Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)

 

Bishop, 5/27–5/30

I went all the way to the Eastside, didn’t climb, and didn’t especially regret it.

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Between Mammoth and Bishop and heaven and Earth.

I think you can categorize people as motivated either by accomplishment or exploration, mastery or novelty. I’m the latter type, I know. I attribute this either to some higher wisdom—for what are our accomplishments, ultimately, in the grand scheme of the cosmos?—or to a colossal character flaw: that I simply lack the work ethic required to get good at anything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But also, I once read an article about how new experiences counter the effects of aging. I read it well past its logical conclusion and into a belief that if I can just keep doing and seeing new things I will live forever.

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This is stolen from pro photog Andrew Burton‘s Instagram.”Reverse camel toe,” commented someone, immediately. Well, yes, but who’s the asshole?

In any case: climbing held my attention the first time I was learning. But just like my lost love for cyclocross, it seems something happened to my stoke while I was out gimping. And the prospect of repeating kindergarten—weekend after weekend of waiting in line to tremble and sweat up baby trad routes everyone else wants to solo, all the stress of my first campaign for competence with none of the mystery—I can’t get excited about it. 

What can I get excited about? Well …

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That’s the Bishop Mule Days parade. Specifically, it’s the National Park Service mule train packing park equity propaganda, a sight that—and granted, I was tired and it was very bright—literally brought tears to my eyes.

After recovering from this apparently poignant display of Americana (…) I followed a boulderer to the Happies, where instead of bouldering I crawled around looking at petroglyphs (see ass-shot, above) and caterpillars (see draft of my new children’s book). In retrospect a good steward would not have touched either one of these things, but there was thunder in the distance and the remnants of a river running below and I got carried away, had to get close.

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I camped one night with two friends headed into the Inyo to summit Mt. Sill. While rehearsing my pitch to be included on their next expedition, I discovered I couldn’t even lift their packs to move them out of the rain—never mind carry one to 14,000 feet. Hiking solo the next day, I got so nervous about the occasional snowfields that I took to walking with a rock in one hand to use as an ice axe if I slipped.

So for all I might want my next bit of exploration to be actual mountaineering, I must concede I am a long way from that Freedom of Hills™.

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Like cake through the store window.

I ended the trip with quick run down Rock Creek, which is fast and fun but needs an uphill trail to feel like a ride (mountain bike) rather than a ride (Disneyland). Looking for more, I asked an armored-up girl in the parking area about another trail that disappeared behind the cars.

“Oh,” she said, “that doesn’t go anywhere.”

She must have been a mastery person, though, because while it wasn’t much of a ride it was something to see.

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Tucson 1/16–1/20

Friday: An e-mail prompts me to check in for my flight. I figure I should at least decide where I’m headed once I land, so I make some preliminary inquiries.

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Ok, Google, now … what?

Saturday: From Phoenix I drive to Tucson Mountain Park, no mention of murder or traffickers. Despite the name, I’m so committed to my idea of the region as flat that I’m caught off-guard after nightfall by a road that to me feels reminiscent of Old Priest, a situation rendered more stressful by the fact that I can’t locate my headlights.

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Via Reddit. If you’re a normal, functional adult and have forgotten what it’s like to be a new driver: yes, this.

Sunday: Within minutes of starting my ride, I lose the 50-Year Loop on a side-trail that deposits me in a dry riverbed full of startled cattle. As I’m pushing my bike up out of the gully I slip and fall on my ass straight into a bed of cholla cactus. By adopting a Kardashian squat and craning my neck I confirm that my rear end is bristling like a toothbrush with translucent spines. I spend 45 minutes picking them out with my fingernails, furtive and bare-assed on the side of the trail, then ride back to the car, standing, for a new pair of shorts. Needless to say, my enthusiasm for take two is … tempered.

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NONE SHALL PASS

I camp at a state park that’s hosting a church jamboree. Their drums and songs echo in the valley, and the mountains are a shadow on the night.

Monday: It’s Martin Luther King Day, so I pack up my iced-over tent before dawn for a “Day of Service” at Saguaro National Park. Said service is roadside trash pickup, which only reinforces my sanctimonious stereotypes of smokers and people who eat Carl’s Jr. The volunteer group is largely silent; I get bored and then reflexively competitive, maneuvering cagily in a slow-race toward the most impressive pieces of garbage. MLK I am not.

In the afternoon I ride under a yellow haze at Fantasy Island, which is an island in that it’s surrounded by strip malls and a fantasy in the same sense as Mad Max. The trails are tight, flat, and disorienting; the cactus and mesquite is scattered with hubcap artwork, discarded machinery, and garden gnomes. It is an especially peculiar place to ride alone.

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How they do it where you from?

When the KOA turns me down I head for “Adventure Bound Camping,” which sounds promising but turns out to be a snowbird settlement of RVs with AstroTurf lawns and a lot of passive-aggressive signage. I am the youngest and brownest thing on the premises; I pretend I’m refueling at an alien colony on a Star Wars planet and this helps me sleep.

Tuesday: I return my rental bike and head up Mt. Lemmon, which I’ve been imagining as another Old Priest with the addition of black ice and hundreds of hostile cyclists. It is of course not that bad, and the campground, after the desert, is Shangri-La: golden crags and oaks and brooks, where I should have been all along.

I start up the Arizona Trail and immediately want my bike back. To avoid a bitter out-and-back hike I peel off for the ridgeline. There’s enough snow for me to fall yet again into a cactus (stiff, black thorns this time, dark blood beading on my palms), but the view, when I get it, is a worthwhile and wonderful surprise.

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I saw tracks in the snow on the other side, but no bighorn. Someday.

I spend the evening with some friendly randos off MountainProject: one weekend warrior, two #vanlifers, and an engineering student from Iran who offers up slices of various mystery fruit she can name only in Farsi. Having spent three days in near silence I am now babbling manically; despite this they still invite me climbing. But of course I’m going home.

Wednesday: Return ticket and my birthday. I’m entering the final year in which polite society will forgive my being an idiot, so on the plane I review what I’ve learned. A little more research, a little less winging it. Carry tweezers, sweet Jesus. Always seek high ground.

August, etc.

The compulsive weekend recapping has suffered badly in the past few months from my Monday-Friday. Some remedial study:

Desolation Wilderness, 8/1–8/2

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This is where I go for perspective.

We encounter three stoked bros hiking with what appears to be a baby Bisson Friche. It’s puttering gamely along with its paws encased in duct tape. “She’s great!” the first guy tells us, beaming. “She’s totally doing it!”

We set up camp on the slabs and make tiramisu from instant custard and a packet of biscuits. We’re licking the chocolate from the pie tins as the sky bleeds sunset onto the surface of the lake. All this for barely five miles’ walk! My guilt is overridden by joy for being back in the mountains, possible on my busted foot only because the rest of the group carried all that food. I could kiss them, I think, I’m so grateful; I could kiss the ground. When no one’s watching I put my lips to the granite.

Taller types at sunset.

Tahoe, 8/228/23

Technically I met Matt and Cora on Craigslist, when they bought my first motorcycle—completely inoperable at the time. We’ve never mountain biked together before, so I have to appreciate that they’re willing to gamble on my word again in revising the trip itinerary from lakeside beers to several hours of climbing, no engine.

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An older friend.

“I promise it ran fine before it was broken,” I said then, of the crippled Ninja. Of the trail now I’m making similarly dubious assertions. “It’s pretty terrible, to be honest. But trust me, it’s going to be great!”

Tuolumne, 8/298/30

This trip is an experiment to see if my foot works well enough to climb outside. It doesn’t, and so instead I walk a long way in order to recall, with the proper respect, that not so long ago I couldn’t manage even that.

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Giddy Muir quote here.

When I see Ragged Peak I have to have it, yield to a covetous impulse I might direct to shoes or handbags if I had the budget. The ridgeline is striking but low and I can approach on scree, roll rather than snap if I fall. I’ve also got a clear line of sight and a GPS signal, but feel unreasonably anxious off-trail alone and can’t stop looking over my shoulder. At the top I’m dizzy at the long drop down to the glittering lakes and unnerved by the keen and moan of the wind. I consider and think better of the summit blocks, am dismayed to realize, then, that in fact the when and why and worth of risk is my sole preoccupation—that this calculus is constant whether I climb or not.

Trinity Alps, 9/59/6

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Another trick of perspective and the dregs of Trinity “Lake.”

Related: in Weaverville I reject a campground as too meth-y. It’s hit or miss this far north, all Jefferson Free State stickers and 14-day stay limits. I try not to be fussy about it, but the gaunt couple whose black and bottomless eyes catch mine as we circle the dim woods are too much. They’re leaning motionless on the crooked grille or hungry maw of a terrifying old Dodge Charger with its windows blown out. “I can’t,” I announce. I have betrayed an uncool suburban weakness, but we move on.

In a friendlier location later that night, I watch the stars and then the fire. There’s a glass bottle resting on the side of the pit, reflecting two crisp miniatures of the wavering flame. They are mirror images of each other, and as the real light flares and fades they seem like a pair of dancers to back and advance on each other across a darkened stage. I attempt to explain this and am met with a long silence. One of the boys is asleep. “I think I get you now,” says the other, eventually. “You never do drugs because you’re always stoned.”

Downieville, 6/13-6/14

I spent my first weekend out of The Boot in Downieville, sans vélo, but still rapid-cycling—between Muir-grade rapture at being back in the mountains and frustration at being hobbled. Per usual, I’ll choose to blame the attitude on altitude: eight months at sea level has erased either my tolerance for the thin air or my memory of the fact that I never had any to start with. Woe!

Lucky for me, I had two very patient hiking buddies …

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Marisa probably a bit more so than Beau.

There’s also plenty to see in Downieville outside the usual program of shuttle-ride-river-repeat. Saturday I limped up to the excellent Sierra Buttes fire lookout, and it felt like the top of the world. Sunday Marisa drove some silly sort of mileage on Forest Service roads in search of the “other” Devil’s Postpile, which bore an interesting resemblance to the iron throne. Altogether, it was a good reminder that what I miss isn’t mountain biking, or climbing, or backpacking, or any of the other big-ticket items still several months out: it’s exploring—and if I were to quit whining for five minutes, I could probably come up with some other ways to do that.

The bedframe at the edge of the world.
Into this caption I will sneak the information that the Sierra Buttes are a Trust for Public Land Project. HOLLER.

I would also like to state for the record that on this trip a fish fell from the sky and exploded on Jack’s car. At least, that was theory we’d settled on by Sunday afternoon; on the freeway Saturday morning speculation as to the source of the impressive thud ranged from “BIKES!!” to “bird?”—with a brief, optimistic interlude of “somebody’s smoothie” before the scientist on staff confirmed the presence of, uh, tissue matter in the slime spattered across the roof. Unsurprisingly, my contribution to the cleanup effort was to take pictures and put them on the Internet to gross you out. You’re welcome!

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Clockwise from left—Jack: “NOOOOOOO”; fish guts; third car wash is the charm/only one with a pressure washer.