Saturday, December 29, 2012

Over the top

Even with a full moon rising, we could see Orion the Hunter over the desert last night. While we sleep the moon rides across the black sky. Leading us toward the morning's route.

We have a folio of the official routes, with cue sheets and maps. But those in the know tend to optimize. Today for example. The official route goes north to I-10 and Banning and Beaumont, then climbs Highway 79 and descends into Hemet. Headwinds, stoplights, gritty towns, and less climbing overall. Sound less than scenic? It is. Traditionalists, first-timers, and those with sore legs take this option.

Weather permitting a small group intends to go "over the top". It means climbing the same escarpment we descended yesterday, over the crest of the San Jacinto Mountains. The road goes up and up, right from the church. It has several unofficial names. One is Seven Level Hill, maybe because the long winding climb is reminiscent of a layer cake. Another is the Palms to Pines Highway. That's what the maps and AAA magazine call it. Cyclists use the other name because we feel the many levels in our legs.

There was a weather panic in camp this morning. Someone said it was "raining in Hemet", sending invisible ripples through the group. Rain in Hemet might mean snow on the ridge. But we can do a visual check right here from Palm Desert. Looking west the sky is completely clear over the mountains, where the moon sets. That's the tried-and-true way.

This year there's also WiFi at the church. And according to the National Weather Service, no rain in Hemet at the moment. It will rain today, mostly after 4pm. So, OK. Over the top.

At about mile 13 Jeff the Fastie yells behind me 'you mean we have 12 more miles of this?!!!' He's from Maryland, where there are no hills. The grade is never terribly steep, but 25 miles of climbing does make for a long morning... We cross the Pacific Crest Trail at a false summit. The air turns cold and the big red jacket goes on, paying its rent and then some.

The sky is clear except for a few puffy grey clouds to the west. A good jacket and a beautiful road, it's enough. Life really is this simple.

I've been craving eggs; thus far on the trip breakfast has been only carbs. Everyone stops at the Paradise Valley Cafe so there is no shortage of company. Of course, everyone else at the table is named Jeff. One is having a slice of apple pie; the other a breakfast burrito with two kinds of homemade salsa. For me it's a Santa Fe omelet and coffee.

Faced with a sudden swarm of hungry cyclists the crew steps it up a notch. My plate arrives and is quickly polished clean. Food and company; today things are coming together.

At this point the group splits again: one group takes the ridge road to Mountain Center and the other descends and take the dirt. At the end of the day we'll all end up in Hemet. Only one problem. This year there's a shortage of people heading for the dirt. For safety reasons I don't really want to do it solo. It's too isolated and there's no support. After 4 years do I even remember the way?

Outside clouds have gathered into a grey mass. The front is moving in. The wind is blustery and cold, a reminder we're at 4700 feet. On days like this it can be a good idea to get to lower elevations quickly. Jeff offers to send a posse if I don't show in Hemet and that's all I need to hear. Down the hill, into a quartering head wind that makes the bike shiver.

It takes some sniffing around the town of Anza to find Bautista Road. Memories of riding here with Jim B. and Bonnie, maybe 8 years ago. Keeping me company despite their absence. They would know the way, they would be entertaining too. I keep checking to my right for a notch in the hills. At the west end of town there it is, complete with street sign!

View Larger Map

It seems like a great stroke of luck, a graded dirt road out here in the middle of nowhere. One leading straight to Hemet.

At some point you realize it's not luck, it's someone traveling the way ahead of you. It's a leg of the historic Anza trail from 1774. That's when Juan Bautista de Anza rode from Mexico to San Francisco. To me it still looks and feels like it must have 250 years ago.

It bends your mind for a while, this time warp of a road. A way forward that is both gentle and rugged. Packed dirt and loose sand, together. The rocks sticking up from the road bed remind me that the earth is not overly kind. With the sage and curves of the hills and contours of the creek it is not hostile either. It just is. Here we are on terra firma. Soon when the gathering storm breaks there will be water for every living thing.

Out here I know my place. I'm a strong rider but not a fastie. I'm not sure of the way but I can find it. There's no one with me and yet I'm far from alone. Though the clouds are spitting drops, it's not full on raining yet.

Life is full of meaning and there's nothing to say.


  1. I really need to stop reading your ride reports around lunchtime... :)

    1. LOL! There is this point in every trip where FOOD becomes the most important thing... the Paradise Valley Cafe is absolutely the only place to eat in those 60 miles. Good thing it's a great spot!