March 7, 2023 Comments Off on Frontiers
For some people, frontiers are borders, boundaries. For others, they are regions beyond the known.
In actuality, they are spaces inside your head that demarcate the new you fear and the old you know. The frontera that is a line in the sand, a river, a checkpoint, an airport, a harbor, a coastline, a drawing on a map, or a wall, marks off them from us, you from me. The frontier that is an unknown expanse, unpopulated and wild, separates what we seek from what we wish to leave behind. The civilization of experience from the chaos of experience.
Neither thing really exists, nor does either function as planned. The frontera, once crossed, is just as green as the grass you left. The them differs from the us in qualities that ultimately mean nothing.
The frontier defies exploration and population without employing the very norms and ideas you left behind. Truly, wherever you go, there you are.
But like a funhouse of mirrors that you know are mere warpings, you are compelled to go anyway.
Once upon a time isn’t now
March 6, 2023 Comments Off on Once upon a time isn’t now
Once upon a time I rode 220 miles in thirteen hours.
Once upon a time I rode 600 miles a week, every week.
Once upon a time I got a bronze medal in a 120-mile, elite state championship road race.
Once upon a time I smashed on the Flog Ride, every fucking Thursday morning for six years.
Once upon a time I rode up the coast to Canada and back to LA through the Cascades and Sierras in 82 days.
Once upon a time I did the FTR every year.
Once upon a time I never missed the Donut, the Holiday Ride, or NPR.
Once upon a time I trained with Fields and Marco Vermeij.
Once upon a time I climbed some of the toughest mountains in Japan every day before lunch.
Once upon a time I held Zdenek Stybar’s wheel most of the way up the Sa Calobra.
Once upon a time Kristie and I rode 138 miles with 40-lb. backpacks in a day, camped, and rode home.
Once upon a time I crossed Germany on a MTB-hybrid with nothing but a small knapsack.
Once upon a time I sat on Kristie’s wheel for 120 miles through the desert and Glamis to Blythe.
Once upon a time I rode in the dead of winter from LA to Houston to see my ailing father.
Two days ago I rode 19.1 miles with a loaded bike and was wrecked.
Yesterday I rode 37 miles on same loaded bike and felt pretty darned tired.
Today I rode another 37 miles and feel like I rode 100.
And you know what?
I’m good with that.
People are never thinking what you think they’re thinking
March 5, 2023 Comments Off on People are never thinking what you think they’re thinking
Today I was heading to San Clemente, but first I rode to Seal Beach for coffee and breakfast groceries. On the Main Street I found a place that looked inviting, so I changed my bike and entered. A very nice racing bike was leaning against the glass.
Inside the shop an avid recreational cyclist lounged in a chair, spread out like a warm breakfast. He was stuffed into his multicolored sausage costume, looking rather proudly, peacockish, at the mere mortals surrounding him. His face said, “I know you think I am amazing. I know you wish you could do this insanely hard sport that is way too grueling for you to comprehend. I know you wish you could wear this amazing costume.”
I glanced at the patrons. They didn’t seem to notice him at all.
And I thought about what people actually do think when confronted by an ARC. The first thing they think is, “Biking really hurts my ass. I hate it. Those cyclists must have terrible ass issues.”
Or they think, “That doesn’t look fun. What ugly clothes you have to wear!”
Or: “Gosh they look fat in those ridiculous things!”
Or, women: “Ick.”
Or, men: “That is tiny.”
What they never think is that cycling is a sport. Hard. Sufferfest. Grueling. And why should they? They only encounter its participants scarfing bagels, swilling lattes, and looking like it.
The ARC finished his 600-calorie breakfast drink, half of which he might burn on his ride. Then he swaggered out.
“They fucking love me.”
Take the wrong way home
March 4, 2023 Comments Off on Take the wrong way home
Leaving LA on a bicycle is always frightening, weird, eerie.
No matter where you’re leaving from, you contend with traffic. Lots of it. But more than that, you contend with the compression. Of people, spaces, buildings, air, and of course vehicles.
Heading south you go through the bike-unfriendliness of the South Bay and get spit out into the industrial pit of Wilmington and east Long Beach. Overloaded trucks pass within a foot or two, glass and road detritus is everywhere, the air stinks of methane, diesel exhaust, nameless poisons.
Through Long Beach proper the traffic is much kinder to bicycles, but it’s still dense and packed and ugly. Poor people mix with destitute people, and everyone mixes with the cops. The liquor stores on every block, the ratty building facades, and the heartlessness of urban America greets you with a jagged leer no matter where you look, as unavoidable as Uncle Sam’s finger in a recruiting poster.
But the farther you go, the less pressurized everything becomes until, without noticing it, you’ve left the density, almost as if you are being exhaled. You breathe easier. Your legs spin more freely. Every second no longer seems pregnant with danger. Before I knew it, I’d reached my destination for the night.
My motel on PCH was clean and the bed was soft. I turned on the heater and flopped down. After an hour I noticed the heater was just blowing cold air, so I called the front desk. “The heater isn’t working,” I said.
The lady was mad. “Did you turn it on?”
“Yes. That’s how I know it’s not working.”
“But did you turn it on where it says ‘heat’? Did you do that?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m calling. Because it doesn’t work.”
“Just a minute!” she said angrily, giving the phone to her husband.
“The heater isn’t working.”
“Did you turn it on?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m calling.”
“I’m not an air conditioner expert.”
“Neither am I. And it’s the heater.”
“I will come and look at it. But no guarantees.”
“I don’t need a guarantee. Just a heater. It’s freezing in here.”
“How it can be freezing in dere? It’s not freezing outside.”
“Well, I’m freezing.”
“It cannot be freezing. I will come look at it.”
After a few minutes there was a knock on my door. I let in an old man who was grumpy and wearing a huge down jacket. No wonder he wasn’t freezing. He fiddled with the knobs.
“Look,” he said angrily, “I cannot fix dis. I’m not a heater expert. All I can do,” he said as his anger mounted, “is give you another room. You want dat?” He said it as if I’d asked for a hundred billion bajillion dollars, or for a working heater.
“Sure. That would be great.”
“But the room is next door.”
“I’ll try to make it.”
“And one ting! If the heater doesn’t work it’s not my problem!”
“Why would I move to another room with a broken heater?”
“It’s not broken! I checked and it’s fine!”
“Get your tings!”
I did. The new room’s heater was going full blast, hot enough to smelt steel.
“You like dat? Dat good enough for you?”
“Yes. I think it’s going to be fine.”
He stomped off, then turned around. “If it breaks, not my problem!”
I nestled into the cozy covers and dreamed of pizza.
A little foray
November 9, 2022 Comments Off on A little foray
My trip to Mexico and parts south didn’t happen, but I did enjoy a marvelous 7-day pedal from the sierras down to LA and San Diego counties.
The first day was easy-hard, a 45-mile hilly pedal from Wofford Heights to Lake Isabella, then along the Kern River until the twisting, narrow, 13-mile descent through the canyon to the outskirts of Bakersfield. The hills are rolling and far from difficult, but the drop down the canyon is teeth-gritting as the road is extremely narrow with little to no passing room. Traffic was light and there were no close calls, so it went by beautifully.
Camping at Lake Ming was great. I got the best site in the campground, parked under a massive spreading tree that made my tent look like a speck. The campground was mostly empty and the sunset on the river shimmered and hung in the air for what seemed like hours. I sat on the river bank and marveled.
The next day, a 40-mile, utterly flat ride to Buena Vista Lake, was easy and relaxing and pleasant. My route followed the Bakersfield bike path such that I was on streets for less than ten minutes the entire day. The police have “cleaned up” the encampment of unhoused people along the dry riverbed. I got to watch a special police crew in a 4-wheeler harass and shake down an old man and woman, the last remnants of what had been a very big community. It’s so funny that the “cleaned up” river is still an empty waterway, drained by the insatiable thirst of the Central Valley as it cultivates items that man cannot live without, such as almonds, which take about 1.1 gallons of water to produce each nut. With 8% of California’s total agricultural water supply devoted to these life-sustaining nuts, it’s well worth it, and so much more important than living space for free people.
Lake Buena Vista was also mostly empty, a testament to the wisdom of traveling through the Central Valley on a weekday in late October, when temperatures are bearable and people are doing something else. My neighbors were a family living in their RV. The teenage son sat in a folding chair, bored beyond belief, playing with a remote-controlled car.
Day Three was going to be one of two character builders. At just around 40 miles it wasn’t long, but it was uphill all the way from Taft to Maricopa, and from there it was really uphill as you have to cross over from Kern into San Luis Obispo County, then slog the last four miles up a broken rode to Ballinger Canyon Campground. I was nearly out of water and a nice guy gave me a bottle as his buddy regaled me with the story of the time he and a gal rode their mountain bikes for fifteen miles and how it almost killed them. “I was better looking than you,” he added, setting the bar as low as humanly possible.
At the campground I fell in with a group of dirt bike riders, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met on any tour. They fed me, gave me plenty to drink, and offered up the warmth of their campfire while telling me a whole slew of stories and sharing some profound wisdom. One of the guys, the eldest, told me about estrangement from his son. “You can’t beat yourself up about it too much,” he said. “You have to accept that it’s their path, and it’s the one they’ve chosen. They can’t live your path. You can’t live theirs.”
I will remember those words a long time.
I will also remember the fresh tuna steaks. One of the guys had landed a 110-pound bluefin off the coast of San Diego a few days prior, and their cooler was filled with giant cuts of toro and maguro on ice. With a little black pepper and a dash of olive oil, the grill was soon sizzling with some of the best fish I’ve eaten in years. Although the party continued until late, I crawled into my sleeping bag around seven due to Character Building Day Two, which was the ride from Ballinger Canyon to Ojai.
Not too long, at 60 miles it was all uphill the first 20 miles, after which it was extremely uphill for about six, and then downhill with rollers all the way to the 10-mile descent, which I cut short at Wheeler Gorge Campground. I’d had to don long wool pants and a heavy jacket as rain and cold had set in with a vengeance. At the entrance a guy in a lawn chair, camp host John, was sitting next to a blazing fire. “Could I borrow your warmth for a minute?” I asked.
“Sure!” he said, taking in my appearance. “Would you also like a hot cup of coffee?”
I nodded mutely, drained from the ride and the wet and cold, and he vanished into his RV, returning with a piping hot cup and ushering me into one of the empty chairs. I stayed with him and his wife for most of the night, talking and laughing around the fire, until they finally gave up and invited to a marvelous dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables. The proverbial kindness of strangers is far from proverbial, at least in my experience.
The next morning John insisted on driving me to town for donuts, and I agreed because 1) downhill so not really cheating and 2) donuts. Topped off with sugar, fat, and hot coffee, we said our goodbyes and I continued on to Ventura and then to my campground on PCH at Leo Carillo State Park. The next day was Sunday, which coincided with Phil’s Cookie Fondo, so there was a continual stream of riders for much of the pedal down PCH. After taking a long break in Long Beach to see my grandkids I headed south, intending to meander as far south as I could, but heavy rain and bad weather forecasts left me sodden and bereft of the kind of motivation you need to tackle something like that.
Instead of doing the obvious, which would have been to persevere, I threw up my hands and declared defeat, secretly glad at having an excuse to turn around and head back to LA, the roof, and the warm bed that awaited. In retrospect, I’d been more or less constantly on the move for almost two-and-a-half years, working remotely and very remotely and sometimes super remotely. I’m not one for stasis, but a dash of stability might be in order. My divorce has been final for months, and although traveling solo is one thing, being alone is something else entirely.
The alarm rang and I didn’t hit snooze. Back to life.
September 30, 2022 Comments Off on Travel prep
I have a couple of things to get before I leave. One is footwear. My current hiking shoes have mostly fallen apart, and the road to Antarctica is going to be a long one. The other thing I need is an auxiliary battery for my phone. The one Tom Duong gave me in 2020 on my way to Canada finally rolled over and cried “Uncle!” so I’m getting a new one.
Aside from those two things, a grand total of $274, I pretty much have everything I need. The only thing I’m struggling with is whether or not to take my heavy wool pants. I have a pair of fancy hiking-biking-restaurant trousers with lots of pockets and stuff, but they are made of plastic and I’m afraid that in the Andes they aren’t going to do that well. Wool never lets you down, but it’s heavy. Taking two pairs of pants seems excessive.
But in fact the real travel prep isn’t things, it’s between the ears.
I’ve been told I’m crazy, I’m just a character in a weird comic strip that I’m writing for myself. It isn’t real, that I’m literally becoming Don Quixote, that I’m casually tossing out a melodramatic scenario to cover up the pain and sorrow and self-inflicted tragedy of my life, but I remind myself that if it’s self-inflicted, it’s never tragedy, Hamlet notwithstanding.
Of course it seems to me that everyone has their own comic strip and tries to write themselves into it. Most people do it with #socmed nowadays, but everyone, crazy or not, creates an image and tries to mold their life so that it fits. The alternative is having an inner self already molded, and forcing the world to conform. I’m not sure that works, if only because the universe is random and DOES NOT CARE ABOUT YOU AT ALL. So forcing it to conform is kind of like trying to get into those pants from 1997. Ain’t happenin’.
God-believing people will disagree and say that Jesus has a Plan, but idgaf. As Chris Lotts used to say, I don’t care about your invisible friend.
The core travel prep for something like this is believing that you’re leaving and not coming back, at least not anytime soon. Images of well-seasoned frying pans, sharpened kitchen knives, happy cats, breakfast on the porch supervising a sunrise over the southern Sierra, and small oaks sprouting from acorns, these are all things to which you have to say adieu.
And it is hard.
Turn left for Antarctica
September 29, 2022 Comments Off on Turn left for Antarctica
The other day I was wondering if there were any convenience stores in Antarctica. Because if there are, it would sure make a bike ride to the South Pole easier. I also wondered if maybe they had built a bridge from Argentina or New Zealand, which would also greatly increase accessibility.
Turns out there is neither, which put a temporary damper on my plans.
And there are lots more hurdles to overcome, such as -136 degree weather, and of course the $80,000 price tag of getting squired all the way to the South Pole on skis while pulling a 160-lb. sled. Even a simple cruise for a few days to set foot on the ice continent will set you back $10k or more.
As tough as all that sounds, there’s an even bigger obstacle, which is getting to Bakersfield.
Bakersfield is the first place I’ll have to stop on my trip out of Kern County. I’ve tried all the different ways to the coast and there are no easy ones from here. They say the hardest step on any trip is the first one, and it’s true. To get to Bakersfield I have to take a winding canyon road that follows the Kern River, then take the main canyon road a final thirteen miles, two narrow lanes that absolutely do not have room for a bicycle.
So you have to pull onto the tiny 1-foot strip to the right of the fog line to let trucks and cars pass, then hop back into the lane before crashing, while making sure that you’re not also hopping in front of a car that’s barreling down behind you. If only there was an invention that could be attached to a helmet or handlebar that would let you see what’s happening behind you.
And before even getting to Bakersfield you have to consider the Bad Idea Fairy Theorem, i.e., is this simply another mad idea that struck me late at night, a manifestation of crazy that under the bright light of midday will be revealed as a super terrible idea that should be disposed of immediately? Seems so, but it’s pretty bright outside and the idea hasn’t dissipated. I mean, lots of people have been to Antarctica before. It’s actually a trendy destination. So what if I get most of the way there on a bike instead of on a plane?
I know, I know. Bakersfield.
Home is where the hearth is
September 12, 2022 Comments Off on Home is where the hearth is
Every bike ride comes to an end, some with the glory of a supernova, some with the faded tiresomeness of an aged British monarch, but most with with some mixture of accomplishment and relief, as this one did. It’s always easy to say where you went. Why is it so hard to say where you arrived?
I arrived home, which is anomalous for me. I’ve been homeless since I was a kid with periods of homefulness, and I expect I’ll be homeless again. We all will.
The first thing I did this morning was joyously walk and then do 1-minute sprints in my bare feet. Riding a bike is most excellent, but the sweat inside the socks gradually abrades my hard-earned calluses even though my first act after each day’s ride was to cast aside all footwear and spend my time at camp shoeless. Feet are exquisitely innervated, and a good long walk-jog on a dirt road fires up your neurons like nothing else.
One thing I meditated on was home. What is it?
Home is, foremost, a place infused with love. When you come home, you come to love. Sometimes it’s the love of a person and sometimes simply the love of your cat. In either case, you and another being share a quantum entanglement that merges core parts of your matter. “Is that love?” you may ask, and I’d simply reply with Louis Armstrong’s riposte when he was asked to define jazz. “If you have to ask the question, you ain’t never gonna understand the answer.”
Home is a place of security. Not safety exactly, but security. It is a wall, a roof, an arbor, or a ring of stones that demarcate “here” from “there” and that enfold you, even if it can be easily stepped over or it opens up on the sky. Security is far removed from protection, surveillance, and defense. Security is belonging. Security is the inanimate object’s proxy for love, it is the quantum entanglement between people and the things that demarcate the physical space to which they belong. The emblem of security is not a weapon but the hearth signaling warmth and welcome, its fire reminding you of the hearth’s deep roots in humanity, light against the darkness.
Home is a place of peace. It is almost impossible to have a home with a television, for example, because it’s always several televisions, and because the television is an implement of noise, conflict, and distraction. Peace doesn’t have to mean quiet, though. A home filled with the noise of children is often the most peaceful sound of all. And peace doesn’t mean you never fight. It means that all fights lead to peace, that no feuds simmer, that all passions are eventually overmastered by calm.
Home is always transitory. Some homes, through death or misfortune, eventually lose their love. Some their security. Some their peace. Some become mausoleums, filled with the dead relics of lives you once lived. This doesn’t mean that home is dead, simply that it’s time to move on to the next one.
In any event, when you arrive home, you know it. And if you don’t, the soft cry of the cat and the gentle press of his long, black fur will drive the fact … home.
September 9, 2022 Comments Off on Redneck ‘Rithmetic
Some things, make that most things, you only get to see if you leave the couch, walk out the door, and amble down the road.
I was never good at math, but this bit of addition was pretty far out there, even for me. And it got me to thinking that really the best thing you can do with numbers is just add ’em up. They’re abstractions anyway.
I was told you can’t add apples and oranges, but of course you can. Haven’t you ever seen a blender?
September 6, 2022 Comments Off on Lake Hume-iliation
National parks are funny places. Unlike state parks or USFS campgrounds, people really make sure to have their best car fashion and outdoor costume when they show up, especially when it’s a big name brand park like Sequoia or Yosemite. Four-wheel drives with extra gas cans, a huge jack, and a shovel for digging out of the Sahara are ubiquitous because you never know when you’ll need the extra torque and traction on these finely manicured roads, or when you’ll have to dig out from your immaculately maintained camp site.
Likewise, national parks are not the place for clothing that looks like it has ever been worn, much less sweated in. As with the car costume, the outdoor costume achieves its effect by looking prepared for crazy hard physical activity, not for actual use during crazy hard physical activity.
The customers here at Sequoia National Park are presumably more outdoorsy and active than the population at large, but that presumption seems demonstrably false. Customers here are fat, barely mobile, and concentrated almost exclusively on sitting, driving, shopping, eating, and alcohols.
In the four days since entering the park I have seen exactly one cyclist, a local ARC riding out of Three Rivers doing the climb to Lodgepole. Despite many cars with bikes strapped to the back, again, giving off the appearance that hard core riding was in the offing, not a single bicycle have I seen up here with a rider atop it.
What this has meant is that on Labor Day weekend, the busiest weekend of the year, the gift shop, cafe, and convenience store have been madhouses and the campgrounds have been full, but the trails and roads eerily quiet. I took the opportunity to explore yesterday and rode down to Hume Lake. Since I don’t have anywhere to stash my stuff I rode with full pack and fully loaded bike. It’s about a thirty mile loop and it took just over 3.5 hours. The last eleven miles were a significant climb back up to Quail Flat. By the top I’d been humbled once more by the harsh ascents here in the park.
That evening I found a closed forest service road and followed it to where it forked; the left branch was an abandoned road blocked with logs and stones and dense brush. This looked like the path to the perfect camp spot, so I navigated the obstacle course and found myself on a gently sloping road covered with a soft bed of pine needles. It seemed cozy, but I noticed that its appeal wasn’t limited to cyclists-errant. A large pile of very fresh bear shit attested to the seclusion of the place. A hundred feet up there was another, larger, wetter pile, so I set up camp in between the poops, ate dinner, and stretched out to watch the sunset.
And magnificent it was. If you can stand the annoyance of the gnats and the ants, sleeping without a tent is so nice. The sun put on the most amazing show, making me think of Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River school of painters in the late 1800’s. They were critically not well received, especially those like Bierstadt and Moran, who painted many of the iconic California landscapes, because their colors were overwrought and fake; sunsets don’t really look that way.
But lying on my mat in the dirt I realized how wrong the critics were. The colors used by Bierstadt were exactly the colors beneath the sequoias, so intense, so vivid, so cruelly saturated that if you didn’t see it with your own eyes you’d never believe it. I captured the little that I could on my phone and went fitfully to sleep, every snap and crackle waking me in anticipation of Br’er Bear.
No such thing happened though. My only guest was moonrise and the giant white face through the firs and pines, company enough.