Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bike to Work Week

Yes, I know we've just had our national Bike to Work Day. I can say, with some authority, that there was a Bike to Work Week, too. I can say it with authority because I conceived it, some 30 years ago.

Back then, I was the Adventure Travel Coordinator at the University of Southern California, in South Central Los Angeles. It was a dream job - I could create any kind of trip I wanted, for students, staff and faculty, and later on I conducted trips for off-campus entities, like the Sierra Club, schools, museums, etc. I conducted backpack trips and bike tours, climbing trips and ski outings, photo workshops and family camping trips.

On occasion, I'd ride my Peugeot PX10LE to work from West Los Angeles, about 10 miles, to the campus. And when I drove, I'd pass by the electronic signs on the I-10 freeway, the concrete ribbon which slashes east from Santa Monica, eventually arriving on the far end of the North American continent. They signs would flash, "2 hrs. to downtown" or "Drive Safely." One day, a light bulb flashed on inside my own head. I thought the freeway signs should flash "Bike to USC Week."

All it took was a phone call to Cal Trans, and a follow-up letter (no email around 1980). For a week in advance, signs around Los Angeles flashed my message, with my office phone number below. I lined up a few riders who would start with me at Venice and Sepulveda Blvds, contacted the three major t.v. stations (ABC, CBS, NBC), and sent out press releases. Venice was a good route from the West L.A./Culver City/Mar Vista area - a broad, reasonably flat, east-west boulevard, with a right turn onto Hoover Street, which would lead cyclists right onto the campus and into glory.

The big day arrived. CBS and NBC put in an appearance. So did all of five cyclists.

None of those cyclists were me. That morning, I was making my way down the Mt. Whitney trail, having summited the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states in the U.S. with two friends, at 7 p.m. the night before, via a climbers' route (the East Face).

Of course, I'd intended to be back in Los Angeles that Monday morning for the ride. I expected our climb up the East Face of Mt. Whitney would see us on top of the mountain by 9 a.m. on Sunday. Our climbing party of three had made spectacularly good time on the approach on Saturday morning, but as we scaled the heights, Craig began suffering from the effects of altitude sickness.

We had planned spend the night a few hundred feet from the top of Whitney, safely ensconced on wide, reasonably comfortable ledges. Instead, we found ourselves sitting next to each other on a narrow ledge. At least Craig and Dave could stretch out their legs a bit. My portion of the ledge was so narrow and sloped so steeply, that I could peer down between my legs at a sheer drop of what seemed to be 1,000 feet or so.

To keep from falling, we were wearing loops of nylon webbing around our waists, clipped into our single climbing rope, which in turn was tied into the mountain at our backs. Occasionally I'd wake with gasping breath, because the webbing around my waist, as I slumped unconsciously down my sloping ledge, would cut off my air supply. Next to me, Craig would occasionally retch into the darkness.

Craig was in no better shape the next morning, and what should have taken a couple of hours turned into an epic battle to reach the top of the mountain before darkness descended on us again. Triumphant at least, we watched the sun set over the western edge of the peak as we clambered to the top of Whitney.

The trail back down the mountain was 11 miles long. There was a 225 mile drive from the Whitney Portal Road to Los Angeles. There was, then, plenty of time, in the next 13 hours, to make it to the start of the Bike to USC Week.

It was dark - it was cold. It was windy. I didn't care. I was stern, though. "Come ON, we HAVE to do this!" I exhorted. Unfortunately, exhortations meant little to Craig, who had stopped vomiting, but had started staggering down the dark trail. It was time to put a stop to my madness and to stop torturing Craig. We bedded down for the night, about 13,000 feet above sea level, right in the middle of the trail. Once I'd slipped into my down-filled sleeping, I fell quickly into a deep sleep.

In no hurry now, we made a leisurely pace down the mountain, arriving back at our car about 2 p.m. Meanwhile, the ride in Los Angeles, except for the paltry attendance, had gone off well without me. The news trucks followed and filmed the riders for a few miles. And I did manage to make the ride the rest of the week, although I was alone each day.

And as far as I'm aware, no individual since that memorable week has been able to make Cal Trans agree to flash a message.

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