I seem to gravitate toward the spicy and the chocolatey. And the kielbasa-ey (which I find mildly odd, and embarrassing).
Also notice how one needs a few buffalo-bleu chips in order to have the energy to take such a picture.
(Note: This dispatch was originally written in April 2012, during a trip to Grand Junction.)
It wasn’t easy, but I’d conquered my fear—mostly—of Zippety-Do-Da, one of the more exposed trails in Grand Junction/Fruita area. I’d ridden all of the spine of Zippety—a very narrow singletrack that runs along the Bookcliffs, undaunted by the long drop-offs on either side. (This vid gives you a good idea what Zippety’s like.)
Geologic note: the Bookcliffs are capped with a hard layer of Mesa Verde Sandstone and the side slopes are comprised of Mancos shale. I am no expert, but I believe that the sandstone is very tough and resilient, and the shale is less so, which is why the Book Cliffs—which is part of the Grand Mesa formation—has the look it does. The top layer protects the rest from erosion, but when things do erode, they erode from underneath, causing the sandstone to break off in pieces, creating cliffsides. From far away, they look like open books, standing with their spines in the air, which looks cool—like a series of rooftops—though that’s very bad for the long-term health of the book itself.
Last time I was there, a few years ago, I’d walked most of the exposed sections. This time, I rode them Slowly. But I made it, and didn’t let my fear of heights overcome me.
All except for what’s known as “The Turn” which is narrow, rocky, loose, and curves around a cliff itself. As you get close, you can’t see where you’re going. It looks as if the turn will take you off into nothing but air. I walked that part.
But not too far—maybe twenty feet—so I was feeling pretty cocky and sure of myself. “I am a badass!” I shouted into the empty air. (No one heard me. It was 3:00 PM on a weekday and I’d seen only a handful of other riders all day.)
I kept saying “I am a badass!” to myself all the rest of the night. For dinner, I rewarded myself to a medium pizza from a local shop (salami, pesto and red sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoncini—absolutely delicious), and I ate the whole damn thing. Like a superior mountain biking dude would.
Totally rad, I was.
The next day I was still feeling frisky so I decided to try one of the “More Difficult” trails off Exit 15, along the mighty Colorado River. Heck, I’d done pretty well on Mary’s Loop earlier in the week, so I was ready to kick some burly, manly singletrack.
I hopped on a jeep road and headed toward Colorado River, turning onto the Mack Ridge trail, which would lead me on to Lion’s Loop—both of which I’d never ridden before.
Have I mentioned that I don’t like heights? That I’m mildly acrophobic? If I have something to hold on to, or if there’s an easy out—splaying out on the floor, flat on my chest, arms and legs spread-eagle—I’m pretty much okay. Or if I’m skiing, I’m not so afraid because I can actually take the leap and carve my way down the slope. (That silly glass “skywalk” over the Grand Canyon is the stupidest thing ever made.)
I’d read somewhere this about a fear of heights: it’s not the height that you’re scared of, it’s the overwhelming feeling that you will actually make the leap. Not that I’m suicidal or anything, but that’s kind of right: when I’m up high, I feel like my body is somehow magnetically attracted to the edge, and wants to get closer, closer, closer. (Just typing this makes my heart quicken.)
Mack’s Ridge starts out hard—narrow, rock-strewn, technical. I went slow, balanced well, and made it over most stuff, though I got hung up once and pitched over because I didn’t clip out in time, bashing my left forearm and giving up some skin to the Colorado River gods. (Cursing and spitting, I loosened the grasp of my clipless pedal so that wouldn’t happen again, freaking A.)
I continued. Going up, and up, and edging gradually closer and closer to the ridge overlooking the Colorado River.
Then, the trail eased up and opened up for a bit. And then: it turned toward the ledge. And stayed there.
I’m all for riding up high, but does the trail need to be inches from a 300-foot drop?
On Mack’s Ridge the answer is: Yes. Yes it does.
And you can’t ride off trail because the soil upslope is a rare and special cryptobiotic soil, which is supposedly incredibly sensitive to trauma, and takes 5,000 years to set up. Ride over it and you kill it. Kill it, and the soil that’s stable and well-formed can turn to sand in a few years, ruining the trail, the mesa, the entire landform.
Plus, it’s like riding in loose sand, because, in fact, it is a kind of loose, flaky crust. And that’s no fun.
Ride on the trail, and if you tip over cliffside?
Simple. You die.
The alternative: ride scared on the trail, leaning upslope as much as possible, your tires as far away from the ledge as possible. This works. However, you risk:
I almost did both 1. and 2. Several times. Before I clipped out and began walking the really exposed sections.
After a while, it clouded up and the wind started whipping against me and my bike. When the trail curled away to safe riding, I rode. When it curved back toward the edge, I walked.
Gradually I was walking more and more until I was so freaked out I couldn’t imagine riding at all. At which point walking then became difficult.
So there I was, all alone on this cliff–I can’t even call it a ridge at this point–three feet from eternity. Frozen and scared witless.
I’ve never had a full-on panic attack, but I got pretty close right then. Yet I knew fainting would very bad up there, so I made sure I kept breathing. Deep long draws. And that helped a lot.
And then I told myself that this was stupid, and no fun, and I should never do this kind of trail again. That I was fucking stupid idiot, and not a very good rider, either.
I turned around and carefully lifted my front tire and spun my bike around on its back tire—becoming disoriented and totally losing all sense of balance for a moment, almost dropping my bike into oblivion—and began a slow walk back to a safer part of the trail.
This is what I must have looked like: a very old man. Tiny steps, more like shuffling. In black socks. Hunched over, totally focused on those baby steps, trying not to see anything peripherally. (Cliff, cliff, cliff! River way down below.)
It was all very humbling. I must say, I am a pretty humble guy in general. Well, except for the day before when I was blustering to myself—bragging in my own head about how well I rode Zippety, and how, really, there’s not much left out there to challenge my immense and impressive bike skills.
Yeah, as if.
At that point, crawling back to the trail junction with Lion’s Loop, a crow should have flown into my mouth.
Just beyond the bike, the rock ledge ends and there’s nothing but air.
Mood shot. The distance down to the river isn’t clear in this pic–let’s just say that it’s way the frick down.
I rode a very short loop the other day on a trail just south of Boulder. I’d planned to drive into the mountains to Walker Ranch, but at lunchtime lightning struck the Flatirons and started a wildfire that quickly loomed over Boulder in a massive gray-blue cloud. I guessed—correctly—that Flagstaff Road would probably be closed, and I was right, so I turned south and headed to the Boulder Open Space trails.
Little did I know that the trail would lead straight to a vista where I’d get a close-in view of the fire, which crested a western ridge of the Flatirons and began to run downhill into a canyon—a place it seemed only I could see.
Above me an enormous whale-like C-130 arced past and plodded toward the fire, following a smaller guide plane. Other slurry bombers coursed overhead and I watched as they dropped heavy red clouds in a surgical fashion. Occasionally flames would jump up and their orange intensity made my chest tight, even though I was at least a mile, maybe two, away.
It both frightened and awed me. And I must admit: I admired its blind, overwhelming power.
Obviously nature is powerful and awesome and it does not care for us little humans. It has no volition, and yet, as I watched all I could think was how tenacious wildfires are, how they have a hunger that can’t be satisfied. (In Colorado, we’re seeing this in many places, and there’s no clear end in sight.)
Tenacity. Something good bikers possess. A trait all successful athletes possess, and something all successful people possess, I’d imagine. It’s also probably a trait of most murderers, too.
Tenacity can be good, or bad. Or neither. You can’t judge the desire of something that’s not alive. Or can you?
Whatever it is, tenacity in any form commands our attention, and makes us reconsider—like any powerful life-changing entity—what’s important and what isn’t.
Oh, summer has clothed the earth
In a cloak from the loom of the sun!
And a mantle, too, of the skies’ soft blue,
And a belt where the rivers run.
–from “In Summer” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Sure, summer has come and cloaked us and all, and here in Denver, the cloak is made of fire and heat.
I rode yesterday afternoon, up the Apex Trail near Golden. During the ride, the temp hovered at 99 degrees. Needless to say, I suffered. Though the occasional breeze–relatively cool, considering–once in a while descended upon me like a little angel of grace, and I made many prayers of thanks.
Perhaps riding is my religion, a devotional practice wherein I climb out of the daily world of need and emotion, letting such concerns fall away as I climb and descend. And perhaps I should give thanks for that more than I already do.
On the way up, I tried to look ahead and think of nothing but the fleeting and ephemeral breeze, my pedal strokes, the trail ahead. Occasionally, as it happens during such meditations, life crept in. That mean email someone sent this morning. The bank account and its anemia. My sick aunt, whom I adore. My kids and their obsession with vampires. If vampires are a metaphor for the current human and cultural condition–some of us do feed off others, and doesn’t that uncannily frame the current political discussion?
Those sorts of thoughts.
When it was only the trail that consumed my mind, I rode as if gravity were taking it easy on me, crunching up dusty, rocky sections and clearing them, turning sharply and calmly on switchbacks that require a tender and loving sense of balance.
Yes, summer is here. Time of heat. Time of leisure. Time to enjoy each moment.
Amen to that.
Biking–and living–in Colorado is pretty great. I am very lucky. Let me show you why. I mean, let me count the ways.
2. The mountains.
3. The strange things you see while in those mountains.
4.The neat public artwork.
5. The awfully cute and amazing Colorado gals I know, and totally adore.
6. The poetic vibe, too, which inspired this, a few years back.
BLUE HAZE, GOODNIGHT MOON
Black smoke courses along the blank hills,
there is a crack that runs the length of it.
Shouts in far-off dusk, I park. The engine ticks.
Early night heat, late September. Soon the leaves
will collapse their canopies, like so many
umbrellas. Then the summer of fire
will no longer burn my lungs
or clot my eyes, those plumes
stretching from the west.
Upstairs, the kids are asleep, white noise
the shape of a running fan, night light burning
their room gold from within,
a glistening cocoon.
Ten o’clock. I tip-toe in, listen to their sleep,
gaze at their shadow features.
It is like drinking cold water from a well.
Working out on back-to-back days ain’t what it used to be.
Back in the day (i.e. late 1980s) for college cross country, we’d run twice a day for an entire week to start the training season. Running doubles. Around 15 miles total per day, and then on the last day we’d get up early and be out on the road at 7:00 AM for the long slow distance (LSD) run–at least 15 miles in one shot.
Nowadays, merely biking on consecutive days is a grind. I feel it in my knees, my ankles, my quads, my, um, saddle. It all aches. Especially when starting out that second day.
This past week I had to take our dog up to CSU vet center in Fort Collins–her pacemaker battery had worn out (it’s a long story) and she needed to get it replaced (they made an incision in her neck and changed the batteries, then stitched her up). So after I dropped her off I had several hours free. I worked a bit and then cruised out to the Horsetooth Reservoir for a ride–a ride I’ve been eager to try for years now, one of those trails I’ve dog-eared in guidebooks. It’s always looked cool–very rarely do you get to ride in Colorado anywhere near water, and this trail has lots of reservoir overlooks. Plus it’s mostly singletrack, and labeled “most difficult.” And boy, was that true. (I walked a bit.)
The very next day I met my buddy Ed for a ride on a local Denver fave, Apex Trail. Starting out was pure pain, and I got worried after a few switchbacks that I’d have to turn around and crawl back to my car in shame. My quads were cooked noodles, and completely invested with a dull ache.
But you know what? You just keep pedaling and focusing on being relaxed and efficient, and gradually you warm up and feel better and generally on top of things, and you so keep making your way.
I ended up having a great time. The sun cascaded toward the mountains off in the west, and we looped around through the woods, taking our time, learning “by where we have to go,” the air cooling, our bikes staying under us, rolling onward.
Looking at the pics (see below), Theodore Roethke’s poem keeps singing in my brain. It’s a beautiful, peaceful villanelle, which means that it rhymes and repeats two refrain lines at the end of each stanza, which then pair up at the end of the poem. Making them a perfect symbol for two-legged propulsion.
THE WAKINGI wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.I learn by going where I have to go.We think by feeling. What is there to know?I hear my being dance from ear to ear.I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Of those so close beside me, which are you?God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,And learn by going where I have to go.Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.Great Nature has another thing to doTo you and me; so take the lively air,And, lovely, learn by going where to go.This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.What falls away is always. And is near.I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.I learn by going where I have to go.
Climbing at Horsetooth.
In the Enchanted Forest, at Apex Trail.
I’ve taken a week off to ride and write in Grand Junction and I’m feeling a bit scattered since I’m filled with endorphins, Gatorade, and caffeine. My legs and brain are tired but I want to fit in as much as I can before I have to drive back east, to Denvah. That’s how it often goes, when you get a chance to step out of the rushing river of your life and contemplate, and you have only so much time.
So, I give to you several random thoughts. (Yeats said a poem is often a quarrel with oneself; these aren’t arguments–or poems–so much as observations that are rudely bumping into one another in the small space which is my brain.)
Four seasons in one day.
A great song, of course. But it’s what I experienced while driving I-70 over and past the Continental Divide. Take a look:
I love dinosaurs. For an art class project once, I made one out of paper mache. (He was so cool, in my 9th grade yearbook, the AV club used him as a prop for their group photo. This is the kind of music they listened to.)
He looked a lot like this. But a lot smaller.
That fence sure ain’t gonna hold him in.
I don’t like cows as much as I like dinosaurs, but there’s something peaceful (stupid?) about them.
I’d like to call this lady Oreo. She was hanging out by a trail called Chutes and Ladders, in Fruita.
More Dinosaurs! Riding Bikes!
I was told that they dug this one up, this was exactly how they found the bones (and bike).
No wonder why they went extinct–not wearing a helmet! (Foolish, so foolish.)
The Colorado River is a mighty thing.
Lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” come to mind:
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
I have one more day here, and then I’m back in the arms of the ones I love.
It’s winter and that means I do little riding out of doors, and am relegated to the strange windowless back room of my suburban rec center, where I sit on a stationary bike with, oh, 54 other folks, and I pedal like a maniac, wearing old t-shirts with cut-off sleeves.
It ain’t real riding but it’ll have to do ‘til the real thing comes along. (My grandmother used to say the same thing about love—but, alas, I digress.)
I don’t totally hate spin class. In fact, during winters past, I’ve really enjoyed it. But this season it’s getting stale, and I’m solidly at a level of high dislike.
Why do I dislike spin class, you ask? It’s so freaking boring that I want to scream out loud sometimes, that’s why. It’s boring because, at my current gym, all you do is push and pull the pedals and stare at a giant screen which usually is showing nothing but a colored chart explicating the various levels of aerobic and anaerobic exertion. Because the instructors often talk too much and too loudly (criminy, turn down the microphone, for lord’s sake!)—mostly about the various levels of aerobic and anaerobic exertion. (Double sigh.) Why do they talk so much? And why so damn loud—loud enough to make me reflexively shudder and shake my head? It would be worse if they talked over really cool music, but at least the music usually, well, sucks.
Ah yes, the music. Most of the instructors at my gym play this terrible mix of unheard of house music (but it has such a strong beat to help with cadence!), or something that seems to be lifted straight from American Idol. That, mixed in with some Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé—which would be fine, you know, if they had like, ironic quotation marks around them. But no, I can tell, they are not ironic. They are serious.
When I first began attending spin classes at a gym downtown, things were different. There was one instructor, Linda, who consistently took us to new heights of pain, and she never talked about anaerobic threshold or capillaries or pira forma muscles. She just rocked us out to The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, KC and the Sunshine Band, Social Distortion, and Journey. Not only do these songs rule—they’re nostalgic touchstones that make spinning not just spinning—class was a nice little bike ride down memory lane. So you were thinking not about your aching legs or panting breaths, or lactic acid or pedal cadence—you were thinking about that time you were 18 and driving your mom’s car with the windows down on a summer night and all was gorgeous possibility and you knew that life would never get any better.
Such little mind trips made the hour roll by very fast. They made the class the opposite of painful and dead boring.
Maybe I should join that gym again.
Just for the heck of it, here’s my try at the perfect spin class mix:
Ring of Fire—Social Distortion
Over My Head—Fleetwood Mac
Wheel in the Sky—Journey
Wanted, Dead or Alive—Bon Jovi
I am a Man of Sorrow—Soggy Bottom Boys
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight–The Jam
When I Saw Her Standing There–Beatles
Age of Consent–New Order
Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing—Chris Isaac