Georgetown, 10/26–10/27

I try to attend women’s-only mountain bike events once every few years to avoid becoming completely incompetent. We all improve by observing others, but my usual riding partners are men so much faster than me that they’re rarely in sight. Even when I can watch them, their clearing an obstacle is meaningless—whereas I consider a woman doing the same thing to be admissible evidence I should at least try it. If this approach is completely sexist, it has also thus far kept me alive.

Having said that, all-women events stress me out. There’s often a lot of dancing and “WOOO”-ing, and while men can choose to stand apart from these rituals without drawing much notice, opting out as a woman tends to cause other women to assume you’re a stuck-up bitch. It doesn’t help that in my case it’s arguably true. 

Point being, I am already swimming against a current of dread when I arrive late to the meeting point and find the parking lot full of women kitted up in armor—a lot of armor. I watch them loading big bikes onto the shuttle rigs and observe an alarming number of full-face helmets.

Oooooooh shit, I think. I am at the wrong party.

By Donna Ellsworth, ripper.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Georgetown trails are somehow everything I like and nothing I don’t: all wide, chunky, fast stuff, no acrobatics, no exposure, no water. Even without a functional rear brake (….), by far the most intimidating part of the day is dinner with 20 women I don’t know—and even that is easy to sneak out of once it gets dark. 

I go to bed resolving to Fully Participate on day two, but when I wake up the weather has taken a turn. A bone-dry wind is howling down through the woods to the foothills. The thoughtful decorative touches are blown about the lawn and the oaks are groaning and cracking overhead. No fool, the organizer pulls the plug. 

The first two roads I follow out of camp are blocked by downed trees. When I finally reach the highway a few 15-point turns later, it’s strewn with branches and pine needles that crunch under my toy car as it wobbles in the gusts. In the small Gold Country towns where PG&E cut the power days ago, the blank-faced stoplights are swinging drunkenly in the wind. Construction debris rattling down the sidewalk sounds strangely like shouting: get out, get out, get out. 

… on the other hand, I hate to waste a day out of my own zip code and I’ve always wanted a closer look at the Foresthill Bridge:

One ill-advised “short jog” later, a dozen or so grassfires are now burning between me and the bay. Driving in hapless circles through Sacramento trying to route my way around one of them, I at one point find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic across an overpass spanning visible flames. Crossing the Carquinez Bridge at last—hills smoldering on both sides of the water—I’ve been in the car for almost six hours: easily more time than I spent on my bike.

There are more days like this ahead, more and more grind for the right side of the ratio. We all know it and we pray for rain.

Foresthill, 6/25–6/26

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Is it hot out here, or does manzanita look like fire?

My friends are here to ride dirt bikes, the route I’ve picked is for a cyclocross bike, but what I’ve got with me is a road bike and so I use that and beat the crap out of it and feel pretty guilty. Perhaps because I’m already anthropomorphizing the Cannondale, the heat in the strangely silent Gold Country canyons seems somehow sentient as well—at the least, the furnace breath of a sleeping dragon under the dusty oaks.

It’s a long climb out of the ravine, shotgun shells and shrill private-property signs in typeface from the 50s or spray paint on plywood. I’m sure the route is trendy as a group ride but it’s creepy alone, plus I’m short a few gears and not fit enough to drop the mosquitoes. Back at camp a few too many hours later I’m acting like I’m excited for burgers … but really I’m just glad to see people who haven’t expressed a willingness to shoot me in writing.

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This thing turns 10 next year, at which point I can start saying I ride a vintage Cannondale.

After dinner we’re looking out over the lake in the dark. Someone points to the mirrored image of the pine trees on the opposite shore; someone else notes the surface of the water is so still it’s also and even reflecting the stars. I’ve been staring up at them—there are lots, compared to home—but now I drop my head and step to the edge of the shore. When I look into the lake I find to my amazement that there isn’t one, that instead I’m peering down at the lights of a distant city a thousand feet below.

It’s the effect of standing on a cliff edge; it’s uncanny, vertiginous. My stomach floats and my hands tingle. I back away and the lights disappear; I return again and they twinkle up at me as before. I do this over and over again for a good half-hour and every time am afraid the hidden city will have disappeared. It’s very hard to walk away and go to sleep.

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Morning after.

I don’t know many nights I’ve looked into a lake before, what collision of conditions flips empty air into them or whether it’s rare. But I think what I saw at the bottom is the light of what I want to believe most—that there is more to find, and further, that those things might be anywhere.

Surprise me!