The Silent Mountains of Snow

Looks like this yakking fool needs to work on containing that Eternal Light – although with more 100deg plus temperatures forecasted for the next few days attaining Silent Mountains of Snow status may be even tougher than anticipated.  Happy Weekend!

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The Wheelsucker

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“in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity” – Carl Jung

The Wheelsucker follows close behind. I consider blowing my nose on him but by the time I remove my hand from the bar to plug a nostril he switches over to my left side, then vanishes for a moment when I duck beneath a ridge.  I hate that guy – he’s so shifty – always sitting on my wheel, critiquing my every move while pedaling with little effort and not even a trace of effort showing on his dark, blank face.  Then like a shift in the wind somehow he’s ahead of me, just out of arm’s reach, blacker and denser than fog in the night.  Worst of all at times he resembles me, or maybe I resemble him?  Am I sitting on his wheel or vice versa? It’s hard to tell sometimes who the real person is as the light begins to fade and the distance distorts into the shades of gray from which no benefit ever comes.

But when the light is right and the shadow distinct I glimpse his cowardice, his laziness.  He loafs along just out of reach with his schemes and plots, his greed for possessions and playthings clearly exposed for all to see.  Envy and self involvement rule the distinct margins of his figure as rolls along the contours of the earth in utter disregard for what truly matters – it’s all about him.   Through ascent followed by inevitable descent he’s there, I cannot shake him  Only the darkness finally extinguishes his pitiful light.

I really don’t know this Wheelsucker shadow of mine.  Though we rarely speak, when we do I don’t like what he has to say.

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Don’t Be An Asteroid

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California is a source of endless frustration for me.  I love this place as much as I hate to love this place – it renders me as neurotic as any character in a Woody Allen movie.  On the one hand I love my adopted state more than any other place I’ve lived.  California is a fantastically varied and beautiful outdoor playground with high mountains, deserts, plains, coastline and everything in between.  One does not grow bored in the Golden State.

On the other hand, I feel a certain level of self-loathing for even saying I love this place.  The southern coastal strip where I live can also be described as a Paradise Lost of infinite traffic nightmares existing in an unsustainable state of fires, floods and droughts.  We have no real source of water down here other than the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada, yet in this time of drought the golf courses are still green.  When it does rain, we have mudslides.  Construction continues unabated in areas that even in the best of rainfall years have trouble supporting the current population (just take a drive along Rt 395 through the High Desert communities of the Mojave to see what I’m talking about).   And almost everywhere you look, take note of the trash along the roadsides.  Is this the proper manner to treat such a beautiful place?  I think not.  Sometimes I’m ashamed to call myself a Californian.

A few weeks ago I read an essay by Noam Chomsky that contained an observation I found interesting:

One index of human impact is the extinction of species, now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. That is the presumed cause for the ending of the age of the dinosaurs, which opened the way for small mammals to proliferate, and ultimately modern humans. Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction.

Love him or hate him, he has a point.  There is no denying that human activities on this planet are causing massive changes.  As much as I love to drive north and esacape to hike among Giant Sequoias through a place like Muir Grove, am I not just part of the problem?  As lightly as I try to tread, do my footsteps not have repercussions be they large or small?  The wisdom of a 2500 year old tree seems to agree.  I think if they could they would squash us beneath their trunks.

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When I drive my car through the Owens Valley and gaze in wonder at the interplay of cloud and earth in the Eastern Sierra, am I not just wasting precious resources?  Or clouding the skies with my car’s exhaust?

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Would it be better to just stay at home instead of driving 300 miles to go ride my bike?  For that matter, would it be better to move to a more sustainable state that has a water supply, less traffic and a better quality of life?  Probably so, but until that day comes I intend to enjoy views like this as often as possible. These are the places that California still makes sense to me, even if it is only for a fleeting moment while admiring the Inyo Range.

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Maybe it’s the dichotomy of a 300 mile drive through hectic traffic, followed by 4 hours of riding my bike into the night and a quick, lonesome bivy that makes views like this first thing in the morning so special.  It’s nice to be able to hit the snooze button a few times while watching the day unfold, the silence broken only by the ruffle of feathers from a hawk soaring overhead.

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My time in the great state of California is winding down, just as my days upon this earth have been dwindling since the day I was born.  It’s time for me to move on.  But until I reach my destination I’ll appreciate the beautiful state of chaos that is California – and do my best to avoid being just another asteroid.

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Running Down the Corridor

“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” – Augustine of Hippo

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Some days I just want to run out the door from work and never look back, maybe even let out a bloodcurdling scream just to complete the scene and give my former coworkers something to talk about the next morning while they circle the pink pastry box like vultures around a carcass.  Of course since I’m a little more pragmatic than that usually I just scope out the side door corridor for signs of upper management traffic, make sure there are no VP’s wandering the terrain then sneak out a little early and go ride my bike.

It’s not that I don’t work hard (I do, really) but my problem is I’m a dreamer. Dreaming is not necessarily a bad thing, but without action you can become just another fat guy in a cubicle scouring the internet for adventure.  Luckily for me, I occasionally become a “doer” that gets outside for a while and pedals around for a bit as chaining a brain that wants to roam into a cubicle is never healthy.  But as long as the coast is clear along that side-door corridor I can make the best of the situation.

Once free, there’s a place on the way home right off the freeway where I like to roam for a bit before returning home for dinner.  It’s not a world-class riding spot but it’s twisty, flowy and quite a bit of fun: the San Clemente Singletracks.  This sliver of land was almost obliterated to make way for a toll road a few years back but thanks to action by the community (mainly the surf community as the world-famous Trestles break is right down the road) it was saved.  In addition, trails built on this land by mountain bikers that were once considered illegal were incorporated into the official State Park trail network to increase its intrinsic value to the community and provide additional ammunition to stop its destruction.  It was a”win” for  the entire community, and not just for the human wildlife that uses this land.  Wildlife needs corridors like this to survive.

What’s a wildlife corridor? Wildlife corridors are essentially routes that allow for the free exchange of individuals between populations.  Human encroachment into what remains of our unspoiled areas pinches off populations of animals into fragmented groups that threatens the health and biodiversity of those that remain, especially large predators like mountain lions of which we have quite a few in these parts.  If there’s one thing that mountain lions have in common with a dreamer in a cubicle it’s that mountain lions need to roam.  We all need these corridors and I’m fine with sharing mine with others.

A perfect example of how larger predators use these corridors is illustrated by reading of the sad plight of a radio-collared mountain lion in San Diego County.  After leaving his mother, the first independent movements of this juvenile cat’s short life were down the very same trails that I escape to after a day at work.  Being a California cat, he visited the beach a few times before turning inland (probably found the crowds at the beach annoying) then basically walked though my front yard in North County San Diego while on his way to greener pastures in the less populated interior.  If I had looked out my front window at the right time I probably could’ve seen him walking by.  Looking at his movements, I find it incredible that he made it as far as he did as these are some incredibly populated areas with vehicle traffic beyond belief.  Amazing.

mountain-lionWhen I look at his tracks I see my own meanderings within San Diego County. I see myself riding the afternoon on-shore breeze up the San Luis Rey River Valley on my road bike as I wind toward Palomar Mountain.  I see the trail system at Daley Ranch in Escondido where I have been mountain biking for years.  I see the route of my own Palomar Puzzler Race near Santa Ysabel and Julian, the lonely desert mountains of Anza Borrego State Park where I fat bike in winter and the graceful plunge down the technical trails of Noble Canyon in the Laguna Mountains.  Looking at his wanderings I feel a kinship with a fellow wanderer, albeit one with nowhere near his power and grace.  I feel part of his natural world beyond mere facts and figures, forever linked by the sweat and toil of my travels that rose and fell with my breathing just as the golden hills of San Diego continue to unfold before dawn.  It connects me to the soul of a place that can at times seem soul-less.

Which is why on certain days I’ll continue to eye the side-door corridor of the office for any signs of human activity.  Pacing the floor of my cage until the moment is right, I’ll seize the opportunity for escape and burst out that door to face the daylight without a second glance back. The time to escape is now and the path of the lion is never wrong.

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Things That Go Bump in the Elemental Vastness

The days shorten and summer comes to a close.  Seems like just yesterday the wailing of the 5AM alarm was a hell of a lot easier to tolerate with bright skies streaming though the windows accompanied by the melody of the chirping finches that chose to nest beneath the steps of our front door.  You might laugh at this San Diegan, but summer – even here in the land of the Endless Summer – has flown the nest.  Pretty soon night riding will no longer be a welcome treat from the summer heat but a necessity brought on by the darkness.  And the darkness always wins.

For me, night rides are an opportunity to expand my senses and fill my lungs with the cool moist ocean air that backfills the rising heat of our coastal hillsides.  They give an opportunity to embrace our primal fear of the night and what hides within, a chance to let the more primitive parts of our brains attempt to explain things in dark contrasts of white and black instead of the shades of grey that tend to dominate human consciousness.

So what fills your thoughts on a solo night ride?  Is it the snap of the underbrush and the thought of mountain lions prowling for a meal on the same trails that you ride for pleasure?  Or is it laughing as you recall a pair of fox eyes bouncing along the trail ahead of you, filling you with a moment of stark terror as they playfully ran toward your headlight in a canine game of chicken?  Or is it an overwhelming sense of insignificance as you turn from the bright city lights below and face the challenge of the dusky hills that hold dominion over everything but night?

For me it’s all of that and more.  I welcome the night – it forces me to think as I pedal toward dawn.

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“The bright calm sun, untouched by the furies of the earth, abandoning the earth to darkness, and wild forlornness, and night, as men shiver in their coats and hurry home. And then the lights of home glowing in those desolate deeps. There are the stars, though! – high and sparkling in a spiritual firmament. We will walk in the windsweeps, gloating in the envelopment of ourselves, seeking the sudden grinning intelligence of humanity below these abysmal beauties. Now the roaring midnight fury and the creaking of our hinges and windows, now the winter, now the understanding of the earth and our being on it: this drama of enigmas and double-depths and sorrows and grave joys, these human things in the elemental vastness of the windblown world.” – Jack Kerouac

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All Along the Watertower

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My ride up to the watertower hasn’t gotten any easier over the years, that’s for sure.  Blame it on getting older or blame it on those couple of beers I had with dinner last night, but this climb sure seems steep today.  I struggle up the first part and briefly consider turning around, soft pedaling along a flatter section.  A river of sweat flows behind me and vanishes as it becomes one with the drought-parched earth of California.

I’ve been riding this area for many years now and I know exactly what to expect up ahead: just around the bend is a steep pitch filled with loose rocks and sand that curls around the mountain like a snake around its victim.  It sucks the life out of me every time.  Sure, there’s a line through this section but power is your friend if you want to clean it as the loose rocks require some momentum to roll over – and since I haven’t been riding as much as I’d like the power in my legs sometimes seems in short supply as of late.  But as long as you never give in you can usually summon the power.

Then again, too much power results in a hopelessly spinning wheel that can also doom one to the walk of shame to the top.  As with most things there’s a thin line between success and failure – and only old men walk their bikes up hills.  I’m not ready to be an old man – not today.  If I spin out, I spin out.

Luckily it’s been (uncharacteristically) tropically hot and sticky in these parts for the past few days so while my sweat may be flowing freely at least the traction is ample as the flour-like soil has been transformed to a dough-like state by the moisture. The grade steepens and my legs begin to burn as my worn old tires stubbornly struggle for traction like unspoken words in the eyes of an old man watching a child at play.  I shift my weight to compensate until they grip the forlorn earth, the loose rocks momentarily grunting as they shift beneath my effort before holding fast and providing a reluctant stairway to the top of the pitch.  Powering through the crux I make the top, my minor victory as sweet as the perfume of chaparral lingering in the humid air.

At the top I rested for a moment and admired the rust I’ve accumulated.  Down in the valley below two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.

“Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth” – Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

 

 

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The Vacation Within the Vacation – No Compromises in Austria

After spending a couple of days in the beautiful town of Verona in northern Italy (where I unfortunately didn’t get to ride my bike), it was time to head north to Austria.  Following the wonderfully blood-pressure raising time that I had in Rome (not to mention all the harassment from the Pope) it felt good to be in more bucolic settings again. Still, I was excited to be heading to greener pastures on the other side of the Alps in Innsbruck.  Not that Verona was a bad place, quite the contrary – here’s 5 seconds exposure worth of digital data that sheds a little light on that subject (and also on the Castelvecchio Bridge over the Adige River).

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Leaving Verona by train, we rolled via the Brenner Pass to Austria.  Brenner may not be the most awe-inspiring alpine pass that you can travel by train but I couldn’t tear myself away from the window as the scenery slowly changed from vineyards to pasture, then from pasture to peaks as we climbed higher, then from peaks to introspection as we entered numerous tunnels in the higher terrain with my face staring back from the abyss of dark reflection in the window.  The reality of the approaching end of our vacation had begun to sink in.  Luckily the dark tunnels always came to an end.

Having in the past driven by car a few times over 3000 miles from one end of the US to the other and been confronted by the never-ending stripmall of homogenized chain store reality that is America, I find the continuum of culture in Europe fascinating.    As the scenery and terrain changed outside my window the language being spoken within the train slipped from primarily Italian to mostly German with each stop.  The towns we rolled through became perceptibly different, more “orderly” somehow.  Like using many of the same ingredients but in different proportions to make a completely different dish, everything slowly changed.

Just after the final stop in Italy, a man who had been sleeping in the seat adjacent to us was woken rudely by a couple that had just embarked.  It seemed they thought he was sitting in their assigned seat.   He pointed at his ticket, then at the confusing numbering system of the Italian train.  The seated man dug for his own ticket, then pointed at the number on it – an action that elicited a vigorous side to side shaking of the head and a loud “Nein!” from the new arrivals.  The German speaker stood with his arms on his hips, not a trace of a smile or understanding on his stern face.  The groggy man who had been wakened relinquished his seat and walked down the aisle, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he searched for his proper seat.  The Italian woman seated across from us shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

At the top of the pass on the Italian/Austrian border the train stopped to switch locomotives (believe it or not, Austrian trains still run on a different electrical system than Italian ones).  The pass narrowed as we rolled down the Brenner Pass into Innsbruck and as we neared our stop we began to gather our gear together.  My bike suitcase had been buried by all the newer arrivals from the 8 stops the train had made so I had to dig a bit to get it free, and as I did one of the German speaking passengers (whose luggage was presumably piled on top of my bike) came to the end of the train and watched me like a hawk.  Once I had my bag I made my way to the end of the train and waited for our stop.

A French woman who was also getting off in Innsbruck and had been seated close enough to see the grumpy Austrians in action smiled as the train came to a stop and summed up the experience perfectly in English with just a hint of a British accent:

“They are an uncompromising people”.  We laughed with her as we left the train and stepped out into the impeccably clean train station that signaled the other end of the continuum from Italy.

As soon as we arrived I put my bike together as I wanted to spin the previous day’s relative inactivity out of my muscles.  After a brusque check-in process with a cordial but curt hostess, I gingerly walked down the narrow staircase into the lobby of the gasthof holding my bike out to the side, being careful not to rub it up against the decor.  Our room was on the 3rd floor in the newer addition to the 18th century structure. One of the workers ran after me.

“No! No! You mustn’t keep the bike in the room – the dirt…” he trailed off as he looked  disapprovingly at the Italian dust that clung to my bike. “You need to put your bike in the storage room!”

Feeling like an idiot I muttered one of my few German phrases “I’m sorry” and soon forgot about my faux pas as I headed out into the uncompromising beauty of the the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck.  The hills were alive with the sound of my spinning gears.

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My short ride revealed that this area of Austria is laced with dirt paths and walking trails (as is the entire country, or so I gather).  I was eager to head out again the next day as my short before dinner ride had whet my appetite, both for riding in the area and a good Austrian beer.  It felt good to switch from the fermented grapes of Italy back to my preferred hops.

The next morning I rode an uncompromisingly steep dirt route out of the town of Mutters up to a ski station outside of town.  It pays to get up early.

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Screaming back down on the descent I was almost collected by a farm tractor on a blind corner.  Luckily he compromised just enough by moving ever so slightly to the side to let me by and I lived to ride another day.  The Austrians were beginning to show their softer side. Soon thereafter my rear tire showed its softer side as it unceremoniously exploded.  The tube had melted from all the heat of braking on the steep roads.

As if to atone for the compassion of the farmer yielding with his tractor, the morning of my final ride in Europe arrived in a surly mood with spitting rain and fog. Unwilling to compromise, I went for the longest ride of the trip through some truly astounding scenery with the highlight being a wrong turn on one of the paths that lead me through a pasture and damn near into a barn where a farmer was milking his cows.  He yelled something after me in German, but I could’ve sworn he smiled when he did it.

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Riding through scenery like this followed by a hearty Austrian breakfast was a great way to finish the trip.  I guess the uncompromising Austrian attitude pays off in the long run as the country is impeccably clean and orderly with easy access to many natural wonders.  There is no trash beside the roads as is a huge problem in southern California.  One just needs to learn to compromise a bit in order to get along, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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As I finished up my final ride and packed up my muddy bike in the parking lot outside our gasthof,  the woman who had checked us in stepped outside to watch and ask questions about how it came apart to fit into the suitcase and where I had ridden the past few mornings.  Before she went back to work she cheerfully wished me a good trip back home then said:

“I’m glad we reached a compromise where you could keep your bike in the storage room.  You’re lucky to have seen part of our country by bike instead of car, you see so much!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine

“All the children are insane, waiting for the summer rain…” – James Douglas Morrison

During the peak of the summer season intense solar heating chars the Southwestern USA like ants beneath the focused rays of a magnifying glass in the hands of a bored, sadistic child.  As surface temperatures increase, a trough of low pressure called a thermal low develops over the region resulting in a shift of wind patterns that sends moisture laden air flowing from Baja’s Gulf of California and the Eastern Pacific into these usually dry desert regions.  Most commonly called the monsoon, the phenomenon is also known by an alternate name: annoyingly hot and sticky weather to ride a bike in.

When the monsoonal flow kicks in, weird things happen in the dry deserts of the Southwest.  In southern California, moist air fills the desert basins to the rim until, provided with lift by the mountains of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, it billows skyward into the normally cloudless skies and produces thunderstorms of epic proportions that can be seen all the way from the coast. These storms often send torrents of water rushing down the washes and canyons obliterating everything in their path many miles from where the rain is actually falling.  The desert is not dry in summer.

While those distant thunderstorms rarely reach beyond the western foothills of the mountains, in the evening the sparks from their electrical frenzy light the eastern skies to the delight of anyone living along the coastal strip that can tear themselves away from the glowing screen of the television and watch.  With their thunder unheard they remain at arm’s reach like fireflies dancing across the 50 mile meadow that is the coastal plain.  The display can be mesmerizing.  I love this time of year.

Except for when I’ve got a ride planned for the mountains above Palm Desert and the monsoon is starting to kick in, then it’s just annoyingly hot and sticky weather that needs to be dealt with (not to mention the chance of getting struck by lightning). So when I left the trailhead at 7:30AM this past Sunday with the mercury already over 90 degrees I was not feeling the love for the monsoon, especially when I noticed that clouds were already starting to build off in the sweltering distance.

It would’ve been nice to have a little rain to keep the dust down, but as I rolled on down the trail the water droplets bided their time just beyond reach while jealously guarding their moisture in the heavens. To prime the pump I rained drops of sweat down upon the parched earth but it didn’t work: the clouds began to dissipate under the intense heat of the sun.  It was going to be a hot one.  Who am I kidding? It was already hot.

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I had met another rider at the trailhead, an odd occurrence for this place in the summer.  Most people avoid the desert this time of year but for some reason this guy was out riding.  Honestly, I’m not sure why I was riding since as much as I enjoy breaking the monotony of the summer with a thunderstorm, I hate the heat.  He asked which way I was headed, and when I told him my route he suggested an alternate path down a trail I’d never ridden.

“On your way back just head up here for a bit toward the horse camp, then turn right.  Follow the tire tracks – all paths lead to the tunnel. You can’t miss it”

As I thanked him he turned and rode off in the direction I was headed while repeating his last words.

“All paths lead to the tunnel.  You can’t miss it”

The day dragged on as I sipped from my Camelbak and rode beneath wide skies along the undulating scars of topography that previous storms have left upon the earth.  When my Camelbak emptied I switched to the piss warm bottles on my frame then popped some electrolyte pills as the temperature rose to at least 105 degrees.  Hot spots rose along the rim of each canyon like embers from a fire, driving the temperature even higher for short stretches.  The clouds had dissipated and the sun became a silent, unrelenting curse upon my lips.  Muttering under my breath about the monsoon, I turned to retreat back to the car and find the path the rider at the trailhead had suggested.

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At this elevation there is some scrub vegetation to provide shade to hide beneath but it’s not much.  Not being acclimated to the heat, after 4 hours in the sun I had wilted like lettuce beneath a heat lamp at one of those fast food restaurants where E. Coli has its own punchcard beside the timeclock.  Lizards scurried away just out of tire’s reach doing their reptilian thermo-regulation dance between the forces of hot and cold.  I flicked my tongue across my dry lips and wished for cold blood.  When I saw the tunnel up ahead I raced toward it as if it were an oasis in the desert… which it kinda was.

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But there’s no place to hide in the desert, not even from yourself, especially when you’re dehydrated and cowering in the shade of a creepy tunnel because you hate the heat and know at some point you need to move along, finish the ride and find a nice cold beverage to down in one huge gulp.  It’s enough to make a guy scream.

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Eventually I did leave the relative safety of the tunnel and slowly pedal back through the heat daze on some marvelous singletrack to the trailhead.  After all, this tunnel is just the sort of place people drown in during flash floods.  It’s feast or famine in the desert with a savage beauty whose wisdom only the dehydrated mind’s eye can truly see.

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The Vacation Within the Vacation – The Pope Says Ride

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it was kind of odd when my phone buzzed to signal an incoming text message as I dragged my bike suitcase behind me through the streets of Rome.  Having taken a high speed train south from Florence it had been a bit of a hassle to switch onto the city’s metro system while lugging my bike behind me like a mobster dragging a dead body, but that’s the way things work when you’re deadset on having a “vacation within a vacation”.  You also learn to ignore the stares of other riders as they alternate between giving you and your slightly oversize baggage the stinkeye on the crowded metro.

It was only a short walk from the metro station to our home for the next few days, but during that brief time I noticed that riding my bike on the streets of Rome might not be such a good idea.  The traffic (of which I had heard horror stories) was absolutely crazy.  Scooters, motorcycles, cars, buses and pedestrians circulated through the streets in an endless stream at time-lapse photography pace while I remained rooted in my own, much slower time-scale like a tree eyeing traffic flowing beneath its branches on a busy boulevard.  Entering the room, I stuffed the corpse of my dismembered bike into the corner of the room and briefly collapsed on the bed.  As my head hit the pillow I remembered my buzzing phone and fished it out of my pocket to see who had texted.

The odd thing was, my phone had not been turned on.  Turning it back on I stared at my bike in the corner while it booted up, thinking back to the traffic I had just seen and the negative impression of people that I had read online when researching places to bike in Rome.  Oh well, maybe when in Rome I should do as the locals do and stay off the streets?  My phone buzzed again to signal the arrival of a text.  Fumbling with it I went and opened up the text.

It was from country code 379.  What country is that and who the heck do I know from there?  That’s a new one.  I read the message aloud: “Make sure and ride your bike – Francis”.

Huh, what an odd message – and who is Francis?  I got up from the bed and looked out the window toward Vatican City.  Not in the mood for solving mysteries and eager to explore the city, I turned my phone off and headed out to experience the city with my wife and our friend.  I quickly forgot about my text spam from “Francis” and spent the next few days marching around Rome seeing the sights.

P1070581Rome is, of course, an ancient city.  I believe at some point in history they even commanded an empire of sorts.  Is it crowded? Heck yeah but the wealth of ruins, architecture, great food and art is mind boggling, and all of it dominated of course by the Vatican and the specter of the Catholic Church.  Maybe someday I’ll branch my blog out a little and discuss a little bit more about traveling and less about biking (assuming I’m fortunate to do more of it!), but until then here’s a little flavor of the city in a few photos.

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P1070423If you’ve been reading along about my little adventures you know I’m the kind of guy that likes to get away from it all.  So after a few days of playing tourist I was jonesing to get away from the tide of humanity that meets you at every step while checking out the world-renowned sights within the city.  While milling about with the rest of the mortals beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling masterpiece, my phone buzzed again.  Not wanting to be accused of taking forbidden photos of the ceiling, I waited until I stepped outside to check the message.

You guessed it, Francis again.  It read “Nice, huh? Find your own beauty”

This message creeped me out a little.  Who is this guy and how does he know my every move?  Very odd.  I resolved to look over my shoulder next time before taking any Euros out of the ATM in case he was following me. After spending the rest of the day at the Vatican bumping into fellow tourists and straining my neck skyward in St Peter’s Cathedral (while holding tightly onto my valuables in case this Francis dude was stalking me), I returned to our room and collapsed onto the bed.  With the walls closing in on me, I glanced over at my bike and decided to ride the next morning.  3o minutes later the Ritchey was assembled and ready to roll.

At 5:30 AM the next morning I rolled out into the quiet streets near the Vatican under the watchful eye of the Pope.

IMAG0305Every Wednesday while the Pope is in town he gives an address at St Peter’s Square that is attended by throngs of faithful.  Luckily it also means that even though there are large lines of people waiting for the best seats to the address, this area is closed off from traffic first thing in the morning.  The sun rose over St Peter’s Cathedral and I took the opportunity to take a once in a lifetime, traffic-free shot from in front of the square.  Doing this on any other day will get you killed – Fiats have no conscience.

IMAG0304_1Heading down toward the Tiber River I planned to pick up a bikepath that runs along its edge then break out onto the city streets to meet the Appian Way and ride as far out of the city as I could in the time I had before breakfast.  All without getting killed in Roman traffic, I might add.  Even though it was early the roads were choked with traffic, as were my lungs with fumes from the scores of scooters whose pilotos revved their engines like it was a Formula 1 start at the turning of every light.  Rome is a race.

The Appian Way was one of the first and most strategic roads of the Republic.  The initial section was begun near Rome in 312 BC, and some sections of the original cobbles still remain.  Remember the saying “all roads lead to Rome”? Well this is what they were talking about.  It also works the other way as with a suddenness that shocked me, the city ended in a field of blood red poppies.  After a few days in the crowded city the openness of the scene was unnerving, as if the land itself were trying to swallow me whole.

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Trying not to think of what I knew lies beneath this pastoral landscape (many levels of catacombs in which early Christians were buried along with a few Popes), I rode onward. The road shot arrow straight across the centuries, its sides lined in ancient crumbling testament with the folly of the long-forgotten who sought to enshrine their earthly existence with stone and mortar.  The road, however, endures.

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I reached my turnaround time and headed back into the city, my road leading back to Rome once again.  Fighting through the scooter traffic and dodging maniacal Fiats (are there any other types?) I neared the pedestrian area of the Vatican.  A party was now in full force as energetic groups of faithful flowed into the city for the papal address.

It wasn’t really much of a ride for me any longer as I slowed to match the pace of old women in wheelchairs and those struggling with walkers.  But even though they might be fighting physical issues they all seemed determined so I went along happily with the flow.  Besides, I appreciate determination at any speed.  At the fringes of the throng, younger groups bounced along the cobbles dressed in their finery with the warmth of the morning sun lighting the broad smiles of their faces.  Hawkers sold papal memorabilia from stands and a festival atmosphere filled the narrow streets. I had heard this new Pope was popular but had no idea to what extent!  Being a lapsed Catholic, I struggled to recall his name…

I ran up the stairs to my room still energized from the ride, the scenery, the frenetic traffic and the excited throng I had ridden with along the way.   Sitting down on the edge of the bed I breathed a sigh of relief (mainly exhaust fumes) as my phone buzzed a few times then went silent.  It was one last text from my friend Francis.  It read: “I told you that you should ride!”

I never did find out who that guy was.

 

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Squirming on a Dunghill Calling to the Gods

I hate it when I want to write something but have no time to sit down and do it.  Instead I’ll resort to the lazy blogger’s trick and do a Photo Friday post, albeit with a lengthy quote from one of the original “adventure bloggers”, Jack London. I think the passage below fits this scene, a remarkable and dynamic sunset I witnessed while on a ride outside of Bishop, CA last weekend.  Although if you have the time, the three short chapters from his book “John Barleycorn” where he traces the history of his ranch and debates his grinning death skull are some of his best writing.  True, he’s writing of his own struggle with alcoholism, but he’s also confronting mortality.

Thus concludes this week’s literary session seen through the spokes of a wheel :)

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“Man refuses to accept his own passing. He will not pass. He will live again if he has to die to do it. He shuffles atoms and jets of light, remotest nebulae, drips of water, prick-points of sensation, slime-oozings and cosmic bulks, all mixed with pearls of faith, love of woman, imagined dignities, frightened surmises, and pompous arrogances, and of the stuff builds himself an immortality to startle the heavens and baffle the immensities. He squirms on his dunghill, and like a child lost in the dark among goblins, calls to the gods that he is their younger brother, a prisoner of the quick that is destined to be as free as they–monuments of egotism reared by the epiphenomena; dreams and the dust of dreams, that vanish when the dreamer vanishes and are no more when he is not.” –  Jack London

 

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