and two kids.  Dad set up a family sized tent as mom presumably prepared the evening meal as the kids frolicked in the dark twirling their lanterns and giggling.  I started feeling guilty, understanding this expanded meaning of myself for selfishly taking up so many sites, but, since the kids seemed to be having fun, Pete and I decided that our colonization of The Hideaway was meant to be.  And like that our guilt transformed to pride.

Too cold for my nalgas

The next morning we met some of our campsite neighbors.  One fellow from where the RV’s were parked above us who made his way up from the river showed interest in our bikes and revealed that he too rode a touring motorcycle, a KTM 850 Adventure R.  I noted how cold it was and he said that he and his wife, their 6 month old, and 2 year old had been touring the western US on a 45 day tour leaving their home in Montreal as temperatures dropped to sub-zero.  I noted that the morning’s 30 degrees in Three Rivers must have been like a day at the beach and he quipped, “Hey, I’ve already been for a swim in the river.”   

He had that, “Ya know, I’d love to be on my moto touring, but it’s garaged for half of the year because of the weather…” longing in his voice and eyes.  I acknowledged that what he was doing with his family was far more remarkable than anything two retired silverback dirtbags were doing to pass time, thus achieving higher good points for the day.

As we had stalled until the sun had risen enough to dry our tents, I made coffee and we packed the other gear.  The family van Dad stopped by, giving me the opportunity to apologize for having monopolized ¼ of the campground.  He dismissed my guilt by noting that they had a wonderful evening and were looking forward to visiting the snowbound Sequoia National Park and the Giant Forest Sequoia Grove.  With that we bade our neighbors safe travels and set about on Day 2 of our Desert Pilgrimage, 2x higher good points in the bank, and I managed a tumble free Flexlite night, cha ching! 

Stay tuned… up next, Day 2: Three Rivers to Panamint Springs and Death Valley.