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Episode 9 - SoCal Christmas Reunion

Yes, it is that time of the year again for the Christmas migration west to Southern California, where the sun doesn’t hibernate for the winter, the coastline calms the souls and the trails ready to entertain you. In addition to the local cast of Roberto and his clan of friends and family, we also have a special guest appearance of Tatyana and Herve, seeking refuge from the dark, cold and wet miserable French winter.

I was picked up from San Diego airport by Roberto, Tatyana and Herve and immediately we were in the hunt for some dinner. That brought us to La Jolla where we were staying the night at an AirBnB anyway. After exploring some options we settled on some good old reliable tacos. In the process we came across an ice cream place that I have frequented before during my last trip to San Diego and suggested that we should return there after dinner. Tatyana pointed out that there were some CBD options on the menu. I didn’t know what that meant but essentially since legalization of cannabis in the state, weed related food items have become increasingly mainstream and CBD basically means cannabis infused. This immediately perked Herve’s interest. He has been looking forward to legally sample California’s finest offerings. Not wanting to appear overly eager, Tatyana and I went with the subtle approach of pretend innocence and asked for a sample of the CBD infused ice cream. Herve took a far more direct approach. In his deep hoarse French accent, he came to the counter and bluntly state his request: ‘I want Cannabis’. The ice cream itself tasted very much like a Snickers ice cream bar. I didn’t really feel any different, though all of us were feeling giggly before bed. But I put that down to the presence of Tatyana.

Following morning we went out for a hearty breakfast. Tatyana had forgotten what American size portion looks like, resulting in a comical jaw drop facial expression when the food arrived. It turns out that all that food was fully justified given that we spent the rest of the morning sea kayaking. We took a kayaking tour with La Jolla Kayak, and I had the pleasure of their wonderful service during my prior visit over the summer. But seeing that this is now winter I was slightly apprehensive. This though would be a novelty for the Frenchies to claim they sea kayak in December so we pressed ahead with the plan. The water temperature turned out to be bearable, but the sea was significantly more agitated this time round and the swells were pretty significant. Our guides though did their usual marvelous job of keeping us safe and entertained. Though this time it was the conditions were too rough for us to enter the caves check out the seals and sea lions. Back on dry land we did a short stroll along the coast to check out cute flabby seals on the beach. After a frustratingly slow lunch service at a Smash Burger we arrived at Balboa Park late afternoon. Incredibly pressed for time, a brisk walk through a limited section of the park did not do any justice at all to the place. I could only describe the place as some kind of cultural fantasy wonderland. There are countless museums, gardens and art installations that one would really have to spend an entire day to fully appreciate the place. We accommodated as much as we could in the 2 hours we had there, which also included a video call to Julia, a sorely missed individual of our group. As dusk arrived we sent Roberto to the train station. He needed to return to San Clemente in preparation for the Christmas Eve meal the following day. The rest of us then headed out in the darkness towards Yucca Valley where we would spend the night before exploring Joshua Tree National Park the next day.

By this time the now infamous partial government shutdown had just started but we were already hearing news of possibly National Park closures. Concerned by this we kept a close eye on the development and fortunately for us Joshua Tree remained opened but without any services. Meaning that if you happen to get lost, no one is going to rescue you for a while and basic services such as the tours, shuttles, sanitary services would not be available. That was fine for us since we were only going to be there for a day. The objective of the day is to do 3 hikes and be on the road back to San Clemente by 3pm to arrive in reasonably ‘late’ for Christmas Eve meal generously hosted by Roberto’s mom. We started on Skull Rock loop and quickly we were visually bombarded by the natural beauty of the unique rock formations. Predominantly of granite and gneiss, these rocks have been sculpted over the years by water into their present day unique forms. I got way too carried away with my camera meaning that we were moving at a snail’s pace. Drill Sergeant Tatyana quickly took command and ordered out out marching orders and pace. Even with the hastened pace it took us till 1pm to finish the first two planned trails (Skull Rock and Split Rock loops). We refuelled with our packed lunch and was contemplating our third hike of the day but quickly realized that we need to be on the road again if we ever hoped to be fed our Christmas meal. So just like Balboa Park, our time there was prematurely cut short, but the whatever limited time we spent there was well spent so we couldn’t compliant much. The weeks following our visit we learned that the due to the prolonged shutdown the entire park descended into anarchy. Without the park rangers enforcing the rules and provide basic services the park was damaged and abused by unregulated human activities and there were even fights breaking out amongst campers. A great shame for such a gem of nature. We arrived back to San Clemente, showered and fixed our ragged appearance, and turned up fashionably late at Roberto’s mom’s place. Everyone had already consumed the feast and were onto the gift exchanging portion of the evening. That worked out well for us, we were still weary from the traveling and hiking. Thank you ever so much again to Roberto’s family for generously hosting and feeding us!

Christmas day was a welcomed rest day for all of us. Herve slaved in the kitchen for us to make his signature crepes. He made a huge batch, I’m guessing well over 50 crepes, with the intention that there would be plenty leftover from Roberto and myself for the rest of the week. Those creped turned out to be dangerously addictive (maybe they were CBD infused??) and we actually ended up finishing the entire batch for breakfast. We also identified there is definitely a potential business opportunity here to compete against IHOP. We would call it FHOC - French House of Crepes, and we are convinced we potentially could make a fortune from enslaving Herve to the kitchen. To restore the karmic balance from our gluttonous morning activity Roberto took us out for a local 2 hours hike along the ridge that runs through his neighborhood offering 360 panoramic views for much of its length.

The next day Tatyana and Herve set off for a road trip along the coast up to San Francisco and back. I stayed behind to play bikes with Roberto. Ah speaking of bikes, as per my customary practice, I had shipped my bike out using BikeFlights. Supposedly it was supposed to arrive and held at a local FedEx for us to pick up of Friday 21st December. I had an email that the delivery will delayed, and given it is the busy Christmas period that was understandable. In any case we weren’t planning to ride till after Christmas. However I was concerned that the tracking website hasn’t offered any new information regarding its whereabouts for 3 days now. Poor Roberto kept checking the FedEx store but the bike was nowhere in sight. Panicking slightly. I got through to FedEx customer service who informed me that the bike has indeed been delivered on time to the specified FedEx location. However it was a different address, so we drove over and ended up in front of Alberstons which is a supermarket. Very confused. There was an Office Depot next to it and usually there would be a FedEx counter, and logically we thought it should be in there instead of inside a supermarket. True enough there is a FedEx counter but it was only for delivery services, they don’t receive and hold packages. We asked them if there are other FedEx nearby and they simply shrugged. Where the hell is my bike?? I checked again to make sure I didn’t make a mistake with the address. In desperation we went into Albertsons, no FedEx sign anywhere to be seen, so we inquired one of the staff on duty. He casually pointed towards the customer service counter (still no FedEx sign), which also doubles up as an over the counter pharmacy section and to my delight the bike was there behind the counter! A $5000 bike just laying there (well it was still inside the bike bag), for everyone to see. No exactly a secured location to keep an expensive bike, which apparently has been there for 5 days. Even the lady who served us was wondering if anyone was ever going to claim it. With the bike back in my loving arms we headed to Cathead’s place to get it assembled.

The next couple of days Roberto took my to some trails that were new to me. The most memorable ones are in the Las Ramblas area. It had rained on Christmas Eve and we figured everything would have dried out by then. That was true for the sections of the trail on the exposed side, very untrue for the shaded portion of the trail. That resulted in a comical struggle switching constantly from steep loose dirt to steep slick mud chutes. End result was all the same though - stupid grins on our faces.

The people who Roberto work with, perhaps not so surprisingly also share a passion for motorsport and racing. They have this 1974 BMW 2002 series that they have converted into a race car and competing in various amateur races. A brake balance/bias hickory doo thing was recently installed and the team felt prudent to test it out before using it in the next race. Roberto usually is in thick of the action as a pit crew so when they decided to give the car a shakedown to test the latest upgrade I decided to to tag along. On a very cold and windy Friday morning we drove about 2 hours north to Willow Springs race track, where despite the sunny blue skies, was even colder and windier. The car was unloaded off the trailer, prepped up and Neil jumped in ready to do a few installation laps. There’s a very good reason for these test sessions. Most of the day was spent troubleshooting a series of issues. First off the starter wasn’t firing the engine, only a mild nuisance and we simply had to give it a push and running start to get it going. Also at least the periodic physical effort kept us warm. After a few initial laps Neil was complaining the brake balance was completely off resulting in the front constantly locking up. Adjusting the brake balance dial seemed to make little difference. So he came back in, popped the hood to see what’s going on. Turns out the device wasn’t installed correctly. The mechanic who had installed it wasn’t at the track and none of us there had no clue other than to say than to note that it definitely does not look right. The rod that dictates how much bias goes to front versus the rear was loose and can easily moved by hand. Nothing in a race car should be loose and rattling about! Understandably Neil was fuming mad, god knows what could have happened if the whole thing just dropped out of the car when he’s flying at 150 mph plus speeds. After getting hold of the mechanic (who didn’t provide much useful information) Neil went about to sorting it out himself. After about 2 hours faffing about on the track and under the hood Neil finally figured out how the darn thing was supposed to be installed and function. His mood brightened considerably and by the last hour on the track he managed to put down some practice laps. Later in January the team took part in the Lucky Dog race series at Laguna Seca where they came in 1st in their class on both race days. Glad the rather frustrating test day turned out to be a good investment.

My last ride of 2018 turned out to be the most epic and memorable one yet. I have known about Mt Wilson for a while, and plenty of mountain bike YouTubers have documented their conquest of the trail. It’s a beast of a trail system, boasting 5000+ ft of descending in 13 miles. The terrain is technically gnarly, matched by insane views and exposures to ensure your bottom remains firmly clenched all the way down. To access the top of the trail you’d need a shuttle service (like we did) or if you’re in a masochistic mood you could choose to climb all the way up - those people actually exist. On this ride we had Kevin and Mark with us. I had ridden with Kevin on the last trip and I know he is a shredder (like most riders in SoCal). This was the first time meeting Mark, and oh boy what a character he is. At the ripe age of 60, he has plenty of riding experience ... and crashes. In fact half of his body is pretty much bionic at this point. Countless surgeries and metal inserts everywhere. Apparently he can’t ride with a backpack anymore because the shoulder strap keeps getting caught on one of the screws along the collar bone and it annoys him. And like most mountain bikers he likes to participate in friendly banter, but that dude takes it to another level. I dare not to repeat much of what came out his lips that day! We were slightly apprehensive about the conditions at the top, it has been pretty cold overnight and at 8am it was still pretty darn chilly at the bottom. But when we got dropped off the top it was pleasantly warm and had to shed a couple of layers. From the shuttle drop off point we still had a short slow ride on dirt track to get to the trail head. Along the way we bumped into a large group of local Chinese hikers and they appeared to be getting ready for a group photo. Kevin generously offered to take the photo for them but as it turns out what they really wanted was to take pictures of us and our bikes! So that was very unexpected and for 5 minutes we and our bikes were posing like celebrities. Mark contributed with a wise ass comment to the hikers, ‘I can speak pretty good Chinese … when I order Chinese food!’.

After that brief but bizzare Instagram celebrity moment we were ready for the first section called Mt Lowe. Kevin gave me a quick run down of the critical sections I need to be aware off and with that we toggled on the ‘party mode’ switch on the bike. Mark led up front, and I sandwiched myself between Kevin and Roberto who brought up the rear. Sam Miller and the section coming up are probably the most technical and exposed sections. The trail is steep, littered with rocks, large enough to grab your front wheel and throw you over the bars, and also hard packed with loose gravel. I had very little feel of what kind of grip was out there. Oh and to make it all extra spicy there are so many exposed sections. By exposed I mean a sheer cliffs that led to certain death. Now Kevin had actually told me all about this, and I had a peripheral feel of their presence but I never had a chance to see them. There is just so many things on the trail itself to kill you I had no capacity to process anything beyond the 3 feet wide trail in front of me. I managed to stay with Kevin throughout which was a bloody good thing because I just followed his lines. But that also meant I kept getting direct hits as rocks fly off his rear wheel. Up front Mark managed to pelt himself with his own rock debris. At one point we had to stop because a rock flicked up by his own front wheel got stuck inside his nose. What a talent that guys is!

The second section was Sam Miller and that had very similar characteristics to the Mt Lowe section. As we hit the next to sections - Sunset and Miller Campground the dirt changes from the loose gravel to more tacky dirt, the trail becomes more flowy and you can really open it up. Kevin led these sections, with Mark in second and myself behind him. Kevin was on was Mach speed and whenever we stopped Mark, ever the comedian asked whether Kevin’s bike came with brakes and if he even knows how to use them. There were plenty of switchbacks and because these are also hiking trails the insides of the switchback are normally enforces with steps and rocks which made it tricky for line choices. Mark, by any standard is a very fast rider, nevermind that he’s 60. But I figured out his kryptonite. He is astonishingly bad at right handed switchbacks. It’s quite comical to follow someone riding like a devil but when a right hander switchback pops up the devil turns into a 2 year old attempting to ride a bike for the first time. El Prieto is the last section at the bottom, through the forest and the trail is pretty flowy again. Kevin led up front again and Mark suggested I should follow Kevin and see if I could keep up. Seeing how Kevin blasted the last couple sections I was nervous that I’d crash trying to keep up. Turns out Kevin was the first to crash….. in less than 30 seconds going into a hairpin. That had everyone in stitches because it was pretty pathetic weak looking attempt of going around a corner. That settled my nerves and I was right behind Kevin all the way, until halfway down I suffered the same fate. Pretty much a carbon copy of what happened to Kevin but at least I was more graceful in saving myself. Those were the only 2 rather embarrassing crashes we had the whole ride, and given that we dropped 5000ft along the most technical and exposed sections, that was a very successful ride in my books.

After the ride we decided to hit lunch at a local Mexican. The place doesn’t look much from the outside but because precisely that we knew it was good. They discovered the place few years ago and since then it’s been become a post ride tradition. The food didn’t disappoint and it was proper Mexican legit. Kevin asked me if there were anu 'Oh Shit!!' moments on the trail. I just said I don't really recall any scary moments, I was aware of the presence of the crazy exposures but there was just too much info directly in front of me to process that I never had time to look beyond the sides of the trail. Looking back at the ride footage, I was amazed at the stuff we rode on. A bucket of beer was brought to the table and as a non drinker I politely decline. Mark turned to me and said ‘You know, you’ll probably go to hell for not drinking a beer at a Mexican restaurant’. Oh Mark ….

The following day was the last day of 2018. We waited for the return of Tatyana and Herve from their road trip and decided to have a low key celebration at home. Chef Roberto cooked up a delicious dinner and we tried our best to stay awake to ring in the New Year. At 11.53pm we decided eh - close enough and called it quits! Next morning Herve was ordered back into the kitchen to set another breakfast crepe record. As he slaved away Tatyana and I headed down to the beach for a run, somewhat a New Year’s tradition for Tatyana. She couldn’t resist recording videos of the sunny beach vibes and sending them to her friends back in Europe who has the same tradition - just to rub in the fact that they’re running in miserable, cold and dark conditions. We returned to feast on a giant stack of crepe. I really can’t ask for a better way to start 2019! With breakfast down it was Bon Voyage time. I headed to San Diego while Tatyana and Herve set for LA to catch our respective flights.