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.

CLEAR!

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.

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.

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

Boulder (part one), 7/31-8/2

Thursday:  On the bus I meet an Australian who relocated to Boulder to join a startup. They’re developing some sort of kitchen appliance for growing fish. (“It’s very modular,” he explains. “Like, you have the option to add a tomato vine.”) In retrospect, this is the first indication that I may not have actually left San Francisco.

Friday: Lisette and I became friends at a collegiate mountain bike race in which I tried to sit on her wheel  and  she tried to push me off a cliff. These days she attends parasitology conferences, most recently in New Orleans, where she received a flask engraved with the image of a hookworm wearing Mardi Gras beads. This to me is very glamorous.

Lisette consults a map; I consult a
Tour-guide consults a map.

She escorts me to the forest (ROOSEVELT National Forest!) for my first-ever view of the Continental Divide. The sight of the white-gold glow behind the rim of a still snowy cirque has me in big-dork tears that I attribute equally to oxygen deprivation, rapture, and dismay at the realization that it’s physically impossible for me to ever reach such heights without months of expensive acclimatization in a mountain town.

But I have to admit I would not chose Boulder proper. It’s one thing that the air is thin, another that it lacks atmosphere.

Saturday: Eric is living the dream so hard I’m initially concerned it may be difficult not to hate him for it. But Boulder has made him a generous rope-gun: he runs me up an El Dorado Canyon arrete that combines slackjaw exposure with reassuring rock in a way I didn’t think was possible. It’s a glimmer of hope that my consistently miserable attempts to convert this activity into Type I fun might not be totally futile. Dare to dream?

rewritten
Photo by Peter Hamel, one pillar over. I’m the gray speck, Eric’s the green speck. Not pictured: many angry birds and how badly I needed to pee at this moment.

We go back into town to eat nachos and wait out the heat, then start the first Flatiron at dusk. That ending a day like this is feasible—the casual undertaking of six pitches?—blows my little flatlander mind, as does the view from the rappel: summit silhouettes and a big moon, distant Denver rising from the wide, dim plains like Oz.