A Death in the Backlands

At some point in life, it occurs to you that personal preferences aside, you’re not really immortal. People close to you die. You might have a close call or two yourself. Sometimes you catch yourself thinking about dying, even on a sunny, beautiful day when, for you, death seems far, far away. On a couple of occasions, I’ve even given voice to this feeling out loud. Getting ready for a long bike ride in chancy weather that made me nervous, I remember saying to a couple other riders, “If something happens to me out there and I don’t make it back, I’ll have gone out doing something I love.”

I’m thinking about that because a Berkeley friend sent me a note yesterday about a widely known and loved Northern California cyclist died of an apparent heart attack last weekend during a ride up the northern slopes of Mount Hamilton.The rider was Tom Milton, and he happened to be just my age, 56; I did not happen to know him. He was in the middle of a 200-mile event called the Devil Mountain Double, one of the toughest rides in these parts. It’s obvious from accounts of riders who saw him on his bike that day or during any one of his previous rides, that he loved cycling.

I know the road he was riding. It combines the pain of a long, steep grind with exhilarating views over the ridges, canyons and valleys of a lonely backland. Condors would look at home there, and slow as the climb can be, the road gains altitude so quickly you have a sense of soaring. You can read about Tom here–an eyewitness account–or here–a series of tributes from fellow long-distance riders.

Is there a take-away? We’ll all have our own. Mine might be to embrace a little more readily the large and small joys that life affords us without worrying so much about what’s not perfect in a situation. I also agree with one of the commenters at those links, though, who suggests we all ought to know CPR.

Conquest of Mount Hamilton

Sent to my bike club email list (and by way of explaining Saturday — I was out leading a bike ride):

Fourteen of us started the ride southeast to Livermore and on to Mines Road from Berkeley this morning. We had a little drama going into the ride; it appeared doubtful that, after snow Thursday and Friday on Mount Hamilton, the road over the summit would be open. The fallback plan was a ride up to the junction where Mines Road turns into San Antonio Valley Road and Del Puerto Canyon Road descends east to the San Joaquin Valley; the group could eat at the always-interesting Junction Cafe, and judging by questions I got as we rode out to Livermore, the idea of pushing on toward Mount Hamilton, snow or no snow, was on more than one rider’s mind. But no sooner had we hit the road than a rumor disturbed our ersatz peloton: The Junction had shut down and we wouldn’t be able to get lunch there.

After several halts for clothing changes, delayed riders, and a broken spoke on Steve Downey’s bike that received expert first aid from Ernesto Montanero (Steve rode the final 90 miles on Ernesto’s temporary fix), most of the group hung together for the final 20 miles into Livermore, where we enjoyed the customary calorie-consumption binge. Asking around and finally getting the Junction’s phone number (by calling 411), we found out it was open but that the road was still closed past the cafe. At this point, our group started to shrink. Michael Tigges and Susan Jacobsen (riding a brand-new Seven), turned back as planned after tucking into an early lunch at Tequila’s Taqueria, the Grizzly Peak Cyclists’ unofficial Eastern Alameda County Burrito Sponsor. The remaining dozen of us rode out South Livermore Avenue and Tesla to Mines Road in a sociable and easy-paced double paceline; it lasted only 6 or 7 miles, but it was one of those things you wished could go on forever. But soon we came to the turn that would take us up the east wall of the canyon that rises above Arroyo Mocho. At this point, another rump contingent departed as Mark Abrahams and Estella Garcia, on Mark’s tandem, and Rich Fisher turned around to head back to Berkeley.

That left nine of us continuing up the hill. Patrick Gordis, who had shown turns of speed all morning, was the first to disappear up the road; he reportedly made it to The Junction a full 20 minutes ahead of a following trio of strong riders: Ernesto, Mark Homrighausen, and Joa Weber (who today recorded his 3,000th kilometer ridden since January 1; you do the math). Steve, Bruce Berg, Bruce Marchant, Scott Steketee (still on a recumbent as he heals from flesh-eating Hawaiian saddle sores), and I paid gravity its proper due (some of us more than others). On the last summit north of the junction, with badly fried cheeseburgers so close you could almost taste them, Bruce turned back and collected Scott for their early return trip to Pleasanton. Steve, Bruce M. and I descended the last hill to the junction.

The cafe was as usual: Monster trucks on the tube and lots of biker leather slouching at the tables. But everybody ate and drank and tried to take advantage of the wood-burning stove because the sight of snow on the ridges in the distance suddenly made it seem pretty chilly. The ride back was fast and fun, and the final seven of us arrived at Pleasanton BART together just about 5 p.m. I highly recommend the Chevy’s about five doors down from the station.

Total mileage: 117.3