Thursday, June 20, 2019

A View of Lick Observatory

Note: Walk a Mile in Her Shoes - the YWCA event to raise money to fight domestic violence - is next week and I could use your help. Please make a donation to my Walk in Mile page - thank you!

I didn't start Sunday, April 7, in the happiest of moods.

I had woken up before dawn so I could drive my wife to the airport. I drove back on 87 South annoyed at her early flight and tired from the lack of sleep and coffee. I didn't have a plan for what to do during the day - I only knew I wanted to take a longer-than-usual Sunday ride.

As the sun came up, I glanced east and saw Lick Observatory all the way at the top of Mt. Hamilton, on the horizon.

I had wanted to try that ride for a while, but originally thought it would be a good one for the road bike I wanted to build after I had finished The Alameda Bike Trailer. I also considered my Bike Friday but I worried the 53/34 chainring wouldn't give me enough range for that level of climbing (In fact, the day before, I tried to put a triple crankset on that bike but was thwarted when I realized too late it wouldn't fit on the bottom bracket). 

I glanced back and forth from Mt. Hamilton to the highway as I drove. I had an entire day to myself and aside from the lack of a tiny chainring, my 21 year old Bike Friday New World Tourist is a good bike for a long ride. I decided to give it a shot.

Hungry when I got home, I ate leftover chicken tacos for breakfast - my eating habits tend to take a turn when my spouse is out of town - and looked at a map. If I left from my house and took the most direct (read: steepest) route, it would be about a thirty mile ride with a level of climbing that would be described as...I believe the technical term is 'insane'.

Familiar with long rides with the Bike Friday, I filled my Camelbak all the way to the top with water and packed my usual travel/repair kit. The nut molecules at the bottom of a nearly-empty Kirkland Unsalted Mixed Nuts tub went into a baggie, and four expired Kirkland protein bars went into my pack. I figured I'd run into different food options along the way and discard the expired bars properly. I also decided that this would be a 'dry run' and I'd turn back if I felt myself getting too tired or the 53/34 wouldn't be enough to bring me to the summit. 

I set off. 

A good chunk of the trip involved taking the Coyote Creek Trail toward downtown San Jose. It seemed like a decent place to warm up since it follows the creek downstream - and is thus a downhill. For some reason the song 'Eastbound and Down' from the Smokey & The Bandit movie began going through my head and I began singing passages of it aloud. Thank goodness there was no one around to hear. 

I passed feral cats and homeless encampments the closer I got to downtown before turning off onto Tully Road. Wary of motorists on the ghost-bike-waiting-to-happen 101 interchange, I headed toward Eastridge Center and took a right on Quimby Road.

Quimby road is a straight, level stretch of road until it isn't. Then it goes straight up into the foothills with frequent switchbacks. This is where the little chainring was pressed into painful service. 

With speed in the single digits, I pressed on and began having a taste of the view.

I also recognized the general area as the spot where my car overheated a couple of years ago when my wife and I attempted the trip in a motor vehicle. But thanks to the water my Bike Friday and I creaked past the spot.

At this point I was trying to decide how much further I should go but then something unexpected happened. I began going downhill. 

What's deceptive about looking up at the foothills is that there are little hills in between the big hills that can't be seen from sea level. What I was suddenly descending wasn't a 'rolling' hill but scored rather high on the 'nosedive' scale.

It was also a Decision Hill - one where you had to make up your mind if you wanted to commit to it since, after all, you'd have to ride all the way back up later. Without thinking about it I let go of the brakes.  

"Eastbound and downnnnnnn, loaded up and truckin' we're gonna do what they say can't be done."

The moment of levity - and the full-on commitment to this ride - was brief as I soon came upon a ghost bike. It then dawned on me that Quimby Road, with its blind corners, narrow passages and, most significant, careless motorists, is not a low fatality road.

The descent continued and opened up into a valley. I turned right on 130 - Mt. Hamilton Road - and realized I had about another ten miles to go. I stopped, gnawed on an expired protein bar, and continued on. 

Even though I didn't have sweeping views of Silicon Valley on this stretch I was presented enough visual evidence this ride was worthwhile. Because of the elevation gain the trees were becoming more interesting and the pine cones were becoming more hazardous.

As the road got narrower I began using hand signals for the cars ambling their way up the road behind me. I'd spot them in my helmet mounted rear view mirror and hold my left palm out at a 45 degree down angle to let them know it wasn't safe to pass due to oncoming traffic. When it was clear I'd change the universal-symbol-for-stop to a thumbs up, and the car would pass safely - often with an appreciative hand gesture as they passed by. Not sure if this was normal behavior - mine or the drivers.

I didn't go very fast - even on the places where the road would level out - and I was occasionally passed by other cyclists. I was fine with that because it often made my photos more interesting. 

And so it went: pedal, stop, take a picture, eat a few bites of expired Kirkland Soylent or whatever, and press on. Once, when I checked my phone, I noticed the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition had tagged me in thanks for building the Alameda Bike Trailers they were teaching volunteers to use at the same time as my ride. 

Construction laborers in the 1880s may have had cyclists in mind when they designed the road, because every time you would pass the STEEP part of a switchback, your brain would automatically say "oh that was ridiculous I can't do another climb like that oh well look at that view!"

And when even that gets start to look up and think: "That's Lick Observatory! I'm almost there!"

It was immediately after that photo I hammered the pedals. I could barely get enough oxygen into my lungs to manage the climb, but I somehow made it up there - though I didn't care for the Saab that zipped by me far too closely with only a hundred feet left on the trip. 

I rounded the bend and entered the parking lot. There were a few cars up there - some of which I recognized from passing me earlier that morning. My legs just about gave out at that point. 

After contemplating my footwear fashion choices for a little while, I took a walk around Lick Observatory, which was named after James Lick, a multimillionaire who made a decision - before he died in 1876 - that he wanted a huge monument to science and discovery to be part of his legacy. I was wowed. It is definitely a better place to put millions of dollars than Bitcoin.

I have to once again give kudos to Bike Friday - who made my New World Tourist 21 years ago that has been on a lot of journeys with me. 

As good a citizen as James Lick was, he didn't think to include a donut shop or a taco stand in his vision of the observatory, so instead of anything that could be remotely described as lunch I finished off the expired Kirkland bars and bought a couple of Clif bars at the vending machine at the post office. Also...

A way better value than Skittles. 

With the postcard sticking out of the front pocket of my bag, I took one long, last look over the horizon. I was pretty sure I could see both my office and what I think was my neighborhood. I also contemplated the road and realized I had a long way back. It was a thirty-mile thigh crusher to get to where I was standing and even though I was exhausted I had to cover just as many to get home.

Lucky for me, my brakes don't hurt my hands too much when I have to apply pressure for 70,000 years - or however long it took for me to get to the first valley. I did break 30 miles an hour in a couple of places but, knowing that some drivers could drive into my lane when making a dangerous pass of another cyclist going up, I kept it slow around the blind corners. 

So intent on moving I somehow missed the turn to Quimby road - by over a mile - so I had to make up that mile turning back to head up the hilly section of the road. Once I got past that horrendousness, I eventually made it home - wrapping up a truly memorable ride. According to Strava I had traveled 62.43 miles, with a moving time of nearly six hours and 39 minutes. My elevation gain was 6,529 feet, and my max elevation was 4,217. Average speed was 9.4 miles an hour and my max speed was 31.3.

None of that is a brag - it's a beg. To motorists like the Saab that buzzed by me at the last  mile: Cyclists who ride up Lick Observatory are not to be trifled with. We could have experienced Mt. Hamilton road in carbon-spewing comfort on a plushy seat just like you but we didn't. We choose slowness. We chose to smell the pine trees and feel the temperature changes on our skin. We chose the power of our own muscles to bring us to the top. Mess with us not and pass us safely you must because I never, ever want anyone to feel like they can't climb Mt. Hamilton because they thought it would be unsafe. Set the standard for sharing the road and good things will come your way - I promise.

Two months would pass before I returned to Lick Observatory for a photography night - one that we had to buy tickets for. My wife and I drove our car. There were two cyclists going up at that hour and I passed them with the utmost care and respect. 

It's a different place when the sun is going down - and the haze from thousands of Bay Area motorists clouded the horizon. But it was hard to think too hard of it that night, because we actually got to go inside and see the big telescope (there are actually eleven telescopes on the site).

It was especially fun to see everyone's faces: it was the same look I had seen on other kid's faces as a kid going into the Boston Museum of Science.

I also discovered - to my sheer amazement - that there is a gift shop on the premises that was open after 9pm. I bought a pair of socks that have the solar system on it and saw no need to buy what appears to be their signature item - even though it looks nice.

So that was the Lick Observatory adventure - I must tell you, Bay Area, that there is a certain level of comfort and happiness to be found at all times because you can see the Lick Observatory from quite a few places in the South Bay. If I look over my left shoulder at my workbench, I can see it. If I look out the window of my office where I work, I can see it from there too. No matter how bad my day is, on the ride home I can look over to the left and think: I rode my bike to that. 

Reach for rides you don't think you can do and support efforts kids make to learn and discover - like Zhea, my yoga teacher's stepdaughter, who wants to go to Space Academy

And while it's got nothing to do with space: please donate to my Walk a Mile in Her Shoes page - like I did last year I am helping YWCA raise money to fight domestic violence and I'll be walking in high heels at Santana Row next week. But if you can only donate to one cause, send Zhea to Space Academy. If you can donate to three, send Zhea to Space Academy, help me with Walk A Mile, and donate to my Tour de Cure page - that ride to fight diabetes is Sunday. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.