All Up Mount Wilson – All Down in the Family

For a young man, leading an independent life and enjoying a glorious southern California summer, the Voice of Experience speaks softly. Pain and Abasement choose to use less-subtle expressions.

My bicycle, a Raleigh Supercourse, had been a happy companion for months. I found that it had such superb traction that I could corner a narrow, smooth, concrete sidewalk so well that I could drag a foot pedal if I weren’t careful. Free rides downhill, purchased with large denominations of worthless Jim-sweat, blasted me with eye-wincing winds and the zinging clicks of the coaster gear. It was the perfect time for a new and bigger adventure.

The Caltech Christian Fellowship provided a few graduate-student friends, fellows whom a mere undergrad might otherwise only know by way of envy. Ray (was that his name? the years know – I no longer do) was a smaller, but well-conditioned guy. He suggested that we go on one of the more popular bike excursions – a trip to the top of Mount Wilson.

Others at Caltech had made this trip. Ray had already reached the pinnacle several times before. My buddy Paul J., bicyclist extraordinaire, made the trip so often that he must have had a physiological need for it. Not that you could tell by looking at him – he was sorta short, and his face was angelic. Others chose speed over prowess. There was a Caltech record for driving time. Ruddock House (Note) President, Bill B., had made his mark in a Porsche (356?). The paucity of guard rails had not deterred him. My Father, prescient and proud, had driven Mother, brother Jack, and I up the winding Angeles Crest Highway and Mt. Wilson Road when I was 15.    Note: Caltech undergrad housing was 7 Houses, not Greek but very Frat.

This trip would be better for having a third – Ray’s fellow grad, “Rock”. That’s right, another name that I will never remember. But it’s the right name. Rock was tough, wirey, and obviously ready to go anywhere he told his legs to go. Both of these guys were my superiors, which was great – I love a challenge.

We were each prepared similarly. The top of a mountain can be chilly, even in southern California’s June. I carried a wool overshirt (Oh, do you already know about this lovely Pendleton item?) for the high road. Water, yes. Probably not much more – what more could a young, strong, virile, vibrant man need?

Much of the distance of the trip was city streets, because the Crest Highway began in La Canada (that’s: lah cahn YAH dah, folks), northwest of Pasadena and the Arroyo known for the Rose Bowl. Within a mile of entering the Crest, we faced the backbreaker. This short stretch of highway was the steepest extended section of the entire trip. Ray and I could not make our bicycles move uphill by pedalling. We walked two miles. Rock was undeterred. The frame of his bicycle complained, speaking in a voice distinct for its metallic crystal domains screeching against one another. I think that I could even hear the paint whining like a starving puppy. Rock, typically laconic, remained quiet. He waited for us uphill.

This was a joyous route. Everyone would enjoy the beauty we rolled through. It was a Good Thing that we were doing. We would soon be at the Ranger Station, a near-midway point. It was a good place to pause, take water, and check on conditions ahead.

We barely bothered to stop at the Ranger Station. We knew, about when we saw the cabin, what the conditions were. We were in them, starting at that cabin. It was sleeting.

The only thing that a young, strong, virile, vibrant man might have needed was a phone call, to the ranger station, before leaving Pasadena.

It was irrelevant that the temperature behind us was 70F with clear skies. The cabin presented a demarcation with the contrast of the Korean DMZ. Hey, we made it this far! It’ll be cold, but it’s only the same distance further, so let’s go!

Putting on the wool overshirt provided the only opportunity to put my feet on the gravel for a moment. With it, I would at least be bearably uncomfortable. Uhhhh, maybe not. Just a few miles of riding made my previously under-utilized brain begin pondering reality. Sleet sticks to a wool overshirt very well. The consequence is a total loss of insulation. I could just as well have been naked. I would not have felt worse.

Ray and I were finished before the finish. It wasn’t just the cold and wet. The rims of our wheels were so crusted with ice that the brakes were gone. The tires didn’t have much of a connection with the road, either. We chained our bikes to the spruces about two miles from the top. We walked up. Rock didn’t slow down. It was the last time that I saw him, as he climbed the next hairpin turn.

Rock wasn’t utterly invincible or indefatigable. He and Ray hitched a ride together, down the mountain. It was easy for me to get a ride, too. A couple of guys near my age were friendly and ready to go down. Let’s call them Earl and Melvin.

I was still a fairly quiet fellow at that age, especially with strangers. This is something that has changed greatly over the years. I can wonder about what the ride with Earl and Melvin would be like today. They were certainly friendly. They offered topics of conversation eagerly. Do I watch All In The Family, that new TV show? I hadn’t even heard of it. My TV watching was usually Elvira, Mistress of the Night, at 1:00AM. Earl and Melvin regaled me with accounts of the Bunker family, especially Archie. Archie was their hero. Archie had everything figured out, and everyone else was a drag on the evolution of society. As Earl and Melvin talked about Archie, it became clear to me, a person who tried to see only the good in others, that Earl and Melvin were bigots.

I had trapped myself and my precious bike in a car with two guys who hated Mexicans, blacks, and Lord-help-me-who-knows-what-else: Engineers? Scientists? College Boys in general? My strategy became ‘change the subject’. I don’t know what we talked about, but we did talk about something else until they dropped me off at Ruddock House. I thanked them, well-intentioned SOB’s that the were, and they wished me well. As they drove away, Earl reminded me to ‘catch All In The Family soon’. Oh yeah.

In later years, the Voice of Experience began to speak loudly and with authority. Now, at age 59, Experience has no voice. It only laughs and points.

Post Script

One the of lovely experiences to enjoy on a bike trip up Mt. Wilson is the trip DOWN ! There is a stretch of many miles that is all coasting. Have I done that, on a subsequent adventure to claim the prize which I left in a blanket of icey granules? I have not. You may now join with any others, to laugh and point.


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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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