We’re not even past Manteca when I wander carelessly into an argument about climate change and the primaries. It ends poorly, with one friend red-faced and seething in the driver’s seat and me in tears, confused—but not really—at how easily I make people angry when I’m only playing a game.
A neutral third party, child of schoolteachers, tries to mediate from the back. It is gently suggested I tend to belabor semantics. (Moi?)
“Listen, have you ever seen Star Trek?”
“I’m not Spock,” I protest, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I’ve heard this one before. “I have feelings.”
Chief among them: I’m tired. In trying to make up for a summer lost to my new job, I set a rat-a-tat cadence of shoulder-season trips I didn’t really have the energy to take. The weekend-warrior maneuvers have always been hard: fractious Friday-night logistics, restless sleep, pre-dawn alarm. Sixteen or so waking hours of the good stuff before the reluctant slog back to reality, straight into the glare of the sun bleeding out in Central Valley smog. Those drives are so much longer than they used be, the dread of the Monday so much heavier in my chest. This late in the year the days are short and cold along the edges.
So what I want to do, if I’m honest, is crib from notes on another day I didn’t feel like trying very hard and have brunch on the deck of the Jamestown Hotel. My friends will not say no to me, now that I’ve scared them by behaving like a girl—so I order French toast and inform them we will be here for a while.
Our waitress is a grandmotherly type in sensible shoes and a black butterfly-sleeved blouse. I can see her pausing over it at the sale rack, a scene so vivid I realize I may cry again when she arrives to take our orders. She moved to Jamestown after a divorce, she says, doesn’t miss him or the city or a single damn thing. She works when they’ll have her. She likes seeing people find a moment to breathe.
The boys make steady progress on biscuits and gravy. When the server returns to distribute the remains of the mimosa pitcher, she just grazes their glasses before chugging the lion’s share into mine with a wink.
“Ready to roll?” one friend asks me tentatively as I finish my drink. We’ve got another hour or so in the car and they want to ride. “No,” I announce gravely. “I want to go antiquing.”
We get to Pinecrest eventually. I bail on a long cross-country route in favor of dozing by the lake like a civilian, guzzling sun in the brief afternoon hours that still look like summer. The crowds are manageable now, and if you keep out of the shadows it’s warm enough.
I do ride a little: just the short stuff, more a vague gesture at the French toast than anything else. There is a moment after dropping in from a road crossing when my friends and the trail turn directly into the setting sun. As they pull away from me they are cast suddenly into silhouettes against their own rising dust, lit deep orange and red through the trees. I hit the brakes, taste the dirt settling on my tongue as I watch them disappear into plumes of light.
I try to attend women’s-only mountain bike events once every few years to avoid becoming completely incompetent. We all improve by observing others, but my usual riding partners are men so much faster than me that they’re rarely in sight. Even when I can watch them, their clearing an obstacle is meaningless—whereas I consider a woman doing the same thing to be admissible evidence I should at least try it. If this approach is completely sexist, it has also thus far kept me alive.
Having said that, all-women events stress me out. There’s often a lot of dancing and “WOOO”-ing, and while men can choose to stand apart from these rituals without drawing much notice, opting out as a woman tends to cause other women to assume you’re a stuck-up bitch. It doesn’t help that in my case it’s arguably true.
Point being, I am already swimming against a current of dread when I arrive late to the meeting point and find the parking lot full of women kitted up in armor—a lot of armor. I watch them loading big bikes onto the shuttle rigs and observe an alarming number of full-face helmets.
Oooooooh shit, I think. I am at the wrong party.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Georgetown trails are somehow everything I like and nothing I don’t: all wide, chunky, fast stuff, no acrobatics, no exposure, no water. Even without a functional rear brake (….), by far the most intimidating part of the day is dinner with 20 women I don’t know—and even that is easy to sneak out of once it gets dark.
I go to bed resolving to Fully Participate on day two, but when I wake up the weather has taken a turn. A bone-dry wind is howling down through the woods to the foothills. The thoughtful decorative touches are blown about the lawn and the oaks are groaning and cracking overhead. No fool, the organizer pulls the plug.
The first two roads I follow out of camp are blocked by downed trees. When I finally reach the highway a few 15-point turns later, it’s strewn with branches and pine needles that crunch under my toy car as it wobbles in the gusts. In the small Gold Country towns where PG&E cut the power days ago, the blank-faced stoplights are swinging drunkenly in the wind. Construction debris rattling down the sidewalk sounds strangely like shouting: get out, get out, get out.
… on the other hand, I hate to waste a day out of my own zip code and I’ve always wanted a closer look at the Foresthill Bridge:
One ill-advised “short jog” later, a dozen or so grassfires are now burning between me and the bay. Driving in hapless circles through Sacramento trying to route my way around one of them, I at one point find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic across an overpass spanning visible flames. Crossing the Carquinez Bridge at last—hills smoldering on both sides of the water—I’ve been in the car for almost six hours: easily more time than I spent on my bike.
There are more days like this ahead, more and more grind for the right side of the ratio. We all know it and we pray for rain.
This climb is pretty civilized, but it’s also 20 miles long. By the time we’re over it, I’m over it: I dump my bike unceremoniously on the rocks and stumble off to stuff my face and drink the view—Lake Tahoe in dreamy blue haze far below.
Sean’s moving my bike out of the way when he notices the headset is loose. After many years of watching my eyes glaze over at the first mention of mechanics, most of these guys would rather fix something for me than watch me make it worse, which suits my version of feminism just fine. Sean tightens the headset and, being both generous and thorough, starts checking the rest of the bike, too.
“Uh, you might to look at this, actually,” he says.
“Don’t care, do whatever,” I reply around the last of my sandwich.
“No, seriously. Do you have a 10?”
One of the pivot bolts has loosened to the point you can see daylight between pieces of the frame. To fix it takes a tool nobody’s carrying, so I face the prospect of a long, baby-head-strewn descent on a bike coming apart at the seams—or on foot.
I’m cry-laughing at my options when a pair of riders appears over the hill behind us—the only other people we’ve seen on the trail all day. After a suspenseful few moments of rummaging through his pack, one of them presents Sean with a 10 millimeter Allen wrench.
I will end the season with my trail karma deep in the red.
I thought sea level might help, but—apart from dropping things out of my pockets—I’m having all the same problems I did at Lost and Found. It’s a beautiful day and the course is a treat, but with a number on I just want to get it over with.
Being not especially athletic, my best strategy for doing this involves spinning slowly up climbs, then riding the descents at a speed at which I can’t actually see anything and a wreck would end in the hospital. Every time I careen past someone fitter than me I hear echos of my former self watching the podiums for my first race, circa 2008.
“It’s not fair,” I’m hissing at my boyfriend, who’s (quite correctly) ignoring me. “She was behind me the whole time and then she just passed me going downhill! Does that even count? It’s just gravity!”
I’m glad, truly, to be better now both at losing and descending. But I still miss those days—back when riding bikes wasn’t cool. From my sample size of two, it appears that organized gravel events are my petty, contrarian hell: something I want to do that the Popular Kids want to do, too.
In the evening the beach is awash in craft beer, peppered with Ibis and Thesis bikes (Ibises? Theses?) posed against driftwood and the sunset for Instagram. In the gentle surf, a pair of yoga-bodied blonde chicks splash naked arm in arm, while various indistinguishable bearded men mill around their string-lit Sprinter vans pretending not to watch. I’ve been trying to study pelicans through my binoculars and now I have to put them down so I don’t look like a creep. I do recall graduating middle school, but I’m so irritated with the whole scene I could spit.
They’re out here, too, though, my Freds, my people. They were the retirees trundling the 60+ miles on un-ironic hybrids; the red-faced couple on a tandem. We don’t speak apart from brief congratulations at the finish, but I decide they’ve dated since high school and met in marching band. I love them as fiercely and unjustifiably as I resent everybody else.
The much-hyped, new-to-us trail is too technical for me: I’m walking more than I’m riding. It’s also bitterly cold, occasionally raining, and, by the time we get back to the car after getting lost and riding in circles for an extra 45 minutes, almost dark.
Between the first time out and familiarity a lot of Forest Service fire roads look the same. In this case, I’ve confused the ascent of Pinecrest Peak with the long slog up Mt. Hough, which is at least five highways north and much, much harder. When I realize this—after dragging my feet and dreading the climb all morning— I’m so pleased I don’t mind when the trail peters out, that I can’t remember how to mountain bike, or even when the boys lose me in the woods.
There’s still snow up high and it’s too early for the flowers . But from where I sit in the hammock in the campground—inhaling queso fresco, talking shit, breathing woodsmoke—summer is on.
My still-new job and the misguided decision to take allergy drugs mean I arrive in Oakridge—one of my all-time favorite places to ride—in a state of irritable lethargy bordering a medical concern. At the fish hatchery I’ve been hyping for weeks I make it through just three holes of salmon-lifecycle-themed mini-golf (you see why I was excited) before staggering off to sleep on a bench. Later I watch Fourth of July fireworks reflected in the inky river, in part because it’s beautiful and in part because it takes less energy than lifting my head.
Apart from some outstanding trails, Oakridge has a few through-streets, four or five trailer parks, and an often-shuttered Chinese restaurant we’ve always regarded as a kind of joke. This time around, we stop in. Sean has heard the proprietor is in fact the onetime personal chef of Jackie Chan, and that he can be plied with tequila into provisioning off-script dishes and entertainment.
As the DD (for all of four blocks between dinner and motel) I suspect that Mr. Lee is not even remotely as drunk as he’s pretending to be—or serious when he insists we come to stay with him on a dumpling tour of Taiwan. But the food is excellent and his advice is worth considering. The secret to matrimonial bliss, he says, is to transfer your assets to your spouse outright and then encourage her to spend however she likes. “I tell my wife: You like it? Buy it! Just buy it! But if the money’s gone, it’s gone. That’s all you.”
He has arrived at this understanding over the course of several marriages, each of which cleaned him out. He met his current wife when she cut his hair at a salon. He came back daily, nothing left on his head to cut, asking her out until she capitulated. Wrong word?
His father-in-law tells him he’s an idiot. “Maybe I am,” he tell us, “but I’m happy.”
Even if if you don’t count the long stop at the logging museum—where I buy a bird-shaped water whistle and a train t-shirt declaring me “ALL STEAMED UP”—it takes us 12 hours to get home. The combination of holiday and construction traffic has turned the highway rest stops into stations of the apocalypse: idling trucks and fractious dogs and children, bickering in a dozen languages, overflowing toilets and trash. I spend the week that follows wistfully browsing real estate.
The season’s nearly over and we haven’t been backpacking once. We get it together just enough for 18 or so hours in Emigrant, a tease. I’m dizzy and wheezing from the altitude, but the light in the morning‘s a balm and the water, once I inch my way in, a cool caress.
This trip has two offenders. One is Maddie the dog, who limps and lags and pants until she cons me into lobbying for the removal of her backpack—and then bolts off into the woods like a track sprinter. The second is the garbage human flying a drone over the lake.
“NO DRONES IN THE WILDERNESS,” Ryan yells down to their Instagram-able hammocks on the shore. This of course is all anyone can do. But vivid fantasies of a sharp shot from a BB gun—also, obviously, not allowed in the wilderness—down to the bite of granite on my elbows, the pop and the whine and clatter of the wounded machine—carry me all the way down to the car.
I’m sick and sitting out the first day’s ride as a sort of sacrificial offering, as if a cold can be negotiated with. Walking alone in the woods instead I encounter a snake, an encampment, a creepy pile of rotting clothing, and a stretch of trail that smells suddenly and powerfully like a railroad track. There’s no reason for this that I can see. Just Gold Country shadows and ghosts.
Back in town I watch two kids—maybe nine or ten—as they record a third cannonballing off the bridge into the river. They take turns working the cell phone and shuttling the performer’s Crocs back and forth. They debrief. (“So-o sketch, bro. That one was so sketch.”)
It’s a nontrivial jump with signage strenuously forbidding it. I wouldn’t have tried it at their age, and though I think I’m braver now I know I’m not brave enough. Over the course of what I’ll call my career as an editor I have by coincidence worked on three separate pieces featuring an interviewee who paralyzed themselves jumping into rivers or lakes, and the act of dissecting each scene down to the comma has given cliff-diving and the like a special place in my anti-repertoire, the things I will not do. I’m glad when the kid quits for pizza.
When I ride, even somewhere familiar, I take very few bridge-grade risks. The consequences are too high, and the payoff—given that my bravest moments on a bike are routine for everyone else—almost nonexistent. So when I crash these days it’s usually somewhere unexpected: in this case, on a flat, fast corner 30 seconds from the car. I’ve been trying to hold Ryan’s wheel. I insist it had been going, up until that point, pretty well.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Ican’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.
On the way to Quincy we lunch roadside at the Rock House on Yankee Hill. A wooden cutout of Bigfoot ambles across the gravel lot; there is one valiant, buoyant woman behind the counter.
These are my favorite places. I like some kitsch on the walls, some saran-wrapped muffins in a basket, a menu in Comic Sans—italic. “It’s perfect,” I announce, before the food has even arrived. “We’ll have to come here again.”
Back home two days later I’ll watch the incident map as the Camp Fire crawls inexorably toward this spot, hitting the refresh button every hour until there’s no denying the line has jumped the highway. A year later we’ll drive past the little restaurant’s namesake stone walls, all that’s left.
But today we sit on the back patio, hands and sandwiches striped in the shade of a new trellis roof.
Highway 70 after Yankee Hill has been plucked from a model railroad layout. Pylons perch above the road as it winds through rough-blasted tunnels, past power stations trimmed in fall color. Alongside us, the Feather River is by turns glassy bottle green and churning white, strewn with house-sized boulders as if by petulant gods.
When we arrive in Quincy there’s a small crowd of people standing in the median holding up signs and American flags. In the gathering dusk I can see only white skin and hair under red baseball caps and “TRUMP” scrawled on poster-board. My stomach lurches. They are hit and miss, these old mountain towns, after all. You can only guess how each will manifest its particular nostalgia for timber or mining or dinner on the table at six.
But as we get closer I can make out the small print. The sign says “TRUMP LIES MATTER.” The red caps are embroidered with the seal of the U.S. Marine Corps. The midterms are next week.
The house flips, but Paradise burns. I’m aware my N95 is too big and not sealing properly; I wear it anyway, imprinting it with lip gloss. The tightness in my chest might be from smoke or from first-world guilt—from knowing perfectly well that the apocalyptic yellow curtain hanging over my street would constitute a great day in Delhi.
Nevertheless I flee because I can, to midweek-rate motel rooms in South Lake. While waiting for the days to warm and my friends to arrive I watch, for some reason, the BBC rendition of Daniel Deronda—a sort of Victorian drawing room drama with a surprise dose of Jewish mysticism. One thing leads to another and there I am, not so much working on job applications as Wikipedia-ing Purim and shaking my fist in the name of Vashti, who also did not care to dance for the king.
Hiking alone above Fallen Leaf Lake I step aside for a couple going the other way. The woman has dropped a bandana from her pack, which I retrieve from the trail and offer back to her. “Hey, is this yours?”
“Oh,” she says. “Yeah.” She snatches it back without meeting my eyes or saying thank you, then turns on her heel and jogs back up the trail to where her partner is sniggering into his elbow. I’m puzzled and offended by the entire interaction until, months later, I read a Backpacker Magazine blurb espousing pee rags.
The best ride of the season begins with several hours of pushing my bike up Van Sickle, proceeds to a miserable interlude of backache and altitude-induced puking, and finishes, inexplicably, with my hands in the fur of three golden retrievers unattended at the end of the trail. The first two acts are as likely as the fires to be repeated; the last will presumably never happen again.
A close reader will notice I’m writing, in this case, more than a year after the fact—beginning on a backlog that forces awkward, ungrammatical contortions of temporality because I don’t like to write (read: live) in anything but the present tense. My clairvoyance is only hindsight, and even from one future, what do I know about the next? What does anyone know, of what will befall us, what wind may change?
So dum spiro, spero, I say, for more surprise dogs—through that red-kissed respirator mask or not.
In Bend I resolve to do the things no one else ever wants to do, specifically, people-watch from armchairs in the library, gain five pounds in cardamom Ocean Rolls, and attend a presentation on ravens. Did you know they mate for life and live to 20? In the High Desert Museum I also learn the word “buckaroo” might be a corruption of vaquero, or perhaps from the Gullah buckra—white man—itself from mbakara in the language of Nigeria’s Efik.
I was going to say that the raven meanwhile quethe today the same as ever. But we don’t know that, either, do we?
It’s not warm enough (for me) to get on a bike until one or two in the afternoon, but the northern days are short and I keep finishing rides in the dark. It’s sure some kind of trail-building, that even I can just about clean this stuff with my eyes shut, and I relish this even as I telegraph thanks to home turf for keeping me honest. What would I be it weren’t for a blown-out, off-camber, fall-line ego-check every weekend?
For an answer, a herd of girls in unicorn onesies appears at the top of the flow trail. A few have gotten too hot on the climb and unzipped themselves into sweat-glossed, lace-bra’d centaurs, unwanted horns and heads dangling lifelessly behind their saddles. They stop and preen and smother the last rider up in hugs and coos of “yaaaaaas” and “crrrrr-ush-errrrrrr,” a dialect of affirmation I’ve grown to understand but can’t speak. I feel like I’ve ridden into an Instagram ad.
The Painted Hills are that, and scattered slabs of layer cake. In the dusky palette I recognize a few shades, if not all: terra cotta tiles, sun on a rose, palomino horse. No lipstick, charcoal-smudged palm. Old bruise, fresh-scraped knee.
I stay at Spoke’n, a white clapboard church with a reading nook in the alcove—place of honor, where books belong. They are catering to bike campers and meticulous about it: kneeling pads for wrenching, conversation prompts on the kitchen table, pre-filled coffee filters, lemon-scented garbage cans. I arrive to my name in calligraphy on the bedroom door, despite having impulse-booked only a half-hour earlier.
I know the right-sized reaction to careful hospitality begins and ends with “Nice touch,” but I feel I know the rare mind it takes to do this sort of thing well, and that it’s often found in a woman not getting nearly enough cash or credit for it. Admiring the aesthetic choices in the old nave I’m consumed with unholy, acquisitive fantasies of a call with the head of recruitment for Hilton or Four Seasons. “You’ll never guess where I found her,” I’ll tell them from a crackling payphone that doesn’t exist. I might also be chewing tobacco, spit a stained arc into the dust and smudge it with my boot. “Trust me, you’re going to want her on those tower walk-throughs A-S-A-P.”
God forgive me; I live in capitalism and my imagination, if not in sin.
To say I make a series of stupid navigational errors would I imply I’m navigating, at all, rather than cruising along on the assumption that a trail named “Broken Top” will eventually just arrive there.
It’s midday before I realize that it won’t, late afternoon by the time I backtrack and screw up again, picking my way up the wrong couloir on the thin evidence of a few other footprints. Just short of a view over the edge, at least, my courage dies with the light. I fret, sally, waffle, retreat, and reach the dark and empty parking lot convinced I could have made the last few moves after all. Oh well, oh well.
I want to go east and wallow in obsidian on Glass Butte, but it’s hours of off-road driving and at this point I have to admit my car is unwell. I turn for Oakridge, instead, a known quantity, drive through either the night or outer space blinded by moonbeams flashing wildly through the pines.
The next day I buddy up with the next-least braap-y people on the shuttle: I ride better this way than without anyone around to call an ambulance. I’m a bit fitter but they’re a lot better, so our pace is about the same—and in any case they seem pleased to have a new audience for old jokes.
It’s difficult to leave. The forest is a kaleidoscope of low-angle light and fall color, the trails a glorious, torturous high-wire between wanting to look and wanting to fly. But the season’s nearly over. The mornings are getting very, very cold.
Everybody warned me about Jackson Hole, resort town of resort towns. Even so I’m not prepared for the amusement-park foot traffic, or the fraught campsite hunt. I spend an anxious hour coaxing my 2WD (ok, myself) up rutted-out Shadow Mountain—only to find all the ridge spots occupied by cool kids staging photos of their Sprinters against the sky. I retreat, watch the Tetons grow gauzy behind a curtain of wildfire smoke.
The next morning I pull into a valley visitor center for reception. A few hundred people with their phones out are massed across the road, trying to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the sidewalk. A pair of besieged rangers stand between the animal and the advancing horde; tourists with SLRs are standing on car roofs and climbing up signage. One ranger speaks urgently into the radio on his shirt pocket. It’s clear violence is more likely from the photographers than the bear. I put the car in reverse.
So, yeah—still never been to Yellowstone.
The shop guys tell me to ride Phillips Ridge via hitchhike shuttle. “I guarantee you will not wait more than ten minutes,” insists the mechanic. “You can just leave your bike at the bottom, outside the bar.” If you’ve lived in the Bay Area you understand that everything about this suggestion beggars belief—but my thumb’s out four minutes, if that, and the hulking man in the F150 who takes me up the hill is a kindergarten teacher who “prefers the challenge” of teaching special ed. “You’re doing the Lord’s work,” I say, since I know no secular expression for this. He drops me by my car and I drive back down to retrieve my bike, which is—would you believe— just where I left it.
In the rearview leaving the Hoback Valley I can see the leaves have turned in just the few days I’ve been here, blazing orange swells rising to meet the bare peaks as they shrink behind me. From the Pinedale library—boom-funded, beams, beautiful as a church—I plot a reluctant course south. This is always how it goes, I realize: tortured oscillations between deciding to get warm and deciding to get high. It’s unclear to me how much of this dilemma is, you know, the fundamental human condition, and how much might be solved with of those damn Sprinters.
On the Green River it’s another season altogether. A long descent from the canyon rim ends in a near-deserted campground dotted with dusty acacias. The sky is sickly yellow, the air heavy with smoke, and the cicadas are screaming in the heat: deja-vu, Zimbabwe, 2004. Disoriented, I sit at the water’s edge and watch through unsteady binoculars the birds winging low down the gorge. The million little stones making up the sliver of shore below the stair-step shale—bits and pieces in brown, red, yellow, white, green-flecked black—feel like running my hands through time.
There are two retired couples in small RVs on opposite ends of the campground, one pair listening to the radio from folding chairs and the other walking slow laps with a wire-haired terrier. In the evening a man arrives alone on a loaded KTM, ATGATT. There are so few of us, the surrounding silence so thick and the sunset so blood-red apocalyptic, his moon-booted arrival feels like a dispatch from another world.
I ogle the bike; we get to talking. He lives in Jackson, solves the problem of winter by spending it Palm Springs. Farm boy, hucked bales; worked, bought, and sold a welding company. Made bank, retired early, does whatever he likes: motorcycles and mountains, mostly. “Could have gone anywhere,” he says, “thought about the Dolomites,” tried it all and decided there’s no place like the American West. I’m trying and failing to place his accent, realize eventually that it isn’t one: just a perfect frankness—no humility, no apology, no attachment, not the merest suggestion his own success is replicable or that it makes him any better or worse than anyone else. He answers all my questions and gives no advice.
The singletrack called “Bloody Shins” rides slow waves of sagebrush, to which I’ve only recently realized I am wildly allergic. (Because the plant’s range corresponds almost perfectly with places I’m interested in going, I had previously assumed that vacation itself was making me sick. This was perhaps a capitalist plot.)
Through a stream of snot and tears, I puzzle over the name: out here, no rocks, no exposure, no bad sight lines, nothing technical at all … what gives? It’s the sagebrush, I discover, with my shins, as I gather speed—or rather, that it doesn’t.
I first came to Liberty Lake in the snow and the evening and it felt like a faraway secret. This time I share the hike up with screaming kids and pairs of women in yoga pants, men with speakers in one hand and coffee in the other. I’ll have to work a little harder for some space.
I find it the next day in the talus fields below Snow Lake Peak, pushing past slabs and scree and the usual crescendo chorus—turn back, turn back, turn back, you’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall—until I can at least and at last peer over the spine into Thomas Canyon on the other side. This moment of unveiling is 90 percent of what I wanted. I will be back one day for the rest.
The only people I encounter up here are a pair of grouse hunters in their 70s. One is in vintage teal Polartec and a deerstalker, the other head-to-toe camo and a Wyatt Earp mustache. His eyes are lost in the somber folds of his face. “See any big birds?” he asks me. I shake my head. “No birds and no friggin’ goats, either.”
He raises one furry eyebrow and I’m immediately ashamed for swearing. I want to move on from this and so I ask the best way down off the ridge. I could retrace my steps but it’s going to scare me. He swaps his rifle to his other shoulder. “Well, it’s hard country,” he says.
I arrive close to midnight, following GPS to a pin dropped in BLM blankness. I pass turnouts occupied by what appear to be semi-permanent family compounds, pavilion tents and rifle stands, big men watching the road from camp chairs. Peering through the dust and dark for another option I nearly dump my little 2WD RAV4 in a three foot-deep pothole the size of a bus. Enough, I think, and pull off into the darkness. Play it where it lies.
When I open the door in the morning it’s into a sandy wash at the base of a mountain I didn’t know was there. I wander the lower slopes and tell myself the summit is choss so that I’ll continue on to Salt Lake City. How is it even now there’s not enough time?
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a Henry Coe bushwhack, our EBRPD fire-break hike-a-bikes, the Sierra suffer-fests and ego-checks, and every minute spent lost in the woods in Santa Cruz. But I’ll admit, every now and then I just want to follow signs to the summit. I want to cruise perfectly buffed and graded traverses, make every effortless switchback like I know what I’m doing, take a roller coaster down, nice surprises only. Eat pizza, take a hot shower, sleep in a bed. For that, Park City and a big bike. Let ‘er rip.
I do a lot of walking here, to be honest, in deep duff and up silly-steep Jeep roads, sliding out of my shoes, down stair-step boulders too technical for me even on my new bike. But it doesn’t matter; Bear Valley is dreamland—Tahoe without the crowds. We find a walk-in campsite on a Saturday afternoon (?!) and encounter two other riders all weekend. That’s heavenly.
Emigrant Wilderness, 7/6–7/7
Three things I watch through binoculars, my new toy:
I’m looking down onto Relief Reservoir, puzzled. As well as the rippling scales of wind-driven water, the cobalt canvas breathes with strange plumes of swirling white. Shoal of fish? I spin the wheel into focus. No: pollen from the pines on the slopes above, invisible where it falls in their shade and sparkling where it finds the sun. The effect is that the lake reflects a phantom forest, moonlit clouds drifting behind shadowy trees. “What do you see?” asks a man on the trail behind me. “Pollen,” I announce, as this seems the more sensible answer. He’s still looking at me like I’m nuts.
Something slinking and bounding across a ledge on the other side of the river. It’s long and nearly red, not a bear, not a fox, not a mountain lion or a bobcat. I’m resigning myself to a Loch Ness mystery when I remember the binoculars, fumble them frantically to my face (which way?) catch the creature just before it vanishes into a crevasse. Pine marten: rare treasure.
I’m reminded of the inscription over the door of Bass Pro Shops in Manteca, where I’d stopped for paracord and cultural tourism. “Welcome fishermen, hunters, and other liars,” it says.
But it was a marten, I swear! I saw his face!
This is the old-school cross-country we were promised, cliffside catwalks and boulder-strewn switchbacks, barely-there trail petering out into meadows and bogs. It’s a playground for my riding partner and a minefield for me: I crash all of 45 seconds into the descent on Sunday after catching a pedal on a log cut. (“I thought that might happen,” he says as he lifts my bike off me.) My knee balloons as the rest of me deflates proportionally; again I walk most things and again I don’t mind because this place is insane for flowers. There’s Washington and Mariposa lilies, blazing Indian paintbrush, drooping irises, neon fireweed … sunflowers as far as the eye can see.
Halfway down the Downieville Downhill, where the river runs turquoise beneath the oaks, I find a half-rotten box “RIGGED WITH EXPLOSIVES.” It contains leaves and a small pile of mismatched cycling shoes. I would very much like an explanation.
On the deck of the Mills Peak lookout the next day, one of us makes an innocuous comment about the view. “I’m made of views,” replies the ranger from behind the door, “and I’ll show you what I mean.” He returns with a notebook and recites a poem that starts somewhere in the Grand Canyon and ends on “the snowmelt of their birth.” I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to a man in a tower who reads you his poetry, I realize, especially when he retreats to his cot and starts playing harmonica.
I stop in Sacramento on the way up to visit a friend with a yard and power tools and instruction for #vanlife-ing my RAV4. She’s eating keto and therefore so do I; by the time I arrive at Donner Lake the next evening I’m so ravenous for carbs I inhale an entire Mountain House meal for two and a bag of chips. Conceivably this is why riding the next day feels so hard. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯