By Michael “Pass Me” PiersonWhen you’ve been barreling down a 50 meter rubble field of river rocks that ends 10 meters away in a 2 meter drop to a river bed that turns into a sharp left that disappears into an opaque tunnel of brush, there is no time to think. If you think, it means you’re looking in front of your tire, not 10 meters down your line and that means you’re going to crash because you’re thinking about it. Mountain biking is all about the moment; thinking about those moments like a stop-action camera whizzing behind your eyes is for later, over a sandwich and beer at Cook’s Corner with your buddies. If you want to think, really want to get into your head and let the snakes and butterflies, maggots and doves out of the crypt, then the prescription would not be The Luge or Chutes; more likely it would be a long solo trek along the Santa Ana River Trail.
SART. The best thing about it is that there is no real challenge to it except the distance. It’s all asphalt from east to west, from the Riverside County line in Corona to the Newport River Jetty some fifty kilometers away. Starting at Green River exit off the 91, there’s a steep half-k descent and then a couple of up and down hill rollers for eight or ten k but nothing lower than middle gears, then it’s pretty much a flat high gear roll from there. Well truthfully, since it follows the Santa Ana River, it’s really all downhill. And not downhill like the “when we get to the top, it’s all downhill from there” lies we tell to our friends between breaths struggling in granny gear up a fire road; truly one of the Three Great Lies. But once you get to the eastern end of Yorba Regional Park, the SART really is an all high gear, big ring downhill for forty kilometers.
I live about four k south, in the hills above SART. Every once in a while, when I want a short road ride, I’ll turn east off the Imperial Woods entrance and ride through Yorba Regional Park. It’s parking lot flat; even Linda can ride it. There are about ten kilometers of asphalt trails; most are in the shade of sycamores and oaks and meander in a rough figure ‘8’ around a pair of man-made lakes covered with an emerald green table cloth of lily pads. Between the trails are grassy heaths and knolls with playground equipment and picnic tables standing in the cool shadows of wooden kiosks. I often take a quick ride there after a workout at my gym.
When I want a little longer ride I take SART past Yorba Regional up to Green River or Coal Canyon. From my house it’s about fifteen k each way; total thirty k ride; about two or so easy hours round trip. When you’re riding mountain, it’s the only way to get to the Coal Canyon trail. That trail leads up to all of the cell towers and radio antenna on top of Sierra Peak and on to The Golf Ball Doppler radar dome a few kilometers south. From Golf Ball it’s a fast fifteen kilometer downhill through Black Star Canyon, but that’s a story for another day. Howard and I rode the whole thing a few times when we were training for Rwanda.
However most of the time, instead of turning east, I make a left at Imperial Woods and head down to Newport. Even though the sides of the river are either tilted walls of massive black quarried stone- like from Green River to Angel Stadium- or, as they are from the Stadium to the beach, poured concrete, there’s this sublime west coast post-modern sense of engineered nature, of chaos temporarily contained. Cormorants, rusting shopping carts, and great white egrets living in the sandy river bed; pigeons, doves, and homeless humans living in tents and nests under bridges and overpasses. Groups of guys in bright multicolored jerseys with names like Monster Drink or RokForm stenciled on the back bent over their bars passing, in perfect single file formation, a commuter wearing an old army jacket and frayed dickey’s pedaling along with tools poking out of his backpack on a rusted beach cruisers. Pairs of young women on the side of the trail jogging past old men walking their old dogs.
I’d have to look on Strava to tell you exactly how many times I’ve ridden the 100 plus kilometer round trip, but it’s probably around a dozen at this point. They’ve gotten a little longer, too, since now I often ride the extra ten kilometers on The Strand and end up at Huntington Beach Pier. The Strand goes all the way from where the SART ends at the Jetty to the Pier and beyond, to Bolsa Chica State Beach, and there are always people on skates and skateboards and on bikes of all kinds, and tan guys dragging their surfboards across sand peppered with ashes and soot from the ubiquitous fire pits dotting the dunes. In winter you can smell the surf and the seaweed that storms have washed up onto the sand, and in summer there’s the scent of suntan lotion and grilled onions. I rode it the Sunday before Bob’s birthday.
In winter you can smell the surf and the seaweed that storms have washed up onto the sand, and in summer there’s the scent of suntan lotion and grilled onions.Michael Pierson
We’d talked on the phone that Friday. “Doc told me last month I could start riding again,” he said, “at least a little road.” He’d told me the day he’d had that appointment but he was excited, more or less, and probably couldn’t remember the minions with whom he had spoken since then. Dave probably heard it a few times, Phil and Brian too. He’d initially ridden around his block, which I knew. Now he was riding the ten or twelve kilometers from his house down to the Jetty.
“So how’d it feel?”
“Bit of stiffness in my shoulder, but other than that, ok.” His voice sounded brave.
The question popped into my head. “Wanna ride down to the pier and have a cup of coffee Sunday morning?” I asked. It would be fun to ride to the Pier with him; the total ride from his house would be a little less than twenty kilometers- just what he thought the doctor might order. I hadn’t ridden the SART since my birthday and it would be a relaxing diversion from everything.
Other than getting Bob out on a modest adventure, there really wasn’t any reason to go down there; there doesn’t ever have to be. Getting Bob out was the best reason at the moment. In April I had ridden 68 miles for my 68th birthday all the way to Bolsa Chica. Linda had given me a Bluetooth headset for my birthday so that I could listen to my music without having shift levers and other protrusions tangle up in the ear buds. It was so mellow: sapphire blue cloudless skies, light breezes coming in off the ocean, smells of salt spray and cocoa butter. I listened to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet and Diz all the way down. Equinox and Kinda’ Blue; ‘Round Midnight and Air for G String. Just as I passed the pier the perfect tune came on; an unexpected serendipity: Sunday Mornin’, the jazz rendition of Lionel Ritchie’s Easy Like a Sunday Morning. Eight plus minutes of Grant Green’s genius fingers sliding up and down the neck of his acoustic. All along the Strand as it stretched out along the edge of the cliffs above the Pacific, I could see the surf rolling in, set after set, perfectly glassy, breaking off into white peaks with seagulls and people skipping across, first one face, then another. Even though it was a Thursday, the tune stuck with me the whole day.
Today was not a jazz day. It was overcast and a little cold; I even thought about a long sleeve jersey. Classical maybe, but then I thought, no, not that either. If Mahler randomly came up I’d probably stop pedaling and slash my wrists. I cranked up my 60’s psychedelia and was well into It’s a Beautiful Day, Airplane, and Quicksilver by the time I passed Honda Center. Some of these bands and artists were embedded in my brain like fog on a beach. Things were vague because my brain was vague then, full of whatever was in vogue to keep it vague. Others like Pink Floyd, Dylan, and The Doors split through the fog and vagueness with the clarity of a laser beam. Then there was Tim Buckley.
I got out of the service late in ’67; by that time my brain was totally pudding. I’m not sure exactly when I first heard Goodbye and Hello but I think I was on my way home after my discharge. As you drive through the central valley all kinds of radio stations fade in and out of range. There was this emerging type of FM broadcasting at the time- Underground. In retrospect, how “underground” could it possibly be, what with the FCC monitoring every word? I’ve since come to the conclusion that some marketing whiz figured it out: playing the same 40 songs over and over, each at under 3 ½ minutes, was not what newly minted hippies in San Francisco and Bakersfield or the emerging counterculture in Los Angeles and Tulare really wanted to hear. It was just before I got to Pixley that I heard the lyrics.
The antique people are down in the dungeons
Run by machines and afraid of the tax
Their heads in the grave and their hands on their eyes
Hauling their hearts around circular tracks
And it went on and on, describing in detail the world as I understood it, as I sensed it had become. The coldness of a marriage bed, a circus of military clowns and insane barkers with an emperor who says war is peace, the generational addiction to speed, a culture of believing everything could be solved in the time it took for Perry Mason or Hawaii Five-O to solve a Sunday night murder. And the new children? Buckley knew them, the smiles of new children, young and so proud to learn. That was me. That was what I wished to be a part, the direction I wished to take. I heard it maybe a few times after but, for the most part, it disappeared like fog from the time. But I’d heard it, I remembered it and it became, to me, an anthem of my, what, generation? Not really. Hippies and counterculture, Vietnam, Watergate, all moved like water, sometimes as rapids, sometimes a pond, but the new children never seemed to become, never came to be. Even today most people my age have never heard of Tim Buckley, let alone the song, and yet it still speaks to me about what I think should have been.
I’d rediscovered it on iTunes during the Kerry/Bush campaign and, moving from one old media device to a new one, it ended up being loaded onto my iPhone. And here it was, fraught with all the schadenfreude and angst I’d remembered at the time. I put it on repeat until I was a few miles from Bob’s house then switched to Coldplay, Killers, and The Fray. No thinking required.
The day after my birthday ride the year before was when Linda’s dad had passed away. He was a WWII vet, a fighter pilot, one of the Greatest Generation. He had flown support over Normandy that day although by then the Luftwaffe didn’t have many fighter planes- or pilots- left. I never heard many stories about that war from any of the people who fought it. Most of what I knew I’d learned in classrooms. My dad had passed away a few years before; he had been in the Pacific theater and he didn’t say much either. None of my uncles. No one said much, but they had all been there, too. Linda’s uncle, or would have been uncle, was killed over France and her mom has said hardly a word about it in the nearly fifty years we’ve been together. .
It was a Wednesday. It was my birthday. I was riding back from Huntington Beach on SART and had stopped to take a few pictures at Victoria Lake, a lake separated by a eucalyptus grove fenced off from a field of dead oil pumps standing with heads bowed like mute horses feeding in the weed flats nearby. It’s really more of a small green mossy pond than a lake but scenic nonetheless. I’d ridden by it a few times before and had always thought about stopping, if for no other reason than to look. Tall reeds and grasses grew high along its banks. Egrets and ibis stood motionless in the water on their yellow stilt legs waiting for something to move so they could eat it. Ducks bobbed their bills into the water as they paddled around the middle. It was graciously tranquil.
I needed both the grace and tranquility.
Aging parents will never be better than they were a minute ago. Linda’s dad had fallen the week-end before and broken a hip. The operation to replace it had taken place a few days later. His doctor told us right after surgery that whatever he’d been using to get around before, it would be one step down. If he’d been walking, he’d now need a cane. If he’d been using a cane, now he’d need a walker. He’d been using a walker and that meant wheelchair.
He’d been in the hospital recuperating and by the weekend was released to a nursing home. Linda’s mom had broken her ankle about a month earlier and been moved to a nursing home, so at least they were together. Neither was doing well but her dad was the worse. That’s what the phone call was about.
“Where are you?” Something in her voice said it was her dad.
“How far from the hospital?” What I heard was: was I going to be there in time?
“An hour maybe.” If I cranked it up I could make it in an hour. Would that be in time?
“How about home?” There was time.
“Hour and a half, maybe hour and forty-five.”
She paused. “Go home first, then come to the hospital.”
Frail. The best way to describe both of them was frail. A few years before we’d talked them into moving from Texas back to California. For the first year they lived with Linda’s sister’s family; they lived half a block from us. But then the two got more frail and had be to moved into assisted living. One thing about taking care of aging parents: Today is always and forever going to the best day it will ever, ever be. It never gets better than it was today. The other thing is this: things fall apart faster than you can keep up with the falling parts. Linda’s mom broke her ankle and had to have surgery; that’s when she went into skilled nursing. It took almost a month for her to pull out of anesthesia induced delirium. While that was still going on is when her dad broke his hip. He was getting out of bed adjusting himself to his walker when he slipped. He didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t trying to go somewhere without his walker. It was still dark, he needed to take a piss, and he fell. A fall that probably wouldn’t have cracked an egg, well, it cracked his hip.
The next day, the day after Victoria Lake, he passed away. In a kind world, a gentle world, it would have been in peace; that day was neither kind nor gentle. My next ride, a quick one through The Oaks a few days later, was dedicated to him. It was short, about 7k, but it felt good for my soul to do it. The tragedy was this: He was a hero, a real hero. He deserved to pass from this world with the dignity of a hero. After the war he opened an auto repair shop in San Gabriel and lived the modest life of a hero who did not talk about his heroics. He deserved the dignity of closing his eyes and going to sleep forever more. He was cheated badly by whichever of The Fates is in charge of doing that.
But in spite of the horribleness of it all, it had happened with unexpected speed- which was the only mercy of that final moment. He’d been admitted and, before we could even contact everyone to get here post haste, the nurse was pressing his eyelids shut. The four of us, Linda, her sister, her husband, and I, sat at the end of his bed. We remembered things about his life even if none of us had actually been born in time to remember them. I remembered nailing down roofing at the desert house. Linda remembered camping and how she wished they had a floor in the tent. Her sister remembered breakfast in Nashville at The Waffle House and how mac and cheese is considered a vegetable side dish there. Her husband remembered ham steaks with red-eye gravy.
We all remembered his last birthday when we went to El Cholo.
“God, that salsa seemed hot! Lit my face on fire!”
“Chips were sure good. They have the best chips!”
“How many margaritas did Shane have?”
“Where did that sombrero come from?” On into the night.
My dad did it right, if there is a right way to eternity. He was in hospice care by then and asked the caretaker for a chocolate ice cream bar. He loved them. The caretaker gave him one and left to pick up some things at the drug store. When he came back my dad had passed; the empty stick was on the floor and chocolate was smeared across his face like a clown.
He’d had weeping edema for months. His legs were swelled like tree trunks and had just about as much in the way of sensation. He hadn’t been able to get out of bed for several days.
But while my sisters, Linda, and I were visiting with him and my mom the week before, I’d taken him to Soboba Springs casino so he could play the slots one more time. We talked on the way there.
“I don’t want to live like this anymore,” he said. There was no suicidal frenzy to what he was saying, just situational awareness. No sense of doom, just of finality. He knew.Michael Pierson
“I don’t want to live like this anymore,” he said. There was no suicidal frenzy to what he was saying, just situational awareness. No sense of doom, just of finality. He knew. His heart was no longer able to circulate his blood and there seemed to be no choices left in the way he could live out his life. His kidneys were failing. His bowels were failing. He had been mortified that my sister had to help him with his most fundamental toileting needs.
“And I never wanted my kids to have to go through this, to have to…”
“I know, dad, we all know, and it’s ok, it really is ok.” It felt odd at the time, my response, like I was trying to assuage his fears. If he had any, they were encapsulated in what he’d just said.
I’d come to terms with his mortality several years before. As if it were on a switch, his heart had simply stopped just after he’d teed off and was watching his drive settle on the green. I saw him in the hospital with tubes coming out of every limb. I came to terms with it then, when he’d had a defibrillator installed in his chest. For a long time it seemed like it was getting better, or that at least we were all on a plateau, but we didn’t know. Or maybe we knew and wanted not to, but those days were as good as it would ever get.
“I’m done. I hurt all the time. I shit my pants because I can’t get out of bed…”
“I know.” In reality I didn’t because I could still get out of bed. I could still control my bowels. My heart was still working quite well. I knew.
“… it’s taking too long.”
“It’s coming, dad, it’ll be here…” The It. It was stating the obvious which is why I guess I didn’t flinch, didn’t even take a deep breath, when I said it. Neither did he.
“… but it needs to be here sooner.” He in the passenger seat looking straight ahead, me driving through Hemet on the way to an Indian casino. It was probably the closest I’d felt to him in decades.
“I just wanted to walk, Mike,” he said as I continued to drive, “I wanted to walk into that casino with a little dignity.” To an outsider it would have sounded almost like a conversation of non sequiturs in the past tense about something we had yet to do but I knew from where this was coming.
“We all understood that dad, but…”
“I’m stubborn, aren’t I.” Pause. “Aren’t I?”
“Trick question.” Pause. “Trick question?”
“I need that, Mike, I need at least that.”
We’d wanted to take him in a wheelchair but he was adamant that he only wanted his walker, to the point of tears. The discussion didn’t last long. I put the walker in the seat behind him. Linda had rolled her eyes when I buckled him in.
“… we just didn’t know if you could…”
“… but I could, I can.”
Dignity. It took a long time for him to pull himself out of the passenger seat. It was painful for him to walk and it was equally painful to watch him try. There would have been no shame in having me push him; it would have been my honor. Yet in his mind as he struggled to shuffle each leaden, weeping leg forward, he was dignified, independent, capable. In my eyes he was a hero.
That’s what it all came down to for both of them in their own way. I don’t know if a face smeared with chocolate is dignified, but for him it wasn’t about the last moment, it was about the mere moment before when the cold sweetness touched his tongue, the moment a week before when he walked into a casino, the years before when he watched his drive settle on the green. For my father-in-law it was a picture of all of us at dinner for his birthday a few months before, at El Cholo, he in front wearing a sombrero with his daughters and son, granddaughters and grandson, and his sons-in-law all framed around him, a bowl of chips and a couple of empty margarita mugs. It’s what we chose to remember that becomes their dignity.
© 2015 Michael Pierson