Monday, October 18, 2010

Differentiation

Beat's hunched figure cut a spooky silhouette against the city lights. With a mountain bike dangling from his shoulders, he emerged from the steep curve of the summit like a sea monster slowly rearing its long body from a sparkling ocean. I stood up and tried to stem the rising tide of guilt. It wouldn't wash away. Because what I had done is trick another person into carrying a mountain bike 2,000 feet straight up Mount Sentinel for me.

It made me look like a monster, but I swear it started so innocently. Beat and I did a trail run on Saturday that aggravated my probable case of plantar faciitis, and I was mildly gimpy. Conversely, I guided him on an after-dark mountain bike ride Friday night that was several notches above his comfort zone. So I suggested the Sunday moonlight hike up Sentinel. Beat argued that I should avoid the downhill running/hiking that seems to aggravate my foot injury the most, lest I draw out my slow recovery indefinitely, so he suggested I bring my mountain bike for the descent down the backside.

Most of the time, I consider myself to be a reasonable person. But sometimes I fail to connect simple strings of logic that end up resulting in wholly ridiculous situations. For instance: The direct trail up Mount Sentinel is exactly that - direct - and thus extremely steep. Carrying a mountain bike up sustained steep terrain is extremely strenuous compared to not carrying a bike - bikes are awkward, heavy, and press on one's body in the most uncomfortable ways. Therefore, carrying a bike up Mount Sentinel is extremely strenuous. And of course, I should have factored in the knowledge that Beat, being the chivalrous guy he is, probably wasn't going to let me do the work myself no matter how much I begged. But I didn't put any of this together. Instead, I showed up at the trailhead at 9 p.m. and directed him — like my own personal man-slave — up the first known human-powered mountain bike shuttle of Mount Sentinel.

Beat shuffled toward me with a glazed look in his eyes. His hat was askew and his emerging hair was drenched in sweat. He stood in silence for a few seconds until I said, "Um, this is the top. You can put that thing down now." By the time he set the bike on the ground, he was noticeably shivering. Cool October air swirled around us, 35 degrees and dropping. Beat was absolutely drenched in sweat. Before our "hike," I had pictured this romantic night picnic on the summit where we could gaze out over the golden lights of Missoula, share a package Haribo Fizzy Cola gummies and coast down the mountain together, runner and mountain biker side by side. Instead, we had to start down quickly to stave off hypothermia. There was no romantic midnight picnic to assuage my guilt, just the frigid downhill ride and the knowledge I did nothing to earn it.

"If you want to break up with me now, I completely understand," I said. He just shook his head and smiled, and we launched off the summit together.

It's an interesting problem to consider: When two parallel if distant paths suddenly curve toward each other and intersect, what is the outcome? Will they continue on their directional tangents toward parallel if distant futures? Will they merge into one distinct path? Will they continue to curve away and back toward each other, colliding and separating in an undulating ribbon? What determines each path's direction? How does a change in one path affect the other? Are they related at all, or are we simply deriving the appearance of patterns from the bewildering chaos of life?

"It's like a difficult math problem," Beat tells me. "For hours you stare at it. When the answer comes to you, it's like, 'a-ha.' You realize you understood all along."

I nod as I dredge the dimly lit cellar of my memory for insight. I haven't given serious consideration to any math problem since 11th-grade calculus. (I used to brag that I tested out of all of my required college courses and managed to get a bachelor of science degree without taking a single math or science class, until I realized that a limited education isn't really something to brag about.) Beat, on the other hand, has a PhD in physics, and a quiet confidence about him that makes it easy to believe that this complicated mash of variables — the established lives, the 1,100-mile distance, the reality of travel — really can be a simple thing to solve. So we agreed to forge a relationship, not because we know what the outcome will be, but because we're excited to explore the intrigue and beauty within our complex equation.

So Beat came out to Missoula to visit me over the weekend. He arrived early enough on Friday that there was plenty of time to embark on the night mountain bike rides I had been gushing about, so I equipped him with my Rocky Mountain Element and decade (or more)-old halogen light that Bill let me borrow because he disapproved of me tearing down dark and winding singletrack with only a small helmet-mounted headlamp. I guided Beat along the narrow corridor of Hellgate Canyon before veering up the meandering Deer Creek climb. We didn't say much during those first miles. I think Beat was a little nervous about the unknowns — the frosty weather I had warned him about, riding a strange and small mountain bike when he already has limited mountain biking experience, and riding in the dark Montana wilderness with woefully inadequate lights. I admit I was a little nervous about other unknowns — actively acknowledging the launch of a new relationship for the first time since I was in my early 20s — but I tried not to let it show.

As we approached Pattee Canyon, I realized that I had never guided a night ride up Mount Sentinel before, and actually had no idea how to get there. When Beat and I first started corresponding back in July, he asked me about the characteristics I don't like about myself. Near the top of that list is the way I can be startlingly inattentive to important details, despite having what I consider to be a decent memory. There were a number of dots in the climb that I couldn't quite connect. I guided Beat up a road that I thought was possibly the Crazy Canyon Road. The gravel was loose and steep and I quickly approached the entrance of my pain cave as I attempted to grind up it on my singlespeed. A whole bunch of quiet minutes passed before I looked up, saw the flashing red lights of the University Beacon, and said, "Oh, no, we don't want to go up here."

"Why?" Beat asked. "How much farther is it?"

"Pretty far. The Beacon's about 1,000 feet higher than Sentinel. It's a heinous grind of a climb. And I promise you the descent is way too gnarly for either of us. It's like a loose fall-line direct shot down the mountain. It's seriously unfun." (Note to Beat: Now that you've seen the front side of Sentinel, imagine what descending down that trail would be like. That's what the Beacon is like.)

So we turned around, skidded down the gravel road for the 1,000 feet we didn't need to gain, then veered into the confusing and convoluted network of ski trails in Pattee Canyon. (Note to cross-country skiers: Why the need to create such a tight maze of trails? Do you really enjoy being constantly lost in a few acres of forest, or am I the only one who can't find their way out of cross-country ski mazes?) Anyway, we burned up more than an hour between the Beacon detour and me being lost - and complaining about it. I started to fear that after we actually rode down The Gut in the darkness, Beat really was going to go home and bump up his flight back to San Francisco and never speak to me again. But he was an amazingly good sport, proving to me that not only can I be myself around him, but I can be the worst of myself around him.

That's another thing we're trying to reconcile - the fact that I'm an avid mountain biker and beginning runner, and he's an avid runner and beginning mountain biker. Since we're both excited about the other's passion, there's no conflict, but it is difficult at this point to mesh our abilities. Beat found himself well beyond his comfort zone during the switchbacking singletrack descent on Friday, so on Saturday I decided we should go to Blodgett Canyon for a trail run. I'd never been to Blodgett Canyon before. It was surprisingly spectacular: a little bit of Yosemite, Northern Rockies, and fall in Vermont, all wedged into a narrow corridor in this fairly remote corner of Montana. Because of my foot issues, we played it conservative, alternating running and walking. We traveled about six or seven miles up the canyon, to the edge of the wilderness area. We stopped often to gaze up at the mountain ridges and discuss the various ways we could access them (this is another way we fit together well. We both crave higher ground.)

Despite playing it conservatively, I was still slightly hobbled by the end. I admit I am a little frustrated right now with my inability to join Beat on a long trail run. I feel like my legs are up for it and my lungs are getting there, but unfortunately feet are important for that sort of thing. (And of course what I'm dealing with is an overuse injury, so I have nothing to blame but myself.)

On Sunday, we put outdoor passions aside and behaved almost like a normal couple might — going to lunch at an amusingly hip (for Montana) cafe, walking around downtown and commenting on the stuff in the shop windows, sharing ice cream cones at Big Dipper. The Indian summer has gone quite late this year, and the sun was hot and high, enough so that we could walk around outside in T-shirts, in mid-October. Beat, because he lives in California, wasn't nearly as impressed as I was by the weather, but it was a wholly beautiful day, rare in both its timing and perfection. A sunny Sunday afternoon.

Still, the pull of adventure is hard to resist, and by 8 p.m. we had hatched the convoluted Mount Sentinel shuttle. The theory sounded simple - him on foot and me on mountain bike, working in harmony. But the result was much more difficult if predictable - him doing all of the work for none of the fun (he argued that he had much more fun running The Gut than riding it, and while I believe him, I still agree that no one should have to carry a bike up Mount Sentinel for any reason, even as a punishing form of training, ever again.)

But I know that seeking the common derivative in our wildly fluctuating paths will be a beautiful journey in itself, and I look forward to it, complications and all.