Friday, August 06, 2010

Defying Gravity

When I was 10, my family moved to a ridge top in the Santa Monica Mountains, in Los Angeles. Before school started, I made friends with a few kids in the neighborhood.

One day, two of my new friends, each about a year older than me, asked me if I wanted to ride with them to a fire station on Mulholland Drive. They warned me, though, that there would be some hills, and that I probably wasn't strong enough to make the entire trip.

The ride to the fire station was about three and a half miles. At the time, the ride to me seemed like a grand adventure into the unknown. I accepted the invitation from my friends, both of whom were not only older than me, but considerably heavier, the latter fact one which didn't immediately register.

We rode past the store and the gas station and the Roscomare Road elementary school I'd soon attend, dropped down a hill with a swooping left turn, and laboriously climbed up the first uphill. My two friends, even though they were bigger and stronger than I was, lagged behind me.

There was one more good downhill, and then a final, steep climb to Mulholland Drive. I managed to pedal all the way to the top. I remember stopping to rest, and looking behind me to see my friends off their bikes, walking up the hill. I didn't gloat, but the boys were obviously none too happy with my success and their failure to conquer the hill (they got over it).

That was the first time I understood that being on the skinny side might be, in some situations, advantageous. It was the first time, too, I learned that sometimes it's possible to defy gravity.

Flash forward several decades. I still like defying gravity, although I'm not skinny anymore. For the past few months, I've enjoyed riding up the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, part of the state park system.

Above: That's me, approaching the top of the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. Beginning in the early 1980s, I occasionally pedaled to the top the road which, long ago, led to a radar testing station for the Howard Hughes corporation.

By the time I first visited the site, the old installation was nothing more than a vandalized ruin, and the hillsides around it were a little bit of wilderness in the middle of the metropolis. I never saw other cyclists or hikers on the road.

Part of the Baldwin Hills was the site of the 1932 Olympics Village. And in 1963, the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Dam, which was the first major disaster in the U.S. filmed by a news crew from the air, killed five people and destroyed several homes; most residents weren't aware that the dam even existed on top of the hill above them, just as today most flat landers are unaware of the new park.

One afternoon long ago, when I rolled around a bend where vicious-looking dog engaged me in a stare-down. I flashed on the thought that the brute might just win a fight with me, and that my remains, if any were left, might not be discovered for months. I quit riding the hill; that was probably 15 or more years ago.

Over the years, I'd heard rumors that the area would be developed into a housing tract. In April, 2009, though, the site of the radar base, and much of the land around and below it, was dedicated as a new park.

When I returned a few months ago, I was glad to see the road, presumably safe from predatory dogs, was safe to ride. While the road is just 1km long, it includes a little more than 300 feet of hard-won climbing for hikers and cyclists who want to reach the top. Averaging about a 10% grade, much of the climb is at 13%. Once gained, the view from the summit, more than 500 feet above sea level, offers a near-hallucinigenic view of the greater Los Angeles area.

Above: Yesterday, I met and rode with Jim, who lives just a few blocks from the hill. Jim was on his second trip up the hill, after putting in a good ride on the nearby Ballona Creek bike path.

Above: The original road survives, and several serpentining trails were added, plus a straight-up-the-hill set of lung and thigh-busting concrete blocks. The park is popular with hikers, far less so with cyclists, given the difficulty of making the top.

Above: A handsome visitor center sits atop the hill. It's never been open when I've visited, presumably due to the severe budget cuts California has had to endure.

Above: Hikers relax and take in the views after reaching the top of the park.

Above: Rangers patrol the little park and they are uniformly friendly to hikers and cyclists.

Above: Jim collects his reward for the uphill struggle: a wicked downhill run.

We humans tend to carry over, I think, much of what we learn in our childhood into adulthood and even into old age. That explains a lot of sometimes strange, sometimes terrible, and sometimes exhilarating behaviors we humans exhibit, including the ocassional desire to defy gravity.

Note - click on photos, above, for full-size versions. Camera: Panasonic Lumix ZS7

Above: What I like to listen to when I'm jammin' uphill on my bike.

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