Friday, August 21, 2009

Return to Heartbreak Hill

"O brave new world, that hath such people in it." - Shakespeare's The Tempest

Old people always seem consumed with thoughts about their bodies. Damn, I'm no different. But I'm getting a little tired of writing about my heart, so after this post I'll leave the topic alone, at least for a while.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my last climb to the sign, and told about the chest pain that led to my hospitalization and angioplasty a week ago Monday, which removed an 80%+ blockage of plaque from my coronary artery. Three days later, I was back on my bike.

Having ridden five fairly easy rides since last Friday, the time had come to test myself more rigorously. I reasoned that if I could ride to the top of the Hollywood Sign with a serious heart problem, I should now be able to repeat the ride with near-super human power. Or at least with recovered power. Yesterday, therefore, I headed out for a return match with the Hollywood Sign.

Some inadvertent delays kept me off the bike until 6 p.m. The sun was a low-hanging lemon in the late August sky. Thin coastal haze made the sunlight turn a warm yellow on this unusually cool day. What with stop signs and traffic lights, it probably took me about half an hour to reach the base of the climb; those first miles served as an easy warm-up.

I crossed Fountain Ave., Hollywood, heading north on Gower Street, which was home in 1911 to the first movie studio in Los Angeles, the Christie Studios. The Hollywood Sign, with its 45-foot tall letters, loomed above me, jutting out off the southern, chaparral slope just below the summit of Mt. Lee, a high point in the Santa Monica Mountains. The peak is named for pioneer radio and television broadcaster Don Lee, who put a t.v. transmitter on the summit in 1931. (Three years later he died suddenly at the age of 54, from a heart attack.)

As I pedaled up the canyon, I passed the little commercial district, with a grocery store and the Hollywoodland realty office. The sign itself was built in 1923 to advertise the Hollywoodland housing development that grew up below Mt. Lee. A little farther I turned left, onto a brutally steep but mercifully short stretch of Ledgewood Drive, then switchbacked up Deronda Drive, with its collection of houses crammed for the most part closely together. If I was going to feel any chest pain or suffer some unknown after effect of my angioplasty, this would have been the time. But I felt no pain.

Authors Aldux and Lauara Huxley lived on Deronda in 1961, when their home was destroyed by fire, that great leveler in the mountains of Southern California. Aldous Huxley's best known work, the novel Brave New World, is a prophetic, futuristic tale written in 1931 about a dystopia that seems to describe much of the world as it presently exists, a world where mind-numbing drugs, immorality, eugenics, genetic engineering of humans and loss of individual freedom prevails, the end result of the over-reliance on technology. It's a world where the worst elements of capitalism - with it's unbridled consumerism - and communism - with its soul-killing dictatorship for the common good - are ironically, tragically and comically fused together. (In an ironic twist, in real life Huxley would later in his life take and then extol the virtues of mescaline and later LSD as a way to enhance, rather than deaden, the perception of transcendence.)

The book, which I read when I was 13, had a profound effect on the rest of my life. I think I was too young when I first read it; it inculcated what I thought it taught, even as I misinterpreted much of it. Each time I've re-read Brave New World I have found more to learn from its pages and, with the maturity of my years, I grasp its meaning far better than I could as a teen-ager.

Do I not bow down to technology to make me happy? I want the best bike, the newest computer, the camera with the most megapixels. I have looked to drugs to assuage my pain, physical and psychological. At times I have looked to others to give my life meaning.

Huxley would die on November 22, 1963, the same day C. S. Lewis passed away, and the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lauara Huxley, also a child prodigy with the violin and a documentary film maker, died two years ago, at 96.

The public road stops at the top of Derondo Drive. Here a cyclist must dismount and walk through an archway to reach the roughly paved Mt. Lee Drive, which serves as a service road for the transmitters on the summit. It was here I'd borrowed a nytroglycerine tablet on my last trip. No need for that now. So I walked through the arch and climbed back on my bike.

Except for one short stop for a photograph of my bike in silhouette, with the city of Los Angeles behind it, I rode without stopping to the top of the sign. The first third or so up the service road was fairly flat, or seemed so after the tortures of Ledgewood and Derondo; my cyclometer measured a 5% grade. Then the angle pitched up steeply, and I wondered, as I rode through the light now turned almost orange in the 7 o'clock hour, if I could push a higher gear and push it harder than I had the last time up, even with the help of the nitro tab. Listening to the music pumping out of my earphones, in my middle chainring, switching back and forth between my 24 and 27 cogs, I made my way up the hill, working hard, under control.

Sweat dripped off the bottom of my bearded chin like water drops from a very leaky faucet, bouncing off my top tube and spilling down to stick - like the gummy plaque inside my coronary arteries - to my front derailleur and cranks, each sticky drop attracting its own collection of road grime. The road topped a little north-south rise, giving great views out over the east before turning sharply left, with no let-up on the grade, which was by now hitting 13%.

Pulling my digicam out of a jersey pocket to video the final few yards of the ride, I pedaled my way to the top. As I was at the end of the ride a dozen days before, so I was now, spent, this time in a good way, with the power of dynamite supplied by my own heart rather a drug.

I'm back, in a brave new world.

Tech notes - Camera: Panasonic Lumix TZ5; top photo from Wikipedia; the photo of me nearing the top of Mt. Lee is a recreation of the actual event (thanks to a lovely pedestrian); my amateurish video below is as painful to watch as it was to make.

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