Reading the signs

My grandfather was one of the last of the old time mountain men.

A former Doughboy, he fought the Kaiser in France (that was the war before the war Tom Hanks won — the one that was supposed to end all wars). And even in his 60s, he still earned his living off the land.

He’d disappear for a few days, or a few weeks, and come back home with a deer or elk to feed his family; if hunting had been good, he might have a few more to sell to the local butcher. Or maybe he’d have a truck full of logs to sell to the sawmill, or a some pelts he could trade for things he needed.

He was a gruff old man, without a lot of patience for a little kid like me; still, he taught me that the wilderness had countless stories to tell if you just knew how to read the signs.

Like how to tell if a set of cat tracks were from a harmless bobcat or a more dangerous cougar, and whether it was on the prowl or just passing through, and how to examine the tracks to see it was old news, or if they were fresh and there was a potentially dangerous animal lurking about.

Granddad taught me how to spot a tuft of fur stuck to a tree where a bear had tried to scratch his back, and tell whether it was from a black bear or a grizzly bear. And how to spot the odd semi-swirling marks, like one half of a parentheses on top of another, that indicated a snake had recently passed by, and look for the tell-tale markings that could identify it as a rattlesnake.

He wasn’t my real grandfather; not by blood, anyway. He was just the man who married a pretty widow, whose husband had drowned shortly after they’d moved to that small Colorado town, leaving her with two small children to raise — one of them my mom. But my other grandfather, my Dad’s father, had run off when he was just a boy, so he was the only one I ever had.

He died when I was just 12 years old, after a long, miserable battle with emphysema — just one of the many reasons I hate cigarettes. So I must have been very small when he taught me those things. But they stayed with me; even now, I find myself using those skills as I ride the streets and bikeways of L.A.

Like if I find myself riding through an area I’m not familiar with, I keep an eye on the local graffiti to see if it’s just the usual taggers, or possibly a sign of gang territory that warns me to be careful.

Or I read the intersections, looking for warning signs. Like remnants of wreckage in the roadway on yesterday’s ride, such as the twisted pile of rubber and glass that indicated a recent collision in Brentwood, and marked it as an intersection where I should be a little more cautious.

Then there was the set of nearly intersecting skid marks that told the story of a car entering from a side street, and slamming on the brakes to avoid another vehicle — in this case, a road bike, judging by the narrow marks it left as it skidded to a stop. But there was no broken glass, and the two sets of skid marks ended just far enough apart to suggest a happy outcome this time.

There were other signs, as well, such as the pile of broken glass next to an empty parking space, suggesting that someone lost their car stereo — or perhaps their car — the night before. And the used condom left in the gutter nearby implied that thieves weren’t the only ones active in the night.

Some signs are more obvious, though.

Like the relative emptiness on the beachfront bike path, that told me the tourists are gone for this year. Or most of them, anyway; the small group of biking Deutschlanders I gave directions to offered proof that there are still a few left exploring our fair city.

The nearly deserted plaza in Hermosa Beach, which only a few weeks earlier was jammed with young men and women in board shorts and bikinis, told me that school was back in session, and another L.A. summer is nearly over.

And the snapping of the wind-driven flags over the pier, pointing away from my destination, told me it was going to be a hard ride home.


VeloNews says Lance could be making a comeback. Gary reminds us that most rides are uneventful, while Bike Girl challenges her councilmember to join her for a ride over the Cahuenga Pass. Will Campbell rides with the original Midnight Ridah, and No Whip describes his recent Pennsylvania fat tire tour, complete with snakes and skinny dipping. Streetsblog announces a new Livable Streets Group to try to reclaim the Ballona Creek Bike Path. Just Williams comments on the lack of summer in the U.K. and prepares for wet rides, then is surprised with a sunny day.


  1. That’s a cool set of tracks you spotted. Are you sure it wasn’t a track bike?

  2. bikinginla says:

    Could have been. Sound familiar?

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