Southern California is as massive as it is convoluted. The sprawling, writhing mass of humanity that emanates forth from the 101/110 interchange wraps its way around the contours of the LA Basin, spilling out at the edges, like an overfilled bowl of soup ported from the stove to the table.
We rejoin the story at one of those craggy edges, as the protagonists (read: Us) are attempting to make their way out of their own bowls of broth at Santa Clarita’s second highest-rated eating establishment, en route to the Owl’s Nook AirBNB in Wrightwood, California. We have just finished Phil Gaimon’s Fondo 181km/113km 3350m/11000ft fondo, and we are teetering somewhere between crushed and exhausted with four more long days of riding ahead to complete the Escape From LA. We have #gotteninthevan. It is spacious, comfortable, and Nick is doting on us like a steel-eyed momma bear (or finest driver-turned-soigneur ever), resupplying the jam/ham/cream cheese/Hawaiian Host ride sandwich stocks and enough Randy’s Donuts to last the crew the week. Ahead of us lay the massive San Gabriel Range, the forgotten mountain spires to Los Angeles’ north. Reaching up to their 3,000m/10,000ft ceiling from the sea level LA Basin, their imminent proximity to the coast lends them prominence of storied ranges twice their size. It is also home to one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful roads the world doesn't know, a mere 53km/33mi as the crow flies from downtown LA: The Angeles Crest.
DAY TWO: WRIGHTWOOD TO LOS ANGELES - 135KM/2000M VERTICAL
Wrightwood is a place time forgot, and global warming remembered. Perched at 1800m/6000ft up with a population of some 4500 individuals, it lies at the eastern terminus of California State Route 2, the Crest's official nom de plume. Wrightwood's local economy, circa fifty years prior, when it reliably snowed in Southern California's mountains, was poised to explode on the back of the 1960s skiing boom and the nearby Mountain High ski resort. The years dragged on, and the snow never came, leaving a semi-dystopian landscape in a place with a cold relationship to its mountainous surroundings.
Wrightwood has all the trappings of an inhabited ghost town. Today is slated to be our "easy day" of the five, a mostly-downhill 135km/83mi romp into the heart of Los Angeles, finishing at the famed Griffith Observatory. However, Wrightwood is at elevation, and we are from sea level. Translation? A night of rest isn't so restful. Recovery diminishes the higher we take our carcasses, and after a hard day at the fondo, cracking our eyes the following morning is a struggle. We stagger to the local greasy spoon to take care of the Oatmeal Princess, enjoying a small respite from our exhaustion and stale, watery coffee while being gazed upon by an animatronics-enabled elk.
Gathering our wits and bicycles, we set out from Wrightwood along the Angeles Crest towards LA. Tracing the spine of the San Gabriels like a finger run down the depression of a vertebral column, the Crest's remote drama is unsurpassed, especially considering its proximity to the 10 million-person glut of population that is Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, the Crest is a road to nowhere, taking the long way through the craggy and relatively overlooked San Gabriels. It is faster to get to either Wrightwood or LA by driving around the 3000m-tall barrier, with attempts to build a connector to the Crest stymied by nature. While this "rest day" tilts mostly downward, the Crest undulates and bumps along the crumpled newsprint contours of the mountains, and we will still climb 2000m/6500ft.
The weak coffee hasn't produced the desired effect, and our legs feel like they're filled with soaked sandbags as we leave town. There is solace, though, rooted in knowing that the road ahead is one of the most beautiful in the United States. Passing Mountain High, climbing towards the aptly-named Inspiration Point, we get our first glimpses of the contrasting beauty of Southern California mountains. To our left, the northern walls of the LA Basin. To our right, a sheer drop to the Mojave. We are literally squealing with glee at the awe. It is stark disparity to the day before, not only geographically, but anthropologically. So far, we have seen approximately two other vehicles on the road. The Santa Monicas from yesterday, with their innate accessibility and proximity to the coast, are literally crawling with people. The feeling of remoteness along the Crest - especially given its immediacy to LA - cannot be put into words. It is, compared to its urban neighbor, a completely different planet.
Cresting Islip Saddle and flying past abandoned ski lifts, we rip through the tunnels of the Crest, where Tony flats. And pees - a normal cadence of the trip over the next four days. He nearly slides off his perch to join Highway Two's long list of victims, but scrambles back before losing himself - and his bicycle.
We expected to feel better by now. We don't, but consistent elation at our surroundings is a constant, and Nick's incessant attempts to get us to gain weight during a 32-hour week are buoying our spirits. As we hit the Crest's high point at Dawson Saddle (2407m), we begin the long slide into Los Angeles, but not before a quick deviation to Mount Wilson, site of much of LA's high-powered telecom relays.
It is atop Mt. Wilson, radiating under the audible glow of high-powered T.V. relays, that we gaze out on our fate below. Los Angeles has decided to play its prototypical part, the vision of a city blanketed in a thick coat of smog, an occasion that has thankfully become the exception to the rule in the past decade. But today, we will fulfill all the misconceptions held about the Southland, a fitting conclusion to the day's contrast.
Diving down into the maw of suburbia through atmospheric thermal layers, we're hit with a blast of heat, the stench of incinerated hydrocarbons and the filth of particulate matter as the Angeles Crest terminates in the burg of La Cañada. We still have an hour to our destination, Griffith Observatory, through inhospitable and unfamiliar roads. We are, in fact, still shelled, and even moreso mentally. The crush of population is overwhelming after the splendid isolation after the Crest. I flip on my inner former bike messenger, and guide us through Glendale on our way to Hollywood, racing cars to intersections and splitting lanes between lumbering city busses (proof that LA does, in fact, have a semblance of public transit). The sun is beginning to dip, and rush hour is picking up. Tony, meanwhile, calls out multiple G-Wagens with substandard aftermarket modifications as we tread closer to the base of Griffith Park and an ostentatious social strata unique to places like these.
As we ascend the quick climb to the observatory, we see hordes of reminders of home in San Francisco: Tourists with selfie sticks. I wonder what James Dean would think. We get in the van.
Stage Three is next. Santa Barbara's HC climbs, bone-in chicken and waffles, and scorching heat await the Escapists.