In 2018, I wrote an article about riding the Colorado Trail for Elevation Outdoors.
You can find it here.
In 2018, I wrote an article about riding the Colorado Trail for Elevation Outdoors.
You can find it here.
This is an unusual sight. I’m sitting in a bustling Starbucks by I-25 and out the window a bunny rabbit just hopped across the patio. And now I can’t see him any more.
A few weeks ago I rode up the Apex trail in the wind and got something in my eye and all night it itched. The Latin word for tears: lacrimas. To shed tears: lacrimas profundere. Like the word profound, which is clearly a derivative. Pro means in front of or on behalf of. I think fundere means to fill or produce.
It’s been a while since I thought about Latin. In high school, I loved Latin. Amo (I love), amas (you love), amat (he/she/it loves).
Speaking of matters of the heart, last week I went to see a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis for a persistent irregular heartbeat. He called them “extra beats.”
Turns out I have a thickened heart muscle along my left ventricle, The Latinate term for it is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The abbreviation is HCM.
At Starbucks, a very skinny man in a leather jacket (though the leather looks fake) keeps getting up and walking outside. He steps around the patio in a small circle, then returns to his café table. He sits facing the window. He’s alone, has the thin look of a smoker. He must be waiting for someone. (Probably Godot.)
My eye keeps weeping slowly and it itches, but I am not sad.
Best of all, I didn’t die of sudden heart failure! (Sardonic laughter here.)
Which is a possible outcome of HCM. Luckily, the doctor—the world-leading specialist in such things—said I have a very mild form of the disease.
Holy crud, I have a “disease.”
By “mild” he means that I don’t display any of the dangerous markers, which are:
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think about my mortality and HCM. When I’m riding. Or driving. Or falling asleep. Or all the damn time.
When my heart rate is maxxed out (173 beats per minute, give or take), and I’m struggling to climb, climb, climb, a steep section of trail for example, and I’m sucking wind, I feel my heart thumping away, and wonder if it’s going to betray me.
And then I think it’s me—it’s My Heart, and boy, has it endured a lot. It’s been a good heart, it’s kept on, kept on, kept on no matter what I’ve put it through. All the hard work, the emotional dramas. I should not think of it as something separate, as antagonist, betrayer.
I should be nice to my heart.
Who wants a free venti chai? a barista asks, and there’s a polite but mad scramble. Some guy gets there first and then he’s off to embrace his Monday with a free drink.
I am 48 years old. At Apex, my riding buddy Ed and I climbed over 3,000 vertical feet in 10 miles of riding. I cleared some very technical sections. I didn’t crash, didn’t lose any blood. I’ve already biffed way too much this summer. Probably because I’ve been so distracted by the heart thing.
Funny thing is: when I’m working out and my heart rate is elevated, it pumps smoothly and there are no extra beats. The doc said that was because there’s no time to toss in an extra beat when it’s beating fast. As if the heart is thinking about it. As if it’s sentient (from the Latin, sentire, to feel).
As if it wants to make me nervous by beating extra times, but then I really get it going and it can’t do that. Silly, mischievous heart.
The doc said the extra beats are benign. In the thickened muscle there’s probably some scar tissue, which can throw off the heart’s electrical impulses.
My heart has scars. (Oh boy, doesn’t it.)
Some nights as I lay me down to sleep my heart goes haywire with extra beats, and it thumps so powerfully my entire chest shudders and my neck flushes with blood that backs up, since the atrial valve closes off too quickly and pumps nothing, an empty chamber. The blood that should be in the atrium gets backed up, and that’s why I feel it in the veins of my neck.
Benign, he says. (From the Latin benignus, literally “well born.” How snooty.)
If I had a bad case of HCM, the doc would have recommend I get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed, under the skin of my chest, right below my left collarbone. Then, if I ever got a dangerous arrhythmia, it would shock my heart back into shape. Like an internal version of those paddles you see on those medical TV shows, when the doc rubs them together and shouts “clear” and the patient’s body is shocked and spasms violently.
I have to go. I have to go to work. My latte is finito. The traffic on the highway should have cleared by now. I stand up and sense my heart, that thing that most people hardly ever think about.
It thrums a few extra beats beat and I feel woozy for just a second, and then it catches and goes back to normal. Or as regular as it’s going to get. And I appreciate that.
Here’s a Shakespeare sonnet that suddenly holds new meaning for me….
O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.
That is my home of love; if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.
# # #
Ah, Spring! Lovely warm, green, vibrant spring.
I’m very glad that the earth, as it always does, has swung back around and our hemisphere has begun to lean again toward the sun, bringing us the myriad lessons of rebirth.
And yes, a rebirth of riding, too, since I rode very little this winter. There were a few short bursts on the indoor trainer (while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix), but alas, the sound was poor and I couldn’t really hear the dialogue, and so never truly lost myself in the episodes. And riding in the basement without some sort of engaging—and audible—distraction was too much to bear.
I’m still pretty out of shape. I’m still recovering from a dizzying set of recent events—loads of work, ballet collaborations, readings and talks, finishing off a book, etc. All wonderful things, to be sure, but they were all very labor and energy intensive.
Which is to say that, as great as they were, they made it easy to neglect the physical avocation that keeps me sane, i.e. biking.
My buddy Ed and I are going to Moab next weekend, and I hope I can get my legs ready, without totally burning them out. And I hope my bike holds out, too, as it’s been wonky and creaky lately. (Time for a homemade, in-garage tune-up! One more thing I love to do, but it takes a lot of free time, since I am slow and not real great at it, and tend to drop small bolts and stuff, and then have to crawl around to find it among the dust and muck.)
But I can’t complain. Such is life. The renewal, and endless tasks, the beauty and wonder of it all. I’m a very lucky man, and I’m very grateful for everything I’ve got goin’ on.
Speaking of feeling grateful—Robert Lowell’s poem “Home After Three Months Away” perfectly captures that sense of falling back into one’s life after a long absence. In his case, the time was three months in a mental hospital recovering from a manic break.
My breaks are much milder, and not (so) literal. But the poem’s happiness at being present in one’s life rings very, very true. The faster life chugs past, the more you must—you must!—slow down. You must remain present in the moment, and stop thinking or worrying about tomorrow, or whatever it is that consumes your ability to be here.
Something I’ve been trying hard to do, so that my heart stays sane.
Here’s that poem by Lowell, followed by some images from a recent ride on a cold, gray day–and one from a sunny day, too.
Happy spring to you, and yours.
Home After Three Months Away
Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze–
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.
Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair–
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.
Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; no no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.
I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.
Time to climb.
That’s Ed. Or at least his legs. His really-in-shape-climb-a-wall legs.
It’s December, which means that it’s the time of the year where I totally feel like a fat, lazy, bland slob.
I’ve been eating too much chocolate, too many cookies. And not working out at all.
I’m reminded of my undergrad lit teacher, quoting Sloth, one of the seven deadly sins, in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: “Hey ho, I am Sloth.”
This line is supposed to be said in a lackadaisical manner, in the midst of a big sigh, and perhaps while lounging and eating chocolate. (Who brings this stuff into the house? It’s everywhere!) And perhaps, in contemporary fashion, while watching, on TV:
a. Survivor (Ah well, Tyson won. Snore.)
b. NHL Hockey (Hey ho, go Avs. Yawn.)
c. A nature show (The icecaps are melting? Ooh, that’s unfortunate.) Or maybe a car show. (Fixing up them old cars, how shiny are they? Takes a big bite of chocolate.)
‘Tis the season for human hibernation.
I guess I don’t like eating my way through the entire Hershey’s and Ghirardelli catalog, because this past week I joined Breathe Studio, which combines spin classes and yoga.
I took my first class on Thursday. Let me just say: I suck at yoga. I’m the worst yoga tryer in American history.
All the other limber folks were bending and folding like Gumby dolls, and me—well, let’s just say the my middle name isn’t Limber. It’s Joseph.
And let me just say: when I bend over the try to touch my toes, I get to a place just under my kneecaps, and that’s all I got.
But hey (ho)! At least I got some exercise in, and got those creaky joints to bend and flex to their rather limited, um, limits. I embraced my history of sloth, and began to beat it down(ward) like a (bad) dog.
At the end of the yoga session, lying flat on my back—in Savasana, I am told—I was breathing deep as light from Colfax Avenue flashed and slid across the ceiling in shards and circles, squares and trapezoids. The gold and silver bands filled me with a sense of ease and joy, and there was no slothfulness in me at all, anymore.
Here’s a lovely poem by Nate Klug that incorporates beauty and yoga—and a bicycle.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
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.
Across the wide waters
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,
the clouds of its wings,
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
Of course! the path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
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.
And a pic from later that day:
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.
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.
What do I want for Christmas?
That’s easy. World peace.
And then, I would really, really like a fatbike. One like this:
A few weeks ago, while I was shouldering my mud-clogged mountain bike over a particularly muddy section of trail, a dude came rolling by on one of these. It seemed as if he were floating on air. Man, it would be fun to ride through the winter, through the snow and crud and mud, on one of these.
Just saying the word is fun: fatbike. Saying the phrase is fun, too: I’d like a fatbike. (Dig the rhyme?)
Time to start saving my pennies, maybe for next Christmas.
Speaking of winter, and the recent (non-happening) apocalypse, here’s a short, classic poem by Robert Frost.
FIRE AND ICE
Some say the world will end in fire,Some say in ice.From what I’ve tasted of desireI hold with those who favor fire.But if it had to perish twice,I think I know enough of hateTo say that for destruction iceIs also greatAnd would suffice.
Have a happy, safe, and wonderfully warm Christmas, everyone. Even if you’re out in the cold, on your fatbike.