There is a mountain bike loop out in the high desert above Palm Springs, CA that I’ve been riding for years now. Strung together from a few suggestions in a guidebook it starts near the town of Pinyon, drops down to meet the Palm Canyon trail at 3300 ft of elevation, then climbs to near the summit of 8700 ft Toro Peak on a long fire road. On the way back down from the summit, Sawmill Trail drops off a shoulder of the mountain on a twisty singletrack back to the trailhead which rests at 4500ft or so. It is one of the most diverse loops I ride and only an hour and a half from home at sea level in San Diego County. Several times a year I find myself at the trailhead straddling the netherworld between low desert below and the forests above as I head off into the scrub with my bike. This is my ride.
The first time I attempted this loop it really kicked my ass. The experience was so painful that I began referring to it as the “Death Ride” from that moment forward, even as I continued to undertake increasingly more ambitious expeditions into the mountains. The name stuck even as the memory of that first undertaking waned. Truthfully, this ride is not really that difficult once you get going – mostly it requires patience. I’ve learned two important lessons from this loop: (1) putting one foot in front of the other is essential and (2) when I get home I’m going to spend some time removing cactus spines from my hide.
I’ve almost always ridden this loop alone though for a while I tried to get people to join me for the journey. I talked up the beauty of its ever-changing landscapes. I even began referring to it as “The Super Happy Fun Ride” thinking the name was scaring people off. It didn’t work, so I continue to ride it solo. Sometimes you have to go it alone in order to get what you need from a ride.
One of my most memorable spins around this loop came during December of last year. I had rolled into the trailhead parking lot for a later start than normal, especially considering that a weather system was moving in and the days are somewhat short near the solstice. Looking up to the heights to which I would ascend in the next few hours, I decided to bring some extra clothes as a storm was gathering up high and snow was clearly lurking in the forest though which the Sawmill Trail descends.
The low altitude portion of this ride is a furnace in the summer. This is where the desert begins in the rain shadow of Mt Santa Rosa before descending into the cauldron of Palm Springs. The first 8-9 miles roam the contours of the terrain like the child that lives on in all of us despite the pressures of the world. Not willing to succumb to shades of gray he paints the world in vivid, primary colors. Then he goes and rides the hell out of his dorky drop bar bike into the gathering storm.
The trail momentarily turned toward the brooding heights where the storm was held back in frustration by the dry desert climate. The future of this ride lies in those dark clouds…
For the next several miles the trail steadily rose from the bowels of the canyon like a hawk soaring on a thermal. At times, the trail wound back upon itself and admired its coiled path like a cat cleaning its tail in the sunshine…
…then broke out onto Santa Rosa Truck Trail to begin its slog to the top. Usually by this point in the ride blood flows freely from my arms and legs as this ride tends to exact a toll due to the many pointy things found along the way – the price you pay for riding in the desert. But as I examined my arms and legs I found no wounds, only scars from previous rides. However, while looking down to examine my hide I rode directly into a thorn bush. To live is to endure a thousand cuts, but there are numerous puncture wounds as well. At least my tires still held air thanks to the Slime in my tubes though my body was forced to wait patiently for coagulation before becoming airtight once again.
Climbing into the clouds, the rainbow still lingered while holding onto the last vestiges of sunlight until reality intervened and wind shattered the silence. I had reached the storm. Almost an hour and a half since I began riding, the rainbow had not ceased as the approaching storm hit the mountainside and dispersed its moisture into the desert air while I wandered the land between forest and desert. The serious climbing began and the rainbow scurried for cover like ants from rubbing alcohol as the physics of the moment broke down. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say that as physics obviously still played a role, it just turned Newtonian as I pedaled my fat ass up the mountain.
The rain then began in earnest. As the road surface peanut buttered I jammed my way through the puddles and became coated in a thickening sandwich of muddy layers. Relentlessly, the road climbed upward into the frothy skim milk in the distance and I tried not to think of how hungry I suddenly was. Shades of gray returned to the middle aged man on the bike as he ground through the lunchtime slop of life… resigned to his lot like a cow out to pasture in the rain dreaming of dry hay… or peanut butter Clif Bars.
Grinding upward the rain turned to wet snow. The path became clear… yet surprisingly grimy. There was a LOT of work to be done here, especially when one considers how obvious the path is.
Eventually the dork bike ground to a halt. At this point all layers of clothing went on, the headlamp came out and the camera went away. It was time to get the hell off this mountain fast before I needed to activate my “Yuppie 911” (aka the Spot Tracker I carry when I ride alone) as this had all the earmarks of hypothermia if something went wrong. I pushed the bike the remainder of the distance to the singletrack as I couldn’t keep pedaling in the sodden snow. The falling rain turned to wet snow right around the top of Sawmill Trail and I descended as best I could in the slush. Skis would’ve been a better choice than a bike as I half-fell, half-rode and fully-cursed my way down the steep trail while scrubbing with breakneck speed all of the beautiful elevation I had patiently gained on the slow climb. Is this what’s on the other side of the rainbow?
At some point on the descent the rain stopped, the snows melted and cactus once again reigned supreme. Spat back out in the desert near the trailhead I finished the ride mildly shellshocked in that twilight world that exists between day and night, yet a smile slowly crept onto the edges of my face. Perhaps next time I try and talk someone into joining me for this ride I’ll tell them about the rainbows, the peanut butter sandwiches and mortality. On second thought, maybe I’ll just stick with riding it solo. But whatever I do, I’ll never try explaining how my bike earned the name Kermit.
Just in case you have the sudden urge to listen to a Muppet singing I’ll save you the keystrokes: