Richard Nisley


Starry Night
Motor Racing Released - Nov 11, 2012

Summer, 1967. We're sitting inside my brother Charles' red Porsche facing downhill into the darkness. Somewhere beyond the reach of our headlights, the road curves right and begins the long descent to the bottom.

We're parked atop Spunky Canyon Road which connects the rural community of Green Valley on one side with Bouquet Canyon Reservoir on the other. The reservoir, the size of a large lake, is one of several in the San Gabriel Mountains that feeds into the Los Angeles water supply. "Spunky Canyon Road" doesn't begin to describe the fear this road inspires; in my novel "The Ragged Edge" I renamed it "Diablo Pass" which seemed fitting.

Parked beside us in a second Porsche, a white cabriolet, is Rick. Rick is a nice guy who strikes me as a Charles-wannabe. He hangs with Charles, dresses like Charles, even wears a floppy hat like Charles, and he bought a 356 Porsche like Charles. Can Rick keep up with us racing down the mountain? How badly does he want to drive fast like Charles? Enough to risk his life? Leaning forward in my seat, I imagine looking over the edge of the mountain. It's a long drop to the bottom.

The pavement beneath our wheels still radiates with the heat of day. We'd left Palmdale around 10:00 p.m., drove the winding up roads through Leona Valley to Green Valley, and within 45 minutes reached the top of Spunky Canyon Road. Up here, far from the lights of L.A., stars shine as brightly as Van Gogh imagined them in his painting "Starry Night."

It's decided: Charles will lead going down and Rick will do what Rick always does in Charles' company--follow. We're off, around the first curve and dropping at an alarming rate through a series of ess curves. The road clings to the side of the mountain as it heads toward the reservoir, passes through a mountain cut, reverses direction, goes back into the canyon, reverses direction at the bottom, and emerges facing the reservoir. We're about a quarter of the way down when I realize Rick's headlights are no longer shining in our rear window. I turn around and see them, flashing through a curve back up the road, growing faint as Rick falls farther behind.

Charles coaxes rather than rushes the Porsche through the curves. There is a limit to how fast the road can be taken, and Charles stays just this side of it. The road tilts and undulates as in unwinds. Our headlights illumine a mountain wall one second, flash into the canyon darkness the next. All that separates us from going over the edge is a three-foot earthen berm. One would have to be unlucky indeed to go over the berm. The berm would stop a misplaced wheel or a sideways skid, but would it stop a head-on run? No. Should a driver lose control in a big way and be unlucky enough to be pointed straight on, the wheels would ride up the berm and, like a missile, the car would be launched into the canyon abyss. We have the forward speed, certainly, but Charles is too experienced, too much in control, to get in such big trouble. Rick, on the other hand . . . .

We reach the bottom without incident. Charles pulls over and we wait for Rick. And wait. How long did we wait? Long enough to fear that Rick might have made the big drop. After what seems like an hour but was probably a good minute Rick's headlights appear out of the darkness and he pulls to a stop beside us.

How could it have taken him so long? Did he spin? He says no. Charles and Rick talk a few minutes, comparing notes. It's decided that Rick will lead going back up the mountain. We're off again. A few turns and its obvious Rick is over his head, feeling pressured perhaps? Charles is following too closely. I urge him to back off and he does so, and thank goodness he does, because in the very next turn Rick loses it, spins and comes to a stops facing us. We have time to stop and avoid a collision. Rick jumps out and comes to our window. He and Charles chat a moment, and we begin again, with Rick still leading. It's painfully slow, as Rick is shaken and taking his time. We stay well behind, as if to say, "There's no hurry, Rick." As I recall, after reaching the top, Rick continued back to Palmdale and we made another run back down the mountain.

That was a long time ago, but that night lives on. I used Spunky Canyon in "The Ragged Edge" as Charles had used it in the '60s, as the training ground of the character in my story, John Wagner. I got the idea after reading that Dan Gurney learned to race the same way, on the backroads near his home in Riverside, California. Gurney too learned behind the wheel of a 356 Porsche.

During the final rewrite of "The Ragged Edge," it dawned on me that Wagner's voice was all wrong. I had given him my voice, a voice with too much inflection. I decided the character would be more convincing if he spoke in a flat, staccato voice, like a Hemingway character--in a voice like Charles'. In the final rewrite, I went over every sentence that Wagner spoke and cut it down to the bare bones, without adjectives, to mere verbs and nouns.

With that my character had a backstory, a no-nonsense voice, and I had finished my first book.

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