Sunday Interview: Liam

May 17, 2020

My oldest son, Liam, was supposed to spend this spring in Ghana. Then the coronavirus hit, and he took up bike riding instead.

Since he landed at LAX on March 17, on a plane from Accra, Ghana by way of Dulles International, he’s logged roughly 1,700 miles on his dad’s bike (a Surly Straggler, for those who care about such things). He’s ridden south to Redondo and north to Malibu; up Benedict Canyon and down Coldwater; east as far as Pasadena, and northwest into Agoura. Last week, he hit a personal goal with a 106 mile ride that took him over the Sepulveda Pass, through the San Fernando and Conejo Valleys, across the hilly farmland separating Thousand Oaks and Camarillo, and to the campus of Cal State Channel Islands, where he spent last summer working as a counselor at a sleep-away camp. Then he wound through more farmland to Pacific Coast Highway, until he climbed up Temescal in the Pacific Palisades and headed home to Mar Vista — seven hours total (Bill — my husband, his dad — and his younger brother were his wingmen, meeting him along the way with food and drink).

I’ve watched all this from my dining room desk, him riding while I type away. And I’ve observed it from the couch or the bed, him riding while I rest, either ill with a virus or, later, recovering from it. I can’t believe he’s done all this. I’m proud that he’s done all this. I envy him to Pasadena and back again.

Especially those first few weeks, when we all huddled inside, afraid to go anywhere or see anyone, sure the virus lurked around every corner — and in our house, it probably did — Liam had the streets of Los Angeles to himself. Mandeville Canyon was empty. The hills of Hollywood were empty. He flew down Venice Boulevard with a handful of cars and a stray bus or two. For many of us, this quarantine has been a time of confinement. For my 21-year-old son — his schoolwork from Ghana minimal at most — it’s been a period of freedom, the likes of which he may never see again.

He wasn’t born an athlete. When he was a toddler, he needed occupational therapy to learn how to walk and run without stumbling, because he strongly favored his right side over his left. It took him years to learn how to reliably dunk a basketball through a hoop. He struggled through four years of cross-country in high school and still, by senior year, hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it.

.”In cross-country, I was the worst boy on the team,” he said. “Here I don’t know how I compare, but it doesn’t matter. I know I’m good, because I put in so much time and effort. And I enjoy it.”

His dad has ridden thousands of miles over the course of his five-plus decades on this planet, but Liam fell in love with riding at that same sleepaway camp last summer, climbing the nearby mountains on camp bikes with his supervisor Adam, on their hours off. Then, this past winter break, he began looping down to the beach in the morning, just to get in some exercise. When he left for Ghana in January, he figured that was that — he only planned to linger here a couple of weeks in May, in between his time abroad and a summer internship in Washington, D.C.

Then, over the course of a week in March, the plans changed. Ghana is seven hours ahead of Los Angeles, so when Liam got home his internal clock was all off. He went to bed early and woke up at 6 a.m., the sun just beginning to brighten the sky. For weeks, his Ghanaian professors didn’t assign any work at all. The days stretched before him, long and empty. But there was the Surly, waiting in the garage.

I started exploring the beach bike path. Sometimes, I would go up to the Pacific Palisades to see my cousins. Sometimes, I’d ride down to Redondo. That was the first two weeks.

But then they closed the bike path, and I was like, shoot, I don’t know where else I’m going to bike. Because L.A. is not a biking city. I thought I might be done.

The next day I went to check out Sullivan Ridge [a bike trail in the Santa Monica Mountains above the Palisades]. Dad had mentioned it to me and I thought it might be a good ride. But when I got to the top, I was winded, and so I headed back down without doing the trail. The next day, I got up there and I was all ready to ride the trail, but they’d closed all the trails, too. I thought, Well, this kind of stinks.

I rode down the mountain and stopped in at my grandfather’s house in the Palisades.  He said, “Oh, you should check out Mandeville Canyon [in nearby Brentwood]. I know people bike there.” So the next day I did that. And it was very hard, the hardest ride I’d done so far. When I got to the top, I was winded, so I sat down, and this guy who was riding behind me the whole way sat down nearby. I asked him where he’d been, and he said he’d gone up Nichols Canyon, then down Benedict…. And I thought, Oh my gosh, there are so many canyons for me to do!

Soon he found himself biking along Mulholland Drive (“I would’ve thought it was out of reach as a bike destination. I couldn’t believe I’d ridden there. It was very pretty.”). He tried out Sepulveda Boulevard, and decided that even in the time of quarantine and coronavirus, it was a little too much of a speedway for his taste. He rode Coldwater instead, to the San Fernando Valley and back . He did a 50-mile roundtrip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, that involved a return through Silverlake and Griffith Park, to say hi to a friend living in the Hollywood hills. 

I felt like I had a good amount of freedom, even though I didn’t come close to anybody. It was nice to expand my radius, especially when my radius was so restricted by quarantine. The city felt pretty empty. It’s odd now, to see the traffic picking up again. There are so many people out on Ocean Park boulevard, at the beaches. It feels odd to me, because I’m used to seeing it so empty. I know that this is part of an apocalyptic feel for some people, but I liked it when it was cloudy out and everything was empty, and the city felt chill.

He was doing about 125 miles a week at this point. His dad said, “You know, serious riders do 200 miles,” and Liam thought he could probably get up to that. He started by riding to Topanga.

When I was in high school, I dated a girl who lived in Calabasas, so I’d do that drive all the time. I’d see cyclists out on the road and I always wondered what it would be like to do that. It turned out, it wasn’t a terribly difficult ride. I had a new lens through which I judged my ability. And it was around this time, around mid-April, that I decided I was going to do 100 miles.

He began to train, riding PCH out to the Ventura County line and back. He did Topanga a second time. Finally, a week and a half before the Big Ride, he mapped out a 75-miler over Kanan in Agoura. It turned out to be the hardest ride of all, the upward slope of the mountain not steep but relentless. He nearly passed out in the tunnel from exhaustion and worried he was in trouble when he started to get the chills despite the heat. Nearly out of water, he ate his apple to stave off dehydration and was fine (it’s good to be 21!).

On Saturday, May 9th, he did his 100-miler. There were lots of highlights, but the best part may have come at the very end. 

When I was a kid, I could never get up Grand View (a street that climbs Mar Vista Hill, near our house). On the way back home, though, I set a personal record – two minutes and 28 seconds, Venice to Palms.

These days, he’s still riding, still considering his next big jaunt. Santa Barbara calls.

The days I don’t go on bike rides, I go crazy because I can’t go. But sometimes I need to rest. It’s nice to be outside and exercise and listen to my podcasts as I go [he recommends The Daily, Pod Save the World, Stuff You Should Know, Rabbit Hole, and Oh, Hello]. I really like junk food, especially cheesy gordita crunch and strawberry freeze at Taco Bell. I love Taco Bell so much. I don’t have to worry about eating it now, because I’m biking so much.

I asked him if, in a way, this quarantine has been a blessing for him.

I don’t know about a blessing. It’s not what I thought was going to happen. But it’s been nice.

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