A New Word

Lostacious.

That was the word in my dream, the dream I was having as I woke up this morning.

I think it’s an adjective, and it describes the state or quality of being blissfully lost. Sometimes it’s used as an exclamation describing happiness at not knowing where one is. Dude, we’re lostacious.

As a writer and often spacey person, I’ve always mined my dreams for odd things: reverberant images, weird stories, glimpses of the ones I love who are no longer on this earth—but rarely shards of language. Until now.

Funny, how your subconscious can create an entire cosmos and how it abides by few rules. (Make up a word? Sure! Why the heck not? says the subconscious.)

I’ve always believed that our subconscious brains are all-wise, so in dreams they tell us things we need to know, when we need to know them. So, when I woke up this morning I was thinking: I don’t feel lost. Why does my brain want me to know that feeling lost can be gorgeous and amazing?

Good questions to ponder in the dark, early hours of a December morning, when outside there is a blanket of snow on everything and it’s a brisk 5 degrees. Of course, if the answer is so easy to understand, then why wouldn’t my conscious mind know it, without the need to dream it?

*   *   *

On Thanksgiving holiday I traveled with my two daughters Westchester, New York to visit my family. It was the first time my kids and I have ever spent a major holiday with the Henry side of the family—with my sisters (four of them), their kids (two girls, one boy), my dad and stepmom. My wife was up in New Hampshire, at a writing fellowship, so I was a lone wolf papa. A single parent. The one and the only. And totally, completely, happily exhausted.

The weather in New York bloomed beautiful and warm, and one day my brother-in-law and I rode for a couple of hours at Sprain Ridge Park, a loopy series of trails through dense forests and along a bluff that runs along a bustling highway. I suppose I was lost there, most of the time, as the trails were new to me, so I followed my bro-in-law, ceding control to him, which was nice and relaxing in its own way because I didn’t have to make any decisions—I just rode.

The technical parts rivaled anything I’ve ridden here in Colorado, with severe rock climbs and drops and lots of off-camber singletrack; the climbs were short grunts, alternating with lots of rolling, curving undulations. The most difficult adjustment, however, was riding over—and trusting the grip of—all the fallen leaves, mostly oak. At many points you couldn’t see the trail but you could tell where it was by cleverly picking out a gentle sheen on the trodden leaves, which pointed out the serpentine track to follow. (Something I learned from Mantracker, that TV show I like to watch when my brain has ceased to work at 8 PM but I’m not quite ready for bed. See, TV is educational!)

It was great to get out in the warm air of November, though I missed my kids as I rode, and I wanted to get into Manhattan—to take them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—but as I spent the only true free day we had riding, we never made it. My girls, 7 and 9, seemed fine with that. They were enjoying hanging out with their cousins, bouncing around on a backyard trampoline and playing with their youngest cousin’s toys.

Being a single parent is: really hard. I can’t imagine being the sole caregiver all the time. I did it for just over three weeks, and while it gave me tremendous confidence and an even deeper connection with my kids, I could see how you could easily lose all sense of personhood. How you could eventually cease to have any identity other than Dad. That’s not lostacious, but there’s a wonder to it, somehow. There’s a sweet sense of accomplishment, which I can only relate to running a marathon or going on a really, really long ride. You have to pace yourself, you have to take the painful and clumsy miles along with the endorphin-high sections, too. And in the end, you measure your miles as successful days, when the kids have been fed and are clean and are finally asleep in their quiet rooms, lit gently by Hello Kitty nightlights.

How does this relate to lostaciousness? I dunno. Perhaps it refers to the idea that my trip to New York involved getting lost twice—first, the losing of myself to dadhood, then freeing myself from my usual (and very nice) life in Denver, for a bit. Both felt good. Each gave me a fresh perspective.

It was lostacious that I got to focus on being one thing: a dad, and losing all those other identities I consider so damn important: writer, worker, rider. Getting lost teaches you to love and appreciate—and feel grateful for—the things you have and often take for granted. That old life that sometimes feels worn and tattered and boring, and which you never really think about because you’re in it, day after day.

So then, the unfamiliar teaches you to see the familiar from a fresh perspective, and to cherish it.

Lostacious: (adjective) State of joy describing the process of getting lost or losing oneself, which makes one appreciate, and even adore, the familiar life from which they have departed.

What’s Been Up Lately (On Two Feet, No Wheels)

I haven’t ridden in a while. Real life has rudely intruded. Though sometimes it’s good to let it, so you can get the itch back again.

In the meantime, I have polished up some riding haiku.

I’M NOT SCARED HAIKU
(Written after riding the Matthew’s Winters + Hogback Trail and White Ranch, Golden CO)

Lightning strikes here lots.
A warning sign says so–right
next to a graveyard.

* * *

Here’s the place where Ed,
my friend, crashed, smashed his elbow.
I tiptoe my way
down.

* * *

The trail is rutted
and denuded. Rocks stick out.
My bike hops and skips
(a lot like my heart).

* * *

Just one jutting rock
on my left as I roll by–
grates my leg, like cheese.

* * *

Big blue sunset clouds
as I drive home, a good tired.
Endorphin high = bliss.

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.

Three-Day Trip to Summit County

(Note: I’m on a three-day solo trip up to Summit County to check out some of the riding there, and to do lots of writing. I hope to get three rides in, depending on weather, and to camp. All by my lonesome.)

It’s around 5 PM, and I’m sitting in a denuded campground along Route 9, which leads from Summit County to Steamboat, waiting for the blazing sun to lose its power so I can stop hiding in the shadow of my trusty old Subaru. The sky is that distant, gigantic Colorado blue, and the sun is a gold circle burning like a god who wants to warm the world but doesn’t understand the frailty of us, her worshippers.

While driving on the way out from Denver, a series of deep thoughts (Jack Handy-style, full of hokeyness and dripping with earnest feelings!) came across my brain and hit me with sledgehammer force, most notably this simple truth: the most precious thing in this world is to love and be loved.

Can you hear the violins playing a sweet, delicate symphony? I did. Still do. (Go ahead, fellas, and revoke my Man Card. I dare you.)

Why I must build the complicated machinations of going away by myself in order to recognize this truth, I don’t know. But I have my suspicions.

Distance from those you love—while you’re all by yourself, imagining them going about their day, without you—is enough to break your heart when you realize that you should, and will, be there. Because there is no other place on earth where you more belong.

And perhaps that is why I love to ride off into the wilderness, to get away, to get above treeline and to scare the wits out of myself. For the sheer work of it, of course; for the strong dose of adrenaline, too; and the beauty of nature, the endless challenge, to be sure. But also this: it takes me away from those I love and need, and allows me to see them for the foundation of my entire being that they are. All of them. Blood relations, life partner, friends. And dog. And Hamsters.

Sure, the world would get along fine without me, whether I am dead or have run away (a youthful obsession of mine) or merely slogging up a trail between Keystone and Breckenridge. But I don’t want to get along without the amazing world I’ve somehow found myself in the middle of.

Sometimes I need a good reminder of it all; going away and then coming back home does just that. (Never, ever, take your life for granted. That would be very stupid, Mike you too, gentle reader.)

Now the sun is trailing low along a ridge and soon she’ll be gone. The body of water in front of me—the Green Mountain Reservoir—is calm. Occasionally a fish leaps out and breaks the surface. Thankfully, my campground neighbors have turned down their loud music, and the hum of Route 9 is easy, hushing. I rode 25 miles today, climbed over 3,800 feet to around 11,200 feet above sea level, and my body and mind are beat tired, but grateful. Tomorrow and the next day, I’ll have more mountains to climb. All by myself.

And then I’ll rush home to my real wonderful life.

 

Now, for some images….

On the way back down, finally.

Colorado Trail, near Breckenridge–up Tiger Road, on the way to Georgia Pass. It was smooth and soft like buttah, as they say.

Campground pic–with my trusty old Subaru.

Raging River

Last year during a visit to the high country in Grand Lake, Colorado, I rode some really fun new trails created by the Grand Lake Metropolitan Recreation District, just a short jog from the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. (On the way there, I saw a moose, just off the road. Such is life up in the Rocky Mountains.)

Tight, twisty, rocky, in the midst of a lodgepole pine forest, the trail is a complete blast. Lots of slow riding, shoehorning around pines and over rocks–sometimes jamming up against the trees and getting hung up. Riding there is a full contact sport, and I have the scratches and scrapes to prove it.

Last year I also ran into a bear, staring at me from around 30 yards off the trail. (My first thought: Wow, what a beautiful statue of a bear. Wait a second, the fur is blowing in the wind. Oh. Crud. That’s not a statue. That sort of mind-slogging at the unreality of it.)

Needless to say, I didn’t get mauled. I stopped, stepped back, my disc brake squealed lightly, and the bear turned away slowly, seemingly thinking, eh, the hell with it.

And then he disappeared.

The other highlight of this trail is that it crosses a rocky ridge and drops down to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Yes, the Mighty Colorado, the river that carved the Grand Canyon. I was excited to see the beginnings of this amazing serpentine ribbon of water; but I was surprised, and disheartened, a bit, to see how unmighty the River actually was. (Note the small puddles of water and dry river rocks.)

That was 2010.

Year 2011 is a completely different story. The snow season in Colorado has been heavy; even now in July, there are more white-capped peaks than I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve lived here.

Which means that the rivers are the highest they been in a while–highest in 40 years, some Grand Lake locals have said.

Riding the same trail just a few days ago gave me that odd sensation of slipping back in time, to see the same narrow singletrack, the same rocks, the same trees, that I’d seen last year. How odd and wonderful, to gain the sensation that this place has been there through an entire year, waiting for me to return, and that it hadn’t changed at all.

Except for the Colorado River.

Here’s an image from the very same bridge, almost exactly a year later:

You can call it climate change, you can call it the natural variety in weather. Either way, it’s impressive. And it reinforces that old truth–one I’ve always loved to ponder: Nature does not care about us. It does what it does. And it’s gorgeous, and it’s haunting.

PS  One more pic, of the rushing 2011 water.

PPS Every year I spend a week up in Grand Lake at the Lighthouse Writers Retreat, which is always a fun and thought-provoking time. Thanks to all those wonderful writers who were there this year–you’re a tremendous inspiration.

Getting Lost

There’s the old adage that those who wander are not always lost, and while I certainly appreciate that sentiment, I’d push it a bit farther. I think we often like to get ourselves lost, so that we can then find ourselves again. It renews a sense of wonder and newness with all that is familiar. It’s also a great adrenaline rush.

I’ve only gotten really lost once, in the backcountry, on a long ride. The kind of lost where you’re alone and you look around and say to yourself, I can probably sleep under that tree, and I think I can keep myself relatively warm and not freeze to death out here in nowheresville. Lost enough that you imagine a daring helicopter rescue after a week out on your own, or a guy on a four-wheel motorbike chiding you for not having a compass or a lick of common sense as he straps you, barely conscious, onto a gurney. (This was two years ago, in the Arapaho National Forest, where I wandered away from the Gilsonite-to-Wolverine Trail. I eventually found a super-thin ribbon of trail and rode my way out, after scaring myself witless.)

Yesterday, on Centennial Cone–which is a fantastic trail, by the way–I didn’t get lost but was sure that I was lost. Not that I went off trail or anything; I just got confused and thought I’d continued on the main loop and missed a junction somehow. Sections began to look familiar and I had to keep fighting the urge to turn around and go back (that would have made for a very long day in the saddle.)

Funny, how you get tired and cranky and you lose your bearings and then you begin to doubt yourself, when really you’re okay and on the right track.

Which makes me think of a Joseph Campbell saying, something like The path you’re on is the path you’re supposed to be on.

In other words, the life you’re leading is the one you’re supposed to be leading, bad or good. The experience is yours and yours alone, and you should see it as a gift, even if it causes great pain, strife, or sadness. These moments are making you into the person you are supposed to be–which is the person you are.

Amen to that.

PS Here’s a pic of some sort of ancient farm implement out on yesterday’s ride.

Ride details:
18.01 miles
Active time 2 hours 4 minutes
Elevation gain 2644 feet.

My First Bike Race

Note: Following is an imaginary transcript of a phone call I would have made during the Winter Park XC Super Loop Race on June 25—if I’d been feeling chatty. (Inspired by a Frank O’Hara poem.)

Hello, this is Roberta from the Department of Rationalization—how may I help you?

Hi, Roberta thanks for taking my call.

My pleasure! Now, what can I do for you?

Well, Roberta, I’m a little freaked out because I’m in this mountain bike race, and, well, I think I might be in last place. (Pant. Pant.)

Is there anyone behind you? Wait, scratch that. Don’t look back.

Okay, I won’t. Which is good because I’m already feeling dizzy, and turning my head might cause me to fall over.

Good. Let’s pretend there are at least five people behind you. Oh, heck, let’s say ten.

Hey, that’s a great idea. But still, Roberta, this is awful! I think I suck at this racing thing.

Is this your first race?

Well, yeah, it is.

So there you go! That’s why you’re having a heckuva time. You’ve never done this before. Rank beginners can’t expect the moon, you know!

True, but I used to race all the time. I used to be an pretty good runner. I even won a few races.

Bygones from another era, am I right?

Yeah, at least 20 years ago.

It’s not fair to compare yourself to that skinny, naive young man, now is it?

No, you’re right. That makes me feel better.

Now, let’s explore some other avenues. Did you prepare well?

I think so. Though I should have trained more.

Now you’re getting the hang of this. You’re a busy man, am I correct? Kids? Mortgage? A lawn to mow? No one can expect you to train like Lance whathisname–your life would be a shambles!

So true! Roberta, you read me like a book!

What else have we got?

Well, I did feel kind of sick this morning, like I was getting an ear infection or something.

You poor race-day boy! That can’t make it any easier, now can it?

And my ear still hurts a little. Though right now on this climb everything hurts. A lot.

Okay, we’re on a roll now. Keep going.

Well, the registration yayhoo said that it was 19 miles, but I think it’s going to be longer than that. She had no clue and made it up!

Shame on her! For getting in your head and messing around like that.

Yeah, and she said there would be water bottle stations on the course, and I haven’t seen any. None! Zilch. Nada. Zippo. I’m dying of thirst out here, dammit!

It’s okay to blend righteous indignation and rationalization! Good for you!

And, AND, so I only brought one stupid bottle and left my full Camelbak in the stupid car, and now I can feel my left thigh twinging like it’s going to cramp! Ouchie!

Now that is downright criminal, isn’t it?

Yes, yes it is. Well, I feel better, though the race seems to be going on forever. I think I should hang up now and focus on this gnarly singletrack so I don’t break my skull or something. Thanks, Roberta. I feel much, much better now! You’ve been an angel. Last place, here I come!

Please do call again, anytime. We’re here 24 hours a day.

Click.

My calf, with my racing category. (“S” stands for sport, not slow.)

My bike, coated in mud.

A Meditation on Gear, In List Fashion

The equation biking + capitalism means that I ride, and I buy stuff for riding. I’ve even created a line item in our family budget for bike stuff. Mostly, I try and keep it within the dollar amounts that my wife spends on her: a. hair; b. clothing. I figure, that way, she can’t exclaim that I am wasting too much money on this frivolous avocation.

Boy, it adds up though. In a way, I miss those old days when I was a runner and all I needed was: 1. pair of flimsy running shorts, 2. running shoes. Simple. Clean. Unencumbered. Cheap.

Mountain biking requires gear. Or maybe the truth is this: Men, as they age, require more gear. (Is it because we fear death, as Olivia Dukakis said so well in Moonstruck? As if more gear will make us immortal?)

I suppose the following are true:

1. Men do fear death, and some gear does help allay that fear (helmet, gloves, good brakes, giant suspension systems, automatic seat post elevators, navigation systems, padded shorts to protect one’s taint, etc.).

2. Biking is a complex task, and the mere fact that a bike is involved means there will be gear involved, because things wear out, such as: chains, cassettes, seals, racks, tires, grips, locks, and such.

3. Gear is cool–and we are conditioned to believe that said gear is cool and very, very necessary. We need these things because: i. they help us ride better; ii. in capitalism, if you can sell desire, selling the product is so much simpler.

All that said, I really like my new socks, from Mountain Flyer Mag. I got them with a new two-year subscription.

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