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VENTURA: Pez Goes Beyond the Fires
It was planned to be 3 days of riding and exploring the best rides around Ventura, followed by a couple of days in Los Angeles to see if I could find something real in the City of Angels. But the SoCal wildfires changed it all overnight, but what I got was a week's worth of experiences I could never have imagined. Sometimes you gotta roll with those punches.

When darkness surrounds you, sometimes you gotta give 'er some stick and power through.

My phone rang at 6:00 am Tuesday morning as I was in the cab on my way to the airport. It was Keith.  He runs NonstopCiclismo.com in Ventura, and is a client turned friend of some 12 years, who graciously invited me to stay at his house (in Ventura) for a few days of December riding - a small escape for us both.

But I knew this wasn’t good news, firstly because phone calls at 6:00 AM are never good news, and secondly because Keith never phones me – and I mean NEVER.



“Ventura is on fire – it’s really bad.” He said. “We had to evacuate our house just after midnight.”

I started to get the bigger picture surfing twitter feeds before my flight left, and by the time I left San Fran that afternoon for my connector to Santa Barbara, I’d booked myself into a hotel for the night – with no idea how the rest of the week would go, but optimistic that tomorrow would bring a better day.


Those clouds are actually smoke blowing up the California coast north of Santa Barbara.

Flying in I saw what at first seemed like dark gray clouds, which I soon realized was smoke from the 50,000+ acres that had already burned since Monday, whipped by exceptionally strong Santa Ana winds. The sun was just an orange ball, and the thick smoke hung like a shroud of menace over what’s one of the most beautiful places on the west coast.


Looking through the smoke.

The smokey smell filled the plane’s cabin some 25 minutes before we landed.

My “holiday” was off to a completely different start than I’d imagined, but I was up for the challenge to make the best of a surely bad situation, and actually looked forward to stepping into the truly unknown in the days ahead.


It's not really a Pez story without a negroni - this one prepared with skill and care at the Good Lion.

Heading into Santa Barbara with nothing more planned than finding a good negroni and a hot meal, I ended up meeting a few very nice people – including the two guys from the skin care store who tried to get me to buy a couple hundred bucks worth of eye cream and made me look five years younger in the process, some fellow drinkers at the Good Lion where they indeed mix a fine negroni, and a wonderful lady some years my senior dining alone at Loquita where I enjoyed a very tasty paella.  Googling her the next day, I realized she’s a pretty big dal in the music business, as one of the founders of Seymour Duncan pickups.  (It was a pleasure sharing a meal with you Cathy.)


Wednesday morning looked promising in sunny Santa Barbara.

 

By Wednesday morning the winds were calm, and the day was off to a much better start than I’d expected 24 hours earlier.

But I couldn’t get Keith on the line.  The situation had worsened in Ventura as the fire ate up buildings and homes – and even destroyed the transmission towers of his internet and phone provider. He was scrambling to process the orders for his online cycling gear business.

With no schedule to keep, I hung around Santa Barbara a while longer, and checked out The Handlebar Cafe, excellent coffee and food under the proprietorship of former pro Aaron Olsen (we interviewed him back when he was still riding).





Driving down from the coast though I saw just how bad the fire had become, as I passed by flames shooting 10-15 feet in the air right beside the road. A fleet of 5 fire trucks drove north in response as I went south.

Yep - it was bad.

I pulled into Ventura and stopped by Keith’s office – the town was almost a ghost-like.  The few people I saw were wearing masks, and the smoke was so thick that again the sun was just an orange ball. Pieces of ash floated and blew around as the UPS guys – still working – filled us in on the destruction they'd seen on their morning run.



But my Plan B kicked in and I aimed for Oxnard and the guys at Albabici, (US distributors for many top Italian cycling brands like Selle SMP saddles, Scicon bags, Limar helmets, Ursus wheels and a few more) who'd generously agreed to set me up with a sweet ride Favaloro (hand made custom carbon frames from Italy).

The smoke was so thick, even down in Oxnard, that riding was not gonna be an option.



In the afternoon I connected with Keith who confirmed he’d be out of his house again tonite, but luckily it was still standing, while by now dozens of homes and structures had burned to the ground.

Time to find another place to stay – which was getting tricky as the evacuees were filling all the local hotels. I was lucky to get one of the last rooms at the "here’s what you get for $100 a night and it ain’t much" Vagabond Inn.

But the night went a lot better with an impromptu dinner invitation from the guys at Albacici, followed by a good couple hours of drinking and appreciating some of Oxnard's finest karaoke.  As two skinny middle aged white dudes, Keith & I didn’t exactly fit in with the crowd – but sometimes the lower your expectations, the better the results.

But the winds were already picking up threatening a worse situation tomorrow.

Sure enough – they blew hard all night – and I half expected to here to sounds of crashing pool furniture and other debris all through the night.


Point Mugu made a scenic backdrop to shoot the Favaloro Puma.  The Santa Ana winds made it too strong to ride though.

Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny, but with winds blowing harder than I’d possibly ever seen. Once again, riding was not an option – the gusts were said to be as high as 80mph – that’s more than enough to blow you off the road.

Instead of riding, I took the Favaloro down the Pacific Coast Highway to Point Mugu to at least take some pics, and explore a part of the coast I’d never seen. At one point the sand on the beach blew so hard I had to shield my face from the stinging sand.



Driving down to Zuma Beach I discovered a great little cantina that served some of the best chicken mole I’d had.



But driving north back to Oxnard I could clearly see the smoke still engulfing Ventura, and a giant mushrooming cloud that signalled another major burn erupting.



It was bad, and just getting worse.

But Keith got his internet back was pulling hard on the front to get orders shipped and keep his business rolling.

I couldn’t do another night at the Vagabond, so I tracked down the last room at a great little motel in Camarillo in its really cool little old town.  There's a university here, and the salon next to the motel caught my attention - it was filled with pretty college aged girls getting blown, moused, and teased into even prettier versions of themselves.



More good news was that Keith was going back into his home, and that dinner tonite was back in Ventura at his wife’s Japanese restaurant Gotetsu. The city was still under 10:00 PM curfew to prevent looting, and main street was eerily quiet when I arrived around 7:00.

Keith, and I were the only customers at the small counter, and I appreciated the hospitality as Yukari served us small plates of the fresh delicious dishes she prepared. She and Keith spoke in Japanese – even though they’ve both been here most of their lives – so I had no idea what was coming, not that it mattered in the slightest.  The people who's homes and business were under constant and very real threat from the fires, were making me feel like guest.

I was struck by how they both stared into the face of this disaster and gave it the middle finger – running businesses as usual. I’ve never been this close to major devastation, but I was seeing how strong the human will can be. Later a couple of Keith’s buddies joined us – one of whom’s parent’s had lost their house that day. He’d moved 'em into his place, along with his sister and 7 animals. He was one grateful guy – handing out hugs to everyone including me - even though we’d just met.  But he too was on a mission to make sure everyone in his family was comfortable and looked after so they could somehow better deal with their losses.

 

On Friday, the winds were better but the air quality was worse.  Along with my hoped for a morning spin before pointing the car south, and choosing to travel the famous and picturesque Pacific Coast Highway into Los Angeles.  With "Car-mageddon" being reported along the 405 as it intermittently opened and closed, there's no better way to start up the "non-ridong" portion of my trip.

I cranked up

America's "Ventura Highway" as I rolled south on Highway 1, the blue Pacific ocean glistening to my right as I meandered through iconic towns like Malibu.  Eventually popping out of my surf-sounds induced daze at the also iconic Santa Monica Pier.  The locals here are as colorful as the pier itself.



So how could I resist lunching at the restaurant chain inspired by a Tom Hanks movie?  That burger & fries were pretty damn good.

Returning to my theme of finding the "real" LA, my overland route to the hotel took me through residential streets of real people - some who even drive golf carts.  You gotta love Southern California...



The weekend ahead was primed as I'd tee'd up a local's eye view of the city with my friend Ken Yamakoshi  - who may be better known in cycling circles as the importer for Xpedo pedals.  As pretty much a life-long Los Angelino, Ken was the perfect personal tour guide, taking me to such spots as...



El Carmen - over 600 tequilas in house, and a very funky space.  The sheer vastness of Los Angeles and its suburbs is not to be underestimated, nor is Friday afternoon rush hour traffic - so after just one glass at El Carmen, we were ready to move onto some Korean bbq at...



Parks BBQ - which may not look like much on the outside, but the food was delicious.



Saturday started bright and early, since for some reason I was awake way too early.  But that gave me enough time for a leisurely stroll across the street to one of LA's quintessential diners for a way-more-than-I-could eat half stack of pancakes with - you guessed it - real locals.




Opportunity seeks the right candidate.

That fueled me up perfectly to drop the rental car by noon, and find my way to Melrose Avenue for a stroll under sunny and warm skies - it's easy to see why so many people want to live here.  With Ken's instant response to my text for a good tequila bar nearby, I found myself in Antonio's - boasting only 300 different tequilas.  But I did meet singer Gwen Stefani's brother - so I was happy.



But that afternoon tequila was nothing for what lay ahead for an epic Saturday night in LA.  Keith had had enough of living under siege from the fires, so he drove down to join us for a night that went something like this:

• Meet at the Mint to catch musician Charlie Hunter

• Drive to Little

• Little Osaka for more bbq - this time the Japanese style.



 

• Discovered a new kind of booze called Iichiko



 

• Killing it at karaoke. Is that snowman mocking me?



 

• "One more stop" said Ken - at the famous Canters Deli on Fairfax - serving late night diners for 81 years.







That was a big week.  Into the face of one of the biggest weather events in the region in history, with fires still raging as I write this.  But even though I missed out on the riding, my time intersecting with people who were much closer and in far more danger than me was the stuff I'll remember far longer than the missed pedalling.  For sure it gave me a new appreciation for living in a rain forest, and more than once I was thankful that my own family and livelihood were not threatened.

And then there's the quality bud time - which can never be underestimated, and over delivered in heaps from what I'd hoped for.  Our Saturday night was like a whole road trip compressed into a few hours, learning stuff about each other as only guys can, sharing a common search for food, drink, and good karaoke, that sort of ended around 3:00 AM Sunday morning.

After about 90 minutes of sleep, I was headed to the airport for a 7:00AM flight home.   I wasn't sure if it was the brutal cold I'd been battling all week, or all the booze from the previous 12 hours, but I powered through the "helmet of pain", and gotta say my hometown hasn't looked this good in weeks.



Big thanks to Keith, Ken, Gianluca, Alessandro & Pitz.
• NonstopCiclismo.com
Xpedo.com
• Albabici

 


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