Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Riding corduroy

Date: Jan. 8
Mileage: 30.8
January mileage: 172.8
Hours: 3:00
Temperature upon departure: 33
Precipitation: 0"

We make our own gravity to give weight to things.
Then things fall and they break and gravity sings.
We can only hold so much is what I figure.
Try and keep our eye on the big picture,
Picture just keeps getting bigger.

- Ani Difranco, "Hour Follows Hour"

Juneau has a city-owned ski area that shuts down early in the week. Monday morning is a good time to chug up the mostly deserted access road, look for fresh snowmobile tracks and exhale some anxiety into the cold mountain air. All the snowmobile trails I tried today were a bust, with light use and even lighter snow. I paused by the Nordic ski area for a minute to look wistfully at the freshly groomed paths. I wouldn’t dream of touching that area with my bicycle, not even on an off day, lest I reap the wrath of the Nordics and their exclusive rights. (Never mind that I would have a much lighter trail impact on my bicycle than I would on skis, what with my flailing falls and notch-digging side steps down the tiniest of hills. I’m a terrible skier.)

I was just about to turn around when I noticed a pair of snowboarders crawling (yes, literally crawling) up the mountain using their boards as ice axes. Finding my own way up the mountain seemed like a fun challenge. I pedaled past the resort building and began to work my way up the cat track. I followed the signs marked with green circles as my best hope for a shallow incline, and spun with fury until my back wheel refused to move. (I will continue to hope that someday Surly decides to make an Endomorph tire with more aggressive tread. Although knobby tires don’t improve - and may actually hurt - traction in cross-country snow biking, I’m convinced they would make all the difference in mountain snow biking.) The ski runs rippled with corduroy, a fresh grooming job disturbed only by a single set of wheels and feet. I spun madly where I could ride and trudged where I couldn’t, slowly picking my way up the slopes.

Somewhere near the top of the mountain, where all the runs were labeled “more difficult,” I hit a slope I could no longer negotiate and began to slide backward. I whirled around and dug my heels into the snow, grasping the frame of my overturned bike that threatened to keep sliding. Beneath my feet, I had a great view of several tributary runs snaking down the mountain, the confluence ending in a lift now hundreds of feet below. I shivered with the realization about how steep it all looked, how I had somehow stranded myself up here with only wheels to get down, and how this somehow looked very familiar. And then I remembered why.

I actually remember it very well: The first time I went snowboarding at a resort. I even remember the date: Oct. 28, 1996. Some friends and I ditched school to catch the opening day of Park City Ski Resort, the first day of first season the resort had ever allowed snowboarding. We felt like we were ushering in history. Never mind that I didn’t actually know how to snowboard. My friends did. They promised to teach me. They directed me toward a lift that carried us up to the highest point on the mountain. They shouted at me to follow them as they coasted down the ramp. I took a face plant right off the lift, and when I stood up again, I was alone.

I slid and tumbled and scooted my way to what appeared to be the edge of a cliff. Only a single black diamond sign on a nearby tree indicated that it was intended to be any sort of human path at all. I peered over the edge, where more than a thousand vertical feet disappeared below me. I remember feeling a piercing dread, so intense that it made me feel faint with heat even as snowflakes swirled around. I didn’t think it was possible to survive such an descent, but I had to try. So I stood up, dug my back edge into the snow, and scooted, hopped and scooted down the cliffside. As I became more comfortable with that action, I began to zigzag from side to side, slowly picking up speed and a sense of exhilaration as I pressed toward the safety of low elevation. It certainly didn’t work out perfectly. I fell. A lot. And it hurt. A lot. I couldn’t sit down for three solid days after that fateful first time. But I made it. And in the end, I decided, I had always known that things would turn out OK.

My bicycle broke into a dead run before I had even swung my leg over the top tube. The wheels swerved wildly and I thought I’d never pull out of it, but somehow the tires gripped into the snow and began to roll in a (mostly) straight line toward the green-circle haven. From there, it was just me and my wheels, cutting a thick line in the windswept corduroy as a cloud of fine powder kicked up behind. Plummeting toward the lift, I felt a familiar sense of fear-stoked peace that reminded me that there are many routes, but only one destination, when it comes to bliss.

And I still believe that somehow, things are going to turn out OK.