Well, if you want to know the truth, I left the darned helmet at home yesterday. Living dangerously(?) except that I'd slapped on some sun block.
Nor did I mind the snakes along the way. They startle us because they're inert and snap into life so quickly--and to worsen things they wait until the last second to move. Saw two basking in the sun: a thin black one that did a quick reverse and slipped off into the sycamores, and later a grey-green lazy bones that stayed still as a discarded inner tube a few inches from my wheels.
I'm on a paved path someone was kind of enough to create; it wanders in and out of housing developments and golf courses, mini parks, random religious establishments, under two tollways and at both ends "nature." Here on the north end, all the big loud motorcycles and their big loud friends outside Cook's Corner seem not in the least menacing as I pedal slowly onto the street. The pathway ends here where the foothills climb into national forest land. I go about half a mile along Santiago Canyon, unconcerned that this is where cats eat people on bikes, and I'm a person on a bike.
A few of those machines roar by, both directions, their crackling engines echoing against Whiting Ranch Wilderness Area on one side, O'Neill Regional Park on the other. These men and their women wrapped around their backs seem so Californian to me--in fact historic--that they seem wild, too, part of the landscape that puts the words "ranch" and "wilderness" together and expects us to believe it.
I also see rabbits, squirrels, an old black raven with a beak like a rail spike. At one point a dark flying bug smacks into my eyelid (still hurts), somehow managing to go right over my glasses, but not into my eye... Anyway, I turn around finally, take it easy and coast most of the way home, kinda sorta watching out for killer bees.
More overcast mornings have us in a funk, all weary and wobbly through the hours before noon. I'm surrounded by zombies at work, hungry for brains. I admit to a sluggish desire to bury myself deep under blankets and sleep through this idle slab of the day, but it's not part of a viable economic system. We have to get up and shake off these clouds, pretend it's worth it, at least Monday through Friday.
Besides, I still prefer semi-darkness to that beam of summer sunlight in August that cuts through the heaviest drapes and scans across my room like a Xerox machine. I can get up, just give me a minute.
So I tug on my bicycle helmet (the boss has a fit if I don't), tighten my shoelaces. Fill my water bottle, carry the bike to the door. Turn off the radio (as NPR shifts into its second half hour) and step outside. Seconds later I'm squeezing the brakes, letting myself down the hill gently toward historic El Toro Road below--a paved six-to-eight-lane thoroughfare between two steep hillsides. I pedal this flat section of my route for a half a mile and maneuver right to face a gradual but imposing, loooong upward climb.
I go at it, lowering gears. The clouds aren't so bad where there is no shade. Smashed bottles glimmer like stones under water. An interesting roadside mosaic of glass, gaskets, pennies, squashed pine cones, whatever can stick to the ground and not roll downhill, distract me from the Cadillac Escalades and UPS trucks roaring past at 50 mph. Defensive steering is like a first cup of coffee. Objets d'art become more real. Clarity.
The pines beside the road, by the way, the bushes and flowers: all planted by man. Groomed urban landscaping on the top of a coastal scrub hill? Where are the sheep? Daffodils and street lamps, sign posts, stop lights, a golf course. Yeah, I know I'm waking up when I see these things I wouldn't dream about.
Southern California is bipolar in early summer. It can be as dark as the day of a funeral, the clouds as low as bowed heads, but it doesn't rain. Then sunlight punches holes in the gloom, and it separates like cotton matting. Ten minutes later, the sky gleams like the hood of a brand-new car. Our eyes flutter and we're awake.
I like the fog and stillness of a gray morning, when the day stirs into consciousness with the rest of us. Otherwise it's like that roommate or family member who hops out of bed at 5:30 and starts banging around in the kitchen all happy and energetic. We hate those people and they should know it! The sun should never shine before noon. Give me June Gloom or May Gray all year: a little time before the the day takes on its bright urgency, as if there won't be another tomorrow. There will be.
The collected ice slips off the edges of the trail, squashed by the weight of spring sunlight. The bear tracks go with it, lost evidence, and before me the ground shows up intermittent, where the shade falls short this mid-afternoon, too slight to sustain any winter.
I've resigned I am not out to play or to answer some flicker of angst. All those drives and desires dropped off long ago, as ice into water, a dream that melts into river, downstream and washed clean from my mind.
Why, an arrow could cut past my ear and stab halfway through the red bark beside me; it could pluck a stark navy jay from the air. Would I duck? It is silly to imagine such absent adventures, with the highway buzzing nine miles away and the comet streak of an airplane dissipating in the cobalt sky.
The satiny mountains curve steep and heave from their imposing heights white gobs of snow in such slow motion it oozes like magma into the cup of a valley below. This disintegration of the earth, followed by its own rebirth, all sparkly dark gray granite on top, chopped up into canyons, channeled through depths to pour into washes that gush out green life; all this has contributed to the pellet of stone that has threaded its way into my shoe. And this dreadful walking everywhere I go! unbound by maps; with a failing floppy hat? Sad. I like to think I am alone--though to wander at leisure by a long-settled boulder or under the branches of an unkempt pine popping with finches, over ground crisscrossed with the patterns of otherwise invisible predators, I can only place solitude as an imagined illusion undone by the land.
I liked back then the open parking lot at California's edge; a single triangular shack stood in the corner, kinda greenish blue, a visitor's center so bleak it made my beige four-door Cavalier look like a Lamborgini and high-rise Harrah's and the Horizon across the state line miracles of architecture. The countrified replacement took a few years to construct (it's quite gargantuan and rather overwhelming, so when you drive by you get that canyon feeling: faux cabinesque shops, a hotel made of hip Lincoln Logs and a neato gondola which you can ride for the price of a car payment or--if you know my friend Larry--for free).
I should check generalizations about Tahoe; the basin's somewhat protected, after all, being part of a national forest and also, some say, overregulated by a planning commision that favors the rich. But then again, what doesn't?
Some nature slips past the human gridlock and redevelopment: snowflakes in mid-May, rain on the golf course, invisible bears at night. Steller's jays build their nest and care for their young inches from the door into Donna and Larry's house. Jays are skittish, but they've warmed up to that spot over the years and get to stay as long as they want. I'm so jealous.
Upstairs in the great attic of California crowded with antiques, prehistory edges toward oblivion, like the early entries of a blog, long buried under new stuff. Remember when rustic meant a real log cabin chopped down with your bare hands and packed upright with mud? These poor retirees with their surround sound, green lawns and hot tubs have to live all civilized-like, as if they haven't settled in the woods at all. There's little magic or adventure that isn't pre-designed playground: ski, ride, speed, bet, fore! with limited parking.
I know the silver barons sent armies to the basin to raid the stores a century and a half ago, and like a fleet of semi trucks the ancient felled trees skied down the mountains toward Nevada (much of the old forest rots in the crypts of long-abandoned silver mines underneath Virginia City). The same steep hillside now is furrowed with trails and concrete switchbacks. In addition the Carson Valley has transformed and continues to fill at a brisk pace; before the end of my lifetime it should look something like the San Fernando Valley, and as aging California emigrants slowly peter out, their grandchildren and the offspring of foreign casino workers will clutter those tracts with a hyper-urban post-history I can only imagine... and probably should not.
Instead I walk downhill through the thick flowers, neck-high and all thin green stalks, the tiniest yellow tops like bees. They're Catholic invaders, sticky and close together as thatch, something one could basketize or tighten into a noose even though they're weeds (and they sound like bees, too--the whole park buzzes with hidden hives). Tiny paintbrushes and forlorn poppies wait underneath with hopes to get a glimpse of sunlight. Down below I know there is an oak grove with sycamore partners and water running through it, all the way to Emerald Bay (there's more than one!?!), but I have to turn back because this wilderness preserve closes at four, and it's almost three already. Next day, another hike ends abruptly, just after the start; the trail splits about a quarter mile in, the two cliffs about a dozen feet apart, facing each other with awkward longing. Could probably climb down and back up again, but the signs say not to, and I'm so lawful it's disgusting.
The frogs are mostly silent, rocks and sand look up from down below, embarrassed to have fallen so far. Whatever bridge that had connected these two parts washed down the ravine into the open sea approximately two months ago, and with rain an ongoing Southland event, the peeps in charge aren't likely to repair said damage any time soon. This one's about six or seven miles from home, where the busy PCH traffic and parked cars make it impossible to ride a bike, so my waste of gas at first frustrates, then I remember I wouldn't have seen that ancient pelican, grey as basement cobwebs, riding the breeze, arthritic span stretched wide as a 747, with a tiny adopted grandson, probably a swallow, chasing close behind, furiously beating its tiny wings to keep up.
The tunnel only gets darker. You think things are okay, that they can't do that anymore. Then the faint light so far off in the distance disappears, an illusion after all, a trick of the mind. Because the game is only a game, it isn't close to real. What's real is money, and its appeal never wanes. It far outweighs any other argument.
In this case, money grows on trees, but you have to get to those trees first, so you carve into the wild with your mechanized, temp-job supplying, oil-gulping yeller monsters & you pluck, one by one, the flowers of your wealth, chop off the heads and the roots, strip off the bark, whittle down the trunks into logs and boards and mash the rest into pulp. You ship it to Mexico or China or wherever the labor's cheapest. The kids there turn the wood into sagging DVD cabinets, futons, wobbly coffee tables. They even make the boxes to store pre-constructed wares at Ikea or Wal-Mart, repositories that stretch over what used to be farm fields, formerly prairie. Employed by this for a brief time, some happy poor people buy booze, cartons of smokes and psychic readings, Happy Meals and give some money to the church. In China, the job doesn't matter, there's more work to come along because Americans, heads turned by that flickering box on their brand-new media cabinet, haven't noticed that their whole founding identity, the wild, the great expanse that was once America, is...
Like hidden volcanoes, towns founded one day cracked and exploded the next. Chunks of city dropped a hundred miles away, and then from that crater and over the century the development oozed and spread, filled in the empty spaces with pre-fab homes and 7-11s, nail parlors, donut shops, sushi joints. Friday night I counted twelve of the latter on Ventura Boulevard between Coldwater Canyon and Lankershim (I wasn't trying to count--they were just that obvious). That's more fad than socio-geological phenomenon; yet still urban, porous and bubbles of a magmatic growth.
This gradual spill escalates at times and in different places, and that is what we find now, where the United States, poor thing, is the only Western country losing "empty" space; Europe complains of immigration, but its overall population is dropping. Japan's also, as the East goes, is steadying, and they, too, find their citizenry changing faces. This appears horrendous and felonious and unfair to many of us; perhaps in legal terms it is wrong; but one thing money does is make people less fertile. Maybe this migration, this spread of cities outward into the most distant intemperate desert cracks--with everyone working and leading lives so prosperous they can afford to eat raw fish--will lead to the reduction of the world's overstock. That's what we can hope for, anyway, despite pension fears and other nonsensical whatnot. Too bad we'll all be dead when it happens.
The collective child in our heads
gains exit through our fingertips,
wildly developing an illicit web
of quiet rage.
Wrapped inside such warm cocoons,
we sleep awake,
trapped within this cyber stage
content, alone, "communicating,"
distracted from our age.
And yet the welcoming refrains
create abstract online alliances;
these encounters, so unlikely,
so remote, in any case,
are like the stars we seem to think
we could carve right from the sky:
a thousand light years from our eyes.