Dear Lover

“Of all that is written, love only what a person has written with his own blood” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m sure that everyone who has a passion for something in life at times wonders where that line is between “healthy activity” and “obsession”.  I know that’s what I’m doing as I lick my wounds from the Iditarod and try to put it out of mind for a bit.  But I know from past history that ignoring my scratch at an expedition like the ITI won’t make it go away that easily. My personality simply will not allow me to move on without another attempt despite being turned back by poor weather, mechanical failures or whatever. 

In the meantime, completing a particular loop closer to home is once again on my ride agenda for later this spring as soon as the snow melts from her slopes.  Yes, this is clearly written tongue in cheek, but if you’re interested in a tale worthy of any Mike Ness love song please allow me to explain a little of our “history”.  Writing it will also let me forget the Iditarod debacle for now, but really – it’s pretty much the same old story.  Beats sitting on the couch watching TV…

I met her the year I moved to California. I was a pale, doughboy-like East Coaster with lungs that gave out on the first climb of every ride. She was statuesque with climbs that went on forever. She seduced me from the guidebook with terms like “expedition level ride” and “for experienced, self-sufficient riders only”. She was the Eastern Sierra, at that point completely unknown to me, and I was drawn to her rides like a moth to flame. I tend to dream big, and everything is big in the Sierra Nevada. But dream big as I might, I also fail spectacularly.

She was constantly on my mind the first few years I lived in Cali. I longingly traced her elevation profiles and eyed her guidebook from across the room but she seemed indifferent to me. Thinking she was out of my league, I shrank from her. However, sometimes I could’ve sworn she threw me a sideways glance, a playful smile touching her lips for the briefest of moments as she noticed me looking. Like the moon fading from the sun at dawn, she would avert my gaze at the last second as if looking upon me would violate all laws of physics. I knew she could either make me or break me, the choice was hers and I would make it much too easy for her. All control was out of my hands. I wanted her and she knew it. Unwilling at that time to display any trace of vulnerability, I backed off.

From simple beginnings grow the grandest of affairs. I rode other climbs in preparation and steeled myself in the crucible of her indifference. Occasionally our paths would cross and I would outwardly feign non-interest while secretly mustering the inner courage to make small talk with her, to even attempt one of her rides. Alone with my thoughts in the evenings, I would read of her in the guidebook and long for the day I would be strong enough to finally be her equal. Ever so slowly, my East Coast lungs acclimated to the infinitude of Western incline and I gained the confidence to approach her and ask her to ride. She silently agreed. I headed into her foothills on an exploratory weekend trip.

It was late June 2006, a heavy snow year. She was breathtaking. I was ready, willing and able yet the timing just wasn’t right. Time stood still as I crested Coyote Ridge after the initial 30 miles that included 7000+ vertical ft of climbing. I became bogged down in deep snow and struggled for hours in the drifts. 

Eventually I gave up. There would be other times and there was no need to force the issue. Isn’t that what we tell ourselves, that there will always be another day, another chance? We choose not to remember the times we’ve run out of opportunities, when things brush beside us and move on without us. But on that day I was undeterred as I headed down the mountain on a bail out route before reaching what the guidebook called her “high altitude singletrack”. I sensed the start of something big. The next day I rushed to the other side of her valley and squeezed a quick ride up Silver Canyon into the White Mountains before heading home.

Gazing from one side of her valley to the other, I came to realize that there may be a future here. This was no mere crush; there was a depth to this experience I had known few times before. Wild scenarios floated through my mind on the manic haze of her possibilities. She had become more than just one ride, more than just a fling. No longer a mere loop, she had become an odyssey, a quest that took root in my head and flowered in madness. 

Now, I’m not a complete fool. I knew the danger in trying to string together 3 rides from the guidebook into one grand loop. It wasn’t my fault; it begged to be done. In retrospect, I lusted after her with near obsession. At the time it seemed a natural progression from those initial fleeting glances and my exploratory trip: start in Bishop down in the Owens Valley at 4500ft, climb up through Buttermilk Country on the East side of the Sierra, ride up and over 11,000 ft Coyote Ridge, follow the ridge down to Big Pine back into the valley, then scale White Mt Peak at 14000 ft and bomb down Silver Canyon back to the car. 2 or 3 days to cover 180 miles or so, then I’d be done with her. She would live happily ever after on the mantelpiece of my memory. Piece of cake, love her and leave her. 

I was a fool to believe that I could ever have her so easily – and equally foolish to think I would ever want to leave her if she acquiesced.

The most desired dreams are never easy to finish, nor are they simply discarded when met with resistance. I became determined to complete her and she seemed willing to comply. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. We spoke wordlessly until there was no separation between “ride” and “rider”. I pored over her topo maps constantly. I hungrily anticipated the rise and fall of her tender gradient, the endless switchbacks of her sweet ascent, and the sighs of the wind in her crystal high-altitude skies. I eyed the dark trace of her secret singletrack descent…

I flirted constantly with her. In October I made my first attempt at the initial 85 miles or so as a day trip. I needed so badly to be with her and I knew the winter snows would arrive soon. I left home at 1AM, drove 5 hrs in the dark and called in sick to work from beside the road as the sun rose. The madness in my brain was in full bloom. I rode hard yet was turned back by the kiss of darkness and bailed again. We said goodbye on that autumn day beneath golden aspens. She whispered to me all winter.

When June arrived the next year, I again rushed to see her as soon as the snows melted. Attempting a new approach, I rode from Big Pine toward Coyote Flat. It was a vain attempt to finally hook up the 20 miles or so that lay unknown to me across Coyote Ridge. I was unworthy yet again on that fine summer day as the ascent was slow and sandy. Still, it was time well-spent and our brief fling satisfied my need. I felt our rapport had grown and the pieces had begun to fall in place. I had seen a new side of her.

The feeling lasted only a few weeks. Upon returning home disconsolation and confusion set in. Would I ever finish this ride? Was I truly out of my league with her? I steamed in the low deserts of doubt that summer and tried to avoid her. She beckoned to me constantly, yet shut me out whenever I came too close it seemed. Too often I found myself breathless in her presence as if the vacuum of my wild desire was mirrored in the hypoxic, oxygen starved cells of my body whenever I gave myself to her heights, to the possibility. It was starting to hurt. 

“Loving, over and over again now
It ain’t nothing girl, til you’ve felt the pain
Up against the wall, why does love always have to hurt
Your scratches run across my back and then a tear.”

In September, I snuck away for yet another “sick day” to be with her. An ominous cold front was moving in but I thought I could beat its arrival and bag the first portion of the trip before winter. I was wrong. We arrived at the same time.

Pinned down just shy of 11000 ft by a snow squall and lightning we fought in a cold, operatic fog. Neither willing to yield and unable to sense through the fog the glory of the towering peaks that ringed us even at this height, we struggled beyond reason until all the hair on my body stood on end in the fury of her electrically charged atmosphere before finally backing off. I headed down the mountain in a stupor. Having almost been struck by lightning due to my single-mindedness, I questioned my sanity. I also questioned her motives.  We had clearly fallen into a rut. Something had to give…

Every mountain biker I know has been burned at some point or another by their passion.  As it sit here writing this tale I can map certain scars on my body to specific events that have transpired over the years, and that’s just from the elbows down.  But since I started this little tale as an ode to unhealthy relationships, let’s keep it rolling that way. Let’s crank it back up and remember the times you’ve been hurt yet kept coming back for more. Think of the pain of not knowing when to say “when”. Look at that scar on your left forearm that screams “Northstar was here” and the one on your right that proclaims “a rock in the Arizona desert is my mirror image”.  This is my version of “Love” and “Hate” tattooed knuckles along with the dents on my top tube and the flat spots on my rims. Pain is evidence of life, the only true solace for the lonely… as lonely as all the solo forays I’ve made into the mountains of the Sierra and White Mountains.

If something means enough to you, you will find a way to get it done.  It was time to finish this damn ride.

“There ain’t nothin in this world for free now
So how high of a price will you pay?
Hear the screams so loud, wake up to the broken glass
It’s a scene from bad to worse and then more tears”

Her snowmelt flowed salty with my tears the next year. Even though I had been so utterly devastated the year before, I migrated back to Bishop in June to give it another go. I’d like to say it was because she possessed the wisdom of the ages, but you’ve already seen what she looks like so I won’t lie. For someone as old as dirt, she looks pretty damn good. Plus, I’m a sucker for blue skies. 

There had been little snow that winter so I figured that weatherwise I had a decent shot at completing the entire loop. I geared up for 2 nights out, but was secretly ready for a lifetime. To make the second day a little more manageable I climbed the first 3 hours out of Bishop in the dark on a Friday night and camped in an aspen grove. I had upped the ante on this ride and the aspen leaves shimmered all night in giddy anticipation of our weekend together.

I don’t like sleeping in bivy sacks – most are too confining, especially if you’re “built for the Northern classics” like I am. But when you open your eyes in the morning to a view like this, well… it’s worth the discomfort of shrouding yourself in a fabric coffin for the night. Read into that sentence at will.

Packed up and back on the trail, we fell into an easy rhythm as if our spat last fall with the near lightning strike was an aberration. Like an unforced conversation, the ride continued in silence. You know it’s special when the silence is comfortable, when you look at a photo and want to walk right into it…

when a nasty climb in deep sand becomes a romantic walk on the beach, hand in hand…

when you look at her and think “I want to do to her what springtime does to cherry trees” (thank you, Pablo Neruda).

You think it’s special when you start to lose control like that. When you start to lose control you begin to use terms like “fate” and “destiny” without caution and speak with a far off look in your eye as if you’re trying to transmit an elephant through them. When you’ve lost control you forget the little things and just keep pedalling like there’s no tomorrow. You don’t think about what can go wrong because it’s the furthest thing from your mind and she’s so wonderful, so right, and this is your time. You think everything is perfect, and at that point you’re about to go over the bars.

You’re about to crash because you forgot that your spiffy new rear Hope hub has an aluminum freehub body and you’re climbing 20% grades with a lot of weight. At this point you’ve ignored the grinding noises until the hub seizes and you’re left sitting beside the trail at 10,700ft with a multitool trying to remove the cassette from your hub like an ape at an anthill with a blade of grass looking for a snack while MacGuyvering up a repair. You stop taking pictures. You start looking for walls to punch.

When it’s reached that point the only thing you can do is remove the chain and roll the 20 miles of downhill back into Bishop until you hit the flats. Then you make a fixed gear out of your spiffy Hope freehub so you don’t suffer the ignominy of pushing your bike. At least being struck by lightning in a snowstorm would’ve been poetic.

It should’ve been obvious by now that it was time to part ways with this ride, the only question was how? When you’ve invested so much into something it’s often hard to give it up, no matter how painful. Your pitiful, vain human mind grasps as it skids into the corner. You intinctively pull harder on the brakes even though it’s out of your hands at that point. We’re all skidiots to some degree.

When you’re feeble and gray on your death bed and looking back on your life, what will you regret? Will you regret the days you snuck out of work early to go for a ride? Will you think about your bank account balance, that shiny new truck in the cul-de-sac or whether your spoke nipples match your skewers? Hell no, you’re going to regret that day you gave up on a dream even though it was <this close> The day you gave up and just sat on the couch reading stories on the internet about the things you’ve always wanted to do but never had the guts to go try. You’ll remember the things you’ve accomplished, the places you’ve been and the moments you’ve had – even if it’s in that final millisecond of “ohhhh shit” before becoming one with the ground. 

The poetry of bicycling is about loving life and not giving in to the pain and becoming some bitter old fool lamenting “what could’ve been”. We suffer for our art, and even if you love your life dearly at some point it will hurt you terribly – just like doing an interval workout. It’s the unhealthiest relationship you’re ever going to have. Damn right I was going to try it, again.

Dear Lover, I can’t take the pain no more
Dear Lover, I pick my heart up from the floor
Dear Lover, I can’t believe its come to this
Dear Lover, give me one last painful kiss

One day I’m going to recall the September night I hopped on my bike, headed into the foothills of the Sierra under a full moon and awoke the next morning in my bivy sack coffin yet again. I will wipe the memory of the frost that coated my eyebrows that morning. It had been a cold, dry night even though I had left Bishop at dusk the night before in sweltering heat.  The passage of years will not diminish the hope that I felt with a new steel, freehub installed as I threw myself at this route yet again.  Up at 8000ft I was freezing my ass off in a desperate bid to finish this loop before winter arrived. 

The foothills had been alive the night before. I rode toward the hulking Sierra while a pack of coyotes yipped and hunted in the open graze land of my chosen path. Occasionally they rustled in the undergrowth. Illuminated by my headlamp, their eyes prowled like hyenas on the savannah of my overactive imagination. At one point a car drove by trailing sparks as the undercarriage struck rocks on the doubletrack trail, a car that had no business being up there with so little ground clearance. As I pedaled isolated and alone, to me the car seemed packed with screaming Munch faces of damned souls as it flashed by. It sucks riding solo sometimes. Maybe an hour later I ran into a game warden who, after being convinced I wasn’t a lunatic, warned me “it seems electric up here tonight, be careful”. A short time later the same ghost car returned headed in the opposite direction at a high rate of speed. The ghouls had rolled their tinted windows up and paid me no attention. I guess the car was full. 

I rounded the corner in my aspen grove near where I had slept the last time and immediately sensed something wasn’t right. Music blared. Four guys sat around a roaring campfire drinking beer in a semicircle of jeeps. I saw a rifle and lots of beer. They had seen the light of my headlamp coming and yelled to me. Not wanting to be a moving target, I rode toward them. It turned out to be a bachelor party. I had a beer with them in honor of the groom-to-be then got the hell out of there before the rifle saw any action. Not seeing any strippers in the vicinity, I took off to a different part of the grove to get some sleep. Maybe the strippers had been in the ghost car.

I awoke and started riding. Yes, I was trying the same exact route as sometimes there is no other choice, no alternate path. First, climb the elevator shaft out of Aspendell.

The final bit of this climb is 20% to the 11k ft mark (this photo makes it look flat). That’s Bishop 7k ft below with the White Mts looming in the background on the other side of the valley. No lightning today, no vultures of doubt – I pedaled right up that sucker.

The drop down onto Coyote Flat. Compare this pic with an earlier one I posted at the exact same spot and you can see how dry it was during this attempt. I’ve been trying this ride too many times if I have this sort of “history”. I began to wonder if I had enough water to get across the flat to Big Pine.

Riding across Coyote Flat toward the Palisades Glacier area. I got lucky and found a puddle from which to filter. This was new territory to me as I’d never made it this far on previous attempts.

Across the flat, the ride description mentioned that “a bit of route finding” is required to pick up the trail at the remains of an old cabin. A row of cairns in this boulder field slowly turned into a trail.

There were no tracks along this section of trail as it does not get ridden very often. A solo rider is comfortable along this stretch of singletrack. After another soft climb it dumps you into a meadow overlooking the Palisades Glacier, near where I had stopped when riding up from Big Pine – the direction I was now headed. I had tasted the singletrack I had longed for these many years and it was worth every argument, every tear I shed for it.

The hills are alive with the sound of Doughboy…

There’s about 6 miles of singletrack down at this point and I relished every minute of it. At times it’s a little technical (at least for a fully laden rigid bike), and it left its mark. It’s hard to pack for a ride that takes you through freezing and 95+ degree weather in the course of the same day. In retrospect, I had way too much stuff.  I’ve learned a lot since then, at least that’s what I tell myself.

Rolling down into Big Pine on a 7 mile road descent the heat began to build toward the 100 deg mark. I stopped at a convenience store to stock up on water for the next portion of the trip, the 10k vertical ft climb to White Mt Peak. Right then, for whatever reason, I realized I didn’t want her any longer. The heat had turned my stomach for this journey and I was not willing to sacrifice everything just to finish this ride. I searched distant galaxies for my soul.

I was happy when I found I still had one. I quit and rode back along the Owens River to my car. It was over.

It’s been a few years now since I’ve been back up there to attempt the entire route and my tire tracks have long ago been completely erased from the memory of her trails. Unfortunately, the snowpack precludes any attempt at trying this ride for a few more months but I’m hopeful that this year (with its relative lack of snow) will be the year I can get it done before the summer heat sets in with a vengeance. I know I can make it work if I think things through thoroughly, if I do some things differently. I just need to wait until the time is right.  It will be different this time as I know where all the water sources are and my fitness level is really high right now. I’ve streamlined my gear setup.  Having learned from my mistakes, how can I fail? Right? 

Dear Lover, give me one last painful kiss.

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4 Responses to Dear Lover

  1. RossC says:

    That was a really lovely read Tom, thanks for posting!

  2. Pingback: Go read this…. « the unknown rider

  3. Errin says:

    That was a great post. I’ve ridden up to Coyote Flats and then up via Silver Canyon to the White Mountains on my moto in one day. Even with power it was a lot of work. Ever since I got my Fargo I’ve wanted to repeat that ride, only with human power. Everyone of my friends that I’ve mentioned that ride too thought I was crazy. I’m stoked to find that there’s someone else out there with the same interests.

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