Blustery Day

 

Contrary to popular thought that California has perfect winters, we have wind. Not gentle ocean breezes. Rip your table umbrellas out and deposit them in your neighbor’s yard wind. Destructive and bone chilling, these winds blow into town and linger for days. In the summer, they can be furnace blasts, but the worst come whipping through the winter.

California elementary schools assume we will always have mild weather. There is no shelter between buildings and portables. Students have to brave mighty gusts to have lunch and use the restrooms. “Inclement weather” is declared, and all recesses cancelled for the day. Teachers and their classes remain huddled inside their rooms.

Attention spans diminish, and voices grow louder. Pollen kicks up to spark headaches and runny noses. Already sick children gather at the school nurse’s office while she calls their parents.

Meanwhile, palm fronds land like missiles on cars passing on the streets. Ancient branches raise their arms in surrender and fall on parked cars. Dust and leaves swirl in doorways, waiting to blow in.

Wind makes people angry. A local proverb advises not to make any major decisions on a windy day.

Perhaps we shared a haughty chuckle when it was sunny and 80 degrees last weekend and other regions of the country lie buried in snow. We thought ourselves worthy of that song, “California Dreaming.”

Maybe the wind is our punishment for being proud.

The Space In-Between

Background, Bay, Beach, Beautiful, Blue, Calm

 

September in Southern California is the space in-between. It’s past summer, not yet fall. We still endure triple digit heat while the rest of the country cools down. No special holidays except Labor Day, and that’s just another excuse to have a BBQ by the pool. Teachers and students sweat through the inclement weather schedule, patiently waiting for relief. Even though I have a pool, this month I rarely dip in, cooler nights dropping pool temperature into the cold range.

In-between. Not yet Halloween or Thanksgiving. Already yearning for Christmas break.

When I lay down at night, I dream of sweaters and boots, grey stormy skies, and hot cocoa. I usually love summer, but when September comes, I am eager to pack away my swimsuit and sunscreen. My jeans whisper “Pick me,” in my closet, my umbrella calls my name. But not yet. Not when I have recess duty under a blazing sun.

Patiently we wait. Sweating through September days. Going to school and work, teased into wearing a jacket early in the morning, only to tear it off before 10:00 a.m.

Other places, the leaves turn colors and fall. But not here in the desert. We outlast the scorching heat while waiting for cooler days.

Sunny, pleasant days that make us forget that many other places will suffer the pangs of winter that will pass us by. Rainy days that wash away dust and smog.

But for now, we are in-between. Waiting.

Back Roads to Pioneertown

jrizzotto pioneertown

The ride captain promised roads we had never seen, and our chapter, the Inland Empire Harley Owners Group, was ready to accept that challenge. At the check-in, I was still yawning from the Daylight Savings Time clock change. My husband fiddled with settings on the stereo, twitching with nervous energy. He always awoke by 4:00 am on the days we rode. I shared hugs and greeting with the other women while my husband and the other men settled for a head nod. A few ran into the dealership for a last minute restroom stop, while others downed their last swig of coffee. Then the road captain gave the signal, and we all layered up our leather and lined up in the parking lot.

Two by two, in staggered formation, our Harley-Davidson motorcycles roared down the street, the sound echoing off the surrounding buildings. A few blocks later, we poured onto the freeway, fitting ourselves into the jigsaw puzzle of traffic. We rode in small clumps at first, eighteen bikes too many to stay together in one group. Eventually open space allowed us to line up in staggered formation as we endured the mindless repetition of merging traffic and slow trucks, road construction and oblivious drivers.

Cloud topped mountains drew closer, appearing to my bleary eyes as brownies covered with whipped crème. Frozen whipped crème. Shivering, I zipped up my heavy leather jacket and pulled the collar of my layering jacket over my chin. Promised sunshine now hid away, and the threat of icy rain loomed over us.

Hand signals rippled down the line of bikes as we approached our exit. Not for the first time, I marveled at these independent rebels, Harley riders, obediently following each other, submitted to the safety of the group. At the end of the ramp, we paused, free from the freeway’s chaotic energy. One by one the pack turned onto a narrow winding road that carved through the mountains toward the high desert valleys.

Our Ultra Limited touring bike danced to the rhythm of curves and dips as we traveled through land that scorned man’s ambitions. A sheer rock wall peered at us from the left with a lofty arrogance. These rocks stood witness to Native American tribes roaming over them on horseback, and they would still stand after our passing. The twisty roads forced us to ride slowly, slowing our pulses, slowing down time. Bike following bike, the road leading us on.

Suddenly the road spit us out into a wide flat valley and straightened itself out. The bikes stretched their legs and gained speed. Gradually I grew aware of an ominous grey wall of mountains on our left growing closer as we rode. As I looked behind and ahead of us, I could see no end to the ridge. Yet our road seemed determined to connect with it. I wondered how we would cross its summit. Would the road lift us to the top of that wall or would we discover a blasted tunnel, man’s victory over the mountain?

Miles sped by in our race to the wall, and soon I could see the end. The wall sloped down before it merged with another ridge, and into this opening the road stretched through. The bikes climbed over it without strain, and dropped down into another flat valley. The mountain peaks on our right were dusted with snow, and I knew that on the other side, snow boarders were riding rails and practicing jumps in the fresh powder. However this side held dry cracked rocks and Joshua trees reaching toward the bright blue sky. No snow or water here, except trapped behind a dam.

The bikes passed white fenced ranches that eventually led into small groups of houses and buildings, towns so small they seemed out of place in overpopulated southern California. A man in his electric wheelchair rumbled on the dirt shoulder. Where he was headed on a straight narrow road with no sidewalks I couldn’t guess, but surely he was kin to the determined men who settled this desert. The line of bikes pulled into a gas station, and we stretched our legs and gulped some water. Although it was not hot, the air was so dry it crackled.

The road called us on, and we descended into another valley, this one much hotter and dryer than the last. Pink mountain peaks lined the horizon on the left. A smudge in the distance slowly revealed to be our lunch stop. Wooden buildings, including a saloon front, saddle shop, and a jail, formed the skeleton of an old western movie set, now a tourist attraction and motorcycle destination. My husband pulled into the dirt parking lot and parked our bike at the end of the row, just like cowboys would have tied up their horses in front of the saloon.

I carefully dismounted our Harley, stiff muscles protesting. We peeled off our helmets and layers of jackets and leather chaps. Every face revealed a wide smile. Even though we had just ridden for hours over twisting roads and through dry dusty towns, I felt energized. My husband and I followed the line of riders to the restaurant. It was time for food and drink, tales and jokes, friendships forged in adventure.

Lemon Bars at Dante’s Peak

bad water basin

As I savored the sweet tanginess of my lemon bar, I looked over the edge of Dante’s Peak into the vast expanse of Death Valley. I shivered in the icy wind, despite the sun beating down on us. The Inland Empire HOGs were taking a much-needed break before zigzagging down the narrow road back down to Furnace Springs.

As I finished my treat, I looked around at the diverse group of travelers that had led my husband and me out of suburban Riverside and into the remnants of the Wild West. We were surrounded by businessmen, teachers, and salespeople, as well as a man who was a talented baker.  There were wives who rode behind their husbands, as well as wives who rode their own Harleys. This journey drew us together as teammates and family, cowboys and cowgals gathered together at the campfire.

Bad Water Basin spread out before us, a still white lake surrounded by a multi-colored tapestry of minerals. Death Valley in winter seemed tame, but the blasted barren ground spoke of summer’s inferno only a few months away. We took pictures, chugged water, and huddled together to talk.

At a signal, helmets were buckled, engines roared, and the bikes lined up single file to gently roll down the hill to the open road. The bikes descended like sure-footed burros and soon we left the lookout point far behind.

How could I have noticed the rugged stripes of crumbling rock walls from inside the confines of a car? How could I have welcomed the sun’s warmth on my face inside a temperature controlled vehicle? Only a Harley trip can bring you face to face with the same West that challenged forty-niners to gamble their lives to reach their dreams of gold.

Who would expect homemade baked goods on a motorcycle trip?

The Frozen Ride

frozen

 

“You’d better wear your thermals,” my husband warned as he came inside with the motorcycle cover bundled up in front of him. “It’s only 39 degrees out there!”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got them on,” I assured him in a muffled voice as I bent over to zip up my stiff leather chaps. As I added layers of clothing, it had become increasing difficult to move. Currently I had on a thermal top, sweater, leather vest, and a heavy leather Harley jacket. My arms came to rest at nearly right angles from my body, and I couldn’t raise my leg higher than an inch.

So began a Harley overnighter that became known as our frozen ride. (Here I insert my disclaimer that if you are a permanent resident of Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, you will not feel one ounce of sympathy for us. Please suffer the whining of southern Californians.) Our HOG group set out from Riverside, California to Death Valley, ending up in Beatty, Nevada for the first night. It was the end of February, which for us meant weather anywhere from 60 degrees to 80 degrees, and usually clear skies. We did get the clear skies, but desert temperatures never got above a brisk 58 degrees.

As we approached Death Valley National Park, I noticed a thin coating of white on the land surrounding us. “What is that white stuff?” I asked my husband through our com system.

“It must be salt,” he answered.

Our pack of twenty motorcycles had been on the road since 7:00 a.m. with one breakfast break, and my leather gloves were not doing their job. Fortunately, I was the passenger, not the rider, so I could hide my hands behind the windbreak of my husband’s broad back. Although my neck and chin were wrapped in a thick wooly gaiter, my face under my helmet felt like it would crack if I smiled. As the hours passed, I passed from chilly to freezing cold to numb to final acceptance of the cold. The sun on the back of my jacket felt less cold than the racing wind that flowed around the front windshield and fairing before exiting over the tour pack behind my seat.

As I continued to ponder the patches of white crust that continued on both sides of the road, I began to have the sinking sensation that it was not salt. It was snow.

When we reached the tiny town of Beatty, I was ready to sit in front of our motel room heater for as long as it took to not feel cold. My husband and I both took steaming hot showers that night. We slept huddled under the blankets.

The next day, our road captain led us out in the middle of nowhere to a ghost town. It was so remote that he had to call the sheriff to let him know we were headed there. After riding under the frozen shadow of towering snow-covered peaks for about an hour, I could see wooden buildings huddled on the side of a foothill. This morning the temperature had been 32 degrees when we roared away from the motel. I was already sitting on my hands to keep them warm. In addition to the layers I wore yesterday, I had added two long sleeve shirts and my rain gear pants.

Jumping off our bike as soon as we arrived, I waddled over to the saloon, hoping for heat. However, I was greeted by a wood burning stove right inside the door, which began to heat the area around it, but did nothing for the rest of the large, open raftered room. Some of the other riders joined me, holding our hands as close as we dared to the giant cast iron stove. A few of the passengers had a shot of something the sheriff promised would “heat us up quick” but I passed on it, longing instead for coffee.

Soon it was time to move on, so we thanked the man, and headed up into the icy mountains. Our road would cross over them and dump us down to Bishop, where we would turn south to Lone Pine. Now the white crust became drifts of deep snow on the sides of the road, and I remembered the conversation one of the guys had with the sheriff at the ghost town.

“Is the road to Bishop open?” one of our leaders asked.

“I guess so,” the bearded man said with squinty eyes. “We haven’t had any rain in a week. You know they don’t plow that road if it snows.”

The road before us continued up and up, and the snow on the sides got deeper and deeper. Finally we reached the top of the pass, and the road captain waved us over to the side of the road. Oh no, I thought. We couldn’t see the road on the downside of the pass. Was it blocked with snow? Would we have to go all the way down the mountain and take a different route?

“Let’s take a picture,” my husband said, so I reluctantly unzipped my jacket to take out my phone. Suddenly one of the women passengers headed toward a huge snowbank. She scooped out a pile of snow and threw it at her husband. This began a brief snowball fight which I watched skeptically, with no desire to get my gloves wet. Then one of the men fell back into a drift and began to make snow angels. I was glad I didn’t have to sit behind him on a bike.

I reluctantly took a picture of my husband standing in front of the snow laden pines, and then he took a picture of me, my teeth chattering in my helmet. The group stood around talking and eating snacks. What about the road? Apparently there was no problem with the road ahead. Our road captain stopped so we could play in the snow.

Many frozen hours later, I huddled up to our motel heater in Lone Pine, looking through the window at the snow-covered peak of Mount Whitney. My hands gratefully clutched a scalding cup of instant Starbucks coffee. My husband checked the weather report on his phone, which cheerfully informed us that we could expect rain the following day back in Riverside.

At dinner that night, we talked about the brilliant mountains and sweeping valleys that we had ridden through that day. And of course we talked about the varying degrees of cold that we had endured. The riders who wore heated jackets and gloves that plugged into their bikes offered no complaints. But the rest of us wearing regular gear had plenty to talk about. Yet no one regretted the trip. For us to see that much snow on the mountains was rare for drought-stricken California. Surviving the frigid weather was the price of admission to an adventure that held a unique coolness unlike any other Harley trip.

The Problem with Rain

rain

I know that someone who lives in a state that continually suffers drought should not complain about rain. But there’s something you should know about the effect of precipitation on southern California.

First of all, our cities have not been planned for actual water to flow through our streets. Any drainage system that exists is mainly ornamental, and when the gutter rivers begin to rise, the sewers are quickly clogged. This results in instant lakes blocking the intersections of major roads.

Added to that, and perhaps because of that, drivers in southern California don’t know how to operate their vehicles in the rain. Possibly it hasn’t rained since they passed their drivers test. But I believe that these drivers are so accustomed to bright sunny days and clear nights that they tend to throw tantrums if the weather doesn’t cooperate. So they speed through flooded streets, creating tall rooster tails of water on both sides of their cars. Or they panic and stop in the middle of the street, unable to proceed due to the drops of water on their windshields. And their windshield wipers have rotted away in the sun long ago, and the screeching sound of the wiper arms adds to their menace.

Another effect of long-awaited rain is mudslides and falling trees. We never do anything half way in California, so when it rains, it rains solid for three days straight. Those ash-strewn hills trying to recover from wildfires become chocolate pudding that rushes to join the rest of the water blocking the drains at the bottom of the hills. Huge trees come tumbling down on houses and cars. Even houses groan and shift down the hill. The effects of rain can be more devastating than the drought.

Children stay home from school as parents don’t want to battle the rain to drive them, or don’t want their kids to stand soaked at the bus stop. One rural school district even called a “Rain Day” and closed their schools, as buses got stuck in the mud on back roads. Teachers wish they would have stayed home when they are stuck with kids in the classroom all day, California kids that are used to playing outside.

But I hope you understand. I’m not complaining. There’s snow on the ski slopes and water in our lakes. The hills surrounding me are bright green, bringing back memories of Ireland. But our gift of water always comes with a cost. So I guess we just have to be ready to pay it.

 

Burnt Bushes

wrightwood

The snarling Harley group poured off the freeway and onto the back road that led toward the mountains. Eighteen bikes made it tough to stay together, so the ride captain split us into two groups, each with a captain and a sweep. As we started down the two-lane highway, both groups spread out so that our numbers stretched along the dips and rises of the road all the way to the horizon.

Seated behind my husband, I snapped pictures of the desolate high desert wilderness that surrounded us. A few months previously, a vicious wildfire had ravaged the area, and charred Joshua trees stuck up like stubble on a man’s chin. Dirt roads led off from the highway to lonely chimneys poking out of blackened debris. Trailers sat tethered to the remains of ranch homes. Here and there a house stood on a hill, pristine and untouched. I wondered if firefighters had spent precious water to save the structures, or if God’s judgment had passed them by.

Miles and miles of burnt bushes and trees filled my camera lens, boasting of the fire’s destructive power. I zipped my phone back into my pocket and turned up the Crowder album I had playing in my earbuds. Anywhere I looked my eyes couldn’t escape the chaos. All the overwhelming stress of my life seemed to chase me through the desert –Common Core Standards, screaming parents, bulging school schedule, the new house cleaner that scrubbed the paint off my stove and broke my fairy statue. Even our Harley couldn’t outrun these demons.

But then the music chanted “We Shall Overcome,” and I saw something strange. There were fresh prickly shoots coming out of the black Joshua tree trunks. The wildfire had not killed the trees at all.

The road captain gestured to the left which was repeated down the line of riders. We turned onto the road that would lead us further into the back side of the mountains. Now the road began to twist its way through pine trees. Evidence of the fire diminished until we were immersed in a sea of green. Singed air gave way to a fresh pine aroma, and I took a deep breath.

Finally A-frame cabins and two story homes with railed porches popped out of the forest. We had arrived in Wrightwood, a small ski town north of Los Angeles. Since the November weather was still pre-snow, the town was comfortably uncrowded. Our lunch destination appeared on the left and we turned in, patiently finding places to park our pack of bikes.

The waitress frowned at the size of our group, but barked orders to the bus boys to quickly push a bunch of tables together for us. Then we peeled off jackets, gloves, and outer layers to sit down for a bite. I looked around the table at our riding group. Some of us were married, some remarried, some single through death or divorce. If I looked carefully, I might see the black scars of life’s fires beneath the smiles. But it was covered with life—new and vibrant, full with promise. The roar of a Harley, wind in our faces, and we pressed on toward new adventures on the twisty road we traveled.

A Desert Lament

drought

If I only knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t be so out of shape.

Sighing, I lay down my Kindle, and push myself out of my sunken couch. My hips protest as I shift from one swollen ankle to the other. I wipe the sweat off my face before my makeup runs into my eyes. My tank top feels like I just came out of the pool. The kitchen beckons me with a pantry full of sweets and a refrigerator slammed with sodas. My mind scolds my stomach, but my stomach always wins. Chocolate cake with Diet Coke- they cancel each other out, right?

Lollie sits intently before me as I slice the cake and return the rest to the fridge. I’ve never given that dog any people food, but he still hopes. His eyes bore into me until I finally go to the laundry room and return with a Milkbone. At least he gets a healthy snack. Always the gentleman, the fluffy Pomeranian gently takes the treat from my hand and goes off to find a place to hide it.

After plopping myself back on the couch, I grab my phone and check the weather app again. 106 degrees. It hasn’t changed in the 12 times I’ve checked it during the past hour. The air conditioner wheezes a faint coolness into the room. If I stand on the couch and put my hand up by the ceiling vent, I can barely feel it. I resist the impulse to do that now as it would take too much energy.

Gazing out the window, I can see the ripples of heat rising from the driveway and the street. The front lawn pants and shrivels up. With the water restrictions, it barely gets enough nourishment to survive. No bird or animal is seen. A woman walks by with her baby stroller. Nature has more common sense than humans, and waits huddled in the shade until nightfall. The heat is an anvil pressing down on our city, the legacy of living in California’s desert region. Coming here from Iowa, it seemed so cheerful and sunny.

What did I know back then? I’d never seen mountains before. The stark sculptured horizons of the desert seemed bold and expressive to my eyes. Most of the year provided temperate weather, at least to a native of snow and ice. I could wear shorts in October instead of jeans and boots. In a giddy rush, I tossed out my heavy coats and sweaters. I welcomed the sun on my face every day in place of cloudy skies. Then summer arrived.

I admit that July and August were hotter than I expected. But when November finally came, I forgot about the heat when I watched the winter weather reports on TV. It wouldn’t be as hot next summer, I convinced myself.

But it always was.

Twenty-five years later, older and more sensitive to heat, I am trapped in my living room for those horrible summer months. Walk the dog? You’re kidding, right? Even at 7:00 a.m. the temperature hovers at 80 degrees with plenty of humidity. Humidity in the desert? I feel betrayed by every movie I’ve seen featuring California. It’s not all beaches and surfing here.

Frantically, my mind makes a list of all the things in our house that would have to be fixed before we could call a realtor. The hole in the garage, the broken tile in the pool, the horrible front porch carpet. With renewed purpose, I jump up and grab a notepad and pen. My husband and I could probably whip through these repairs in about 8 weekends. I pick up my phone again. What temperature will it be at 7:00 p.m.? 101 degrees? It looks like we won’t be able to start any fixing up until after Halloween, and that will have to fit between El Nino rainstorms.

If I had only known what I know now, I would have settled for the smaller house with no yard. I would have ignored my rational mind that argued that the desert was more affordable. Since I could exercise every day, I wouldn’t be a fat blob that I am now. I would have been happy in my tiny condo at the beach.