Thursday, June 27, 2013

Authentic experience


I'm working on getting my knee back, and I believe motion is important for this. Swelling went down, but the joint remains partially frozen. Bending hurts. It improves every day, which keeps me optimistic, but progress seems slow for a bashed knee. On Tuesday I successfully coaxed it to spin rotations on Beat's bike trainer, and on Wednesday I went out for a relatively flat road ride. Today I decided to climb a hill — my benchmark, Montebello Road — and I was taken aback by how tough it was. I didn't realize how much I was compensating for my sore left knee by putting all of the power into my right leg. Also, I couldn't stand out of the saddle. Any time I shifted pressure to the left, I got a shot of sharp pain.

So I effectively one-leg climbed in the saddle, and the effect left me feeling like I hadn't ridden a bike up a hill in a year. Like all of my strength had drained away, all of that hard-won fitness smothered by a minor and easily obtained injury.

Fitness, for me at least, is an illusion, I decided. The quickness and frequency with which my body's physical abilities can be dramatically cut back is, if not surprising, at least humbling. As I mashed the right pedal and weaved drunken switchbacks up a pitch my friends call "The Mitt Romney," a little smile cracked through the grimace. "This is the body that's supposed to get you through PTL in two months," I thought. "RTP even sooner. I'm going to need crutches. Why do I continue to fool myself into this ridiculous farce?"

Edward Abbey called the motivation "some sort of authentic experience" when he asked these questions of himself. I tend to think of authenticity in terms of sharpness — an experience that cuts deep enough to withstand the scouring effects of time. Memory is my greatest asset, because memory is the filter that gathers and preserves these pieces of my life amid the chaos. But when I am comfortable, I am forgetful. The realization hits whenever I click back through my blog and learn how much I've forgotten. I think this is one of the tragedies of life — that so much of what we experience is lost while we’re still alive.

When I let my mind settle — by which I mean let go of the act of deliberately thinking — I often sink into the reel of memories that is forever playing through the background of my consciousness. What I find there is often surprising. The big life events — first kiss, first car, college graduation — are all but gone now, little more than vague flickers of images that may or may not even belong to me. But there are many seemingly innocuous and meaningless moments that I remember with sharp clarity — pedaling my bicycle after dark in a drizzling rain near the end of the Glacier Highway of Juneau, or swimming across a lake in West Texas as the whole sky turned a bright shade of crimson. These kinds of images are the first to emerge when my mind goes quiet. 

Often, the intensity of emotion surrounding these memories kicks my conscious mind back into gear. “Why then?” my mind asks. “And why now?” My rational mind longs to find a correlation between these long-ago experiences and the present. Otherwise, why do they haunt me?

Perhaps it’s because I’m grinding out a pavement ride beneath the glaring sunshine and it’s 90 degrees; I’m missing cold and rain. Indeed, I can still feel the chill trickling down my shoulders, the numb fingers, the yawning black void beyond the dim beam of my headlight. My knee is stiff and it hurts to push these pedals; I miss the absolute freedom of movement I felt in that Texas lake, gliding across the surface of the glass-still water. 

But there's something else about those experiences that keeps them sharp, an authenticity that preserves them over the dozens of rainy rides I did in Juneau, the entire cross-country road trip surrounding that sunset swim. What was it? What did they mean? When I chip away at the surface, the first thought that comes to me is "uncertainty." On that particular bike ride, I was headed out the road to camp in an effort to practice setting up and staying in a winter bivy after after a long ride. I thought it would snow but it rained instead, and I was intensely afraid of being so wet and facing a night out in near-freezing conditions. Everything surrounding me came alive with malice and awe — the eerie blue light of the moon filtered by high clouds, the fog-shrouded channel, the ominous bend of towering spruce trees. I remember them in a way that's viscerally real, all of these years later. 

My memories of Texas surround the return swim, after I overzealously nearly crossed the small lake and suddenly wasn't sure whether I could make it back to shore. My arms were burning and my legs felt like cement blocks. The sky resembled a wildfire, with streaks of blaze-red light framing mountains of dark clouds. I was scared, and yet I felt calm, deeply — almost meditatively — calm. I knew I could swim all the way back because, well, I had to. For those minutes, it was my one responsibility in the world; that flowing movement was everything. It was beautiful in its necessity, freeing in its stark simplicity. 

Is risk necessary for an authentic experience? Do we need to approach the edge and gaze out into the abyss to jolt the sensations of being alive? Clearly I'm drawn to experiences such as PTL because such a vast curtain of uncertainty surrounds them, as well as a level of life-affirming risk. There's also not a small amount of wide-eyed disbelief surrounding the whole endeavor. "I am gimpy and weak. Could I really cross mountain after mountain after mountain for days on end?" I would never believe it if I hadn't tried, and succeeded, at similar endeavors before. But I've never tried anything exactly like this. Therein lies the intrigue — reaching out to the unknown. 

And, also, connecting the foundation of our our awareness with the building blocks of our lives — our memories.

"Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.) Why? Well, it's the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker, once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head. (Will there be water at Cabeza Tank?)" — Edward Abbey, "Beyond the Wall"