By Michael PiersonWhen you talk to people from Chicago or Berlin or even Bakersfield or Fresno, the picture they have of Orange County is about tanned 6-pack ab surfers and busty blondes in bikinis drinking beer after a long day riding waves and making out, or big houses on Lido or Balboa Island with a 60’ yacht parked in the back and two Porches parked in the front while the guy who owns the house and his girlfriend each sip a drink with a pink and blue paper umbrella hanging off the rim. Doubtless that exists; all myths have a basis in a perceived truth. People painting over graffiti sprayed on their garage in Buena Park or mowing their lawns in Garden Grove know that the Disneyland vision seen by the rest of the world is a different reality, one in which the palm trees and exotic flowering shrubs you see on the Jungle Adventure Cruise have to be trimmed by someone and the Fairytale Once Upon a Time Castle has to be repainted every so often.
I’m not sure if Bob mows his own lawn and heaven only knows when’s the last time he painted his house, but he lives in Costa Mesa, only a few miles away from Balboa and Lido. It was his 65th birthday. I knew he’d invited Brian, Steve, Howard, Dave, and me to come over late on a Saturday afternoon to celebrate. I didn’t know who else, though. Late, the invitation said if you read between the lines, so we could get in a morning ride and have time for an obligatory nap before the party. Phil was invited too but he had a graduation in the Bay Area he had to attend, and I got a call from Howard the day before saying he couldn’t make it either- different location but same reason.
Linda and I got there even later than the late, but not by much- maybe half an hour and still fashionable. I guess Dave and Kathy had the same idea because they got there about ten or fifteen minutes after us. There were already a lot of other people, most of whom I didn’t know. Since they had some of the facial features of either Bob or Jane, Linda and I figured they were family. But Steve, his wife Paula, and Brian with his wife Lisa were out on the patio already, little paper plates on their laps with chips, salsa, and guacamole. The guys had Coronas sitting in front of them on the table top and the women were sipping on white wine in small clear plastic cups.
Neither Brian nor Steve had ever met my wife, and I’d never met theirs, so we all introduced each other. I knew of Paula because she taught Special Ed at one of the schools I subbed, which also meant we had a few mutual friends. We talked about that and other things. It was easy.
“So what’d you think of Weir, Brian?” I asked. He had ridden it for the first time with Howard, me, and a couple of other guys that morning. “Was I not telling the truth about Cliffhanger?”
Like I said before, I have to be in a particular frame of mind to do Cliffhanger. The trailhead starts at the top of Weir Canyon with about a 2 meter 90` drop and snakes its way down to the bottom along a half, maybe 1, meter wide singletrack with steep cliffs on either side. It ends with 30 or 40 meters of insane chutes and rockfalls that make you wonder what in hell ever possessed you to do this. In other words, it’s fun. And that morning I had been in that particular frame of mind.
Brian is an engineer so he never gets excited about anything. This time his eyes lit up and he smiled. “You weren’t kidding my friend: those cliffs! Jeezes! And those last couple hundred feet are pretty damn gnarly. That whole ride was tight, thanks.” He went on a little about Boulder Dash, Weir DD downhill, and a new singletrack Howard and I had discovered the week before. It went up, with a fence line on one side and a cambered hillside on the other. Howard named it “Sea of Tranquility” because the plateau at the top looked downright lunar.
He took a sip. “I saw you roll that boulder, though.” The last drop of Cliffhanger is a boulder wedged like a table top vertically into the trail. I’d psyched myself out of the 2 meter 90` drop at the top and had walked my bike off that. In spite of my mind’s eye guiding me down the trail from the top to the bottom, it just couldn’t visualize me making that drop. Brian had seen that. I hadn’t ridden Cliffhanger in over a year so had completely forgotten the boulder but rolling it was no big deal- why I don’t know because it wasn’t much different than the drop at the top: 2 meters at 90`.
“Yeah, that was sweet,” I replied. “Next time I do the whole thing.”
Dave and Kathy showed up about then. If there is a surfer dude picture in your mind, Dave would be it, except his hair is gray now because he’s in his mid-fifties. The stocky shoulders, narrow waist, thick muscular thighs: iconic. Having babies has changed her but Kathy is still blond and says she could never move from the coast because it’s the only place with beaches. Back in the day they would have been the couple that people in Kansas would call anyone from California.
“Brian did Cliffhanger today,” I said while we were still hugging and shaking hands.
“So you guys rode today?” he replied. “We just got back from Big Bear; did Summit. They have made that trail so radical! So what did you think, Bri?” Dave got a beer while Kathy started talking with Lisa and Linda about grandkids and whatever else; the last word I heard was ‘grandkids’.
“That whole Weir Canyon was pretty good. I never even knew it was there.”
“You do Chutes?”
“Did it today with a couple of Mike’s buddies but I’ve done it once before, I think, a few years ago.”
“And we’re doing it again next week,” I added. “The Triple Play. Next Tuesday morning.”
Dave knew The Triple Play. He’d done it with me a few months before; it was when he’d first done Cliffhanger. The Oaks to Weir and back, then down Chutes to Irvine Park and Puma Ridge, then up The Bitches and back to the school. “I’ll be in Mammoth otherwise I’d ride it. You’ll love it Bri, some cool dh’s and good climbs. You’ll love it.” He turned to me. “Saw that vid of the snake you posted on YouTube at Weed Patch.”
I laughed. “Talk to Brian about that! He’s the one who actually shot it on his cell. For him it was up close and personal.”
Brian, Howard, Phil and I had met up in San Clemente the previous Saturday to ride the rolling hills behind the city’s dog park and sports center complex. Camp Pendleton is just across the valley and sometimes you can hear the sound of tanks and artillery echo through the canyons. Some people call the venue Dog Park and others call it Weed Patch. It’s all interlocking singletracks peppered with an interesting mixture of oaks and manzanita groves, lupines and poppies, and acres of tall, tender dry, grasses and mustard stems.
None of us saw the first one. We’d all stopped to catch our breath at one of the intersections. It was tall grass and scrub brush all around us. A couple of riders passed us while we were talking and then we all heard it. We quit talking, looked toward the sound and could see the grass rustle and part as the snake, rattles hissing, slithered off in the opposite direction. Fact is, they are really quite shy and don’t like to confront animals bigger than what they can swallow so it wasn’t a big surprise that he was moving away.
Steve started listening in on the conversation at this point but didn’t say anything.
We all actually saw the second one. “So Brian was leading and Howard was right behind him I think, then Phil, then me.”
“Yeah, it was Howard behind me,” Brian nodded.
“I come around a turn and there’s Phil and Howard like traffic cops, palms in the air saying ‘STOP’ and that’s when I heard the rattles. Phil was splitting a gut he was laughing so hard.” Brian grinned and leaned forward. “Seems Bri had rolled up on the snake when it was crossing the path and hit his brakes so hard he almost went OTB onto it. By the time I got to see it, it was coiled and really pissed. Even Howard laughed and said, ‘that snake is really pissed!’”
Brian sat back in his wicker chair and took a sip off his beer. “Gotta say, it surprised the crap out of me. Hit that front brake and could feel the rear wheel come up off the ground.”
“So we waited a few minutes while the snake and us stared each other down; it unwound, still rattling, and went to the other side. ‘Hope you have a good life’ Brian said when we started pedaling again.”
So,” asked Steve, “you got it all on video?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “Not my vid though; I was the late-comer. Brian sent his from his cellphone and I posted it on YouTube. But it doesn’t show his rear wheel coming off the ground, which is what I’d like to have seen. The look on his face when that happened!”
“How big was it? When I was riding in San Diego a few years ago, we saw one that was this thick,” he said, connecting the thumb and index fingers from each hand together in a circle, “and stretched across the whole road. 8, maybe 9 feet.”
“Well this one wasn’t that big, but it sure gave us our excitement for the day.”
But wanting to see the look on Brian’s face made me think of a ride we all took together in the San Gabriel’s up near Mt. Wilson, on the Silver Moccasin trail. “Steve, remember that dump you took on that ride?”
“I remember the dump Bob had to take behind that big trash bin at the trailhead.”
“… and that was the third one that morning,” Bob chimed in. He had just walked up with Joe, another one of the guys we’ve ridden with often, but not as often as the rest of us. They both sat down in the circle.
Brian grinned and nodded slowly at Steve, “You had your GoPro on…”
“Ha ha ha! I remember that one!” Bob said, “we all hoped your GoPro would show your shoe spinning around the pedal…”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, I don’t know what the hell happened but…”
“… what happened was, when you went OTB you left your shoe behind, that’s what happened…”
“… yeah, OTB right out of my shoe and have no idea about how it happened. Didn’t come out on the vid, though…”
“So he says,” someone snarked, “it probably came out during edits, eh?” We all laughed.
By now we were our own little clique, the six of us. Our wives added their own stories about our rides; they’d all been through the cuts, contusions, bruises and breaksMichael Pierson
By now we were our own little clique, the six of us. Our wives added their own stories about our rides; they’d all been through the cuts, contusions, bruises and breaks. Linda said she wishes she’d never seen video of my Luge ride and Kathy had stories of her own about Dave. Everyone else at the party was off with their little paper plates doing whatever, eating cake or chicken thighs, drinking beer or Coke. I looked at the six of us. I’m the oldest by three years; Bob- the new old man- was next, but the rest were in their 40’s or 50’s. Then I looked at some of the other men milling around under the patio cover or on the grass behind us. They were our age but the skin on their arms was flabby and their faces gray, they had pouches over their belts and legs thin, shapeless, like there was way too much time spent on the couch with the remote. I understood- no, I knew then, at that moment- just what it was like to have been a Viking, a Samurai, a Spartan, a warrior.
“So Mike, tell Bob why you have that bandage on your arm,” Brian said. He knew why because he had been there when it happened. And so I told the saga of Lizards trail in Laguna Wilderness, and how a large rock had slid into the soft dirt and stopped my front wheel dead, and how, when I broke my fall, my watch had sliced as cleanly as a knife into my skin. “No stitches, though,” I laughed.
It was turning dusk. People wandered in from the grass behind us, shook Bob’s hand, and wished him another ‘happy birthday’ before they left. It was pretty much just us by then so Bob brought out a bottle of Jameson and poured a round into our little clear plastic cups. He reminded everyone of the night he crashed, of why he wouldn’t be able to ride until probably November. He laughed; sure, it was sardonic, but a laugh none the less, and we toasted. Joe told a story of how he wants to ride with us more and about how he had laughed on a ride with Brian at Aliso when he remembered someone had passed him and slid out in the dirt on a turn, and we toasted. We all had stories about our war wounds, our conquest of hills, of deserts, of battles won and lost, and we toasted.
None of us really want to go to Valhalla although some of our wives certainly think we might find it soon.Michael Pierson
Valhalla, as every kid who’s ever read Marvel or DC knows, is the mythical place where warriors believe with all their soul that they will go when they die in battle; a perception of heaven, it’s the place their minds want to take them while they wield their shields high and swords and axes clash around them. None of us really want to go to Valhalla although some of our wives certainly think we might find it soon.
© 2015 Michael Pierson
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I would also like to wish Bob a Happy Birthday.
“Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.” Socrates