For years I've observed cyclists on the San Gabriel River Bike Path, typically with envy while driving down the 605 freeway, imagining how wonderful it must feel to ride carefree, sans cars and buses, zooming through the smog tinged breeze of the valley.
After three decades of living in and around the San Gabriel Valley (the SGV if you're into the brevity thing), I recently took my inaugural ride and discovered that everything I thought about the path is true -- but wait, there's more! There are horses, golf courses, over zealous cyclists, lazy beach cruisers, and demoralizing onshore flows that make you feel as if you're pedaling in place. Yes, the 64 mile round trip can be...emotional.
Nevertheless, its bizarre beauty is well worth the pain in your quadriceps. The northern entrance can be accessed at Santa Fe Dam, a place my family would go during hot summers for swimming and carne asada picnics. It's the kind of place I think of when I hear Lighter Shade of Brown's "On A Sunday Afternoon." (Note: from the look of the video it may have even been shot there.) While cycling atop the rim of the dam, my colleagues and I (aka Team KCET) took in the bleak industrial landscape surrounding us. The hazy panorama felt post apocalyptic, as if the Raiders choosing Oakland instead of Irwindale had doomed the land forever. We rode over a marker that read "32.5 miles to Seal Beach" -- onwards, I thought; these are the types of experiences life should contain more of.
While cycling towards the beach, I get the feeling I'm riding through the back alley of a beastly metropolis, just cruising alongside the ancient spine of the Tongva civilization that used the river as life resource. These grandiose imaginings help me keep everything in context, for the epidermal layers of human history tend to induce amnesia. Simply put, it's wholly intoxicating to ride away from it all when in fact you're in the midst of the very definition of suburban sprawl.
The channelization of L.A.'s waterways has made us feel as if we don't belong next to our rivers. Fenced off and resembling sad trickles instead of riparian wonderlands, we find our rivers to be foreboding solutions to long forgotten floods. All of these things ran through my mind while staring at golfers near the Whittier Narrows connection. Suddenly, in the distance, we hear "FOUR!" and then the thump of a golf ball three feet away. One of my colleagues said, "Dude we gotta get out of here!" or something slightly more vulgar. By mile 16, the headwinds started kicking in, along with the pain in my legs, and we decide to take a much needed photo break.
As we cycled south, passing through some of the most densely populated communities of Southern California -- Irwindale, Baldwin Park, El Monte, Whittier, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, Downey, Bellflower, Norwalk, Cerritos, Lakewood, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens -- I could smell the ocean in the distance. In reality we were still miles away from the frosty beverages that awaited us at the River's End Cafe.
A series of parks line the river path, providing perfect pit stops along the way. Not long ago, the Olmsted Brothers envisioned an Emerald Necklace of parks and green spaces, spreading from the headwaters of the basin's rivers to the isles of Catalina. It occurred to me that I hope to live long enough to see this vision realized.
Around mile 27 you begin to consider your own mortality. I soon abandoned these melodramatic diversions after a group of middle aged men covered in neon spandex passed me (and my teammates) without even a grimace in our direction. Of course I'll live long enough to see the Emerald Necklace, I thought, but when do we get to Seal Beach? After two canteens of water, a plastic-tasting peanut butter energy bar, a bag of sport beans, and enduring the embarrassment of not having worn enough cycling gear, we finally arrived.
Dear great Pacific, how often I forget you lie at the edge of my world. I promise to visit you more often, now that your waters are warmer.
"Hi, can I have a sampling of the carbohydrates on the menu?" One of our teammates was on the verge of catatonic shock, so we threw a blanket over him and ordered another round. This is the life, I thought, this is how I should spend at least one day per week. There was an article on the wall with a picture of the owner: "The Original Beach Lifestyle Guy, never a champion, he championed surfing with enthusiasm and charisma." Corny, yet clever. I champion the middle aged men in neon spandex that didn't even stop at the river's end -- they simply busted a U-turn back to the dam. I wonder what brand of sport beans they consume.
For the return trip we had a plan. We were going to pace ourselves, conserve our energy, decrease the amount of bad jokes, and just ride. We decided to stop about a mile after we'd began, because the photo ops were in abundance. From the waters to the refineries to the local characters, the camera took on a life of its own. The juxtaposition of nature's beauty and industrial blight makes gives the impression of riding through the L.A. version of Mad Max, a landscape populated by motocholos and mad mystics.
In truth, the return trip was amazing. I had found my moment of zen on the bicycle. Around mile 45 I felt as if I could pedal for eternity. This must be how the riders of the Tour De France feel while cruising through the coastal flats of Normandy. My swift pace had caused me to abandon my companions somewhere near Pico Rivera. I slowed my cadence and decided to snap some more pictures. After all, it's the photos that people like to see on the internet.
I noticed the plethora of horse stables along the river path. It's astonishing really, that in the middle of L.A. -- Richland Farms, Rancho Equestrian District of Burbank -- there are secluded communities of people that keep the equestrian lifestyle alive, evoking the spirit of those stalwart Californios that thrived before the passing of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
With the all the stopping and cooling down, I began to lose my inertia, which was unfortunate since we still had to conquer the uphill at Santa Fe Dam. Corporal anguish aside, I was happy we'd taken this ride. It's not for everyone, yet it's available to all. Unbeknownst to many, I'm publicizing its attractions because it's something to do instead of just sitting around at home contemplating your finite existence. You can do that and more while riding alongside the back alley of the city of quartz. I, for one, look forward to the next ride, upon which I hope to challenge and defeat the dozens of middle aged men that dare cycle past me.
View SG River in a larger map
So that was my San Gabriel River story -- what is yours?