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.

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.

 

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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Olympian

There are many exciting elements to this summer’s Olympics, but for me the one thing that stands above all others is sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

I know there’s been some controversy and the conversation continues as to whether his cheetah blades give him an unfair advantage. I don’t understand how anyone can think that, though I am not a biomechanics expert. As my wife said while watched one of his races, “If you’re running against him and think he’s got an advantage, then you should train harder and run faster.”

Truth is, the guy can fly, and I found his qualifying run in the semifinals of the 400 meter run incredibly inspiring.

Watching him race, I know that any complaints I might have–about pretty much anything–are not worthy.

That’s what makes the Olympics unique to the global human experience–getting to see athletes push themselves to new heights, to see them strive to overcome whatever obstacles lay before them, to watch them seize their innate potential for greatness, and to manifest it, if they can.

This sounds like a trite and overdone commercial for some product, but a question lingers in my mind as I ponder all this: how can I be great today?