My Name is Bicyclist

“Those who are about to die salute you” – gladiator’s salute as recorded by Suetonius in AD 52

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Standing on the rim of Shafer Canyon with my loaded bike getting ready to drop into the maze below, I was struck by the similarities between the Colosseum in Rome and the eroded tablelands of Canyonlands National Park.  The scale is beyond description, especially when trying to place oneself into it.  Maybe it was because I had been driving all night with little sleep just to get to this place but a sense of awe overwhelmed me as I traced the path of the White Rim Road knifing across the floor of the natural amphitheater spread out before me. I was about to descend into that and suddenly I felt really, really small.

One of my favorite movies is “Gladiator”, especially the scene in the Colosseum where the character Maximus is forced to reveal his true identity to the emperor that had killed his family and left him for dead.  When first asked his name, Maximus replies simply “My name is Gladiator”.  I absolutely love that scene. With a few words the lowly gladiator bent on retribution rises to overwhelm and dominate the evil emperor.  Best scene ever.

For me, this photo gives rise to some of the same emotions.  It sums up the anticipation I always feel at the start of a big ride, the hope that I have enough fitness to pull it off and the worry that I had forgotten something important while packing my gear the night before.  It speaks to the teeth-gnashing, gut-wrenching bumper to bumper traffic I fought to even get to this place and the crappy day I had at work before driving all night just to stand there.  All of the hope and joy that goes into planning a proper “adventure” is expressed in the vastness of that scene below me.  I live for these simple moments and work my ass off to make them happen.  If I had been asked who I was at that moment who I was I would’ve answered “My name is Bicyclist”.  It would’ve been worth it just for a good laugh from whomever had asked me.

Anyway, I’ve spent a little time the past few evenings sorting though photos from my two days on the White Rim this past weekend and relishing the experience.  Eventually (before the glow dies) I’ll share a bunch with some words, but first I wanted to relive the moment I took this photo while standing on the brink of the abyss.  What a great ride.

 

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80 Hours

“Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boy, you’re on your own” – Bruce Springsteen

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I’ve been wanting to ride the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park for many years now but have always put the idea on the back burner and told myself various things to assuage my guilt.  The things we tell ourselves when we get lazy, things like: It’s too far to go without making it a major vacation. When I’m in better shape I’ll do it. I’m too busy at work right now to take time off.  The sun is in my eyes.  The dog ate my plan. Nostradamus didn’t foretell me riding it so why tempt fate?  The trail’s not going anywhere, I’ll do it next year.  Those sorts of excuses (and worse).

Enough is enough.  The trail may not be going anywhere but I’ve headed over the crest of the hill age-wise and have begun to pick up steam on the steep side.  A few months ago following a particularly frustrating day at work I secured a permit to camp at one of the designated spots along the trail.  Tonight after work I’m driving 750 miles to Canyonlands.  Tomorrow I’ll bikepack half the loop, finish the other half on Saturday then head to Moab.  A stop to rehydrate at the Moab Brewery is almost guaranteed.  Sunday morning I’ll ride some slickrock then begin the long drive home.  Seems like a simple enough plan, why haven’t I made up my mind and done this sooner?

80 hours, that’s the amount of time it should take to pull this off (though I wish I had more).  I’ll run myself ragged as it still won’t be enough time for what I’d like to do but I’m going anyway as it beats sitting around making more excuses.  What dream have you been putting off doing because it seems too difficult to accomplish?  How far will you go in the next 80 hours to feed your soul?

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The Day of the Dead Trees

“Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift” – Dante

Many, many years ago when I first moved to California I went for a ride in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  Nestled in the Laguna Mountains in the eastern portion of the county, Cuyamaca was never a place to ride miles of technical singletrack, but it did provide a large network of fire roads that wound through a delightful forest of towering trees.  During my first few years here in San Diego I rode the area a handful of times.  It was a fun place to spin out some miles on the bike despite the local population of particularly feisty mountain lions that chased a few hikers, horses and mountain bikers before and after a fatal encounter that occurred back in the mid 1990′s.

Then, in October of 2003 the Cedar Fire completely changed the landscape of Cuyamaca Rancho.  Set by a moron “hunter” as a signal fire as he wasn’t prepared to spend the night out in the woods, it killed 15 people and grew to become the largest fire in California history.  Driven by Santa Ana winds it roared toward the populated areas of San Diego County, then when the winds shifted it turned back toward Cuyamaca.  The beautiful forests of Cuyamaca, though filled with fire-resistant species, burned with such intensity that most of the mature trees were destroyed.  The landscape was forever changed.

Recently I had been thinking about going for a ride in the area again.  Pick your ancient culture and insert your favorite celebration here – through the ages this time of year has been when rites such as Halloween, All Souls Day, Samhain and Dia de Los Muertos (just to name a few) are performed, the time of the year when the veil between the dead and living is closest.  So in the spirit of honoring the departed I headed back to Cuyamaca for the first time since the fires over 10 years ago.

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The climb up Middle Peak has not changed: it winds drunkenly along the ridge like a sailboat into the wind.  But the forest is no more.  On theslopes of the mountain the dead roam the world of the living, their lurching footsteps headed straight into the snarl of a deadfall fate they cannot escape.

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Reforestation of this area has been difficult.  Invasive species have taken advantage of the aftermath of the fire and the persistent drought and have taken almost complete control of many areas, establishing a monoculture where once stood a varied mix of woodland.  Recently a concerted effort has been undertaken to plant trees such as this one (with a sunshade to shield it).  Godspeed little sapling.

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Further along Middle Peak, the coastal fog was receding with the warming of the day.  A shadow of the forest it once was, the standing stones rise to grasp the sun – a remembrance of things past, a gasp on the deathbed of a ridgeline.

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Still, there is life here.  Further down into the canyon I startle a young bobcat and send it leaping into the brush.  A flock of wild turkeys moves through the dry undergrowth of our latest drought.  The words of Robert Frost grind in my gears as I pedal: “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”.  And I, since I was the one that had to climb back up to my starting point, turned to my affairs and began to pedal.

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Climbing up Stonewall Grade and out into the grasslands that border on Anza Borrego State Park, I pause to take in the scene.  Black and white, death or life – it all seems so simple.

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Or is it golden and glorious?  The universe oscillates between the world of the living and the dead as I haltingly but inexorably follow along the path.

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Unsure of where it ends, the path disappears beyond the bend.  Such a beautiful day for a ride, such a beautiful day to explore.

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On this day I ran out of time to follow the path to its end, but that’s OK.  There’s always another day to return, another time to explore what lies beyond the horizon.  Only one thing is certain: the forests of Cuyamaca will never tower above the earth within my lifetime, if ever.  I know because I’ve ridden among their ghost.

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May the Friluftsliv Be With You

Occasionally I get an idea in my head and like getting water in my ears after diving into a pool, no matter how hard I smack the side of my head I just can’t get it out of there.  Currently I’m fixated on the idea of going to Scandinavia for a winter vacation next spring. It’ll probably never happen, but the idea of picking a few locales to visit while doing some skiing, maybe undertaking a longer fat biking adventure all while taking in a new culture seems really enticing.  However seeing as how I’m still collecting bottles and cans for redemption to pay off my last excursion into that area of the world I might have to start smacking my head a little harder to get any Nordic thoughts out of there.  It’s still nice to dream though isn’t it?

Nothing against Finland or Sweden as I’d go back to either of those countries in a heartbeat if given more time, but Norway is looking like an Eden of sorts and the more I read the more intrigued I become.  Today’s daydream has been focused on riding part of the Finnmarkslopet sled dog race course in the far north of the country.  Just as many do in Alaska around the time of the Iditarod, why not start riding on the heels of the race and take advantage of the track that’s been laid down?  In theory it sounds perfect: long spring days spent exploring and exercising in a unique setting.  What could be better?

Setting aside that thought for a moment (before my bubble bursts), another fun aspect of my daydreaming was stumbling upon the term “Friluftsliv”, the Norwegian term that encapsulates the Scandinavian outdoor dynamic with nature. Read more about it here as it’s a concept that I wish more Americans would embrace.  The term may appear to be untranslatable at first glance but I understand it completely, and if you enjoy uncomplicated communion with nature I’m sure you will too.

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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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