Fall is generally a season of dynamic change, and right now I feel like I am perched on a precipice, bracing myself for a big leap. The same could have been said about my summer 2010, and spring as well. For all of its unrest, 2010 is shaping up to be one of the more dynamic years of my life. In fact, when I think back to February and March, and the mornings I ran alone across the wind-scoured crust of Thunder Mountain in Juneau, I can hardly reconcile that the person in that memory was me, let alone me mere months ago. In many ways, I am still the same person. But in others, I am irreconcilably different, in a way that I almost miss her — Jill from Juneau — and the small, if breathtakingly beautiful, world in which she lived.
I am setting anchors in Missoula. They're just small things — like buying a couch — but they feel significant to me. I am trying to do the best I can at my job, even though it is not coming as naturally as I hoped (my week in Vegas is a glaring example of this, and my need to develop better people skills to go along with my love of bicycle travel, writing, editing and design.) My friend Dave is moving to Kalispell. We haven't known each other (in person) all that long, but he's been a good friend and I'm really going to miss him, even if Kalispell is only two hours away. And my last living grandfather — my mother's father — died this morning. His death was not as much of a shock as my father's father, because he has been quite sick for a long time (most of my adult life, but he remained surprisingly robust despite heart disease and kidney failure.) Still, I have lost two grandfathers in the past month, and it's difficult to comprehend that they're really gone from my life.
Then there's Beat, the Swiss-German ultrarunner who lives in Los Altos, California. I like this guy — it seems relevant for me to admit that, and Beat would probably be OK with me broadcasting it in my personal public forum. In fact, I think the only thing we're not OK with right now is the fact that we live 1,100 miles apart. "Minor complication," he calls it, but he did manage to fly out to Missoula this weekend with seemingly few complications. Then Missoula doled out what was perhaps the most beautiful weekend of the summer — in October — with warm sun, clear bluebird skies and temperatures in the 80s. I wanted to take Beat on a weekend tour of the "Best of Missoula," which (in my limited experience) includes coffee and live music at an outdoor cafe on Higgins Avenue, a slice at The Bridge, Big Dipper ice cream (mmm, pumpkin. I love fall.) And, of course, a mountain bike ride in the Rattlesnake.
Problem is, Beat doesn't mountain bike ... yet. So what did I do to try to convince him to take it up? Well, I'm still having trouble cobbling together a working bicycle among the five I own. I managed to fix my snow bike's flat tire, but it still has a worn-out front brake rotor, a seized seatpost and a host of other smaller problems (Pugsley is a year overdue for its winter overhaul, meaning it's been viciously neglected since early 2009.) The other choice was a singlespeed. So I offered to let Beat ride my geared bike — the 37-pound Pugsley with a saddle several inches too low for him, no suspension, and not much front brake. And, if that wasn't enough, I also failed to tighten down the rear skewer all the way when I put the rear wheel back on. It loosened and the wheel shifted and rubbed against the chainstay, to the point where the wheel was barely turning. We didn't notice it for nearly five miles (Beat: "I was wondering why it seemed so hard.") After several assurances that I was in fact not intentionally trying to kill him, we met Dave and rode the Wallman Loop, which includes a healthy climb. As I churned up the steep switchbacks in the sweltering October heat, I occasionally moaned phrases such as "This is the worst pain ever" and Beat — who as a runner regards intensity-caused cycling pain as quaint —just laughed at me. Singlespeeds make 5 mph climbing so much more strenuous than it needs to be ... which is interestingly what makes it so intriguing.
My friends Danni and Brad were also visiting from Kalispell over the weekend. I tried to convince Danni that since Dave is moving to Kalispell, she should move to Missoula and that would be a fair trade. I don't think she accepted my reasoning, but she did agree to join our ride as a runner with Brad's dog, Zella. We waited short periods of time for her at the trail junctions, but for the most part I am becoming ever more cognizant of the fact that mountain bikers (at least this mountain biker) are not all that much speedier than runners.
On Sunday, I made Beat ride Pugsley again, this time on a snaking gravel road that starts in the community of Lolo and steadily climbs 3,000 feet in eight miles on a washboarded, rocky, dusty, sun-exposed grunt of a road. He was not too stoked on that ride, but took it in good humor, even as his back ached while I spun beside him and made comments such as: "I love gravel road climbs. They're so relaxing, like Zen biking." The plan was to ditch the bikes at the start of the singletrack, but I am still having pain issues with my right foot, so I decided to haul my mountain bike as far as I could (wilderness boundary) to minimize foot usage. I could only ride short sections of the singletrack before I hit "Worst Pain Ever" mode, but we still pushed the bike to 8,000 feet elevation. (He actually pushed it most of the time, because I'm too slow.)
We ditched the bike just below Carlton Ridge. As we crested over the saddle and started down, I looked out over the blazing gold streaks across the mountainsides and immediately became crestfallen. "I can't believe all of these trees have died. All of this was green in August." Only later did I realize that these conifers weren't dead. They're larch trees, which turn golden and drop their needles in the fall.
We took the direct route to Lolo Peak, a strenuous scramble up a steep boulder field. It was hard work, but not quite to a "singlespeed worst-pain-ever" level.
The peak and ridge walking were fantastic — warm and high with very little wind. I couldn't believe we could sit out in the open above 9,000 feet in Montana in October wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. Forecasts for later in the week call for rain and low temperatures in the 30s and the potential of snow. Beat found the peak registry and handed it to me. I looked out over the golden landscape and wrote: "Today is the last day of summer. 10-3-10."
The longer I live in Montana, the less it reminds me of Juneau. But every once in a while, I cross a marshy valley and feel an abstract connection to places that once filled my life with clarity.
The steep downclimb was punctuated with one last 500-foot ascent, but at 4 p.m. I was back at 8,000 feet with a bicycle and nothing left to do but lose 5,000 feet of pure elevation. I dropped into the rugged singletrack as Beat followed right on my wheel. I bounced over rocks, shoulder-checked larch trees and cornered tight turns just to keep him from catching me. Eventually the trail smoothed out and I picked up exhilarating speed, weaving through the trees and whooping gleefully as the bike bucked down a continuous ripple of roots. Four miles and 15 minutes later, I stopped at a junction to wait for what I assumed would be at least 20 minutes, but not three minutes later, Beat sprinted past doing at least 12 mph. Jaw dropped, feeling satisfyingly inadequate with wheels and gravity, I accelerated toward him and drafted off his legs.
We rode together from the trailhead with nowhere to go but blissfully downhill. Down, down, down, into the wending road, into the dried grass rustling on the hillside, into the yellow aspens and alders, dropping into encroaching fall and winter with a strong sense that the superlative summer is finally over. And that's a wonderful thing — because the shifting seasons can only bring more dynamic change.