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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

Twin Falls to Ketchum, 10/9-10/10

Lest I imply it’s all sunsets and rapture out here, let me begin by saying Twin Falls sucks. The outskirts are parking lots and pawnshops, beady-eyed men with neck tattoos and listless women in the passenger seat. If possible, the city center is even worse for being its own idea of “nicer”—in (my) reality, a hellscape of poor zoning in which the otherwise stunning Snake River Gorge has a golf course in the middle and a Bed Bath and Beyond 20 meters from the edge.

I attribute the sense that I’ve arrived in an urban-planning nightmare to a mix of coastal elitism and an altitude hangover: having accidentally spent the night at 10,000 feet I feel bad enough to cut the drive short at a KOA. In the “family room,” fluorescents buzz over copies of LIFE from 1966 and couch cushions dusted with dead insects. But the showers are clean and that goes a long way.

 

I’m in Idaho to spectate—not base jumpers, but sheepdogs.

The trials are being held in a huge razed wheat field ringed with moonscape hills. I am extremely pleased with myself for having brought binoculars but don’t know what I’m looking at, only that it feels like a cross between a horse show and a golf tournament (and not especially like Babe). The shepherds—or shepherdesses, mostly—have actual crooks; the dogs slink low to the ground or bolt across the flocks in apparent response to whistles and cries of “AWAY! AWAY!” that I can’t decode. People clap and make knowing remarks about the  particular obstinance of “fresh range ewes.” A silent judge in a cowboy hat writes on a clipboard alongside a white Ford F150, which seems with animal intention to itself survey the scene. I could watch all this for a long time, and I do.

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The actual Trailing of the Sheep is a bit of a Sun Valley scene, lots of botox and bronzer and polo shirts and wine. The parade performers represent various sheepherding cultures, from the Scots, who have of course brought bagpipes, to the Basque, whose enclaves across the mountain west I have never before heard mentioned. I am contrasting the dance steps of straight-backed Poles—exchanging partners as if handing off a military secret—with the slow, sleepy shimmy of the Peruvians, who lead with their hips. One thing leads to another and soon enough, here I am, just a girl at a sheep parade deconstructing colonialism and capitalism and Catholic guilt.

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I ride bikes, too, though, I swear. I came for Osberg Ridge, the Ketchum showpiece, but there are no weekday shuttles and the shop staff tell me flatly I’d be stupid to ride it alone even if there were. No matter, there’s more trail here than anyone knows what do with: I cruise berms at Galena Summit for hours without seeing a soul (dead pioneers notwithstanding), and even the “busy” stuff in the center of town has only a handful of polite hikers near the start. I have a bell on less for them than to keep myself from floating away.

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Driving out of the mountains in the evening, I see and do not hit a pronghorn antelope, my first. It bounds out of the grass and across the road in an instant—the flash of its heavy white flanks a fleeting impression of athleticism and, frankly, meat— and I can see both why you would and why you wouldn’t want to shoot one.

Oakridge, 6/30–7/4

In Dunsmuir we walk along the tracks, testing dance-step combinations between ties laid just the wrong distance apart. It’s hot and bright and smells of creosote; when a train comes by I jump down the steep embankment, alarmed, land in a heap in the deep crushed rock. The cars chug by above our heads. Woo-wooooo!

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If you are a railway official or the police, the paragraph above is fiction.

The falls spill out of the ferns without any explanation. The water’s so clear that the striders in the shallows cast shadows in the bright afternoon sun, each a cluster of perfect discs that jolts and folds over the submerged rocks. I watch them for a while and then we go back.

At the foot of a lookout tower off Highway 58, I call out into the wind and the watchman resignedly invites us up. He’s had his eyes on the forest here every summer for more than 40 years, the resume of a man who presumably prefers to be alone. I’m in awe of him and of the thousands and thousands of trees.

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Thank you, Forest Service; thank you, firefighters.

In Oakridge, finally—we have tried and failed many times to come here, most recently because it was burning down—the guy in the bike shop takes one look at Jacob and begins addressing him as “Social Justice Warrior.” When asked how he arrived at this (accurate) conclusion—without even a World Bicycle Relief t-shirt to tip him off!—he suggests this was the only reasonable explanation for riding with so many brown people. Well played.

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That’s not even all of us.

You can read about Oakridge trails wherever, so suffice to say here that to my taste they live up to the hype: fast and flowy without looking like a bike park, an honest day’s work even with long shuttles. There are big trees and long horizons, catwalk ridgelines and and glowing green carpets of clover. The only bar in town is full of books. I will go back with you any time you want.

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We come home on the Fourth of July, drive the last hour south with fireworks going off on either side of the freeway. The explosions light up the strip malls and refineries in flashes of white and red, then the rows and rows of houses and apartments, the marina, and the bay.

Bend, 10/25-10/27

By the time we reached the bottom of the climb on Sunday, the falling flakes had progressed from “wintry ambiance” to “weather phenomenon.”  Sean wore the mad grin I long ago learned to associate with what he’ll call “an adventure ride” and I call a death march: the last thing I heard him yell before he turned onto the (rapidly disappearing) trail was,  “Who-o’s got their bad idea jeans on?”

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Forgive the highly millennial selfie. I got the boys’ glamour shot and decided I needed photo evidence, too—because I sure as hell am not doing that again! 

My knee died, hard, for the first time in a long time. Unclear at this point if I’ll spend another week or another year fixing it, but I’m inclined to say it was worth it either way. A powder day on wheels? The snow crunched and squeaked under the tires,  collected on my eyelashes, fell from pine boughs in curtains of glitter—we carved! It was one of the most miserable, beautiful, best days I’ve ever had on a bike. I remembered why (or at least where) I like to ride.

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Narnia?!

Especially coming from the Bay Area, the difference between pedaling purpose-built singletrack—as opposed to a hiking route that happens to be bike-legal— is big and blissful, snowed over or not. But the trails aren’t all there is to love about Bend. Tinder (sorry, mom) tells me the dating market looks like this:

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Hipster lumberjacks, real live cowboys, and … OK, less desirably, a decidedly sub-Californian level of cultural sensitivity.

The local paper, too, is revealing:

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Bend, Oregon: Where you can bring a horse to a bike race, a bike race to a city council race, and … the advertisers know me already.

It was, as always, very hard to leave.

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Just seven hours to go from here!

South Lake, 8/23-8/24

Ooooooh, altitude.

Freel Pass, alas, about 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.
Hurting at Freel Pass, alas, 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.

Deliberately made this ride shorter and e-e-ven slower than the first time I tried it and still barfed halfway up Star Lake Connector. Pretty charming, I know.

Sunday marked a minor milestone in my quest for multisport mediocrity because it was the first time I’ve ever mountain biked and climbed in the same day. Climbed, that is, a total of one 50-foot sport route, basically roadside … but I’ll take it on a technicality.

Also pretty sweet: Corral Trail’s new table-tops (that I almost got brave enough to try for real); miraculous last-minute reservations at Fallen Leaf so we didn’t have to sleep in a ditch; my trip buddy forgetting to bring a book and consequently getting bored enough in camp to swap my tires for me. Bwaha!