Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Friends

My friend Keith has been a lot of things in my life. He and his wife, Leslie, were my first "trail angels" in the 2009 Tour Divide, providing me with shelter and much-needed perspective in the days leading up to the race. He's been my tour guide, my ski mentor, my bicycle dealer, my attached-at-the-wheels partner for a week of mud and suffering in TransRockies, my Thanksgiving dinner host and part of my "second home" in the unlikely but beautiful region of Banff, Alberta. The connection runs deeper as several of Keith's friends have become my friends. I have a what feels like a second (Canadian) family these days. And Keith introduced me to Danni in Montana, who inadvertently introduced me to Beat. It's intriguing the way these simple connections, born of a casual message from a stranger (Leslie wrote me an e-mail one fateful day in June 2009 that began, "I've read your blog ..."), can touch the deepest parts of our lives.

Keith had a four-hour layover at SFO, so I made the morning trip up to San Francisco to have coffee with him. It involved a 45-minute drive in rush-hour traffic on a rain-slicked I-280, a $12 parking fee and a mad dash across three terminals because I was already embarrassed how late I was. Still, all the rushing and hubbub of the airport dissolved as soon as I saw Keith's grinning face in the booth at Peet's Coffee. We had a great visit, talking about grand plans for future adventures and my new life in California.

"I miss Missoula," I said. "But so far, not in the way I expected to. It was beautiful with great trails and big mountains, but I find myself not really thinking about any of that. When I think of Montana, what I miss are the friends I made while I was there. I miss going up to Kalispell to visit Danni and I miss planning big backcountry national park adventures with Dave. I miss the bike adventures and going to movies with my friend Bill. We still chat online. It's not the same, obviously."

In my mobile life, I've had the fortune to make the acquaintance of some great friends, but they're scattered everywhere. There's the high school and college friends that scattered themselves; the ones I still keep in touch with now span the globe. There's the Utah friends who remained — the people I try to see when I'm "home." I have several current friends from past homes — former co-workers in Tooele and Idaho Falls, a former neighbor in Homer, a best friend in Juneau, and a surprising number of "new" friends in Anchorage, several of whom I was able to sit down and laugh with in February as though I'd never left. Then there are my bike friends: my other Canadian family in Whitehorse, Yukon; the "crazy Alaskans" connected by the White Mountains 100 who mostly live in Fairbanks; the enduro-freaks of the mountain biking community — all spread across the West; my Tour Divide friends; my Iditarod friends — several who reside in Europe. And now there are new running friends, and Beat's friends. They're all great people who have helped shape my life. And with the exception of very few, they're all hopelessly far away.

Since I was up north for the morning anyway, I agreed to meet up with a long-ago blog friend for lunch, a man named Shawn. I say long-ago because he and I had quite a bit of contact in my early days of blogging, in 2005 and early 2006. He was a friendly biking enthusiast in Arizona and I was an enthusiastic new Alaskan with an admittedly terrible camera. After commenting on my posts for several months, he wrote to me and offered to send me a Canon Powershot, free of charge. I've long since lost that camera, but it cemented my hobby of photo-documenting all of my outdoor pursuits in life. Shawn had some upsets in his own life, moved to the Bay area, and we lost touch not long after he donated the camera. I wouldn't have even suspected he knew I moved away from Homer, let alone Juneau and Anchorage and Montana, but through the magic of Facebook, he recently discovered I was living in California, and contacted me again.

We agreed to meet up in San Mateo for lunch. We'd never met in person, a strange phenomenon in itself, but in the context of modern life, never having met face-to-face seems to matter as little as a lapse of five years. I remembered Shawn was a foodie, the type who always posted photos of dinners on his blog, so I suspected the lunch would be tasty. I wasn't disappointed. There was a line outside Ramen Dojo at 11 in the morning. He waited in it for 20 minutes so we managed to slip in with the first wave, for a simple but sumptuous bowl of pork and noodles. We talked about biking and sea kayaking, culture and unemployment (Shawn was laid off from his job last year; he is still mulling how to shape the balance of work and life.) Shawn critiqued my chopstick technique. ("I lived in Salt Lake and then small towns — I never had a proper place to learn," I protested.) "Did you know there are 3,500 restaurants in the Bay area?" Shawn said. "You could eat at a different one every night for an entire decade."

We finished up lunch and agreed to meet up sometime for a ride. I left San Mateo with a warm kind of satisfaction — spicy lunch, yes, but also the knowledge that I had met a friend.

I've made a solid effort to taper this week, with only short rides and rest days, but I felt a strong urge to get out for a ride in the afternoon. It was just going to be what has become my routine favorite, the Monte Bello Road and back. But on my way up the road, a mountain biker wearing a helmet cam rode past. He asked me where I was headed. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was riding all the way up to the ridge just to head back down the pavement in an effort to make it a "short" ride ahead of a 100-mile snow bike race in Alaska, so I said, "Maybe Indian Creek to Steven's Creek Canyon."

"Oh, don't ride Indian Creek," he said. "There's a singletrack route that's way better. I'm riding with my dad; he's back a little ways. If you meet us at the backpacker camp, I'll point it out."

After I stopped to put on my jacket, the man's dad caught up and the three of us rode together. They introduced themselves as Jason and Scott. Harsh wind and hail pummeled us along the ridge, and Scott, the dad, made comments about my being hardcore, so of course I had to tell them I was a recent Montana transplant, and the weather, while wet and windy and actually quite cold, was "really not all that bad."

We started down the singletrack, a sideslope path that had been ravaged by the recent hard rains. We had to dodge deep trenches and patches of sticky mud, but that added to the excitement of the swooping descent. We dropped into the lush canyon, which was strewn with debris and deadfall from the recent high winds and heavy rains. Jason sidled up behind me, running his helmet cam, so of course I had to let off the brakes and swoop full-speed around the muddy twists and tight turns. I mean, I *had* to mug for the camera — never mind that it was a fairly reckless way for me to ride mere days before the White Mountains 100. Luckily, I didn't crash.

As we coasted back into town, they gave me the info for their Saturday morning group rides and asked for my e-mail so they could show me some of the "secret stashes" in the region. Scott grinned with the irony of the statement. They're not really secret, but they're known to local mountain bikers in a way that they can only be revealed by other local mountain bikers. Discovery is only possible in the presence of friends.

Then they actually did send me an e-mail tonight. I signed up for their Saturday group. I miss my Thursday Night Ride group in Missoula, but I'm grateful for an opportunity to make new friends.