I am greeted with an unfamiliar sight this morning: ice on the trail. True, it’s not unheard of for Southern California to have frost from time to time but this makes two days in a row that I’ve had to deal with such bitter temperatures on my morning ride. Ok, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that my use of “bitter” is sarcastic – you know I love cold weather and this morning is no different. I suck in the cool air of the trailhead and blow an almost invisible vapor ring into the dry dawn atmosphere. I guess I can make do with 30 degree air.
I slowly begin to climb into the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains up a trail I’ve ridden many times over the past few years. I know this trail like the back of my hand – every scar, hangnail and wrinkle. It has become second nature to do this ride before going to work so the only unusual aspect of these past two mornings has been the remarkable clarity and almost unlimited visibility that has accompanied the passage of the last rainstorm. However, instead of lending perspective to my view the clarity has only been surreal in its focus. I’m not quite sure what to make of this strange world.
From Dana Point to Catalina Island to beyond downtown Los Angeles and everything in between the coast is drawn out before me as clearly as a map on the wall. The only limit to my visibility is the horizon and the snow capped mountains that ring the LA basin to my north. The suffocating marine layer along the coast and the brown tide of smog emanating from LA is nowhere to be found today. I’ve come to appreciate these mornings as some of my favorite moments in California and could give a crap if it’s considered “cold” by most people around here. At least I can breathe! I draw another breath and exhale into the chill. This is flavor country.
Climbing higher, the first rays of sun peek over the horizon as a sleepy child from the top of the stairs on Christmas morning: tentatively at first, then suddenly bursting with enthusiasm. The atmosphere warms quickly in this gift of a benign winter climate. As with shreds of Christmas wrapping paper in the recycling bin on December 26th, I can only speculate how beautiful this area was before it was touched by the hands of mankind. Of course today spread out below me are sprawling industrial parks, distant high-rises and nautilus arrays of little pink houses (for you and me) that dot the landscape below me. Luckily the trail turns away from civilization and into the National Forest just up ahead so I can divert my attention from the urban sprawl for a bit.
The trail rocks and rolls downhill near the mouth of a canyon before traversing a finger of land that separates the two drainages. Somewhat tentatively I begin a steep ascent that I haven’t felt good climbing for years. I just can’t seem to make my power to weight ratio work on this climb. So to distract myself from thoughts of how I used to fly up this climb when i was younger, my mind begins to wander once again. It’s always nice to let the brain escape and play passenger for a while on climbs like this while the legs and lungs do the dirty work of propulsion.
While the cardiovascular system fights it out with gravity on the climb, I imagine what was here before the all-devouring machine of civilization chewed through this fertile earth. I see herds of pronghorn antelope on the savannas of flowing grasses and wildflowers and the coastal marshes and sycamore-lined arroyos with condors and eagles soaring in the skies above. I see grizzly bears lumbering through the plains below. Today of course only the bones of the hills and mountains remain to reveal the skeleton of what was once a grand ecosystem replaced by an altogether different system that pulses frenetically through the veins and arteries of freeways and streets like so many malignant cells. Sensing a similar kind of urgency, my legs begin to scream for attention.
Reaching the top of the climb I pause and reflect for a moment, trying to buoy my mood a little from the dark thoughts of my own malignant car-habit (I really need to take the train to work more often). One last moment of reflection before I reap the gravity fueled reward of a singletrack descent back to the trailhead.
It’s fleeting moments like this that I live for, not that life that I lead fighting traffic on those congested freeways below. On days like this I’m not even sure who I am and what I am doing rushing to return back to the tapestry of reality spread out below me. All I know is that the trail is flowy and the surface is grippy from the rain. I’m a lucky man to be up here taking in this view on such a gorgeous day. I just wish that I could somehow make the scene festive and sprinkle all those towns down below with snow and plant a Christmas tree in the middle so I could run a toy train through them. Yes, the surreality of clarity strikes once again.
Emptying my brain of all thoughts but this, I fly down the trail as if on rails.