The death of a tester

Woe is us. Wooooooe is us. And unfortunately I’m not talking about Whoa. As in “Whoa! Nice one, friend!” That’s a whoa which everyone enjoys. I’m talking old school woe with a side of melancholy. Yes, for many East SF Bay Area riders, the topic today is a woeful one. The bell has tolled for one of our most well known testers. $2 Hill in Joaquin Miller Park up in the Oakland hills. It has been rendered useless under a tomb of tree parts. The uninitiated and non-locals can get a taste of it in this video. And if you have any doubts, yes, attempted climbs are exactly as dramatic as depicted by the director.

It no longer looks like that. (But before I go on, I need to note that, as is the case with most videos that show testers like this, it looks much less difficult than it is in real life. So don’t be all, “Dude, that shit doesn’t look hard at all!”) I finally saw it about five days after I heard about its closure. And damn, it is seriously closed. Like, Circuit City on a Sunday at 2:37 AM closed. It now resides beneath branches the size of well-fed pythons and big ass logs, some so girthy that Yao Ming couldn’t completely encircle ’em with those long and loving Chinese arms of his, no matter how much of an arboreal fetish he had. It looks like a cartoon mouse shook some pepper into the trunk of a cartoon elephant, the hilarious blast leveling the trees for a good two football field’s length swath. It’s not just the 40 yards or so (I’m horrible at judging distance, so I could be way off) of the actual $2 hill that got covered. The trail leading up to it is also under lumber. You can’t even see the actual $2 Hill from where the new bypass trail (which is great, by the way. Big props to the folks who sweated hard to get that built) veers off to the left. I’m not going to say $2 hill can no longer cleaned, at least as long as there’re monster trucks and tanks. But it is no longer bike friendly.

So, I thought I’d do an obituary (more of a eulogy, I guess) for this little stretch of trail that has slain the ego of so many fine riders. Kind of like when even the most despicable of assholes dies. Suddenly people have all kinds of great things to say about them. “Well, you know, Uncle Mark was Uncle Mark. Ha. I remember this one time, he polished off the fourth signature vodka and rubbing alcohol cocktails he had that night, staggers up, looks me in the face and spray-spits it all over me. But what was really funny and creative of him was that he held up a lit lighter first. My god, did I ever burn. That’s why I don’t have full ears. Boy, could that Uncle Mark express himself in interesting ways or what?” I know, it’s not a perfect analogy, because in actuality $2 Hill was genuinely loved. But why the fuck do we do that after horrible people die? I digress (as usual).

The lore is, and it makes sense, that it’s called $2 Hill because if someone in a group cleaned it, everyone else is supposed to give him two bucks. Kind of a closest-to-the-hole thing. I don’t personally know anyone who has any earned any actual income from $2 Hill, but it’s a catchy name.

Locally conceived names for stuff like that are always so cool. Such a staple of localized culture. And we do it so instinctively. A clearing where high schoolers meet to party and drink weekend after weekend, year after year, generation after generation. Off-playground areas where neighborhood kids like to hangout and play. They all get named. In high school we had a really tall jumping off point on the Consumes river outside of Plymouth, CA. It was called Big Tit. Of course I have no idea how long it’d been called that and by how many people, or if it’s still called that, but all my contemporaries knew that moniker as naturally as we knew the name of our school mascot. And there was another more frequented swimming spot simply called The River, which I don’t believe to be a very unusual local naming. I think a lot of people use “the river,” but what’s interesting is that it always means one particular spot. River banks cover a lot of area and people don’t just stand at random spots thinking, “I’m at The River. Now where the hell are those guys?” And this local naming thing can get reeeeaal local. Even in a single household people give names to rooms and backyard areas that overtake official names like “spare room.” In one house my family lived in we had a room called “the boat room,” so named because someone who owned the place before us had had the horrible idea to take out the original, square, sane people window that came with the house and put in a replacement that was the same size as your average ship porthole. Which means, now that I think about it, this visionary went through the effort of not only removing the original aluminum framed sliding window, but also had to do some framing, sheet rock, texturing and painting. Or did that room have wood paneling? Even more disastrously innovative was that the pane was a very 70s amber orange that had that funky (again, very 70s) kind of bubbly texture. It made for a very dark room, but a pretty interesting one to a kid, and a gave the Beach family a nice name to identify the room.

In the case of a really tough little stretch of Sunset Trail in Joaquin Miller Park, someone named it $2 Hill. And low and behold, it spread. But interestingly enough, my riding crew and I always knew it under a different name: La Bamba, which was coined (way before I joined the group) by one of our ranks and low and behold, it stuck. So out of love and respect for my crew and because until the last few years I didn’t know it had another name, in this writer’s eulogy, it will be named as such going forward.

La Bamba represented a lot of firsts for me, now that I’m thinking about it. The first time I rode it (or tried to ride it, at least) was on my first night ride. And though I’d been at the mountain biking thing for at least a couple years, it was my first experience with a tester. I’m sure I’d pushed my bike up testers before it, totally unawares that I should have been trying to ride that shit, but I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of a crew stopping and gathering at the base of a tricky technical ascent, and voicing encouragement, tips and good natured taunts as each rider tackled it one by one, hoping that the rider would “clean” it (a term that was also new to me, but which I now embrace with arms and legs, as well as my soul’s arms and legs). The camaraderie of the tester is a fucking beautiful thing. Tremendously bro.

And as far as testers go, La Bamba was a dandy. There are guys on my crew, very good riders, who for whatever reason never have—and now never will—clean it. There was a very mental aspect to defeating La Bamba that for some, I believe, proved to be their undoing much more than the actual physical feat. It was trippy shit seeing one member of the crew in particular (let’s call him Fauxqua) get one bitch slap after the next from the dirty hands of La Bamba. He’s a kinda imposing looking guy and a natural athlete with a huge personality who takes on technical descents with a fearlessness that I will never possess. He should have been able to defeat that hill more than a few times in his hundreds of attempts. But La Bamba owned him 100%. He’s going to give me shit for saying this, but he always looked done before he even rounded that first cut to the left above the support timber.

I don’t know how many attempts it took before I busted my $2 La Cherry, and I don’t really remember the actual event for some reason, but I’m sure it was glorious. I was on my old my old 2003 Gary Fisher Tassajara, which though a trusty steed (which I’ve converted to my city bike, and absolutely adore), was a lower-mid level bike, at best. What I remember clearly, however, is that my first attempt after I finally got my dream bike, a Blur LT2 (which I’m still riding after 4 years), was a successful one, and I laughed all the way up (at least until I couldn’t waste much needed oxygen on laughing), extremely happy with my new purchase.

Pushed to give my win total, I’d say I got about a dozen cleans under my riding shorts’ elastic waistband over the years. I think that’s a pretty good number, though it represents a very low percentage of success. The conditions of La Bamba varied wildly. At times they were so bad it made cleaning it damn near impossible. And I’m not just talking when rain produced slick mud that made it like trying to climb a diarrhea smeared slide on your bike. The biggest obstacle within the obstacle was what we called “The Chute,” which was a foot deep grove that formed on the second half of La Bamba by way of hundreds and hundreds of attempts. It was full of loose earth and hatred. Either your back wheel would slide out or, especially frustrating, while trying to keep your balance at slow speed over uneven surface, you’d do quick correcting steers left or right and your front wheel would kiss off the foot high side of the chute and you’d be fucked as fuck. Foot down. Dab. Done. Dammit. The Chute was my undoing for many many attempts. But then, folks got tired of The Chute and a line to the left emerged, and there was hope. Wins became more frequent in our group. I know they did for me.

But now, the challenge of La Bamba is gone forever. I’m sure, like this poll and heated discussion on, there will be a lot of back and forth on whether it should have been taken out. I’ll certainly miss the challenge. A lot. But from a sustainability and aesthetic standpoint, it was kind of a nightmare. So I’m taking the noncommittal, “I’m bummed but I get it,” stance. I’ve been to IMBA classes on building sustainable trail, and La Bamba could have easily been one of the slides they show as examples of shitty trail built on a fall line. Like Uncle Mark, La Bamba certainly had its flaws, but as I’ve said, it will certainly be missed.

The demise of La Bamba also got me thinking (warning: rants aheads).

It got me thinking about actual life stuff. More specifically, one of actual life’s biggies: challenges. Really, that’s what life is: the manifestation of how an individual handles challenges. (That’s pretty good, actually. Fuck Webster (not the little black dude, the dictionary). That’s the new definition of individual human existence). There are so many influences on how we handle challenges (beyond the challenges themselves, of course). Genetics is huge, of course. I mean, if you’re just dumb, you may be kind of fucked, and mess up a lot. But even more important is how you’ve been raised. Do you have grit? Have you had everything handed to you? Though some just have grit naturally as well, even if their parents sucked. Going back to intelligence, for better and for worse, there’re actually some pretty damn successful dullards out there because they’ve got grit. And I’m not just talking about pro athletes, actors and models. But successful business owners and the like. Not real bright, but who overcame the challenge of risk aversion, and boom, you’ve got a dumb guy whose life is kicking the sad, runny shit out of the life of a genius with too many degrees and not enough balls or grasp of the real world.

For the most part, obstacles and stuff like gets in our way gets a bad rap. But they shouldn’t. Hard stuff is incredibly valuable. But I think in this modern life, we’ve gotten really bad at choosing which challenges we’re trying to remove. But even worse, how we’re choosing to get rid of them.  I don’t think you can “provide” problems away for other people. I think it’s rad that we’re in a country that can help those in need, and I’m not a sociologist, but it seems like more times than not, we’ve fucked up pretty bad on the helping people thing. I’m not talking about times of disaster or in the cases of helping the physically and mentally ill (especially in how horrible we are at helping the mentally ill, which is a national disgrace in my opinion). But you remove the challenge of not starving for the able bodied (and goddamn, have we ever. Our poor people are obviously not starving), and apparently it messes people up. A lot of people get hobbled. Another thing that is kind of lame that’s happened with challenges is that things that should be no brainer stuff is being portrayed as big challenges that you need to have the courage to overcome. There’s a billboard I’ve seen out there a lot, I shit you not, that says it takes courage to save money. What? I’ll say it again. What? I thought it just took common sense. And our president in the state of the union talked about how anyone can have a kid but dads need to have the courage to actually stick around and raise a child. Obama, you fucking pussy. You should have been up there humiliating deadbeat nation on live TV. The society wide shoulder shrug we have on shitty dads just bailing and not raising their many kids is resulting in an absolute catastrophe and is the root problem of impoverished communities. I’m a divorced dad who has made his mistakes, but damn, I just can’t even comprehend dudes who bail. I drive a lot of miles to spend as much time as possible with my daughter, and write a pretty damn fat check each month, and still feel guilty all the time. Courageous? How about be a fucking human being. But no, let’s just play cowardly lip service. “Um, excuse me, you should take care of your kids. I’m not a racist. Moving on…terrorism is bad and you should see how we bombed the fuck out of some of them with our drones!”

Uh oh. I think I’m derailed here. But it’s my railroad and I’ll run off the tracks if I want to.

What I’m getting at, I think, is that we need to embrace the vast majority of our challenges and just do what successful and happy people have always done: solve them. Beat them. Overcome them. But especially think really hard before we try to eliminate them. Some challenges are better left as is. I can’t say $2 Hill/La Bamba falls into that category, but it’s a challenge that I’m certainly going to miss. I felt so good every time I beat it. And there was even a sense of satisfaction the countless times it beat me, because never once did I think, how can I get around this? And I think most of us mountain bikers are the same way. No wonder I love gathering with them at the bottom of a tester so much, rooting for them to beat it senseless.


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