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Why I Ride: Weir Canyon

By Michael Pierson

Like all places with a view of the world, Robber’s Roost has its legends and even without the legends the view is, without exaggeration or a hint of hyperbole, all-encompassing. Today it sits as the high point looking over the whole of Santiago Oaks Regional Park with Anaheim Hills Elementary School at its base. From the peak you can see the groomed estates and gridlines of beige houses in Anaheim Hills, Irvine Regional Park, and Orange Park Acres all the way to Newport Beach in the west. To the north you can make out Disneyland, Angel Stadium and, at the edges of the horizon on a really clear day, the Wells Fargo building in downtown LA some 40 miles from there. But back in the day, I’d guess around the 1870’s, none of that existed. The view from Robber’s Roost would have been mostly about the stage route winding east through Santa Ana Canyon from the sleepy town of Anaheim heading toward Riverside and San Bernardino. Thieves on horseback would lay in wait for the dust plume of a stagecoach, ride down the hills on what is now Serrano and Weir Canyon Road, and intercept it before it got to Coal Canyon. Whatever happened beyond that point, well, I leave that to the imagination of the guys who made films with John Wayne in them.
Today there’s a truck trail with a 10% grade going up from the elementary school to Robber’s Roost. On Strava it’s called Santiago Warm-up on the uphill; downhill it’s called The Shreddd. Riders and hikers trek up from the school to Edition Ridge and follow it along the ridgeline up to The Flats and The Flagpole.
Panorama of Edition Ridge

Panorama of Edition Ridge

It’s along this ridge between Robber’s Roost and Flagpole that I spotted the red tailed hawk riding the currents and breezes that occur when wind coming off the ocean meets the cliffs. There was no effort or exertion on its part; I doubt there was even thought or deliberation. It more or less paralleled my path and, while it was only slightly above my line of sight, it was several hundred feet above the web of canyons and arroyos below. As I pulled up to the singletrack dropping onto Barham the spectacular bird made a lazy spiral decent below the rim. That’s when I saw it for the first time, those bright red tail feathers, almost crimson, glowing like embers in the mid-afternoon sun.
As teachers, Bob and I were in a unique situation: we taught Independent Studies. In truth I think everyone should go through their high school education this way; it’s civilized. But all of that is for a different conversation on a different day in a different astral plane. Let’s just say that, basically, it’s one student being mentored by one teacher. Yes, there are math teachers to teach math and English teachers to teach English, but all of this is monitored by one person and all subjects are taught one-on-one. You’d think that such a situation would bring students in by droves but that’s not the case. For the most part our students consisted of geeks, nerds, pregnant girls, and kids in various stages of misalignment from conventional high schools. Our job was- and incidentally, Bob’s still is- to get these kids through high school. Statistically that didn’t happen all that often; for every ten that came to us as sophomores, one would graduate. And when I say sophomore, I mean by age. Usually they had about enough credits to remain as a first semester freshman with F’s in everything but PE and Teacher’s Aide. In other words, ours was part of the safety net designed to get kids before they became part of the juvenile criminal justice system.
But I digress. Bob and I hadn’t worked together for very long before I found out what made him really mad. Now mind you, it really takes a lot to piss him off, but once that happens it takes a force of nature to bring him down. A few of things: he’s white as rice, speaks fluent Spanish, and has a moustache that droops into the shape of a horseshoe when he’s really angry. Now me? I know a few curse words in Spanish and I don’t have a moustache. So other than that, Bob and I are alike, sort of.
The first word he spit out of his mouth to the kid was, “vendejo” which comes out as “ben DEH ho” followed by a lot of other Spanish from there.Michael Pierson
Here’s the story: I was interviewing a new student and his mother was there with him. The intake interview is more or less a canned speech, one that I and my fellow teachers give in one iteration or another to every student who crosses our desk. I was filling the kid in on what we expected from him, what his studies would include, yadda yadda, and he was supposed to be explaining this to his mother because she did not speak English. Bob came over after a few minutes and asked if he could interrupt the interview. Now I have to tell you, I was a bit surprised because no one interrupts an intake interview between teacher, student, and parent, but I nodded that it was OK.
The first word he spit out of his mouth to the kid was, “vendejo” which comes out as “ben DEH ho” followed by a lot of other Spanish from there. Like I said, I know a few curses in Spanish so I knew what that one meant, and I was shocked to say the least, but I don’t know who was more surprised, the kid getting his ass reamed by a gringo, or the mom listening to her son getting his ass reamed in Spanish by a gringo, but his ass being reamed was what happened. By the end of the conversation the kid was in tears; oh yes they were angry tears indeed but tears none the less. It’s usually not a good thing to make a student openly cry so I knew there was a lot more to it.
Bob was especially tense when he told me about it as we sat eating lunch. Apparently, while I was telling the student about what he was to do, he was translating to his mom about what a bitch she was for making him come to a school and sit with a teacher who was going to force him to do the work he was told he was going to have to do. He’d been caught humiliating his mother and then, seemingly as an act coming from outer space like a comet or asteroid, the table got turned.
Although I came to see it a few more times over the years, that was the first time I’d noticed the moustache. Normally it was an inverted dolphin tail but by the time he came up to my desk that morning his upper lip had stiffened and his jaw had clinched. It was like a horseshoe and his eyes would have bitch slapped the kid on the side of the head had they had fingers. I had never seen him that angry.
“No one should talk to their mother that way,” Bob said as our conversation ended, “but chances are he’s heard his dad say those things and so he thinks it’s okay to say them, too.”
“I’ll ride this one off tonight.”
I’d heard Vin Scully before, whenever a batter fouled a pitch off his shin or ankle or the top of his foot, say, “Well, it’ll take a minute for him to walk that off.”
Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I don’t know, but I know that Bob always sat in on our conversations from that point on. The next day he came in and told me all about where he had ridden that night. He and Dave and Brian rode Weed Patch, and how different everything looked when you saw it through the prism of 900 lumens on a moonless night. The day before was now nothing more than that: the day before.
Barham Ridge, a brick red singletrack artery of softball sized shale and clay clots sharp as razorblades, is the trailhead for most of the trails in The Oaks, Irvine Regional, and Weir Canyon. It snakes and meanders along the ridgeline from Flagpole all the way to Chutes in the south, and with branches west to Anaheim Hills trail, Coach Whip, Cactus, and Mountain Goat. To the east it branches to both the Weir Canyon and Deer trails. Not only are there those big and sharp clots, they rest on a bed of dust that has the texture and viscosity of talcum powder. If you ride you’ll know how well those shards of clay get lubricated by fine dirt when you are making even a little change in direction. When it rains all of that gets washed away but on the ride I was on just then it hadn’t rained for almost a year.
So I took it to Sedona during spring break that year and, on my very first downhill, hit the front brake and went OTB into a cactus. Even then I laughed about itMichael Pierson
I’d hiked this long before I rode it, wondering then how guys actually rode through this rubble. It was either just before or just after I’d gotten my first bike off of Craig’s List and shown it to Bob. Before I’d laid my $100 on the table, I’d called him and asked if Mongoose was a good bike. He said it was what they sold at WalMart but that it would be a good bike to figure out if I liked mountain biking or not, and that a good used bike would probably cost about two grand. So I brought it to school the next day to let him look it over. He was so much the diplomat, never once mentioning that its center-pull rubber pad brakes would melt like butter on a long downhill or that the frame would probably crack after a few rounds of rock garden and waterfall drops. He said it was fine, and the best part was that it was full suspension. Of course I knew, as soon as he told me that it was a WalMart bike, that it was a piece of crap but, like he said, it would be a good bike with which to make a big, expensive decision. So I took it to Sedona during spring break that year and, on my very first downhill, hit the front brake and went OTB into a cactus. Even then I laughed about it because the rest of the ride was a gas. Oh sure, it was mostly me taking my bike for a walk, but it was still a real adventure.
On the ride I was taking that day I couldn’t actually remember if I’d ridden my Mongoose on Barham or not, but probably not. When I’d hiked down to the first branch, where it heads east into Weir Canyon, and started on the downhill to Boulder Dash, well, I questioned if ANYONE could ride terrain as treacherous as this! The section is appropriately named. Three tiers of truck sized boulders with a crease down the middle, each tier separated by a few meters of hard clay and all of it on a 9% or so downhill grade. Yet there they were: tire tracks. And here I was two years later taking my line and bouncing over the smooth boulders without any apparent effort. I remember thinking as I finished the section, “And you used to worry about that.”
Boulder Dash2

Boulder Dash

From Boulder Dash it’s a series of ups and downs, some of the downs just as intimidating, before you actually get to the gate at Weir Canyon. When I retired my daughter and her husband gave me a new Santa Cruz, a Tallboy; since it was black with orange lettering, I named it Goblin. My son-in-law is very much into biking of all kinds: road, enduro, MTB, you name it and he’ll ride it. At the time he was an executive for Back Country so got me the bike. I sold my Mongoose for $120 and bought a CamelBak and some decent pedals. I was on Goblin when I first tried to climb the hill up from the entrance gate to the first crest; got about half way before I was gasping for air and trying to stand on my rubber band legs. How funny, I was thinking as came to the crossroads at the top of the hill and not even breathing hard, how things had gotten so much easier now that I could ride whenever I wanted because here I was. Even though I was substitute teaching, it was only a day or two a week. That still left three or four weekdays and the weekend to ride. So in a relatively short span of time it had gone from being just something fun to do to becoming a real passion.
About a kilometer from the crest at the entrance of Weir are a series of switchbacks which, if you’re riding counterclockwise, is an uphill. Even then on my first time out with Goblin it wasn’t much of a challenge and the downhill section was easy, too. But I had hiked it when I still had the Mongoose so I knew there were going to be some tough sections ahead, ones I was sure were too difficult for any human to traverse. The toughest I knew was about two kilometers from the end of the switchbacks and what was tough about it was, first, it came at the end of a steep uphill, it made a sharp left while still going uphill, and finally, it ended with a dash up a narrow, tire-wide line of unforgiving boulders bordered by brush on either side. I don’t think I cleared that rockfall until I’d been riding about a year and I was with Howard that day. He’d never cleared it either but that day he did, and so did I. It was an animal thing, the primal scream as my rear tire cleared the lip of the last boulder and we were on flat ground. What a rush I was thinking that afternoon, that even though I clear it routinely now, I still think about the first time.
Weir Canyon is a long loop of about 10 kilometers. It’s transected in two places. The most prominent connector between the bottom of the loop and the top, or top to bottom if you’re riding clockwise, is Deer Weed. It’s steep but not real technical, more a fire trail than anything. The other is Cliffhanger. It is only one direction: down. It’s a singletrack that starts with a 2 meter 90` drop, skirts on a half-meter wide trail with sheer cliffs on either side for another half a kilometer, and ends with a twisting rubble-strewn rut charging down a cliff for another 30 or 40 meters. I just looked up the face of the cliff and said to myself: this ride wasn’t going to be about Cliffhanger.
Most of Weir is brown brush and flattened mustard stalks but this particular section twists gently through live oak, manzanita, and sycamore groves.Michael Pierson
From the bottom of Cliffhanger it’s a bit of an uphill to the second intersection: Deer Weed. About half way up you make a decision. If you turn right, you’ll finish up the last of the counter-clockwise Weir Canyon loop. Or you can continue up Deer Weed to the top and make another decision: turn to the right and you’ll finish Weir Canyon going clockwise; or turn left and do a Short Weir. That day I wanted to do the full Weir so I turned right at the bottom. And here’s where it gets downright pretty. For about two kilometers it’s a long, winding downhill, a clean, relatively uncluttered dual track. Most of Weir is brown brush and flattened mustard stalks but this particular section twists gently through live oak, manzanita, and sycamore groves. It’s not uncommon to see a mule deer or coyote fending in the brush on either side. That’s what I needed, what I really had come to see today.
The downside to all downhills though is, once you’re at the bottom the only way to go is up. And this climb is relentless: not especially steep and it does have some flat spots and an occasional short drop, but for three, maybe four, kilometers, you will be in granny gear all the way. The first time I did it I must have stopped a dozen times just to catch my breath. I don’t have to do that anymore but that day, and even now, I usually take a knee when I finally hit the summit.
It was along here though that Howard and I met a pair of hikers just below a water tower that looks like a big white biscuit sticking out of the side of the mountain. They’d spotted a battle between a tarantula and its nemesis, a tarantula wasp. When we got there the battle was over and the spider had, as usual, lost. It had already turned over on its back and the wasp was doing a little victory dance around the paralyzed spider. Last we saw before we headed up the trail was the wasp dragging the tarantula down its own spider hole. Later the wasp would lay its eggs in the abdomen and the larvae would consume it from the inside. Fresh meat; the spider would live through the whole thing, paralyzed. We both agreed it would be a horrible way to go but, considering it was a spider, it probably didn’t know what was going on.
Tarantula Hawk

Tarantula Hawk

The Cliffhanger trailhead is at the summit. A few times Howard and I made the decision to take it, and once on a ride with Dave, he took it. But I have to be in a particular frame of mind, a frame that includes more sense of danger than I usually have, before I tip my wheel inexorably over the edge. It’s not that often that I desire that much adrenaline.
But that summit is also the start of the last two kilometers and, for me, was the whole reason for this ride. Not that I ever need a real reason to ride; that the sun rose this morning is usually enough. It starts with a cambered singletrack with a steep cliff on the downside of the camber, then it comes to a crossroad. You can turn left and take Old Weir, a 20% grade 30 second drop down an elevator shaft, which is really fun. Or you can continue straight ahead to The Esses, all banked up and down the hillside for a 30 KPH slalom complete with all the razor sharp clots and talcum powder lubricants you had on the entrance to Barham. Once that’s done, you’ll come up to the Weir Double-D downhill. It starts gently enough with a hard clay singletrack but emerges quickly onto 15 meters of boulders with a groove down the right side slightly wider than a tire… or you can go down the middle for a little pucker in your privates. Then another clay line, maybe 30 meters, and another set of boulders with groves that move from one side to the other over 20 or so meters, and it ends with clay steps that are set just a little closer together than the front and rear axles of you bike so you get the perpetual feel of just about going over the bars. Then it’s over with a primal scream. That’s one section I did after about six months of riding and it never ceases to excite me.
From there I decided to take Serrano back to the school, to follow the trail the stagecoach robbers used to do what it was they did. Its four lanes fully paved now, of course, but the myth, the legend, still remains.
A sub never knows from day to day whether he or she will be going into a classroom with kids or monsters. Today had been the day of monsters, of walking into a buzz saw from first period to seventh. I would suspect that a lot of these kids will be in Bob’s classes when they start high school, and most of them will be the that inauspicious group of nine that end up in the juvenile justice system or get shot holding up a liquor store someday.
Third period was the worst. I had booted a student out of the classroom before the tardy bell rang, sending him to the room next door. Then over the next twenty minutes I confiscated three cell phones and, while I was disciplining a quartet of students in one corner and my back was turned, an unknown student stole one of the three phones. When I tried to call security no one was answering their phone so I went next door and asked the teacher to get security to my room immediately. I posted myself at the door so that, when the bell rang, no one could leave. While I was holding the door, the student I’d sent next door at the beginning of the period pulled the door open from the outside while, at the same time, another student was pushing it open from my side. It was chaos, pure pandemonium and for the first time in years I actually felt in danger. An assistant principal along with two security staff came in; the room got very quiet and so it ended.
When I got home I loaded my bike onto the rack. I didn’t get a snack, pet the cat, or anything. Got into my riding gear, took the truck up to the school, and started up Santiago Warm-up.
This had been my foul ball off the ankle and I was going to walk it off. This was Bob calling a disrespectful kid to task for treating his mother with such disdain and carrying the burden of anger and frustration on his shoulders until he turned on his lights at Weed Patch. This was me watching a red tailed hawk soar so gracefully up the currents and thermals above Santiago Oaks and know in an instant that tomorrow would be just that: tomorrow. This was riding it off.
©2015 Michael Pierson


We would like to thank Michael Pierson for submitting another great story. You can hear Michael’s podcast with us HERE. Thank You Mike.


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