Friends and Fourteeners

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,
they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.
–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

Just a few weeks ago, in late July, I climbed my first fourteener. (For those flatlanders, a fourteener is a mountain in the Rockies that’s more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Colorado has 53 of them.)

I did this with a gang of my best friends from high school: Bob, John, Matt, and Nate. I hadn’t seen some of them in a very long time–almost 10 years. They’d all flown out from back east for an all-guys long weekend, replete with all things dude-like. (I could describe this more, but you probably don’t want to know all the sordid and olfactory details.)

I must say: it was wonderful to see them, to spend time with them, to talk with them, to listen to them. Each guy is brilliant in his own way. Each is insightful, wise, ambitious, philosophical. I admire each one—a doctor, a lawyer, a sociologist, a historian—more than they could ever know.

Over the years, I’d forgotten how much their friendship means to me, and how lucky I was to have them in my life when I was young, when I was confused and searching. I’d forgotten how grateful I am for their camaraderie, for their compassion.

Alas, I grow misty-eyed and sentimental. (What else is new.)

Back to the mountain: both John and Matt went to College of the Holy Cross in Worchester MA, and so we’d decided we’d try and climb Mount of the Holy Cross, near Vail.

Going up was a slow and difficult slog—five miles, 5,600 vertical (11.5 miles total). My friends—all from back east and therefore really feeling the altitude—did impressively. Everyone made it up close to 13,000 ft.

John and I somehow forged our way along a high ridge, and then we scrambled up a boulder field. The only way I could keep going was to keep my eyes focused on the next rock in front of me. (I don’t like heights, or exposure, much.)

And then, suddenly, there was no more climbing to be had.

It’s difficult to express the feeling that washes over you when this happens. It’s a little bit of relief, a bit of shock, a bit of pure joy. Step by step, you keep going and then, without any fanfare, you’re at the top. At a stupefyingly gorgeous vantage point that hard work has carried you to.

Yes, this an appropriate metaphor. Isn’t it nice that we get these vantage points, where our perspective opens out to the full view, and we know something new about this strange experience of living, of I think/climb/ride/walk/crawl, therefore I am?

As I stood there, at 14,005 above sea level, it wasn’t much of a surprise to me that these friends would get me to such a place. They’ve always been nudging me toward greater heights. And for that I am forever grateful.

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View from the top, looking west.

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Matt, a man among boys and boulders.

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A view of the ridge, summit, and couloir.

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John, standing tall.

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The view south.

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The dudes. And the minivan. The poor, abused minivan.

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Me and my socks.

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There Have Been Years

Every year I get to spend a week up in Grand Lake, Colorado, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. And every year I sojourn back to two trails I like very much: the Grand Lake Metropolitan trail network, and the Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail, which courses through the remote Arapaho National forest.

One of the things I enjoy most about this is the almost eerie back-in-time quality about riding a trail only once a year, at the same time of year. Much is different about these routes; much is the same.

The Grand Lake trail network leads all the way to the headwaters of the Colorado River, and each year I’m eager to see how the river is running. A few years ago, after a very snowy winter, the River churned and wrestled its way past with great violence–and, what seemed to me, a deep self-confidence. As if it were saying something like, I am the Colorado River, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The past two years, however, the Colorado’s confidence has been shot. It’s more like a shy little creek than the tributary that carved out the Grand Canyon.

Just to show you, here are some images from this year.

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Yes, this is the mighty Colorado. Notice all the dead trees.

For images of the River in 2010 and 2011, visit a previous post here:
http://rockymtnbiker.com/2011/07/17/raging-river/.

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I thought the texture of this burned-out tree was pretty cool. Reminds me of Clyfford Still’s paintings.

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An above treeline meadow.

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Riding into the sky–on the Wolverine Trail.

The Gilsonite to Wolverine Trail hasn’t avoided the sad transformation that nature (and climate change) can wreak. Last year the trail was closed due to logging activities. This year, I hardly recognized the place—what used to be deep forest is now denuded open space. The number of felled Lodgepole Pines is staggering—they littered the landscape like some massive game of pick-up-sticks. And the mountainsides that haven’t been cut are now a deep gray, almost purple color, filled with dead trunks whose green needles long ago turned red, then fell. (This is, as you may know, due to Pine Beetle infestation.)

But once I got high enough—around 12,000 feet—it was as if I’d traveled back in time. The same thin ribbon of trail steeply gaining on an open meadow, the same rocky singletrack running along a ridge and up past treeline, the same snowfield and amazing view that fills me with a bliss that I can’t describe.

It’s funny, because this week I’d used sections of E.B. White’s classic essay, “Once More to the Lake” for a class I was teaching at the Lighthouse writer’s retreat. In the piece, White keeps suggesting that “there had been no years” when he visits a lake he use to frequent as a child. But then, gradually, his assertion begins to ring hollow, and he is forced to admit that yes, there have been years. It’s a beautiful essay about the endless forward hurtling of time, and the ways that things do change, and yes, how our children become us, and we become our parents—or to borrow a line from poet Sharon Olds:

…. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Nothing ever stays the same, and watching that happen is beautiful, and a little bittersweet, too. That river isn’t going anywhere, nor are the mountains and meadows of those trails I’ve been returning to. But someday, I won’t return.

Now that’s something I don’t really want to think about. Maybe I’ll just look forward to next year.

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Busy Busy Busy

Life is sometimes a bully. It grabs you by the ear and yanks you into a miasma of days that float by with a thousand things to do.

When that happens, the bike sits, sad, in the garage.

June’s been like that. How’s it been for y’all?

I did sneak away for a quick ride at North Table Mountain a few days ago, which is gorgeous right now–green, steep, and empty.

Take a look for yourself–pic followed by a poem by Zen monk Ryokan, about laziness.

Ah, how I wish….

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Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.

 

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Riding White Ranch—With Commentary by William Shakespeare

Last Sunday I embarked on a great ride at White Ranch with my riding buddy Ed. Our first ride of the new year together, it was great to have a pal there, to shoot the bull, to discuss the proper line, to draft behind on the long slog up Belcher Hill and then onto Shorthorn Trail, all the way to the upper lot.

As always, the new season brings me hope: hope for a fun season, with lots of riding. Hope for advancing my skills and aerobic capacity. Hope for induction in the self-created Hall of Badassness.

The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.
(“Measure for Measure,” Act III, Scene I)

The climb up Belcher is long and slow, and just getting there is a challenge. Right outside the lower lot, before the climb begins in earnest, there are two gates—tough to open without clipping out and waddling through on foot—and then there’s the bane of my existence: a narrow, nearly impossible, rock garden.

I’ve cleared the rock garden maybe once in all my years of riding White Ranch. Usually I slam into a boulder and fall over. Often I scrape a shin, a hip, a forearm, an ear, an entire face.

It’s kind of a Zen thing, the rock garden. Yet there are no rakes, no bells, no monks in orange robes.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man
knows himself to be a fool.
(“As You Like It,” Act V, Scene I)

To ride it, you have to think of one thing, and one thing only: keeping your front wheel in a clean line. And believing that you’ll make it through. Yes, the mantra here is “I think I can, I think I can…”

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”
(“Hamlet,” Act II, Scene II)

Thinking of nothing, I cleared the entire garden. Not bad for new season noodle legs.

In total the climb is around 2,000 feet of vertical. Toward the end, the steepest pitch yet awaits, full of burly waterbars and loose sand. At the end of last season, sometime in October, I cleared the entire section, for the first time ever.

Such modest successes make me feel alive and blissful. And hopeful that I am not yet in full age-decay mode, though I’ve been around for a while now (since 1966).

Success on this last pitch requires good balance, smooth pedaling, and staying out of full-blown anaerobic mode. I used to have to stop and suck wind in the middle of this section, as spots floated across my vision and my heart thrummed inside my skull.

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
(“Romeo and Juliet,” Act II, Scene III)

This day, I made it all the way to the top, without stopping.

I was so happy I could have cried. Man, that felt cool.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(“Macbeth,” Act V, Scene V)

Yeah, whatever.

If you have any good Shakespeare quotes that relate, lemme know.

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The view from Shorthorn Trail.

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Ed enjoying the view–waiting for me to catch up.

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The Far (April) Field

Spring has come! Time to reawaken! Time to get back on the trail!

I have to admit: it’s been too long. During these last cold months I’ve pretty much forgotten about trail riding. If I’ve been on a bike at all, it’s been on the road, commuting from the bus station to work. Or in the basement, on the stationary trainer. Which is exceptionally, infinitely boring, I’ve decided.

But April is just about here! Time for spring. Thank criminy.

April always carries me back to poet Theodore Roethke. His poem “The Far Field” isn’t technically a poem about spring—it’s about death, mostly, and the infinite. But it’s lovely and inspiring, deep-breathed and light. It’s also a poem of belief, where the speaker sets out, in a natural landscape, to express some very deep thoughts.

A few of my favorite sections:

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water….

I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water….

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, –
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

Soon, I’m going to be up on that mountain, not fearing anything.

Except maybe a brisk, quick endo.

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March, Spring, and Risking Your Heart

I’m getting excited about spring. I’m getting excited about daylight savings time.

I’m getting excited about riding again.

But there’s that nagging, curmudgeonly voice in my head, that lazy and insecure blabbermouth, that not-interested shade of me that is tired of fiddling with all the gear, with driving to the trailhead, with the pain and exertion that riding entails.

To that voice, I will respond with a gorgeous quote:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up.”
–Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

When I was young–in my early teens–I often pondered this very idea. Wondering why everything seemed to happen to me, much of it overwhelming. And I remember realizing that, somehow, the cosmos had decided that experience would be part of the story of my life–whether I’d chosen that as something to strive for or not. (Everyone probably feels this way at some point.)

Things were going to happen to me. These experiences were going to break me, time and time again. And they have. In this, I am probably like everyone else.

Riding is just a small way in which I get to practice this process of collecting experience, getting swallowed up and broken. And I suppose that’s why I’m addicted to it.

It hasn’t been easy, but over the years I have embraced this goal: to get broken. Over and over. On the bike, I get lots of practice.

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Rambling Existential Questions, Inspired by a Bike Show and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

eliotI really want to go to the North American Handmade Bike Show here in Denver this weekend, but then again, I’m not in the market for a new, handmade bike made of bamboo, ash, titanium, vibranium, or compressed coffee grounds. Plus, it’s $20 bucks just to get in! (That bothers me. I wish it didn’t. Here’s a clip from the Denver Post.)

Just thinking about such decisions–should I or shouldn’t I?–sometimes gets me into an existential funk. I often overthink things, and suddenly the decision is not about going to a bike show, for example, but about the kind of person I am. Am I a good American? (Buy! buy! buy!) What do I believe in? (Art and commerce, or hanging out at home doing nothing?) Do I believe in heaven and hell? (You die and you’re pretty much dead. Or: you go to heaven and float on clouds and eat all 70 virginal Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups each day, etc.)

Maybe there will be beautiful art at the show. Which makes me think of T.S. Eliot, of course.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Right! maybe it’ll be like that. So why not dare to eat that peach?

Maybe I should allow myself to approach, as Eliot said in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”an overwhelming question…”

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.

Okay! Heck, I might swing by, just to see the beauties and the beasts.

Speaking of beastly, seems like fat bikes are now all the rage–ever since I wrote about them in an earlier blog post. (To wit, another Post article.) Even so….

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled….

Yes, I do wear my trousers rolled, because I’ve been commuting via bike to the park-n-ride bus station and nobody likes to get their trousers caught in a chainring. Anything to avoid the long drive to and from Denver each day for work. Anything to avoid contributing the climate change, which has me suddenly very freaked out.

And how should I presume?

Well, after all the recent apocalyptic weather here in Colorado and elsewhere, I just can’t abide driving 24 miles to work, and then 24 miles back home again, every freaking day. So the bus it is, even though it’s almost $4 each way. (I grow old, I grow…. cheapskate-ish.)

I presume that’ll make a tiny bit of difference. Then again…

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

See, how I endlessly question myself? Just go to the bike show, just ride to and from the bus station. Stop thinking all the time!
Sure, I am no prophet. So why not go, you and I, while the evening is spread out against the sky, for a nice, easy ride, then?

Maybe. As soon as the snow melts. As soon as this happens [month changed by me]:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October [March] night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

 

 

 

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