Something feels different about my hometown. I’m visiting my parents after three months cycling in Mexico. Riding Amtrak to Los Angeles Union Station, I laughed to see that instead of sprouting cornfields, urban hillsides in LA sprout solar panels. New high-rises and condominiums have come up downtown, changing the skyline. Then, when I emerged out of the downtown core, the sharp profile and steep arroyos of the San Gabriel Range appeared. No doubt about it — these are blood-sisters of the Sierra Madre Occidental I crisscrossed through northern Mexico.
My parents and I used to take the family van into the foothills of the San Gabriels. They were yuppie immigrants who grew up hiking the humid, green slopes of Hong Kong — a brief respite from her crowded streets and tenements. The trailheads behind our Californian suburb were just ten minutes away. We scrambled up stream-side trails under a canopy of alder — sparkle-green in the spring, orange-umber in the fall. In the sweltering droughts of summer, we knew which waterfalls still burbled with confidence.
Within days of coming home, I was dreaming of dirt. Of shredding familiar canyons, portaging the streams and picking poison oak out of my butt. I unloaded my bike, put in a load of laundry, and headed for the hills.
The suburbs more or less look the same as I pedal east to Big Dalton Canyon, three or four suburbs over. They all look like the California Dream. Air-conditioned ranch-style houses are fronted by thirsty green lawns and the occasional orange and avocado tree. The sprinklers are on. One put-put-putting sprinkler head has gone rogue and is drenching a shiny SUV parked in the street.
Although most suburban streets dead-end at the foot of the hills, some follow arroyos deep into highcountry. I swing north onto Glendora Mountain Road. After months of dust, grit and seawater, the worn bearings in my bottom bracket count pedal strokes like a metronome.
Click. Click. Click. Click.
It’s sheer pleasure to just “go for a ride” and not worry about where I’ll sleep tonight. I stop for a photograph but when two skinny kids on road bikes pass, I pedal on. My bottom bracket protests in double-time but I huff on, keeping pace with the kids.
The young, steep geology of the foothills make for sandy and bouldered valley bottoms — rough going for mules, horses and people alike. Because of this, many original trails in the San Gabriels follow ridgelines instead. The first trails led to acorn-hunting grounds and then to firewood and cattle pasture. Later, trails and roads were blazed to access mines and homesteads, lodges and pack-stations.
Today, little evidence of active human settlement remains in our hills, excluded and then protected by the establishment of forest and wilderness status. Still, I think of the indigenes, ranchitos and Californios whom I passed farming and peopling the mountains of Mexico. I hear the silence in my mountains. No more pickup trucks blasting banda. No more clip-clopping charros coming home from the fields. No more rooster crows nor the clanging bells of goats scrabbling into brush.
As I muse, a shuttlebus pulls to the gated Monroe Truck Trail. A clutch of downhill bikers unload their heavy, full-suspension bikes. One straps a smartphone to his pack and turns up the heavy metal soundtrack. I grin and wave them ahead. I wait and watch them whoop-de-doo over a ridge. Then I descend into the canyon myself following the snake of singletrack. Back to the orderly urban grid below.