By Richard J. Cunningham
?If you want to ride with us, you can?t bring a light.? I was asserting some attitude to a thirty-something guy who had repeatedly explained to me that he only needs his high-powered lighting system for a bailout in technical sections. ?It takes twenty minutes for our eyes to adjust to low light. If you switch on that Night Rider once, everyone will be blind but you. Put it back in your truck or find another group to ride with.?
The guy was nice enough, but it was clear that he had never been on a moonlight ride. We were veterans. Three days before the moon is full, from July through September, our mixed group of mountain bikers gather at a secret location for a four-hour nighttime epic. There are only two rules: we stick together and we don?t bring lights.
The tough stance on artificial illumination stemmed from a particular evening when two guys refused to relinquish their Night Sun units. Everything was going fine until the jerk boys switched on their high beams as the group entered a rutted fireroad descent. Blinded by the brilliant spots, three of the riders crashed their brains out. The jerk boys laughed it off, oblivious that they caused the event.
The door of his truck slammed shut and the engine roared to life. With a chirp of his oversized off-road tires, he peeled out of the parking lot, presumably never to be seen again. Subdued by the negativity, five remaining mountain bikers silently mounted up and wheeled off the blacktop and into a stand of cottonwoods. It was the last time we would see pavement until well beyond midnight.
No one breathed a word until we reached the bottom of the first climb. Perched upon a giant slab of buff-colored sandstone, we removed layers of clothing in preparation for the effort. The rock was pocked with numerous depressions where only a hundred years ago, Native American women ground acorns into a bitter flour for sustenance. The moon had risen well above the mountains. It was bright enough to make out colors in the rocks and foliage. Clouds were moving in from the South. I wondered if bringing a light would have been a good idea after all.
The climb traced a long ridge that intersected the highest peaks in the Santa Ana Mountain chain above Orange County, California. Below us, streetlights in orderly rows flowed to the Pacific Ocean where oil platforms and cargo ships were the only definition in a sea of ink black. A bouquet of fireworks in the center of the metropolis below marked Disneyland–and the nine o?clock hour. We could hear the muffled explosions fifteen miles below.
Seated on a boulder that looked like a giant lizard in the harsh shadows, I counted riders as they appeared over the top of the grade. Somehow we had gained a man. ?Where did the extra guy come from?? I asked Patricia. ?Or, am I hallucinating?? ?That’s Frank,? Pat mentioned with a devilish laugh, ?the man you were arguing with in the parking lot.?
?This ought to be good,? I said with a half smile. I took a swill from my CamelBak and rolled out, precisely timing my exit to insure that Frank and I would not meet face to face. We descended switchbacks like wheeling vultures into a deep canyon lined with vertical sandstone cliffs, and then ascended the opposite wall in the same manner. Finally, we scratched our way up the steep slick rock that signaled the end of the last big climb. The clouds had moved. Wisps of fog clawed at us as we ascended gently on a rolling double track towards a prominent peak that marked the halfway point of our epic.
There was no breeze; just a solitary owl calling and the crackle of plastic food wrappers broke the stillness. ?Sorry I was so harsh on you Frank,? I said. ?Want half of my Snickers bar?? Trading food is a tradition on moonlight rides. ?No thanks.? Frank managed a genuine grin. ?No harm done. I didn?t bring my lights. I?ve never ridden without them at night. I just didn?t believe you could see this well.?
?Neither did we,? I said. Below us, the marine layer had enveloped the entire city. A thousand feet below us, the clouds lapped against the mountainsides like a silver sea. Above, the sky was a clear, blue-black. The brilliance of the moon obscured all but the bravest stars. I squinted against the reflecting moonlight, watching the silhouettes of my friends pointing and whispering on the edge of the helicopter pad.
?Come on out next month,? I said without turning to Frank. ?I can?t promise that it will be this good. I?ve never seen a night like this.?
?No,? muttered Frank as he walked over to the edge, ?not like this.?