Monday, April 23, 2012

The San Gabriel

Southern California

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

11:00 a.m.  I am setting forth on my bicycle from the Thiennes Road entrance to the San Gabriel River Bikeway, in South El Monte at the 23.75 mile point, heading north to the Irwindale/Azusa terminus of the bike path and then back south again.

It is a warm day, in the 70s right now.  This is a very nicely maintained bike path, asphalt, about the width of a one-lane auto road, with two lanes for bicycles.  Repaving and repairing seem to be going on at frequent intervals, with county maintenance trucks plying the bikeway.  At the moment it runs along the west side of the San Gabriel River bed, which today (and most of the time) is dry enough that mature trees grow in the basin between the two sides of the river.  Obviously in the event of flood a great deal of water can be accommodated. 

At one time no doubt this was a much wetter and wider river, created by runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains several miles to the north.  Today, due to damming and other techniques, much of the water is diverted for the use of the local residents of the towns nearby.  Where I am now those towns are El Monte, Irwindale, Duarte, Monrovia, Azusa, and a few others. 

I think this is the first time I’ve blogged specifically about a bike ride, although I’ve ridden here a dozen times or more.  At this point it runs along the back ends of modest to poor residential neighborhoods, many of which have small stables for single horses or ponies, built of plywood and other scrap materials, as well as some coops for the raising of poultry.  The fowl seem in particular to be colorful and ornately-feathered roosters, used no doubt in this area for friendly and humane cockfighting matches.  There just doesn’t seem to be sufficient reason for so many roosters to be strutting around with no hens in evidence.

Out in the middle of the mostly-dry river basin there does run a small rivulet of six or eight feet wide, swelling in some places to a full river almost filling the bed.  Here wild fowl of all types dive and bob—ducks, geese, herons, and cranes.  They swim amid the trash that floats atop the water—styrofoam, plastic, debris of all kinds—surviving, indeed thriving, in a way that would be unsettling to a nature purist.  But that’s the one of the beauties of this river: it exists within sight of pristine snow-capped mountains in the north, while running fitfully through the midst of garbage and graffiti and urban grit.

In small permanent copses on the river's edge I can see makeshift tents and shelters where indigent people live in their worlds of stuffed black garbage bags, empty beverage containers, and the shopping carts they use to collect and transport these things.  A disheveled bearded man pedals slowly past me, metal cart affixed to his rear axle.  Out collecting what others don’t want, either to sell or use or eat or burn. 

The bike path runs along a sort of levee twenty feet or so above the river bed and there’s another levee on the other side, about 150 feet across the way.  Sometimes there are bike paths on both sides and sometimes the path crosses, via a street or occasionally a pedestrian bridge, from the west side of the river to the east and back.  Down on the outside of the levees, behind the back yard fences of the houses lining the way, there is frequently a dirt path, along which people—men mostly—ride their horses.  Most of the equines are sorrel-colored and appear to be well-groomed and fed.  The riders—caballeros—sometimes decorate their horses with silver-ornamented saddles and bridles and themselves dress in spangly vaquero-style costumes, occasionally topped with sombreros but more often with western hats.  Most ride wearing simpler clothing, but all ride with evident pride and care and skill.  Where they get the money and time to care for these horses is anyone’s guess, but they do.  These are no white-fenced Kentucky horse-country operations.

Up on the bikeway, carefully marked every quarter of a mile to show the mileage, I encounter a wide variety of fellow travelers: other casual recreational bikers like me, kids and young men and women strolling and gathering for a furtive smoke or a kiss, people simply walking or jogging, and of course the many “serious” bicyclists who zoom past me in either direction, the ones I call Spandex Warriors.  Often these latter are dressed as if they were about to enter the Tour de France, complete with colorful and endorsement-laden jerseys, expensive bikes, and all the latest paraphernalia from head to toe, their gleaming helmets making them look like busy and fast moving wasps, firm in the belief that all this will make them better and faster and more serious riders, though I suspect that very few of them are more than clubby enthusiasts.  They ride, indeed, with a gravitas that suggests they might like to ban children from the activity altogether, for not taking it seriously enough.  They ride with a conformistic fanaticism that reminds me of serious amateur golfers, with their Ping hats and pink shirts and chinos and whatever is the latest and most trendy and pricey equipment their hobby has to offer.

Meanwhile I plod along as I have since childhood, a tortoise to these hares, simply pedaling from beginning to end pretty much without stopping, on legs and a body that are sturdy and time-tested, if not flashy and sleek.  But lest you think I am gainsaying these bicycle enthusiasts, I hasten to assure you I am not.  I look upon them as a man on the freeway in a Hyundai might look at the guy in the Ferrari who zooms past him, marveling at the many ways people choose to approach the basic task of getting from one place to another on wheels.

High up in the underpasses that dip beneath the many cross streets, in the little cubbies just below the steel of the roadways, are other signs of human habitation—cans, bottles, tarps, piles of grimy clothes, the smell of urine.   I am aware that I’m traveling not just alongside, but through, the homes of men. 

The rundown casitas of El Monte give way to the gravel pits, steel cranes, power line towers, and warehouses of Irwindale as I make my way north to Arrow Highway, the only street where the bike path users must stop and cross traffic.  Irwindale, so devoid of residents but so filled with the things that make livable the lives of the millions who live nearby—a huge Miller brewing plant, for instance.  Then gradually as I approach the Santa Fe Dam, the San Gabriel Mountains themselves come to dominate the horizon.

Having crossed the road, I begin what is the only even moderately strenuous uphill climb on the bikeway, to the top of the Santa Fe Dam, a half mile or so of incline that make me downshift to the smaller front sprocket of my premodern Panasonic ten-speed.  For the most part the bikeway is easy to ride on, running gently downhill from the mountains south to the Pacific Ocean in Seal Beach.  Even when going north and upriver the ascent is so gradual as to barely be noticeable.  In fact, it’s often easier to go north because of the winds that blow from the sea out of the south and west.

From atop the dam I can look to the left and see the majestic mountains and then to the right at the rooftops of the factories and industrial buildings of Irwindale.  I’m not sure which I like better—perhaps both in equal measure.  The brewery, which appears so vast from the 210, looks tiny against the green backdrop of the foothills.  All along the road at the bottom of the fifty or more-foot slope from the dam, a hundred feet of usable space between the trap rock and the road is used as a series of plant nurseries, growing small trees and shrubs in buckets, mostly.

Having attained the Irwindale parking lot and entrance to the bikeway, at the 35.25 mile mark, I turn around and head south and am now within a mile of where I began today’s journey.  Once again I pass behind Mountain View High School, home of the Vikings, where here in the early afternoon the gym classes play soccer out on the fields.  I’m pushing against a strong breeze from the southwest.

South of El Monte, at about the 22 mile mark, the river has widened and moves faster.  This is the area known as the Whittier Narrows, where there’s a large flood control dam across the riverbed, and is perhaps the most picturesque part of the ride.  Across the way I look up into the hills to the east, where I catch glimpses of Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, the largest cemetery in the United States.

I continue south past the Pico Rivera Golf Course and soon after, at San Gabriel Parkway, cross the street on a little bike and pedestrian path to the east side of the river.  Over on the east side, just over the fence and past the ditch and dirt path is another long line of scrap-wood made, impossibly small, horse stables, their usually single inhabitants sticking their heads out from the open, chest-high barriers.  Latinos ride and train the horses in the bit of otherwise unused dirt between the river and the back yards.  Perhaps some of them are being trained to give rides to children or to hire out for gentle weekend walks through the precious bits of open space hereabouts.

In this small space also there are bits of junk and discarded tires, and graffiti sprawled across little otherwise-silver shacks used by the railroad, which also runs nearby.  Suddenly I’m cheek-by-jowl with the 605 freeway and down in Bellflower or Norwalk or Lakewood or Cerritos.  The river has widened to take up all its allotted space, though it's still shallow.  Then more nurseries, some covered in domes of plastic, graffiti decorating the sides.

At the 14 mile marker the river loses its natural plant-based bed and becomes a concrete basin.  Running down the center is a ten-foot-wide indentation, a rushing torrent of water, on either side of which is a flat expanse of concrete about the width of a two-lane highway.  It’s one of those perfect places for drag racing you always used to see in teenager movies set in the greater Los Angeles area during the 50s and 60s, as the smooth pavement runs for miles alongside the bit of river in the center.

Just past the point where the river becomes concrete comes a sickly-sweet smell of rotting garbage reminiscent of a big-city Chinatown in summer.  It’s the D.A.R.T.—Downy Area Recycling and Transfer Plant, over on the west side.  On my side of the river are narrow acres given over to the raising of annual flowers and vegetables—marigolds, pansies, leaf lettuce and the like—tended by bent-over Mexicans and Asians.  If the fetid air can impart any fertilizing nutrients to this enterprise, then the flowers should do very well.  In any event, the workers get to smell this miasma all day long as they hoe and water.

All along the sloping sides down to the concrete riverbed is evidence of graffiti, but it has been uniformly painted over with rollers by the authorities.  The result is not one bit of identifiable tagging, but instead a steady, miles-long patchwork of white, beige and light blue rectangles.  This is the triumphant graffiti of the powers that be, saying unequivocally that they, not the local kids and gangbangers, own the river bed.  Tagging of the most emphatic kind.  I find myself wondering at what time of day this painting gets done, or whether it’s even necessary any more, the spray-painters having perhaps surrendered in this war of attrition.

At the 10 mile marker on the path I decide this is a good place to turn around and return to the car in South El Monte.  I'm almost out of Los Angeles County and into Orange County.  I will have gone 50 miles today when all is said and done, and that’s about enough.  Since I haven’t been biking for a couple of weeks, my thighs are telling me I shouldn’t push it any further.  I finish up at about 4:00 p.m.

School’s out now and there are more kids on the path—pairs and trios of laughing boys on the same 16 or 20 inch BMX-style bikes we had a generation or two ago, trick riding on homemade undulating dirt-bike courses or gathering to smoke and talk tough.  Cute teenage Mexican couples holding hands, strolling slowly and saying nothing, filled with love.  Adults walking impossibly small dogs.  Bums sleeping in the warm shade.  Life is sweet along the San Gabriel.



Anonymous said...

Good post, keep going.
Life is sweet on the road here too.

Laurine said...

50 miles in one day--approaching your bike ride alone and with Zach to Cadillac and on to Central Lake in miles, nt to mention the one you and Danny planned. Not too shabby for such a young guy! Love you always, L
My grandparents are in that cemetary. The only time I was able to visit it, it took quite awhile and the caretaker office to look up and direct me to where they were buried.