The Hazards of Multi-tasking

Since adopting two good-sized dogs, I’ve found that I need to combine my passion for mountain biking with dog walking. Sadie, a German Shepherd mix is an athletic trail dog who can run for miles, keeping pace with my bike even when we’re careening downhill. When the trail meanders, she will sometimes go cross country, straightening the course, but usually she lopes along ahead of me or behind, close enough that I can hear her regular panting. Occasionally, she spots a bird or a rabbit that needs to be chased and off she goes in hot pursuit, only to join me back on the trail a minute later, raggedly panting in sheer delight. She never catches anything so the fun is in the chase, not the catch.

We started our ride on President’s Day at the vacant land I own that abuts the wild watershed of Mill Creek.

Look up “love” in the dictionary and you will find this image. Photo credit: Sally M.

The pile of trash bags in the background is a gift left by some commercial pot growers who evidently got spooked by word of the authorities cracking down on unlicensed growing, and thought my wasteland was a safe place to dump their entire operation, sans product. They left empty containers of plant food, electronic watering system, fabric buckets of potting soil (unintentional pun), clippings of plants, and miscellaneous trash that included an ID badge for Ryan M. who was evidently an employee of Stater Bros. As with all the other trash previously dumped here, I will haul it away. At least the potting mix can be dumped harmlessly on site.

Sally, her cattle dog mix named Mango, and Sadie and I headed up the wilderness that once was the Mill Creek Wash. For decades this has been protected by levies that have allowed nature to landscape the area with hardy, perennial shrubs and annual weeds and grasses. The levy pictured below has been sprayed with gunite which creates sticky traction on the rocks that make up the barrier.

This time of year the trails are firmly packed thanks to the winter rains but the wild flowers haven’t yet begun to bloom. Photo credit: Sally M.

The Wash Trails are as familiar to us as our own backyard but, thanks to the varying conditions, remain endlessly entertaining. Today was no exception as we reveled in the fact that we could actually see the trail. Come late spring, the grasses will nearly obscure the trail from sight making every twist and turn a test of faith.

A settling pond that doubles as a swimming hole for our dogs

This part of the former wash is used to capture water that comes down out of the mountains. There is a series of catch basins that retain water during the rainy season and then go dry when the collected water percolates into the water table. Our trails skirt these basins, each created by a earthen levy. After steadily climbing for a few miles, we pause to catch our breath before assaulting the ramp up the face of each levy. Then an all-out effort usually carries one to the top. The key word being “usually”. Today a slight miscalculation resulted in my bike stalling just short of the top. The unexpected dismount was less than graceful and I ended up on the ground, tangled in my bike. Sally kindly refrained from any disparaging comments about my lack of skill, knowing that to do so would invite a similar mishap when she made her own attempt. Following my failed example, she stalled too but stepped gracefully from her bike.

There’s one short stretch where we are forced to ride on the side of the highway. The road has been cut through a hill, so there is very little shoulder and on weekends, the traffic is fast and heavy. Leashing the dogs, we look for a break in traffic and then pedal as quickly as we can, hugging the edge of the road with the dogs on the shoulder away from traffic. Sadie is trained to trot alongside my bike without pulling on the leash. She matches my speed and sprints when necessary. I saw there was no traffic coming downhill in sight, so we made our move. About halfway through the gap, a huge bus descended on us traveling about 50 mph. The sudden whoosh of the passing bus spooked Sadie who shied away from my bike. Instinctively, I leaned away to keep from being pulled over on top of her and when she gave to the leash, I toppled left, into the lane of traffic. Pity the poor driver following the bus! He probably hadn’t even been able to see us on the shoulder until the bus passed. As I scrambled to get off the pavement, Sadie looked on with horror at what she had done. I was uninjured thanks to my padded knee/shin guards and gloves. A bruised palm and bum are a very small price to pay for such a potentially lethal mistake. We may have to rethink how we access our trails above the cut as there isn’t any safe way to walk or ride along the edge of the pavement. Maybe we need to add trail building to our multi-tasking list.

My Thoughts on Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Reading an article in the Atlantic, about why (it is speculated) that people find it more difficult these days to maintain a healthy body weight, I couldn’t help but weigh the ideas with some skepticism. The author posited that some of the contributing factors included a change in microbiomes, resulting in changing gut bacteria, and increased exposure to chemicals and pesticides. The supposition was that people exercising and eating similarly weighed less in 1980 than they do now.

Something that wasn’t taken into consideration was that the amount of physical exercise performed by both groups could not possibly be measured with any degree of accuracy. The minuscule amount of energy required for routine tasks can’t actually be measured but they add up over a lifetime. For instance, the following is a snapshot of a typical day when I was twenty years old:

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Manually brush teeth – no electric toothbrush;
Feed the dogs, opening a can with a manual opener;
Lift the heavy garage door – no push of the button opener;
Type a report, invoices, etc. on a manual typewriter – correcting my typos alone burned countless calories;
Crank down the windows in the car and push in the clutch and shift manually;
Mow the lawn pushing a mower with no propulsion (hardly anyone I knew had a gardener and you were lucky to have a gas-powered mower) ;
Vacuum the house with a Hoover that weighed half as much as I did;
Cook dinner with heavy, cast iron pots and wash and dry the dishes by hand – no dishwasher in my house;
Sit down to watch TV, get up to change the channel and adjust the volume;
Walk to the only phone in the house, attached to the kitchen wall, and push a rotary dial around the face of the phone.

Image result for still photo lily tomlin as ernestine

To this sampling, you probably could add thousands more, depending on the household you grew up in. When I was a kid, we were expected to work alongside our parents. We didn’t sit in front of the TV until all the homework, housework, yardwork, and correspondence (that’s letter writing to you youngsters) was finished.

The Atlantic article mentioned that the price of a gym membership was about the same as it is now. Gym! We didn’t need no stinking gym! By the time we finished our chores, we thought getting up to change the channel on the TV was an onerous task…unless Dad said I could select the program.

We Are More Than a Number

Photo: Florida Highway Patrol

Reading an article about the increasing number of cyclists killed by motor vehicles, I couldn’t help but remember Ann. To the world, she was simply number 732 of the 850 people killed in 2018 while innocently pedaling down a public road. And when the readers of the article contemplate the number, it doesn’t seem particularly meaningful, especially when compared to the number of soldiers killed in the American Civil War (about 620,000) or the number of people who have died of Covid in this country (pushing a half a million at this writing). But to Ann’s family and friends she was more than a number, and to the woman who was driving the vehicle that struck her, Ann’s death meant the end of the life she had known up to that point.

Ann had worked for the US Forest Service ever since her two kids had reached an age where she didn’t need to be at their disposal 24/7. She worked side by side with the men, building trails, wielding a chain saw to clear downed trees, and carrying materials to remote trail sites that needed reinforcement. She wasn’t a large woman, nor was she loud. She spoke softly and carried a big Pulaski.

The daughter of immigrants, Ann and her older brother Stephen, learned early that hard work was the only way out of poverty. Their dad, a Polish citizen, had escaped from a Russian Gulag during WW2 and fled to England where he met and married the sweet-faced daughter of the family who took him in as a refugee. Before Stephen and Ann could adopt their mother’s English lilt, the family moved to the U.S. Life in this country wasn’t easy for Papa Tadeuz whose English was heavily accented. He worked hard at menial jobs to make a comfortable if modest home for his family.

Stephen, inspired by his mother’s misdiagnosed breast cancer, worked his way through medical school, determined to never be at the mercy of careless doctors again. He was still in residency when brain cancer struck his mother and he was forced to make difficult decisions for her end-of-life health care. Stephen, Ann and their father drew on each other for strength in the aftermath.

Ann married and had two kids, just like her own parents, a boy and then a girl. Grandpa Tadeuz, always the center of the small family, kept Polish traditions alive, making pirogies, telling stories, and making awful jokes. He lived into his 90s and remains a living memory to his now grown grandkids.

The Forest Service moved Ann and her husband to Oregon where they enjoyed the rural environment. Ann could ride her bike to work as the roads were good and the traffic almost nonexistent. But one morning, she didn’t make it to work. The woman driving the SUV that killed her said Ann had veered in front of her. The road was straight, visibility was good. My heart aches for the woman whose life will forever be clouded by the life she took, whether by negligence or worse. Even though she probably will never know how irrevocably the lives of Ann’s family were changed, she knows that cyclist number 732 was more than just a number.

Share The Road Sign with Motor Vehicle & Bike Graphic, SKU: K-9081

A Winter Ride

Riding with Mike has always been more fun than riding with anyone else if only because he pushes me to do things that nobody else does. He is so skillful that he can make any descent, no matter how steep or technical, look absolutely rideable. And so, I almost always follow him, trusting that he values the well being of his cook and domestic servant far too much to encourage me to do something dangerous, or maybe I should say above my skill level.

Lower Workout is a trail that offers little in the way of excitement but it has a couple of heart-poundingly steep climbs, hence the name assigned to it. Once you make it up the first steep climb, the two-track rolls mostly uphill, following the contours of the foothills. If you ride this track early in the morning or late in the evening, or at night as we did when we were younger, you are likely to encounter coyotes, tarantulas, kangaroo rats, snakes, possibly even a bobcat, and rarely a mountain lion. But mid-day there’s only the occasional ground squirrel scurrying across the trail in a suicidal attempt to get to his burrow and a few birds.

Today, the trail was hard-packed, and littered with the remnants of summer’s grass, and seeds and the broken remains of dead brush. The air was a perfect seventy-something degrees though the slanting December sun was warm on our south facing side. It’s hard to long for December’s normally cool days and long-awaited rain when we are blessed with such perfect cycling weather.

We came to the only excitement the trail has to offer, a loose, rocky, steep pitch that we call the shortcut because it drops directly down, off the side of the road, to where it again meets the road, circumventing a gate designed to keep motorized vehicles out. It’s one of those long, steep drops that requires commitment because once you point your wheel downhill, there’s no stopping, short of laying the bike over sideways in the hope you can land on your feet. It’s never a good idea to attempt something with the thought of spotting a place to dismount because it prevents you from looking for the line you need to ride it successfully. I had elected not to ride the shortcut last week as it looked too loose and unpredictable, and the bottom part, which couldn’t be seen from the top could have presented an unpleasant surprise. But this week, with Mike’s assurance that the lower section was clear, I slid over the edge, seat lowered and my butt hung over the back tire. The traction was stable thanks to the motorcycles that had churned up the dirt and small rocks as they powered up.

Towards the end of our climb, there’s another exciting motorcycle trail that connects Upper Workout and Lower Workout, called Chapman’s Cutoff. Unfortunately, we were at the bottom of it. But the thrill of riding it down was tantalizing enough to spur us into climbing to the top. I pushed my bike, racking up some steps for my Fitbit, while Mike tried to float the valves of his heart by riding up. Miraculously, he had to stop only twice to catch his breath but rode the entire grade. At the top, we donned our downhill gear.

Ready for some downhill!

The descent of Chapman’s was short-lived, taking only a fraction of the time it had taken to struggle up the hill, but it was worth the effort. The bikes we ride today make even the sketchiest trails fairly easy compared to the primitive, early mountain bikes we rode in the 90s. Sometimes we wonder, have the trails gotten easier or have our bikes just become that much better. With larger wheels, longer travel shock absorbers, and longer wheel bases, I’m betting it’s the bike! Of course, thirty-five years of experience doesn’t hurt.

Seasons Greetings

I don’t send greeting cards, haven’t in years. There are several reasons why I don’t, but maybe the main reason is because it seems so wasteful to throw away a card you look at, read, prop up on the bookcase for a week or two, and then, with great angst toss it in the recycle bin. I detest the waste and the impersonal nature of the canned greeting. Oh, occasionally I find an inexpensive card at Trader Joes that I think will be perfect for Barb’s birthday and I impulsively buy it. Her birthday comes and goes, the card long forgotten in my desk, so I vow to send it next year. Same thing happens for the next five years, by which time I’ve accumulated another half a dozen cards perfect for someone, but again, never sent.

My thing, and I know this comes as a complete surprise, is the dreaded Christmas letter. To my credit, I do keep it to one page, and that includes pictures of my girls (otherwise known as dogs). I doubt that anybody finds them as amusing as I do, the letters, not the dogs, but I’ve been known to read them year after year and laugh at the same parts every year. A glass of wine enhances the experience.

That is not to say that I don’t appreciate receiving cards. But, being a card snob, I’m hard to impress. My old friend Vickie, who is blessed with a generational sense of humor heads the list of people who are gifted card creators. Her kids and grandkids are co-conspirators in in her wacky Hallmark crew. Here is a sampling from Christmas past:

And this is so appropriate for Christmas 2020.

And here is one from my talented friend, Alice, that will never, in my lifetime, be tossed.

An old friend from Xanga, Cassie, has a artistic friend who creates her Christmas cards every year. They show Cassie with her dog, Lola Pawlana in an appropriate Christmas scene. I have saved every one of them and filed them in a safe place…which I can’t find at the moment.

Memory’s Journey by Rail

Across the street from my house there lies a strip of barren, rocky land, perhaps two hundred feet wide, still referred to as the railroad easement, though for over a decade now, it has only been sheltering a massive water line, fifteen feet below its surface. But when I moved into this semi-rural neighborhood of citrus groves, chicken farms, and mom & pop businesses, the train tracks still stretched west to Redlands and beyond; and disappeared towards the Santa Ana River wash and the ubiquitous, emerald groves of East Highland to the northwest. Spring rains would carpet the easement in waves of native grasses and California Poppies, knee high, where I could tether my horse to graze.

Originally, I assume, this line was built to serve the citrus packing houses that dotted the the area, but by the early 1970s, most of the old, oil-soaked packing houses had been sold to the insurance company. Torched in the dead of night, the flames of their destruction could be seen, like the pillar of fire leading the Israelites, from miles away. Little did we know they were leading us AWAY from the land of milk and honey, instead of towards the proverbial Canaan. King citrus was dying and Prince Strip Mall and Queen Housing Tract were already laying plans for the kingdom’s reformation.

There is no such thing as level ground in our valley and the tracks reached their apex at the point directly in front of my house. Occasionally, an engine would come by, sometimes detach a car or two to be retrieved at some later date, and move on. So, when I awoke one morning and noticed that the grain cars that had been parked the night before were gone, it made no impression. So accustomed were we to the regular huffing and chuffing of the engines, that they no longer registered in our consciousness, nor in our dreams.

That particular morning, my uncle Ted, who lived downhill from us in East Highland, called with barely concealed excitement to inform us that the missing rail cars had made their unchaperoned and reckless journey down to his house where, like teens joyriding in dad’s car, they had taken a curve too fast and piled into an innocent orange grove. Naturally, we all beat cheeks to go visit the scene of the impact.

The immensity of the impact was horrifying. Wheels and axles were strewn like massive tinker toys yards from the cars which were now half buried in the soft dirt of the grove. Their load of millet was spilled in mounds several feet high and scattered as far as one could see. “Manna from heaven!” I heard one bird exclaim. Miraculously, or perhaps testimony to the rural nature of the area at that time, no cars or structures were stuck as the runaway cars careened across three streets before coming to rest less than a mile from a small settlement of immigrant workers.

The trestle as it stood in the 1970s

Today, as I walk my dogs down the easement to the wash, I like to visualize the scene unfolding: a couple of neighborhood boys playing train engineer, discover the lever that locks the wheels and release the cars from their restraint; the cars begin rolling, so slowly at first that the boys can’t believe they are moving; but as the cars gain momentum, quietly creaking under their load, the kids realize there is no stopping what they have set into motion; they leap off the car and watch in amazed horror, tinged with delight, as the cars roll into the smoggy dusk and out of sight.

Rails to trails – the remains of the railroad easement

Now the cars have a life of their own as they pass under the streetlight at San Bernardino Avenue. Rolling sedately past the shuttered Universal Rundle Toilet factory, they approach the trestle that stands twenty-five feet above the trickle of Mill Creek. The groans of the wooden trestle, audible without the noise of the customary engine, attract the attention of a couple of young, coyotes who are just setting out to forage for the evening. The soft, evening air flows over the angular contours of the clumsy carriage, impotent to slow the ever increasing speed of the cars as they now descend into the wash bottom. Rattling over minor trestles that span runoff from unnamed tributaries, the wheels now sing with their newfound freedom. As the rails curve into the silent groves of East Highland the wheels howl at the strain of bearing the heavy load at such unaccustomed speed. Perhaps a grove worker, making his weary way home, hears the clatter as the cars fairly leap across Greenspot Road over the noise of his rattletrap pick-up truck, but his mind dismisses it as he returns to the anticipation of his waiting supper of beans and tortillas. Moments later, the cars hit the uneven tracks crossing Church Street and the wheels jump the tracks. Momentum carries the doomed cars parallel to the tracks for a hundred feet before the wheels are ripped off and the cars plow into the earth, tearing up rows of mature citrus trees as if they were fixtures in a model train diorama.

Uncle Ted, sitting alone at his dining room table, feels the earth tremble. Thinking it is an earthquake, he gets up and turns off his stereo record player to listen for aftershocks, but hears nothing. By morning, the news has traveled through his neighborhood and folks come to stand transfixed at the spectacle.

Today, a strip mall with a Stater Bros. supermarket anchor, covers the scars and the offspring of the millet-stuffed birds flit about in the manicured shrubbery.

Home – Where is That?

I drove my sister Babs to the airport this morning. Under two masks and a pair of glasses, I felt cocooned, just a little isolated from her though she sat beside me in the passenger seat, similarly muffled. Our conversation en route was necessarily superficial as I concentrated on my driving in the thick traffic. As we approached the airport, I admitted to secretly hoping her flight would be cancelled and reminded her to be careful . She speculated that by the time she’s ready to come home, in three weeks, flights may well be shut down. I allowed that I could live with her being 2,200 miles away as long as she was LIVING.

As I watched her walk into the terminal, her wheeled bag in tow, it struck me that there was a very real possibility I might never see her again. I immediately regretted nagging her and wished I’d bid her “bon voyage” and told her how much I loved her instead. But that’s not what we do in our stoic Dutch family.

Babs is paving the way to move permanently to Michigan to live with her second daughter. At this point, she’s traveling back and forth frequently, and availing herself of Southwest’s free checked luggage policy. Today she confided that she had packed a circular saw and a desk lamp in her checked luggage. That should give TSA something to think about. Last time she came home with an empty bag save for packaging materials. The baggage inspectors must have been frustrated after pawing through it and finding nothing of interest because they ruined the bag.

So as I adjust to the idea of my only sister moving far away, I’m forced to wonder exactly what makes home “home”. Is it the familiar place where you have spent the last sixty years of your life? Or is it where your family lives?

While I complain bitterly about the Southern California summers, I’m not at all confident that Michigan winters would be any more to my liking. There’s no doubt that Michigan has its charms beyond having extended family, but considering how seldom I actually visit my sister, niece, and great-nephew who live just four miles away, would I really see the Michigan family if it meant driving on icy roads?

And then there are the friends and acquaintances that surround me like ripples from a stone tossed into a tranquil pond. How my life would be diminished if I had to part with them!

So, for now, home is the familiar places, the trails I love, the friends and acquaintances of a lifetime, and an ever-shrinking family. My sister says I’m getting emotional in my old age; she’s right, of course.

TP Search

After reading an article that said all of the wonderfully plush toilet paper we had been enjoying was made from virgin Canadian forests, I have been on a mission to find an environmentally friendly tissue that won’t rip me a new a$$#@!!. Research suggested that Trader Joes recycled TP was one of the best but Mike complained that, with our vegetarian-diet-induced bowel movement frequency, his backside was getting rubbed raw by the tree-friendly product.

Imagine my delight when I found allegedly butt-friendly paper made from sustainably grown bamboo at Costco. Thinking of my unimaginably soft shirt made of bamboo, I brought a jumbo sized package home, at no small expense.

We have choices: bamboo TP or Pedi-egg.

I think maybe they used the thick stalks rather than the tender leaves to make this tissue. And, I can’t object if the panda bears are getting the tender parts, but my tender parts are not immediately thrilled with the leftovers. One side of the paper is reasonably smooth, but the other side resembles a cheese grater or maybe one of those things you use to remove calluses on your feet. Woe unto the half-asleep woman who stumbles into the bathroom and 4:00 A.M. and thoughtlessly applies the grater side to her moist parts!

I’m beginning to question how important virgin forests in Canada really are. Maybe we should leave the bamboo for pandas, sheets and tee-shirts.

It Really IS a Wonderful Life

Ah, rain, blessed rain, has finally come to these parts after 170 days of sunshine. Though 170 days without rain isn’t unusual, we always celebrate the true end of summer when the mountains get their first dusting of snow.

Sally and I took advantage of the holiday to enjoy the newly improved traction on the wash singletracks which we have been riding ever since the El Dorado wildfire closed our summertime trails in the mountains.

The watershed of Mill Creek offers a mountain biker’s paradise with natural features to challenge riders of almost any skill level. As the trails dry out over the summer, they get increasingly difficult as the sand gets deep and loose wherever it has been churned up by motorcycles, horses, and do-gooders who remove rocks to sanitize the trail. Today, we felt invincible as we carved turns with new-found confidence, our knobbed tires hooking up flawlessly in the moist dirt.

Sally had been experiencing mild symptoms of a cold all week so we rode in masks and kept a safe distance between us. Climbing while emaskulated can be a little uncomfortable as the heavy breathing tends to make the mask wet in a short time, but it was cool enough that we could ignore the mild discomfort. We decided to forego the pleasure of a post-ride lunch on the patio until she was symptom free.

There’s nothing like the first ride of the season to dispel any lingering depression. The challenges of Covid appear manageable and the post-election problems seem surmountable. Let’s get on with enjoying this wonderful life!

A Death in the Family

When I was twenty, I imagined I was all grown up and ready to plan the rest of my life. Even if I had had a clue about what I would want for the rest of my life, planning wasn’t my strong suit…and still isn’t. I met a boy who made me laugh, who could sing like Paul McCartney, and who was a Democrat. I married him while we were both children, he was 21 going on 15. I was young and dumb but far more responsible.

I parlayed his CalVet loan into a modest house in a diverse neighborhood that consisted mostly of older people who had built the homes they lived in. The house we bought had been built by the uncle of the next door neighbor. Decades later, when my present husband remodeled the kitchen, we found scrawled inside the wall, “Lois begain(sic) his house 1940”.

And so, we were able to guess that the two Chinaberry trees in the front yard had probably been planted before the end of World War II.

Little Tree
The bigger tree that shaded the driveway

Over the last forty-seven years, husbands have come and gone, but year after year these stoic trees added to their girth as they sheltered my yard and house from the relentless afternoon sun. Their lavender blossoms carpeted my driveway in spring and sent my allergies into high gear. Their arching branches provided a safe refuge for cats, raccoons, and opossums escaping marauding dogs and coyotes. Birds of a feather flocked together in the cool canopy of lacy leaves. And each fall I cursed them as they covered the lawn in leaves, and then sticks and berries. All trees are messy but these took mess to new heights.

My mom, always the practical one, advised me, year after year to take them out before they damaged the house and each year I would have them trimmed instead, loath to give up the glorious shade they provided.

BUT, a few days ago I noticed a faint whiff of sewage coming from the kitchen septic tank. Thinking the filter had gotten clogged, Mike went out and drained the tank and cleaned it thoroughly. But then he noticed that there was standing water where there should not be standing water. Excavation revealed that the leach pit was full and there was standing water in the leach line. A bit of online research revealed that this particular tree was not only invasive above ground but they were also an anathema to underground plumbing.

Making the decision to remove my eighty-year old trees felt like deciding to put down a beloved pet. Mike and I were both sick to our stomach with dread, but eventually came to the understanding that we had no choice.

The stumps stand in mute agony…or do I anthropomorphize?

Tomorrow the tree cutters will come to remove the stumps and we will begin the adjustment that follows every change in life. Everything we know is ephemeral but trees always seem symbolic of permanence, especially when their presence has been a part of one’s life from brash youth to maturity.

So, to Lois, who begain his house in 1940, I say thank you for your foresight…but next time please pick trees with less invasive root systems.