Cold, With Swan

I just finished up teaching a class on Mary Oliver, who is one of a handful of poets who make a living from writing. Her work is spare, simple, and melodic. Like another handful of poets, I’d say that she’s as much a philosopher as a poet, and therefore her work is primarily natural and spiritual. She asks lots of big questions, and isn’t too concerned about the answers, almost like a contemporary American monk might.

Whatever a contemporary American monk might be–I’ll leave that definition up to you.

I admire her poems and I appreciate them, but I’m not totally in love with all of her work. I don’t mean that in a negative way. She’s an amazing writer. And perhaps the lessons she embraces are the ones I need to embrace, too, and I’m reticent about doing so. Who knows?

End of self-analysis session.

Many of her poems involve walks through a natural landscape–most often around the environs of Provincetown. She draws inspiration and a deep sense of communion from those woods and sandy dunes, much like I draw inspiration from the landscape where mountain biking takes me. She asks questions, much like the questions that occur to me when I’m riding.

As she writes: “What is it you plan to do with your one precious life?” in “The Summer Day.

Maybe that makes me a mountain-biking monk-philosopher. (Make sure your robe doesn’t get caught in the chain.)

Here’s a good example of a quintessential Oliver poem–ending with more questions than answers.

THE SWAN

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
white wings
touch the shore?

Postscript: It’s been brutally cold here in Colorado–today’s high will be around 10 degrees–and my bike is in pieces. I need a new front shock. (Maybe Santa will bring me one?) The few times I’ve gotten in the saddle recently, I’ve been sticking to the roads.

Here’s an image from a recent ride, taken before the freeze set in.

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And a pic from later that day:

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Good Deal. Comes in Three Speeds.

Let me just say: I’m pretty sick of driving to and from work, five days a week, along the I-25 corridor. There’s the traffic, the lame FM radio that seems to play the same 15 songs over and over, the bad drivers, the jarring roads. Not to mention the significant car troubles we’ve endured lately slipping transmission (estimated replacement cost = $4,500); overheated car and shot ignition coils ($600); clogged catalytic converter ($1,200). And so on. Not to mention my vague discomfort at our gigantic carbon footprint, as the drive is around 22 miles each way. And the cost of gas–around $1,500 a year. (Cripes, that’s a lotta cash.)

So when I found a deal to sign up for half off a Denver Bike Sharing membership, I leapt.

So far, it’s been great. I take the bus, which picks me up just 50 yards from our front door, downtown and then I grab a red bikeshare bike, and ride the 4 miles or so to work. The bike’s only got three speeds, which has opened up a completely new and radical idea: to take my time, rolling along. To look around and notice my surroundings. To actually enjoy the journey.

Which has been so nice, I must say. It’s like discovering a rainbow in the sky every morning.

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Photo from Bike Share website.

Rain, and Change

The rains have come and gone, and now all that’s left is the aftermath. What have we lost?
In many ways, after this summer of 2013, we will never be the same. From wildfires to floods, nothing gold can stay, as Frost said so well.

When my wife and I first moved to Denver, in 1997, we had no idea how that Mother Nature had such power, such fury. Growing up in Buffalo, I’d survived lots and lots of snow, but there’s something eerie about the power of nature in the summer. But there’s also something impressive about the frontier spirit here in Colorado, how people wait out the storm, and then they get back to work. There’s no quit out here.

Our first August here, a tremendous storm overtook downtown Denver, and from our second-floor downtown loft, we watched as Arapahoe Street turned from roadway into swirling, rushing river, filled with hail and junk. We thought the city would be decimated. We thought it was the end times. We were supposed to teach a writing workshop that night, and decided that he had to cancel. We called all the students to let them know. However, one guy, a crusty local, laughed at us, saying, it’ll be sunny and the roads’ll be clear in a couple hours. Ah, you easterners, he chuckled.

He was right. The banks of hail melted. The water disappeared. The sun blazed in a blue sky. By 5:30 PM, it was as if nothing had happened.

The rain of this past week might be gone soon, but the destruction will be with us for a long, long time. And I hope that everyone is safe, and that they recover quickly and with little grief. I also hope that my favorite biking trails—and the roads to get there—are still reasonably intact. Though I’m fairly certain that the trails I knew will never be the same. I guess that’s one of the uncanny things about biking for many years—the trials you know so well are dynamic, everchanging. Some sections get easier, some get more difficult. (Cue the riding-as-metaphor-for-life music….)

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 1997, after that first shocking storm.

WHEN IT DISOBEYS

it brings a storm that discovers
a man-made river-bed in concrete
and asphalt, leaves women and men
clinging to rooftop chimneys,
their cold hands trembling in its midst, then
it brings the hail—white, killing,
obnoxious white when there
should be more rain—first pea
then quarter then softball
sized, full of hubris,
stony pellets coursing
through streets, a swirling
river of rain and downed trees and things
it has dismantled. Will it not
avoid stinging the innocent faces,
the defeated shoulders—
will it not give up the mindless idea
that it can last in August?
It is relentless, abiding by precepts
which are not laws
but ideas of laws, things
children copy down in school:
Planets in their ellipses,
the moon’s granite face
waning and waxing,
cosmic dust on a calm night—
meteors burning the night,
seen for a second, then gone,
like the faraway shouts
and moans when the sky
clears and a rainbow comes.

# # #

Here’s a pic I took on Monday, riding the Hog Back, about 15 minutes before the front edge of the storm rolled in.

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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.

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:
https://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.