Mt. Wilson

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Aaron Erbeck flew in from Seattle. Ryan Thompson, Ira Ryan and I from Portland. We just met Cole—who lives with his girlfriend—yesterday and with Trystan Cobbett’s combination apartment-compound-loft now completely under siege by amateur fine artists and their works, we’re left with only one option. Stay at the Standard, the downtown Los Angeles Standard, a $260 parody of a hotel. The atmosphere is tragically vapid but alluring at the same time, like augmentation and plastic surgery.

We check-in late after our hardman intercity century – Tour of Hollywood, Mulholland, the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu and Sunset. We are tired and dirty and wearing shoes that go clack-clack and draw too much attention. As if our bib-short shoulder straps spilling over the top of knickers and jeans and angry bee-buzzing King hubs weren’t enough. We make our way through the marble foyer where the six-foot black woman wearing a period correct afro and oversized sunglasses is languidly playing house records. She’s good. Between that episode and the next, is a gaggle, or is it squad, pod or troop, of 25-year-old Barbie-girls sipping $15 cocktails. Muddled and infused. I’m careful not to over-steer my Ortlieb and it’s hastily secured road riding bicycle helmet on the way to the counter where two alert-but-bored employees have seen it all before, even this. Ryan is already checked-in, he’s been here on business for the last three days, so he makes for his room and a costume change. He’s a local. So it’s just Brian Vernor, our photog, Ryan, Ira and me.

Trystan is about to leave, his delivery all but signed for, when Ira Ryan, in true Ira Ryan form, panics. It was too much for him. The 30-foot ceilings, the upholstered islands of various shapes and sizes bearing guests of various shapes and sizes floating in the large sea of modern colors and surfaces that is the lounge. The sublimely delicious lighting. The custom curtains, the security guards in headsets and black suits. He quickly organizes a plan with Trystan and they leave moments later, Ira muttering, like Rainman, his rationale—I need to clean the bikes and wash the bikes. Definitely need to clean the bikes and wash the bikes.

It’s now Ryan, Brian and I and the rooftop bar that’s a $20 cover if you’re not a guest. The light pollution and view of the city is spectacular; it’s exhilarating. The white plastic love-yurts and after-market outdoor fireplace is intoxicating even if my $15 drink isn’t.

The next morning is hard. My legs hurt from yesterday’s epic. Cole is fast enough to make Ira faster than normal. Which is too fast already. Ryan is hurting again. We’re both definitely sick with a cold. We leave the hotel and pile impossibly into Trystans’s BMW station wagon in which we snake up the 101 to Pasadena and the start of the ride.

Our first choice for breakfast is packed, it’s Saturday at nine. On our way back to the car, still hungry, Trystan calls our attention to the place in front of where we are parked. Seconds later, as if on cue, the owner is on the street— “whereareyougoingwehavebreakfasthere”. Her desperation and our need to eat find us in an establishment that Ira, clued-in by the décor—bad art and a flat screen—recognizes from a scene in Die Hard 3. The breakfast was bad but calorically on target.

Outside, Cole suggests we change at the Patagonia store down the street. Four bags with shaved legs head in that direction. I change in front of a security camera next to an old hairbrush in a dimly lit parking garage across the street. It’s 10:15 and we take stock. The weather is good, maybe 65 and getting warmer by the minute. It’s sunny with no wind. It’s perfect.

The ride out of Pasadena is quiet and beautiful. The streets are wide and the houses are almost too well kept. Behind the well-spaced and notably healthy trees lining the road, sprinklers jut-jut-jut and small blue security signs, from their mid-lawn-stake-out, watch us like sentries as we ride casually by. It’s still morning and things are cool and easy. A dog barks and I hear the pleasant sound of an unhurried (unworried) group—shifting and coasting. I’m reminded as we roll by it, of the Rose Bowl crit, a Gentlemen’s Race every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. I used to live over the hill in a little village called Montrose. The road picks-up for less than a mile as we round the shoulder of a large hill before dropping gently into another neighborhood—La Canada. Ira starts pushing and I complain.

He’s pushing because he can sense the incline like a parakeet or horse in a Disney movie—it’s a gift. The front range is over five thousand feet high and jumps out of the ground, steep and solid like a dirt wall, five blocks from the stop sign we just slow-rolled through. They’re just hidden behind tropical trees, in ground pools and dripping wet just-washed sport utility vehicles. Cole doesn’t help things with his persistent fitness. Ryan and are on our own again.

We t-bone Foothill Boulevard, La Canada’s main artery. It’s easy to ride but traffic is constant and vaguely apathetic to our endeavor. We miss our turn and over climb almost to Montrose, the next village, my old home. From the corner of a gas station parking lot we right our wrong with a phone call and the help of our recently remembered map.

Really on our way now, we make the left onto HWY 2. It starts like a giant-sized ramp, a mile-long 1000-foot-high handicap ramp to the bottom of the sky. The road is impressively straight, unyielding and wide, and lined with expensive though generic homes. At the top we make a right turn into the wilderness and with that the city is gone.

For eight miles the sun continues to warm, then heat the world. The pitch never changes as the road marches upward in a seamless series of regular and predictable never-ending S-turns. Everywhere it’s tan and dusty and army green. It smells smoky like sage. I’m starting to fade and sink behind the others. I can see Ira working now in earnest for his happy-place, his face, though stoic and as dark as ever, is a record of the process—find legs, move up, settle into breathing, tune-out the cars and the others, complete the math (time, distance, day) and bite into it, dig into it, meet it, charge up it, get in front of it. The road. Own the road.

Ryan is climbing well, almost effortlessly. Cole’s face is closed but his actions are so smooth and precise, like a well-oiled properly tuned machine, it’s meditative. He’s efficiency incarnate. They settle into the chase.

In the time it takes to sit-up and unzip my jersey I fall irretrievably behind. I’m briefly inspired by the splayed ends of my coattails, flapping like a cape in the wind and my speed, so I lay down a decent but conservative effort. At first it’s just a switchback, then it’s two, three and four. I’m dropped.

The Valley on my right grows deeper and more interesting with every turn. I focus on it instead of my weakness. I daydream about the single-track I see cut—as if by laser-wielding aliens, bored with crop circles that have a penchant for mountain biking—into the hillside. I think about wagons and pioneers and traveling west across these mountains without roads—how at the end of an already exhausting transcontinental journey these very same mountains could be too much to bear. I think about anger and the insistence of mountains. I always think about roads in this situation, when I’m climbing alone. The theme changes but it always concerns roads and their origins, from deer paths and Indian trails to chip seal and asphalt.

Cole, Ryan and Ira are at the top waiting patiently though visibly cold. We regroup. Cole is funny and superbly optimistic. Not in a disingenuous way at all, he’s just quick with the lemonade. We’re talking and laughing and being friends. These guys are amazing, the climb is behind us, it’s not really but we didn’t know it at the time, and the sun is where a five-year old would draw it. Still, the wind is sharp and our cooling sweat brings shivers and the need to exert.

We re-begin the ride with an immediate descent. It’s fast and lazy and rolls like a red carpet unfurled into a stiff breeze down the scree and chaparral-covered hillside. We are bewildered by the bottom, it comes too quick and definitive. We’re climbing again for real. Not a hill or a roller but a continuation of the front range. Just ahead is a very round tunnel connecting here and there. We reach there in 47 seconds and collectively blink into existence a Hollywood bridge, a long aesthetically pleasing bridge spanning a massive rift in the mountains. On the other side of the valley up the road a piece, is a small market with a screen door and a dusty parking lot. A rusted-out Pepsi sign swings in the light wind, it sounds metallic and lonely.

Together we turn onto Big Tujunga Canyon Road and notice for the first time the appearance of dark clouds on business. As a group we sit-up, zip-up, pull-down and repack, and non verbally assess our situation. As we continue gaining elevation the feet between each of us grows to yards until Cole, obviously under a direct order from that part of his brain, surges up to sit on Ira’s wheel. Ryan and I smile and share a moment—Cole don’t let up till the top, never back-off. The dusting of snow on the side of the road has grown to a blanket an inch or two thick. Large piles of recently plowed snow sit against the guardrail on the side of the road, mid-melt, in irregular intervals. Cole and Ira, dueling, disappear behind a switchback not to be seen again until the top.

Where’s Ryan Thompson. Why isn’t Ryan on my wheel. Over my shoulder I see him, 600 yards down the road, the unmistakable shape and motion of a cracked man. He’s suffering, enduring, barely maintaining and not, unfortunately for him, riding. This is just what I need, an adrenalin shot to the arm. Emboldened, I stand for five pedal strokes then sit down hard. We’ve been effectively climbing for 42 miles and the weather is starting to suck. I need my ipod and a new pair of legs. I think out loud—just maintain, you’re moving confidently in the right direction, don’t fuck it up. Ryan is gone, Ira and Cole are gone, I need my ipod.

The top, where Tujunga rejoins Angeles Crest Highway, its misty and eerie like the top of a mountain, socked-in with increasingly bad weather. I’m steaming, Ira and Cole look dangerously cold. Five minutes pass and Ryan still isn’t here. The tan head-high dirt wall across the street has tree’s growing out of its exposed vertical side and it’s striated with black rocks and green-brown soil. The scene is Paleolithic. Still no Ryan.

He’s practically humping and thrusting his bike up the hill. It’s not riding, what he’s doing. Fifty miles of almost uninterrupted climbing and Ryan is finished and resigned to the fact that he will ride again but not today. Room is made for Ryan and his bike in the journalist vehicle.Cole volunteers out loud that the next five miles to the base of Wilson is all downhill. We’re cold but laughing and appreciating the beauty and perfection of everything and everyone around us. Just before embarking on our prescribed five-mile descent we’re rudely accosted by a Highway Patrol Officer and his ride-along. He’s curious why we’re taking pictures—it’s a guidebook project. He’s not convinced but what can he do.

We climb for the next five miles in rain that turns to snow as the mercury drops. I remember riding together, talking and nodding. We’re animated as we climb the empty jet-black black-top in the snow like soldiers trusting the end is near.

At Redbox, the turn-off for Wilson, the snow stops but the world is still barely visible under a foggy-white floor-to-ceiling mist. Inside the Ranger Station a local Native American tribe is celebrating. They are also selling cokes and snicker bars to the rattling hum of space heaters set to 11. We shake down our pockets for Ziploc bags, cold quarters and wrinkled dollars, and tear into our newly purchased cargo. On the way out we batten down the hatches, Velcro is aligned, draw cords are pulled tight and zippers are tugged taught.

Ira, Cole and I leave the parking lot together and roll through the gate together until 10-feet later, 10 feet into the last five uphill miles of the day, when as we naturally reestablish the order of things, Ira then Cole leave me to contemplate the void through which I ride alone. Alone except for the incessant sound of an empty coke can rattling in my bottle cage. The sound is muffled and damp and metallic. I feel like an ancient indigenous person on a black hand built Tony Pereira Yak crossing the highest pass in the known world. My coke can, rattling and clanging and jangling away, a tool to ward off bad spirits and weather. I am a loud, sweaty, shivering, tired, cracked, steaming and intrepid explorer with a bike and a coke can. I’m riding to the top of Mt. Wilson. I am euphoric.

At the top I find Ira and Cole smiling and small, hunched over their bikes once again waiting for me. Among TV towers and radio towers, everywhere there are towers. We have an hour now to ride the last 35 miles before the world goes dark. A chilly thought brought home by the thick, wet, ill-fitting blanket we’ve been under for the last two hours. It hangs off us like ectoplasm and blocks the sunset we hoped would light our view of Los Angeles and the coastline behind it.

It’s brutally cold and my teeth chatter. It’s odd but I notice the road for the first time now that I’m headed down it. On the left is an eroding and dripping hillside hemorrhaging large rocks and sand. The edge of the road is soft and indefinite and often imposed on by overhanging rock. On the right a low stone ledge follows every contour of the road. It reminds me of Europe, this small homemade wall that wouldn’t for a second stop you in a car or on a bike from blowing through the corner and dropping into the white featureless abyss crowding the road from the far side. The road, once 20 feet wide, is losing the battle and the war; the mountain is reclaiming it slowly but very surely.

I’m out in front but we’re close. We pass the Ranger Station turning left down the mountain. With every passing minute the temperature rises. Over the next 40 minutes we experience every manner of turn and pitch and curve. We unthaw and drop like rockets returning to Earth’s atmosphere with all the usual heat and speed. We vie the whole way down, passing and drafting and pace lining and drilling and pinning it. Halfway down we get front row seats to a brilliant sunset and watch, between trees and hills and each other, the city of Los Angeles reflect and shimmer and float like a sky-city above the basin we’re destined for.

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