When you break something down in numbers it seems clearer but in fact the only thing that numbers do is erase the emotions, leaving you with a residue of things that you can get your head around but that leaves your heart and soul empty. I rode a bunch of miles, but this thing will for me always be measured by excitement, fear, disappointment, elation, struggle, ease, hunger, satiety, thirst, quench, open starry skies, cold morning air on my skin, hot coffee coursing across my lips, down my throat, warming my belly.
The last section of pedaling in this 3,600-mile life, because it has been a life I’ve been on, not a journey or a trip or an adventure, began in the most fitting way of all: Downhill and tailwind all the way from my camp in Acton to Ventura Boulevard, smack in the middle of Los Angeles, the freeway and gridlock and smog capital of the USA.
Before I left, a friend had told me that I’d never see hills and climbs in LA the same way after doing the big passes in the Pacific Northwest, and she was right. The few little uphills were steep but so short, and followed by more descending. None of it compared on any scale at all to the big climbs up to Crescent City on the 101, the monster climb from PCH up to the 101, the hell of the Lost Coast, Washington Pass, White Pass, the dirt ascent to Trout Lake, the bitter 30-mile climb up to Lolo Class, the killing dirt and waterless landscape of Windigo Pass, the crawl up to Mt. Bachelor, the slog up to Mt. Hood, Monitor Pass, Tioga Pass, Crater Lake, Lassen National Park, the climb up to King’s Canyon, the ascent from Truckee to Emerald Lake, and so many other hard-ass climbs whose names I never knew because they had none, or whose names I’ve forgotten because they were only an 8 or a 9 rather than one that goes to 11.
LA greeted me with true city heat; it was well over a hundred degrees in the San Fernando Valley and as I turned left on Ventura after riding for miles along Balboa it occurred to me that I still had to get over Sepulveda Pass, a very minor bump in the scheme of things. I came to Hayvenhurst and turned right. From there it was a gentle grade.
“LA hills are so cute,” I laughed.
Then there was the sign to Mulholland Drive and the road pitched up into a street called Calneva. “Oh,” I grinned, “now this is really cute.” I confidently got out of the saddle and pushed hard for what was going to be a hundred yards or so of my final climb.
The hundred yards passed and the already steep climb got much steeper, bending away around more curves. In a matter of moments I was redlining, barely able to stay upright. After redline I hit blowline and for the first time since I’d left, I faced the reality that I wasn’t going to be able to pedal up a hill and would have to walk.
I felt rage and shame and thought back about the Lost Coast, going into a 20-mph wind uphill on an equally brutal climb. I’d made that, was this ramp that much steeper?
Yes, it was.
But just before I had to get off and admit defeat, I reached a side street, made a hard left, and pedaled along the flat cul-de-sac for a minute to catch my breath. A guy in a pick-them-up-truck looked at me quizzically. “That is long and steep,” he said, helpfully.
I dropped back onto Calneva, my legs having gotten the brief recovery they needed, and easily-with-difficulty reached the top. There it was. Hardest climb of the whole fucking ride, if you measure a climb by whether or not you had to walk, which I do. Saving the worst for last.
The breath I breathed sailing downhill to the sea was as fresh and easy as any I’ve breathed in decades. As the Pacific curved out in front of me on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, it all looked so familiar but utterly different.
I was home, but you know, you can’t really ever go home again.
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