The Cycle of Life
The city of Chico, and the country surrounding it in Northern California, is my true emotional and geographical lodestone, the true center of my heart's content. I affirm that is so, even though I grew up in Los Angeles, moved back to Los Angeles, and have lived in Los Angeles since leaving Chico somewhere back in the mists of time, about 1972.
Chico is my Paradise Lost. That I can't return, except for brief visits, makes Chico, and so much that is contained there, all the more special, all the more poignant for me.
As I have for most of the past eleven years, I traveled to Chico this past weekend to take part in the Wildflower Century, a 100 mile bike ride sponsored by the Chico-Velo bike club. There is something, for me, life-affirming, about returning to Chico, where all of life's possibilities seemed open to me long ago, and where I can prove, pedaling my bike up and down the beautiful landscapes along the route of the ride, that I am still alive.
Carbo loading food the night before the ride
Because I had a heart attack a little less than eight weeks ago, and hadn't ridden enough miles to complete a century without a wonderful amount of pain, I opted for the Mildflower Century, the 65 mile version of the century. I did ask my doctor's opinion about riding my bike that distance, and he gave his approval. I promised him I would take it easy.
Weeks before my heart attack, I'd asked my brother if he wanted to join me on the ride, which we both thought then would be the full 100 miles. He did want to make the ride, and he started training. Then came my heart attack, and my brother naturally assumed the ride was off for this year, if not forever, and he stopped training. When I asked him with a couple of weeks to go if he might want to try the shorter ride, he was surprised, and he was game. Unfortunately, like me, he didn't have that much time to train even for the 65 mile ride, which would include a hill-climb that's five and a half miles long. No matter how easy we would ride up that hill, we were both going to suffer a little.
When I travel to Chico, I try to visit friends, old and new. This year, I stayed with my wonderful friends, Dan and Dolly, as I have for many years the night before the Wildflower. I went to college with while them were dating. Dan and Dolly were both in on the planning of the first Wildflower Century, in 1980, although I would not learn that fact for twenty years, when I came up to Chico for the first of my own Wildflower rides. I'm so pleased they are willing to keep putting up with me, I mean, willing to put me up, year after year. I hope I can stay with them next year.
I spent a little while with Chuck, a young man who's been on a couple of my photography tours, and helped me out on one last year. He's one of the finest young men I know, and he's a new dad. His daughter doesn't know yet that she is lucky to have such a terrific father.
And I visited my friend, Ernie, with whom I went to college, too, and who is as fine a person as Chuck, Dan and Dolly. Ernie lives with his wife, Norma, and their teen-aged son, Conner, on the one square mile homesteaded by Ernie's grandfather at the turn of the 2oth Century. Ernie raises sheep and cows, there are peacocks and a dog, Shasta, (half-wolf, with wolf-yellow eyes and a wolf's howl), there are new groves of olives, and a view unlike any view where I live in Los Angeles, almost out to the ends of forever.
About as as long as I've known Ernie, I've known his parents, because I was lucky enough to meet them almost every time I visited Ernie on the ranch. After Ernie married, his parents moved to a smaller home on the property, next to the beautiful home Ernie's grandfather built long ago, the home Ernie's parents lived in, the home Ernie and Norma and Conner live in now.
I'd always liked Mr. Pieper. Perhaps, because my own father died some years ago, I began to see in him as a father figure, despite the fact that I'm a long-time father, too.
For the past several of my visits to Chico, for whatever purpose I came, I did my best to make the drive west from Chico to Ernie's ranch. As Ernie's parents aged with the inexorable march of years, and as I've grown older too, my visits with Ernie's parents became more precious to me. This year, Mr. Piper was 96.
When I called Ernie to set up my visit, a few weeks before the Wildflower ride, he told me his father was in declining health. My visit, I knew, would become more important this year, more important than just completing a bike ride.
I remembered back to 1999, when my wife and I visited Ernie and Norma and a very young Conner. I asked Ernie about his dad. "Oh, he's still keeping busy. He works everyday."
When I went outside the next morning, Ernie's dad came flying down the dirt road in front of the house, astride a three-wheeled motorcycle that shot a rooster tail of road dust into the air. Mr. Pieper sat atop a wooden plank balanced across the seat. On either end of the plank sat Mr. Pieper's passengers, two of the ranch's sheep dogs.
One of the Steve Harrison Memorial Arches
My brother and I made the long drive up to Chico on Saturday, up through the Great Central Valley of California. The valley, which sits only a few feet above sea level, and is where much of the fruits and vegetables of the U.S are grown, is bounded on the west by the Coast Range Mountains, and by the granitic Sierras and the volcanic Cascades to the east. As we neared Chico, which sits at the western base of the Cascades, we saw the 10,000 foot high, snow-covered Lassen Peak, rising above the buttes and foothills to the east.
The Brothers Wyman
That evening at Dan and Dolly's we shared pizza and stories about past rides, about our kids and our dogs. Dan and Dolly's dogs, Reilly and Dodger, seemed glad to see us again. While we went to bed reasonably early, sleep did not come easily to me, and in the night I woke and wondered for a while how it was I'd survived that heart attack, and how it came to be that I was in Chico again, for another day in the saddle.
Dan heads up Honey Run Road, passing several tired cyclists
The temperature the next morning, when we arrived at the start of the ride at the Chico fairgrounds, stood at 45 degrees. We unloaded the bikes from our rental car, I pumped some extra air into my tires, and we were off. At first we passed through a residential part of town, pedaling easily beneath the canopy of trees that covers so much of Chico. We made our way past many of the Craftsman-style homes that define much of Chico's architecture, and cycled past the lovely Bidwell Park, one of the largest and one of the most beautiful municipal parks in the United States. As we exited the canopy of trees at the eastern edge of town, the Cascades came into view.
Rest Stop in Paradise
For a while, despite wearing a windbreaker, the cold worked wormed its way into my core; my fingers were cold, too. I didn't mind, for it meant I was still alive. Soon enough I warmed up. And from time to time, I broke my promise to my doctor to take it easy. There were too many lines of cyclists to hook onto for a ride in their draft, too many slower riders to pass.
We passed beneath the Steve Harrison Memorial Arches. Mr. Harrison was a long-time resident of Chico and a bicycle advocate. Each arch, at either end of a bike path, stands 15 feet high, and each arch depicts part of a bicycle chain ring.
Beyond the second arch, the our route led for five miles up Butte Creek Canyon, to a rest stop at the lovely Honey Run Road Covered Bridge. Either side of the canyon is layered with ancient lava flows, while the bedrock beneath Butte Creek is composed of Sierra Nevada granite.
The route map is a handkerchief, too
When I was a student at Chico State, I would occasionally walk under the bridge at night with a girlfriend. We would share a kiss, and with the sound of the water running under the wooden spans beneath us, the night would grow silent.
Beyond the bridge, we turned up steep, narrow Honey Run Road, toward the town of Paradise, which sits on a broad, pine-topped ridge, 1,700 feet above sea level. This was the crux of the ride. We geared down and sweated our way up a long series of switchbacks. At least the route was mostly under another canopy of trees, and anyway, the old flows of broken lava towering over us hid most of the sunlight. At each switchback, where the road widened a bit, we passed cyclists who rested in the deep shade. We passed cyclists walking their bikes. And some cyclists passed us.
My brother, who was supposed to keep my riding in check, kept up the cadence, and I followed him. My heart rate monitor showed 130+ beats per minutes. Then 140 beats. Near the top of the hill, I stood on the pedals and pushed myself, perhaps unwisely, the last 200 yards, and my heart rate hit 154 beats per minutes.
When we reached the first rest stop, not long after summiting the ridge, I sank down on the grass, on my back, and rested for several minutes, feeling a little queasy. With some food and liquid in me, I began to recover and I was soon ready to ride.
Beyond that first reststop, a thrilling five-mile downhill run – I hit 40.5 miles on my bike – led to the lunch stop.
The food on the Wildflower ride is exceptionally good. It's the only organized century I know of where the choice at lunch includes turkey, ham, roast beef, penut butter and jelly, and pâté sandwiches.
After the lunch break, we had another 40 miles to go, down and across the Central Valley. Although we said we wouldn't, we hooked up with lines of riders throughout the rest of the day, who pulled us most of the way back to town. Late in the ride, when the pace line we were following speeded up, my heart rate monitor hit 138 beats per minute. I was about to ask my brother to slow down, when he did so on his own. Lassen was again on view, above the foothills of the Cascade Range. In the distance, 100 miles away, we could see mighty Mount Shasta, rising over 14,000 feet above sea level.
Before finishing the ride, I took my brother on a detour through a part of Bidwell Park, where the snow-chilled waters of Big Chico Creek filled an enormous, rectangular municipal swimming pool. We spent a little while looking at the people taking in the sun on this warm day, and we leaned down to pet some of the dogs out for a walk with their human companions, which made us think about our own dogs. Then Dan and I headed for the fairgrounds, making a final sprint that last several hundred yards. Yes, I was still alive, it felt good, it felt right.
Before they tired, this tandem team towed us in their draft for a few miles
After a fine dinner, which was part of the cost of the trip and included well-deserved ice cream sandwiches, we headed back to Dolly and Dan's, where we had well-deserved showers, said our goodbyes, and then drove west across the Central Valley to Ernie's home.
At Ernie's we were met both by Ernie and by Shasta, his half-wolf – half-dog; the peacocks were sounding off and the sheep were grazing behind the beautiful old ranch house. We went inside to see Norma and Conner. When I asked about his dad, Ernie said, "Dave, we're having a vigil for my dad now." Mr. Piper had begun refusing food the week before. When I expressed my concern, Ernie said, "It's all part of the cycle of life."
I followed Ernie and Conner out to the other house. I said hello to Mrs. Pieper, who sat in a chair in the living room. Mr. Pieper slept peacefully in his bed, breathing slowly and deeply. I leaned over him. Putting my hand on his shoulder, I said farewell to Mr. Pieper. After saying goodbye to Mrs. Pieper, too, and promising her I would return, Ernie and Conner and I walked back to the main house. When I felt myself crying, I apologized to Ernie. I'm always a little embarrassed when I cry; in my culture, a man isn't supposed to shed tears, and yet sometimes I must.
In a little while we said goodbye to Ernie and Norma and Conner, and began the long drive back towards Los Angeles. We drove past flooded rice fields as the sun dropped behind the Coast Range Mountains. A few hours later, we stopped in the town of Stockton. I drifted pleasurably off to sleep, another day of cycling done, and another day down in the cycle of my own life.
This afternoon, I received an email from Ernie. His father passed away a few hours after I said my goodbye.
All photographs, except Mr. Pieper's, from a year ago, were made with my iPhone. The picture of yours truly was made by my brother, Dan.
Click on images for larger-sized version.