Boise to Bend, 10/13-10/16

Heading west into the glare of the setting sun, the lunar hills on Highway 20 roll by gold against a feathered evening sky. Overnight, though, the weather moves in. From a campground in Juntura—”No Shooting” signs everywhere, presumably because they’re necessary—I head to the hot springs in the morning anyway. I have the idea that it might be relaxing, but my gumption runs solar and so under the grim sky I have imagined 28 ways I might die by the time I get there. (Amoebas, dude, look it up.) I soak just long enough to really listen to the rain.

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Between Juntura and Bend the only thing on the map is a BLM corral facility. My nine-year-old self was a diligent study of wild horses and roundups and adoption proceedings and so this is a real draw for me—and other lunatic women, clearly, because there’s a driving tour loop for road-trippers to gawk without bothering the staff (who in any case are nowhere to be seen). I’m quickly out of the car with my head through the pipe corral, watching rangy blue roans and piebalds squabble over piles of oat hay. I know they’re not wild-wild, but their manes and eyes are and I still want one, 20 years later.

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These are just the staff vehicles; the freeborn fellows won’t come so close.

When I arrive in Bend it’s after several hours of hairy, stormy highway and a week of not talking to anyone. My joy at reuniting with people I can babble to fades quickly to guilt as it becomes apparent I’ve convinced them to travel a full day from the Bay Area only to arrive in the freak path of an “atmospheric river.” I had talked up safe-assumption late-season riding. Why am I so frequently wrong about this?

We go anyway. The physics of it is, we are soaked through at precisely the elevation it’s cold enough for the rain to turn to sleet and snow. We form a wretched procession down “Storm King” (of course) during which Jack turns observably blue and I take to braking with my fists because my fingers won’t move.

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Featuring trash-bag booties and the neighborhood watch.

In the desert the next day the weather is better but my attitude worse. I keep trying to cut my ride short and getting talked out of it, so by the time I realize I’m on a 30-mile loop we’re exactly halfway and there’s nothing I can do about it. I admit to tears and stomping. It remains unclear why any of these rippers put up with this, but they do, and I’m so glad.

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Bless your hearts, you boys; you’re the light in the clouds.

 

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Ketchum to Boise, 10/13-10/16

On the way out of the Sawtooths I stop to pay my respects to Ernest Hemingway, whose toxic masculinity does not appear to have had stunted the cypress consuming his corpse any more that it ever bothered  me. I continue south through Ketchum and Hailey and a valley of log-cabin McMansions with mowed lawns and a strange speed limit of 34 miles per hour. I wonder how rich people here made their money.

The Forest Service trailhead at the other end of the subdivision leads to Greenhorn Gulch, a creekside climb recently burned and more work than I was expecting. At the top it opens up into bare brown hills that could be home. In combination with the view of the Pioneer range, the roller-coaster descent is legitimately dangerous: I’m alternately gawking at the horizon, yelling “Wow!” to myself, and skittering haphazardly over babyheads, blinded by the wind. Like Galena Summit, the trails here are in perfect condition and don’t have another soul on them. It might look here and there like California, but it is today—sorry, Ernie— my private Idaho.

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Greenhorn, gulch.

At Craters of the Moon several hours later I terrify myself in a series of volcanic caves. My demographic tends to give the National Parks a lot of crap for sanitizing attractions: the railings at Yosemite Falls, the warning signs at Old Faithful. Here, on the other hand, I am shocked to encounter no deterrents at all: in fact, there’s a paved path and cheerful signage encouraging you into the Bowels of the Earth, and when I get there—by slithering on my stomach through a gap in the jumbled boulders—I quickly discover that 1) my headlamp is not very good and 2) I do not AT ALL like being underground. I force myself to walk into the far chamber, clammy-palmed and convinced of some imminent geologic event that will seal the entrance behind me. Then I haul ass out of there. Even the caves open to the sky are stalked by creepy pigeons.

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Top left in hopes a selfie trail from the cloud might help someone recover my body. o_O

The park has dark and low but also bright and high. At the top of the cinder cones I can see for miles, and I prefer this.

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Not pictured: awesome, glorious, 30 mph wind. Never been so sure I could fly.

Between Craters of the Moon and Boise is Trump Country. I stop for gas between a pickup with three “Lock her up!” stickers and a purple PT Cruiser whose giant window decals declare “NO OBAMA NATION” in Scooby-Doo bubble-writing. Inside, on camo t-shirts, the suggestions continue: “Ban idiots, not guns”; “America, stand your ground.” I buy coffee and a spongy breakfast sandwich, catch myself paying with cash to avoid an unnecessary reveal of my last name.

It’s October. There are three weeks until the election, and I know how it’s going to go.

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Left: Interpreted. Right: In the flesh.

Consequently I’m a little on edge by the time I get to my last stop, the World Center for Birds of Prey. As I step out into the parking lot there’s a loud rushing noise overhead that sends me ducking back into the car. Squinting into the sun I find the sound is the flapping wings of a condor. Ten feet across, easy.

Typically my great enthusiasm for killer birds has manifested itself in meeting doodles and memorizing relevant poems rather than any useful ability to identify or understand them. Nonetheless I take notes on the handlers’ presentations, sitting on the ground while school-age children stare at me. Whatever. Did you know a turkey vulture’s stomach has a pH of 0? It can eat anthrax. You’re welcome.

The vulture is called Lucy and she really does seem to like the attention. She struts back and forth across the audience and spreads her wings whenever she hears her name.

Twin Falls to Ketchum, 10/9-10/10

Lest I imply it’s all sunsets and rapture out here, let me begin by saying Twin Falls sucks. The outskirts are parking lots and pawnshops, beady-eyed men with neck tattoos and listless women in the passenger seat. If possible, the city center is even worse for being its own idea of “nicer”—in (my) reality, a hellscape of poor zoning in which the otherwise stunning Snake River Gorge has a golf course in the middle and a Bed Bath and Beyond 20 meters from the edge.

I attribute the sense that I’ve arrived in an urban-planning nightmare to a mix of coastal elitism and an altitude hangover: having accidentally spent the night at 10,000 feet I feel bad enough to cut the drive short at a KOA. In the “family room,” fluorescents buzz over copies of LIFE from 1966 and couch cushions dusted with dead insects. But the showers are clean and that goes a long way.

 

I’m in Idaho to spectate—not base jumpers, but sheepdogs.

The trials are being held in a huge razed wheat field ringed with moonscape hills. I am extremely pleased with myself for having brought binoculars but don’t know what I’m looking at, only that it feels like a cross between a horse show and a golf tournament (and not especially like Babe). The shepherds—or shepherdesses, mostly—have actual crooks; the dogs slink low to the ground or bolt across the flocks in apparent response to whistles and cries of “AWAY! AWAY!” that I can’t decode. People clap and make knowing remarks about the  particular obstinance of “fresh range ewes.” A silent judge in a cowboy hat writes on a clipboard alongside a white Ford F150, which seems with animal intention to itself survey the scene. I could watch all this for a long time, and I do.

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The actual Trailing of the Sheep is a bit of a Sun Valley scene, lots of botox and bronzer and polo shirts and wine. The parade performers represent various sheepherding cultures, from the Scots, who have of course brought bagpipes, to the Basque, whose enclaves across the mountain west I have never before heard mentioned. I am contrasting the dance steps of straight-backed Poles—exchanging partners as if handing off a military secret—with the slow, sleepy shimmy of the Peruvians, who lead with their hips. One thing leads to another and soon enough, here I am, just a girl at a sheep parade deconstructing colonialism and capitalism and Catholic guilt.

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I ride bikes, too, though, I swear. I came for Osberg Ridge, the Ketchum showpiece, but there are no weekday shuttles and the shop staff tell me flatly I’d be stupid to ride it alone even if there were. No matter, there’s more trail here than anyone knows what do with: I cruise berms at Galena Summit for hours without seeing a soul (dead pioneers notwithstanding), and even the “busy” stuff in the center of town has only a handful of polite hikers near the start. I have a bell on less for them than to keep myself from floating away.

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Driving out of the mountains in the evening, I see and do not hit a pronghorn antelope, my first. It bounds out of the grass and across the road in an instant—the flash of its heavy white flanks a fleeting impression of athleticism and, frankly, meat— and I can see both why you would and why you wouldn’t want to shoot one.

Oakridge, 6/30–7/4

In Dunsmuir we walk along the tracks, testing dance-step combinations between ties laid just the wrong distance apart. It’s hot and bright and smells of creosote; when a train comes by I jump down the steep embankment, alarmed, land in a heap in the deep crushed rock. The cars chug by above our heads. Woo-wooooo!

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If you are a railway official or the police, the paragraph above is fiction.

The falls spill out of the ferns without any explanation. The water’s so clear that the striders in the shallows cast shadows in the bright afternoon sun, each a cluster of perfect discs that jolts and folds over the submerged rocks. I watch them for a while and then we go back.

At the foot of a lookout tower off Highway 58, I call out into the wind and the watchman resignedly invites us up. He’s had his eyes on the forest here every summer for more than 40 years, the resume of a man who presumably prefers to be alone. I’m in awe of him and of the thousands and thousands of trees.

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Thank you, Forest Service; thank you, firefighters.

In Oakridge, finally—we have tried and failed many times to come here, most recently because it was burning down—the guy in the bike shop takes one look at Jacob and begins addressing him as “Social Justice Warrior.” When asked how he arrived at this (accurate) conclusion—without even a World Bicycle Relief t-shirt to tip him off!—he suggests this was the only reasonable explanation for riding with so many brown people. Well played.

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That’s not even all of us.

You can read about Oakridge trails wherever, so suffice to say here that to my taste they live up to the hype: fast and flowy without looking like a bike park, an honest day’s work even with long shuttles. There are big trees and long horizons, catwalk ridgelines and and glowing green carpets of clover. The only bar in town is full of books. I will go back with you any time you want.

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We come home on the Fourth of July, drive the last hour south with fireworks going off on either side of the freeway. The explosions light up the strip malls and refineries in flashes of white and red, then the rows and rows of houses and apartments, the marina, and the bay.

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.)

 

Central Coast, 5/13–5/16

Or, a series of transitions

Friday

I break at Mission San Miguel, one of the quiet, little ones. There’s a statue of Junipero and a tiled fountain with bees swarming over the lily pads. I walk down an arched breezeway hung with flags—Spanish, Mexican, Californian, American—into a tall, narrow chapel: diorama dimensions. The frescoes are original, the candles electronic. You make a donation and they’ll safely fake-flicker for two hours; I didn’t even know this was a thing. On opposite pages of the prayer request book, an adult has asked to beat addiction and a child for no clas proximo viernes.

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Left: Charms. Right: Chapel.

From a canyon campground later that evening I spend an hour or so mostly pushing my bike to the top of Cerro Alto. Only poison oak prevents me from ditching my wheels in the bushes, and when I finally do putter up to the summit, it looks like this:

But there’s light behind the shroud and it’s close, flashing gold onto the coyote bush through split-second breaks in the shifting fog. It’s only a matter of time.

Saturday

In the parking lot at Montana de Oro I take trail recommendations from two men in ink and Oakleys and camo. The lack of irony in their full sleeves is as refreshing as the warm blue sky over the ocean, the fast, buffed singletrack built to ride. The last time I was this far south, I concluded these were a different sort of people. Three years of Bay Area boom times later, I have an addendum, which is, I think they’re better for it.

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Montana de Oro. Eureka, goddamn.

I arrive in Santa Barbara to visit an old friend. We spent a decade in school together; since then she has acquired a husband, a PhD in economics, a professorship, a cat, a house, and a baby. To meet this last is the purpose of the trip. The newcomer and I engage in long staring contests—her eyes are blue, for now—in which I imagine I am being silently judged. But of course it’s just a reflection: I am judging myself.

These days I think a lot about how to keep my friends as the space between us grows more than geographic. The crux will be to see the difference in our lives as a curiosity and not a rebuke—to convince myself that I am doing things my way rather than slowly or badly or not at all. I suspect that’s the most useful thing to believe whether it’s true or not. But it also might be true. After all, if life’s a linear progression it leads straight to the grave.

Sunday

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Johnson Ranch. Not pictured: the locals.

Some peculiarity of the underlying geology means that the ride from Johnson Ranch to Irish Hills includes a shift from gold-and-oak foothills to rock gardens and chaparral in the space of one switchback. There’s a point in the trail where the views behind and ahead are so completely different that turning from one to the other feels like some kind of prank.

On the ridge, looking down at the suburbs, the howl of the wind catches on the crackle of transmission lines. Together it sounds just like blood through a stethoscope. Not to be creepy, I mean, I’m just saying.

Monday

The brochures at Fort Ord inform visitors that they may encounter “shearing operations.” I’ve been here a few times and never seen any such thing, but today I ride around a corner and there it is! Men in plaid smoking cigarettes wrestle the sheep into a chute; the clippers whine and the animals thrash about. I can’t see what happens next, just a hundred freshly shorn sheep milling and bleating in the meadow on the other side. There’s nothing tidy about it. They look like baby deer covered in buttercream frosting.

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Fort Ord moss-monster.

Sonora, 4/23–4/24

I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.

In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.

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Here we find Alex effortlessly matching everything.

Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.

The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote  [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”

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Seen downtown. Advertising, art installation, or a concise history of labor?

In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.

My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.

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Left: 5.8. Right: 15.2.

The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.

The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.

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Getting there.

Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.

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Sun’s out, tongue’s out.

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

IMG_8360
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.”

Arizona, 12/30-1/5

I want to say in our defense that Sedona is a totally reasonable winter mountain biking destination—average January high, 58°F. So even as far as Bakersfield, as we crawled toward the Mojave in an eerie yellow downpour,  I was still holding out hope for an early start on the year’s tan lines.

Alas, a few miles out of Kingman:

We saw Highway Patrol once in about six hours of this, but they were stuck in a ditch.
Our intrepid scout. We saw Highway Patrol once in about six hours of this, and they had driven into a ditch.

While marooned we made friends with a long-haul trucker, on his way to Texas with a stock trailer of cows in heat. Drawn in by the smell, a lonesome steer materialized from the whiteout beyond the the fence-line, emitting sounds I would previously have thought beyond bovine ability. Ryan, also, exceeded all expectations: his rally-car driving got us past the blockade of spun-out semis and safely into Flagstaff, where I broke a four-year streak of “adventurous” New Year’s eves by ordering takeout and reading Flannery O’Connor at the Motel 6.

For our trouble we got the Grand Canyon dolled up in snow—stunning, truly—and as empty of crowds as it ever is. While we all agreed to a conservative, six-mile hike, it was obvious from the outset that we would end up doing double that for the chance of glimpsing the river. This, of course, is a hazard of walking downhill first.

Loves
“I hate you guys!” I shouted, since I don’t. “You both want to keep going, and you both know we should turn around, and you both know that if you wait long enough I’ll make the decision and then if it sucks you can blame me!” “Well I don’t think it will suck,” offered Philippe.

Sure enough, we passed our turnaround point and then another, lured, predictably, to the plateau’s edge. The Colorado was bottle-green and still a long way down and we shared our vantage point of it with a tagged teenage condor. I tried to take a picture and it hid its face under its wing; I deleted the shot out of respect, or anthropomorphism, or guilt. The clouds parted, pouring light, and the snowfield grew dim and blue in the long shadow of the walls. I felt I was lying face-up on the floor of a boundless cathedral.

YEAH OK FINE
The difference a day/six million years makes.

We slogged back uphill under the moon. The stillness was otherworldly but the pain was real; I kept my head down and stumbled after the boys’ shadows. Back on the rim we waited deliriously for pizza. Overnight the temperature dropped below zero and in the morning I couldn’t put a sentence together, much less my tent or breakfast. (Philippe, Canadian, was nonplussed.) We fled south, through Sedona to Cottonwood.

Lows in the twenties felt balmy by comparison, but the trails still looked like this:

First tracks, past this point—at least among humans. We followed the hoofprints hoping that deer like singletrack.
First tracks—at least among humans. We followed hoof-prints, hoping that deer prefer singletrack, too.

It’s inaccurate to say this was a great day on the bike, since truthfully I spent most of my time off it. But I had a lot of fun. My anxiety over everything the snow concealed—the cactus, rocks, and gullies—was counterbalanced by gratitude for the things it brought into relief: the sagebrush and the sky, Ryan’s patience, all the possibility of a new place.

Homeward bound, we stopped briefly at Bootleg Canyon (where I could at least see the things that scared me) and spent our last night at a municipal park in either Tehachapi or Tatooine. Morning was crystalline when it came, and the wind over the parched earth warm for the first time in days.

Peace on Earth.
Happy new year; peace on Earth.