Sierra Cascades – Mt. San Bernadino to LA
3 July – San Bernadino Mountain
The hubs howl like two angry schoolchildren as they push 800 revolutions per minute; dry, stony desert unfolds below while I plummet down San Jacinto Mountain towards Banning. The town lies three thousand feet below and sprawls over the low, flat ground, hugging the earth as though someway down offers respite from the burning sun.
As I descend it is as though someone slips on the thermostat. Cool gusts turn to hot blasts of air, like the stuff that hits you in the face when you open the oven door too hastily to check on a long-forgotten pizza and reaching the bottom is like standing up in a dry sauna. Sunlight strong-arms the rules of physics, acquires mass and weight, then sits heavily on me. I squirm.
After a long, ill-timed break in air-conditioned Walmart I summon the willpower to venture on and emerge into the worst of the mid-afternoon heat. My tires seem to bond with the tarmac and my rubber grips, tacky even when it’s cold, have turned into two jumbo pritt sticks. My head pounds and no amount of warm water will hydrate me. Each tree-shadow reached is a milestone and occasion to stop, soak my hat and scratch the salt from my lenses. Then I check my pitiful progress on the gps and feel sorry for myself.
Am I being melodramatic? It’s the heat.
Once I’m out of town it’s along Mill Creek into the San Gorgonio Mountains. I am working my way up a deep gorge and rock-faces loom over me (though don’t quite block out the sun) left and right but the waterway running through the bottom today is just a stream picking it’s way over a rocky bed. Despite still winds and only a modest incline it feels like I’m cycling through marmite and by the time I make the 2000’ climb to the turnoff that will carry me up the mountain I am thoroughly knackered. I couldn’t last another minute back there, let alone on this road bounding up the mountain face, so I fold up the Brompton, stick out my thumb and wait. Hitchhiking? That’s cheating! Well, it doesn’t matter because after fifty minutes and dozens of cars passed I give up, unfold B and activate my secret weapon; EDM. The bass taps some sort of carnal reserve of adrenaline and I fly up that mountain on the wings of Whitesquare and Claptone. I have not experienced a second wind like this during a day of cycling since two years ago, when I closed on Land’s End with a face flushed with rushing blood, my heartbeat in my ears and the tires eating the Cornish climbs as if the rubber hungered for them. I race up the curving mountain road for two hours as the sun dips before pulling my bike up a forrested bank to a shelf littered with pine cones. They are of a small variety but sharp and would puncture my matt so I relocate. As I’m laying out my things again a loud hooting startles me. I look up and an owl is sitting on a low branch just fifteen feet away, scrutinising me with its head cocked impossibly. I scrutinise her back and after a long while she spreads her wings and swoops low over me, looking for smaller prey I expect.
4 July – Silverwood Lake
The light of dawn reveals spider-webs scattered across the forest-floor, like strewn doyles. Have I wandered into Shelob’s lair? I don’t stick around to find out. There’s climbing to be done. Tiny chipmunks dart across the road and woodpeckers do their thing as I make my up. The air is cool at first so I button up and tuck in my shirt until I’m under the sun.
Where the trees thin the ground is carpeted with tall, silvery bushes of sage. Crushed between my fingers it has a strong, vitalising scent. The road tops out at Onyx Summit, 8400’ (2600m) up – the highest I have climbed so far. From there it is down to the town of Big Bear – I am in bear country now, though only black bears live in these woods (the least dangerous of North American bears). The town sits on Big Bear Lake, a reservoir created by a dam, and 4th July holidaymakers are out in full force, swimming, boating and jetskiing. Traffic is heavy on the roads.
At a recreation area (an area off the road with picnic benches and public loos) I have a long conversion with a group of park rangers. They are passionate and need little prompting to share their deep knowledge of the Californian wilderness. The huge, spiky pine cones I found earlier belong to the Coulter pine and are the largest pine cones in the world. The Jeffrey pines have smaller cones with rounded tips – ‘gentle Jeffreys’ – and the Ponderosa have elongated cones, yet to fall – I have seen them hanging from the tips of their branches like Christmas tree decorations. Their resins have different smells too, discernable if you sniff the bark in direct sunlight. They range from vanilla, to chocolate, to butterscotch, I am told. I will need to do by own research.
Beyond the lake lies the Rim Of The World Highway. It is the most magnificent road I have ever cycled; a ribbon thrown across the tip of the San Gorgonio range. I feeo like I am in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park, on a helicopter sweeping through forrested mountains rolling to the horizon, all cast in golden relief by the low evening sun. Returning me to the present is the sight of LA, so far below that it is dyed deep blue like the sky above.
The road savours its journey, taking its time at a steady grade and curving along the flank of the mountains before dropping towards the city. I turn right and northwards instead, to cross the spine and descend to Silverwood Lake on the other side. There is a campsite there which I have read has a hiker/biker policy. The day is almost done, however, and I must rush to make it before dark. No fear! The descent is precipitous, not like those I’ve met so far. It plummets and twists violently so that I must stop now and again to let my rims cool from the braking. Once I lean too far into a turn and the pedal grinds the tarmac with a screech and throws me upright again. I imagine sparks flew but I did not look down to check.
Several rough camping spots look promising on verges above the road but I am torn – rush to the lake to reach the legitimate campsite before they close or take the time to investigate alternatives? I have always enjoyed bicycle travel alone. I enjoy the freedom of setting my own pace and doing what I want, when I want. That freedom can become stressful too though. After a long time alone it is nice to follow another’s lead and allow whatever happens to happen.
I climb and investigate but none are suitable. Cattails, pieces of spiky, dried grass, break off and cover my shoes and socks like a dog that has investigated a porcupine too closely. They are infuriating.
The grade relaxes and the road straightens as I approach the lake and I am glad to make it to the ranger’s office before they close. They point me down the road towards the campsite but I miss my turning and follow a long switchback down to a marina on the water. A big man in a big truck gives me directions, finishing, “You can’t miss it!”
“… can’t miss it again?”
He laughs and it about to drive off when he offers me a lift. Yes please! I jump on the back with the Brompton, sit on a cooler and cling on while he throws quick turns and revvs suddenly to throw by balance. His young daughters giggle in the back seat and take photos. “Next stop LA!”, he jokes.
After he drops me off I find the hiker/biker section and make camp, laying out my bag al fresco as usual. There are no other travellers here tonight. 4th July fireworks sound continuously in the distance but none are allowed in the wilderness due to risk of fire – warnings signs have been all over the roads for days. Sounds of celebration drift from the main campgrounds but it is dark now and I’m too late to angle for an invitation to another party’s campfire so I drink a miniature bottle of whisky I was gifted a few days back and feel a bit lonely.
5 July – Angeles Crest
Sunrise over Silverwood Lake is beautiful. The water reflects the warm hues like a mirror and hummingbirds and bees buzz about pollinating flowers.
Down a craggy, fractured landscape I descend into the desert again. It is drier this time and few plants dare rise taller than the brush. The exception is the agaves, which have returned. Here, their blooms are in various stages of development. Some still hang with green seed pods – not peppers as I had mistaken them for earlier – while others still bear the last of their flowers, white and yellow blazes rising high into the air. To bloom and procreate is the agaves final act and many here are dried and dead now, scorched black by the sun with pods cracked and seeds dispersed. Others yet are uprooted and toppled, hang bent or are twisted in bizarre corkscrew shapes.
Lone Pine Canyon road rises up and up in a straight line, its course unwavering. Sandstone boulder stacks hide imaginary bandits and I’m easy prey as I tire and push my bike for an hour. I joked about tarmac melting yesterday; here a patch actually has become sticky and glues itself to my tires, picking up pebbles as they roll. Eventually I rise out of the desert and pines begin to appear as I reach Wrightwood. After a snack lunch it is on up the Angeles Crest Highway to 2400m. The views are again magnificent with LA lying far below. I pass ski-lifts and pick my way between rocks that have tumbled down the steep escarpments to one side while panoramic views unfold on the other. The air is cool but up here the sun is even fiercer and I realise too late that the backs of my knees and tops of my ears have become painfully burnt.
Conditions must be ideal for the agave, though, because the plant is larger and greener than those in the desert and their blooms reach up to 15’. They cling to the rock face like anemones to the seabed – and their leaves don’t just look spiky, I find out when I skewer my leg on one. The manzanita grows upwards here to compete with the trees and begins to bare fruit that look like little apples – manzana is Spanish for apple.
The road rises and falls, rises and falls as it picks its way across the southern then the northern flank of the mountains. It is hungry work but I am carrying no food and, to my dismay, the only restaurant on the highway is shut by the time I reach it. I descend into the trees to check if a campground has a store but it does not even have an office – you post the fee in a box. I am surprised by how lush it is down here. A carpet of ferns soak up and light that makes it through the canopy, borne fifty metres up by these towering pines. I rise back to the road and continue; I am ravenous and exhausted now but it looks as though the nearest shops will be in LA, still another 20 miles to its outskirts and then I’d have to find a place to stay. There isn’t time before dark. I pull into a Chilao Campground – another unattended one – and beg for food instead. The first two couples have nothing to offer. Third time lucky! A Mexican/Ecuadorian family agree to feed me and the grandmother fires up the grill. A heap of chicken and ribs on top of rice, with salsa and a cream soda – I was only hoping for some spare biscuits or a tin of beans! I try not to wolf it down like an animal and fail; nothing is so delicious as simple food seasoned with hunger.
There are three generations here and I help the son-in-law roll what seems like most of a large tree into the fire pit. The grandfather tells me that the trunk has been ravaged by Pine Beetles. An epidemic in California, they burrow through the wood and release fungal spores that block the waterways inside the tree and cause it to wilt and die. After years of drought many of the weakened pines are no longer able to fend against them.
He tells me of the 2008 wildfires too, the worst since the turn of the century. The California National Guard were called in and firefighters flown from all over the country, Canada and Australia but still 1.3 million acres were razed. The smoke and fire could be seen from space. Life here was all-but-eradicated but it is beginning to recover. Pine cones pop from heat to release their seeds and the manzanita sends new shoots climbing up it’s old, burnt branches. I have seen bees and butterflies, squirrels and chipmunks. I saw a coral snake (though squashed) and a beetle that looked just like a mint humbug. Perhaps it was an actual humbug.
He does not ask me about Brexit, which is nice. A week ago it would be the first thing people would ask after they heard my accent but I suppose they have lost interest now. When I first set off I was anxious that I would not be able to follow the aftermath but now I am honestly glad to be ignorant. It is too dreadful to cope with at the moment.
6 July – LA
I coast down Mt. Hoyt to La Canada Flintridge. Several cyclists are up early and climbing the other way. The motorcyclists that love these roads, sometimes whole gangs of them on Harleys, seem to get up later. Before the road enters the suburb there is a lane of sand pits in the middle of the road for truck drivers to steer into in case their brakes fail.
I scav wifi from a Starbucks and find on Hostel World a place called Stay on Main. A skim of the reviews reveals it is a hotel with some rooms converted to dorms. One mentions a “dark history” but I assume it would be some silly ghost stories. It is on Main Street, in the downtown area and competitively priced, though they are all expensive. I cycle through the city (terrible roads!) and check in.
It is not until later I think to google the “dark history” of the place. It turns out to be quite real and unsavoury, including two serial killers living here and one guest committing suicide by jumping out of a window only to take out a pedestrian below as well. The most recent case, however, was that of Elisa Lamb in 2013. Mysteriously, in a state of delerium she managed to climb onto the roof, into the water tank and drown. She was only found when the guests began complaining that the water tasted funny and was coming out of the taps brown. Note to self: never drink brown tap water. It’s not surprising that after all this the place has rebranded itself with a new frontage but the old Hotel Cecil signs still hang higher up the building.
7 July – LA
Rest day! Or not so restful after all as I cycle up to Hollywood and then to the top of Mount Lee, looking out over the city from behind the famous sign. I walk the Walk of Fame to the Chinese Theatre and catch a bus to Venice. The beach is filled with public facilities – a skate park, basketball courts, an outdoor gym – and alternative types looking exactly how I’d expected. There is a great atmosphere and sense of community spirit, despite the heavy tourism. The Venice Canals are beautiful and like an architect’s playground. I have eaten my way around the city – french-dip sandwhiches, fish tacos, chicken & waffles – bring on the carbs.
I find another place to stay the night. Not just for the history of the last – the location too. I thought that near the city centre would be a bustling area but it was not. It was rundown, many shopfronts were empty and the streets full of homeless people. This seems to be a big problem in the city. Some streets have rows of tents and shopping trolleys full of belongings in them. My new location is not much better though. I am told the 18th Street Gang formed just a couple of blocks from here. An older woman in the hostel frets over whether the bangs outside are fireworks or gunshots.