September 22, 2012
This isn't a road, it's a Reggie Bush run from scrimmage. It zigs. It zags. Your belly begins to bark. Kidneys become spleens.
Angeles Crest Highway hangs like a sparrow's nest against the side of the world, tempting fate with entrancing S curves.
On the way up, we pass an ambulance on its way down. Then the accident scene, the rider's bike spatulaed atop a wrecker.
This is common on L.A.'s Blood Highway. The only thing that seems more frequent than dead squirrels are beered-up idiots on sports bikes. Vroooom, splat.
Bless them and their cathartic, daredevil ways. As long as they don't blast through my windshield, I'm all right with them.
If you survive this crazy piece of pavement, up past Vetter Mountain and Strawberry Peak, you'll find an old-fashioned roadhouse, Newcomb's Ranch. Been here since '39. Not an afternoon tea kind of place. The clientele trend toward parched bikers (summer) and thirsty snow junkies (winter).
"It's chaotic when it's sunny and it's chaotic when it snows," says Fred Rundall III, who runs the restaurant for his father, who owns it. "When it rains, business tapers off."
Me, I'd rather suck on rusty razors than down yet another chain restaurant cheeseburger, so here I am with my buddy Paul at Newcomb's Ranch on a Sunday afternoon when it's 90 in the city and 75 up here, only 60 minutes away.
"Dude, I don't have any tattoos at all," Paul says, looking at the bikers surrounding us.
"I know," I say. "We're going to get kicked out of here."
Remember when bikers used to scare you? Now they look like feckless cartoon characters with droopy britches, though, as Paul notes, their swaggery biker mamas could probably kick our butts.
Still, it is a tame place, despite all the chrome out front. Pretty much the only way you could get beat up here would be by ordering a wine spritzer.
"Been riding this road for 55 years," says customer Ray Sparkman, avoiding pronouns, the way cowboy types do. "After the fire, hit a deer. Caught him with my shin, a baby deer ... looked back and he was gone."
Sitting with Sparkman is like sitting with Clint Eastwood, steely stares, long patches of silence. We're out front of Newcomb's. The breakfast crowd is gone — Newcomb's is busiest in the mornings. Now midafternoon, the only sound is the wind in the trees.
When he was a kid, Sparkman says, he used to ride in the rumble seat of a '34 Ford coupe to get to the Mt. Wilson Hotel, where his aunt worked as a cook.
Mt. Wilson had a hotel?
Indeed, this area has a history befitting a gritty, foul-mouthed HBO series. Various Tongva tribes once roamed the hills, followed by a notorious thief by the name of Tiburcio Vásquez, who stashed stolen horses in the caves and canyons.
In the mid-1800s, Benjamin Wilson, a rancher in what is now San Marino, went searching for timber for his wine casks, following old Indian trails to the site of Mt. Wilson.
By the late 1800s, astronomers were using those trails to set up the observatory. In 1917, astronomers began using the the world's largest telescope, a 100-inch Hooker (no jokes, please; I've seen bigger too).
It was a world of geeks and cowboys, many of them housed in the $3-a-night Mt. Wilson Hotel, which finally closed in the late '60s.
In 1939, Newcomb's Ranch opened, serving as a general store and watering hole. Mountain man Lynn Newcomb Jr. ran it for many years, before selling it to a La Cañada doctor. Today, Newcomb's Ranch is still owned by the Rundall family, which stuck with it through difficult times after the 2009 Station fire.
Open every day of the year, it attracts hikers and bikers to what is one of the finer Sunday drives around. Sure, that stretch north of Malibu, up toward Neptune's Net, offers great seascapes, as does the coastal jaunt to the Shake Shack south of Newport Beach. The Rock Store, on the way to Calabasas, also does the biker thing, an institution all its own.
But for alpine vistas, fox, deer, big horn sheep and Ferrari and Ducati sightings, Newcomb's Ranch stands out — a time capsule at 5,200 feet, dressed in cedar and old bikers.
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