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

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.

IMG_8150 copy
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.

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

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.

“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.

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.

Bend, 10/25-10/27

By the time we reached the bottom of the climb on Sunday, the falling flakes had progressed from “wintry ambiance” to “weather phenomenon.”  Sean wore the mad grin I long ago learned to associate with what he’ll call “an adventure ride” and I call a death march: the last thing I heard him yell before he turned onto the (rapidly disappearing) trail was,  “Who-o’s got their bad idea jeans on?”

Forgive the highly millennial selfie. I got the boys’ glamour shot and decided I needed photo evidence, too—because I sure as hell am not doing that again! 

My knee died, hard, for the first time in a long time. Unclear at this point if I’ll spend another week or another year fixing it, but I’m inclined to say it was worth it either way. A powder day on wheels? The snow crunched and squeaked under the tires,  collected on my eyelashes, fell from pine boughs in curtains of glitter—we carved! It was one of the most miserable, beautiful, best days I’ve ever had on a bike. I remembered why (or at least where) I like to ride.


Especially coming from the Bay Area, the difference between pedaling purpose-built singletrack—as opposed to a hiking route that happens to be bike-legal— is big and blissful, snowed over or not. But the trails aren’t all there is to love about Bend. Tinder (sorry, mom) tells me the dating market looks like this:

Hipster lumberjacks, real live cowboys, and … OK, less desirably, a decidedly sub-Californian level of cultural sensitivity.

The local paper, too, is revealing:

Bend, Oregon: Where you can bring a horse to a bike race, a bike race to a city council race, and … the advertisers know me already.

It was, as always, very hard to leave.

Just seven hours to go from here!

North Coast, 8/30-9/1

We failed yet again to get to Oregon, this time because most of what we wanted to ride was on fire. Though on the north coast the woods had not yet actually ignited, the drought was still with us: the Eel River is currently the Eel Riverbed, and Paradise Royale—which I had imagined looking like Fern Gully—reminded me, if anything, of  Santa Barbara.

But even bone-dry it was a refreshing detour. The loop’s main climb is encouragingly dubbed “Prince of Pain,” but because it’s a) purpose-built for bikes and b) not at elevation, it hurt way less than anywhere else I’ve gained 800 feet in under three miles. And there’s a (camp-chair) throne at the top.

QOM the easy way.  Paradise Royale also has a sweet skills area that I was too lazy (regal?) to try.

In Mendocino too we found many interesting things in the woods—including one of my favorite trails, Widowmaker, and local hero Roo Harris, whose book you absolutely need if you have any intention of locating it on the same day you start looking. While riding around in circles we also discovered a still-smoldering campfire. There was a lot of anxious debate and kicking sand around and pitiful use of Camelbak hoses before someone hit on the idea of peeing on the flames. And while I generally strive to be one of the guys on these trips …  in this case I took a pass.

Hidden treasures of Jackson State Forest. (But the beer stash is for trail crews; we left that alone.)

And because any trip with Jacob and Sean is as much about food as anything else—some parting shots below: the Peg House, recommended for deviled eggs, weed-themed accessories, and other Americana; Jacob presiding with biblical solemnity over a pizza menu, per usual; and the fine fruit of a farm stand off the Briceland-Thorn Road. It has an intimidating driveway, but at the end of it there are blackberry popsicles on the honor system. Worth a stop!

Ask him about the number on his shirt.

South Lake, 8/23-8/24

Ooooooh, altitude.

Freel Pass, alas, about 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.
Hurting at Freel Pass, alas, 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.

Deliberately made this ride shorter and e-e-ven slower than the first time I tried it and still barfed halfway up Star Lake Connector. Pretty charming, I know.

Sunday marked a minor milestone in my quest for multisport mediocrity because it was the first time I’ve ever mountain biked and climbed in the same day. Climbed, that is, a total of one 50-foot sport route, basically roadside … but I’ll take it on a technicality.

Also pretty sweet: Corral Trail’s new table-tops (that I almost got brave enough to try for real); miraculous last-minute reservations at Fallen Leaf so we didn’t have to sleep in a ditch; my trip buddy forgetting to bring a book and consequently getting bored enough in camp to swap my tires for me. Bwaha!

Boulder (part two), 8/3-8/6

Sunday: Twenty minutes into the ride I realize that my face hurts—it’s wrenched somewhere between a death-mask and a grin. Sabrina is not someone I (or you, most likely) could ever hang with; up here she is quickly reduced to a blue blur in the aspens and then a speck on the horizon where the Forest Service washboard meets the sky. Regardless, I am having an excellent time. There are flowers I don’t know and the world is bright and balmy.

Sabrina, per usual, a speck in the aspens.
This is much better than the last time one of us vanished in the foliage.

Later, in town, I lie on the grass drinking a milkshake while watching people run the Ironman. Heh.

Monday: Among my more drastic and less frequently used tactics for subduing fear is to attempt something scarier than my actual goal in order to make it feel easy by comparison. I decide to apply this method to my mortal terror of outdoor leads by attempting an easy free-solo of the second Flatiron. Sure, right?

To be clear, this is kid stuff (literally—note all the photos of happy toddlers). But I’m quickly off-route, and the easy bail option is not easy enough: in sight of the top, I yield to my commitment issues and downclimb—all the more absurd because doing so is almost certainly more dangerous than finishing.  Alas, there are known knowns, and I will always prefer them when 500 feet off the ground.

Tuesday: By contrast, my relationship with the sport of mountain biking has matured—which is to say that I no longer feel any obligation to try. This is especially true at resorts. Gone is the lift-pass guilt, the pangs of impostor syndrome that accompanied a big-bike rental, and the self-consciousness of plastering myself in armor just to ride my brakes down green runs. I know what I can shred and what will shred me and these days I’m pretty much fine with leaving those categories as they are. I paid my money and I’m here to have fun. And I do, bro, I do.

Ideally I would wear this much gear all the time. On BART, for example.

Chattanooga, 5/13-5/16

Once upon a time, Walter Cronkite got on the evening news and declared Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America. And lo, the city was sad, and it did cause parks to be made. And then all was green and good and the readers of Outside voted it “Best Town Ever.”

Left: Vacant lot turned pocket park, a-dorable. Right: Built in the 1890s, the Walnut Street Bridge was repaired for cyclist/pedestrian-only use instead of being demolished when the newer bridge opened. Unrealistic antasies of a similar fate for my beloved Bay Bridge tortured me every time I crossed this thing.
Left: Vacant lot turned pocket park. Right: When a newer bridge opened, the century-old Walnut Street Bridge was repaired for cyclist/pedestrian use instead of being demolished. Unrealistic fantasies of a similar fate for my beloved Bay Bridge tortured me every time I crossed.

That’s the basic narrative I spit for my employer, and it was fun to find the truth in it. In my unscientific sample, everyone from the bike shop boys to the drunk dude behind me in line for food-truck chicken and waffles effused variants (“Heinous!” “Hell-hole!”) on Chattanooga’s grimy past and current status as the poster-child for Southern revival.

And it really does seem straight-up livable these days: but for the dearth of “big-girl jobs” (in the words of a yoga instructor/receptionist/dirtbag/waitress) I’d happily relocate. If anything, Chattanooga reminded me of Some Parts of Oakland—the same gap-toothed smiles of abandoned buildings, the same mason jars of drip coffee and baristas with mermaid tattoos. Just warmer, softer, more sidewalk chessboards and flowering vines. People do walk slower. People do say, “Evening, ma.”

Left and right are about a block apart. If located in my zip code, Mean Mug Coffeehouse would require daily intervention by a fire marshall; as it is, there's always a couch open and coffee+lunch+dessert runs under $10. Glorious.
Left and right are about a block apart. If located in my zip code, Mean Mug Coffeehouse would require daily intervention by the fire marshal; as it is, I always found open couch spots and coffee+lunch+”WHATEVER I’M ON VACATION” dessert for under ten bucks. Glorious.

It rained too much to climb, which was disappointing, but I did ride. In fact, because no one with a better/ motorized idea ever pedals the ten miles from town to trailhead, I even briefly held the charming Strava honorific, “Queen of Raccoon Mountain.” Yeah, Tennessee, what’s up?

Anyway: I was told this 20-mile network is the region’s best, and I’d believe it. By California standards, the trails were in excellent condition, required almost no sustained climbing, and stayed technical enough to be interesting without ever making me want to cry or quit mountain biking forever. And that’s saying something these days, honestly.

The Raccoon Mountain network skirts a Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric facility. The reservoir is only occasionally in view, but you can often hear the hum and buzz of the transformers: there’s a white-noise effect that makes the already quiet woods seem an otherworldly sort of silent … a sensation probably enhanced by riding unfamiliar trails alone?

I also:

  • Rode at Stringer’s Ridge, a much smaller trail system, but also a Trust for Public Land project and in (legitimate) riding distance of downtown. It’s fast, flowy, lunch-break gold, a pump track’s in progress, and it could have been condos. Pretty rad.
  • Tried SUPing. I … do not need to try it again.
  • Ruinously skewed my standards for hostels at the Crash Pad: all the coffee and community, none of the crawling sensation that you’re acquiring lice.
  • Accidentally attended a motorcycle rally?
  • Toured Union and Confederate cemeteries, of course.
  • Canoed Chickamuaga Creek with some local staff, who knew all the planning-commission gossip and nuts-and-bolts of how greenway designers protect joggers from flying railroad spikes. Alas, I had nothing so interesting to report from paper-pushing at headquarters.

laugh all you like

… but last week felt like winter enough to me. Certainly from the bike, listening to the trail crunch under skittering tires.

photo (16)
Annadel on Sunday

The puddles were frozen over, crushed and crinkled and splintered into slivers and scalene shards. I followed the guys up the Two Quarry climb, through the chill of shaded hillsides and the fog of my own breath and into frosted clearings—glades? Can I say glades?—clear to me only in the slim crescents between the blur of my wind-tears and the glare of the sudden light. I love this place! I thought, and, I can’t feel my face!


I am celebrating (read: icing) the most Type II fun I’ve had in a long time. Or as Matt puts it:

Somebody activate my Obamacare
< bro > Because that trip was si-i-ick < /bro >

On my tiptoes. The whole weekend was a reach.

These guys were saintly, per usual, providing shop-work and snacks and sweet little lies about the amount of time they spent waiting in the wind—a knife’s-edge promise of the next day’s snow—while I dragged myself up climbs hours longer than anything I’ve attempted in years. The altitude upped the ante from “this is tough” to “I tried to ride over a tree root and I yakked up breakfast.” Pffffttttt. I love the mountains, madly, honest, but it seem that love alone won’t turn the pedals: I did a lot of walking my bike and a lot of “deciding” to sell the damn thing at the first available opportunity.

Fortunately, Jacob and I have a long friendship based largely on dismissing each other’s dramatics. “Oh, please,” he said, around the seventh or eighth time I announced I couldn’t continue. “You know you’re going to do the whole ride.” Yeah, well … OK.

Star Lake. Exhaustion to wonderment ratio approaching parity.

Anyway. There was this—the end of the season, shining on the water—and Tahoe blazing blue on the horizon, the snow packed into my pedals on the thin traverses and the glowing aspen leaves’ addled spin to the tumbledown granite of the creekbed. Maybe it was only my eyes gone bleary with the effort, but I swear every last little thing looked lit and living from the inside out. Typical: I can’t breathe here but can only breathe here. And what can I ever do about that?

D(r)ownieville turned Briones


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.