Wyoming elsewhere, 9/11–9/13

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.

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Water Canyon to Park City, 8/29–9/4

Water Canyon

Enormous black crickets burst out of the grass.

Winnemucca

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.

The Rubies

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.

Bonneville Flats

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?

Park City

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. 

Sierra summer

Bear Valley, 6/16–6/17

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:

  1. 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.  
  2. The galaxy.
  3. 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!

Pinecrest, 7/7–7/8

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. 

Downieville, 7/13–7/15

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. 

Tahoe, 8/17–8/18

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)_/¯

Kernville, 6/8–6/10

We have summoned “Shuttle Bob”—the man, the myth, the legend. Driving this stretch of road yesterday, he says, he hit a snake, which somehow cartwheeled underneath his truck and onto the grill of the one behind him. Bob watched this whole drama unfold in the rearview. Darnedest thing.

I assume this story is not entirely accurate, just as the “Killer Kern” did not claim 43 lives last year; just as the drownings were not all of drunk off-duty guides who’d forsaken the embrace of a lifejacket or a good woman. Nevertheless, I can see the hapless rattler limp and airborne in the mirror as clearly as I see the green water churning in front of my eyes, the last snatch of a tilted horizon before the crush of the last and deepest dark.

A way to live, no way to die. 

Bob thinks I’m one of the guys, which is often my aspiration and anyhow fair enough: I’m misgendered now and then in civilian clothes, never mind plaid baggies. Curiously, though, his conviction persists even after I speak—even after I inquire pointedly after the name of the Beautiful Yellow Flowers edging the switchbacks on Sherman Pass.

“You’ve all ridden Cannell before?” he asks us.

“We have, she hasn’t.”

“He’ll be alright,” Bob says.

Whereas this is clearly Sean and not me because his elbows are up. Will I never learn?

I am. The last time we came to Kernville my knee or hip or something couldn’t hack it—so even gasping at the altitude I am grateful to be here now, to skitter down gullies chewed up by dirt bikes, to pinball off the baby-heads and whoop at the berms. The namesake “plunge” roars down toward Lake Isabella across a tawny canvas strewn with granite and splashed with wildflowers—a view that may kill me if I try to take it in without stopping.

Speed and color, I decide, is my wish for the summer. Time to fly, while the days are long. I want to go fast and see beautiful things!

Dude, pull over.

NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

aspens

That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

sanmiguel

Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.

Summer/fall 2017, reader’s digest

or: Can’t take me anywhere; I go anyway

Oakridge, 7/1–7/4

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Here my sins against stoke included napping in the shuttle van instead of riding Hardesty and getting so pissed off at Middle Fork—the most miserable, deadfall-strewn, mosquito-ridden bushwack I have ever (barely) pedaled: 57 bites accumulated while sweating it out in a jacket—that I opted for a fire-road climb over a second singletrack descent. This did at least get me to the treeline, where Oregon finally starts to look good. Also on the bright side: Alpine, as always; a fun new stopover loop in Klamath; and great company.

Emigrant Wilderness, 8/12–8/13

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Quick trip, the granite bright and the wildflowers extravagant. I would consider this my masterclass in third-wheeling but for the presence of Pickles the very helpful blue heeler, who made us four. At night we all watched the perseids smudge war-paint on the sky.

Tahoe, 8/19–8/20

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On the Tahoe Rim Trail we found a dog, a beautiful blonde husky with fur like latte art and eyes like the center of a nebula—not sorry, both are true. It was hot and collarless and wandering in the woods. I was leaving my second voicemail at an animal shelter when its owners (we assume) pulled up in an F150 and snatched the animal back without a word. “You should fucking say thank you, assholes, go to hell!” I yelled after their rising dust as the boys cringed. On reflection, this outburst stemmed from an upbringing on both sides of the pond: I take manners seriously, like a Brit, but escalate like a red-blooded American.

At camp we found … a hailstorm. We fled to dinner in town and watched rainbows over the railroad tracks.

And on Donner Summit we found a giant bonsai garden and a geocache. In it, among other things, were letters to a couple—both dead, the wife just recently—whose friends had hiked to the peak to scatter their ashes. “Thank you for being part of my memory. Seven of us have made the trek this morning to pay our respects. … We uncorked a bottle of $5 wine that tasted like $50. We love you, my friend.” Point in my favor, I managed not cry about that one until I got home.

Ventana Wilderness, 9/2–9/4

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From a dirt road pullout high on the ridge, I watched the setting sun drop shafts of light onto the crinkled Pacific through holes in a lid of wildfire smoke.  I saw my first tarantula, held my palm to peeling manzanita, and hid in the tent from black flies worse—honest—than anything I can remember from Africa. I revisited Cone Peak, under very different circumstances, and on the coast side of the mountains drove Highway 1 between the mudslides for a preview of the end of the world.

It will be alright, I decided, when it’s all over. This road, these cypress, California, will fall slowly into the sea. The whales will breach with no one watching  out where the sky and the water meet, in the same blue haze. A warmer wind will stir the palms. They’ll get too tall to be true.

In the interim, driving home through Fort Hunter Liggett, every massive, moss-draped oak was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.

Downieville, 9/8–9/10

Concisely: I live for elevation, die at altitude; cursed Mills Peak on the way up, sang its name all the way down; didn’t want to get in Packer Lake and then didn’t want to get out. The usual.

I mostly want to note this insane candy-corn fungus. How does this happen?

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Tahoe, 9/16–9/17

Aside from the fact that its main event was mountain biking, the best part of this particular bachelorette party was that these girls were content to Let Me Do Me, no pressure. They toasted with wine and I with tea; they painted their nails while I fastidiously arranged all the polish in a spectrum. ROYGBIV.

Mendocino, 10/7–10/8

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At first the trees were radiant, benevolent. I knelt in the needles at their feet and considered praying, probably did. But later on the wind picked up—so gradually I didn’t notice my own rising unease until I lost my GPS track, stopped to pull out a map and registered the muffled howl through the canopy and crack and groan of trunks disappearing into the dark. Small branches rained down around my head as I bolted out of the woods, and though I’d planned on staying for the night I was so relieved to find the car I fled home instead.

As I drove south watching the gale flatten the parched grass along the highway, there was a distinct moment I thought to myself, this would burn like a motherfucker. When the next morning I discovered that it in fact had, there was an infinitesimal and awful moment in which I imagined I had ignited Sonoma County with my mind.

Bend, 10/27–10/30

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I don’t know why I can’t accept that it is winter here, or that I’m too slow to ride with these guys any more, but on the strength of my denial I pushed my bike through snow and hauled it over and under an endless obstacle course of downed trees. I rode literally half of what everybody else did and still was so tired by the end of the weekend that I hyperventilated at Ten Barrel when the waitress informed me they’d run out of giant cast-iron cookies. They hadn’t, either; this was  just the boys’ idea of a joke.

I shared anyway*.

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* Possibly the motto for this blog.

Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.

Minneapolis, 6/4–4/2

In Minneapolis the bus shelters face away from the street. This seems strange but presumably has something to do with snow, which I know nothing about. A few stops after I board the doors open to admit a half-dozen people with white canes, some of whom are having a truly inane conversation about what, hypothetically, they would like for breakfast.

“Well I don’t have any sausage today, so how about bacon?” “Bacon is fine. “I like it a little bit crunchy.” “How about grits?” This goes on for the next eight stops. I cannot determine if they’re trolling, cognitively impaired, or engaged in an entirely normal Midwestern conversation, and as I’m straining to work it out I realize I’ve been in almost this exact situation before. Perhaps I’m impaired. I don’t know.

Related: one of the blind women is very beautiful but conceivably not aware of this, an idea I find no less romantic for being unoriginal.


Wandering around by myself, per usual, I’m also having a hard time discerning bad neighborhoods from good ones, because they all have green trees and large yards. The freeways and river –rivers?— seem to be everywhere at once; there is nothing on the horizon; the U of M campus, where I’m staying for a conference, is on both sides of the water and all its buildings look the same. It’s disorienting.

In the bike shop, by contrast, I have the very familiar experience of standing in silence for five minutes before any of the four men at the counter acknowledge my existence—a rental rite long since passed from a source of irritation into a sort of anthropological study. When I am eventually allowed to leave with a bicycle I ride it to Theodore Wirth, which is what Golden Gate Park could be if San Francisco wasn’t. The trails are a little contrived and the locals are taking it too seriously, but nonetheless it’s a hell of thing to have in a city park. I ride the best trail last and then I do it again.

I’m across the street from the lightrail platform later that week when a girl gets mugged. I hear her scream and have an impression of her lying fetal on the ground with her eyes shut, a detail surely fabricated as I was too far away to see. The trio of young men who attacked her disappear up a steep lawn into the night. “We see you!” shouts a bystander, as if that matters. Back in our Cold War-era dorms the violence of the scene causes me to interpret the stains on the curtains as blood.

This is discouraging but I wander anyway, hit the parks, library, a museum, a climbing gym, my new-city stations of the cross. In the end the most dangerous thing I encounter is a grilled cheese sandwich with walnuts in it. Fuck.

On the way to the airport at the end of the week I ask the driver about his worst passengers—I always do this—and he unhesitatingly cites, “the low-income people, the diversity people.” I am literally in the middle of reading an article on “racial imposter syndrome” and make neutral noises from the backseat, trying to remember how brown I look or don’t look in my Lyft profile photo. It transpires that his actual objection is to mothers with very young children and no car seats, who scream at him when he declines, as his legal obligation, to drive without them. I wonder—but not really—why he couldn’t have just said that.

Compared to home the city seems less diverse but also less segregated. Somalis are everywhere, mothers and daughters gliding along the ground in jilbaab. I won’t pretend I don’t think of Dune and I won’t pretend not to find it unsettling; in truth to me there is something alien about any child who looks identical to its parent. But what does it matter, in the scheme of things? What is the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become Somali in comparison to the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become a war zone?

On the bus two laughing teenage girls had boarded from the back, shoving and yelling at each other in Somali. They sat behind an old man in a gold kameez and gleaming crocodile wingtips, his leathery forehead wrinkled beneath an embroidered skullcap. He grimaced for a few stops, then turned and shushed them gently. After that they quieted down. They might have listened or they might just have been done shouting, who can say.

Three trips to Oregon with snow

Ashland, 11/18–11/20

I think the chamber of commerce here could use an angle other than Shakespeare. I want to sell them on selling themselves as the halfway point between San Francisco and Portland, a distinction I assume to be relevant to more abandoned Bay Area holdouts than just me.

I’m waiting for the Portland end of the bargain inside a nominally Bard-themed motel room, eating pizza and watching George Clooney rock a mockneck in The Perfect Storm. Past a certain hour I can’t separate the sound of the weather on TNT and outside the window, can’t be entirely sure the bed’s not listing to starboard. I turn on all the lights.

On the trails over the weekend the rain is snow that balls up in my not-so-fat bike’s rear triangle every hundred yards. I do a lot of walking and pushing, stamping my feet and biting my tongue. The Person Whose Idea It Was to go this way very wisely drives down from mid-mountain alone so I can ride one more descent, snow-free. Whether this is intended as a magnanimous gesture or just to avoid having me drive his truck, I’m not sure—but I’ll take it.

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A detour to “see” Crater Lake. “Good thing you have four-wheel drive,” he says as we pass a Prius in a ditch. “Wait, I do?” “Wait, you don’t?”

Portland, 12/15–12/18

As with anywhere else I ever visit I’m in Portland in part to determine if it’s somewhere I could move. But in its long northern twilight and coat of dirty ice the city is not putting its best face forward. It’s not so cold, but it’s cold enough it hurts.

I did not grow up with any real winter; my earliest reference points lay through the wardrobe to Narnia and so even now I associate snow with a sort of sorcery or bewitchment. At the waterfalls in the gorge the spell is cast and spattered in white on bridges, branches, cave mouths, columns of basalt.

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White Witch was here

For indoor amusements we visit the railroad museum: he discusses torque with retirees while I watch safety videos from the ’80s, rapt and mouthing cautionary mnemonics. At an indoor bike park called the Lumberyard I prove myself uncoachable and discover, by taking the bus, where the city has hidden its minorities. (Out by the airport, if you were wondering.)

A Portland phenomenon slightly easier to get behind is combination bike/coffee shops. On the way to one we pass a golden retriever in a Christmas scarf, which I smile at—do dogs know when you smile at them?—and then forget. But when I open the door to the café a few blocks later it is onto a room full of dogs; they are everywhere, among vintage bikes and in baubled sweaters, tussling on the floor in felt antlers, tongues lolling over jingle-belled collars and leashes wound with tinsel. I’m tired and surprised and so all I can do is start crying. “Jesus Christ,” mutters my tour guide. “Santa!” I sob. Owners and dogs are lining up to get their picture taken with him. (Not Him.) There’s a pug on his lap.

Corvallis-ish, 12/15–12/18

What I’d generally say about a lot of Oregon at this point is, it’s alright but the trees get in the way of things. I prefer a forest from some distance above it: I like the plumes of mist that snake out of the canopy, the reassurance that the planet’s still alive. But when actually in the woods I tend to want to get out of them. To hike for an hour without a sightline makes me itchy and eventually anxious for the sky.

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Lumberjack gym

Fortunately there’s also an air and space museum. It has an IMAX theater, for fighter-jet movies, and a goddamn water park—which you can enter via twisty slide inside the 747 that’s parked on the roof. The adjacent hanger contains, among other things, the actual Spruce Goose. One wing is cross-sectioned so you can see that it’s full of beach balls, sweartagawd.

This plane is so large it defies pano mode, cannot be taken in in its entirety from any single point in the building. I’m interested in this but not, unfortunately, in my friend’s explanation of how the engines work. There is a flight simulator, which he can operate instantly and intuitively. I demand a turn and crash over and over into the virtual runway—sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

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.