My house burned down in the Oak Fire and my hair was falling out in clumps due to an undiagnosed health condition

— Story and photos by Chris Van Leuven

Two years ago I picked up my first e-bike to keep active between writing deadlines. Due to its steep topography, Mariposa is perfectly suited for pedal assist riding. Before e-biking, I was constantly in granny gear, plodding along at five mph on my regular bike while climbing endless hills. 

My first e-bike was a beach cruiser that you can buy from Walmart. Completely under-powered for the area, with a meager 250w motor, it barely got me where I needed to go. It was terrible on dirt roads, the chain always popped off, and it would overheat on hot days. Nonetheless, riding it day in and out, I appreciated that I got my prep time back since now I was riding in street clothes. At lunch, I’d step away from my desk, hop on “Swagtron” the e-cruiser and do laps on the roads around my house.

This was my introduction to the immense beauty surrounding me in Mariposa along country roads. I lived 2,000 feet above the town of Mariposa, surrounded by steeply forested terrain. Swagtron (this was printed on the bike with giant yellow letters) proved to be the perfect exploration tool. The more I explored, the more I fell in love with all the forgotten, obscure roads surrounding town. I stopped making weekend plans with friends, instead focusing on doing triples – biking, writing and climbing all in the same day.

my bike at the top of Foresta Rd e-biking

A photo of my bike at the top of Foresta Rd., which connects El Portal to Foresta, This e-bike burned in the fire along with four others.

Eventually I replaced the motor on Swagtron with a more powerful Bafang that alleviated the overheating problem. Laps up and down the road were now 30-mile outings that climbed thousands of vertical feet. I decorated the bike with colorful handlebar tassels and wrapped it in lights, like a Burning Man bike. Eventually I connected with the e-bike company Aventon and tried their models, including a fat bike that could handle rough terrain at high speed.

Soon I was giving e-bike tours, where I’d take families out on rides via forgotten fire roads in Mariposa. On weekends we’d head to the Yosemite Boulder Farm and climb until dark. Soon I was getting several calls a week to take visitors out. Balancing writing and climbing, I still got in 100 miles a week and 10,000 to 15,000 vertical feet on my bikes. I was quite content.

My legs looked ripped even though I never rode my  regular bikes, and I’d given up running entirely. I did all my rides in baggy shorts or jeans, and I rode instead of driving to town. Town runs were hard. It’s all downhill to get there and all uphill to get home.

The weeks before the oak fire

One night this past summer, while riding alone on my way back from town, I accidentally veered off the trail while accelerating up a steep, overgrown section. Next thing I knew, I was face down on the ground. The sudden impact barreled the handlebars into my chest, breaking several ribs and hitting my liver. I should have ridden to the emergency room, but instead, I rode home and prepared for work the next day.

The pain eventuallly caught up to me, and I took myself to the hospital later that week. Surprisingly, instead of being treated for liver damage, I was told I had liver disease. I insisted the swelling was from the blunt force impact of my accident. The doctors sent me on my way.

About a month later, I noticed my hair falling out. A lot of it. Big chunks were missing all over my head. Two days later, when I was on an e-bike tour, thick black smoke filled the sky and flames chewed through my favorite backyard riding areas, where I’d logged thousands of miles on my fleet of e-bikes. The family I was guiding helped me evacuate, and the fire consumed my house within hours. I lost five e-bikes that day plus much of my belongings since I could only get one load out before the road closed.

I was luckier than most. My landlord lost everything but his dog, Carl, who he had to surrender a few months later. I saved my dog, Fenster, who has brought me nothing but love. (I’m so thankful for him.) Once the smoke cleared, I learned 193   structures had burned and three firefighters were injured fighting this fire.

Right after the fire

Right after the fire, things got really hard. At first, doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I thought I was dying. And since my home was gone, I had to get a roof over my head before I could even address my condition.

Within a few days, I was in Fresno, where friends of friends offered me an unfurnished apartment until I got a permanent spot. I shared the concrete floor with Fenster. I was glad I’d evacuated with insulating pads, so I had something to lay on, but I didn’t get out with any bedding. I made a pillow out of a blazer and laid clothing over myself. Then I’d wake up with my makeshift pillow coated in my hair; I remember my scalp itched fiercely. I endured several nights that way.

Displaced and scared for my health, I did what I could to get through the day. I’d walk to the local taqueria and get food, where I’d pass many homeless people. Empty liquor cans and bottles lay near them, and sometimes people would leave them bottled water. One morning I noticed the air nozzle was missing at the gas station, and my friend told me that someone nearby was using it to smoke crack.

I was in a tough place, but looking around me, I could tell things could be much worse. Friends had set up a GoFundMe, which helped me quite a bit. Plus, unlike many Mariposa residents, I had fire insurance.

Getting through hard times

With all that was going on, I knew I had to make my way back to Mariposa. I had heard that some old friends had an opening at their house, so I contacted them and they offered me the space on the spot. I was back home in Mariposa within a month of the fire.

Once settled, I began rebuilding my e-bike fleet while simultaneously seeing specialists who could help me get better. Since my hair fell out in weird patterns, I looked like a spotted leopard, so one day a friend came over and made me sit in the bathtub while she buzzed my head with clippers.

Eventually I was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease where your body attacks hair follicles (car accident victims can get alopecia). I must paint on my  eyebrows, and since alopecia affects my whole body — where 75 percent of my hair is gone — I look different when I stand in front of a mirror. It’s still too soon to tell if I’ll get my hair back or if I’ll ever look the same as before.

Recovery

During the first months of recovery, I thought about what the editor of this magazine told me. “Think of your life like a cup,” he said while I was visiting him and his family in Santa Cruz. “What are you going to fill it with?” Climbing, biking, and writing, I concluded.

my house after the fire

What’s left of my house after the fire.

Bed-less after the fire

Bed-less after the fire, I shared the floor with my dog. I also didn’t have any bedding, so I used articles of clothing as blankets.

Tests showed that my liver enzymes were back to normal. I couldn’t climb at my limit due to my sore ribs, but I could show others how to move over the rocks. A few people at the climbing gym in Fresno, Metal Mark, reached out to me and soon I showed them around Yosemite. That helped me as much as it helped them. As my condition stabilized and my ribs ceased to hurt, I threw myself at the rock, revisiting my favorite climbs. I cried tears of joy midway up my favorite climb, the 700-foot North Face of the Rostrum. I wrote one story, then another.

post bike crash and fire

Post bike crash and fire. I’m wearing gloves knitted by my friend and riding partner’s daughter. It’s hard to be sad when you’re out on a bike and dressed like you’re going to Burning Man.

At first, my muscles felt like they were on fire when I climbed. And emotion would overtake me as I got on the bike. But while riding, the wind felt good. And looking at my surroundings, I was bathing in beauty; it was hard to stay sad long when the world seemed so beautiful. My body began to change as I got my fitness back.

During this time, I introduced my new landlords to e-biking. Now we ride together a few times a week. But mostly, though, I ride alone for hours at a time. Sometimes I’ll get up at 3am and ride until sunrise. One night I saw two bucks locking their antlers together before separating and walking off into the trees.

My favorite bike right now is called the Aventon Level. It’s my least powerful bike. It has a 500w motor, so it’s barely powerful enough for the consistent climbing in the Sierra foothills.

A happy ending

My new place is even better than before for riding. I can see El Capitan from my local ride, which snakes along a winding dirt road as it climbs Telegraph Hill. My new house is three times bigger than before, which is also nice. I even have a home office. And writing continues to bring me joy. I’m now even closer to the local boulders, which makes climbing consistently easier.

I am taking the scenic route to work at the Yosemite Boulder Farm: e-biking

This photo was taken two months after the fire and getting diagnosed with alopecia. I am taking the scenic route to work at the Yosemite Boulder Farm to guide clients.

One more advantage of my condition is that diet plays a big part in recovery. This means I’m off gluten (so no more beer or bread) and nightshades (no tomatoes or peppers), and since I’m on powerful drugs, I must be extra nice with my liver and kidneys, so I can’t drink to excess. I also take full rest days to allow my body to heal. I’ve never had such a healthy diet nor taken such good care of myself. It feels good.

The e-bike adventures continue. Each day I increase the distance — including today’s ride, which was twice as hard as yesterday’s.

Riding with my good friends and new landlords Daniel Melendrez and Genny Goldsher: e-biking

Riding with my good friends and new landlords Daniel Melendrez and Genny Goldsher. Since moving into their rental, we’re getting out on bikes several days a week.

Attempting the 700-foot North Face of the Rostrum with Gara Villaba Mendez.

Attempting the 700-foot North Face of the Rostrum with Gara Villaba Mendez.

I’m not thrilled that my house burned down or that I’m living with an autoimmune disease, but I’m happy I’m alive and thriving. I couldn’t ask for a better place to bring it all together — climbing, biking and writing — than here in the Sierra foothills.

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If you would like to explore Mariposa via ebike, you can reach out to Chris Van Leuven for a customized tour. Learn more at yosemiteebiking.com.

Read other articles by Chris Van Leuven here.