Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So this is SoCal

On Friday afternoon, I got in my car and headed south for more than seven hours — through the traffic-clogged corridor of the South Bay, into the dusty fields of the Central Valley, over parched hillsides north of Los Angeles, and through the palm tree boulevards of Pasadena. Darkness set in, and my route climbed up and up this narrow highway called "Rim of the World." A thick fog enveloped the sky, ice slicked the road, and suddenly there were several inches of new snow draped over granite boulders and pine trees. Huh? What is this place?

 My friends from the Canadian Rockies — Keith and Leslie — have been in the state for several weeks. Leslie has been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and Keith has been vagabonding around southern California, vaguely training for a summer tour on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. His friend Amber was flying out from Montana this weekend, and Keith invited me to join them for a SoCal bikecation. The timing was good, as I'd been meaning to make a trip to Orange County to visit my sister and her baby daughter, my new niece.

"Sure," I said. I wanted to visit Keith, and I like to ride bikes. I proposed Idyllwild, as that's the only place in Southern California with which I have any trail familiarity. Plans shifted when a friend of Keith's offered up his cabin on Big Bear Lake. The resort town in the San Bernardino Mountains is stone's throw from Los Angeles. And 6,800 feet higher.

The snow fell fast and fierce on Friday. But in true Southern California fashion, it had mostly melted by Saturday, giving way to a beautiful, sunny, hero dirt day. This would be the beginning of a bike (and running!) binge weekend that left me gasping for air and reduced me to a wheezy, congested mess in three days — but with a newfound appreciation for this island of quietness surrounded by ten million people.

 We rode some singletrack and climbed to the top of Grey's Peak, at about 8,000 feet elevation. The pace remained mellow, and we took long breaks to take in the scenery and have multiple lunches.

 Amber went over the bars and was grateful for patches of snow to ice her knee.

 Although biking has been my main training focus, I do have the Ohlone 50K on Sunday, and didn't want two weeks of single-digit mileage leading up to the race. So on top of the day rides, I put in evening trail runs. This was a ten-miler up to Grandview Point and back. The altitude was annihilating; for a route that only gains 1,200 feet in five miles, I felt like I was ascending a steep mountain in the Alps. Trying to inject more oxygen in my blood only left my throat raw and my lips parched. By the next day, I'd have a cold, heavy congestion, and a sore throat. Thanks, SoCal.

 On Sunday we connected with a small group ride from Bear Valley Bikes. When the only other people to show up turned out to be three talented racer types, I got a little panicked (those social anxieties and inferiority issues run deep when they're directly connected to my passions.) But they turned out to be genuinely nice folks who were stoked to show three tourists around their local trails, and rode alongside chatting amicably rather than racing ahead and waiting impatiently at all the intersections. We followed them through miles of snow and mud, and then afterward the shop's owner, Derek, invited us over to his place and cooked buffalo tacos with fresh guacamole. Awesome folks. Give them your business if you're ever in Big Bear Lake.

 The Skyline Trail — it's okay I guess.

 Sunday night, I headed out for another run. I was really breathing poorly at this point, and aimed for a lower section of the Pacific Crest Trail to avoid long climbs. This is height of hiker season around Big Bear Lake, and I saw a dozen thru-hikers on my eight-mile jaunt out and back. They were all just babies — fresh-faced kids just out of college if not high school. I suppose that makes sense. Not many 30-somethings are in a place in their lives to take off and go hiking for five months. I like to imagine thru-hiking a long-distance trail as something I'll do when I'm in my 60s or 70s. I'd love to be a solo old lady with unruly gray hair and a trucker cap, chiseled calves and my trusty trekking poles, and maybe a huge pair of pink Hokas if those are still a thing. Dare to dream.

 On Monday the three of us all set out to do our own thing. I wanted to get a long ride in, but I was really feeling rough at this point, with my congestion, the altitude, and maybe just a touch of overdoing it. Amber was joining the bike shop racers for an epic, but my social anxieties got the better of me and I declared myself not fit to chase them all day. Instead, I drew out a rough loop on a map, and hoped it would take me somewhere neat and maybe not too punishing.

My loop featured a spur up to Butler Peak, which I included because it was a high point on the map (8,500 feet.) As it turned out, the track was fenced off and there was this fantastic fire lookout at the top. It just sat there, perched precariously on a boulder, looking as though a single dislodged pebble could send it tumbling 200 feet down the rocky face. 

 Fire lookout view to the southeast.

 Fire lookout view to the northeast. The wind was ripping up here and it was, like all of the spots I visited in Southern California so far, not warm. I ate a quick lunch and scrambled down the rocks to my bike.

 The rest of my route was tough, sandy, and disconcertingly lonely. I wheezed my way up and down and up and down a long ridge of steep rollers, before descending down, down, down into Green Valley Lake. The entire community seemed comprised of second homes, and there was absolutely no one around on this early season Monday afternoon. There weren't any vehicles parked outside homes, no dogs barking, no signs of life. It had a post-apocalyptic feel that didn't improve as I turned onto another steep, rolling climb back into the mountains, churning up a sandy jeep road and seeing not a single other human for hours. Somewhere not far away live ten million people, and this whole place was eerily empty.

The loop ended up registering 54 miles with 6,700 feet of climbing, but admittedly was tougher for me than the stats would indicate. I am going to go ahead and blame altitude, and hope a return to oxygenated air and recovery from my cold leaves me in better shape for the Ohlone 50K on Sunday. Of course I still got out for a quick spin up Pine Knot trail with Keith and Amber before taking off on Tuesday. Because this is what you do in SoCal — you ride bikes in the cold wind and snowy mud until your lungs hurt, and then you ride some more! 


  1. I love to train on these trails...and it's nice to be somewhere in So Cal w/o seeing other people every 3 mins!

  2. The weather on the southern PCT has been truly weird this year.

  3. Uhm, 54 miles and 6700 feet is an EPIC ride in my are one tough YOUNG lady Jill! Hope to see you out there when I'M in my 70's! (that'll leave you still young in your late 50's, STILL killing it I bet)

  4. I have social anxiety too Jill, and sometimes it leaves me with a lonely feeling when Im out on my bike in the middle of the night. I don't really have friends here and it makes me long for my true home in New England. I hope you get experience it some day. I have to admit I am more drawn to your biking adventures since I am a cyclist., but yet I still am inspired by all your hiking posts as well... Best of look on your upcoming race.


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