The Descent

The following took place sometime in the late spring of 2018.


"Adios amigos!"

It's my usual send off. I make final helmet adjustments and push off from the summit of Mt Verdugo, quickly separated from my gang of mountain biking friends still at the top. Ed, Alan, Russ, Tod, Peter to name a few of the usual suspects. I barely catch their response.

The fire road drops abruptly in a straight line to the first hair pin turn. It peels off to the right sharply. Speed comes quickly in the straight. I resist using the brakes. Let my steel steed fly for a moment.

Approaching the turn you can see the western view far beyond it. Far out "Into the Great Wide Open", (thanks, Tom Petty) and the view on this night is dazzling.

In the Friday night dusk, San Fernando Valley has become illuminated in a sea of sparkles. Universal Studios fireworks. Burbank Airport with Southwest flights touching down.

The uniform grid of  boulevards: Magnolia, Burbank, Vanowen streaking East/West crossing with Vineland, Lankershim and Laurel Canyon going North/South.

And circling it all are the tips of the Santa Monica mountains. Looking dark and velvety. Moments ago their saddles had cradled the sun with its last direct sunlight of the day.

You have to soak all in less than two seconds. Here comes the first turn.

Just before the turn I liberally apply the brakes, just for a second. Dust flies up. I force the outside pedal down, pushing every pound of my body weight through my left thigh, calf and ankle. Straight down to the ball of my foot.

My center of gravity sufficiently lowered to just 6 inches from the ground, I push the bike down and to the right, keeping my body plum to the ground - but a little forward over the bars.

Just the slightest rear brake applied, the big knobbies begin working their magic. With the perfect pressure (slightly soft, but not too much) they dig for traction, kick up the dirt, hold the line and track me through the turn to the next straight away.

It's cool that this move is so similar to a well executed alpine ski turn.

I let the bike back upright, inline with my stance. Acceleration. This straight section is much longer. The next right turn is way further on down, at a T intersection.

More speed than before and this next turn is complex. A fall-away with steep angle rain ruts on the inside right, then again on the outside left. The proper line takes you along the far left edge of road before making your move to thread the two ruts as you carve right. If you're off line, you have to brake hard to get through the ruts without incident.

And so it goes for the first several turns. Letting the bike run. Unleashed on the straights. Carry your momentum through the turn. Hopefully a little drifting too, if you dare. This night, the turns come easy. It's not lost on me. There have been many a ride when I cannot get the bike to respond.

Eventually the daredevil is flushed out of my system. I tone it down. Cruising speed. Deep breath. Relax.

This is the descent, my way. For the uninitiated, it can be more brutal than the climb. Especially in winter, when a tolerable 42 degrees at elevation becomes 32 with the wind chill created by bombing downward.

But tonight is different. The night air is so perfect. No wind. Warm, even at speed. I am totally comfortable with out any extra layers, just my t-shirt. Visibility is high and the pink light has softened the views of Mt Lukens to the north and Mt Wilson to the east.

The light has an intoxicating effect, making the distant chaparral appear soft and fluffy.

I'm in my element and relaxed. What a great night. Off the saddle, I stand on my pedals. Knees and elbows bent slightly. Leaning into the mountain wind. It feels cleansing.

The bike is tuned, tight and quiet. No suspension front or rear, but the beefy tires and my stance tame the terrain very well. Flesh and bones and fat tires in full cooperation.

I know this fire road upside down and backwards. Every bump, rut, corner, rock and mud patch. Memorized from decades of riding here. During the climb, I spy anything new or different - but mostly its the same this night.

The Rock Garden, Refrigerator Corner, The Eastern Straight, Grand View, Spencer's Corner are nick names I've given some of the prominent sections.

Down, down, down.

My mini cow bell dings psychotically, shaking from the handle bars. It has a little sliding switch to turn it on. Hikers usually hear me coming before I see them, they move to the side. Even so, I reduce my speed to a lollygag. "Howdy folks".

Speeding through a crowded section of trail is just plain dumb and inconsiderate. I take it slow, say hello. It's one of the best uses of the mighty mountain bike brakes.

The riding comes easy tonight. Sometimes you have to fight to get into the flow. Not this night. The mountain, weather and state of mind are aligned and fused.

Somehow I have stumbled into the eye of a profound confluence. I feel as though I could close my eyes and let it take over.

I move to the outer edge of the road. The mountain drops down and far away. The view is now to the North, looking across the smaller, more charming Crescenta Valley - framed with the Angles National Forest behind it. My home is down there, just beyond that one hill with the water tank.  Yay, I have a long way to go!

A long stream of Ravens pass above me in the opposite direction. They are amazing. For this moment we share the sky. They carve and dive. I'm carving and diving, flying with them, high above the 210 Freeway and La Tuna Canyon road. Give me a cape. I'm the flying bike-man.

The light is still pink but turning blue. All the neighborhoods at this height looking peaceful and cozy. I flick on my headlight.

My mind drifts off. I look forward to a shower and catching up with my wife when I get back. We usually share a late dinner. It's Friday evening, the weekend has just begun. What is going on tomorrow?

Down, down, down. Through the Eastern Straight. Around Grand View.

Something darts off the road into the brush. My mind snaps back. Coyote. Yes, I've seen him (or her) down here before. Good luck wild dog, stay away from P-42, the local cougar.

I have seen so many critters here. Each sighting is a gift. I love them all, even the raccoons and skunks as they waddle off to the side as I pass. Even the bees from the temporary hives placed near the bottom.

Down, down, down. Around Spencer's Corner.

A few more turns. The road begins to flatten. Back in the saddle, I down-shift to keep the bike at speed.

The freeway and La Tuna Canyon road are close now. The roar of vehicles. The basting of headlights. The urban world begins my extraction from the folds of the Verdugo's. 

The gate near the parking area is coming, but the road offers one last long straight where you realize your top speed of the night. Top gear. Spinning madly. Flying. The knobby tires groaning. Dirt flings from the bike.

The gate comes into view of my headlight. I bring the bike to a near stop and squeeze through the small gap. The threshold has been crossed. A clear line of delineation between the urban and the wild. I've just crossed back to the people, cars, and noise.

The descent is complete, but this one was especially memorable. It only takes less than 20 minutes, but isn't it amazing how time is warped and stretched when mind, body, spirit and the mountains blessings all converge to create a something special from an ordinary occurrence.

A reminder to be thankful when you suddenly become the center of the universe, if not only for a few moments.

Been riding lately?


Comments (3) -

Anthony Mikkonen
Anthony Mikkonen 2/4/2019 4:51:46 PM

Amazing writing Doug. I think you should write a book of sorts. Incredible read.

Thank you,



Thanks so much Tony.  I miss riding up there in dry conditions. We've had so much rain, it's a complete mud pit right now.

Lyz O'Keefe
Lyz O'Keefe 2/20/2019 10:42:32 AM

Hey Doug!  I really enjoyed this read--so descriptive.   I rode the downhill with you as I read and for a moment enjoyed being there again.

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