To E or Not to E

The hot craze in cycling these days is the E-bike or electric motor assisted pedal bike. Naturally, we purists disdain the newbies who go sailing by us as we struggle up the grade on our “real” bikes, and take particular delight in making a display of our superior bike handling skills as we use them for slalom poles on the technical descents, though most of them stick to the wide open, dirt roads, while we favor the rutted, overgrown road less traveled.

The perils of Covid drove hordes of people from the malls and restaurants, to the great outdoors, where they behaved with city slicker naiveté. Our once pristine trails are now dotted with toilet paper, and energy bar wrappers. The narrow “singletrack” paths, so prized by the mountain bike elitist, have been widened by the clumsy maneuvers of the over-powered beginner.

E-bikes range in ability and price from a few hundred dollars, for a behemoth that weighs in at over 50 pounds, to the nimble, truly mountain-bike like Orbea that I covet, that tips the scale at under 40 pounds, costing upwards of $11,000. For a 120 pound woman, that ten+ pounds difference means I could lift the $11,000 bike onto my bike rack, over un-rideable rock gardens, and I could probably push it up trails too technical for my skill level to ride. I’ve been promising myself an E-bike when I turn 70, which is now only about a year and a half away.

The May-gray spring weather (or June gloom) as the lingering marine layer is called, has allowed us to ride the local trails longer, even though there hasn’t been enough rain to create any real traction this year. So, Sally and I headed up to the Crafton Hills Conservancy last weekend to explore some of the less frequented trails that drop off the ridge into the valley to the South. Less frequented, that is, before E-bikes made it possible for every couch potato in the county to access them.

We encountered several people walking up the fire road (a dirt road used by fire crews to combat wildfires) and a couple of groups of young people on E-bikes who breezed past us, chatting loudly over the music they were broadcasting so that everyone within a quarter of a mile was forced to listen to it. One walking couple commented with some admiration that we were climbing the hill on “real” bikes and the young woman, when learning that I was her grandmother’s age, gushed that we were an inspiration.

Our discomfort at having to ride in proximity to the great un-washed was quickly ameliorated when we began our descent of the legendary Motorcycle Trails. I can only assume that anyone who leaves toilet paper on the trail probably has other reprehensible habits. Not that I find the un-washed body nearly as offensive as the overly perfumed, which the mall crowd is prone to be. But I digress…

A few years ago, Sally and I rode these challenging trails once a week, until we knew every rut, of which there were many, every twist and off camber turn, and every lock-em-up slider descent by heart. We could navigate the nearly over-grown paths with such alacrity that better riders than we were left in the dust. One-trail wonders we were.

So, now we returned to test our aging mettle. Traversing a familiar ridge, we varied the familiar course by taking a track that followed an unfamiliar trail down a different ridge. Off in the distance, we could see that it would drop to the south side of the conservancy which would necessitate a short climb back to the car. The first couple of descents down the ridge were confidence inspiring, allowing us to gather sufficient momentum to pedal furiously up the next hill. The day was cool and we had no need to watch for snakes…or so we assumed. But the third descent proved to be a bit more exciting.

All geared up for some downhill thrills

Cautiously rolling up to the brow of the hill, we scanned the trail below. The path was maybe ten feet wide, widened by many other riders having looked for traction to the side of the original track, but there was no obvious line. Loathe to walk a single foot of hard-won elevation, I steered a course down the middle of the extremely sketchy descent. My bike was built for just such a scramble and my tires were perfectly suited to the conditions. Skidding and sliding both wheels, it was an exhilarating experience to say the least. Sally, on her worn tires, had little choice but to point her bike downhill and hope to find some semblance of traction, or otherwise, be left so far behind that the coyotes would consider her fair game. I love this woman’s courage. This is the thing bonding is made of.

As we carved flawless turns coasting down the last few hills, we marveled at the pure joy of being able to share this experience. And as we climbed the half mile back to the car, still high on the adrenaline of the thrilling descent, we agreed, “We don’t need no stinking E-bike!”

More Wanderlust Adventure

It was a dark and stormy night…well, maybe not. But seriously, the weather forecast for the long-awaited camping trip to Valley of Fire was dire. Wind, gusting wind up to 50 mph, and possible rain showers were predicted for most of the time that we had reserved a camp site. Naturally, the weather was expected to improve on the day we were to leave for home. Considering how uncomfortable camping in the wind is, a few of the less enthusiastic tent campers bowed out. But My Favorite Niece (MFN) Tara, sister Babs, and nine of Tara’s more intrepid hiker friends girded their loins for the epic adventure.

The Wanderlust, being a fold-down trailer, is not affected much by wind and my SUV is stable and aerodynamic, so the six-hour drive across the Mojave Desert was comfortable but I was still concerned about conditions at Valley of Fire. By the time I reached our camp site, the wind had died to a comfortable 7-10 mph and I was able to set up my trailer without assistance.

MFN Tara had invited several members of her hiking group, most of whom I didn’t know, and they began arriving shortly after I had set up. Introductions were made and the revelry began.

Dinner preparations were made more or less independently but the theme was chili. I heated vegetarian chili and green chili/cheese corn bread for Babs, Tara and me. Our diverse group consisted of omnivores, vegetarians, vegans and carnivores all of whom agreed that good food was essential to a successful outdoor experience. Similarly, a respectable amount of socially lubricating libation added to the good vibrations.

If memory serves, there was a bit of gusty wind during the night but nobody complained in the morning. At any rate, we were happy to set out for a day of hiking with a mild breeze and perfect 60 something temperatures.

Description of the Valley of Fire defies my feeble abilities, so I will allow the following images to speak for me.

Gisela with her terrier, Bindi, and me with Molly & Sadie – the intrepid rock climbers.
Scrambling down a small slot.
Browsing Big Horned Sheep obligingly posed for our cameras.

The morning breeze made the confines of my little trailer the perfect place for the tent campers to gather for hot tea and coffee.

Sister Babs joined the morning coffee club.
MFN Tara and Pseudo Sister Kristy studiously ignored my dirty dishes sitting in the sink.
Jamison, Jean Paul, Cindy and Babs enjoying a break from the chilly breeze.

After a day of hiking, we visited the showers. There was no waiting and plenty of hot water, no quarters needed as they were included in the camping fees (which were quite reasonable considering how lovely the campground was).

Gisela, the woman of the lovely skin, kindly posed for this image.

The evening was passed pleasantly around a campfire, nestled against the cliff wall, and sheltered from the breeze. Craig provided music of professional quality with his guitar and beautiful singing, which went almost ignored as the conversation became rapid-fire and ribald and everyone relaxed.

After two days of hiking, it was time to head home. I was loathe to leave and lingered after my fellow campers had gone their separate ways. But the long drive home weighed heavily on my mind, so after double checking the trailer connections, we hit the road. The girls weren’t much for conversation and slept most of the way, waking only to sniff the recent history at the pit stop we made at a remote freeway off-ramp. We were back home long before dark and had time to unload the trailer before dinner.

All tucked away and ready for the next adventure.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

You would think that every camping trip would pretty much entail the same thing and therefore require the same preparation. But you would be wrong. Well, maybe you’re right, but I can still make a four day trip into a week of planning. Believing that anticipation is half the fun, I start making lists of meals to make and the requisite grocery lists (Yvonne at Hello World would love to get her hands on my lists, clothes to pack, electronics to charge, camping trailer to ready (an entire list unto itself), and pre-trip cooking for the husband and mother-in -law, left behind, and the campers, sister Babs and niece Tara.

To say that Babs and Tara are not fond of cooking would be a gross understatement. When Covid restrictions hit, the only thing my sister missed more than her yoga class was eating in restaurants. For me, not much changed other than my grocery shopping attire.

A typical trip to the grocery store before vaccination

So, I’m the designated cook and sommelier, since neither of them are big wine drinkers either. Knowing that after a hard day of hiking and biking, I’m not inclined to bending over a too-low cook stove for anything more than re-heating, I prepare and freeze entrees and pack fresh stuff for salads. If I do say so myself, my salads are a work of art. This trip, my sister volunteered to make her legendary vegetable lasagna. That leaves me with just chili and cornbread, and another meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

When my garden is hibernating, I shop three or four different stores to find the ingredients for my “green” salads.

Today’s list, two days before lift off, went as follows:

Wash & vacuum car;
Go to Steve’s house to pick oranges;
Pick grapefruit at Robin’s (next door);
Locate wheel lock (just in case I get a flat tire);
Trader Joes – they have the best heirloom tomatoes and snack foods;
Ranch Market – they have the best and cheapest produce and tortillas made fresh while you watch;
Pick kumquats at Barb’s house;
Transplant tomato seedlings (they may be too big to separate by the time I return);
Make yogurt/peanut butter dip;
Do laundry;
Take a nap.

Tomorrow everything gets loaded into the Wanderlust for an early Tuesday departure. The dogs, seeing the preparations, are following me around like little shadows, either in anticipation or fear of being left behind.

Emotional Roller Coaster

A month ago I was ecstatic to find a Covid vaccination available at our local hospital. I had been searching the internet for weeks without success. I had heard stories of people who had driven to pharmacies fifty miles away and others who had waited in line for hours, and I was ready to sign up for any appointment I could find, regardless of inconvenience. I secured appointments for my husband, my friend and myself and we eagerly awaited the date, about a week away. All went according to schedule, we were vaccinated, bragged about our sore arm and minimal side effects, and began counting down the days until our next scheduled appointment to get the booster shot.

Spirits soared with the anticipation of some return to normalcy in our lives. I booked an appointment with my hairdresser for a long over due hair cut (I’m still debating whether to go back to coloring) for April, and I purchased airline tickets to attend my great-niece’s wedding in June. And best of all, I anticipated a camping trip to Valley of Fire with family and friends.The relief was startling to me since I hadn’t thought that I’d been that preoccupied with the limitations Covid had placed on my life.

Immersed in preparing the garden for spring planting, the days passed happily, until the day before the anticipated booster shot. Then, a call from the hospital informed me that they didn’t have the vaccine available and would have to reschedule the second shot. I was devastated. Everything I had heard and read, indicated that all available vaccines would be managed so that everyone who had received the first shot would be assured of having the booster available when needed. I’ve found no information about the repercussions of not getting the second one within four weeks of the first. I’m trusting that supplies will be available by next week when we are scheduled again and that five weeks will be good enough. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

All garden prep in Mentone begins with rock removal.
Molly oversees the newly planted beet seeds. The shadow of Mum’s house recedes from the garden a little more each day.
The promise of crisp apples to come.
Heirloom tomatoes in the making

So, it’s back to the garden for some renewal therapy. There’s something about watching seeds turn into little green sprouts, indiscernible from weeds at first, that can’t help but inspire hope. The joyful blossoms on the apple tree, tell me that all will be well. The marble-sized nectarines promise a sweet, juicy treat in a few scant months. And the piles of dog poop tell me I have immediate purpose.

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:

Image result for reel lawn mower graphics

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.