Copyright ©1987, 1997 Jon Trent Adams
Sunday - It's just after two pm. The weather has been threatening all day. The remnants of Hurricane Ramon have found their way north far enough to provide the Southland with a bit of unseasonably wet weather. It has rained on and off today and looks to continue the pattern for at least the rest of the day.
My friend Jan drops off my bike Rags and I at the intersection of Van Dusen Canyon Road and State Route 38, just north and east of Big Bear Lake and a mile or two from the town of Big Bear City. I've been expecting to do this ride for the last week or two, and I'm not about to let a little rain spoil the fun. The temperature is in the mid to upper sixties, perhaps even seventy, and right now the sun is shining brightly through a wide electric blue hole in the sky of somber grey clouds. Optimistically, I ignore the rafts of dark clouds to the southwest, back toward Ramon.
Bidding adios to my taxi driver and extorting a promise from her to meet me at the Seven-Eleven in Hesperia, some thirty-nine miles distant, at six pm, I saddle up my sure-footed Rags and plug away slowly up the foot of the grade of Van Dusen Canyon. I haven't been riding dirt for some time.
Most of the summer, I spent my time on the road bike, wandering the bike paths along the beach and the streets of the South Bay. This is the first time I've chewed gravel since Texas in July, when I spent a few days riding trails in the Big Bend National Park. Rags is in fine shape; the rear XT needs a little adjustment as it slips a little going up the mild grade. I make a mental note to do something about it when I get to the top of the canyon.
I quickly find that I am not doing nearly as well. The combination of seven thousand feet of altitude, along with my lack of riding, makes this perhaps four or five percent grade a good warmup for my lazy muscles. The road is wet, though I suspect that rain hasn't fallen within the last hour or two.
The granitic rock here is called adamellite; it is very pale, almost white, and the road is covered in spots with a gooey bentonitic clay which the Ground Controls fling up onto me and the bottom bracket. Along side of the road here is the currently dry Caribou Creek; the canyon is lined with rocky pale granite outcrops and is fragrant with the smell of freshly washed earth and pine. The road begins to veer westerly from its north course and the grade lessens. The sun finally disappears into the leaden clouds for what will end up being nearly three hours.
Steadily climbing the grade, I am warm enough in my tee-shirt and riding shorts to be thankful for the cool air. I hear a bird now and again, but the afternoon is quiet except for the sound of my treads sucking up the mud. I'm able to average about eight to ten miles per hour. Every few minutes, a vehicle passes me - usually heading the other direction, down the canyon toward the lake. I think that if something happens to me or the bike, I'll probably be able to get a ride with someone. I don't see too many faces, but the few I do see are plainly surprised (perhaps amused?) to see a bike and rider going into the hills on a day like today. I suppose if I were in the warmth and comfort of my truck I'd feel the same way. Then again, I'd rather be where I am right now, just cresting the top of the canyon and watching the eastern end of the Holcomb Valley unfurl itself before me.
The Holcomb Valley was site of many mining operations and even a few attempts at towns back in the eighteen-seventies. There are a few bits and pieces of that time preserved today, among them the famous Wilbur Grave, site of Belleville, Two-Gun Bill's Saloon and even Lucky Baldwin's Mine, owned by the Baldwin that brought Los Angeles the town of Baldwin Park and the name Santa Anita (his daughter's name was Anita), the Baldwin Hills and other mementos of the halcyon days of the late nineteenth century.
Out in the flat of the valley now, I reach the intersection of Van Dusen Canyon Road with the Holcomb Valley Road (in Forest Service parlance, 3N09 and 3N16; why do they have to number the roads when names are so much more descriptive and accurate?). Stopping to read the map and drink some water, I can hear the distant sounds of people at the Holcomb Valley Campground a quarter-mile or so to the northwest. Heading west on Holcomb Valley Road, I continue the barely perceptible ascent toward the top of the ridge that separates the Caribou Creek Drainage from the Holcomb Creek drainage. When I roll quietly past this point, I am at the highest part of the journey, nearly seventy-four hundred feet in elevation. The road heads down quickly through the gully that marks Holcomb Creek as it comes out of the Upper Holcomb Valley. No water in the creekbed here; I climb out of the draw and continue up over a gentle rise and more or less follow a constant contour for the next mile or so.
The sky has darkened further and I begin to imagine the faint touches of waterdrops; however my sunglasses show no moisture and the ground is dry and firm. I stop to check the map again when the sign marked "Fawnskin, 8 miles" appears. I have little over two-tenths of a mile to go to the left turn that will take Rags and me down the course of Holcomb Creek. I also decide to put on the sweatshirt that I have been carrying; if it does begin to rain, I'll stay warmer if I am warm to begin with. I continue along past a meadow with about twenty-five horses grazing; there are sorrels, a few chestnuts and one black and white that has a ying-yang symbol on its side. They look comfortable and dry, a good omen.
A few dry washes cross the road, from north to south; my turnoff comes up on the left and I take it at speed. The path becomes a bit more rocky; this road is shown on the map as a jeep trail. Angular blocks of white rock stick out of the road surface, forcing me up off the saddle to float down the slight grade on my wrists and ankles.
The path is beautiful; the trail drops deeper into the Holcomb Creek canyon, staying a few tens of feet above and to the north of the creek and snaking around the outcrops and under the pines and the darkening skies. There are a few well shaped and seemingly well-used berms on the right side of the trail; they extend sometimes five or six feet up the north wall. These I try to take at twenty miles an hour or so, but I find the material is pretty soft and sometimes sucks the front wheel in and slows me down to a crawl. There are also some nice little hillclimbs that cut radially away from the road and rise twenty or thirty feet above the trail. Must be a lot of motor-powered type bikes on this road during warmer days.
My luck has taken a turn for the worse. The rain starts to fall. I hope that the shower remains light - I've got quite a few miles to go and no poncho. "Real Men don't carry ponchos"; or is that, "Real dummies don't carry ponchos"? I'm not sure. The canyon narrows further and the road becomes more precipitous; I cut into the mountain and scream downhill into a dry streambed, then hook left and descend further toward the main canyon again. Now I'm at the bottom of the canyon, just a few yards above the creek and easily maintaining twenty miles an hour while attempting to hang on to the handlebars. My fingers are beginning to numb from the wind chill; this makes it tougher to maintain control of the bike.
I reach Coxey Road; this is my decision point. I stop and pull out the now-soggy map from my bag. If I take my original path, I'll head further down the canyon following the creek for another five or so miles; then I'll have to regain that elevation loss to get out of the canyon and in doing so, have to ride single-track foot trails with substantially steeper grades and probably less traction. The other route is the El Pollo route: it follows the Coxey Road to the northwest and will take a good four or more miles off the journey. Due to the inclement weather, the disintegrating map and the late start, I opt for the chicken way out. The rain is now falling steadily, perhaps even a quarter-inch per hour. I slog out of the Holcomb Creek Canyon; my waterproof Cateye micro speedometer has stopped working! Now I don't know how far I am going and how fast (or slow) I'm moving. I guess I'll survive. The climb is only a few hundred feet; I soon level out on Big Pine Flat, an expanse of meadows and now-soggy pines. I get up a bit of speed and hit a short stretch of pavement as I approach and cross the Crab Flats Road (3N16 again!!) and then turn left into the Big Pine Flat Ranger Station.
It's time to get out of the rain for a few minutes and attempt to repair my malfunctioning speedometer. Finding a convenient porch complete with bolted-down wooden swivel chair and forest map posted on the adjacent wall, I turn the bike over and inspect the muddy sensors on the rear wheel and check the cables for nicks or damage. Nothing. Resting the bike once more on its wheels, I remove the speedo and check the contacts to the shoe; nothing looks bad there. I give up for a while and, sitting down in the chair, contemplate my near future and the odds on surviving this ride.
The station is set in a small patch of nicely manicured grass, with Day-glo orange and yellow aspens planted around the perimeter. The aspens, nearly phosphorescent, are especially bright against the dark green and grey of the pines and the brooding sky. The color contrast is so extreme it is almost surreal. From a few hundred feet away come the sounds of children in the campground here.
I notice that it's almost a quarter to four and I'm not even halfway in my journey. I think that the rain isn't going to let up at least in the next few minutes and so, straddling Rags I slosh out of the Ranger Station and turn west onto Coxey Road again. The road quickly drops off Big Pine Flat, down through Willow Canyon through which the momentarily dry Cox Creek flows, on a headlong rush to Little Pine Flat about a mile west. The path is well-traveled but with rocky, tight turns and lots of kidney-busting stretches.
I fly down one particularly steep portion, up on hands and the balls of my feet, when I hit a nasty protrusion in the road surface and bend the fingers on my left hand back hard; I yelp in pain and force myself to hang on more tightly to the handlebars, the middle finger of each hand out on the XT levers, modulating the brakes, trying to keep Rags and me from endo-ing and doing a major flameout into the rocky wash beside the road.
The weather improves a bit; the rain is falling very lightly and doesn't sting now, but my airspeed and wet skin have conspired to numb my fingers fairly badly. I am grateful that the road levels out as I enter Little Pine Flat, where I hope for some sort of pedaling to get the blood flowing again. On my left I approach and pass ten or fifteen head of cattle; they eye me and my bounding Rags and a few retreat from the road, the others not sure whether it's worth the effort.
I cross Cox Creek and continue to skirt the eastern edge of the flat. Soon I roll up on a left turn, a sign announcing the turnoff into the heart of Little Pine Flat, and a few more steer grazing slightly off the road. I stop and get out the map. The left turn here would have been the trail I would come in on had I followed my original plan; I would have climbed out of the Holcomb Creek Canyon along Cox Creek, up a Forest Service foot trail and passed just east of Little Shay Mountain on my way up to this intersection. Oh well, maybe next time.
Heading north now, I drop down a drainage that leads into Coxey Meadow. The trail fools me at first; I get the impression that it is uphill and that I should, by all rights, be required to pedal my way. However, Rags shows no sign of slowing and in fact picks up a bit more speed as I roll past Hopi Spring on the right. The spring looks dry; it is after all the end of a long dry summer and this little rain that is falling today isn't enough to counter the many dry months previous.
I pass a few Forest Service Trails on the right and roll past the road to the left that follows Coxey Creek itself as the creek drops sixteen hundred feet into Deep Creek some four miles west. That road ends about three miles west and from there, a foot trail picks up, winding south over a few ridges and meeting up with the Pacific Crest Trail (no bicycles, please -- grumble, grumble) down in Deep Canyon. Coxey Road continues to the north, crossing Coxey Creek and heading up a little draw on the way up to Coyote Flat. I crest the intermediate ridge and realize that I am pretty much out of the forest and have descended into the Joshua trees and yuccas of the high desert; the scent in the air is that of the desert after a rain.
Bearing west, I pass a road fork with a sign indicating that Highway 18 is only 13 miles to the right, through Coyote Flat, while the left fork will arrive at Apple Valley in 15 miles. The speedometer has begun to work somewhat intermittently now, occasionally indicating some extraneous speed and then promptly quitting. It also shows that I have travelled nearly two-hundredths of a mile in the last hour. Somehow I don't believe it.
The rain begins to fall again. I follow the damp road down through a few shallow drainages crossing from north to south, all dropping into Coxey Creek to my south. The right turn to Horse Spring Campground passes quietly as I begin a warming climb up and around the southwest flank of Rattlesnake Mountain; I don't see any rattlesnakes today. Enough water is falling now that rivulets of water are now running along the road here and there.
Looking back, the high mountains that I began my trip in have all but disappeared in the east; the ridges that form the northern boundary of Lake Arrowhead rise to the southwest seven or eight miles away. To my north and west lay the lower hills and expanses of the Mojave Desert, although the clouds are low and thick enough that I can see but a few miles in that direction. I crest the southwest shoulder of Rattlesnake Mountain: the road now drops quickly along a northwest-trending ridge to the north, the grade increasing as does my speed.
The temperature is a few degrees warmer here at the lower elevation, but my windspeed is high again and the chill factor likewise. My fingers begin to numb; I hang on more tightly and my knees clamp onto the bike frame to hang on. This is beginning to be a pretty outrageous downhill; I fly down around nasty tight turns with high sandy berms. The rain pelts me and stings my face. The speedo is now working fulltime and apparently indicating the proper speed, but the combination of high speed, fresh rain and gravel and muck kicking up from the front wheel dissuade me from looking that way. I pass a few neat looking trails that wander off to the west; I catalog these for later exploration and try and keep my mouth shut to keep the gravel out.
Up ahead the road makes a quick cut right and I see below and several hundred yards away the road (at least I think it's the same road) as it snakes down the north face of Rattlesnake on the course to Arrastre Canyon. I don't quite know how I'll get to that part of the road from this part; I decide to hang on and enjoy the ride. Eyes ahead of me as many seconds as possible, I watch for uphill traffic as I banzai down the trail; the road makes a sharp cut west and then south, slashes through a narrow gully, then peels west along the south side of the gully. I fire the retros dropping into this turn as I see large boulders and nasty rocks pointing toward me, then as I bottom out the brakes come off and I gain speed on a short straightaway that curves to the left and drops through another gully. The other side of the gully I crank up a few hundred feet toward the top of the saddle; I dismount two-thirds of the way up the hill because the rear U-brake is jammed against the rim.
Flipping the bike over, the brake cableway that is located under the bottom bracket is filled with sand and gravel. It's a poor design that I've been meaning to fix with a saw and some pliers but haven't gotten around to yet. Releasing the U-brake, I use the waterbottle to flush out the cableguide; the brake is back in service, at least momentarily. I make a point not to touch the rear brake unless I really need it. Fortunately, most of my stopping power comes from the front, unaffected brake.
Atop the ridge I pass the National Forest Boundary marker and drop into Arrastre Canyon. The first habitation in a while passes to the west, up next to Oak Spring. The road skirts a low ridge topped with huge flat granite boulders the size of Volkswagens, skirts a knob and drops seemingly straight down into a major 180 degree right turn with a 5 foot high berm made of soft gravel. I fly down this grade and realize that I need to wear eye protection, no matter how dark the day is.
When I try to take the turn high on the berm, I bog in the soft gravel and slide to a stop. Perfect opportunity to get out the sunglasses and protect the vision. Just yesterday I was at the store, looking at low-light blast shields; I decided that I wouldn't need them in the next couple of days. I was wrong. With the shades on again, and my apparent light level reduced to twenty minutes after sunset, I push out again, completing the curve, cutting left and then sharply right; descending into a wash where the rain hurts as it needles my face, hands and legs. The road immediately makes a sharp left and proceeds to follow the drainage out. Just up from the turn there is a grove of oaks and what looks like a nice little area to spend some time in, perhaps a weekend of biking and hiking. Another mental note.
The road continues along the drainage for a while. Soon I am moving along at a good clip and a come up on a massive house- sized boulder perched above me on the left. Just before it are two dirt bikes parked in the lee of the rock; as I round the rock, I see the two riders huddled under a ledge, with a cozy fire going. They stare as I whip by. Moments later the grade slackens and I begin to pedal again, thankful for the activity. I see a rise up ahead and climb it, stopping halfway up the hill to clear the rear brake again and then to let a big 4x4 truck go by, followed closely by the two motorcycle riders. Finishing the hill, I begin the final drop down onto the desert. The road gets very straight and flat. I start to wonder when the proper turnoff will appear. Off in the distance a set of high- tension lines cross my trail; I'll stop when I get there and decide my future.
The power lines come and go. The road that follows them doesn't look particularly interesting, though in retrospect it may have been a nice one to follow. I am still cranking north, attempting to maintain ten to twelve miles per hour in the wet gravel. Soon the road comes to a T intersection. I can't go further north; I don't want to go east; that leaves the logical choice, the left turn west. I notice a stream of black water coming off my hands when I grip the bars tightly! I find that my hands are completely black, or bluish-black with the black leather glove dye. I know from past experience with these gloves that the dye is easy to remove from that skin but tough to remove from my skin. Maybe I'll boil the offending outerwear when I get home and leach out the dye.
The name of this road is Ocotillo Lane. It doesn't show on my Automobile Club map but as I roll smoothly west along it, I suspect that I've overshot my desired turnoff by only a short distance. The road changes to pavement, and my speed picks up as I roll through a very rural neighborhood, complete with large barking and growling dogs thankfully confined to yards. A mile further along I reach the next T; I turn left and drop down through a little swale, then climb back up the south side to Roundup Lane. I'm on the map now.
The late afternoon sun is cutting through the clouds, accenting the west scarp of the Ord Mountains in deep reds and oranges. I can see the face of the range drop away to the south then curve southwest, fading irretrievably into the dim, bluish-grey northern end of the San Bernardinos ten miles south. The afternoon sun also helps to warm my cold body; my outfit is black and absorbs a little energy from the waning star. The clouds to the west are broken and quick-moving; the low sun peers out between some, hides behind others.
The ride west down Roundup is quick; I make Kiowa Avenue and soon am to the lowest point in my journey, the crossing of the Mojave River. I imagine that the water that fell on me back up in the Holcomb Valley never even made it to the creekbed; it is even less likely it will meet me here at the River into which the Holcomb Creek eventually flows. I cross the river on a layer of asphalt on the streambed; the road is narrow and it seems that 10 to 20 big trucks have just chosen this moment to cross the river at 50 miles per. Great.
The final two miles is all a mild uphill; I arrive at the 7-11 at eight minutes until six. Great timing: my ride home has only been here ten minutes or so! Quickly I am out of my cold, wet cycling clothes and into a big hot cup of hot chocolate. A welcome end to a beautiful ride!
Back to Mountain Biking!