by Richard Risemberg
I spent ten years as an art photographer, had numerous exhibits, and sometimes did self portraits. Finally tired of gallery world politics and the limitations of a visual medium, so I returned to my first love, words. Oddly enough, English is my second language, but the one I speak best, thanks to long residence in the US and extensive reading. I was born in Argentina, of a Jewish father and a Catholic Italian mother, which at the time was the equivalent of a racially mixed marriage in the American South. To spice things up a bit, my mother had actually been in the Hitlerjugend in her teens! Needless to say, my family soon found reason to move north; we settled in Los Angeles, and that has been my base of operations since. I found the Los Angeles of the fifties and early sixties to be unutterably banal, but soon discovered that a great deal of the Big World still showed through in the midst of all the stucco and asphalt, partly a result of the propinquity of desert and sea we are famous for, and partly thanks to a 3,000 foot range of hills dividing the town. From liquor stores and traffic jams to birdcalls and rattlesnakes in a fifteen minute walk. The tension between civilization and its supportive natural processes, which most citadins struggle mightily to ignore, has formed the basis for much of my artwork since I was seventeen...
The beginnings were auspicious. I say beginnings in the plural because every journey, no matter how short or uncomplicated, begins first with the conceiving of it, then with the anticipating, the planning, and the preparation, so that when you finally depart, at last, it is only the end of the beginning. Ours--my buddy John's and mine--progressed from wishful thinking to phone discussions to meetings and mapping without the slightest irregularity. It was only when we actually began to move that things went wrong. Or perhaps a little bit before....
I had gotten a nice new Bridgestone touring bicycle, and John and I had decided to baptize it with a weekend journey to McGrath State Beach, a campground about seventy-five miles from my home in Hollywood that I remembered from a pleasant and restful visit about fifteen years before. Back then, there had been trees, meadows, the beach, an estuary, friends around the campfire--all the requirements fulfilled. And for the present trip, we had planned well, my buddy John and I, and worked out an interesting route based on an earlier bike trip he had made in the same area; and I had bought the luggage I'd needed as well as some food and the little doodads that come in handy when you're camping out. The bike was broken in and comfortable, so it was with no sense of disquiet that I saddled up early on the appointed morning to begin the first stage of the trip, a twenty mile run to John's studio in the San Fernando Valley. Perhaps I should have taken the fact that I started an hour early as a sign from the unconscious: I wanted to be on hand ahead of time in case John needed any "inspiration" to get ready. But then, all of my friends have been lateniks all my life, so I am a bit cynical about their early starts. To me, the morning is the best part of the day.
And so it proved to be that day: in the light of a clear summer dawn, even the streets of Hollywood can look good. The first rays of the sun brushed delicately across the pavement as I turned onto the broad deserted reach of Vine Street, and the air was still cool and fresh-smelling at that hour, with no cars about to spoil it. I passed a homeless man asleep on a bus bench, with his shopping carts drawn about him like a coterie of protective worshippers; I passed through the inexplicably famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, where a trio of pale, dazed tourists craned their necks, searching for the magic; I passed down side streets lined with courtyard motels whose parking lots were filled with old El Caminos and Impalas and discarded diapers; and in the cool and swelling golden light it did not seem as awful as it should have, but only normal and a little sad--which perhaps is what it really is. You are more present in the world on a bicycle than in any other vehicle: everything is right there, no farther than the other side of your skin.
You are more present in geography as well. Just out of Hollywood, I started on the short, steep upgrade of Cahuenga Pass. Despite the weight of luggage on the bike, the climb was easy, and I was able to stay in my usual gears for that route. Cool air came down from the hillsides, drying my sweat and bringing the resinous odors of the chaparral. In only a few minutes, I was over the top and on Ventura Boulevard, with the Hollywood Hills, which I had just passed over, on my left, and the great redundant grid of Valley streets hidden under treetops to my right. A half hour of pedaling brought me to John's studio in an alley across from an Irish bar. Traffic noises filtered in from the awakened streets. Pigeons walked along the cinderblock eaves. John was nowhere to be seen.
I leaned the Bridgestone against John's front window and admired it while I waited. Once in a while someone shuffled by, aimless as the birds. I felt the first hint of the heat of the coming day and was glad I had come early: I thought that maybe I could persuade John to leave ahead of schedule.
You see, I have always been an optimist.
John arrived a few minutes after our official departure time. Driving a pickup truck and wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. He was, in fact, not quite ready. He was, in fact, not ready at all. In fact, he hadn't even had breakfast. So we stowed my bike in the office and went to the coffee shop at the end of the alley, where my buddy John proceeded to fill himself up with a very large portion of fried corned beef hash and eggs.
We were about to set off on a trip involving seven hours of aerobic activity. I had my first intimation that perhaps not everything would go smoothly.
Over breakfast I was informed that "we" would have to put a new tire on John's bike, and that "we" would have to copy the map pages at the nearby printshop, and that perhaps "we" could take care of that while John finished some phone calls left over from last night. "We" took care of that, and made a few minor adjustments on a bike that had not been ridden in two years, and then helped John look for the saddlebags, which had not been seen in as long a time. John then squeezed himself into a baby blue riding outfit that brazenly showed off the potbelly the flannel shirt had so discreetly hidden, and after a preparatory smearing with sunblock, we mounted up and were on our way. Eastward, in fact, though our course lay to the west. It seems that John's tire gauge was broken, and we must hie ourselves to his favorite gas station to finish filling the new tire. Of course, the gauge there was not so much broken as nonexistent, so John guessed at the pressure, and we set off again, this time in the right direction.
We had gone about three miles when a sudden loud noise occurred which, this being Los Angeles, I at first assumed was a gunshot. A quick look at John's wobbling posterior educated me, however: the new tire had exploded. We found a shady spot by a fence, cleared away the newspapers and old beer cans, and reviewed the situation. The tire, it seemed, was salvageable. The tube, it seemed, was landfill. Fortunately, "we" had persuaded John to keep the old tube, which was a nice, thick, unwieldy thornproof. "We" took great pleasure in watching John struggle to cram it into a one-inch Michelin. After a while, wherein I enjoyed a much-unneeded rest, the task was done, and, once again, we set off on our way.
Slowly but surely--or perhaps I should just say, slowly--we climbed the approaches to the Santa Susana Pass in the west end of the Valley. It was about six miles from John's office to the beginning of the pass, so I suppose we were lucky we had to stop only once to replenish John's water supply. Finally we came into a country of steep hillsides broken by great thrusts of rounded stone, very popular with rock climbers and, from the evidence, drinkers of Bud Light. At the end of a short steep climb was the turnoff to the pass. I waited there for John, watching the crows circle in the heat above the rocks. By the time he arrived and the light changed, we had been joined by a shirtless kid on a mountain bike. We set off together. For the first time that day, I was on a two-lane road with no other traffic on it.
To be precise, within a few minutes I was riding with no other traffic on the road, including bicycles. I went along in silence, rarely hearing anything other than the sibilances of my tires and chain, a crow call now and then, the skitter of a startled lizard on the bank by the road. The sky was a fierce vast blue, and though it was barely noon the heat lay on the brown land heavily. Once or twice I stopped in the shade of a scrub oak and sipped some water. In the gully by the side of the road there was the smell of moisture and a glimmer of green leaves. Elsewhere there were only the dry stalks of summerkilled grasses and the dark, self-shadowing oaks. The road wound steeply toward the crest, and I eventually dropped into my lowest gear but one out of twenty-one. A few yards short of the crest I stopped in a spot of shade and waited for John.
And waited and waited.
The shirtless kid made his appearance first, pushing his mountain bike around the bend. When he pulled up by me I inquired after John, and he said that Yes, he was still alive last time he saw him. This gave me confidence, and I pulled out a snack to eat while I waited. Eventually a spot of baby blue came round the bend, also--needless to say--pushing a bike, and inched its way up to where I stood. The sweat dripped from his golden ringlets, and his mouth hung open like that of a poisoned catfish. He didn't, he explained breathlessly, think he could make it. He had better, he reasoned, turn around. He was, he declaimed abjectly, sorry.
We had gone twenty miles together from his studio.
After he caught his breath, we rode the last few yards to the crest of the pass. The road before me dropped away in wide, sweeping turns to a valley crowded with red tile rooftops. John and I talked a few minutes; he told me what he remembered from his last trip that way. Then we mounted our bikes and went downhill, he eastward toward home, and I westward. The road was smooth and black with new asphalt, and the bike tracked more steadily under its heavy load than it would have stripped. Near the bottom of the hill I stopped at a little beige office building--a structure reminiscent of the elementary school bungalows I remember from my childhood--and I filled my bottles with spring water they were giving away as samples. The road then plunged quickly to the flat valley floor, and I spent the next hour or so grinding into a headwind as I passed block after block of deserted sidewalks and beige cinderblock walls that protected the stucco housing developments whose roofs I had seen from high up on the pass. This was Simi Valley, the capital of middle-class conservatism in the county: a place where people drive their sealed and air-conditioned cars from their underground office parking directly to their attached garages, whence they enter directly to the house without touching outside air. The wall on my right seemed endless, broken only by occasional sidestreets that rose toward the hills between their own beige banks of cinderblock. At length I passed under a freeway and was suddenly in open country, following a two-lane between fields of corn and lettuces, with a stream beside the road for several miles. Little houses behind white-rail fences, here and there a horse: only the steady headwind kept it from being a perfect ride. The road wound eventually out of the foothills and onto the sloping plain that led to the sea.
US 101 gleamed in to near distance; the ceaseless motion of its shining cars, confined as they were in its narrow channel, seemed a parody of the tumble of river-water. Far off in the haze, over an indiscernible horizon, the light of the lowering sun shone back from the sea, filling the sky with whiteness. I passed over the freeway on a bridge and found myself among the dusty plowed fields of Oxnard, where railroad tracks and irrigation ditches ran beside the road, while dusty double trailer trucks groaned by me on the narrow lane. Barbed wire fenced in the strawberries, tractors bumped and bumbled under clouds of dust; in the greener fields longs rows of Mexicans bent double over baskets, while their overseers stood, arms folded, in the heat behind them. Once, an oil refinery stood suddenly up out of a field, all tall tanks and silver tubes. California agriculture does not look much like the pictures in my grade-school books.
I stopped for a snack at a little kiosk by a barren intersection as loud and busy as any in L.A. The clerk inside watched television in the breeze made by a portable fan. We made small talk for a while, and he told me about the accidents that had taken place there recently. While we talked, an El Camino, frustrated with the wait at the light, cut out of line and roared across the tarmac in front of the kiosk. I bought a quart of orange juice and sat by the bike to drink it. After twenty minutes in the narrow shade outside, I got back on the bike and started on the last leg of the first day's ride. I came upon Oxnard rather suddenly: a ditch, a fence, a mini-mall, and then I was in a little town; a few minutes more of pedaling, and I was in the fields again. I could smell the sea now, and I felt less tired. Soon I turned onto Harbor Boulevard, the ocean just beyond the trees on my left hand. There was still plenty of day left, and I relaxed. When I came to a break in the trees and saw the sign, I knew I was there: McGrath State Beach.
"Campground Full," it said.
Fortunately, the State of California has been gracious, or perhaps distracted, enough to provide most of its campgrounds with an area reserved for those who travel on foot or by bicycle, and which, this being the domain of the automobile, is usually empty. Three bucks bought me the right to camp out in a round meadow otherwise occupied only by robins and crows, and only a short hike from the showers, to which I hurried as soon as the tent was up. Nothing else I could think of at that moment could have surpassed the pleasure of washing off the sunblock, sweat, and road grit of a seventy-five mile ride. Then--the air being cooler by the sea--I put on my jeans and wandered about the campground for a look.
Something felt strange: as if I had entered a world where everything looked the same but something was missing, something left unsaid. Then I realized: everything did look the same. Nearly everyone was white and blond; women and girls all wore pastels, men and boys dressed in polyester polo shirts. Big cars abounded, accompanied by vast, spotless trailers or slab-sided motorhomes. Trunks and tailgates disgorged lawn chairs, Labradors, three-burner Colemans, styro coolers too big for just one man to handle; generators muttered in the recesses of metal walls, while televisions chirped the early news behind the plexi portholes of the Winnebagos. Screaming children chased each other across the meadow, the boys on Huffy mountain bikes, some of the girls in starched and frilly dresses; the robins scattered and hid in the trees. As the daylight faded, gas lanterns appeared--the family nearest me had two on their picnic table, when one would have easily lit up a circle of forty feet. And then, as night fell and the bugs came out and one tired bicyclist got into his sleeping bag, the tape decks started--the bane of every road camp I have stopped in for the last twelve years. Disco on one side; Jesus ballads on the other. On and on, till late into the night: the day had another name before I slept.
I woke to the shuddering roar of a helicopter flying low overhead. This actually was not as bad as it sounds, for I am a Los Angeles boy, and the sound of circling helicopters in the night is no stranger to me than the sound of your refrigerator is to you. Once I was awake enough to remember where I was, though, I decided, out of curiosity, to investigate. A short walk out to Harbor Boulevard enlightened me: it was a crop duster, taking advantage of the still air of dawn to make a few passes over the fields beyond the road. Two rows and then refill his tanks; two rows and then refill this tanks--the rhythm of modern agriculture. I passed fifteen minutes watching him spray poison on tomorrow's salad for Farmer Brown, Inc., and then went back to camp. I ate while the sun dried the tent, and then packed up. I had agreed to meet someone at home at five o' clock, and I did not want to have to hurry back. By eight I was on the road.
The route John and I had mapped took me through Oxnard a different way, alongside the Navy installations, and out past the usual borderland of mini-malls and strawberry fields to some hills. Once I left the city, the road was nearly deserted again. It wound between the foothills and a series of small truck farms, strawberries again, or sometimes tomatoes, until it passed the famous mental hospital at Camarillo. Now, if I had know what was ahead of me in the next few hours, I would have checked myself in on the spot for even considering the ride. But ignorance is bliss, goes the old saying--only it doesn't specify how briefly. The road suddenly jogged to the head of a canyon, turned right, and went directly up a cliff face at an angle that would have daunted an F-15. Well, I said to myself, I have plenty of gears. So up I went.
And I needed every damn gear I had.
Fortunately, the climb was shorter than it seemed. After half a mile or so of heavy exertion, I reached a point where the road turned into a narrow but fairly level upper canyon. I stopped for a sip and a breath and looked back over the fields that sloped down to the sea. The sun shone on me warmly. The cloud cover seemed to have stopped nearly exactly where the hills began. I felt good and started up again. A few turns into the upper canyon, I came upon a double-century rider huddled by his bike in a patch of shade. We exchanged the usual bits of information that two riders would who met in the middle of nowhere, including the news that, from what he'd heard, only the last mile or two of the climb was really bad.
I looked up the road. It wound innocently up the canyon and disappeared around the brown shoulder of a hill. High above and far beyond was an irregular bare line where the bulk of the earth was silhouetted against the sky. Close at hand were the listless sycamores in the dry wash by road, the reverberant asphalt, the beige-brown clods of earth, and always the growing heat of the sky. The double-century rider was crouched in the shade by his stripped-down sport triple. I was sweating standing in the sun to talk with him. The day wouldn't get any cooler nor the hills less steep by waiting. I took my leave and started up the road.
The best I can say for myself is that, at least, I never had to get off the bike and push. But when you have a twenty-seven inch low gear, baggage or no baggage, that's not a big brag. I was standing on the pedals most of the time, and stopping every fifty yards to catch my breath. And the road stayed on the shady side of the canyon. To say it was a steep climb would be to understate the diabolical cruelty of its designers: the road would have been steep to walk up--in fact, if it had been a sidewalk, it probably would have had steps. Even the sag wagons for the double-century were wailing and groaning up the hill in their lowest gears. Add to that the heat, which tightened round you like a straitjacket--well, I was not too proud to accept a share of water from the sag wagon when I finally reached the top. I drank as much as I could and filled my bottles, then I shared the last of my dried fruit with the other riders resting there. Everyone was incredulous about my luggage load and wondered why I would have chosen to haul it up this particular route. But I hadn't, of course.
No, my original plan had been to go down Potrero Road to the sea, and then to go home along the Pacific Coast Highway, a road mostly level and cooled by the ocean breeze. It was my buddy John who agitated for the inland route, mostly, I suspect, because his office happened to lie right along it. John, who had gone home seventy miles ago.
Never was a wish more fervently wished than the "Wish you were here" I sent him in my mind.
But the climb had its rewards. The top of the climb represented not a crest but the edge of a broad highland where the roads, at first, stayed level or sloped down. On either side wide pastures reached from white rail fences by the road to low hills in the hazy distance. Horses and, occasionally, cows grazed in the knee-high grass, and every few miles a pretentious manor house would make its appearance amid a stand of oaks at the end of a long, shady driveway. I could keep my speed up with not too much effort, so the breeze I made kept me cool and I could enjoy the serenity of the scene. Presently, the highlands narrowed, and trees began to shade the road, which turned more as it wound around the low hills that were gradually crowding it. The road climbed again, and suddenly--it must have passed a ridgeline which I had barely noticed it the gradual approach--the hills became steeper, rockier, and drier, the trees fewer, and the air much hotter. Here the road climbed up and down steeply, and I was changing from the lowest to the highest gears and back within every mile. Here I noticed an interesting phenomenon: I was passing the double-century riders on the uphills, despite my load, and they were repassing me on the descents. I suppose it was simply because I had lower low gears than they did and so could spin--if you could call it that--more efficiently on the climbs. I didn't go fast on the descents because I preferred to look at the scenery than to wonder whether I was going to die at the next sharp turn.
As it turned out, I should have worried more about dying on the climbs. Yes, there were more of them: for every time the road went down, it went back up again anon. True enough, every time it went up, it went back down again eventually. But one thing that went up and stayed up was the temperature. The road climbed and fell, climbed and fell, winding around bare sandstone hills that reflected the sun's heat back onto the road and trapped every breeze and choked it among the dry wisps of dead grass that fuzzed the slopes. I stopped in the shade of every oak, often in company of a couple of the double-century riders, until finally the way descended to the level of the Ventura Freeway and the painted-looking lawns of Calabasas. I rode, smeared and sweaty, past more throngs of pastel blondes, crossing the parking lots from their gleaming Buicks and Aerostars to the cool safety of the malls. I stopped--feeling like an intruder--at an AM-PM for a cool drink, and then worked my way slowly over another couple of steep ascents to Woodland Hills. Half an hour later, I stopped at another AM-PM for a cool drink, and guzzled a quart as I sat in the shade by the gaspumps watching my bike. People were looking at me oddly, a phenomenon that continued for as long as I rode through the Valley. I attributed it, at first, to my tie-dyed rainbow jersey, which I wear because it's so obnoxiously bright that, if you can't see it, you are too blind to be driving a car. Later on, around about Encino, I credited the jersey for the thumbs-ups and cheers I was occasionally getting--people were no doubt thanking me for brightening their day a little with it. It wasn't till I checked the weather report the next day that I realized it wasn't because of the jersey at all: it was because I had been plugging along through the San Fernando Valley, on a bicycle loaded down like a Dust Bowl refugee flatbed, at two in the afternoon in July, and it was one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit that day--and probably hotter down at street level where I was.
There was one more pass between me and home, but I didn't even count it as a climb after what I'd just been through. The air got cooler as I neared Hollywood, which is on the seaward side of the hills, and I felt stronger and rode harder. By the time I was in Hollywood itself, I was moving right along and felt almost chilly, though a storefront thermometer showed ninety. Soon I was back on Vine Street, which looked bleak and nervous now under the blank white sky, crowded with the stiff lumps of cars and pedestrians like little black smears. As I came down the hills, it all enlarged into familiarity: the heavy faces of the poor at bus stops, waiting in the heat; the dirty, agitated men pushing their shopping carts, the sun-dazed tourists...I rolled on down the street, unnoticed and uncheered here in the town where the bizarre is normal; rolled on down, freewheeling, past the seedy hotels and the musicians' union and my supermarket to the concrete Jesus across from the Radio Shack, where I turned left and picked up the same route I ride home from work four days a week; and then the bike was leaned against familiar clapboard and, by golly, I was home.
After padlocking the bike in the garage and the garage behind its gate--this is Hollywood, friends--I headed for the shower. I left the unpacking for later. I thought of calling John, to let know I'd got back safely. But I was afraid I might also let him know what I thought of him right then. So I just lay back and rested one hot and tired corpse for a good long hour. In fact, I thought about making it two hours, but then the doorbell rang.
It was one of the guys from work, the one I'd arranged to meet when I got back. He was bringing his old tandem, which I'd agreed to restore. I went with him to his van. There, couched in ratty blankets, was the sickliest near-cadaver of a two-wheeler you could imagine--caked grease, rust holes, and a thick icing of garage dust marked the spot where a bicycle ought to have been. I looked down at it.
The perfect trophy for the winner of the Tour de Fiasco.