2020: Before times

January 

I’ve outgrown my old New Year’s Yosemite trip—or rather, it outgrew me—but I still like to watch the sun rise on a clean slate. 

Even having left home at 4 a.m. and climbed without stopping, I’m only just turning the key in my bike lock when the first other people show up at the summit of Mt. Tam. They are an older couple, possibly with a head start from the West Point Inn. As we all cross the dark lot toward the start of the trail that leads to fire lookout, I think I hear the woman suggest that they let me go ahead.

Whether I imagine this or not, it’s the excuse I need to speed-walk ahead and, once I make the first turn out of sight, start a breathless, clumsy sprint to the top. I’m stumbling over the stone staircase in my cleats and the weak glow of a bad headlamp, sweating into the chill, but I make it: I see the sun edge over the horizon, watch it wash light into the water for eight crystalline minutes in perfect solitude.

In my head I thank the sun. I thank the mountain. I thank my bike and my wobbly knee. I thank the woman from the parking lot, several times. 

The crowds arrive and thicken behind me with the morning until the sky is bright and the base of the lookout hums with happy chatter. Having already gotten what I came for I’m unbothered, clasping a thermos on top of a boulder, when a man appears below and directly in front of me.

He’s wearing $500 Arc’teryx and a poorly knit cap with bears’ ears, the sort of thing you’d put on a baby. Like any quirky sartorial choice by a conventionally attractive person, I hate this hat and by extension this man, who is now beaming up at me with eyes sparkling out of a weathered face. “Lovely morning! Happy new year! Are you having a good day?” 

“Uh huh.” I stare straight ahead and past him. I want to kick his teeth in, and from this unnecessarily small distance probably could. 

“Can you guess what all this white stuff is?” He’s gesturing at the rocks where he stands beneath me, but I’m not looking, only wondering: What the fuck? What compels them? What animates a man to step off the trail, pick his way slowly across the slope through a mat of chaparral, and stand right here rather than anywhere else for a hundred yards? What about me—sitting alone and apart from a crowd drinking tea in a duct-tape-patched parka—suggests that I want to talk to him?

Nothing, John Cheever reminds me; it’s not about me. I must forgive them—these tall, old, white, wealthy, handsome men—it’s simply that no one has ever suggested anything else. 

He had never before felt unwanted. It had never been said. He had been wanted as a baby, wanted as a young man, wanted as a lover, a husband and father, wanted as a scriptwriter, a raconteur and companion. He had, if anything, been wanted excessively, and his only worry had been to spare himself, to spread his sought-after charms with prudence and discretion, so that they would do the most good. He had been wanted for golf, for tennis, for bridge, for charades, for cocktails, for boards of management—and yet this ancient wall addressed him as if he were a pariah, a nameless beggar, an outcast. He was deeply wounded.

“Ashes,” the man announces, knowingly. “People come here to spread ashes. It’s not allowed but they do it anyway. Now you know!”

In this moment I see the crux very clearly. This is what it will be about now, this year and every year until I am dust myself—an arms race against my own waning energy to get up earlier, drive farther, search longer, try harder to find space. The world closes in and I will need to do more and more ridiculous things to get away.

Little do I know!

February 

I do not look forward to anything. I consider it dangerous. Nobody taught me this, nothing happened, but it’s the way I’m wired—to believe anticipation tempts the gods. Even absent force majeure, our earthly bodies fail in the face of even the surest thing.

But when five of my friends agree to take a week-long mountain bike trip with me in the summer, I can’t help it: I’m excited. I put it on my calendar with only a fingers-crossed emoji to mitigate the exclamation point. This, I dare think for a moment, is going to be good.

March

We’re driving to the South Bay, three of us in one car—the idea of it now—debating the new plague. Jacob is worried, but Jacob is always worried. I say, I distinctly remember: “I don’t see how it’s any different than flu.”

Later I will forgive myself this declaration and further argue that although my friend was right, he was right for no good reason, whereas I was wrong correctly, given all the information I or any average citizen had at the time. I see your eyes roll, and I stand by myself, but also I remember the morning of 9/11—

—sophomore year chemistry, lesson plan abandoned. Kids are hugging with their sweatshirt hoods tied closed, boys grandiosely consoling girls. “Why are they crying?” I hiss. “This stuff happens all the time.”

“Not here,” someone wails back at me, and of course she’s completely and profoundly correct without either of us knowing it. It will be decades before I fully grasp that the difference between what may go on here and there is what makes the whole world.

Four days later the big companies have already shuttered, but Sean and I are still due in at work. Our offices in Oakland will be among the last to close. We ride in together, take a long detour through the park, and have a sense it may be the last time for a long while.

Winter miscellany, December–March

Yosemite

This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.

I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.

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Santa Barbara

There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.

In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.

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* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land

Angel Island

It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.

It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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home counties and otherworlds

This summer and fall I managed to spend nearly sixteen consecutive weekends out of town. This was glorious and as close to living as I think you can get with a desk job, but there were some pretty predictable effects on my bank balance—not to mention the people in my life whose idea of a good time is anything other than driving all night in order to sleep on the ground.

Point being, it probably would have been about time to stay local even if it hadn’t finally started raining. So I’m grateful, as always, that home’s so often as beautiful as away.

Russian Ridge
Russian Ridge, 11/28

On the peninsula for Thanksgiving I took the Montanan through my stations of the cross: Page Mill, Montebello, Russian Ridge, Rosotti’s. That his bike was broken and mine wasn’t probably contributed to a slight enthusiasm differential (“Do you see it? That’s the ocean! You’re not even looking! Are you sure? Isn’t it great?”)—but it probably made a nice change from the usual iteration of that problem.

alhambra
Alhambra Valley Road, 12/6

This is one of my favorite little stretches of East Bay backroad (a relationship I’ve apparently been rather less shy about in the past). Winter being Bay Area spring, it’s currently a cow nursery.

Sunol Regional Wilderness
Sunol Regional Wilderness, 12/14

Finally made it out here to investigate “Little Yosemite,” a tumbledown portion of Calaveras Creek. On my insistence we half-waded, half-scrambled up the slick serpentine until it started to get sketchy as the full-sized version. (For me, at least. Kwang I hear is pretty good at bouldering.)

Out of the gorge and in place of the glowing, morning mist the hills blazed with fantasy-world brightness. I looked down on the valley floor—the carved-out banks and presiding oaks—and realized why: it’s been years since I’ve seen water flowing anywhere but the mountains. The way it looks here, the diamond glint of the stream in the green of new grass, belongs to a landscape so much more often remembered than seen that it has taken on the color of a story.

Muir Beach
Muir Beach, 12/20

After miles of fractious traffic on either end of the bridge, Jacob and I rode into a grand surprise: Highway 1 closed to cars above Stinson Beach, for a slide or rockfall or something—who cares! It meant a two-lane descent in near-unbroken speed and silence. Only the roar of the waves somewhere below the guardrails, just the hiss of wet pavement and the wind in my ears.

a thank-you card

… to EBRPD. I had an unexpected free Sunday in town and used it for wandering white washboard fire-road with my neglected cross bike. This is my tenth year in Berkeley (!), I spend the vast majority of my free time outside, and I’d still never seen Lake Chabot—how is that possible? And all these butterflies around my knees, in earshot of a gun range! How excellent, to have the acreage for surprises still.

And even the places I’ve been a hundred times—

Inspiration Point, not for nothing.
Inspiration Point, not for nothing.

—thank you, thank you.

some sensory experiments

In June, spent mostly close to home, I considered something I suspect that only we know: the smell of dust in fog.

Pogonip, Santa Cruz

I do not know the words or word for this—but there’s one that’s almost right and good to have:

Petrichor (/ˈpɛtrɨkɔər/) is the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain. Constructed from Greek, petros, meaning ‘”stone,” and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

(Did you catch that? The veins of the gods, I tell you!)

In middle school I read All Summer in a Day, that wretched story about a place where it pours for years at a time. As with a lot of Bradbury (or perhaps a lot of what I read in middle school) I remember little of the writing or the plot but everything of the anxiety, the clammy palms. It is the seminal work on FOMO.

But this is the West, not Venus. Here it will rain rarely and exclusively when you don’t want it to—in my case, lately, when I want to climb things that cannot be climbed wet. But the consolation that day was to doze belly-down on the warm rock riverside, on granite polished pale pink and glassy smooth, to hear nothing but the loud, mad river, to weigh raindrops ending long falls on my spine. It might have been the strangest thing I’ve ever felt.

vollmerpeak
Vollmer Peak, Berkeley

local advisory

Not so far from Berkeley it’s spring and also approximately 1860, some lost year of the land-grant ranchos. You can get there on BART, it turns out; by cheating in this fashion (after five years of dismissing the full route as too long) I finally visited “the morning side of the mountain.” There I found many idle ponies and a flying, ten-minute descent through the old homestead of Mr. Jeremiah Morgan, for whom all this acreage once supported 16 children and a bear-hunting operation. It’s fantastic ocean swells of green to the horizon. It’s yours now, if you like.

The next day I walked a purposeless circle in Briones, which looks like this:

Briones Regional Park
Mt. Diablo (evening side) in the distance.

The creek beds are dry but you can feel the damp breath of the new grass around your ankles. Absurd, cobalt butterflies the size of your face. A warm wind, and red-tails on it. Go if you can.

20 stops in 60 miles

Ridiculous to fuss over being “stuck in town” for the weekend when “stuck in town” can look like this.

McEwen Road the easy way. (Downhill.)
OK, possibly I let Instagram up the contrast a little bit.

It just takes a little legwork, I guess—something that this weekend I mitigated with stops for:

  1. Two emus!
  2. An interesting gate with initials on it, a very green field.
  3. Elementary-school artwork. (Quotable: “If Thing 1 and Thing 2 came to my house, I would … KICK THEM OUT.”)
  4. Mount Wanda, part of the John Muir National Historic Site. “My life these days is like the life of a glacier: one eternal grind,” he said. “Soon I’ll throw down my pen and take up my heels and go mountaineering once more.”
  5. A list of wildflowers. These include “prostrate pigweed” (????) and poison oak.
  6. Killer view of Mt. Diablo and the waterfront. Related, discussion with another rider about the likelihood of being shot by the neighboring rancher should I venture onto singletrack in order to improve it slightly.
  7. Railroad tracks. I sat and waited on a little signal tower but nothing came by; I would have been deafened or arrested if it had so this was probably just as well.
  8. Part of a bathtub on the side of the road, very Marcel Duchamp.
  9. A large puddle that at one angle looked like the radiant, crystalline reflection of the glory of heaven and at another like, you know, mud.
  10. Flowers.
  11. Cows.
  12. A house with ceramic gargoyles along the fence. And a rocket ship!
  13. The Crockett Veteran’s Memorial. Did you know this was built by C&H Sugar? Well, now you do.
  14. The Valona Deli, for coffee and the best gingersnap cookie I’ve ever had. The bathroom is down a narrow, sloping hallway into the basement. Below it is a boarded-up tunnel that I choose to assume was once used for deliveries to rum-runners and/or pirates.
  15. Vista point for the Carquinez Bridge, a.k.a. the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge. Al Zampa was an ironworker who survived a fall off the Golden Gate Bridge and founded the Halfway to Hell Club. FYI.
  16. The Conoco Philips and Air Liquide refineries—lest anyone think it’s nothing but poppies and pastorals up here.
  17. Dead-end trail to a picnic table overlooking the shoreline in Rodeo. “WEED,” declared the graffiti.
  18. Freight train passing underneath San Pablo Dam Road. I played out some gutterpunk scenarios in my head and left them there.
  19. A gas station, to consult a map. It turns out that Google’s ostensibly strange suggestion to deviate from the supposed 1-80 “Bikeway” is because some portions of it may actually get you killed.
  20. Burrito.

In the past I’ve proclaimed an aversion to bike touring on the grounds that it’s “too slow.” But it appears my cycling interests have drifted away from getting up at five in the morning to ride intervals in the rain and toward reading placards and eating pastries. So it might be time to reconsider. Where to?

first assembly of the open sky

I don’t go to church, but I do go to Indian Rock.

Indian Rock, Berkeley
One such congregation.

On clear evenings, people come here to watch the day end. The ratio of toddlers to stoners is close even by Berkeley standards; nobody minds and everyone’s civil. As the sun slips and the bay goes glassy, you sit on the worn granite and watch the lights start to sparkle in the Port of Oakland. There will be several languages spoken, there will be a newborn, there will be a girl on someone’s arm, pretending to be cold, there will be similarly dressed friends eating Brie, there will be an old man helping his wife down the steps. One dog on the rock will bark at another in a tangled garden below. You’ll feel for a moment, as you would in any other church, that we’re very small and all in it together.

D(r)ownieville turned Briones

YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER

ONE: A 40% chance of rain in the mountains could mean many things, possibly, but one thing for sure: stake your fly.

Sean, unperturbed, scrambles eggs.

So I woke on Saturday to a small lake inside my tent, a continuing downpour outside of it, and total certainty that I wasn’t going to ride. I’m really just not into wet rocks. And I’ve got nothing to prove, right?

“It would suck to go home having not done anything,” Ryan said, pulling on a pair of swim trunks over his kit. “RRRGHHHHHHHHHFIIIIINE,” I replied.

TWO: I am neither an 80-pound roadie famine-child nor an 180-pound downhill meathead, and if I ride with my front suspension set up for one of those characters and the rear suspension set up for the other, the bike will feel drunk. I can dismiss this effect as the inevitable result of my poor handling skills (my approach to the issue all summer), or I can give the poor thing five minutes alone with a qualified mechanic and then freakin’ float down Third Divide in the throes of hero dirt with delusions of gnar and the soundtrack from Life Cycles in my head. Amazing. (Thank you, Matt B.!)

THREE: If you can’t be bothered to check the topo, at least consider the trail names. Really, what do you think is going to be the tougher option? “Creek Trail” or “DIABLO VIEW”?

Carquinez Strait from Briones Regional Park.

Anyway, yes, I walked some climbs—the sort of steep where you’re sliding backwards and stepping out of your shoes. And I probably didn’t do my road bike any favors. But anyone who says we don’t get fall colors is missing the glow and the change in the light, and the woods smelled new and brilliant after the rain.

A wheezy walk still beats the pavement.

something old, something new

[I swear I will shut up about this eventually.]

I went to the new bridge. Emerging from the maze of overpasses in Emeryville was like riding into my own marketing copy, some fundraising piece for urban greenways. Thousands of people had chosen this for their Sunday. I have spent most of my life in the Bay Area and never seen such a perfect parade of its Diversity™, a crowd so complete and so mixed and somewhere not serving alcohol. I saw an old man with skin like a speckled egg hold an iPhone aloft and explain to the screen in gravely, Russian-accented English: “You see, here is new one; here is old one.” I heard a child on a tricycle announce, “That was great, daddy, let’s do this every once a while.” I nosed my own bike around walkers and gawkers of every age, shape, and color, and I swear to their various gods that every last one looked happy to be there.

This path doesn’t even go anywhere yet!

2013-09-08

I went to the old bridge, the sawn-off end of the old East Span. Its body was guarded by a lone white pickup and the reasonable assumption that acting on my trespass fantasies would result in my being shot on sight. On the upper deck, now stripped and open to the sky, the streetlights stood like an honor guard over the empty road. Below and behind the chain-link, lane lines receded into the shadows of the S-curve. I could hear the silence from behind the barricades. And I know, I know, I know, but I wanted to leave flowers.