Angels Run

Weak sunlight skimmed across the vacant four-lane Antelope Valley Freeway in the fading afternoon light. Every rock and pebble on the dry roadway cast a long shadow toward the northeast as the sun slipped into the red-brown smoggy haze above the mountains along the southwest horizon. No truck tires whined in the distance and no animals stirred in the chill air as we cruised along the deserted highway on Stan’s chopped rigid frame Harley. He downshifted as we approached an exit, slowed and turned onto a graded dirt road angling off from the highway. The rear wheel fishtailed, spraying gravel behind us, the bike accelerated along the byway, crested a hill, and we headed into the desert.

 

A few minutes later we pulled up to an abandoned house in the desert next to a group of Hell’s Angels who had been there since Friday. We dismounted—two dusty, cramped riders sore from our non-stop trip from the San Fernando Valley to this remote, dry Mojave Desert dust pile. Amid a scattering of motorcycles, sidecars, a couple of pickup trucks, some empty coolers, half-eaten food, empty beer cans and liquor bottles, cigarette butts, empty syringes, and trash, about fifteen Angels and other assorted outlaw bikers stood, sat, and laid about. They seemed to share a growing malaise, looking uncomfortably grimy, hungover, and increasingly restless after a weekend of partying at a dusty abandoned desert homestead north of Los Angeles. One of the non-Angels in the group greeted us.

“Hey, Stan! What brings you here, motherfucker?”

“Parti! What’s happenin’? You said to show up, Stan replied. Where’s all the dope?

“You’re way too late. It’s gone.”

“Who’s that?” Parti asked, nodding towards me.

“You know Ron, he’s the guy that takes pictures at the races.”

The previous summer I ran a freelance photography business taking and selling photos of amateur motorcycle racers at the track, including Parti, who was too bleary-eyed to recognize me.

The conversation ended. Buzzard, a skinny Angel with a thin scruffy beard, sat atop a weathered fence post with his heels hooked into a rail, a credible imitation of his namesake. Stan and I walked towards an abandoned house next to the party scene. One of the Angels, nicknamed Wolf Man because the beard growing up his face to the top of his cheeks, prowled around the house looking for something to kill the boredom of being sober.

Viewing the Hell’s Angels in repose, down and tired and bored, reminded me of a scene earlier in the year. Stan and I and some of his other biker buddies were hanging out at a beer bar in North Hollywood, playing pool inside the low, flat-roofed cinder block building. One of the pool players, not one of our group, got angry at losing. Maybe he thought he was cheated. I don’t remember. He threatened the guys who were playing against him, but they outnumbered him, and he left. A few minutes later, a car drove by outside, and as it passed the door, we heard gunshots directed at us. Everybody hit the floor. The car left and didn’t return. Very soon after that, we left too. To me that drive-by was a warning. To them it was entertainment. I felt repulsed by the casual attitude toward violence, but I was drifting aimlessly that summer, unsure of my own direction.

A creaking, wrenching sound came from a dry board that Wolf Man pried loose from a beam. The rusty nails that had held it in place for decades squealed and grated as Wolfman pulled it away from the frame of the building. He weighed the board in his hands, decided he liked its heft, and abruptly swung it at the wall, smashing the siding. Again. And again. The wall began to yield. Other Angels, aroused by the noise, stirred and began to pull loose boards and beams from the structure, ripping and pounding at it with bare hands and newly freed boards turned into bludgeons. In a few minutes, the roof of the house that had stood against desert sun, wind, and storms for untold years was sitting on the ground with a row of Hell’s Angels perched like crows along the roof ridge.

There wasn’t much else to do to the house… until one of the Angels produced a light, and touched it to the parched, splintered wood lying around the remains of the roof. In seconds, a fire roared and a pillar of smoke swept up into the still desert sky, a beacon for miles in any direction. The Angels scattered from their seats on the roof as the fire spread through the ruin.

In a few minutes, the smoke produced an effect. Fire truck lights could be seen twinkling faintly across the desert some twenty miles away, growing slowly larger and nearer as they responded to the smoke signal that the Angels sent up for the world to see. As the trucks approached, black and white squad cars became visible as well.

I told Stan, “Let’s go. We don’t need this.”

We jumped on Stan’s bike, started it up and roared away, back down the dirt road that brought us in. As we left, I saw the Angels leaning against their choppers, waiting for the law to arrive, perhaps hoping for a confrontation that might prove interesting. They watched the lights approach as we rolled into the distance.

Seeing the Hell’s Angels up close gave me a lot to think about. I felt grimy and tainted by just being there, but I couldn’t figure out why until after some time passed. Late one night in Sylmar just before Christmas, we dropped acid with Stan’s friends. LSD was legal when we used it in 1965, but possession of marijuana was a felony then, worth up to ten years in prison. Most of my friends in Berkeley, and all of Stan’s friends in Los Angeles smoked weed. We discovered when we tried it, that almost everything we’d been told about it by authorities was wrong. That tended to create a degree of alienation, to put it mildly.

The acid trip made me paranoid and anxious, with after-effects lasting for months. That, and my experiences with Hell’s Angels and other outlaws led me to a conclusion. After hanging around drug dealers, outlaw bikers, and semi-legitimate motorcycle riders and racers with Stan, I knew the Hell’s Angels were nothing but destructive. The way they dealt with people threatened the humanity of everyone around them. Casually demolishing an abandoned house in the desert didn’t endanger anyone directly. It didn’t destroy property or livelihoods that someone depended on. It was just their approach to life. They enjoyed destroying things. They were indifferent to the harm they caused. Any good they did was outweighed by the damage. They lived lives of exploitative sex, theft, violence, and intoxication to oblivion. It sickened me. Other people recognized that the minute they saw them, but it took me longer. I was still reformulating my own moral code after questioning everything. I finally understood that they opposed everything I valued, and I left their world.

The next summer, I sold my motorcycle and bought a used car.

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