Musings on unconventional travel: Day four, Sept. 17, 2002.
The morning arrived with the soft glow of sunlight shimmering off dispersing storm clouds. The night before we had met our first storm, wind and rain pummeling the ground as we rushed to cover our bikes in a tarp. But the morning is blue and warm, and we only have 22 miles ahead of us to our next destination - Telluride, Colo.
Just over two miles outside the mountain resort town, the highway turns away from the canyon and the pleasant incline of the San Miguel River. All we can see ahead of us is elevation, 1,000 feet to Telluride, and a steady stream of cars winding on the narrow highway corridor climbing toward it.
A so we climb, two miles over a tenuous shoulder in the shadow of heavy traffic. The ever-steepening San Juan mountains cradle the highway in virtual suspension, and the only thing between us and a thousand-foot tumble down a rocky slope is a few inches and a mangled guardrail.
Over a mile and a half goes by before we even reach the first pull-out to stop. My lungs are burning from a combination of exhaust and the thin air of high elevation. I stand by the side of the road, wheezing - I’m still out of shape. A couple of mountain bikers, bicycles still strapped to the top of their jeep, greet us. We tell them we’re on our way to Telluride, and they tell us they just came from there. They point out a network of trails weaving their way to the river, now several hundred feet below us. Beautiful single tracks that rip through trees, bounce over rocks and generally make for one exhilarating bike ride - one that my IBEX roadie will never experience.
And as I glance up at the half mile we have yet to climb, the envy sets in. Oh, the convenience of being a day rider - the effortless exhilaration of a one-way downhill trail, the weightlessness of full-suspension, the cool comfort of the jeep waiting below. I lean over my 90-pound bus of a bike and try to focus on something positive.
So why bike? Why load every heavy thing you need to survive on a two-wheeled vehicle powered solely by you? Why the effort? And why, in this fast-paced age of information, would anyone waste so much time moving at 12 mph?
In a word, sustainability - the very essence of survival. Short of throwing on a backpack and walking into the wilderness, there is not a more self-contained mode of travel than a bicycle. Everything that you put into it, you get out. All those backward aspects of living that have been lost over generations of progress become essential again.
Calories, rather than an enemy, become a necessity, and you cherish them. You learn about the excess of modern novelties such as iceberg lettuce, which, at 45 calories per pound and nearly no nutrients, won’t get you very far. You rediscover simple mechanics and learn to fix your bike. By spending vast amounts of time outdoors, you become dependent on nature. You observe the movement of clouds and rotation of the sky, and use them to gauge weather and time. You no longer have computers and TVs and magazines to tell you what to do all the time, and you learn to trust your instincts. You hold your body in the highest regard - it’s your only means of movement - and all of your other possessions become secondary. You discover the contours of landscape and develop an acute sense of place. And through it all, you learn to love the land and yourself in ways that modern living has adamantly denied.
So why bike? Because biking is the only means to escape civilization in a civilized society. Biking is the only way to crawl along the car-choked Interstate and still feel like part of a natural flow. And, short of hiking into the wilderness with a fishing pole and a Swiss army knife, biking is the shortest route to independence in an increasingly dependent world.
And damn if these mountain bikers didn’t catch a glimpse of that feeling as they barreled down the trail - I know they did. But the reason we suffer the uphill battle is to sustain that feeling, to slow progress down a little bit before it passes us by