Rules of the Road: The Sonora Pass
Sitting alone in the night just east of Lida Summit, I realized it all would have been different if Google hadn’t been wrong about Sonora Pass.
Flash back to spring break 2015: When mapping my road trip to Death Valley, Google Maps refused to let me route through Tioga Pass, suggesting Sonora Pass instead. I had no idea why Tioga was closed–maybe Yosemite was renovating. So through Manteca and Oakdale, and up 108 East I went, blithely ignoring the “SONORA PASS CLOSED” signs until five other cars and mine were stopped by the closed snow gate at Sno-Park. I was stunned. Snow in April?
I had drive back to an Oakdale Starbucks for a reliable signal, as Sprint didn’t work in the eastern half of California at that time. I called my stepdad, Gerry who sneered at this internet nonsense and called some higher authority toll number, which said Monitor Pass was open. I drove north and spent the night in Jackson , crossing over on Highway 88 the next day.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few road rules that put my adventures in the proper framework. Sonora Attempt #1 was all Garfield, the cat that gets stuck in horrible situations and thinks, “It couldn’t get any worse” and then it gets worse. So when things get bad, I enumerate the ways they didn’t get worse.
First Garfield: the journey introduced me to Gold Country and the wonders of Highway 49. Second Garfield: Despite paying for my Bishop hotel room in advance the manager accommodated my last minute change. Third: the drive the next day was stunning, much better than it would have been in the evening.
I had chosen my landing place well; not only did I have a bright light, but I could see approaching cars from far off. A Lexus SUV stopped and a nice couple asked tentatively if I needed help (no doubt worried I say yes). They brightened in relief when I invoked the talismanic AAA, and wished me luck.
Tired of sitting and listening to Sirius, I got out to stretch. The beaming light did dim the stars, unfortunately. But the drizzle had stopped.
I’d never spent a second thinking of Sonora Pass but now that my summit was denied, I was going all Roberto Montalban in Star Trek II.
Summer break 2016: I made an epic journey through the Pacific Northwest, leaving my beloved Accord, now closing in on 300,000 miles, in Carson City where I picked up my rental. Now back in my car on the last leg home, I realized Sonora Pass wasn’t that far out of the way. Google said it was only an hour longer. Perfect way to end my trip.
But 20 minutes after turning onto 108 west, I was downshifting into first gear.
Now, I’ve driven stick on some steep roads (two of them from this list), but it never fails to unnerve me. Worst is stoplights on a bad slant, worrying I’ll back into the car behind me while releasing the clutch to slip into gear. I’m always doing the two-foot see-saw, slightly releasing clutch, slightly accelerating, to catch the light in motion–and I always turn off crazy hills as soon as possible.
So surely, Michele, since you’re crossing the second highest mountain pass in California, you considered whether or not the road over it might have a steep patch or two, right?
Yeah, I’m…not much of a planner.
Only for this article did I google Highway 108 and learn that much of it is over 10%, with one patch of 26%, that parked cars often have large stones behind their tires in the event of brake failure.
So here I was, 7500 feet up, my Accord whining at an RPM that put my teeth on edge, in first gear, and there’s nothing but more up in front of me.
I was talking to myself–you’re nowhere near the red RPM territory, you’ve always been a big baby on pushing your engine, there’s no place to turn around even if you were going to chicken out, as long as you’re not in second, you won’t stall, chin up, keep it up…..
and then I looked in the rear view mirror and saw three cars behind me. Impatiently close behind me.
Nerves were one thing. Nerves with angry drivers behind me as I held up their progress on what they considered a little mountain road added humiliation to my stress, and I folded.
108 is notable for a lack of road shoulders, but as we came to a straight stretch, I pulled as far to the right as I could, my right tires partially fitting onto the tiny dirt strip–and the ease and relief of getting the cars past allowed me to forget for just a single second–no, less than a second–that there was something much, much worse than stopping on a steep hill in San Francisco with a car behind me, and that’s stopping on a steep mountain in the Sierra Nevadas with only air behind me.
Here’s the actual satellite location on my stopping point, but the angle makes the off-road look bigger than it was. This image doesn’t capture the steepness but communicates the narrow shoulder. I was about 20 feet in front of where the truck is.
I don’t know how long I sat there, engine running, emergency brake on, hoping that some miraculous stick-shift driving stranger would happen by, notice my plight, and offer to get me moving again….
but eventually I realized it was time for the Hoosiers rule. Scrappy Hickory High is down one in the semi-finals, everyone has fouled out and little Ollie, worst player on the team, is forced to play. He is instantly fouled, and coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) calls time. Ollie is utterly terrified. He’ll miss both shots, fail to tie, much less win, the game, and be ever the goat. The beauty of this film is that not a second of script is wasted spelling out his predicament, it’s all in Ollie’s face as they huddle. Gene as Norman says,
“Alright, listen. After Ollie makes his second shot,” (he leans over and talks directly to Ollie), “and you will make your second shot, get back on defense right away. There maybe just enough time for them to throw in a desperation toss.”
After Ollie makes his second shot. Just skip over the terror and put your mind in the happy place. I’m normally a devout pessimist, but I make allowances for pep talks in desperate times.
And so I said to myself, “After you get moving, you will turn around at the first opportunity and get off this fricking mountain.” Took a deep breath, did the two foot see-saw, released the brake, went terrifyingly backwards for just a blink, didn’t panic, accelerated gently, felt the skid and oh, lord, went forward away from the dropoff and back up the hill.
Once I was moving again, no cars behind me, I teased with the notion of continuing, but breaking Hoosiers promises might killed the rule’s mojo. Besides, a turnaround appeared right after the road switchback left that you can see in the satellite shot (meaning if I hadn’t been stupid enough to stop right then, I could have lost my three followers in less than a minute). So I turned around, drove further south, and used my National Parks pass to get through Yosemite. Took me forever, and I felt like a big baby. No Garfields for this story.
End Sonora Pass Attempt #2.
To be continued…