Durango to Moab 2020, the prelude

I am crying in a Tahoe motel room, a meltdown precipitated by the sound of someone coughing in the hallway and the buzz of a group chat update: with days to go before our scheduled departure from Durango, only half of us have COVID test results.

The delay presents a problem somewhere between moral calculus and an LSAT question. Are the negatives willing to travel with unknowns, if a positive result delivered en route would disqualify the whole car? What if someone’s still waiting on results by the time we’re supposed to head into the backcountry? Would a result even mean anything if it was—at that point—a week old?

This is my first attempt at going anywhere since These Challenging Times began. I’d pictured long weekends training at altitude all spring; instead I’ve hardly been more than riding distance from my one-room apartment in four months. I’m overwhelmed by the sidewalks crowded with tourists, bristle at the man who stands too close to me at check-in.

“If we go and someone gets sick it’ll be my fault because it was my idea,” I protest.

“You’re giving yourself way too much credit,” Ryan says. “Everyone’s an adult. Everyone’s here because they chose to be here.”

“I know,” I croak, “but still.”

Gas station purchase, apropros

COVID conditions were still excruciatingly uncertain at the point we’d had to decide whether to keep our reservation—muddled questions about transmission, ongoing shortages of PPE. In the Bay Area it was all grim headlines and hand sanitizer recipes, NextDoor pile-ons and neighbors berating each other for mask lapses on the street. But when I called the tour company in Colorado they had answered breezily that they were operating more or less as as normal. The dissonance rattled my skull.

The group met to discuss it it—over Zoom. We are all Good Citizens, or at least very much want to be, and so it was and remains difficult to separate actual fear of getting or spreading the virus from fear of appearing not to care. Two of the party are married to nurses. The rest know enough.

Was the situation so unclear that clearly we shouldn’t go, or clearly so unclear that we should? On the one hand the news cycle seemed to birth some fresh hell daily. On the other hand, next year things might be even worse. “Personally I am oscillating between fuck-no and YOLO roughly every three hours,” I write to the boys. “This is friggin’ crazy,” one replies.

My question but very much not my answer sheet

Now we pass through one-street towns in Nevada, shambling storefronts with angry Sharpie bans on entry to anyone with a mask on. I still don’t have a COVID result. Online, commentators wonder why we don’t batch test like the Rwandans. From the back seat I try to work out how you’d determine the optimal number of samples per batch, given a certain infection rate. The engineer in the car is initially amused by this, less amused when my remedial math questions make us miss the turn to Provo.

When we finally arrive there we stop for lunch at a city park. The other tables are occupied by big families of unmasked Mormons. I’m not sure if they believe in COVID, but I know they believe in heaven and so I stay as far away as I can. Hours later it’s orderly, distanced queues for groceries in Grand Junction, then onward to signed threats on the “fashist” governor’s life just a few miles down the road.

One nation, individuals.

‘Welcome to our world’

In Silverton at last we’re sorting gear in the motel room when there’s a loud crash and a panicked wail from the parking lot below. I turn to the window and see a big touring motorcycle down, the rider convulsing on the pavement. At first it seems he’s been hit, but his passenger, frantic, screams to onlookers that he’s having a seizure. A flurry of activity. Her hands to her face.

He is alright now, it seems, but my heart is pounding. I don’t want to make a habit of crying in front of my friends in motel rooms, but for a moment I think I might again. Empathy for the stranger condenses quickly into judgement as I gather myself. I think of the winding, shoulder-less mountain road up from Ouray, the sheer rock and long fall to the river below. It’s one thing to choose yourself to ride yourself, with such a dangerous condition, but to take someone else with you? How irresponsi—and the word comes screeching to a halt on my tongue.

The countdown to departure is all tradeoffs and squabbles. Garmin has been hacked, hilariously, and I can’t determine if my SOS device will still work. The weather is deteriorating and we’ve bought up all the gardening gloves from the hardware store. I’m shedding pack weight in ridiculous, desperate ways (do I need both spare socks?) at the same time that Ryan’s trying to convince me to bring canned oxygen and Jacob is distributing hand-carved spoons. Meanwhile Sean’s in the parking lot offloading mangos and yogurt to a party of four-wheelers in an attempt to clean out his car. “Hey, thanks, man,” they say.

I bark and nag and fret until we have all six of us assembled on time (!) at the shuttle pickup spot. The driver steps out of the van with temperature gun drawn. Six moments of truth.


When we unload the bikes at the trailhead the actual clouds are gathering into grim gray fists—but the metaphorical ones have parted into sunshine. I know the week ahead is likely to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. We have 200 miles to cover—today’s opener all above 11,000 feet, with weather incoming, on a bike I’ve never even ridden fully loaded. But I feel, for a moment, weightless. “Here we go!” someone says, but “We made it!” is all I can think.


Point Reyes, 7/18-7/19

Point of clarification: I don’t like bike camping, exactly. I just like it better than riding very far or very fast or anywhere I’ve already been a hundred times.

Peanut gallery at 12th St. Oakland:
Peanut gallery at 12th St. Oakland: “That bike got a badonkadonk.”

Biggest mystery: Is Blazing Saddles just hiding the bodies? I’d think it impossible that there shouldn’t be fatalities, daily. These are visitors from flat cities full of Fiats and baguettes; it seems almost unconscionable to send them wobbling out into our world.

Disaster averted: Samuel P. Taylor is the Bay Area bike-in standard and consequently overrun with people hipper than me. In Fairfax I encountered an artisanally disheveled couple going my way. The sight of their frayed denim crystallized my unease at the prospect of sharing a site with people who might judge me for my lack of tattoos, vintage ride, or any method of preparing my own coffee. Imagine my relief, then, when the ranger instead placed me with two French retirees: we shared only a brief and amicable exchange about the weather and the best rock for setting tent stakes. Quel soulagement!

Left: Om. Right: Nom.
Left: Om. Right: Nom.

Shit roadies say … in front of me, while I’m eating a scone the size of my head in Point Reyes Station: “I mean, if you’re just puttering along in Zone 1 or 2, you really might as well not be riding your bike.”

Animals I didn’t see (even though I probably should have before they’re all dead): Tule elk. I planned on setting up at Sky Camp Sunday morning and then riding to Pierce Point on safari. I did not plan on it being 95 degrees and humid. Once up Limantour Road was enough—I went on a walk to Kelham Beach instead.


Things I had to disregard in order to do this: The time, my metatarsals, my shirt.

Animals I did see: A raptor dark against the sun, grasping a wriggling fish. A live snake I thought was dead; a dead seal I thought I was alive. Quails: they preened in the trees, burst out of the bushes, throbbed in the air. A whale! (Well, the splash and spouting water, but still.) A beetle, the flat and total black of a pitch-dark room. Pelicans in pairs. A crow alone. A buck bounding away, stiff-legged, hilarious.

The straight and narrow.

Black Diamond Mines, 7/11–7/12

Black Diamond Mines is a fringe territory of the EBRPD that I’ve been meaning to try for years. Part of the drag is that it’s out in Antioch: there’s a greenway route, but it’s barren and hot and, when I rode there, had more abandoned shopping carts than people. This meant anyone I did see I imagined murdering me; furthermore I suspected the owners of the morose little houses abutting the path would, in that event, turn up their television sets to drown out my screams.

Lately I’ve been questioning whether it would be worth this sort of sprawling suburban wasteland to achieve home ownership and my official Badge of Adulthood. I’ll credit this little trip for reminding me of the answer, which is: no, God, a thousand times no.

De Anza Regional Trail
But don’t get me wrong, I appreciated De Anza Regional for keeping me entirely out of traffic. When a utility and a parks district love each other very much, sometimes they make a trail together!

Once into the park, I trundled up the usual fire-road climb to the ridgeline. The view is very good: a long valley gold and billowing like water, a rarely seen face of Diablo, and, in the bright haze on the horizon, the towers of either Sacramento or Oz. I ditched my bike in a stand of what I later learned is the northernmost occurrence of Coulter pine (neat!) and hiked back down through tunnels of manzanita with dusky pink sandstone underfoot. There’s an old mining-town cemetery here; the effect of the incongruous skinny cypress on the steep and stripped-bare hillsides—and the tiny turbines advancing on the river in the distance—is that of having walked into a model railway. I read crumbling headstones and reflected on my good fortune to have avoided dying of typhoid at age 12.

My company at Stewartville camp that night was a driving wind and a chorus of coyotes, an atmosphere so end-of-the-world I was taken completely off-guard by the first joggers in the morning. (Read: was not wearing pants.) On my way out the other side of the park I stopped to investigate Star Mine. It’s just a short tunnel, but still the farthest I’ve ever been underground—and more than far enough to eliminate my previous interest in going caving.

Nope, nope, nope.
“Many sink down to the Underworld— and few return to the sunlit lands.”

In sum, while I can’t exactly recommend it to the able-bodied for riding in July—especially since so much trail is closed to bikes—this is a real interesting place for history, geology, and colors. (Also a commendable piece of park planning, given the lack of other open space in this part of the bay.) I’ll be back for the official, well-lit mine tour and wildflowers in the spring.

<3 California <3

End times: bike camping

My theory of evolution for the mediocre cyclist is that once you get too busy, lazy, or broken to race, there are only two paths forward. One leads to downhilling, the other to touring.

Implausible as it may seem to anyone who’s ever watched me mountain bike (or more accurately, walk my mountain bike around any actual mountain biking), I really did have my sights set on option one. This is about aspiration, after all, and I want to be fast and brave far more than I want to … carry stuff. But with still-coagulating metatarsals, it finally came to this:

Alpine. Here I realized that my bike was drunk, or at least not packed very well.
Alpine. Here I discovered that my bike was drunk, or at least not packed very well.

Day 1: Mountain View to Portola Redwoods. When I called the ranger from Skyline I learned there was only one campsite left. (“They’re going fast,” he added, “so I hope you are, too!”) Descending 7 miles and 2,000 feet with the prospect of having to turn around and go back up was grim; snagging the last walk-in, joyous. I met some actual bikepackers, who told me about getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on an abandoned Indian reservation. This made my Georgia freakout seem extra bush league.

Day 2: Portola Redwoods to Butano. Mostly just coasting down Old Haul Road, listening to birdsong and watching the light come through the trees like freakin’ fairy dust. There wasn’t a wicker basket full of wildflowers and baguettes on the front of my bike but there might as well have been.

THIS WILL BE RECTIFIED IN THE NEAR FUTURE. (Related: this has been on my to-do list for four years. -_-)

At Butano I hiked a loop around the park to see the abandoned air-strip. It was a real bad idea on the injury front, but worth it to get up onto the ridge, to the heat and the sun and the light. There is Spanish moss on everything. Plus I saw banana slugs, an alligator lizard, a six-point buck, and all the way the ocean, gee whiz!

Day 3: Butano to Palo Alto. I had planned to climb Tunitas Creek but wimped out in favor of a tailwind-assisted spin up 84. Not sorry. On the way home, I assembled my preliminary assessment of bike camping, below:

+ You experience 50% less self-loathing for incidental pastry consumption en route.
+ You experience 75% less self-loathing for riding really, really slowly.
– Combination of the above is dangerous.
– About 50% as fun as either normal riding or normal camping: bike handles badly because it’s heavy, plus/even though you left all the glamping items at home trying to cut weight.
– In my case this included toothpaste.
– If you’re even a bit grubby, people in Palo Alto think you’re a hobo.
– Wait … am I a hobo?
+ You experience 60% more smugness when passing triathletes.
– I’m going to have to buy more gear.
– Seriously, how is possible than I have to buy more gear?
+ I love stopping to look at everything!