SPOILER ALERT: It’s About Personal Growth
What a morning! The birds are singing, the trees are upstanding and I am a happy man. The happy man supposes that breakfast should be the first order of the day. Still dreamy and cozy outside his sleeping bag, he floats to the picnic table and what will soon become breakfast.
The bags are gone.
Didn’t we leave the bags on the table last night, all piled together?
My eyes are still breaking open their crusty shells. The morning is delicate and has that light sprinkle of total stillness, and our bags are gone.
“Chris, did you move the bags?”
Chris thinks this is a stupid question. Why is he being asked such a stupid question? He was asleep. No, he did not move the bags.
Soon Chris realizes the gravity of the situation. His Arc’teryx Beta AR pants were in those bags. You don’t just lose Arc’teryx Beta AR pants.
A quick assessment reveals an incomplete catastrophe: our bikes remain, as do our most irreplaceable possessions, but our cook kit, food, contacts, charging cables, panniers, shirts, shorts, socks, long underwear, jackets, hats, gloves, toothbrushes, vitamins, repair kit, sunglasses, multitool and toenail clippers are gone.
Well then. I hope someone is seriously satisfied with my stinky shorts.
The next few hours pass not without event, but wander by in a drooping haze. We are filing a report with the sheriff, and I still cannot believe this is happening. We are telling him that our toothbrushes and toenail clippers are gone. He is sorry, but doesn’t hold out much hope for the tape decks or the Credence. We float into a coffee shop that serves only coffee, still asleep. Intolerable literalists out here.
Soon, coming as much out of the ether as our bags went into it, a kind friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-my-mom appears in Packwood, Washington to whisk us back to our car in Seattle. We are making plans for Chris to return to Santa Barbara. That night we get drunk in a benign, rented cabin on the Olympic Penninsula, a million miles from the looming energy of Rainier, and watch Paul Blart Mall Cop 2. It is the worst movie either of us have ever seen.
Just like that, this nascent trip vaporized. It had been a beautiful, treasured thing. I yearned for nothing more complex than to keep riding, yet it was incontrovertibly over three weeks early.
There was no agony in death, though I’d hesitate to call it a painless one. It was just gone. I woke up on the eighth day of a 30-day bike tour, but it turned out to be an eight day bike tour. That other vision, of a different path, became a distant, ethereal memory. There was no question of making it work. We had lost a small life’s worth of things. Where can one find all of these things, assembled over months and years, in rural Washington? Did we even want to? Not really. I suppose, then, it’s over.
It was, and a few days later Chris was rolling down to Santa Barbara on government-subsidized rail. I had some time to be alone again.
My path meandered on. I proceeded with mountain bike in tow to Bend, OR. Perhaps it was because there is a wealth of riding to be done there, and perhaps because that was to be our high water mark. We would have begun heading back to Seattle and reach the apogee of our adventure.
Maybe it had come to occupy some mythic place in my mind, or I imagined that making it there would go some way towards completing the adventure we had been forced to abort. Maybe Bend just has some gravity to it, geographically.
Upon arriving I managed to bleed the fluid from my hydraulic brakes on my bike onto the brake pads. Despite what you might think, brake fluid is not a good can of spinach for brake pads. It ruins them. This point was stressed to me repeatedly at the bike shop. Thankfully, my bike is set up with a rather exotic type of disc brake, in the way that decency is exotic in Washington D.C.. Parts had to be ordered from out of town.
I spent my first days in Bend camping at a popular spot on National Forest land, free and attractive for it. Among with the usual caravan of Tacomas, Civics and Sprinters, one burnt orange Outback kept hanging around. It wasn’t loaded with the spoils of adventure, and it wasn’t new. No young, debt-free college grad was ‘living the dream’ out of its trunk, skiing, climbing and biking his way to a comfortable life. A crotchety old man was its captain, and he wasn’t a venerable dirtbag doing what he loved. He was just homeless.
He told me a story not altogether beyond the archetype of those who inhabit cabins at the end of long gravel roads. He didn’t like people. He liked spending time outside quite a bit, but really, as he told me, it was only to avoid the people elsewhere. His friends in Bend, after living there for fifteen years, included a total of two people, both cashiers at the chain grocery store. I do not think he is their friend.
He made jokes about how they mishandled a package of fried chicken, thus entitling him to another box the next week – what a boon! The bakery in town also gives away day-old bread, did you know, and it has thirteen seeds and nuts in it! That is seven more seeds and nuts than the bread he can get at the chain store. The public beach is a great place to wash off on a hot day. The community college has free showers and computers, and the temp work around Bend is good. Strawberries only last 36 hours in his car. And this was the extent of his interests.
There is certainly something to be said for casting off the trappings of consumer culture, stripping down to the bare essentials and doing what you love and living the way you want. This, at least intellectually, appeals to many people. There is beauty you can only see in the thrill of an untethered moment. Especially for those of us who lack that freedom of living for whatever reason, unburdened shoulders, well, there is nothing like it.
Walking away from the conversations with him, I felt confused. In some ways he was obviously living his dream on his own terms, beholden to no one. But it was sad. Maybe he had some extenuating circumstances. I don’t mean to look down upon him, but the scope of his life seemed to have been drastically reduced. He was no freer than the rest of us, but instead of being chained to his mortgage payment, he was a slave to his own freedom. In seeking to liberate himself from everything that holds us down, he created an even more rigid and uncompromising life for himself.
The Outback suited him, and I won’t argue that it shouldn’t or that he should return to a house without a transmission, but I do think he provided an interesting pinch of salt to the ideological orthodoxy of the outdoor community. We are people that value the freedom to chase our dreams and passions over a whole lot. We rarely consider what the end of that ideology looks like. As we strive to be more free, to be more unmoored, what do we really strive towards? Do we valorize a life with no obligations to anyone or anything? A balance book free of debts? That seems an austere and lonely life. Of course not – most people understand the long-term practical unrealism, but these are still the stories we tell. Fred Beckey – Dirtbag. I can see his name in lights now.
Leaving the dust and sagebrush behind, I made for greener pastures. Bend is a mountain town for people with baby bags. It is a place that used to be wild, but now has a 401k to worry about. It is a town in flux full of people in flux, I believe. People come here for ‘real’ jobs and mortgages and whitewater boating and dangerously fun mountain biking. Its citizens run ultras and carpools. It is a place for the aging young adventurers who hear the whisper of responsibility in their ears. You get it. For being such an ‘outdoor mecca’ (thanks Outside), I didn’t see many people my age. Even on the trails, I was getting passed by the young punks not yet eligible for high school diplomas and their racer parents. There is no one there who is figuring it out. Everyone I met was either ensconced in their own surety or still dealing with acne. This is what happens, I suppose, when the bums get jobs and stop making so many stupid decisions.
I had had enough of looking at my best possible future, so I left town, ill-prepared for an foolhardy adventure. I had 22 hours to complete a circuit in the hills south east of Mount Hood. 50 miles, 8000 feet of climbing and an overnight. No problem for an experienced, speedy rider such as myself.
I pulled up to the trailhead, rolling smoothly on the pavement, bike adorned with bells, bags and whistles. Morale was high. Then I looked at the trail I was supposed to conquer.
The trail, switchbacking, climbed at an ambitious grade, for maybe 2000 feet over 3 miles. I have never been so genuinely concerned about tipping over backwards on a bicycle. Thankfully, I passed several hikers and riders who kindly alerted me to the fact that the trail I was laboring up was very steep, in case I wasn’t aware. I was resigned to vomit, and pushed more than I pedaled, stopping every ten steps to gasp and fall over.
Two hours in and I had just gotten out of the ‘steep’ section, having made 1 mile of forward progress. I had kneeled down to puke a half dozen times and my body felt like a pulsating balloon with each desperate heartbeat.
Solo trips force you to contend with yourself, for better or worse. Though there are rarely clashes of personality, travelling solo means there is little to distract you from yourself. As it turns out, I can be a little less than friendly to myself. Pushing my way up the hill, I could feel my confidence ebb away with each thought and breath. ‘What the hell. I can’t even turn the pedals over. I’m not just slow – I truly can’t do this. I’m just not cut out for it. Why did I think I could do this? What if I can’t finish in time? What if I crash? I don’t think I can do this.’
Shockingly, my company was not pleasant. My one redeeming value, however, is that I possess self-loathing in almost the same abundance as stubbornness. “Who gives a shit what you think,” I said to the trees, trying hard to look myself in the eyes without a mirror, and bloody-mindedness won the day, but only just.
As I crawled my way up to Gumjawac saddle, dusk closed in on me, precious seconds ticking away with each pause for air. Working my way into the trees and away from the snow-capped monolith behind me, I was slowly falling into a groove. The trail took a hard left through meadows of wildflowers, eventually working onto a ridge. After a few blessed moments of calm ascent through a little world of flowers, I was dumped back onto a steep and rocky fire road, Hood staring me in the face. Stress elevated, I stopped to replenish water in a trickling stream. The road ahead was worrying. I wanted to be coddled by the terrain, transported to my destination, floating above the ground, but I would have to fight it tooth and nail. The looming, white volcano hung in empty space, the sun burning high above it. The time crunch was getting to me; I was getting jittery.
Wait, isn’t the sun about to set? It’s only mid-afternoon? And suddenly, without warning, the accumulated breath-holding dissolved in a beautiful blue sky. A solitary cloud floated above, whispy tendrils sampling the iridescent sky around it. A pair of hawks floated on thermals. Mt. Hood was in front of and above me. Oregon and time stretched beyond the hazy, distant horizon. The hawks drifted towards me – maybe they saw in me the death thralls of a thanksgiving feast – but all was innocuous and good in this moment. Nags and itches faded to black for a moment, and I watched the hawks.
The human brain is capable of only so much pleasure, though, so before long I was again on my way up the fire road. I rolled and pushed and stopped and pushed clumsy and tired to my arbitrary destination for the evening.
Preposterously, Mt Hood is on the bleeding, eastern edge of the Cascades’ rain shadow. Peaking over the pyrrhic ridge I had won, I was girded by moss, swaying wildflowers and endless verdant hills to the west, and looking to the east there was only sand, sage and heat. The Palmer Chairlift is spinning on a 200” base as kids whiz down the glacier. The high desert is shimmering on the eastern horizon with outspoken summer heat.
Sitting there watching Hood and the hawks and pavement choker that Hood wears, the moment hung in suspension, temporarily liberated from worldly chains. The birds above me were motionless in their floating, heedlessly defying the elemental force which made my afternoon an affair to write home about. They just sat there in the brilliant blue above me; we were in that perfect moment of the afternoon that is timeless and static, forever just a bit after lunch.
I made it to Portland on time, in case you were wondering. I had agreed to meet a friend for ice cream.
Since returning from Hood, I had noticed a change in the air. The evenings were growing longer, darker and more lonely. The leaves were beginning to rustle. Water had begun circling the drain counter-clockwise. My bank account was almost empty. August was almost upon us. The signs were laid clear before me, I had only to see them – it was time for the seasonal migration back to my nesting grounds.
Returning to Illinois is a slow process. The body and mind must be prepared, much like acclimatization, but instead of accustoming the body to less O2-rich air, it involves training to adapt to the shockingly flat terrain and stifling atmosphere. Coming from the West Coast, navigation is complicated and contingent on a number of meteorological factors. This trip, I was forced to travel through southwest Montana several times.
Rolling up to the trailhead, I felt ready. My bike had gotten some love, I hadn’t and it was a beautiful sunny day. Candy wrappers speckled my car. A short jaunt from Whitehall, MT, 4 days of ‘rollercoaster singletrack through the beautiful Highland Mountains’ awaited me. Expectations set.
Departing with ordinary haste and arriving with attendant chaos, I spent a healthy hour sorting and resorting the guts of my gear at the trailhead. Again, rather predictably, I had a fierce timeframe to keep. The sorting took on an odd tenor, as my need to not fuck up and mispack rivaled my need to not waste time that could be spent huffing and puffing. After whipping myself into an unproductive lather, I hesitantly loaded my bike with all of the tools for success and locked the car. A long, side-eyed look from the crusty old guy driving the state park pickup instilled just enough doubt to motivate me and I was off. Butte Batholiths, I’m coming to get you, whatever you are.
And it was wonderful. Montana’s motto is “Big Sky Country”, which I’ve always thought was pretty dumb. The observed horizon line is determined by your relief from the landscape around you. The Sky is Big no matter where you are, you just can’t see all of it. But here I stand, corrected. Even in small valleys, the world stretches on forever. The vastness feels yawning. Maybe because it is so blessedly devoid of people, Montana is big.
Churning through forgiving dirt among the purple wildflowers and silver-fox deadfall from the last fire, the world evaporated. Shimmering afternoon light filtered through that particularly densely needled Montanan pine tree. Each ridge brought a new world, full of beauty and complexity. Everything is gnarled, or made of granite, or both.
Bearspray in hand, I found one of those perfect, high-elevation, aesthetic campsites that are themselves worth a journey. A warm breeze wafted through, just enough to remind me that being outside is distilled joy, but not enough to make me think otherwise. Bike propped, tarp erect, dinner consumed, I relaxed for the sunset, but my phone buzzed. 2 bars of LTE. Some days you just can’t get a break. The sun relaxed into the cradle of the hills around me, the sky dimming to a dark violet.
After a drafty night – my tarp lacks walls or a door – and a hypnotically revolting and gelatinous concoction of oatmeal, peanut butter, protein powder and instant coffee, it was time to embrace the not-quite-crisp summer morning and ride my bike. Off I went. I found more valleys and beautiful, contorted husks of trees. Melted, blown glass that used to grow leaves every spring, but now stands in permanent monument to the chemical energy the forest squirrels away. Twisted and gnarled in perfect stasis, these trees stand in the middle of a windstorm only they can remember. A few buttery-smooth river pebbles are sprinkled throughout the skeleton forest, casting shadows over my bike as I wind my way along the trail and between them.
Perhaps this is the land of endless sky. The valleys go on because they are indistinguishable from one another. These rolling hills, blanketed in pine and dotted with boulders, hint at just enough difference that you might know the difference between them, if you were cunning. They all look enough the same to me. I would bet the sky isn’t all that much bigger than Kansas’, but I’m also not one to pick nits. In Montana, the sky is big enough to blanket the earth and leave some for later. Ceaseless blue above and interminable green below left me beyond the reach of cell towers and highways and real estate listings.
And I began to roll again, the soothing, sifting crunch of dry dirt beneath me was a rough speedometer. The rustle of the trail and the pines quietly filled my little slice of this big sky. I glided and undulated through the forest, dodging boulders and peaks and bears. Time is hard to a keep a hold of in this place. My crunchy morning has metamorphosed into a soft and lazy afternoon. All that I could hear was the slow churn of dirt and the occasional ticking of my freehub on the downhills. It was a metronome for my bike, the beat around which all other components orbited. Tictictictictictictictictictictic. Tac. Tictictictictictictic. Tac. Tictictictic. Tac. Tictictic. Tactactactactactac.
I could sense a disturbance in the force. The rear derailleur had been misbehaving earlier, maybe the chain was skipping around on the cassette? At the bottom of a short descent, I began pedaling, and the split second gap between the inception of forward pedal rotation and the resistance of your actually having to move the bike with your legs was longer and a little jerkier. The chain could’ve been stretched, disturbing its marriage with the cassette teeth. The cassette was worn. I had no idea what I was doing, but who was I kidding? The drivetrain had tuberculosis, coughing up chain in huge, wretched hacks.
Now, I was and still am a glutton for mechanicals. I’ve snapped thru-axle levers, loosened headsets, snapped spokes, burned brakes and eaten my drivetrain mashed, with butter and gravy. I’m good at it, breaking things, but it takes on a new relevance in the backcountry. Miles from the concept of real estate, an unrideable bike didn’t hold a whole ton of appeal. Location, location, location.
This was a new one. I had never had an issue with the cassette engaging with the rear wheel, but as it stood, the two were no longer on speaking terms. Like most bikes, the cassette wouldn’t turn when the wheel spun backwards, but, unlike most bikes, the same was true when the wheel spun forwards. The drivetrain was just for looks now, I guess. Baseball cards in the spokes. I don’t think I could’ve told you what the part in there generating this headache was called, let alone that it could fail.
So let’s set the scene, for a laugh. On a ridge in the rolling hills outside Butte, on a beautiful blue summer day surrounded by wildflowers and shimmering grass, on the second day of four, on what had recently become a pushbike, on a long walk back to the car, I was having a little adult tantrum.
It can be hard to observe myself slipping into the inarticulate thinking of fury, but once I am there, batten down the fucking hatches. Tools were banged against bike parts. Bike parts were banged against rocks. Human hands were banged against bike parts. I had lost. Fun was bested by petty disaster, and the trip was over. I could do all the hand-wringing I wanted – and boy did I – but there was to be no solution in situ. It is easy to sit here now, chuckle and accept the fate that befell me, because it is my past now. But then, it was still the present and future. It felt so malleable and fragile, and I had just lost it. What a martyr was I. Punished for my fun, I was categorically incapable of succeeding in this or any endeavor. The shrieks I let fly, let me tell you. It was a moment of anger without object. The random failure of my bike could only really rest on my own shoulders, for there must be guilt for sin. This was too much fun, too serene, too beautiful to be cut short by a mechanical. This story needed a Chekov Gun, and that would have to be the big, dumb idiot steering this whole shitshow. My camera got sand in the lens and stopped working, so I couldn’t take any pictures of myself pouting over my poor bike. Woe was me, to be sure.
And the haze began to pass, somewhat. As I coasted down several thousand feet of beautiful, frightening singletrack towards the road, I would forget for a moment my anger. Remembering anger is easier than birthdays, though, and before long I was all worked up again, riding down that deserted, gorgeous trail. I eventually made it back to my car. Pulling into what I thought was the correct lot, my car was not to be found and I tantrumed. 200 more limping feet and I had it. Back ensconced in A/C and the wonders of modern civilization, I held onto that dark cloud across state lines and time zones. I believed myself some kind of casualty to my own original sin. And I carried that, letting it obfuscate the beauty that had preceded it, until the memory was composed wholly of the aftermath. Fucking nonsensical opinion to have.
Forgive me, my bicycle, for I have sinned. I am at peace with that stupid freehub, humbled by my fragility and saddened about what could have been, but I am trying to hold the wall-to-wall smile that anticipated it tight. It has tried to sneak away, but I grip it fiercely.
It is always this way with sparkling moments though. They are things we can visit only briefly and once. Perhaps I have too much of a cinematic sense for these things, but I had always hoped to savor those monumental moments. That graduating from college would be some discrete and inhabitable thing, that I could see it and know it, but it just happened.
The camera work wasn’t great, but that’s what you get with a single-camera budget, I suppose. The magic happens in post-production. The nerds MacGyvered in real, genuine smiles on your friends’ faces, they made sure you held your head just so and that you didn’t do that weird thing with your lips. T. Bone Burnett picked a stellar score for this. The light was filtered perfectly. Just watching the tape, you can feel the emotional gravity of this special Moment®. It’s a good thing all of the most significant Moments® in your life are stored for later viewing in your home library. I will remember this transformative experience for the rest of my life. Or something like that.
I still don’t fully grasp the times of great significance in our lives that come and go without advance notice. There are some well-signposted low-hanging fruit that can be grappled, but so many of the real ones just slip by. The moments that really have the potential to affect us, those are the sneakiest ones. And those effects are often dormant for longer than we realize. Those moments I just want to grab and shake and hug, I want to feel them and luxuriate in them, but all I can do is smile and breathe.
I struggle with these moments. I missed a lot of them growing up – just didn’t see them going by. So I attempt to notice them more and try to delight in them. You know, personal growth and ‘living life’ and all that. This is hard. Also unsurprisingly, observing these moments can ruin their magic. What to do then? Nothing, I suppose, but let the river wash you downstream, keeping your head above water, watching the banks as they float by.
Shit. What a ride.
 I asked him several times about the changes he saw in his time in Oregon, and some other Big Questions, and, while he did answer them haphazardly, he seemed almost more interested in the particularities than the existential Meaning Of It All.
 What are motorcycles, highway culture and mid-life crises for if not that astounding sense of liberation from your own expectations?
 I am definitely the first person to articulate this idea.
 Let’s leave all those ski falls out of this.
 I love my home, but I’m just not sure I fit there. Telling an acquaintance of some plan of mine, I was sternly warned ‘not to fall into the campfire’. Rather low on my list of priorities these days as I carry a stove.
 Found is a generous term. As I remember, it was marked on the gpx file I was using to navigate my rustic wilderness experience.
 In hindsight, that is.
 Thankfully, the route was a figure 8 and I was able to coast most of the 15 miles back to the center of the 8.
 It is a little known fact, but cyclists and Catholics actually share quite a bit of ideology.