Saturday, October 14, 2017

Forest Road 509 made me cry

Those first groggy minutes of morning have never been my best, but lately they've become more difficult to face. I know I'm not the only one — waking up to a vague sense of dread, brewing a pot of artificially flavored vanilla coffee without shame because it's comfort food, and scrolling through the news. This has more or less been my morning ritual since I had to pay slightly less than my weekly food budget to have the New York Times delivered to my duplex doorstep in Utah during college. But now I can hardly stomach it, this ritual of sitting in a room and sipping comfort coffee as long-held convictions crumble. Is it because I'm nearing 40? The much-hyped middle-age crisis? Or is the world really so much worse than it used to seem?

The general advice is to step away from the Internet. Although I definitely need to limit my time on social media, I don't really benefit emotionally from sticking my head in the sand. Everything is still happening, and I'm just depriving myself of the means to try to understand. Sending in a few bucks to relief efforts or the ACLU feels like doing something, but not really. It's like seeing that boulder from "Indiana Jones" rolling toward you, stepping in front of it, and holding out your hands.

I'm a generally happy person with mostly sound mental and physical health, living in a beautiful and safe place that I love, and I enjoy lot of privilege. I understand this. But we all have our demons to battle. My most persistent is a nihilist who sits on my shoulder, shouting that nothing matters.

My hormones feel out of whack again. So I fear another thyroid "flare." Feel inexplicably anxious. Stare at blank documents on the screen for far too long. California is burning. It's the disaster du jour, but the ones that hit close to our experiences, hit close to our hearts. Life is alarmingly delicate, and fleeting. Why risk ... anything? Why bother ... with anything? Shut up, little nihilist. Just shut up.

Recently I read a blog post about mindful perception and downloaded the book it cited, "A Life of One's Own," published in 1926, about a seven-year period in which British psychoanalyst Marion Milner sought to discover a path to genuine happiness. Declaring that the things we pursue the most frantically are those least likely to bring lasting joy, Milner trained herself to focus on the quieter, more ethereal aspects of existence. I've only started to read her book, but the blog writer cited some compelling observations:

"So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs."

On Friday morning I set out on my bike, feeling hormonal and unmotivated and vaguely anguished about world affairs. But I was armed with a few of these observations from Marion Milner to eschew my comforting habits and likely futile efforts to feign productivity, and instead do one thing that never fails to bring joy ... moving through the world.

Within my home range — meaning the places I can ride to in a few hours — there are still so many spots I haven't begun to explore. Before I headed into tranquil 60-degree weather — the early-week snow already a faint memory — I mapped out a route to trails surrounding Gold Lake. I chatted with my neighbor for a few minutes, then mashed pedals up the muddy road. With every hard crank, motivation surged and anxiety faded. It's just that easy. It was true when I was a nervous 23-year-old novice, and it's true now. We can yearn for many complicated things in life, with a sense of purpose or meaning at the top. But happiness, in itself, is fairly simple.

I blasted down one long hill and climbed another, sharing heart-felt pleasantries with other cyclists and walkers as we crossed paths. The music on my iPod was really good, my breathing and legs felt strong, and it was a perfect autumn day. "October is your favorite month of the year," I reminded myself. That actually hasn't been true for a number of years. But it was true when I was young, before the scars accumulated, and the world had endless possibility.

After turning right off of Sunshine Drive, the rest of the ride would be new territory for me. I discovered a surprisingly fun trail, wrapping around a hillside with cliffs on one side and steep-drop offs on the other. Then I crossed Lefthand Canyon and took a hard turn onto a dirt track, Forest Service Road 509.1. I'd done a modicum of Internet research about my route, and understood that this road had once been rated "moderate to difficult" by an off-road driving Web site, and was closed to motorized traffic after the 2013 floods. I expected it to be steep and eroded, but I really had no idea. It's barely a route now; more often it's just a chute of chunder and loose boulders, like climbing an avalanche gully. The kind of terrain where you have to hike on your toes, so pushing a bike is just heinous.

I averaged 1.4 miles per hour. My shoulders ached even though I've been working on my shoulders, back and arms at the gym, and really I've made a lot of improvements, but you wouldn't know it from my real-world abilities. I bent in to move some of the weight to my lower body, only to continually knocked my shin and calf on a pedal. It was brutal work. I tried to find the good. "Great training" is an appropriate fiction.

Then my foot slipped backward on the loose surface. With already poor balance that I blame on the awkward stance of wrestling a bike uphill, I toppled over. I stood up, fuming, and took a few more steps, only to slam my left knee into the pedal. For a second I only saw red. We all have our limits. Mine was apparently quite low on this day, and I lost it. I cried. Not just little whimpers that I indulge in occasionally, but the blubbery, snotty kind that I usually reserve for my most overwhelming difficulties and low points. I just sat on the rocks next to the bike that I angrily shoved aside, and let it flow.

I'm ashamed, of course, but privately I love a good cry. They're always followed by astonishing clarity. Most often these moments of clarity are variations of "you have no reason to be so upset." This was one such moment. I took a few satisfying gulps and looked toward Lefthand Canyon and the surprising elevation/perspective I'd gained while shambling up the road. A patchwork of yellow aspen dotted the evergreen slopes, and the sky was that piercing, October shade of blue. Sure, I had snot streaks on my face. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, I felt happy. Pure and simple. Yes, we humans can be unhelpfully complex and stunningly short-sighted in our thinking. But at our core, I do believe we have capacity for understanding — the understanding that Milner described, the understanding beyond intellectual comprehension, that can only be found through unhindered awareness.

Milner wrote, "By finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness."

Forest Service Road 509.1 climbed to the top of a ridge and faded in a grassy meadow. This was  the beginning of a network of trails that were so much better than I expected. Even at 9,000 feet they were mostly dry, surprisingly smooth for Front Range singletrack, and had great flow. I enjoyed myself immensely, and for a little while focused only on the most immediate sensory inout — a narrow focus often demanded by trail riding. I didn't think about disturbing news reports or friends' Facebook photographs of incinerated neighborhoods or even my still-painful knee. It's useful to remind myself, once in a while, that sharp awareness of a moment is more fulfilling than all of my flinging efforts to understand the world. Which is why, after all these years, I still ride bikes. 


  1. Very cool route. Took me a while to find it on Google Maps. Boulder has a nice combination of wild country and civilization.

  2. Oh the New York Times got me too, that dirty rag, just last week.
    We were on similar blog wavelengths as a result...both with happy endings (tho I like your story better for it's rawness).
    Here's to coping with "The News" via exhaustion and self mutilation...
    Box Canyon Mark

  3. Don’t sweat 40. Most likely, you are not 50% through your life. My crisis came at 60. Even at 50, I could rationalize that I would live until 100. At 60, even I could not rationalize that I would live to 120. I was on the downhill side.

    The saving grace was that I made the grade, and now it was all downhill. That made 70 very enjoyable.

  4. I pretty much disregard most of the 'news' anymore...just listen to local news in the mornings (it's what 'truly' affects my life). I let the world-news fade into the background...the world will go on without my paying attention and I can focus on my life. Maybe that's a copout, but it works for me. I can ride, and take care of my wife and dogs, and my job. I like the 'little picture' life. Selfish I know. I try to live by the advice I got long ago..."if it's beyond your control then it's wasted energy worrying about it". So I TRY to only waste my energy on stuff that I can control. The rest is noise.

  5. Sounds like Marion Milner is practicing mindfulness. Meditation is good practice for that. It helps keep things in perspective.

  6. The human world does seem to be degenerating in to chaos (and I am in the UK), but the natural world is still there. It smells, feels and looks like peace. Step by step, however slowly we can become absorbed.

  7. You know what will take the mind away for a few hours? Go on an audobon field and do some bird watching with a group. Since your focus is on spotting birds, and watching behavior, and most everyone keeps quite so the birds don't get spooked, it's a real nice time.

  8. Hi Jill,

    This post I could very much relate to right now. Although October among my favorite months of the year too, I've been this year dogged by a feeling of general defeat and lethargy. Not good. I'll have to check out that book you mention! And I need to get outside and move more - that truly is a superb tonic.

    Anyway, sharing in case it's of interest - if you want a lighthearted, adventure-related diversion to listen to for an hour, I'd recommend the following BBC Radio 4 program - it's a wonderful talk by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (I think it's available for another ~25 days or so online before it rolls off the BBC Radio website).

    Laura K


Feedback is always appreciated!