By Brandon HENSLEY
Whether by car or motorcycle, the drive up Angeles Crest Highway to Newcomb’s Ranch Bar & Restaurant from La Cañada is 27 miles of steep, winding road. Twenty-seven miles of breath-taking scenery but also sharp turns, which give way to a view down below that even Wile E. Coyote wouldn’t survive if he fell off. Twenty-seven miles of, “People drive all the way up here just to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon?”
If they hadn’t been coming to Newcomb’s Ranch since the Station Fire made it only partly accessible since 2009, they are coming now.
Since the beginning of June when the ’Crest reopened, Newcomb’s Ranch has returned to some semblance of normalcy. On a Saturday afternoon, the parking lot is full of motorcycles and inside the place is full of its usual customers, creating an atmosphere of how it used to be.
But days like last week were in heavy danger of never happening again in 2009. When the Station Fire ripped through Angeles National Forest, it literally surrounded the ranch. Newcomb’s Project Manager Victor Castillo has video of the fire burning across the street from the building with flames 150 feet high. According to Newcomb’s assistant manager Fred Rundall III, whose father is the owner, Castillo told him the trees cracking every second sounded like trains crashing.
Miraculously, Newcomb’s Ranch survived.
“It was pure luck,” said Rundall.
Management thought the place had burned down. Firefighters didn’t bother to try and save it – they had other obligations, said Rundall. But in mid-September, one firefighter went up there and took a photo of the restaurant still standing.
So management, which had been holding meetings in La Cañada while waiting out the fire, went back to work.
“We got several phone calls a day asking if we survived the fire, if we were open. A lot of curious people,” said Rundall.
Since April of last year, Newcomb’s has been open, but business hadn’t been booming. There had been an alternate route open from Sunland-Tujunga, but aside from the presence of die-hard riders like Ralph Fox and John Katis, the place had an empty feeling.
“We were depressed,” said Fox. “We would come in here and there wouldn’t be anyone here.”
Rundall said they cut the menu from four pages to two, and laid off workers. The business was down by half.
“A lot of people have been working here for years. It was very hard for the owner,” Rundall said.
The Rundall family bought the place from Lynn Newcomb Jr. in 2001, and said it was the worst time they’d ever been through. They even called Newcomb for advice, but he couldn’t help. He had never been through anything like this.
Since 1929, the ranch had served as a hostel, motel and gas station. After the fire, it became a ghost town.
Newcomb’s even had to run on generators for 13 months because Southern California Edison didn’t supply them with electricity.
But now summer has come, and with it the reopening of the ’Crest.
“We stuck through. We’re here for these people,” Rundall said. “Everyone’s happy to see the beautiful road. We’re very thankful for Caltrans, the taxpayers, construction workers, engineers. We serve them here all the time and we always tell them how grateful we are for them.”
“If it’s open, we’re here at least once a week,” said Katis. “It’s like a three-hour vacation.”
But the reopening of the ’Crest has brought on more fatalities. The news of weekly accidents on the highway is of concern to Rundall. The regular bikers know what they’re doing, he said, they know how to navigate the roads. It’s the “squids” that need to pay more attention. Squids, Rundall said, are the non-regular customers he gets.
Rundall can spot them by looking at their attire: T-shirts, mohawks, cargo shorts, Air Jordans.
“They’re going on these 180-horsepower motorcycles,” he said. “Those are typically the ones that are going down.”
Fox has been riding for 59 years. He said the first 20 years he didn’t even ride with a helmet.
“I have crashed, bashed, flew off of cliffs,” Fox said. “That’s why I consider myself a real respectful rider now.”
Fox held up his hand and formed a small circle with his fingers. “A rock that big will put you on your rear end,” he said. “You look at these guys, they got all these fancy leathers and all this and they think they’re racers. What they don’t realize is that they’re sightseers. This is their main function but they’re not smart enough to realize it.
“You know what you get for being Joe Racer up here if you’re really successful? You get a white cross.”
Katis agreed with his friend.
“If you want to really race, you go to the track because [if you crash] they have hay bales and a place to slide to,” Katis said. “If you wipe out on [an Angeles Crest] turn, look around at what you’re going to hit. There aren’t any hay bales up here. You’re going to hit a tree, hit a rock, or go off a cliff.”