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.

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.

The Armstrong Affair

As a long-time rider—almost 15 years now, how did that happen?—I love watching the Tour de France each July, which, naturally, has made me a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. After all that’s happened recently, It’s safe to say that Lance has had a pretty lousy month, and I’m saddened by it—all of it—and feel compelled to say something.

No matter what he’s done, I think his story is inspirational. His monomania is fascinating to me. His ability to suffer is legendary. I wish I could endure like that. Before he won his first Tour, I remember reading about his battle with cancer. I also remember a friend, a cyclist himself, saying something like this: if Lance survives and recovers he will end up being the best rider in the world, maybe the best ever. My friend also said that, when he was young and just starting out, Lanvce’s VO2 max was tested, and it was among the highest scores ever recorded.

And then, I watched him in those early tours—and I especially remember one ride, in the rain, in 1999, when he broke away from the peloton and decimated the field.

Did he cheat? Sure seems like it. Seems like the entire Postal Service team did. (My dad was a mail carrier, for 35 years and for that reason, those years of organized cheating bother me even more. They’re soiling my father’s good name, somehow. He had to do the work every day, and he never cheated or failed to complete his rounds.)

You could rationalize and say, heck, everyone was cheating, and he still beat them, which means he still deserved those wins. As Bill O’Reilly writes,

It’s all ugly. The whole sport is ugly. If the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, upholds the penalty, do you realize that 14 of the last 17 TdF winners would be expunged? And what will they do with them? In five of Armstrong’s seven wins, the second-place finishers were implicated in doping scandals of their own. One year—2003—you have to fish down to fifth place to find somebody clean.

That’s going pretty far down the ladder to find someone who’s supposedly deserving. And I suppose if Lance never tested positive, it meant that he kept his doping within acceptable limits, no? Which means—again, a vast rationalization—that his doping stayed within a predetermined range considered “normal” by the powers that be.

This is total conjecture, but Lance is probably on prescribed testosterone at the very least, considering his type of cancer—testicular—and the amount of chemo he received.

I can keep rationalizing all day like this, but at the end of the day it still feels sad.  What do you do when your hero is suddenly exposed as a liar and a cheat? What makes me most angry is some of the testimony—especially David Zabriske’s—who testified that he was bullied into doping. That’s just wrong—to do that to a young, eager guy.

I guess haven’t completely figured out what I think or feel yet. I mean, what difference does it make? We don’t always have to take a side, and defend it with all our will (see: recent politics).

I still felt very moved watching him win those seven Tours. Cancer took my mother, too young, at 53, and my sister is a survivor, and her journey has been incredibly moving to me, as was his. Armstrong’s work with Livestrong is important and lasting.

No one can say that he didn’t want to win, badly, that he didn’t suffer as much, or more, than anyone else.

Now to leave you with a peaceful, hopeful image.

In Memoriam

I know this about myself: I am obsessed with death.

As I was saying to some writer-friends earlier this summer, aren’t all writers obsessed with death? It is, after all, the complete and final denouement to all stories—the story of our character’s lives, own lives, and the lives of those who’ve gone before us.

I know. I’m awfully morbid.

The unstoppable grind of time certainly plays a role in deepening my obsession. In the past ten years, I’ve lost my dear grandparents, an adored aunt, and other loved ones who took part in raising me.

Predictably, death has leapt across from that generation and is now beginning to worm a slow and methodical path through my generation, and I’m not feeling very happy about that. I’m a little freaked out, and now, often when I’m driving on the highway, a bit of panic rises up in my chest as all these yeahoos careen around me like aggressive and/or drunken idiots. I grip the wheel tight and think: these dumbasses are going to kill me.

I often embrace my own mortality while mountain biking, too. Please see exhibits A and B.

“Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” poet Dylan Thomas implores. Yet we know that such rage will burn itself out, and the grim reaper will eventually come knocking on our door. “Nothing gold can stay,” said Robert Frost.

I know! I’m a sick freak. I’m sorry. Please, though: read on.

I usually write here about biking and how it circumscribes life in general, but before I was a rider, I was a runner. In a way, running is more primal, requiring no equipment or machines, and uses one’s own body as the only machine for locomotion.

Now, my running friends—those teammates I’ve suffered with, those young men who blazed through the streets, the fields, the woods, and around the track with me—are dying.

First there was Dave R., who was a nerdy but nice and very determined guy who used to slip in behind me during NCAA track races and let me pace him. And then, as I tired, he’d bolt past me without even a cursory glance back or a nod of thanks or encouragement. It used to drive me absolutely nuts. But in the end, he made me run faster because I damn well wanted him to pull me along, like I did for him.

Once, we were traveling to an away meet and the team bus left him at a truck stop and he had to chase it down, pounding on the door to be let in. In my mind I joked that he’d probably thought about drafting behind the bus for a while, but thought better of it.

Anyway, about ten years ago, I was looking through the alumni magazine when I saw his name in the “In Memoriam” column. I don’t know what happened, but I knew he was gone. (Turns out it was a plane crash.)

A year ago I learned that Mike, a guy from my grammar school that my classmates and I all adored, had passed away. That was a true shock, as he was the Golden Boy, the true athlete, the football star. His obit said he battled leukemia tenaciously for six years. That’s exactly how I remember him: tenacious. And ruthless. In his way of seizing the day, every day.

Not even his strength and beauty could avoid the end that will come to us all.

(I know! I’m bringing you down. I am very sorry, but I can’t help it. Please continue.)

And then just about a month ago, Mark, younger brother of a classmate in junior high, left this earth.

Sure, that last phrase is a bit over-dramatic, but how else can I describe it? Passed away seems so trite, and saying he died sounds crass. They do leave this earth; their spirit, their voice, their personality, disappears. I can only pray that we do end up going someplace else, but I don’t know.

I can still hear Mark’s voice, similar to Erich’s. I remember hanging around their house, playing wiffle ball in their back yard, or goofing around with their brood of Siamese cats, some of them with crooked but gorgeous blue eyes. The three brothers were all talented runners—gutsy, smart, and fast. The eldest ran on his tippy toes, his head held high, as if he were prancing. The others—Erich and Mark, ran head down, a deep furrow to their brows. Mark wore glasses, which gave him a slightly spacey look, though he could fly, just like his brothers.

I haven’t seen him in probably 30 years, but still it’s sad to lose someone like that, a fellow runner. The pain and effort we all shared, cruising around a track in a pack, our legs striding as one. Pushing ourselves as far as our young bodies could go, all for the sake of the team, for the need to test our own limits.

The awards and personal bests and championships fade away, and we grow slow, slower. And even if we no longer run, the bonds we built through miles and miles of effort remain. Such a brotherhood refuses to be broken.

I remember studying this poem in high school, and I suppose I never fully comprehended its meanings, but now I think I do. I hear it’s quiet, somber voice, it’s movement up and down–both in imagery, carrying the winner in joy, and then the casket in grief, toward burial, and in musical tone, with low, sonorous “o” sounds and the higher, aspiring “u” sounds.

I share this poem in memory of Dave, Mike, and Mark.

To an Athlete Dying Young
By A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

What Work Is: What Labor Day, the Poet Laureate, Ballet, Mountain Biking, and the Philosopher Horace have in Common

Have I missed Labor Day? Where did you go, oh amazing national day off?

Well, perhaps I needed to have already experienced Labor Day 2011 in order to begin contemplating the meaning of Labor Day, and the idea of labor, and how it relates to the work of writing, the work of our daily lives. And, for me, the sometimes arduous slog of riding a mountain bike. (Sorry if that seems like a stretch. But I love mountain biking.)

The work of riding up a mountain is simple, focused, and monomaniacal. (I love that word—monomaniacal. I think I first heard it in relation to Moby Dick. Alas, call me Digressional.) You point the front wheel up the trail and you pedal. A thousand times. A thousand thousand times. And eventually you make it—if you don’t quit. Sometimes you think about each pedal stroke, sometimes not. Sometimes you think about the top of the mountain, about Gatorade, about DQ peanut buster parfaits and Buffalo wings and cold beer. Sometimes you think about the pain in your knees, the creak in your ankles, the stabbing sensation in your back.

Sometimes you think about nothing at all, and you listen: To your huffing breath. To the crunch of dirt under your tires. To the wind in the trees.

The metaphor of riding as writing is simple. Pedal strokes are words. The mountaintop is a completed draft. The trail is the line, narrative, poetic (yes, it is easy to get lost). The pain is not physical, but more sinister, an uneasiness—anxiety about lack of talent, boringness, poor word choice. Confusion. But the mountain biking metaphor is instructive: Keep pedaling and eventually you’ll make it to the top, and then back down again. Keep riding, keep writing and eventually those scary switchbacks can be accomplished without fear, without self-consciousness.

That is the power in work. Do it often enough, do it monomaniacally, and you’ll get better. You learn to endure. (Which, sheepishly, reminds me of a poem I wrote, for the full-length ballet/collaboration with Ballet Nouveau Colorado, which opens next weekend. In this, the father—a water meter reader, chides his son for running away, which to the dad, is a form of giving up. But you can never run away from work.)

Just endure. This can be true for any endeavor that requires work, hard work.

* * *

I was so happy to recently hear that Philip Levine was chosen as U.S. Poet Laureate a few weeks ago. I’ve always admired his work—his celebration of all that is blue-collar and practical, and yes, even pissed off.

When I first heard a recording of Levine reading his famous poem, “What Work Is,” I was completely blown away because I had never considered the idea that a poem could be furious—that a poet, when reading, could actually sneer. Hear it for yourself—and pay close attention to how he recites, “Forget you” which suddenly sounds a lot like “F*ck you.”

Yes, work takes all shapes and forms and often it requires little or no sweat, but it’s still hard to do. Sometimes love is the hardest work of all.

Which brings me back to the water meter dad, but it also connects in my brain to another poem, by Thomas Lux, who says that the philosopher Horace believed that hard work always—always—leads to good things. And thus his poem “An Horation Notion,” one of my all-time faves, which I love for how he relates work to art. Yes, art is repetitive and sometimes it is boring repetition. And while it’s hard, it’s also so easy. Because you love to do it, and because someone else loved it enough to teach you how to do it.

–MJH

P.S. And this extra food for thought, just out today in the Daily Rumpus e-blast, from Stephen Elliott, he of The Rumpus and The Adderall Diaries:

Ultimately, and this is an idea I got from Matthew Zapruder, I don’t think poetry should be fit into the confines of capitalism. I think poets should spend a lot of time lying on their backs, contemplating the clouds. People that think hard work is the highest virtue aren’t going to put much of a premium on that but we don’t need to prove anything to those people. The work will speak for itself, will speak to people, or it won’t. The hard work that went into it is an irrelevancy. Calling poetry hard work is capitulating, surrendering to someone else’s ideals. The art exists outside of the effort, is more often borne from suffering than labor. And still, it doesn’t count. Many people have told me they can’t write a memoir because they haven’t had an interesting, or hard enough life. But if that was true than the best memoirs would be written by the people with the hardest lives. There’s no correlation.