Friday, January 17, 2014

Driven to disperse

When I ride my bike, I am always traveling. Sometimes I travel through the past, coasting effortlessly across the landscape of my memories. Sometimes I travel in the most immediate present, a space that spans no farther than each breath and pedal rotation. Sometimes I travel into the future, through the stories I tell myself about the things that haven't happened yet. Occasionally I venture far into the future, the places beyond my own lifetime, and the stories that ignite my most unsettling existential fears. Even less frequently, I take trips far into the past, to times long before my own and places that only exist in the stories I've been told. On Wednesday, I rode my bike from home up and over a nearby mountain that I'd never before climbed, and traveled to this deep past — specifically, the journeys of ancient people who ventured across the Bering Strait and set the first human footprints on the New World.

If I could be a human at any time and place in history, I might just choose then — if only to satisfy some of my deepest curiosities and drives for adventure. The Bering Land Bridge migration is still a hotly debated theory. It's most widely accepted that small bands of people crossed over from Siberia on ice-free corridors of land some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. But even scientists who adhere to this theory don't know exactly what these people were pursuing. Big game hunting seems the most likely candidate, but some geological evidence suggests that the climate on the lowlands of Beringia was not as conducive to big game habitat as previously thought. What exactly were these trailblazers searching for when they left the world they knew, for the sparse and barren tundra that today resides below the Bering Sea? I would love to know, which, as any good reporter understands, can only come from actually being there to witness what happened. Yes, becoming a human who lived 15,000 years ago would mean choosing a life as difficult as it was simple, defined by discomfort and heavy labor, and even if I lived to old age I'd be dead already, at 34, lucky if my only contribution was successfully reproducing before I met a violent or painful end. But still, I wonder. And wonder is where I travel sometimes, when I ride my bike.

Bohlman - On Orbit turns out to be a brutally steep climb —paved, but the mountain bike requires working my quad muscles to the point of failure just to maintain respectable forward motion. The January sun beats down — it was 74 degrees when I left my house, but feels like something closer to 90. My skin is slick with sweat and black flies are buzzing around my face and becoming lodged in the sticky film near my eyes and nose. The swarm grows in number, and I can't pedal fast enough to ward them off. "Ugh, it might as well be August," I think. But it's even worse than August because it's January, and with a winter like this, who knows what summer will bring? My imagination conjures up dust storms, stifling heat, dry hillsides, and fire. "I would probably do okay in the Ice Age," I think. "I wonder how many people would take a time machine to that point in history?"

Sweeping views of the smog-blanketed Silicon Valley become more defined as I rise higher into clear air. At the ridge I join a dirt road that ripples across the spine of a 2,500-foot mountain, and this is El Sereno Open Space. As the crow flies it's probably ten miles from my house, but I've never been here before. The fact that I'm in a new place, covering new ground, fills me with renewed excitement and purpose. Suddenly I'm no longer grumpy about the January heat or the fact that my bike legs seem oddly lacking in strength. Gravel crackles beneath the wheels as I gaze left, and then right, and then left again, taking in expansive blocks of urban sprawl and oak-covered mountainsides in equal turn. The descent steepens and frequent berms appear off to the side; I ride as many of them as I dare, swooping up and down near-vertical walls with squeals of glee. Caution remains because this doubletrack trail is very dry, slicked with fine moondust and littered with loose jagged rocks, which would become a veritable cheese grater in the event of any kind of crash. The scar I incurred in my last gravel road crash, at Frog Hollow in November, still aches every time I go out in the cold. I am fearful but I am joyful, because I have never been here before. This is bike-sploration, and I love this stuff.

A popular theory holds that sport is just a modern adaptation to our evolutionary makeup — the physical traits and abilities developed over millennia but rendered less necessary for survival in modern times. Technological advances outpaced our physical evolution, and our human instincts and emotions still adhere to primitive drives. When I think about my own basic drives, the one that most stands out is a desire — no, a need — to keep moving. Some people are nesters and cultivators, and they thrive at home. Some people are hunters and conquerers, and they thrive in production and competition. And yet others are dispersers, and they thrive most when they're advancing toward an unknown horizon, unsure whether the grass is greener on the other side, but driven to take a look and find out.

The ancient dispersers spread and populated the whole world; now even Antarctica and the bottom of the oceans are mapped in detail, and most modern discovery comes from within. And yet I ride because I remain driven to disperse, to discover for myself the contours and features that make up the world. It may not be an entire previously undiscovered continent, but it's a start. 


  1. I loved riding Bohlman On-Orbit. I rode it each of the last 3 days I lived in California. I loved the climb, but the descending not so much. With rim brakes (road bike) it was a hassle to be constantly worrying about overheating your rims. Great climb though.

    Are you working on the Billy Goats list ( I was trying to hit all of the hills that were rated a difficulty of 6 and checked off almost all of them in the south bay / peninsula area. Friends and I used to love trying to link up as many 5 and 6-rated hills as we could in one day.

    Great pictures Jill!

    1. Thanks for the link to the Billy Goats page. A lot of good ride ideas in there, and yes, intriguing link-ups.

      I keep banging my head against walls trying to plan dirt loops, but there are just a lot of private / off-limits fire roads and trails out there. I need to embrace the pavement adventure routes.


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