Fall forward, 2019

Genoa

This climb is pretty civilized, but it’s also 20 miles long. By the time we’re over it, I’m over it: I dump my bike unceremoniously on the rocks and stumble off to stuff my face and drink the view—Lake Tahoe in dreamy blue haze far below.

Sean’s moving my bike out of the way when he notices the headset is loose. After many years of watching my eyes glaze over at the first mention of mechanics, most of these guys would rather fix something for me than watch me make it worse, which suits my version of feminism just fine. Sean tightens the headset and, being both generous and thorough, starts checking the rest of the bike, too. 

“Uh, you might to look at this, actually,” he says.

“Don’t care, do whatever,” I reply around the last of my sandwich.

“No, seriously. Do you have a 10?”

One of the pivot bolts has loosened to the point you can see daylight between pieces of the frame. To fix it takes a tool nobody’s carrying, so I face the prospect of a long, baby-head-strewn descent on a bike coming apart at the seams—or on foot.

I’m cry-laughing at my options when a pair of riders appears over the hill behind us—the only other people we’ve seen on the trail all day. After a suspenseful few moments of rummaging through his pack, one of them presents Sean with a 10 millimeter Allen wrench.

I will end the season with my trail karma deep in the red.

At Mormon Station State Park, an unrelated ailment and an unrelated cure.

Usal Hopper

I thought sea level might help, but—apart from dropping things out of my pockets—I’m having all the same problems I did at Lost and Found. It’s a beautiful day and the course is a treat, but with a number on I just want to get it over with.

Being not especially athletic, my best strategy for doing this involves spinning slowly up climbs, then riding the descents at a speed at which I can’t actually see anything and a wreck would end in the hospital. Every time I careen past someone fitter than me I hear echos of my former self watching the podiums for my first race, circa 2008.

“It’s not fair,” I’m hissing at my boyfriend, who’s (quite correctly) ignoring me. “She was behind me the whole time and then she just passed me going downhill! Does that even count? It’s just gravity!”

Twelve years, twenty pounds, a ponytail, and a literal awkward turtle ago …

I’m glad, truly, to be better now both at losing and descending. But I still miss those days—back when riding bikes wasn’t cool. From my sample size of two, it appears that organized gravel events are my petty, contrarian hell: something I want to do that the Popular Kids want to do, too. 

In the evening the beach is awash in craft beer, peppered with Ibis and Thesis bikes (Ibises? Theses?) posed against driftwood and the sunset for Instagram. In the gentle surf, a pair of yoga-bodied blonde chicks splash naked arm in arm, while various indistinguishable bearded men mill around their string-lit Sprinter vans pretending not to watch. I’ve been trying to study pelicans through my binoculars and now I have to put them down so I don’t look like a creep. I do recall graduating middle school, but I’m so irritated with the whole scene I could spit.  

They’re out here, too, though, my Freds, my people. They were the retirees trundling the 60+ miles on un-ironic hybrids; the red-faced couple on a tandem. We don’t speak apart from brief congratulations at the finish, but I decide they’ve dated since high school and met in marching band. I love them as fiercely and unjustifiably as I resent everybody else.

Good reason, at the end of the day.

Big Chief

The much-hyped, new-to-us trail is too technical for me: I’m walking more than I’m riding. It’s also bitterly cold, occasionally raining, and, by the time we get back to the car after getting lost and riding in circles for an extra 45 minutes, almost dark. 

And I am so, so happy.

New ground, winter-spring 2019

Boonville

Compared to my friends I am much less fit and much more concerned about trespassing—which is easy enough to do here, whether you mean to or not. I don’t know which side of the Jefferson state line we’re on, but I do know none of us is quite white enough to make assumptions in the woods.

I win some route-finding squabbles; I lose some. On Fish Rock (legal, but too long for me) I cut out early and wait at the car in the gathering darkness for the boys. When they find me I am muddy from looking at sticks and mushrooms.

Geyserville

I love the ruins, the steam, the bend in the river, love the deflating Mad-Max pavement and the unconcerned cows chewing cud on the centerline. I can have a shining-white view of the Russian River Valley or a screaming, serpentine descent into it; I cannot, alas, have both.

Sean’s uncanny instinct for the most and best food leads us to a Mexican grocery stocked with things I’ve never seen before, less because I am not Mexican than because I am not a cook. There is interesting cheese and Twinkie variants; there are strange cones of brown sugar. I learn these are called piloncillo: literally—too good to be true—”little pylons.”

La Grange

Exchequer is a small park and I want it to myself. To arrive in time for a chance at this—that is, to ride new dirt without weekending GoPro-bros from the valley on my ass—means provisioning at a tiny shop in La Grange. The door breathes a plume of gold-lit dust at my heels as it shuts behind me; I have Pringles and expired chocolate milk for dinner.

But on the trail I get what I came for. I can laugh like a mad thing at the view—land before time—and there’s no one to hear me.

Arroyo Seco

A new bike materializes at the same time as a new job that will prevent me from riding it. I flee south in a sort of desperation, so keen to try this bucket-list route while I still can that I don’t ever check to see where it actually goes.

I’m in the honeymoon period of a bike upgrade where you’d swear the thing has an engine. Hours of climbing feel effortless and the sun is warm on my skin for the first time in months. The wet winter has brought forth a parade of wildflowers that smile and nod from the road-cuts, from beds of chaparral and yucca and agave. On my knees in a saddle meadow carpeted with lupine, I heave with what I suppose the kids these days or a doctor might call a panic attack and I’d call a perfectly reasonable response—to anything so beautiful it hurts, to anything you might never have again.

We talk about “FOMO,” of course, and trivialize it as millennial conceit. But the frivolous little twigs—the aftertaste of the acai bowl when (!) you might have ordered avocado toast—grow on the same family tree as the most fundamental fear we know. I’m on a middling branch as I consider that I have bills to pay, that I can’t stay in this field forever. But at the base—I’m sorry; this is how I’ll excuse my behavior—is nothing less than the specter of death.

Mt. Uhumuhum

Look on my works, ye mighty

I grew up down here on box lore: haunted (false), haunting (true), guarded by armed survivalists (true again). To see the site open now impresses me: I can guess at the work it took to reconcile the EPA with multiple jurisdictions and the smarting Amah Mutsun. I watch the latter shuffle and hum in the ceremonial circle, their piece of the park pie. The tower behind me of course gives an impression of watching, too.

The other ridgeline scar and urban legend in the South Bay is the quarry—rumored of aliens, corpses, etc. Strangely enough I’ve been there, too: in junior year a friend and I finagled a tour by claiming we wanted to write an article for the school paper. We wore polo shirts, trying to look serious, and ogled trucks with tires the size of a house. We had a hell of a time and never actually wrote a word about it.

I am too often in my head, keep too many notes, to be truly confused by my own past logic very often. So while it seems a small thing, I can say without exaggeration that not writing that quarry story is among the most mystifying decisions of my life.

Portola

Theoretically I no longer ride bikes competitively. I will occasionally pay for a destination event if it’s got something I need: a water stop or good camping or permissions for private land (see: Boonville). “I’m not racing,” I will announce, piously, as if anyone gave a shit. “I’m just riding with a number on.”

In reality? Though I’m not willing or able to ride fast, once I put said number on I’m just as dogged as ever by the idea that I can’t stop: not for photos, not for the water I paid for, and not to drop my tire pressure from the cement-like PSI I left it trying to seat my new tires the night before. Nor do I feel I can stop to pick up the driver’s license that falls out of my pocket, where I’d stuck it after eking through registration three minutes before the start. “You dropped something!” yell a half-dozen riders behind me. “Okay!” I yell back.

Sixty-three painful miles at altitude plus a night’s rest and a journey home later I realize it is in fact a huge pain in the ass to replace a driver’s license. I’m still despairing over appointment windows and my new work schedule a week later when this letter turns up it the mail—miraculous. I send a thank-you card, a prayer, and the postage back. The address is a P.O. Box.

The event, if you’ll allow it: Lost and Found.