Thursday, August 24, 2017

Roads & Non-Roads in the Umatilla National Forest

Unplugged in the no-phone paradise of northeastern Oregon, you must remember how else to do things. You have to adjust your dependencies. For example, you can't text-you haven't been able to for days-so instead leave a note on a car in the middle of nowhere communicating to the other members of your party where they can find you in several hours.

One of our dependencies had slowly shifted over three days away from Google and toward a North Fork John Day Forest Service Oregon 2013 map, our one beacon of knowledge in a land that reduces smart phones to thin cameras. This was our guide and our god as we rode off into the high desert wilderness on an August day in the upper 90s.

But even our Forest Service-issued map could not be trusted.

I don't often ponder the existentialism of inanimate objects, but in only the loosest sense could what we bicycled on be called a road"They utilize me, therefore I am" or something..

My gravel-inclined companion and I scoured our regional map to find a less-than-paved day ride accessible from the Drift Fence campground near Ukiah, OR. We latched onto a recommendation from the park ranger that incorporated the gravel connector road 55 and thought it could link up with something called Bridge Creek Road, which according to our Forest Service map legend, is signaled to be a "Native Surface Road-Suitable for Passenger Car Travel".

Bridge Creek Road (in yellow)
After a breaking down camp and determining a loose plan with our amazing, car-owning friend, two of us rolled out of camp down about 3.5 miles of pleasantly smooth chip seal on road 52 across a few cattle guards to our gravel turnoff on Bridge Creek Road.

Since I live in the city center of Seattle, gravel roads are relatively difficult to get to excepting some concerted effort and planning (see: other writings), but everyone who loves it knows the feeling of hitting loose earth. Your senses jump to engagement. The hum of pavement becomes an uneven, syncopated hiss, hands sense the texture beneath as much as the tires, edging and climbing around surface imperfections a thousand times per second, and eyes scan to optimize the way forward over ever-changing consistencies. After 60 miles of road riding in search of a total eclipse (read: total lobotomy) from the two days prior, it was a sweet sensation to once again enter the unpaved.

Bridge Creek Road was "rideable!" as became our catchword for the day when faced with myriad potentially unrideable scenarios. It rolled down into one of a thousand canyons in this region and became very questionably rideable as it descended toward Bridge Creek. Large stones littered the trail, and we unashamedly walked a few sections before a water refill at the creek bed.

We met only one person on this ride; he rode down to the creek bed about five minutes after us on what in my memory seemed a lot like a moped. He was wearing a trucker hat, a checkered shirt, and jeans. His name was Colby, his father's name is Steve, and everybody around knows him and them. Our small talk immediately turned to yesterday. "Well, we were moving cattle all day, so yeah, I saw it." The two of us were still mentally unpacking one of the most thrilling minute twenty seconds of our existence, but I appreciated his nonchalance: events like this, while neat, are less pressing than the day's tasks. He had lost an iPhone yesterday, it turned out, and was out to investigate.

"Where are you two headed?" We mentioned riding Bridge Creek Road south to link up with 55, and he nodded, wished us well, and subsequently disappeared for five minutes while we continued to filter water from the creek. He returned triumphant, iPhone in hand, and puttered off the way he (and we) had come.

We climbed out of the valley on the rough but rideable(!) road to reach another high desert prairie much like the last. This is where we crossed gate number one, which read Please keep gate closed, which is definitely not the same as No Trespassing or This is not a useful road for much longer.

Here we saw a maybe coyote or fox or wolf dart across the field, enjoyed the mild sunshine of the morning, and cruised across a wide, accommodating plateau between two valleys. It was some of the purest riding of the day, feeding our sense of accomplishment with each rolling hill crested and each new horizon revealed. It could not last, though, and so it was we arrived at a second gate, beyond which the road looked distinctly underutilized. This gate, unlike the first, bore no message whatsoever except that of a padlock and chain. Convinced of our direction and, upon reflection, by the lack of concern from Colby in our earlier conversation, we found a low section in the barbed wire and hopped the fence onto the next section of (here's where words become difficult) road.

It's one of my favorite parts of exploring unknown areas by unmaintained roads: finding out you could get through, that there was a way. The thought of turning around cast enough shame to keep us motivated.. also that the damn map has it outlined and classified as a road "Suitable for Passenger Car Travel". The next section was rideable although a bit of a mixed bag. It took us directly south for several miles before descending into the canyon that is home to the John Day River. I don't recall exactly when it began, but at some point on the descent, the rocks that lie beneath the road's grassy bed became severe enough that we walked fifty yards down to the next gate.

This gate was much more rudimentary-no swinging hinge this time. Three pieces of wood with barbed wire run between them and a wire hook held this section of fence up as a gate of sorts across our path. On the other side was what only a very imaginative person would call a road. A Jeep road, perhaps? Maybe a horse and cart road at one time, but the kind of path that hadn't seen human travel in decades. I'll offer this: it was level and wide enough for a vehicle of some kind. Although rock falls over the years had made it impossible to traverse for even the gnarliest of human vehicles, it was definitively a place by which one could reasonably reach another place, namely, the John Day River, which we noticed soon lie far below us on the canyon floor.

Ceci est une road
"Not rideable!" But really we didn't even waste our energy on this thing. Not at 1500' above a canyon, not with boulders and an impossible-to-predict riding surface beneath the overgrowth. The view was staggering but very quickly became uninteresting as we started to realize that the path ahead was going to resemble this all the way from 4000 to 2500 feet where the river lie. Then there were the omens of doom: three carcasses, all headless, lie in our path. Did they also see the river and think "Oh hooray, I'm saved. I just have to follow this clearly marked road on this map and I'll-- Oh wait, this isn't a road! Noooooooo.." *Dead*

The going was rough, but the view was tremendous. The valley and its river were visible, so there was hope amidst the twisting ankles and rocks as unforgiving as chunks of concrete.

It was fully Type 2 Fun in spite of our protests since we were relatively convinced that we were still on the right.. um, road. It wound around one hill, then the next, strafed along one ledge, then into some bushes, then across a narrow creek where there may have once been a bridge. Finally, we reached some more definitive signs the road was, in fact, closed. Good to know! Three or four felled trees lie across the path and two large, overgrown dirt berms had been erected to keep cars out. We passed through our final gate and out onto 55 with the rushing river now filling our ears. To our amazement, there is still a road sign for this travesty.

RIP road 5500050. You're dead.
But guys, the John Day River was a faaaaabulous treat. We waded out to a few large rocks for lunch and gave our feet a break. Above us was our next climb up 55, but for now it could wait. Since we didn't get a thrilling gravel descent as reward for our hard work, we chose relaxation and calorie intake to satisfy.

55 was an amazing road.. before it got stupid difficult. But that first part! It was freshly graded, had a mild incline, some decline, and took us above the river for amazing views of the valley and all the tremendous campsites along the way. We both agreed: next time we're staying by the river.

But then it got hard. 2500' of gain over eight miles hard. Stopping to rest in the limited shade every half-mile hard. It was merciless as the sun, but it wasn't the worst thing we'd done that day, so even though we suffered, cursed, and sweat ourselves dry, at least we were riding our bikes.

Cattle guard!
Our ride back to camp was cake: 4 miles of downhill on our old friend 52. We thought our third member of the party would be waiting for us there, but instead she had stuck a note to the car: "Hey boys! Come find me in Ukiah!"

Ukiah is not a hard place to find someone; it's about five blocks deep and ten long with one main street containing the inn, the bar, the ranger station, and the park, and she was at the park. We packed up our three bikes in the very specific geometry that allowed them to fit, and set rolling on four wheels for home with many more roads and non to be unveiled.

I'm glad Colby didn't tell us the road wouldn't link up, that it would dissolve into barely traversable wilderness. The most memorable rides are the ones that, while the start and end were defined, required some improvisation and maybe a bit of stubbornness to push through a middle that might be less than rideable. Even if maps can't be trusted, our instincts held up!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dark and Light Places on the Winthrop Gran Fondo

I held on at times literally for my life while descending some of the ~12,000 feet of vertical we gained on the Winthrop Gran Fondo last weekend. If I had died, my last words would have likely been a rattled "Fuhuhuhuhuhuck yohohohohohuhuhuhuuu" on a section of descending washboards that sent me over a cliff. My bike shook me loose of itself, and my teeth clattered like castanets, their stomping finale to end in my demise. But no, I slammed the brakes, cursed the ground, and skidded safely to a stop (repeat 20 times).


I was told rather casually by a friend that I should register for this several months ago. The hook was we would split an Airbnb, do this ride, and make a fun Winthrop weekend out of it. These things turned out to be correct! We grabbed a nice cabin, and five of us started off the ride together the next morning at 8am. I unintentionally broke away from the group as soon as the climbing started. Here's ride the profile..

The going was steep and rocky. This particular gravel was basically sand on fist-sized rocks, some protruding others embedded. I seesawed with a few people, stopped to pee, and generally enjoyed this ascent, but then.. As I neared checkpoint one, a rider going back down the wrong direction drew near. I asked if he was OK, and as he said "yes" I realized his forehead, nose, mouth and chin were covered with blood. If you have never been struck by the Fear of Gravel, you should see this dude with a face bloodied by the roads ahead descending past you the other way. The alarm bells were blaring. RETREAT!! DANGER AHEAD! We had ridden 10 flat miles, 9 miles of gravel climbs, and were at 5400' elevation. Some kind of omen!

The grades steadily increased as the roads became less predictable on NF-39 as we climbed up near the summits of Tiffany and Rock Mountains at 6900' (having started at 1700'). If you've ever ridden steadily at 4mph for much long at all, it feels like the most futile activity of all time. Here you are, straining to stay on the bicycle at all, when the small shame of walking would use less energy and travel at about the same rate. I must have ridden at 3-4mph for at least one demoralizing hour to top out near Tiffany Mountain. This was my first taste of the darkness. Could I finish this at my current pace? Could I rely on descending to catch me up? I was not halfway through the distance but was over halfway through the general time constraints. Quitting was all too easy to entertain as the clock crept north of 1pm and I still had 15 miles to go before halfway.

Staring up a couple of guys I would soon catch
I'm always curious what song will get stuck in my head on a ride like this, because it is often silly. This time it was All4One and 1995's "I Can Love You Like That". Whhhyyyyyyyy? The darkness was thick, you guys.

The flats and downhills near these summits were welcomed breaks for the quads, but there was absolutely no relaxing on any of the descents. Your grip on the bars has to be vice-like or the washboards (should you hit them) will wrench them free. The washboards are one thing, but this area is covered in snow during half the year, so there are massive ruts and washed out areas carved by running melt that will ruin you should you have the slightest lapse in focus. I had a couple of these, and they were completely paralyzing. I pushed up my glasses once, or maybe I was sticking my Camelbak bite valve in my mouth when an unseen rock flipped my front wheel to the side and only by the luckiest, most desperate reflex did I flash my hand out to grab the other brake lever. I was probably a few milliseconds from being down with a broken clavicle (or worse) on a remote mountain road.
Gathering my wits at the top of a descent
To descend well on gravel, you must adopt the inverse of your climbing mentality. Whereas it is helpful on the climbs to keep your focus on the immediate 10-20 feet in front of you, when descending you must adjust your point of view to constantly scan the next 50-100 feet. It's obvious to say: 5-6mph is a quarter the speed of 20-25mph, so you extend your scanning distance appropriately. This can be a tricky mental transition, though, and indeed it was for me on the first few miles down; I focused on patches of loose rock within the 10-20 range and inadvertently sent myself to even worse patches by not scanning far enough to choose a better line. There's the trick: you can't watch the stuff you're actually riding over. Instead, you have to trust that you've scanned it, chosen a good line, and believe in your bicycle to carry you through the line you've chosen. Loose rock is much easier to roll over at high speeds. If you get caught staring at 10-20 foot sections, you will constantly lay on the brakes, become bogged down in the loose stuff, and be unprepared for complications in the road ahead. My guess is the man with the bloody face did not make this transition well.

There were a few miles of paved descending down to Conconully, WA. This was our main food checkpoint and the only place where a suggested cutoff time had been floated. I rolled in about seven minutes before the suggested 1:30 cutoff, performed a foie gras like stuffing of myself, and proceeded to tackle the remaining 45 miles. I was near to calling it a day, but I overheard a couple of guys say that we had already climbed 8400' of the (just under) 12000'. That bit of knowledge gave me the confidence that I could roll into the finish at or slightly after the unofficial course closure time of 5pm.

The second climb was more gradual but still had its painful sections. I was lucky to find a group to ride along side for most of the way up until I pulled away; I was also able to descend alone without needing to consider others in my line. The descent from miles 65-71 was the absolute best part of the ride with beautiful, sweeping views down Mt. Baldy to our last checkpoint. This was the light place as it was quite literally all downhill from mile 65 to Winthrop, and I roared down those miles with full confidence in my groove.

You can see it, but hard to tell how shitty the road would be 10mi from here.
The lower tier of the descent after the checkpoint is where things got unmanageable; there I found myself most angry, tired, and all shook up. I couldn't pick lines anymore. The faculties that sharpened into focus hours ago now could not scan the ground as convincingly. They wained and with it so did my control. It holds true in hiking, too, that most injuries occur on the way down--when you've let your guard down and aren't trying as hard now that gravity is there to lend a hand. I was a clear example of this warning and felt as happy as I did terrified about what awaited in the not insignificant 20 miles that remained. I gradually found an appropriate to grip the bars such that hitting washboards didn't set me all a-rattle, since there were multiple areas where the entire road was a huge set of boards (see the introduction to this post). I got the song "Hold On Loosely" wedged in my head and belted it like a personal anthem on these particularly rough chunks. It was nice to get a break from All4One!

The 10 miles or so back to Winthrop were a smooth salve for the gravel bomb of the previous 15, and I cranked them out thanks to equal parts GU and elation. There was a smattering of cheering at the finish for number 80 of 200, but I wasn't there for them.. No, it was pizza on my mind. I snatched a couple of slices and lay down near the shelter while proceeding to feed myself vertically. The second finisher from my group arrived about 40 minutes later, which was just enough time to eat, change, recover hydration, and phone for a ride from the others who had called it at the halfway point and procured a ride back to Winthrop.

A couple of beers back at the cabin, and I felt like an overcooked noodle after another day on gravel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reality Bikes

One of the bi-monthly Build Nights

Volunteering alters my reality. Whether it's a roundtable of Tagalog-speaking grandmothers named Madrea, Carmen, and Marta de la Cruz who are not Latino but Philippine, or an immigrant family doing everything right to be adopted by a country that apparently only wants to collect their taxes, I am confronted with unending streams of life that change my outlook. It's an endless construction project.

The consistent revelations come from the simplicity of not being in control of the variables of interaction. For Senior Lunch at El Centro de la Raza, the Day Worker's Center at Casa Latina, or the Tax Preparation Site in Lincoln and Seattle alike, the human palette presented you is not of your own making. I find this to be among the most deeply satisfying elements of serving in the myriad volunteer roles I've taken, where the breadth of interactions acts as a catalyst to inform my understanding of people and their lives. I've often felt politically powerless in the last 15 years but have always known that my time and little life could be utilized to affect positivity within my block, neighborhood, and city. I've not sacrificed the macro but have added the micro to it; with it I've discovered a thousand times the satisfaction and a large percentage more empathy.

Tonight I volunteered at Seattle's The Bikery, a humble space that serves as a hub of education and empowerment to get people working on their own bikes with confidence and skill. We have tools, work stands, some knowhow, and loads of good vibes for the DIY person for whom bicycling is both transportation and lifestyle. I run the shop on Monday nights, keeping the doors open for the handy or aspiringly-so person who could walk in with anything from a flat tire to a completely worthless drive train. We work together to figure out what is wrong and decide if they would like to fix here. If they are up for it, I proceed to place tools in their hands and show them (with the occasional YouTube clip) how to make the necessary adjustments. Even those who enter thinking we are a bike shop and will do the work to bill by the hour are happily surprised they will learn to do it themselves instead.

Winter is slower, but the problems never cease. Tonight there were a Spaniard named Ariel, a woman who's been by before, Anna, and a homeless man I met this week, Ian. Ariel didn't know that I knew he was from Spain, but I could tell seconds into our conversation, and when he said "I am from Spain," I threw out a "Ya lo sabía." My experience as a bilingual person produces no greater joy than connecting with a person in their language. The transition is always fun and sometimes awkward, but the seconds between when my interlocutor hears my words and their realization that not only was I responding to the conversation, but had done so a) in their native tongue and b) with such clarity that they didn't even notice we'd switched languages. He blinked a couple times, looked down, then back, and said, "Oh, you speak Spanish..? I wouldn't have guessed." Ariel needed to overhaul his drive train tonight by replacing a rear derailleur, cables, and truing his wheels. He did excellently and was mostly on his own by the time Anna entered.

I worked with Anna a month ago on a rainy night ahead of her 10 mile ride home. The Bikery is about one mile east of downtown, so we capture riders from all backgrounds (and foregrounds). Anna was impressive the first time she came to The Bikery; she is quiet and cautious but obviously has a knack for mechanical things, whether she would believe me or not. On her first visit, she fixed her brakes and drive train and stated at the end, "I feel like I know how my bike works now. I can't believe how easy it is to make small adjustments! I thought it would be so complicated." Tonight, a small shifting problem is easily resolved, but then we tackle a brake caliper that won't open completely. After a few approaches, which she patiently attempts though they fail to produce a result, we try disassembling and rebuilding the caliper in order to clean it thoroughly. This solves the hour-long puzzle and sends her on her way content and powerful.

"I found this bike in a tree." The third visitor of the night is Ian, a homeless man I met last week at REI. If I remember correctly, he came into the store for a new tube. We got to talking a bit, in part because security was watching him, and it became apparent that he has some mechanical interests. I told him about The Bikery as a place to use our tools to do repairs if needed, and when he opened the door tonight, I was happy to have remembered his name. We replaced an exploded tire, realigned his brakes, and set his wheels up in the truing stand. He undertook each task with his own set of tools, which he dug out of his backpack one by one to lay out like a baseball card collection. I thought to suggest he simply use our tools from the wall, but a quick realization caught my words when I thought of how important my own tools are to me (you want to use them when a chance presents itself!).

Ian's tree bike has a pretty cruddy chain, and I offer to lube it for him, which I do as he continues to work on his brakes. He's talking about how hard it is to maintain that chain, how it gets loud within days and that I shouldn't bother. I tell him it's supposed to be a dry week and so at least for this week it will be quiet. He relents and mentions something about sleeping outside and how hard it is on bikes to always be outside. He says, "It's so nice to have a work stand like this. I don't have to hang it from a tree to work on it." "Yeah, I know," I think I am identifying with him, "I have a pipe that sticks out of the wall in my garage. This is so much better, though."

My mouth hung aghast. I couldn't believe myself and the nakedness of my complaint of discomfort while simultaneously underlining my comfort to this man's face. I used the words "my garage" as a point of commonality with Ian, and I felt some kind of social vertigo as I teetered on the precipice of the layers of economic strata between us. The casualness with which I equated his difficulty and mine..

Ian gathers his things as he prepares to leave, and I find a Theo chocolate bar in my bag, "Want to share this chocolate bar?" It was a meager concession, but we crack and devour it together. He thanks me for the new tire, getting his wheels trued, and the brakes, and I thank him for stopping by and expect him to be by soon to change out some cables on his rear derailleur and brake. We share a handshake and bid each other farewell.

The Bikery closes doors on another night; the cranes are high over a reality under construction.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Going Up

Part 1

I'm four days removed from it. A lot of effort and encouragement was necessary for it. I was buoyed by positive people and kind advice. In the end, I and four other people went up.

To be specific, we went up Mount Adams. This particular mount is located an hour and a half-ish northeast-ish of Portland in the -ish lands. It is called Pa-Toe by the natives and was named Adams by mistake when a mapmaker mixed up his coordinates for Mount St Helens, which was originally intended to be Adams. Not to worry--we did not mix up our coordinates and arrived just fine with credit to Mother Google Maps and Chuck's intrepid driving.

Found it! View from Trout Lake, WA

The first night, we camped below our giant where a teeming rush of melt ran river wild. There we rested on its low bed in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. We swam mostly clothed in the river, gawked through the Ponderosas at the hint of a Milky Way sky, and shuttered our eyes as glacier plum fairies danced in our heads. I woke late to a shudder, because the dream I had was not of glacier fairies but of failure. It's a recurring dream of signing up for something I don't have the will nor the stamina to finish, and it passed through me to quite harsh effect. I woke up weary. I heard myself doubt me. And then I shook that damn dream off!

Rush of wild wet

When you are about to go up there are some things you should consider taking along. One of those things is a strong team of benevolent people--this we did not lack. I also recommend a few beers. This falls in the "no duh" category, but you'd be surprised at my failures in Backpacking 101 on this trip. Truth be told, this was my first multi-day backpacking adventure and first mountain ascent, so I was at the mercy of many dear friends' recommendations and my aforementioned benevolent co-champions on the climb. So before going up, I also recommend having terrific people in your life who are willing to loan you gear and even call you the night before to wish you luck.

Up up up!

Adams has a road leading to the trailhead. And it is total garbage! It is the road created for the horsemen of the apocalypse to chase people down because it will be so easy to ruin them since just using the very road will do most of the work. Once at the trailhead, you find a dirt path quickly giving way to sprawling whiteness dotted by trees and rocky shelves. This whiteness took us 5-ish hours to ascend, gradually gaining 4000' of elevation to the standard overnight spot called Lunch Counter at 9350'. We prepped food and, though we intended to sleep early, struggled to beat back the overpowering beauty of an angled sunset. The colliding lines of horizon, mountainside, and sun arc conspired together as I was forced to reconcile this new geometry with what my previous 10,000 days on earth taught me. Night fell and sleep ensued (or not, in my case) for five hours.

Dusk fox
Sunset geometry with Mt St Helens

2AM came with a whimper. I was wide awake waiting for the alarm and had no trouble rolling out of the tent. There was prepping of coffee and the Oat Elixir of Life (more on this later). I was tired having hardly slept, but there was also a full on Milky Way. So tired was less interesting. We secured our tents and bid them farewell for the day, "See you in a few hours, dear tents! We will be new people by then!" We donned our crampons and ice axes, headlamps and game faces. It was on.

On like crampons

It took very little time for the sun to begin flinging some lightness in our direction. The thing about being at 10,000' elevation is the sunrise happens even earlier than usual for this latitude. By 4:30AM I had turned off my headlamp and let our brightest friend do its work.

Zanna and Laura ravin' all morning

Gabe wields a steady axe

Food break contemplating the mountain's sunrise shadow on the land

At about 6AM we began ascending a very steep section that would eventually lead to the false summit on Piker's Peak. It doesn't sound like too much, but the 1300' gain in that kilometer was of destructive force. It wrenched my crampons from their seemingly secure laces on my boots, it pushed my huffing and puffing to new, altitude-affected levels, and it made me have to stick my ass out and poop on the side of a cruel, white wilderness. It was my personal bête noire on the ascent as I watched my companions reach the resting point at the top one by one while I was sitting to fix my crampons and then to poo 50 meters away behind some rocks. When I reached them, my vision was blurring and my head grew lighter at altitude. I kept on the water and opened the Oat Elixir of Life to recover my strength. The OEL is a concoction of my colleague-in-climb, Laura, who dumps steel-cut oats, chia seeds, flax seeds, coconut shavings, and for all I know the glowing heart of our very universe into a pot and fires it up. With luck she had made too much for us in the morning, and against some reservations I decided to huff it along to the top. There is no doubt in my mind that OEL saved my day as I fought altitude woes and hunger the entire morning, snarfing down every last seed.

Huffing through the sunrise behind Gabe

My colleagues patiently waited while I tended to my food needs. They then informed me that what we were looking at ahead of us was not the false summit (as I believed it to be) but was, in fact, the top. Realizing that we were actually on the false summit was the biggest boost of energy and glee I would have all day. I leapt for the sheer delight of being wrong! I screamed in pleasure. We had 600' to the summit and, while my legs and boots were as anchors, I surged in the categories uncharted by calorie counts: hope, determination, and joy.

The final ascent and trip photo contest winner by Zanna

Here's the thing about my summit experience: we had been looking at breathtaking mountains all day. Mount St Helens was at the west, Mount Hood was at the south, Mount Jefferson to the farther south, but there was no sign of our friend Mount Rainier. You knew it was on the other side, but somehow the reality of what it would mean to see it (that you were at the top!) had not yet occurred to me until I was ascending the final ledge of the final push. To set the scene a bit, I was the second to reach the top. Laura had gone ahead while Gabe and I waited for the others, but the farther she climbed the more we considered sending a second person to avoid separation. So I went up. As I crested that final ledge, I saw the air stretch out where before there had only been snow, and I saw each step reveal more of the north horizon. Then, there: Mount Rainier and the few steps needed to reveal our 360 degree view. A hug was waiting there for me, after which I promptly fell to my knees and wept.

Rainier got my back

To me, there is no more significant event than unexpected tears; they are to be dwelt on and understood. I wept out of exhaustion. I wept at my dream vanquished from two mornings ago. I wept for lack of sleep, emotional unrest, and the stirring victory the team shared. I wept for it all. Then, as I stood to my feet I saw that mountain over there, the next one, and it presented a profound reality to me: on the other side of one mountain is just another damn mountain. Consider your victories, (and congrats for climbing!), but remember that there are only more challenges for the challengers in life. It was a moment of true enlightenment and inspiration, yes, but it was also a moment of deep realities, tears, valleys, and the resolve to climb them all.


Part 2

The descent was quick work. We snapped pictures on top; we hugged and celebrated. We refueled and considered that it was only 8:30AM. There wasn't much need to linger too long at the summit. It is a glorious place, of course, but with the goal reached there was a sense that what we had accomplished continued long beyond the summit. So we went down. We glissaded down huge chunks of the steep climb on what would become our very sore butts. Glissading is quite the experience: find whatever waterproof item you have (in our case, trash bags), make foot holes in it, pull it up like a diaper, and glide down these snow chutes carved by the many smiley butt people that came before you.

Sore butts 101

Once at camp, we melted snow for water, stuffed some food in our faces, and began packing up for the last leg down. It was past noon at this juncture, so the snow had softened to the point that it was pleasantly cushy and quite slippy. It turns out downhill + soft snow = endlessly "skiable" descents in boots. Learning to control these elements was a challenge we all mastered by the base with only a few crazed tumbles that flung snow and laughter everywhere.

Once back at the vehicle, we relieved our feet to the open air, hit a few whiffle balls (yep), and climbed into the quad cab for another treacherous turn on apocalypse road. The mountain sat unchanged behind us now, a massive and wild playground on which these five kids romped for a couple days. We stopped in Hood River to wade out on a sandbar in the Columbia River, bringing cool relief to our feet and bodies. The obligatory burger and beer dinner followed at Full Sail Brewing and soon enough we were cruising north on I-5 back to home.

In the days since this climb I've felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment. I've talked about myself more than usual. I've also missed our team! Every time I've ever reached a goal or had a life-binding experience in a team environment (thinking of directing study abroad programs or producing large-scale theater shows), there is this sense of loss that the people who were with you and helped you rally through will continue to be your friends but never in that context again. The team, as it were, has disbanded though the accomplishment lives on. I've felt that this week, seeing the faces of these literal colleagues of mine back in our work environment, knowing we shared an ineffable bond in that accomplishment, but knowing that would never happen again. This is where I pivot to saying that the joys of outdoor experience are what call us again and again to reenter the unknown and wild lands. They are fleeting moments that draw us closer to each other and ourselves. We have new words for ourselves, we have new perspectives. We've seen from new angles and watched our world through new sweat and new tears.

We are reborn. We went up.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Favorite Musics of 2015

This is probably the least music-centered year of my last 15 (this is an alarming group of words to type). I spent 2015 removed from all of my former outlets for either playing live music or digesting a dozen or more albums a year over stacks of grading. There were a couple shows I got to play here in Seattle with a rocking "northmidwest emo" band Shredding. Then there were a couple isolated jams with some friends and my own guitar standards for at-home noodling. I also generally found less time to sit and listen to what was new. Frowny face. BUT I still found enough favorite music to justify a post!

Here are some songs I loved:

Tobias Jesso Jr. - "Hollywood"
His record from early 2015 (Goon) shows why Adele recruited him on her team to help co-write the most smashiest album of last year. I was hooked on the sad/hopeful "Hollywood" when it emerged during my own sad/hopeful adventure in the fall of 2014.

Deerhunter - "Snakeskin"
Shake, rattle, roll.

Julio Bashmore - "Holdin' On"
I had some album of the year hopes for Knockin' Boots about 10 seconds into this first single. That's a lot of weight to project onto the other 99% of the music I had not heard at that point, but it felt so timely and correct. The album disappointed, leaning more toward house dance music than what I hoped would be the perfect straddling of pop and house (like Caribou has crafted over the last 10 years). "Holdin On" is perfect despite its unrealized implications for the rest of the album.

Here are some albums I loved (in the order I thought of them):

Viet Cong - Viet Cong
I had guarded hopes that this album would be the overwhelmingly destructive force of post-rock that I expected. This is what Viet Cong gave us. I've long saved a place in my heart for politically charged agro/math rock catharses (what the hell does that mean? idk, it's the best I could do). Bands like Frodus, Sleater-Kinney, and Women have filled me with happiness for their embodiment of anger and alienation. Maybe it's the junior high boy in me that just wants to thrash around and have it feel like a personal purification by fire. Viet Cong is composed of ex-Women members and amazingly released an album that challenges their former band's towering 2010 album Public Strain. I listen to Public Strain all the time. I listened to Viet Cong all the time. It came out in January, 2015, and I'm sure I listened to it several times each month. It is probably my favorite album I heard this year and also probably the album that will least likely be enjoyed by anyone I know. It's grey, brooding, and ends on a pummeling, 11-minute exclamation point called "Death". What's not to love? Listen to "Continental Shelf" for the most accessible introduction.

Carly Rae Jepsen - E-Mo-Tion
Yes, I am going for absolute incongruity with this album following Viet Cong. But it so happens that I also have a place in my heart for laser-guided radio pop. CRJ (yup) was written off as a one-hit wonder by probably every person with ears in 2012 after "Call Me Maybe," but she returned with an actually phenomenal stack of glitter-glazed pop songs. I found that once I let myself decide it was just fine and not wrong to love this, I loved this. That moment happened between the first mouse click on "I Really Like You" and the song's chorus. In those 30 seconds I realized again that the modern pop music machine can make just as many diamonds (hi, Britney) as lumps of coal (hi, Fergie), and so can Carly. Hear "Run Away With Me".

Tame Impala - Currents
I'm feeling lazy. This is a great album. Kevin Parker's singing frequently reminds me of John Lennon. This is not a psychedelic garage rock album like he's used to putting out. Listen to "Eventually".

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan lost me with 2010's Age of Adz. Truly, he lost a lot of us. Artists should be allowed (and want!) to evolve their sound and explore new territory. I can't begrudge him for wanting to push himself in a different musical direction after 2005's Illinois, but I am unfortunately not obliged to follow him with my likingness into those new directions. I didn't. I sort of stopped listening to him altogether except maybe at Christmas time! This album brings it all back home. There was no way to pair eulogizing your mentally unstable, absentee mother with his Adz's "Willy Wonka gets a digital studio" sound. He had to return home. It's a window into an artist whose soul has been seen beneath so many biographical or implicitly autobiographical stories, with this standing as a true chunk of explicit autobiography. It's as devastating as it is healing. Hear "Fourth of July".

Empress Of - Me
I heard this album about three times. I don't own it so there haven't been more listens, but I can tell you that it is creative and accessible. I barely remember what it sounds like except that it fits a vague profile of experimental indie pop. Just hear it here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


"So what brought you out here?"

I have been interested for a while in listening to myself attempt to answer some of the biggest questions that are posed to me on a daily basis. This particular question's answer is quite heavy and personal yet slips into small-talk with total nonchalance. A typical stab at it goes like this:

"I wasn't sure how to make a big change in my life/career direction unless I relocated to a new place. It's like the overgrowth was so thick that trimming things back to reform it wasn't enough; the whole thing needed to be replanted. I could have stayed and been happy my whole life in Lincoln--I'm quite sure of that. I guess I just wanted to try something else. Who knows why."

Given the casual nature of the conversation, I suppose my cerebral, labyrinthine response is probably a bit more than is expected, but meh--you asked a very pensive person! Also, imagine a bunch of "uhhs" and "hmms" in there. Also, imagine the above making much less sense when constructed in 10-15 seconds instead of the 4-5 minutes it took me to compose the paragraph.

What I'm thinking about today is the fact that the above comes out differently every time I say it (for example, last night I said "ah, wanderlust" and left it, but that's not really true, or is at least only a slice of the truth). I arrange a new group of words every time, and I think ultimately I'm trying to say the answer for myself or else I probably wouldn't try so hard to find the perfect expression of it.

I wish I had audio of these conversations over the last year plus because my suspicion is that the narrative has changed over time. The changes may be subtle or overt, but I know the way I frame it has to have been altered by my experience since moving here. I know my perception of myself as a professional and former academic had a big influence on my earlier explanations, but I can't quite know exactly how it has evolved since then, though it is likely that I'm leaning on that former professional identity significantly less to explain myself these days.

Narratives are hard to pin down for me. I'd have a hard time putting my life's narrative in simple terms because there would be too many parentheticals and asides diverting from the main thread for it to be very linear. I've loved realist authors and novels for many years (Dostoevsky, Clarín, and Galdós spring to mind) because of the incredible detail they inject into every page. Not just the characters and each of their tiny emotions! I will describe for you the lamp as well, dear reader! And I suppose that proclivity leads me to look with the eyes of realism on my life course and want to identify each and every bit of meaning along the way.

I can't give a clear or perfectly framed answer to the question, but the good news is the words are still being lived and written. Maybe next year? Who knows.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Climbing to Paradise
Nearly one month has passed since RAMROD (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day), so this writeup has been smoldering for a good time.

Training consisted of mostly casual rides of up to 70 miles. I've long encouraged other riders attempting great distances that if they can ride half of it comfortably they can ride the full distance. "All you need is more food, water, and time," I say. It's a helpful little distillation, but I had major doubts throughout the summer when putting it to the test. I remember sitting down for a beer with Josh Rice in Lincoln about 10 days before the ride when he said something very true after I elaborated on my training plans for when I flew back home the next day: "It's too late at this point. You'll either have it or you won't." I shuddered a little. He was right!

Here are my field notes from the ride:

1) Mile 1: Enumclaw High School has views of Rainier from afar. It's startling to think you'll circumnavigate it from that vantage point.

2) Mile ~33: I spoke with a construction worker who was holding a two-sided STOP/SLOW sign on a section of highway. He was grizzled, bearded, and wearing sunglasses; we were stopped for about 3 minutes there. I started asking him about his job, and eventually he explained with bewilderment that they get no respect. He said he stands there for 8 hours with no bathroom breaks and no relief for lunch. I was dumbfounded. I always wave at these people or ding my bell but don't seem to get much response back from most. Maybe I understand why now. After hearing that I stuck out my hand and said, "Here's the respect you deserve." He shook my hand, laughed, and flipped the sign to SLOW.

3) Mile 58: Two food stops behind us and rolling hills through chilly, foggy valleys and sunny vistas. This is the park entrance and the start of the climb to Paradise. A couple miles before I popped some Ibuprofen to push back at pains surfacing in my seat and right foot. More pills at 3 hour intervals probably saved my day.

4) Mile 73: Atop Paradise the mountain is staring you in the face. The road points down as far as one can see from here.

5) Mile 86: The descent is unforgettable and worth the entire day's suffering. Imagine sitting on a 35mph office chair for half an hour as it wraps its way around stunning summit views, lakes, hairpins, and rocky ledges. 15 miles up to Paradise took 2 hours; 13 down, 30 minutes.

6) Mile 93: I wasn't aware Cayuse Pass had started. I was crawling along at 6-7 mph for about 45 minutes before I realized I had reached the water stop halfway up the pass. That was a great feeling, because I was almost out of water. Pain in my right foot was now very intense, so I took a couple more pills. I noticed the pain had developed from constantly reaching down on my right side to pull out my water bottles. The repeated movement of angling my right knee out was forcing most of the resulting pedaling pressure to fall on my smaller toe bones of that foot.

7) Mile 100: The bummer about reaching the top of Cayuse Pass and knowing it's all very literally downhill from there is Cayuse Pass is also where the headwinds start. So even though you have essentially 50 miles left of 2% grade downhill, you're never able to hold a steady 18-19 mph like you would expect. Instead, you have to slog through the wind at 14-15.

8) Mile 126: I waived at some people in lawn chairs on the side of the road thinking it was fun that they were out there watching people ride. About 5 miles later as I reached for water bottle #2 I realized that the final water stop and that I would ride the final 20 miles into the wind and in the hottest part of the day without reserves. Very shortly thereafter I got a left hammy cramp and had to get off the bike to stretch. I had about 8 ounces of water left, so I dumped 4 Nuun tabs into it to create some delicious electrolyte sludge. I got back on the bike but didn't make it another 100' before another cramp wave struck. I drank my sludge then, I stretched, and I hoped for the best.

9) Mile 144: The best happened. A policeman directing traffic offered me about 4 more ounces of water and encouragement that I was there at the final turn off the highway into town. I made it to the home stretch of curvy downhill roads back to Enumclaw and the high school.

10) Mile 150: I bunny-hopped across the line and almost took out one of the volunteers needing to retrieve my electronic tracker. Ha. I heard the announcer saying something about having had too much sugar. He wasn't far off--all those caffeinated Nuun tabs! Then it was time for a shower and sharing of war stories with my fellow REI riders.

When morning came the next day I had a fun moment looking out the window in my kitchen at the mountain. It looks totally different now. I know it. I know around it. I know behind it. I know on it. It appears less imperious to me now and somehow less huge. It's not that it was brought to my level; I ascended to it. This is a key point, I think.

Having attempted and finished rides approaching RAMROD before (150 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing), I had a decent idea what to expect. Gravel Worlds in Lincoln, NE is 150 miles and about 5,000 feet of (mostly rolling) climbs. Knowing this, my training was probably still insufficient. I kept thinking to myself, "Those extra 5,000 feet will be tough, but it's road not gravel!" I wasn't all wrong as it turns out. I certainly had some dark spots on Cayuse Pass, the third and biggest climb of the day beginning at mile 93. I definitely missed the final water stop had those cramps as a result. But overall, I think I felt more beat up by Gravel Worlds. I'm fully willing to believe that the fact that I knew I could do it was enough to make RAMROD feel like less of an achievement than Gravel Worlds, a race I had serious doubts about finishing in 2014.

Here is the route. Notice the profile below, too. Green is speed; brown is elevation change.

Phone died 6 miles from the end