I don’t think it’s some revelation that the secret to living your life is “do it anyway”; it’s not crazy or unexpected to realize that when you struggle through hard shit everything else gets easier. But although I’ve gone through that thousands of times with all the increasingly hard shit and crazy situations I end up in, this was so different. Long linkup days in the mountains have made me feel like I can get myself into or out of any situation, albeit sometimes with cold quiet acceptance. That’s the famous “freedom of the mountaineer”, that your body and your skills can take you anywhere safely. This bike trip, though, expanded that freedom to EVERYWHERE, because it eliminated the tethers. It makes me feel like even in the worst case scenario situations, I will figure it out, and I will be ok.
Tell me what is impossible but still true: I lived on my bicycle and rode hundreds miles around southern Utah.
I don’t remember when it was, but I spent hours one afternoon riding and thinking of this thing a first grader said to me in a school that I worked at in Lansing, Michigan years (probably 10) ago. I rode my bike to that school (and everywhere else I went), it was about 40 minutes from my house I think. I would come into the classroom with my helmet and gloves tucked under one arm, but I rode in my regular clothes so I didn’t have to change. It was a poor neighborhood, and my job was paid for by federal grants. Here’s the exchange:
“Did you ride a bike here?”
“yeah, I always do”
“Do you not have a car?”
“I do actually, but I would rather ride my bike.”
At this point he didn’t say anything, but looked at me with disgust
“Your body can take you anywhere, don’t you think that’s really cool? We’re really lucky to have strong, healthy bodies.”
The kid’s eyes were a mix of pity and confusion, and he just went back to his desk. I will never forget any part of that exchange, including the way he looked at me, because I had previously been someone that he had some measure of respect for, but in one minute I became someone that he felt bad for.
We woke up in the desert, and didn’t get bitten by snakes! I trapped the spiders that were blocking our exits, and we packed up to go. In the grey desert, we were just a couple of miles outside the official boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. The previous night, I had looked over my maps and lists of mileage and elevation gain and thought it was obvious that I would pass through Capitol Reef and onto route 12 that day, then be in Bryce Canyon on Sunday. I knew something was wrong, so I pulled the maps back out and looked over them again. I had written the elevation profile in legs, so to speak, and because the towns on route 12 were suddenly much closer, the legs were much shorter.
It did look like: Blanding to Hite 80 mi +4285 -6664
and now it looked like:
Fruita to Grover 17.3mi +2165 -479
Grover to Boulder 28.8 +3077 -3356
and what I hadn’t thought of last night, when I thought it would be reasonable to add several of these short legs together was that I’d be looking at 2 8000ft of climbing days. Which, pre bike trip, I thought was totally reasonable, as I do more than that on skis and much more on foot in the summer. What I know now: climbing on a loaded bike with a trailer with a dog in it is at least 30x harder than running uphill.
Coming out of Capitol Reef, we spent hours just climbing. I can’t even think of another way to put it, it felt as though I were just desperately trying to drag a train uphill with only the strength of my legs. I knew it would be hard, but I thought after the first couple days, I would adapt physically to the work and be stronger. I think I was, but the hills kept getting longer and steeper. We were making about four miles an hour. Each time we crested a hill, I could see better the storm that was ahead, and better feel the wind coming. The temperature had dropped at some point to 7 degrees Celsius [I had bought a tiny thermometer to put on my bike and didn’t notice until I left that it was only in Celsius. I haven’t had to translate temperatures from Celsius since like third grade]. The wind came in these crazy gusts, it would hit me like a wall and either stop me or nearly knock me over. I was trying to keep riding, and when the gust was over, the force that I had been fighting the wind with also nearly knocked me over. I yelled into the wind “WHY WON’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE?!” I yelled at Utah. I yelled at Luna, because she was cold in her trailer but she also didn’t want to get out and run beside me for the double benefit that she’d warm up and be less weight that I had to haul. This nonsense went on for hours that felt like days that felt like my whole life. We crested another hill, and suddenly there was snow.
I pulled over, leaned the bike on a sign post, sat down on the ground, and wept. I knew the weather wasn’t attacking me personally, and I wasn’t actually mad at Utah, it was me. I had underestimated the terrain. I had misjudged the weather. I had overestimated my own strength (and ability to adapt). I had definitely underestimated how hard it would be to tow Luna. I had underestimated how much Luna would even want to be out of her trailer and running under her own power. I was infinitely disappointed in myself. Here I was, on one of the most beautiful tours in the country, and I couldn’t keep the train moving. I wouldn’t be able to do the 23,000 feet of climbing over the next three days to make it to Bryce canyon and back in time to ride back to Moab. And now it was winter. Because even though I knew how much climbing there would be, I had written it all down, it hadn’t occurred to me that Bryce Canyon is at 9k, which is why there’s all that fucking climbing. While it’s unusual that S Utah in general is so cold in late March, obviously it’s still winter at 9,000 feet. I could keep climbing all day, and it would keep getting colder, but ultimately I would have to turn around tomorrow, without having gotten anywhere, in order to make it home on time. The tour was essentially over. It took me so long to write part three, because I knew reliving this moment would hurt the most. My heart broke. I didn’t have time to finish what I started, I couldn’t, because I wasn’t strong enough, because I hadn’t planned this whole thing out intelligently enough. The tour was over, and I still had several days of riding left to close the loop and get back.
But there was nothing else to do but ride. And for a few more hours, the wind pounded me, and I struggled and suffered, and finally I stopped to take a break. I had accidentally stumbled upon a BLM historical site that featured a couple sweet campsites, and I thought, “I have fucking HAD IT. I do not want to ride anymore. I am DONE for today.”
Really, I think that about sums it all up. Yeah I rode for several more days and put in a really hefty amount of mileage. There were good times and bad times. There were times I thought drivers were going to kill me, there were times I was super stressed out, there were times when the mileage and hours just rolled by. There was sun, there was more rain. I came to terms with my disappointment in myself. It was hot sometimes and it was cold others. I had some delicious french toast, and I ate a lot of fuel that I didn’t care much about. We had a couple more good campsites. We talked to some interesting people. A photographer stopped me and asked to take some photos. It made me really uncomfortable, but I obliged. She said, “what you’re doing is extraordinary.” I said thanks, but what I thought was “it just feels normal now”. An elderly woman gestured to the rig and asked if it was my home. I said “for now”, but I wished I had said “yes.” There were more spiders, there were more miles, and I got bitten by a fire ant (it hurt more than expected). There was another very violent storm, during which I got a flat tire. My rear brakes came loose. The derailleurs were struggling to shift at all on the last 2300ft climb. I got another flat tire. I was just about to type that I fell apart in the last 10 miles to Canyonlands, but I didn’t. I didn’t fall apart. In the middle of this super violent storm, I considered my options and started running, because it seemed more reasonable to get back to the truck instead of trying to fix the bike in the storm at 7:15pm. Ultimately, a nice family gave Lu and I a ride for the last couple miles. There was no triumphant return, it was just over.
I believed during the various periods of suffering that after the tour was over, I would only remember the good parts. Well, shows how much I know. I miss all of it; the bad, hard, scary, miserable parts just as much as the joyous descents, sunny miles, and sweet campsites. I can feel the fear and worry, the cold, and my aching body as if I’m still out there. And I want it back, I want it all back. I had been afraid of losing safety and security, and comfort; of being too far away. I didn’t realize I had been afraid of living directly in the environment for a length of time, of being exposed, of deprivation. This tour has changed everything. I used to want to be fearless, and believed that by continually facing my fears I could evolve to a point that I had none. That’s impossible, because fear is what makes you human, and I don’t ever want to be without it. Choosing to do it anyway, THAT is freedom.
“Paralyzed by the voice inside your head, it’s the standing still that should be scaring you instead. Go on and do it anyway. Risk it anyway.
Tell me what I said I would never do, tell me what I said I would never say. Read me off a list of things that I used to not like but now I think are ok.” -Ben Folds
(who knew Ben Folds was this brilliant philosopher?)