“Holding up my
purring cat to the moon
I sighed.” – Jack Kerouac, American Haiku
I’m not a religious man. Though I was raised in a Catholic household, organized religion no longer plays a role in my life. But it seems as though the basic tenets of the faith have stuck with me as today on Good Friday I find myself pondering the great mysteries of life, death and the pursuit of interesting places to ride my bike. Oh yeah, I’m thinking about my cat too. I guess you’ll have to take it on faith that this story is going anywhere.
I’m not sure if most of those things have anything to do with Easter, but maybe they have more in common with the spirit of the holiday than marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury eggs do… so let’s ramble on a bit and see exactly where this post takes us. If anything it gives me a chance to share some pretty pictures from a ride that I undertook a few months ago, a route with many ups and downs . It also gives my blog a nice chance to rise from the dead as I haven’t posted in a while. OK, I’ve hit upon all the themes for now, let’s get moving.
I’ve had these photos sitting here in draft form for a while now but they’re a little painful for me to think about. Not because it wasn’t a great ride (it was awesome) but because I can’t help but remember how this day started for me. Just as many others began for me over the past 14 years it started with the huge, furry paws of my cat tapping me on my forehead.
My cat Aran was born to be an alarm clock; a sweet, gentle alarm clock with huge paws for a cat her size. At heart all cats are perfect killing machines, but aside from the day my wife spied her with an entire mouse stuffed in her mouth (the tail dangling out the end) her gentle disposition has always betrayed her outward appearance: a true sheep in lynx clothing if one ever existed, in addition to being the happiest cat in the world at 3AM. And so it was early in the morning that I awoke to the familiar tapping of paws on my forehead.
I rubbed her fluffy belly for a while and listened to her purr for a bit before rolling out of bed for the drive out to the trailhead of one of my favorite rides. It was hard to leave as she hadn’t been feeling well for a while, but I knew that this would be a special day in the high desert above Palm Springs. Aran understood that I always came home and rested on the couch after a tough ride. As if silently agreeing to the deal as soon as I sat up she replaced my warm spot in the bed (her plan all along I think) and curled up to go to sleep, her job done for the day. Moments later I was headed for the door with my bag of cycling gear in hand. After a few hours of driving I was a shadow in morning on the desert floor.
I’ve written about this ride before. It’s one of those rides that are somewhat unique to the climate of Southern California as all four seasons can be found in one day. It begins in the endless summer down by the ocean in San Diego then climbs high into the mountains where winter can be found. Sure I have to drive a little to get to the trailhead, but once I get out there a new world always begins to open up before me.
The wide expanses allow the mind to wander far, yet the distant ranges keep it grounded in the here and now. I can toy with the landscape as much as I want, just like Aran when she was a kitten playing with her favorite ball on the floor. For me it’s a place to dream while pedaling, and on a good day it seems as if I can live a lifetime in one day – a good lifetime.
The high desert was warm that day but the snow had crept low during the night. Dodging cactus is a great way to spend the morning, it keeps me from thinking too much.
The climb begins. The perspective is foreshortened in the photo below as that is a 5000 vertical ft climb staring you in the face. Confronting a climb like this one can be like confronting mortality, especially on a fat bike. Let’s climb (slowly)!
Remember what I said earlier about dodging cactus being a great way to spend the morning? Picking it out of your leg is a great way to spend the following afternoon.
When I ride this route the photos I bring home often possess a narrative beyond the mere passage of another day. This is not like a day spent at work where the day never seems to end. The rolling stretches across the desert and the long climb to the heights followed by the quick loss of elevation back to the starting point all lend themselves to the telling of a story, even if it’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly what that story is really about. It also contributes to the compression of time as the day rolls by so fast. Life is distilled, and like any good story at some point the protagonist begins to experience some sort of upheaval, usually in the form of mud. Even while fighting gravity and the sucking of mud at your wheels, the day passes too fast.
I’ve often been asked what I think about when out riding alone for many hours. For me, rides like this are about “being” not thinking. Being a part of systems beyond my control. Being in a place that I don’t need to think about my next words or actions beyond those associated with the simple matters of food, water and the steady intake and exhalation of air. Being the wind rushing through the trees overhead. Being alone in the wilderness worried about my aging cat. Being concerned that my feet are starting to freeze while I stand in the snow to take this photo. It’s an enlightened sense of being I suppose, and sometimes the ghostly trees speak.
The singletrack ride down from the highest elevations is stark, but beautiful. Not many people ride this trail and the blowdowns have really begun to accumulate, much like the snow that blankets these slopes in the winter months. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who ever rides this route. Or maybe everyone who rides this trail feels they are the only one who rides it? Catch my (snow)drift?
Following the tracks of a bobcat out into desert, I thought of Aran’s fluffy paws running across the snow. For a kitten born in southern California those fluffy wide paws of flotation never did her much good as an indoor cat (except for alarm clock duty), but they would work great out here in the manzanita chasing birds in the undergrowth. Or am I following her in her dreams?
These huge manzanita bushes have burned and regrown many times in the past. It is the nature of Nature to die and be reborn. In the springtime of my long day in the mountains the cycle began anew as I began to think about heading home and laying on the couch for a while, and how Aran would certainly join me for a well deserved nap. Sometimes a ride must end even if you wish it could go on forever.
As if to reinforce that point the snow disappeared, the cat tracks petered out and the riding became easier as I headed down into the warmth of the desert waiting below. Rainbows began to flower as I neared the trailhead. The final rays of sun caught my face as I finished the ride. A few hours later I was asleep on the couch, my purring alarm clock on snooze just behind my head.
Aran left this world a few short weeks later. The kitten that had been found abandoned at just a few days old passed on surrounded by the sights and smells of her loved ones in her favorite spot in our home, her home. Her final sensations were the warmth of the sun on her face and the hands of her loved ones gently stroking her fur. I haven’t been back to these mountains to attempt this ride since then, but I’m sure one day I’ll return to cycle through all the seasons in one day. I just hope I’m able to wake up in time to get out there for an early start without my alarm clock.