Sunday, May 11, 2014

Flow motion

There are a lot of roads to nowhere; many are fun and scenic places to ride bikes. Rare, however, are the collision of factors that tiptoe toward a more transcendent experience. On this day: A cold northwest wind, much cooler than we anticipated for the East Bay in mid-May. A steep, rolling backroad cut high above a gorge, waiting for the canyon to come to it. A 146-mile day ride over two big mountains and the physical reactions associated with that effort. Mile 89 — the gorge rises to road level and suddenly we're wending along a trickle of a stream. The grade is just uphill enough to always have to work for it, to never coast, and the route begins to trend southeast. Crosswind becomes a tailwind; I spin the pedals harder until I feel no air at all. The wind and I are moving in the same direction at the same speed. Everything becomes silent; even bike vibrations quiet, as though the wheels have lifted off the pavement. I feel everything else more intensely — the tension and release of leg muscles, the relaxation of shoulders, the hard leans into turns, acceleration against gravity. My hands, hot and calloused. My skin, chilled and sweaty. My breathing, soft and urgent. Everything else stands very, very still, as though I am moving in direct correlation with the Earth. Centered.

Just recently I came across the story of "Slomo." You may have heard about Slomo, as a documentary about him was recently featured in the New York Times and has since been brought up in discussions about the biology of bliss. Slomo is the alter-ego of John Kitchin, a 69-year-old former neurologist who has spent the past fifteen years skating the same stretch of boardwalk on Pacific Beach in San Diego. He's perfected an odd-looking technique of balancing on one leg for as long as possible, giving the appearance that he's skating in slow motion. This is effectively how he spends the majority of his waking hours. Skating up and down Pacific Beach. Every day. For fifteen years.

Ever since I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" last year, I've been fascinated by the different techniques people use to achieve, as Kitchin calls the state he's seeking, "The Zone." My friend who recommended the book plays the saxophone; some people paint or compose music, others ski, surf, run, ride bikes. Some people find flow in meditation and yoga, others while working an assembly line, still others engaged in pastimes as mundane as generating repetitive rhythms with their fingers. What's intriguing is all of these wildly different activities aim to achieve the same end. There are many short and long ways to describe "Flow" (the book is quite long.) But they way I see Flow is an alignment — to, at least briefly, tap into the pattern underlying the chaos of life, shed self-consciousness and all the baggage of ego and individual perception, and just be.

When I contemplate my happiest moments on a bike, patterns emerge — I am usually somewhere surrounded by subtle beauty, a place that feels remote, riding a road or smooth piece of singletrack that traces the contour of the land. The terrain is generally nontechnical, so I feel no stress, and requires my physical input to create motion — meaning long downhill coasting doesn't usually generate the same level of joy. Another integral component is the endurance factor. The accumulation of distance and effort wears down mental barriers and helps pry open the gateway to this state of mind. If I were to ride the wending contours of Mines Road at mile three of a day's bike ride, I would find the experience enjoyable, pleasant, still completely worthwhile ... but bliss, that only comes later.

On Saturday Liehann and I set out to ride from the start of a 50K trail race Beat was running in Oakland, and ride home via the summits of Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton. We pedaled through the Oakland hills in cool morning air but then had to cross a long swath of freeways and crowded streets in Walnut Creek. I have a love-hate relationship with road cycling. I love how much ground I can cover and all the things I can see riding roads, but don't cope well with traffic, and sometimes other cyclists. Diablo was an unsettling experience. It was a beautiful spring day and there were lots of bikes on the road — which is great, but there were some tensions. I got a few derisive comments about my backpack and platform pedals (I get it, I'm a dorky tourist who likes my comforts.) There was one narrowly avoided head-on collision with a cyclist who took a sharp curve really wide. And the descent was just terrifying — mostly because impatient drivers pulled out to pass long groups of climbing cyclists and other cars, with no regard for those already in the lane, riding at 20-plus miles per hour downhill.

As we rode away from the mountain, I thought this road ride was a mistake. But as we passed into more rural areas, I began to perk up because it was still a beautiful spring day, traffic became far less of an issue, and the joy of distance was beginning to set in. We devoured chips with Coke and Gatorade while propped against the window outside a gas station in Livermore. (Liehann said, "I feel so classy," and I said, "This is the best part of bike touring. You just don't care.") Then it was on to Mines Road, rolling through the remote heart of the Diablo Range.

By the time we descended into the San Antonio Valley, I had savored a few moments of bliss and felt genuinely excited about the next section — turning directly into that 20 mph northwest wind and climbing the steep backside of Mount Hamilton. We were north of a century and pedaling a section of road that climbs about 2,500 feet in five miles — punishing, but wonderful. I rode up to the closed observatory on the peak, gazed out across far horizons, and put on a thin wind jacket for what promised to be a frigid descent. My surly Mount Diablo demeanor had turned into a big dopey Mount Hamilton grin. When I thought about the reasons why, I thought about Slomo.

Slomo's lifestyle is based in advice to "do what you want," and one of the best parts of life is a freedom to do so. That freedom is a privilege, no doubt, but it takes courage, too — the courage to seek those things that spark passion, and do them for one reason — the sake of doing them. Life of course is more complicated than a quest for bliss, and Slomo's philosophy of a simple, individual path to happiness certainly has a lot of detractors. But it's an important thing to consider, especially after rare moments when the slate of self-consciousness is briefly erased. Questions like, "what is a life?" and "what does it mean, to do what you want?"