Part VI: The Incredible People I Meet

10.11.18

I am at breakfast as soon as the historic coffee shop opens. It used to serve as a boarding house for limestone miners back in the late 1800s and saw it’s heyday during WWll when it was a hangout for soldiers who were guarding numerous railroad tunnels. In the bathroom, I take a nice washcloth bath with scalding hot water. Ahh, the small luxuries of life. 

I start climbing out of Keene on the Tehachapi Loop passing the national monument of Cesar Chavez - The National Chavez Center. Si se puede! Says the sign. The memories of optimism from our past president who brought respect back to this country from around the world, makes me yearn for times not so long ago. How did this happen? I mean, this president we have now! But riding through these remote areas, the small towns, a lot of it makes sense. And this is California; we are the Blue state. I have a better understanding of how people in rural areas respond to what I think is absolutely nuts. We all live in our own bubbles. 

Even though the road is climbing, it is pleasantly winding up and away from HW58. I pass small neatly-kept farmhouses with old antique trucks in every front yard. When I reach the crest, I stop and take in the view of the Tehachapi railroad loop. One of the seven wonders of the railroad. Built between 1874-1876 by mostly Cantonese Chinese labor. Did you know that? Well, neither did I. 

I coast into the town of Tehachapi at 12:30, go to SaveMart to get some blueberries and to look for the ever-elusive comb. Damn multipacks! I still refuse to buy them out of principle.

Mohave is 17 miles away and supposedly downhill. No problem! I can make it in a couple of hours and have an easy day. I ride into some wind on the flats, and then the road climbs at a nice rate into the hills of the windmills. Hundreds if not thousands of them. I stop in the shade for a snack of a banana, some cheese crackers and a can of Starbucks double shot espresso. I pack up my trash back on the bike. There is garbage all over the side of the road. I don’t understand how people can just throw trash out of the window of a car. Why can’t they just take it to the next stop and throw it into the garbage!?

I fly downhill powered on caffeine and sugar and reach the sign for Mohave. Six miles away. Finally an easy day. But wait, my purple line on Garmin is pointing straight! I really need to get better at reading maps and find out where I am going each day. Willow Springs, says the sign. 13 miles. Ok, that’s still not too bad. I reach Willow springs, and there is nothing there. Not to bore you with the details, but after a total of 55 miles, I stumble into Hampton Inn in Lancaster just before dark. I am quite a sight pushing my bike into the lobby. A girl at the reception desk, Latisha, gives me a great deal using every discount coupon I didn’t have, so the room is $80 which would have been the same as Motel 6. I take a hot bath and eat leftover pizza from my Mexican family friends, a tortilla with string cheese melted in the microwave, and lay in a white, clean bed. I am in hotel heaven, charging my batteries and my body. I do laundry in the bathtub, talk to Jim and my sweet daughter Jana, and pass out at 9:30 after I write for a bit and look at the maps. 

After buffet breakfast number one at 7 a.m. and then another bowl of oatmeal at 10, I roll out of the Hilton fresh as a daisy. From the buffet, I also stock up on a banana, yogurt, small peanut butter cup, and two hard-boiled eggs. The street I am on has one fast food place after another. Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Denny’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken... And when I turn the corner onto another street, the fast food restaurants repeat all over again just maybe not in the same order. After I pass Kentucky Fried at the end of the block, I feel nauseous from the smell of frying oil. Is that really what people eat all the time? I wonder again. How could I have gotten cancer when I shop at farmers markets and cook from scratch? It doesn’t seem fair!

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I ride to the outskirts of Lancaster toward Palmdale blasted by prevailing east wind so strong, I have to lean into it, so I don’t get knocked over. I ride pass numerous pawn shops, used car dealerships, rundown motels with young women dressed in skimpy clothes on phones working on their clients, and I can’t wait to get out of town. I follow the purple line toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Few canyons are leading into them. I wonder which one will take me up and through. I ride a few miles, and the road starts to go up, and I am now in my lowest gear. I pull over to see if I can do something about this squeaking noise that’s been keeping me company for the last couple of days and to fix my shoe. I look at the map on my Garmin and my iPhone to compare. I am way off course. What the ....? Why is the purple line leading me this way? I wonder aloud: ”Do I now go back all the way to town and start all over?” I keep looking and try to figure it out by zooming in and out of my maps. I decide to keep climbing as I see that a road takes me to the right again and back toward the course I am supposed to be on. And so it does. Soon I hit the brand new pavement and a quiet road. Nice! As I climb, I see a road biker coming downhill. I wave him down to stop. A nice guy named Jeff. He rides these big climbs all over the country. He was just in Bishop last week and rode the Whitney portal and Mammoth and some other huge climbs. He’s 70 - amazing! So Jeff tells me: 

“OK, you have another 500 feet vertical to climb for several miles until you’ll go downhill and you’ll take a left onto Angel Forest Highway. Then you’ll climb another 1000  feet vertical or so for about 10 miles, and after you reach the summit, there is a campground on your left about 5 miles downhill. It might be closed, but there should be water there.” 

We chat for a bit longer, and I take off, glad I have the information. It’s always good to rely on information from people who know the area. A smooth downhill with a bit of tailwind and The Beast and I set a new speed record: 39.57 mph - damn! So close to hitting 40 mph! That’s pretty fast on a loaded mountain bike with fat tires. I reach Angels HW and the sign down to Palmdale says 10 miles. I just did a nice extra 10-mile roundabout! Into the wind! But if I didn’t do that, we wouldn’t set a speed record would we, Beast! 
And just like Jeff said, the camp of Monte Cristo was five miles down the hill at 3600 feet, and it was open. I ride around, all campsites full, mostly Hispanics, many guys dressed in hunting camo gear. OK then. That’s different! 

I find a nice, what I thought was empty, camp spot and I set up the tent. A small Asian guy is raking his campsite across the road, and he keeps looking at me and not in a friendly way. I am all set up with my camp, and I am walking over to pay. I stop to chat with my neighbor who is the camp host. Ming comes over. 

“You lady, you a’ in my camp!” 

“What?”

“Look! Tag on post!” 

And there it was. A tiny white tag on the post of MY campsite. 

“Well jeez, Ming (he introduced himself). Why didn’t you say something when I was setting up?“ 

“My boss comes, and many people. Big party tonight! Wives, kids, dogs, lots of people! Big noise!” 

I am also informed that one, tomorrow is the first day of hunting season and two, there are no empty campsites. Great! The camp host says to Ming:

”Look, you guys have three campsites, she doesn’t take much room, let her stay and share this site. Ming is nice enough, and he says:

”OK, no problem, you stay.” 

“Should I move my tent?” 

“Oh no, is OK”
He goes across to his camp and cars start pulling in. Coolers come out, stoves, tables, chairs, lamp lights… Fires are made, steaks go on the grill. Oh, it smells so good, and I suddenly realize I am starving. I start the battle with my own stove to heat up my cup of instant chicken noodle soup, and I pop open a can of liverwurst that I scoop out with crumbled jalapeño chips. Delicious! It’s now eight o’clock and dark, so I brush my teeth and crawl into my tent. I doze off in spite of generator noise, music, and laughter. 

“Ma’am? Ma’am!“ 

Wait, that’s someone addressing me! 

“Yes,” I reply in a groggy voice. 

“Ma’am, you are quite close to the fire pit, and these guys are going to have a fire.”

Indeed, another group just pulled in and is setting up the tents and bringing out all of their gear. I pull out the tent stakes and drag my tent away. No problem, I introduce myself, thank them for letting me share their site and go back to bed. I forgot I had a cup of cocoa in the tent and as I dragged it over, it spilled. Sticky sweet liquid is spilled all over my pad and sleeping bag. I get my micro towel and wipe it off as best as I can and fall back into my bed. This is going to be a long night. Generators are running, car doors slamming, dogs barking. I stuff some rolled up toilet paper into my ears, and somehow I am off into my dreamland. I really need to get me some earplugs. I wake up in the middle of the night. It's quiet but what do I hear? It’s raining! Raindrops on the tent lull me back to sleep, and I wake up at five to slamming doors and cars taking off all around me. Oh, there is going to be blood today. I close my eyes, and the face of a dead deer is staring at me with her big black moist eyes, and I can’t get rid of the image. 

Tight  and wet sleeping quarters

Tight and wet sleeping quarters

I pack up my wet gear early in the morning while it is still raining and head off into the mountains of San Gabriel range.

As I climb on remote Upper Big Tujunga Rd, the smells after the rains are intense and new to me. The flora of this area is unfamiliar yet deeply intoxicating. I feel I am able to inhale a really full deep breath for the first time since my cancer diagnosis. I climb toward a 7000-foot summit, and I am enshrouded in a thick fog. I turn on my lights so I can be seen by oncoming cars. Birds are singing, and I hear gunshots from hunters all around. I sure hope they don’t mistake me for a deer! 

Two deer cross the road in front of me. “Run, run beautiful creatures and hide for the month of hunting season!” I whisper to them. As I gain elevation and the air is cooling off, my right leg starts cramping. There is an obvious connection that the damage of my sensory nerves I suffered during a femoral nerve block, manifests more at high altitude and at lower temperatures. It’s been over two years since the surgery, and I see no improvement. The muscles in my back and gluts are all seized up. I have to get off my bike frequently to shake and massage the muscles lose again. 

I was told back at Monte Cristo campground that there is a restaurant on the way to the next campsite about 27 miles away. Music to my ears. I have very little food left. It is a long day of climbing over 4000  vertical feet, and I stop to have a snack of peanuts and apple sauce. A ranger stops, and we chat for a while, and he tells me that the said restaurant is less than a mile up the hill. I saddle The Beast and am excited to have some real food. I am planning to take some with me for dinner as well. And there it is, a lovely mountain lodge! I am already salivating. I get off the bike and guess what! On the door there is a sign: “Sorry, we had to close today due to problems with our sewer system” I put my head on the bike and tear up. What a let-down after anticipation that was building up during the day. That always happens whenever we have expectations that are not met. A deep disappointment happens. I have to work on that, not having expectations.  Another couple, Sisi and her friend drive up from Hollywood and were equally crushed as the restaurant was closed two weekends ago when they drove up. Sisi said someone was sitting at the bar inside. I walk up to the back door which was unlocked. I reluctantly push it open and call;

”Hello, anyone here?” 

A small Mexican guy named Sam comes around the corner. 

“Sorry, closed!” 

“Yes, I know, can I just buy some snacks?”

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Sisi comes behind me and explains to him in Spanish that I am on a long ride to Mexico and she rattles on and on in rapid Spanish, so I can’t understand everything. Sam, who is the cook at the restaurant, says he’ll go ask his boss. After a while, he comes out with half an egg and avocado sandwich on sourdough bread and ham and lettuce on an English muffin. I am again overcome with gratitude, and as I am finishing my egg and avocado sandwich, Sam brings me a bottle of water and a Snapple. I offer him a twenty dollar bill, and he refuses to take it. I literally force a bill into his hand. Sisi and I talk more about how incredible people can be. She wants to give me her coat to keep me warm at night. I try hard to explain to her that I have no way to carry it on my already overloaded bike and after we hug and say our farewells, they drive off back to Hollywood in their Mustang. I save my English muffin for dinner.
I reach the campground at around five. It’s nestled in a hill among redwoods and boulders. Shady, but beautiful. It is Saturday, and it is packed. Every campsite is full. I ride around a couple of times, nothing’s open. A young girl comes out of the bathroom, and we start talking. 

“Oh, you can camp at our site. There is plenty of room.”

I thank her profusely as I am tired and just want to get off my bike and set up the tent for the night. We are at 6500 feet it’s cooling off fast. My tent and all other gear are wet from the previous night’s rains. 

I heat up some water for a cup of miso soup and eat my sandwich. The young group that I am sharing the campsite with is playing beer pong. Their two unruly dogs keep barking. I can see already I made a big mistake, but my camp is set up. 

Just down the hill, there is a community fire. I head down, and I meet four families with young kids running around and roasting marshmallows. We connect instantly. A French-German couple with a three-year-old trilingual daughter, Leah, invited me to move to their camp. 

“Aw, that’s OK, thank you! It’s too much work to move everything. Quiet time is at ten anyway.” 

We sit around and talk and eat marshmallows. The kids fall asleep in their parents’ arms one by one with sticky fingers and dirty faces. My mind is flooded with memories of many a campfire with my kids when they were little. Precious times! At around nine I crawl into my damp tent. I am dressed in three jackets, long underwear, and sweatpants. I wear my Band Wagon hat over the hood of my merino wool shirt. It’s already down to 37 degrees. The sky is clear, so I know the temperature will drop. And so it does, down to 32 degrees by the morning. I have never been so cold in my life.  Everything on my body and in my tent was damp. And the beer pong? It went on at least until midnight! Greatly irritated I stopped checking the time, but since they allowed me to share a camp with them, I felt it wasn’t my place to tell them to quiet down.

In the morning I struggle with my stove to heat up water for tea and my last bag of oatmeal. The fire is already going at the family camp, so I head down. What a welcome heat after a freezing night. Pretty soon Dan, one of the dads, hands me a full plate of scrambled eggs and bacon and his kids, Ryder and Jolene, are making pancakes in a large cast iron skillet over the fire. My heart and my stomach are full, and my body is slowly thawing. Soon the rest of the families join and Dan feeds everyone. 

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As I ride off toward the town of Wrightwood, I think of how many interesting, kind, and generous people I’ve already met. Yes, the places I ride through are amazingly beautiful, but it’s the people I meet that are painting my memories in bright colors. After I climb for about 2400 feet, I stop at the Grassy Hollow ranger station where the PCT crosses the road. I have a nice chat and an instant connection with Ranger Joanne, also a breast cancer survivor. She gives me some helpful information about the upcoming town which I soon reach after a nice five-mile downhill at 3 pm. I will have a good and much-needed rest for the afternoon. I will sleep in a real, warm, and comfortable bed and perhaps I’ll find a comb. 


Alenka Vrecek