Saturday, May 31, 2008

The luxuries of leaving the city

Day 7: Leaving Cortez. Sept. 19, 2002.

One of the most difficult aspects of bicycle touring in the rural southwest is the way slow travel spaces points of civilization so far apart. Every service station becomes a necessity rather than a luxury - if you miss one, the next could be more than a day’s travel away. It almost echoes the sentiment of a exhausted pony express rider in the 1860’s, galloping into a remote mail station after a full day only to have dirty, well-drawn water and a thin blanket awaiting his arrival. Their journal entries show how many riders relished in these barren conditions, if only because it beat the weary road.

Day seven of our 14 day, 600-mile trip through Southern Utah and Colorado brought us to the only distinguishable “city” we would pass through during our entire trip - Cortez, Colorado. A week through the rugged and rural San Juan mountains had nearly exhausted most of our resources, so with the destination came the unavoidable chores of shopping, buying supplies, and filling up water for the long stretch of
desert ahead.

The entire morning had brought us mostly downhill,away from the San Juan mountains and the beautiful Dolores River valley. The motion of traveling downhill had become so fluid that we scarcely glanced off to the side as we flew through the busy streets of Cortez. We stopped at a large supermarket for food and supplies, and decided to get water and lunch on our way out of town. We passed a dilapidated downtown area and several uninviting chain restaurants before the rows of buildings started to stagger away from the highway, and we realized we had already passed city limits.

“Should we go back?” I asked Geoff.

“No,” he said. “There’s got to be at least a gas station on the edge of town.”

And there we were, headed out into the reservation and the desert. It would be at least two full days before we’d reach the next town we were sure existed, at least two full days before we’d ever see another gas station or any type of business, at least two full days before we’d have any chance of getting water, and there we were, bicycling away from the last signs of civilization.

We reached the edge of a long downward slope toward the open desert below, marked by two tiny truck stops. Geoff indicated we should go to the furthest one, because of pizza symbol on the sign. We were starving. But more importantly, we needed to get water for the next 48 hours. I parked outside and tore open all of my panniers.

One by one, I pulled out an assortment of empty bottles I had collected over my travels - Nalgenes, 32-ounce gatorade bottles, spring water bottles, tall bottles, short bottles, fat bottles, and finally, my 100-ounce camelback pouch. Inside the gas station was a single bathroom with a tiny sink. I twisted and angled the bottles in every direction, to no avail. Nothing fit underneath that dingy faucet.

I gathered up my assortment and walked outside. “I’m going back to that last gas station,” I announced, and left Geoff sitting in the parking lot.

In quiet defiance, I rode the two and a half blocks back to the Chevron on the wrong side of the road, facing traffic. The blur of vehicles rushing by almost seemed to brush my open panniers, but I didn’t care. The extra effort to cross the street just wasn’t worth it. I walked into the second-to-last gas station in town with nine water bottles pressed beneath both arms. I bee-lined to the bathroom, again a tiny service closet with a toilet and a cracked sink so small I could barely fit my hands, let alone nine bottles, beneath the nozzle. My groans echoed off a maze of pipes that ran above the nonexistent ceiling.

Head pounding, frustration coagulating in my stomach, I gathered up my bottles and the last few ounces of my dignity, walked to the drink coolers and grabbed two gallon-sized jugs of spring water. “Just these,” I told the clerk, and handed her three dollars.

And with that, we set out into the desert, the sagebrush and sand universe of the reservation, precious water safely tucked inside our panniers, without a glance back at civilization’s shadow. I left the gas station angry at the world, at the tedious chore of surviving, of having to gather and carry resources where none exist. I pedaled away from Cortez as if the city were reaching out to pull me back in, afraid that it might. I had no desire to go back to the city. But the unknown desolation ahead had to be worse.

Oddly enough, with each furious pedal stroke I found myself becoming more and more relaxed. The dimming light of sunset unleashed a blaze of lights behind me, and it felt good to move away from them. The landscape ahead was dark and unfocused, fading into two-dimensional black shapes against the muted orange sky.

“It feels good to get away from there,” Geoff said. And it did. But it didn’t make sense. All week I had been looking forward to the supermarkets and Pizza Huts and running water electrified convenience of the city, only to find myself feeling better about getting away. All I had to look forward to now was a simple dinner of spaghetti and canned sauce and sleep beneath the clear, star-drenched sky.

Funny how a bicycle can so easily, so completely draw time and space backwards. My panniers sagged from the weight of food and water I was forced to carry, but at that moment I would have happily doubled the weight if it meant another two days away from the city, into the sweet, simple luxury of the open road.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Going On A Cruise

Part 1

At a business lunch this week, the two other gentlemen in the party revealed that they each had plans to take a cruise this year. One will be leaving for Alaska soon. The other will be flying to Spain to begin a Mediterranean cruise in September. They spoke of prior cruise vacations. They spoke of the places they'd see and the things they'd do. They spoke of travel logistics. They contrasted the two eagerly anticipated trips to exotic locations. I couldn't add much to the conversation. At one point, one of the gentlemen turned to me and asked, "Chris, have you ever been on a cruise?"

"No", I said, "but I hear they can be quite pleasant." Then I think I mumbled something about there being plenty of food. He turned back to resume his conversation with someone who knew of which he spoke. I took another bite of my lunch and listened.

Part 2

This morning, while the birds were singing at peak volume, I opened the back door, let in the cool, morning air, and the coffee finished brewing. I pulled a small, familiar cup from the cabinet. When the coffee flowed slowly from the decanter, aromatic steam rose up and filled the space bounded by face, cup, and hand. The hot brown liquid swirled...and then settled, but the fragrance continued to rise up and stir the senses. Pleasant, simple, quiet, earthy contentment. Then, there was a realization. Perhaps, during that lunch meeting, I mis-spoke.

Actually, I've been on thousands of cruises. They've just been much less expensive, much more simple, and closer to my home. In fact, this old saddletramp has another land cruise planned very, very soon...and the anticipation gives me great joy.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Phantoms, Part 3

My tires crunch on the gravel, spitting out rocky shrapnel when I stand and accelerate. The path follows the Hennepin Feeder Canal out of Rock Falls, Illinois, a tiny waterway originally designed for barge traffic. The track, once worn bare by mules pulling loaded barges, has been turned over to the park district as a recreational area and buried in white sandstone to create a trail. It is the only off-road riding within range for a kid still working on a driver’s license, my first opportunity to take my new mountain bike into its element. The canal is on my left. On my right, a thin strip of trees separates my ride from the strip malls, hotels, and restaurants of Rock Falls. The illusion works; under the canopy of overhanging branches, I can convince myself that I am alone, that I no longer follow Dad’s wheel.

After a quarter mile of flat gravel riding, the real trail begins. A worn dirt path breaks away from the canal into the woods, cut by renegade motorcycles, kept open by kids on BMX bikes. I veer into the trees and climb the ridge that separates canal from city. The riding is frantic silence, rubber tires on dry earth, trees passing like telephone poles on the interstate. The branches close in, no wider than my handlebars, leaves brushing my knuckles. My pulse presses out on the foam shell of my helmet. Lines of dusty sweat creep down my cheeks. The trail begins to roll, its rise and fall like slow breathing under my tires. Each downhill slope loads my momentum, carrying me over the next rise, picking up speed with each trip across the trail’s wavelength.

My front wheel strikes the knob of a half-buried root, knocking the handlebars from my hands. For an exhilarating instant, I lose control. The wheel chatters out of its line. I grab for the bars, but the distraction is too much on such a narrow trail. A branch snags the bar and rips it from my hands. The front wheel turns sharply off the trail into the brush. I have no choice but to follow, slapped by branches. The bike finally strikes a tree, tossing me over the handlebars head first.

When I reach up to wipe the grit from my forehead, half my helmet is missing. On impact against the tree, the foam has split in a jagged arc across the top of my head. The rear stays in place, held by nylon straps, but the front swings open like a door. The helmet comes apart in my hands when I release the straps and take it off. I sit in the dirt -- dizzy, aching, with a hemisphere of helmet in each hand -- and laugh, because I am sixteen and don’t know any better.

Jason Nunemaker
Des Moines, IA

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I'm not a Cyclist, I'm a Bicycle Rider

I rode a lot last year, a WHOLE lot, for me anyway. While most of that was for transportation, a significant portion of it involved long-distance recreational riding. And the use of the term "recreational" seems, well, a little confusing at times.

I started riding longer distances in order to train for a big charity ride. I got involved with some really nice folks who do long-distance riding on a regular basis, for fun. I practiced my form. I got a little bit faster (attaining a cruising speed of almost 12 mph). I got stronger. I completed three populaires (rides of 100km, or 62.5 miles) last year and dreamed of riding longer distances, growing ever stronger and more invincible. Randonneuring really woke up the sleeping Walter Mitty inside me. And I did achieve some things I'd never thought possible on a bike. At the end of last year, I had racked up over 2,700 miles. I had completed three metric centuries and successfully completed 141 out of a possible 210 miles on that three-day charity ride. I made some new friends through my involvement in the local randonneuring club. And I began to plan my 2008 riding season. Among my great plans for 2008 were more populaires (those metric centuries) and an attempt at a brevet of 200km.

This spring, my riding plans have been repeatedly stalled; my drive and desire for athletic greatness diminished.

So what happened?

Well, LIFE happened. My partner lost her teaching job last fall and became "underemployed"; and I needed to work more hours to help make up some of the shortage. Important time spent with family and friends took priority over some of my planned rides. The cold, wet winter and early spring made it difficult to go long on the weekends. A series of cold and allergy distresses forced me indoors more often and made it hard for me to ride longer than my typical morning commute (indeed, even my commutes were hard and I wound up tossing my bike on transit more often during the winter). I had a Crohn's flare-up over the winter that kept me off my bike for nearly two weeks. In short, I made plans and other stuff happened that got in the way.

So how am I working with it now?

Well, the 200km is out for the year. I simply cannot set aside enough time to prepare for that distance safely and effectively; and I am not angry or sad about it at all. It's just life. As for the populaires, I had hoped to enter an early one in March but the weather and my colds combined to keep me out of it. The next organized group populaire I can hope to find time for isn't until early November. (I could sign up to do one by myself but there hardly seems any point in that; the truth is I'd rather just go out for a 25- to 35-mile ride with friends and have a nice lunch somewhere along the way. If I could do this two out of four weekends a month I'd be pretty darned happy.) I am doing another charity ride, a shorter one-day event that's close enough to home for me to take public transit to and from the start. If I complete this ride -- and I'm pretty sure I will -- it will likely be, at something like 70 miles, the longest distance I ride in one day this year.

And something else has happened. I have not felt the least bit stressed about how things have turned out. I still ride my bike nearly every day. When I'm tired I take the bus part of the way. When I feel an extra burst of energy in the evening (especially since daylight sticks around till 8 pm now), I'll ride a longer, more "scenic" route home. And as I read ride reports by some of my new randonneuring buddies, I find that their descriptions of literally suffering through a particularly challenging stretch of a ride no longer hold the same allure for me. I feel as though I've found my limits, and I am turning them into my groove.

It's natural to want positive reinforcement simply for being the people we are. When I look around for that reinforcement, encouragement for the bicycle rider I am, I have to look a little harder. It's not found in the popular bicycle literature, in the magazines and articles found at most bike shops. It's not found in the popular media, who still equate Most Things Bicycle with Lance Armstrong. And it's not even found in most mainstream advertising for bicycles and bicycle-related product. Pick up any major bicycle catalog and the first thing you will see is someone who is young, sleek and ferociously fit, most likely a guy, clad in lycra and pounding his way up the mountainside with a determined grim on his tanned face. One must look and dress the part in order to Be A Cyclist.

I'm not so much a Cyclist as I am a Bicycle Rider. And I find that reinforcement by looking at my family and friends, at my co-workers who ride every day, and at regular folks who are just going from place to place on a bicycle, wearing whatever clothes they grabbed off the top of the clean clothes pile, ferrying their groceries or nothing at all while they pedal and smile and enjoy the ride. They are becoming my model of choice more and more, every single day.

That doesn't mean I've given up on riding those longer distances. I get a sense of accomplishment from doing those rides that's hard to explain, and they give me a chance to ride out in the country where it's quieter and there's more wildlife to see and hear. I love those longer rides and plan to do more of them, for as long as I'm able. But they are not the majority of the riding I do, and that is totally okay. Most of my rides are five miles or less each, and they are often as enjoyable as the country rides are. Because the point isn't speed or distance, it's simply that I get to ride my bike.

Any day I get to ride my bike is a good day.

Is it Spring for You?

I'm riding with bare knees. Enough of Spring is here for me to ride that way. The fig and pear trees aren't showing any fruit yet, the grape vines haven't leafed out. So Spring really isn't here.

Spring will really be here for me when I have my first Hawaiian shirt day. On that day I’ll ride in a billowing silky colorful shirt and be really comfortable. It's as close to being naked on the bike as I get.

What's your "it's Spring!" ride moment? Has it arrived this year?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Where Else?

I work in a secure facility. This means there's guard shacks in the driveway and employees need to show their corporate ID to get into the parking lot. Today as I rolled up I noted there was a new guard on duty. I slowed down a little extra, he wasn't going to recognize me. Held out the ID and he waved me on.

"Where's your car?"
"Where it belongs."

Home in the driveway.