New ground, winter-spring 2019


Compared to my friends I am much less fit and much more concerned about trespassing—which is easy enough to do here, whether you mean to or not. I don’t know which side of the Jefferson state line we’re on, but I do know none of us is quite white enough to make assumptions in the woods.

I win some route-finding squabbles; I lose some. On Fish Rock (legal, but too long for me) I cut out early and wait at the car in the gathering darkness for the boys. When they find me I am muddy from looking at sticks and mushrooms.


I love the ruins, the steam, the bend in the river, love the deflating Mad-Max pavement and the unconcerned cows chewing cud on the centerline. I can have a shining-white view of the Russian River Valley or a screaming, serpentine descent into it; I cannot, alas, have both.

Sean’s uncanny instinct for the most and best food leads us to a Mexican grocery stocked with things I’ve never seen before, less because I am not Mexican than because I am not a cook. There is interesting cheese and Twinkie variants; there are strange cones of brown sugar. I learn these are called piloncillo: literally—too good to be true—”little pylons.”

La Grange

Exchequer is a small park and I want it to myself. To arrive in time for a chance at this—that is, to ride new dirt without weekending GoPro-bros from the valley on my ass—means provisioning at a tiny shop in La Grange. The door breathes a plume of gold-lit dust at my heels as it shuts behind me; I have Pringles and expired chocolate milk for dinner.

But on the trail I get what I came for. I can laugh like a mad thing at the view—land before time—and there’s no one to hear me.

Arroyo Seco

A new bike materializes at the same time as a new job that will prevent me from riding it. I flee south in a sort of desperation, so keen to try this bucket-list route while I still can that I don’t ever check to see where it actually goes.

I’m in the honeymoon period of a bike upgrade where you’d swear the thing has an engine. Hours of climbing feel effortless and the sun is warm on my skin for the first time in months. The wet winter has brought forth a parade of wildflowers that smile and nod from the road-cuts, from beds of chaparral and yucca and agave. On my knees in a saddle meadow carpeted with lupine, I heave with what I suppose the kids these days or a doctor might call a panic attack and I’d call a perfectly reasonable response—to anything so beautiful it hurts, to anything you might never have again.

We talk about “FOMO,” of course, and trivialize it as millennial conceit. But the frivolous little twigs—the aftertaste of the acai bowl when (!) you might have ordered avocado toast—grow on the same family tree as the most fundamental fear we know. I’m on a middling branch as I consider that I have bills to pay, that I can’t stay in this field forever. But at the base—I’m sorry; this is how I’ll excuse my behavior—is nothing less than the specter of death.

Mt. Uhumuhum

Look on my works, ye mighty

I grew up down here on box lore: haunted (false), haunting (true), guarded by armed survivalists (true again). To see the site open now impresses me: I can guess at the work it took to reconcile the EPA with multiple jurisdictions and the smarting Amah Mutsun. I watch the latter shuffle and hum in the ceremonial circle, their piece of the park pie. The tower behind me of course gives an impression of watching, too.

The other ridgeline scar and urban legend in the South Bay is the quarry—rumored of aliens, corpses, etc. Strangely enough I’ve been there, too: in junior year a friend and I finagled a tour by claiming we wanted to write an article for the school paper. We wore polo shirts, trying to look serious, and ogled trucks with tires the size of a house. We had a hell of a time and never actually wrote a word about it.

I am too often in my head, keep too many notes, to be truly confused by my own past logic very often. So while it seems a small thing, I can say without exaggeration that not writing that quarry story is among the most mystifying decisions of my life.


Theoretically I no longer ride bikes competitively. I will occasionally pay for a destination event if it’s got something I need: a water stop or good camping or permissions for private land (see: Boonville). “I’m not racing,” I will announce, piously, as if anyone gave a shit. “I’m just riding with a number on.”

In reality? Though I’m not willing or able to ride fast, once I put said number on I’m just as dogged as ever by the idea that I can’t stop: not for photos, not for the water I paid for, and not to drop my tire pressure from the cement-like PSI I left it trying to seat my new tires the night before. Nor do I feel I can stop to pick up the driver’s license that falls out of my pocket, where I’d stuck it after eking through registration three minutes before the start. “You dropped something!” yell a half-dozen riders behind me. “Okay!” I yell back.

Sixty-three painful miles at altitude plus a night’s rest and a journey home later I realize it is in fact a huge pain in the ass to replace a driver’s license. I’m still despairing over appointment windows and my new work schedule a week later when this letter turns up it the mail—miraculous. I send a thank-you card, a prayer, and the postage back. The address is a P.O. Box.

The event, if you’ll allow it: Lost and Found.


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.

Vollmer Peak, Berkeley

I, robot

I’m a narcissist with a desk job, so naturally I found “What Would I Say” irresistible:

What Would I Say
This is usually what I’m telling myself, yes.

Also fairly representative:

  • Correction: I rode around drooling
  • A little bushwacking and SEO
  • How long should I expect to remain fetal in mainstream media?
  • Base jumping is thankfully *not* on the road bike
  • Good news! They’ll bus me there from REI.
  • Might as well have some bread?

OK, so any algorithm with access to my Facebook page can plausibly narrate my life. That’s no surprise, but generating the evidence at the click of a button still fuels my fear that everything I write I’ve already written—a suspicion difficult to dismiss when I remember that I’ve already written that, too. Great.

Last year one of my friends whacked his head on a rock after parting ways with his mountain bike. He spent the rest of the day repeating himself—not the vague regression of the merely forgetful but the exact, robotic iterating of TBI. I had heard the infinite loop described, but it was something else to watch: each run-through of his questions identical in phrasing and inflection and accompanied by perfectly duplicated gestures, every wave of the hand a piece of carbon-copy choreography performed with the precision of some eerie droid ballet. If our brains are only computers, his was conducting repairs while in safe mode: no new input, no new output.

“AliaBot” reminds me that this is true even when we’re not concussed. It’s got me wondering what I ought to feed the machine.

that time again: no place like in-home

Our second issue since the big makeover. One more and I think we might be on to something.

Land&People magazine
Behold the dazzlingly ambiguous cover family!

One thing I learned (or rather, learned not to ignore) in this production cycle: Day-in-the-life pieces really benefit from the photographer and writer doing their thing on—it’s true!—the same day. The feature edit that ensued when we couldn’t make this happen was definitely one of the more elaborate acts of slice-and-dice I’ve ever done, challenging to the point that in the end I undertook it literally.

Low tech, high yield, I swear.

This was an interesting exercise, if somewhat unsettling to see an arts-and-crafts representation of what I usually do in my head. But I think it turned out OK.

Elsewhere in this issue, I got to interview the members of a ’70s river-rat cooperative, one of whom provided a quote I plan to poach for my own use the next time I have to explain the general orientation of my life around outdoor sports I’m not even good at.

It goes through stages. When you start [whitewater] rafting, you tend to think in metaphors: this is how I want to live my life, flowing like a river. Then you get into the technical aspects: trip-planning, the gear. You do it for the sense of accomplishment. Eventually it becomes a social thing, something you do with your best friends.

And on the design sign, I successfully lobbied for inclusion of a barely relevant kitten and an eagle shaking hands with a moose. National Geographic we are not, but I defy anyone now to say that open-space real-estate transactions can’t be made adorable. You can peruse the proof here.