Thursday, October 28, 2010

Riding to snow

"22 degrees!" Bill called out, as though a temperature rise of 1 degree was the best news of the night. His headlight beam cast a streaming glow on the whitewashed forest, starkly framed against the black sky. Trees wore new snow like children in oversized dresses, bewildered by the heavy formality of winter. I clenched my numb fingers inside my mittens and pressed my palms against the handlebars. A fountain of fine powder streamed from Bill's rear wheel. I shifted my shoulders in an attempt to follow his line. Once powder is six inches deep or more, you don't so much ride a bike as surf with it, feathering the handlebars and gently shifting your weight as the wheels slice through the swift current. The rear wheel was swept sideways and my mountain bike fishtailed wildly through the snow. I pressed the brakes and righted it, then veered away from Bill, who was fishtailing himself. I blinked against the weight of ice frozen to my eyelashes. City lights sparkled in a distance far below.

"What are you doing tonight?" Bill wrote to me eight hours earlier.

"I brought my mountain bike to work, so probably a bike ride," I wrote back.

"Where to?" he asked.

"I don't know. I kind of want to ride to the snow."

Snow had fallen in the mountains just outside Missoula over the weekend. It was the first significant snow cover of the year, and snow line looked like it was up around 5,500 feet. I was trying to think of how I could access it the fastest when Bill sent me a list of possibilities. And for some strange reason, I read through them and picked the destination that was both the longest and highest of all.

Bill met me at my office at 5:20. Our pace was too fast right off the bat. Whenever I feel cruddy while riding with others, I'm never sure if they're pushing it more than we usually do together, or if I'm just having a bad day. Either way, my heart rate was severely elevated and I was breathing hard enough I had to deliberately enunciate each word in response to Bill's questions. We veered up Grant Creek canyon and my responses nearly trickled out altogether.

The larch trees were in the peak of fall splendor - golden towers tinted with scarlet light at sunset. My throat started to burn from breathing excessive quantities of cool air. Bill let up on his pace a bit when I stopped chasing him. More than an hour and 15 miles had passed and we still hadn't reached the base of Snowbowl. My mind still hadn't registered that this was likely going to turn into a long ride.

But it was one of those evenings where time didn't really matter. The crisp air, the color, the sunlight - it was all so idyllic that nothing else really mattered. The pressures of our day-to-day lives and our routines and our obligations didn't matter. Even the fact that my body was feeling cruddy and I was perhaps riding too hard didn't matter.

Bill and I rode toward the alpenglow and the one thing that did matter in that moment - the mountains with their inaugural snowfall, and the white silent world we were seeking.

We climbed and climbed. The dirt road turned to mud, and then frozen mud, and then ice. The first dusting of snow came into the beam of our headlamps. Then the snow grew deeper, the forest more saturated, until we found ourselves in a frozen world entirely different from the city's bright autumn hues. Bill watched his thermometer and announced the status of the rapidly plummeting temperature. "28 degrees ... 27 ... 26." Because I had come straight from work, and didn't anticipate riding in temperatures lower than the mid- to high-30s when I left in the morning, I didn't have all the gear I normally would for temperatures in the 20s. I was a bit underdressed, especially on my feet, so I occasionally jumped off the bike to run beside it. I ran until my throat burned, then jumped back on until my toes tingled. When I became too exhausted to run, I just walked, but by then the snow was so thick that I could easily keep up with Bill, even as he pedaled and I pushed.

The snow started to become too deep to ride at all. Our wildly ambitious destination, Point 6, still loomed 1,000 feet above us. It was late. We were both cold, shedding heat and dreading the descent as it was. We pulled off at the top of Snowbowl - the ski resort we had been riding the perimeter of - and pushed toward an A-frame on the tenuous hope that the door would be unlocked. It was. We ducked inside and put on our remaining layers. It was time to stop seeking the snow, and start facing it.

Before we left, Bill pulled out his special surprise - curry lentil soup in a thermos. It was halfway cold - a result of a ride that ended up being much colder and longer than planned. Bill's thermometer read 21 degrees. There was more frost than snow on the windblown building. I sucked at my Camelbak hose, but it had long since frozen solid. "Let's do this thing," I said.

We surfed the steep downhill powder and picked up speed in a single truck track pressed into the road. The wind hit my face like sharp ice so I pulled up my face mask, which quickly started to fill with ice. 21 degrees with a 20 mph windchill equals a stinging slap of reality this early in the season. Eventually bodies acclimate and winter gear is figured out all over again and the biting edge of winter finally dulls. But right at the beginning, the cold is as sharp and forceful as a razor blade, and Bill and I cried out with equal amounts of exhilaration and pain, right at that center point where bodies feel the entire scope of what it is to be alive.

More strategic running got us back to town with hands, torsos and feet that had reached a workable equilibrium. I felt more tired than I had after a post-work ride in a long time, so I asked Bill what the numbers were. 45 miles. 4,524 feet of climbing. Max elevation 6,933 feet. Time 5:35. Moving time 4:51. But GPS knew nothing of the high-friction snow, of the battles with the cold, of the silence and beauty and peace. That's because GPS isn't alive, and we are, which is why we seek these high places, steeped in the wonder of life.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

California streaming

I'm consistently amazed by the almost metaphysical transition of a mundane plane ride. There's something strangely enticing about entering a small metal cylinder that essentially serves as a sensory deprivation chamber, sipping a tiny cup of Diet Coke and reading a guilty pleasure magazine like Outside while the world disappears below me, and emerging hours later in another place entirely. Car and bicycle travel just doesn't have the same sudden impact. I find myself stepping out of the airport and grappling to take in the rush of new sensations — the warm moist air, the rich urban smells, the city lights stretching over the horizon. I'm in awe. How did I get here?

I flew out to California this weekend to visit Beat. I landed in San Jose, which is not really the kind of city I ever envisioned as a destination, but that's just part of the surprising way life works out sometimes. Beat took me to see his place of employment, which is the world headquarters of Google. I work at the world headquarters of Adventure Cycling — about two dozen employees housed in a former Christian Science church with historic bicycles mounted on the walls. Google is a jaw-dropping contrast to that — a vast manicured campus where many thousands of employees from all over the world zip around on tiny primary-color bicycles, eat frozen yogurt from on-site soft-serve machines and gather in sprawling cafeterias. The weather was California perfect when we visited. The lawns were too green to be real. There were outdoor tables made out of cruiser bikes and 12-foot-tall statues of donuts. I stumbled as I tried to take it all in. How did I get here?

Before all that, we traveled to Yosemite National Park. Our planned early start Saturday morning turned into a very late start, and it was well into Saturday afternoon by the time we wended through the Sierra foothills into the fog-shrouded Yosemite Valley. We didn't really have a plan for what we would do when we got there, but we did have a campsite reserved near the Yosemite Village. We followed a stream of cars into a parking lot and fought wandering crowds of people to find the visitor center. We looked at maps but didn't find any solid ideas. The weather was dreary. I found myself feeling more and more distressed. I was crammed into a crowded national park without a plan. How did I get here?

Beat sensed my distress and was also uncomfortable with the atmosphere of Yosemite — although necessary, national park infrastructure just feels so contrived. Gift stores amid towering cliffs are a part of my culture, and well ingrained in my childhood recollections — but that doesn't change the scar they seem to carve into places so beautiful they defy memory. We walked into the wilderness office and requested a backcountry permit. They made us pick a region so we arbitrarily pointed out the John Muir Trail on the map. We returned to the car and organized our gear. I stuffed the backpack that has long since become mainly airport luggage with everything I hoped would make us comfortable — my minus-40-degree sleeping bag, tent, pad, tons of warm and dry clothing, food, lights, water. Beat's pack had even more weight, with a bear-proof food canister and stove. We hoisted our packs and he immediately breathed out a few words of distress.

Try to convince an ultrarunner that backpacking is a good idea, when they know that they can just leave the crap at home, run all through the night and cover 10 times the distance as a waddling backpacker. It's not easy. "We're not going hiking, we're going camping," I reasoned as we passed the overstuffed campground where we had planned to spend the night. The rain started just as we began to make our way up the smooth paved trail. The weight of my pack pressed down like an oppressive hand. Hoards of people returning from their day hikes regarded us with a mixture of pity and derision. "Where are you guys going this late in the day?" "You do realize it's going to rain tonight." "What will you do about bears?" We were happy to see the pavement end.

We climbed into the fog and growing twilight. Darkness descended, and beams of light from our headlamps revealed the swirling mist and thick, chunky precipitation that fell somewhere between rain and snow. After about four hours, we had walked about 11 miles and climbed 4,200 feet. Beat found this to be a pitiably small distance, but we agreed that since the point of the excursion was camping, it was a good time to camp. I set up my tent and unrolled my Arctic bag next to his 40-degree ultralight bag (I referred to them as Mama Marmot and Mini Marmot.) We hoped the combination of the two would somehow carry us through the wet cold night. The rain fell harder. We wandered down canyon until we found water, then fired up the stove to add moisture to a couple packets of freeze-dried food. We found the expired meals were too bitter to choke down very easily, so for dinner we ate a mixture of energy bars and Haribo candies. We forgot to bring tea or instant coffee, so for a hot drink I melted a Snickers Bar in a cup of water. We sipped the sweet drink with its soft boiled peanuts, savoring it like it was the best cappuccino from the fanciest cafe in all of San Francisco. There's something to be said about the virtue of camping — it does make all the simple things matter.

It rained all through the night. Sometimes it rained very hard, and sometimes so softly it almost sounded like snow. The temperature was in the mid-30s at best, and we had a very difficult time motivating to hoist ourselves out of the Arctic gear and into the damp morning. Any inclinations we had to press deeper into the wilderness disintegrated with the passing hours. We finally rousted in the late morning to deal with damp everything — damp tent, damp shoes, damp (more like drenched) packs, damp energy bars for breakfast. I rung out my shirt before stuffing it in my pack rather than endure the pain of putting it on my body. "Sorry I forgot to warn you how much camping sucks," I apologized to Beat. "Next time, I promise, we can run all through the night." He just laughed.

We waddled a few miles down the trail to an intersection for a high point called Cloud's Rest. We dropped the packs and the oppressive hand finally released its grip. We comparatively flew up the trail through a chilling curtain of wind-driven rain. Sometimes, the swirling clouds would shift just enough to reveal our spectacular surroundings — sheer granite walls and the shrouded monolith of the Half Dome. I'd never been to Yosemite before, and the slivers of clarity were a startling reminder of the grandeur that existed just beyond my own ghostly world. How did I get here?

We rose into the clouds and climbed onto the appropriately named peak, elevation 9,930 feet — about 3,000 feet higher than the point where we dropped our packs. Wind blew the rain sideways and we were both drenched through and frozen, with nothing to see beyond the thick gray mass surrounding us. "This is all worth it because we have the entire place to ourselves," Beat said, and I grinned because I agreed. I appreciate spectacular scenery and the adventure of the outdoors and am glad that plenty of other people do, too. At the same time, the experiences I value even more are the ones that pull me just a little bit farther, closer to the edges of the unknown, closer to the margins of my own personal boundaries, closer to others who not only feel the same way I do, but imagine the same things as we gaze into the invisible distance.

On the way back, we saw a benign-looking sign pointing out the junction of the Mist Trail, which we took mainly because it was 1.5 miles shorter than the trail we were on. The trail tumbled down a rock fall alongside a spectacularly sheer waterfall, swollen and streaked with brown hues from the runoff. The veil of water seemed to engulf us fully, until even the rain was little more than a memory from above. We worked our way down Nevada Falls and stood on the edge of Vernal Falls — both places only a couple of miles from the main trailhead, probably visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year, but in the cold October rain we were nearly the only people on the Mist Trail, lost in the mystical beauty of a world so far from our own.

In a way, it really doesn't matter where your wilderness exists. What matters is where it takes you, to those quiet and contemplative places where the deep past and distant future collide, and where two people with remarkably different environments and backgrounds can find startling quantities of common ground. My trip to California was short but provided me with a lot of insight into myself and my own values, what matters, and what I have yet to discover. When I look back on a weekend that passed through my life like a streaming cloud, I can only smile and reflect. How did I get here?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

New camera!

I walked into Costco Monday evening with a simple list: Strawberries, lettuce, cottage cheese, AAA batteries, cereal. I wheeled my cart into the glaring florescent lights and it was the first thing I saw: A big display of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS6. My eyes widened with a compelling mixture of lust and necessity. It wasn't particularly glamorous or excessive — it was a $270 point-and-shoot camera. But it represented dissatisfaction that had been simmering for a long time. My camera, an Olympus Stylus Tough, was more than two years old — ancient for a digital camera that's been used nearly daily. It's fallen off boulders, been flung off a moving bicycle, carried through drenching rain and minus-25 deep freezes, buried in snow, dropped in puddles and coated in ice. The viewing screen was so scuffed that I could no longer frame any of my shots properly. The lens was so scratched that I could no longer take a photo that wasn't either blurry, misfocused or covered in white blotches. I was complaining about my camera to my friend Larry a couple weeks ago, and he let me play with his Panasonic Lumix. Wide-angle lens, 12x optical zoom, crisp color and a screen I could actually view. Pure luxury! "They have them at Costco," Larry said.

I felt absolutely justified in my impulse buy. I use my camera more often than I use all of my bicycles put together. And yes, someday I will purchase a proper DSLR, but I'm not yet to the point as a hobbyist where I take pictures for the purpose of taking pictures. I take pictures to document my life, so my priorities include a camera that's portable, easy to use, and at least somewhat durable. Here's the first picture I took with my new camera: My cat getting into a bowl of cereal. Oh, Cady.

On Tuesday Bill and I headed out for an evening ride. He suggested a good ride for "clearing out the cobwebs," and a completely new route to me: Mount Dean Stone. Because of the wonders of Bill's GPS, I know the beta for this ride included 26.72 miles of mountain biking with 3,822 feet of climbing, a maximum elevation of 6,203 feet, an average temperature of 47 degrees and 1,103 calories burned (Bill's calories. He's taller than me, but also has a resting heart rate that's down around 30 beats a minute. So I'm guessing I went through even more Bridge Pizza Points.)

In this photo, I think Bill is saying, "I'm so blissfully happy to be climbing 3,000 feet of loose gravel fireroads that are still covered in ice from the night before." I'm so glad to have found a cycling friend who thinks like me. :-)

I immediately put the Lumix to the ultimate test: Using it in its automatic setting, handheld whilst pedaling a bicycle on a rough road, in low flat bad evening light, zoomed in. I'd say it didn't do wholly bad. It managed to choose a fast shutter speed and grab some nice color and somewhat sharp — if grainy — clarity.

Even though we missed the best side of sunset while we were still buried in the canyon, the pink light up high still stopped us in our tracks.

Dean Stone is one of the higher peaks just outside the city, and thus is covered in all manner of towers. We sat on the razed and graded summit for more than 20 minutes, soaking up the startlingly mild, windless air, and sloughing off the cobwebs. I feel very fortunate to have found so many good people in Missoula in such a small amount of time, especially people like Bill, who really is a kindred spirit. The kind of friend who thinks so similarly to me that it's sometimes eerie. We find that we always have a lot to talk about, as long as we ride long enough and climb high enough to really open up.

So we went out again on Wednesday, back into the jaw-dropping beautiful evening, for a more singletrack-heavy ride that was 19.6 miles with 2,641 feet of climbing, an average temperature of 49 degrees and 746 calories burned.

At the top of the Sam Braxton trail, Bill asked me why I wasn't playing with my new camera. "It's completely dark," I said.

"Not completely," he said. I sat on the ground, dug through my pack until I found the Lumix, and took a picture of Bill applying his last warm layers.

"Now I guess we have to go back," he said with a sigh.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm not really ready to just ride all night." I turned on my headlight and headlamp and launched after Bill down the winding trail. A generous slice of the moon cast silver shadows in front of us, but as we cut deeper into the forest, the shadows disappeared. I forgot to charge my headlight, and it flickered to a pale orange glow and died. It made me realize my headlamp was fading as well — that's what I had forgotten to pick up at Costco in all of my camera excitement: batteries. The dim LED cast a circle of soft, flat light on the ground, until it was difficult to discern trail from sky. I saw the shadowy shapes of trees, and I saw Bill, 10 yards in front of me, a blur of bright light in the blackness. I tucked in and strained to keep up with him so I could mimic every movement. When he veered right, I veered right. When he pulled sharp left, I did the same. When he shot into the sky, I knew it was time to drop the gears and lay into the pedals. I felt a pacifying sense of trust for Bill, that he wouldn't lead me astray, and also for my bicycle, that it had the ability to hold me afloat over all of the roots and rocks and loose sandy switchbacks that I could not really see. It reminded me of a book written by Rachel Scodoris, the legally blind musher who raced the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. She described the dark shadows along the trail, the flashes of bright light, and her complete and unbending trust in her dogs. I felt that way about my bike, and about Bill — that I had no real reason to fear. It was both peaceful and liberating, but at the same time, I couldn't really tell anyone how I felt because I have already received many well-deserved lectures about my inadequate lighting and urgent need to acquire a real mountain bike light before I do any more night rides.

But then I saw my photograph of Bill, cast in the darkness by a tiny sliver of fading daylight, and decided the experience was worth all the lectures I deserve.

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.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Into the night

Thursday Night Ride: A diverse group of longtime Missoulians and newcomers, young professionals and working parents, college students and 68-year-old college professors, have been gathering for years to pedal local trails on long summer Thursday nights. Years back, they used to call it quits for the season when the dark and cold crept too close for comfort. But every year the group grows, the dynamic shifts, and ambitions spread. I showed up on a good year, when ambitions have resulted in four-hour assaults of big mountains, or a sunset ice cream run in mid-October.

Six mountain bikes rolled into the Turah store just as the last pink light of Thursday slipped below the Sapphire Mountains. We peeled off thick gloves, then peeled off the wrappers of ice cream sandwiches. We stood in the parking lot to watch the light fade, applied the remainder of our layers as the chill set in, switched on our lights, and returned to the canyon.

Just a few miles from our destination, Bill wordlessly veered off the main track and shot up a hill. "Where's he going?" a few asked, and the others answered, "Looks like Deer Creek." Why add 12 miles and another 2,000 feet of climbing to an already late and chilly Thursday Night Ride? Why indeed? "Are you going to go?" one in the group asked. "I don't know, you?" another answered. And with that, three of the five remaining in the group chased after Bill's flickering light.

Climbing into the night, we turned off our lights for a while to watch the stars, a bright spread cut by treetops and the narrow canyon. I crashed into a log and the lights went back on, but still we climbed higher, reaching for those quiet, shadowy places that once only existed in the confines of eerie dreams. Our lights hit the shining eyes of deer, which startled us all, and we nervously joked about mountain lions and bears, oh my. The narrow trail veered downhill and we launched into it wide-eyed, tears streaming in the wind, seeing only the immediate ground five feet in front of us, jerking around corners and barrelling over rocks before we could even react. Night carves a different world, a world where the moon casts dull silver shadows and dark figures hover overhead. It's a beautiful place to ride, completely different from the day, and so easy to miss if you're not out there looking.

We emerged from the canyon and wended around the front side of Sentinel Mountain, an open hillside with nothing but gravity between us and Missoula. We tore through the tall dry grass as city lights rushed toward us, smiling uncontrollably because sometimes there really is nothing better in this world than riding a bicycle.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Clinging to summer

The bank sign read 59 degrees just after 5:30 p.m. Monday.

"Ah, it's still warm," I thought. Golden sunlight cast long shadows on the streets. "And it's a beautiful evening."

I put on a long-sleeved jersey, shorts, and a thin pair of gloves, and set out toward the mountains. The subtle warmth of the low sun caressed my skin, and sweat began to bead on my forehead as I climbed Pattee Canyon. I felt particularly strong, perhaps because it had been several days since I had ridden a bicycle, or perhaps because I was finally getting into singlespeed shape. I ramped up the pace, veered right on a narrow logging road and churned up the steep gravel as twilight descended. I crested a saddle and continued climbing toward the Miller Creek Divide, as night opened the sky to an expanding spread of stars and a sliver of the moon. I felt amazing. I love to climb and climb. I'd climb into eternity if there was a mountain high enough. But the Miller Creek Divide eventually crests out and drops into a bewildering maze of logging roads, and it was there, at 8 p.m. or so, that I finally slowed to a stop.

A rush of cold air struck me like a freight train out of the darkness. I gasped and insta-frozen breath swirled in the beam of my headlamp. I shined it down on my feet and saw hints of sparkle on the grass. Was that frost? The chill needled in before I could investigate. It was cold! How did it get so suddenly cold? I opened my frame bag to confirm what I already knew - that I had failed to bring an extra layer. Because it was summer, right? No, no it wasn't summer. The temperature was near freezing and plummeting. And there was nothing I could do but descend 3,500 feet of elevation - on a spun-out singlespeed, no less - into the frigid night.

Unpleasant would be a kind word I could use to describe that descent. I tucked into my handlebars if only to glean off my own body heat, and dropped into black canyon. My dim light turned the gravel road into a flicker of shapes and shadows as the icy wind stung my bare legs. My fingers lost sensation first, then my toes, and then the windchill worked its way into my arms, legs, and finally butt. I am blessed with what I think is uncommonly good heat retention in my core - especially in dry cold - so I managed to stave off shivering. But my limbs were for all practical purposes frozen. I was a statue on a bicycle, a blur in the dark night with only the tears in my eyes to reveal any sign of life.

By the time I reached the bottom of the canyon, I still had to pedal home, but my legs absolutely refused to move. My hands were so numb that when I went to adjust my helmet strap, I found it completely impossible to even unbuckle it, so I just placed the frozen stumps back on my handlebars and strained to push every ounce of warm blood I still had in my core toward my legs, on the off chance I still had muscles to move. I wasn't sure, because I certainly couldn't feel them. I creaked robot-like toward home, then fumbled with my keys for nearly 10 minutes just to get the door unlocked. After that came the shower of much punishment: 10 minutes of hot agony as the thousand invisible needles pricked my skin back to life, followed by 10 more minutes of numb recovery, still trying to make rigid fingers work.

Ah, the early season. Have to respect the annual lesson in the importance of warm clothing.

But the truth is, it's been difficult for me to accept that Missoula has any other seasons besides summer. When I moved here, summer had just begun, both literally (it was June 21) and figuratively (the long spring rains finally let up, and haven't really come back since.) It's been four months of sunshine and long evening rides and warm nights. I can't even really imagine Missoula any other way. Until Monday, cold nights seemed to be a long way off. Winter felt like another lifetime.

Then I woke up this morning to thick frost on the grass and porch, and I knew it was probably time to start saying so long to the summer, for real this time.

But not yet. Not quite yet. Tuesday was Dave's last night in town. He, Bill and I rode up the Lincoln Hills and worked our way up to a particularly challenging series of singletrack trails called the Larch and Sidewinder families. We climbed into fading light and dropped into expanding darkness, losing the rest of the twilight to a 20-minute stop to saw a fallen tree in half. I launched into the darkness with wide eyes. All the obstacles seemed more insurmountable, the trees more foreboding. I struggled with this trail when it was still summer, and with the early night, my headlamp cast it in a new, even eerier light. The air was still, the temperatures falling, and the city lights of Missoula sparkled like a sea below us. But my apprehension began to diminish as I tucked into the turns. I smiled with the warmth of my fledgling confidence, because I've experienced much in the past four months, and those are the remnants of summer that will never fade.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lima Peak

The squelch of soft mud beneath my shoes was suddenly eclipsed by a loud "humph."

I stopped in my tracks and strained to see through misty curtains of rain. "Humph," the grunt increased in volume as a moose emerged from the brush less than 10 yards in front of me. My breathing stopped and my eyes froze open as the moose lowered its ears and took a couple of steps toward me. Instinctively I took several quick steps backward and stopped near a tree. I couldn't take my eyes off the moose long enough to observe the tree, but I contemplated the possibility of climbing it.

"Humph," the moose grunted again, and out of the woods stepped its nearly full-grown calf. I thought the moose must be a female, but she confused me because she had one antler, only one, twisted and deformed on the right side of her brow. On the left was a crazy eye, cloudy and bright at the same time, and it struck me that I was actually close enough to see the eye of an angry moose.

"Humph." She took another step toward me. "I'm sorry moose," I said in a strange, calm voice that didn't sound like my own. "I don't want any trouble, really I don't."

The moose seemed to glower at me, one normal eye and one crazy eye fixated on my pale face. I couldn't remember if eye and voice contact was a good thing or not with moose. I took one more step back and quickly glanced at the tree. Its branches were high and surrounded in thick needles. I would need adrenaline to climb this particular tree, probably lots of it. I looked back at the one-antlered, crazy-eyed cow moose and waited for her to force my hand. She huffed one more time, turned, and galloped back into the brush. Heart racing, I reached in my pocket and pulled out my camera. I took one shot when she was already far away, still retreating, still looking back at me. There was nothing left to say, if there even was anything said to begin with. But in the lingering electricity of our short interaction, I felt a real communication had taken place. The moose said, "This is my property," and I said, "I agree with you, but may I ask your permission to trespass, just this once?"

I am weary of I-15. Five times since July, I've made the drive between Missoula and Salt Lake City, and three of those times were a rushed effort into emotionally charged, difficult weekends. I had to drive down this weekend to bury another grandfather, my mother's father. There was much about the prospect I was not yet ready to face, and the drive was first on the list. Several people who have become my good friends in Missoula were throwing a goodbye party for Dave on Thursday night. I had planned to attend, but at the last minute decided I needed to drive instead. When I told my friend Bill - who I have confided a lot in recently - that I would have to miss the party, he said, "It seems like you have been dealing with a lot of stuff lately, and so far it appears that you're doing it on your own. Just let me know if you ever need anything."

I felt gratitude for Bill and the way he reached out, and it was difficult to explain that spending a little time on my own was an important part of my grieving process. There was just something I needed to do. I couldn't quite explain it, even to myself. But I had to visit the mountains. The mountains of I-15. The mountains that rose like a fortress above the sagebrush desert of southern Montana, broad pillars of rock so distinct and forceful that they demanded attention from even the most road-weary drivers. I had passed them four times in the last three months and vowed to climb them every time. On my fifth drive, I was going to try.

I veered off the Interstate just north of Lima and camped on the bank of Little Sheep Creek. I awoke, later than I planned, to heavy rain and a thick gray veil over the mountains. My fleece pullover soaked quickly and lead-like layers of mud stuck to my feet as I slogged up a faint two-track mining road. The two-track dipped into a creek and faded to nearly nothing, so I followed the creek drainage, pushing through the cold mist and drenched tree branches. It was there I met the moose, and when she retreated down the drainage I decided continuing forward was the best course of action. The raindrops became thick, then turned to slush, and then snow. White flakes clung to my saturated fleece and polyester pants, but still I continued forward because I was not cold and not yet out of time.

I climbed out of the drainage to a bench already white with fresh powder. My heart was still thumping, my head still quiet after the encounter with the moose, and I felt no emotion as I looked at Lima Peak, now looming in startlingly close proximity. I climbed up a grassy ramp and crawled onto the face, which was less like a solid mountain and more like crumbling rockfall of basketball-size boulders. My gloves became soaked as I scrambled up the slope like an awkward quadruped, trying to balance my body over the loose, slippery stones.

As I climbed, the fog sank in until visibility was just about gone. I crawled until the boulders started to slope downward, and, remembering that this peak was shaped like a triangle when I had seen it from the saddle, decided I was at the top. I sat down and pulled off my soaked glove to eat a Honey Stinger Bar, and then I remembered that I had planned to write a note to my grandpa. I had done so on Lone Peak a week before my father's father died, on September 4, and it was a comforting ritual. When my Grandpa Johnson died on October 4, I couldn't help but think about what I would write to him in a note at the top of a mountain. It found it was difficult to form meaningful words. The death of my other grandfather had been a surprise, and I missed him terribly. But the death of my mother's father was more difficult to reconcile. I loved my Grandpa Johnson, but during the last decade of his life, much of his existence was marked with pain and anger, and he had a fair share of struggles. I think most of my family viewed his death as a merciful release for him. It was time.

But he was my grandfather, and my mother's father. His blood pumped through his veins and his memory filled my life, from the Easter eggs he hid for us as children to the shelter he provided me when I was training for the Tour Divide. The night I spent at his house in Saint George in May 2009 stands as one of my favorite memories of him, because by then he was so weak and frail that just getting dressed and eating breakfast was a huge struggle, but so stubborn that he still lived alone and took care of himself. It was the first time I had spent more than a hour with him in six or seven years, so it was eye-opening to see just how difficult simple day-to-day living had become. During the day, I took off on my mountain bike, riding a loop that turned out to be a lot harder and longer than I had planned. I called him from the top of a ridge and said, "Grandpa, I'm sorry, but I'm going to be home late." When I finally came back to his house, he was still awake, more than an hour past his bedtime, waiting up for me. I felt worse than horrible about this and tried to apologize, but he just interrupted me and said, in his usual gruff grumpy voice, "It's OK. I always stay up late. I don't mind." But I saw a hint of sparkle in his eyes, and understood that he really did care.

On the fog-shrouded summit of Lima Peak, elevation 10,700, I pulled out the pen and paper that I had carried for the task and wrote the note that I had planned to write. Because it was so difficult to put sincere emotions into words, I wrote a variation of a lyric by Iron and Wine, from "Upward Over the Mountain:"

"So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten;
(Grandpas) are like birds, flying always over the mountain."

For my Grandpa Johnson, Love Jill. I will see you tonight. October 8, 2010.

I stuffed the paper between two rocks, covered them in snow, and stood up. A specter of the round silver sun began to show through the fog. I thought from its placement in the sky, I could discern the direction west, so I turned to face it. The ridgeline of the Lima Peaks is also the Continental Divide, the border of Montana and Idaho. I have a special affinity for the apex of the Divide, because it feels like a great beginning to me, the place where flakes of snow join droplets of water, which join trickles, which join streams, then creeks, then rivers, then great rivers, until everything flows into the bewildering expanse of the ocean. I thought of my friend in California, far away on that ocean, and felt a sudden urge to send him a text from the snow-flecked spine of the Divide. I turned on my phone. It said the time was 11:19 a.m., and my heart nearly stopped.

11:19? How did three and a half hours pass since I left? How? It was baffling, but when I thought about it, I had to admit it made sense. I had climbed 4,000 feet, and the last 1,000 were severely slow and technical, but I didn't notice the passing of time, didn't realize it. My grandpa's viewing began at 6 p.m. I had hoped to arrive in Ogden at 5:30, and it was still a four-hour drive from Lima, at least, and that was before my planned shower stop. My car was at least 30 minutes out from Lima, and my body was 4,000 vertical feet and five or six miles from my car. The math didn't leave much time for my body, and I was hit with a rush of remorse that felt worse than the time I came home late from my bike ride. I would rather be stomped by a moose than miss my grandpa's viewing. My mother would be so disappointed. So that wasn't an option. I was guilty of overshooting my turnaround time by more than an hour, but I sensed that with enough adrenaline and a little bit of luck, the descent could be done in an hour or so.

Bright streaks of sunlight broke through the clouds until the fog had cleared up entirely. Suddenly I could see the whole colorful spread of the valley before me - the sagebrush desert, the golden foothills, the snow-dusted peaks, the tiny oasis of Lima, the thin vein of I-15. I started down the rocks but frequently lost my balance on the slippery, uneven surface. I rolled my ankle twice and decided that breaking it was a real possibility, and a broken ankle would really put me in a bind. I dropped to my butt and started skittering down the mountain on my hands, butt and feet, sliding down the tumble of the sharp stones like a deranged crab.

My hands and butt were bruised and tingling by the time I reached the saddle, but there was no time to slow down. I tightened my backpack straps and started running. I ran as fast as I thought I could run and not lose my footing on the rocks and grass clumps that covered the trailless mountainside. The sky opened wider with bright patches of blue, and my legs carried me down the slope like tiny wings, light and free. In smiled at the rush of freedom and the ways I am falling in love with running - learning that a good run feels every bit as fun and freeing as riding a bike down perfect singletrack, except for running isn't limited the way bikes are, bound to wheels and trails. Feet can go anywhere they want, any time they want, even when they are attached to relatively skilless runners.

I sprinted past the point where I saw the moose and slowed, but heard nothing. I picked up the pace again and arrived back at the car with the bottom of my right foot absolutely throbbing, but my phone said it was 12:42. Yes! I ripped down my tent, climbed in my car and gunned the gas all the way down the narrow gravel road. I arrived in Lima just after 1, in time to call my dad and tell him I was still going to make it to the viewing on time.


I merged onto I-15, my head still spinning with the dynamics of the morning - the moose, the rain, the snow, the fog and emerging sunlight, the slippery rocks and the running. The pavement rushed beside me and the majestic Lima Peaks faded into my rear-view mirror, and above it all was the memory of my grandpa, flying upward over the mountain.