Saturday, May 22, 2021

I could write a long book about time and space

I've been reading "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, and I have to say — I've found a surprising amount of comfort in his simple yet satisfying ruminations on astronomy and the human condition. I was too young to have seen the original television series and still a teenager when Sagan died, so I admit I'd never heard of the famous astronomer until 2015 or so. I was listening to a radio program about Voyager. In a voice recording, Sagan described the reasoning behind the images and sounds stored on the golden record that scientists launched into space. I was driving across Nevada at the time, traversing a windswept basin and crying full tears at the thought of this tiny time capsule of human endeavor swirling through the infinite void. 

"Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth." — Carl Sagan 

 Amid all of the hope-crushing events of the past year — the pandemic and all of the mean pushback, Fire Summer 2020, election season, the Jan. 6 insurrection, ongoing world conflict and sickness, intensifying climate change, etc., etc. — I find I take the most heart in this simple idea: That I am an infinitesimal being in an infinite universe. My machinations and striving, my mistakes and ambitions, all are mere flashes of light and cosmic dust. And yet I'm part of a world where everything is unique, everything is beautiful, and everything is worthy of awe. Life gifted me with the perspective to experience this beauty in my unique way, but life gifted all living things with this perspective on some level. Life will go on long after I'm gone. This truth brings me comfort. 

Cosmic existentialism and the wisdom of Carl Sagan have been on my mind as Beat has been battling his own recent existential crisis. He taught me a new word: "Weltschmerz," which is German for "world-weariness" or the sadness one feels while perceiving the pain of the world. The Germans have a word for every complex emotion, don't they? Beat's been feeling particularly sad about the state of the pandemic in India. He donated to a charity that's working to help Indian people directly, but it doesn't feel like enough. He laments that he hasn't done more to have a greater impact on humanity. He wonders if life can have purpose without at least trying to change the world for the better. Is it enough to impact just one life? What about one's own life? 

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers." — Carl Sagan

Asking myself what makes a meaningful life is what got me through my anxiety episodes in February. I'd go for long walks through frosty subzero air and ponder how I could emerge from my own turbulent psychology. When the inexplicable jitters became too overwhelming, I'd soothe myself by imagining a camera panning out until the world was a speck in the glittering expanse of interstellar space. From this vantage my existence was abundantly simple: I'm a life form who needs to experience life. I'm an intelligent life form grasping for a better understanding of The Truth. I'm a creative life form with an innate compulsion to make sense of this search through stories. And I'm one of 7.6 billion in a flawed species flailing through our collective adolescence. I do not need to be a great person, but I do need to be a good person — or at least I need to continue to try to be a good person, through all of the ego and personality glitches and humanness built into my flawed mind.  

"Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere." — Carl Sagan

And I need to keep moving. My mind craves motion almost as much as it craves air — the space to run from excess noise, to reach beyond entrenched beliefs, to perceive both the immediate moment and the infinite space within. For years I believed I needed goals to find fulfillment in otherwise aimless wanderings. Then the aimlessness of 2020 taught me that I don't need goals or even good stories to tell; motion for the sake of motion is enough. I thought this insight might be enough to end my year-long ambivalence about returning to racing, but it did the opposite. I'm excited to return to racing. I'm eager to embrace old ambitions and again pursue old goals. Racing still offers useful perimeters to stretch my preconceived limits. Racing is still a reliable avenue for adventure. Also, a tangible goal does help my brain convince the stubborn old body that we need to continue this rigamarole. 

Which is a very long way of saying that I am "in training" once again. And again, rather than working to become conventionally stronger or faster, I'm sharpening the old mental endurance tools. This week presented good opportunities to put in long hours on my bike, so I headed to Buena Vista for a brief but robust exploration of the Ark Valley. 

“We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.” — Carl Sagan

My first ride was a solo 118-mile meander along the old railroad route beside the Arkansas River, wrapping around Twin Lakes, and proceeding toward the wind-blasted climb to Independence Pass. Cold gusts buffeted my bike as I tucked in as much as I could. I live in the Front Range so I'm used to headwinds, but the eastern edge of the Continental Divide is home to a particularly challenging wall of westerlies. I'd brought a puffy jacket and mittens but they did little to cut the breathtaking chill. Physically I was pretty miserable, but the old brain is getting better and better at discounting mundane discomforts. There was nobody around for seeming miles and I relished the solitude. I was gasping, straining, feeling hot blood coursing through legs wrapped in icy skin as I lifted my chin a few inches off the stem to squint into the sublime. 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.” — Carl Sagan

With a few thousand rotations of two wheels, metabolizing carbohydrates and caffeine, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, recirculating water, firing countless neurons to generate muscle contractions — I made it to Independence Pass! At this point, I was chilled to the core and not looking forward to the long descent. Instead, I extended discomfort by sitting cross-legged on the icy pavement and eating the enormous sandwich that I assembled at home earlier that morning. It felt like a long time ago in a place far away. 

The descent with a stiff tailwind wasn't as painful as I'd anticipated. I enjoyed the opportunity to focus less on generating meager pedal power and more on the powerful freedom of chasing the world as it unrolled in front of me. At times I accelerated in perfect harmony with the 30-plus mph wind and all was calm, silent, as tranquil as outer space. 

Riding south toward Buena Vista meant being buffeted by crosswinds for miles afterward. I admit this was becoming tedious. By the time I finally turned east, the evening had settled. The wind finally lost steam, just in time to provide no benefit for the final uphill grind. My original plan had been to take Highway 285 and scoot back to camp as quickly as possible. I'd already ridden 105 miles and the Independence Pass headwind alone sucked away at least two days' worth of energy. But the highway at 5 p.m. on a Friday night was soul-crushing ... not to mention legitimately dangerous ... so I veered off on an unplanned detour — part of the route I planned to ride with friends the following day. It snaked up a ribbon of singletrack before climbing high into the hills on a steeply graded forest road. 

Is it fair to say I loved this part of the ride most of all? It was more than a bit ridiculous, this sandy mire of a climb that brought tears to my eyes and full rebellion from my overworked heart. Sometimes I just stopped pedaling without making a conscious decision to do so. Then I'd walk for a while. Then with a furrowed brow of determination, I'd hop back on the bike and declare out loud that I hoped this climb went all the way back to 12,000 feet for no reason. I was going to climb it all and love every sand-choked mile. This exhilarating embrace of pain finally collapsed after I'd descended through quiet meadows occupied by dozens of mule deer, lulled back into complacency before I crossed the highway. The final three miles of the day followed a road so badly corrugated that I nearly lost a filling amid the painful chattering of my teeth. At one point I stopped and forced back tears as I yelled like a toddler, cursing the unfairness of this washboarded mess that only brought purposeless pain and bone-rattling desperation. I just wanted to be back at my quiet camp along a gurgling arm of Trout Creek, where I was so looking forward to a box of Annie's Mac and Cheese that I didn't even mind that I forgot to bring a spoon and had to scoop my dinner with a folded tuna packet.

On Saturday morning, I returned to town to meet Betsy and Erika for an 80-mile ride. Our loop headed back into the hills and south to Salida. We started with the same 15-mile stretch that I rode to reach my camp the previous night. The climb was a lot easier with renewed glycogen stores and rested muscles, but the washboard still sucked. 

Betsy pedals the sandy road with the Collegiate Peaks in the background. 

We climbed onto the high basin of South Park, an otherworldly region of rolling sandhills and grassland all above 9,000 feet. This road is part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a section I hadn't seen since 2009 since I dropped out of the 2015 race in Silverthorne. I was struck by how familiar this place felt, complete with foreboding skies and gusty sprinkles that I was certain I'd experienced in this exact location, in this exact way. The little déjà vus in life are interesting, aren't they? To me, they're unsettling, because they reveal just how flawed memory can be. My brain must constantly rewrite its stories to match present perceptions. Or maybe, just maybe, consciousness expands beyond my body and into the multiverse. Childish interpretations of quantum physics have boosted me through many difficult moments in life. When racing a thunderstorm across an exposed prairie, it's better to imagine having already escaped it. 

Eventually, the storm moved on but we continued to fight mighty headwinds to the crest of Cameron Mountain Pass. There I enjoyed another enormous sandwich that I purchased at a gas station in town. What's funny about that gas station is that I visited it once before in January, when the pandemic was raging through Colorado. The place was packed with customers and not a single one wore a mask. There were people wearing helmets and full-body snowmobile suits and no masks. On this lovely spring morning, it was just me and the clerk, both wearing masks. What can I say? I like the anonymity of masks. Also, I don't trust anyone anymore. 

From there we enjoyed 10 free miles, a 3,000-foot descent into Salida. Everyone was feeling cooked by the wind, so I proposed heading to my friend Dave's house. Dave, a friend from Fairbanks who spent the pandemic year in Salida to be closer to family, was throwing a barbecue before heading back to Alaska to work for the summer. The timing worked out well to join the party for a couple of hours before riding back to Buena Visita. Since Dave moved to Colorado, we'd thrown around the idea of riding together, but it never happened because the logistics of travel and meeting always felt like this impossible barrier. I remember last May when it wasn't even legal to ride my bicycle beyond Boulder County limits. It seems so long ago now. 

This was, however, my first "party" in more than a year. I tried to remember the last ... it must have been in Alaska, in February 2020. That definitely seems like a long, long time ago. Dave welcomed us into a small group in the backyard. We were a bit buzzed on endorphins and fatigue, and I felt downright intoxicated as I drank La Croix and carried on conversations in this casual yet surreal social setting. 

Before parting ways, my friends requested a hug. That was a first since March 2020 as well — physical contact with a human who wasn't Beat, my parents, or my sisters ... or my medical providers, to make a fair comparison. I balked for a moment — I admit to being a reluctant hugger even in the Before Times. So it surprised me how good this felt — a hit of oxytocin that I've largely deprived myself for much of a year. 

“In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” — Carl Sagan

With bellies full of food and beer (in my case, ginger beer), we moved slowly toward the rest of the loop. Erika opted to catch a ride with her partner, who drove down from Buena Vista. Betsy and I pedaled north on secondary highways for what turned out to be 30 more miles and another 2,500 feet of climbing. Betsy doesn't like riding high-traffic roads and also expressed reluctance to riding in the dark, so I felt like we were racing the clock. But it was a beautiful evening, cool air tinged with warm light. It was a favorite day. After the depletion of the past year, Spring 2021 has filled with a relative glut of such days. 

The past week's third opportunity for a long ride came Thursday. I set out to ride Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, a classic Colorado spring ride. Like Independence Pass, there's usually a short window after the pavement has been cleared of snow but before the route is open to cars when cyclists can ride free from traffic. I love this easy accessibility to the high country in the late spring — a time of year when all high-altitude hiking is mired in rotten snow and wet slide danger — so I try to take advantage of these brief windows. 

The 4,500-foot climb from the park entrance to the 12,183-foot high point was uneventful, besides the usual spring challenges of fierce wind and stunning cold. Instead of putting on a jacket, I thought I'd use the chill as motivation to urge my legs into a harder effort. Still, without even consciously deciding to back off, I relaxed after just a few miles. Since March my activity levels have increased, topping 20 hours of moving time most weeks. This steady-state endurance is my favorite sort of fitness, but it definitely eats into any semblance of a high end. Of course, I wish I could both set PRs and pedal for hours without feeling fatigued. But if I have to choose one, it's going to be the latter. 

There is considerably more snow than I've seen up here in past spring rides, even though I usually make it up to Trail Ridge by early May. Snowpack in this region is sitting at 121% of normal, mostly on the strength of spring snow, while the state is still a paltry 69% and locked in drought. I still have low faith that we'll make it through the upcoming fire season unscathed (meaning a normal fire season as opposed to another historic fire season, which is becoming the new normal) ... but the recent surplus rain and snow in this corner of the state has kept me blissfully content. That and finding more time and freedom to move through the world as I please. And seeing my parents and friends on a more timely basis. And adopting more hopeful personal goals for the future. And also CBD ... I doubled my intake shortly after my anxiety episodes in February, and everything since has really fallen into place. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But I am grateful for CBD, placebo or not. 

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness ..." 

Sagan wrote this prescient paragraph shortly before his death in 1996. In Cosmos, he laments several times about the progress we as a civilization lost when we rejected or destroyed great repositories of knowledge such as the culture of Classical Greece and the Library of Alexandria. A thinker during the height of the Cold War, Sagan baffled over our zeal for war and our mutually assured destruction. Like Sagan, I believe humanity has great potential, but fear that we won't make it through our volatile adolescence — clinging to tribalism and violence, to regressive superstitions, to the cancerous inevitabilities of progress for the sake of progress. When I consider my ennui during the Trump years and my subsequent desire to zoom my perspective as far from civilization as possible — I realize that this fear is at the heart of it all. 

“Once we lose our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe which dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” — Carl Sagan

Then I swing back to Voyager, pressing deeper into an unfathomable void and carrying a story of humanity that has the potential to outlast even Earth itself. Voyager launched on August 20, 1977 — two years to the day before I was born. For my upcoming birthday, maybe instead of an ego-driven effort to celebrate myself, I'll celebrate that tiny hopeful relic traveling through space for 44 years and counting. This is the way I hold onto hope — knowing that beauty goes on. The stories we share go on. And despite our best efforts to destroy what we don't understand, the truth goes on.

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.” — Carl Sagan 


  1. Voyager 1 turned around and took a picture of the Earth back in 1990. From that distance, we're just a little blue dot and Sagan's writing about it is pretty moving. Great photos, looks like an awesome ride!

  2. This was a beautiful, contemplative, meaningful passage. We await that long book about space and time.


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