I expected the front suspension to compress and the front wheel to roll over the root as I eased around the tree and down the eroded stair-step terrain. What happened next was that I found myself going over the bar and bringing the bike with me. One foot clipped out and scorpioned into the back of my head.
Once I unclipped my other foot, which was tangled above and behind me (which way do I even twist my ankle?) I got to my feet and exhaled the relief of the uninjured. But what the hell had happened? Why was I falling so much?
Later, I flicked left around some rocks that looked problematic only to tag my hand and the handlebar on something that turned out to be more small tree than big bush. I high-sided and jackhammered my hand into the hillside on the right. It was at that point that I flashed on a feeling unfamiliar to me.
That’s enough. I’m ready to quit.
I was jittery with adrenalin and as confident as a blind man defusing an IED. I began to wonder just what I was doing. The goal for the day had not and would not be achieved. The only success for the day was seeing a friend.
The ride was less a study in why things can go wrong than a reminder that they can go wrong, that your headspace—that oft-recommended positive attitude—is sometimes no match for the reality of a four-inch-wide and eight-inch-deep water-cut crease in sandstone. That phrase “out of my element” rang in my ears like the chorus of some pop hit, causing me to muse about just what my element was. No one detail of the ride had been that big a deal; certainly I’d have walked most of those rock gardens, but somehow they’d become a physical manifestation of doubt, like so much sand that slipped into my shoe and now followed me to each new challenge. This was a “What the hell?” on an industrial scale.
Framing the element
Following the release of his solo album “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” Pete Townshend gave an interview in which he was asked about the nature of the material he recorded on the album. While songs like “Slit Skirts” and “Somebody Save Me” would have been incredible anthems for The Who, other songs like “Stop Hurting People” and “The Sea Refuses No River” didn’t seem destined to flourish in the grip of his band. Had they been saved for this occasion, for the freedom of recording as a solo act? His answer stunned me. He wasn’t a saver he said. He brought the whole of his creative force to any album he was working on, that “Jules and Jim,” a song about the death of The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, could just as easily have been a Who song had he been recording an album with them, and not a solo project.
He went even further in the interview, talking about how being in a band like The Who gave him the freedom to enjoy a solo career, that his creative work would necessarily be different if he didn’t have one of the world’s biggest rock acts as his primary creative outlet. How it would be different was a point on which he didn’t elaborate.
That interview came to mind on the drive home from an almost epically bad day. I’d been in southern Orange County for my first ride of the San Juan Trail, a classic bucket-list ride for mountain bikers.
I’ve been thinking on that album for reasons beyond that interview; it contains some of his most deeply personal and spiritual work. Seatpost dropped, weight back, it seemed to me that there must be some lesson in the line, “The Sea Refuses No River”—though it’s not original to Townshend. Surely there must have been some larger truth to gravity, trails and simple physics of two wheels and caster angle, but I couldn’t find it.
Cornering the muse
Of late, riding off road has been one of my biggest drivers in chasing flow, that need to shut off the forebrain, slow the world down and simplify the many choices I need to make into the binary of this line or that. Having a ride where I’m pulling over on a descent to let other riders pass me carries the shock of showing up to church and finding the altar missing. Who knows if God ever hung out here? He sure isn’t now.
On my drive home, I began to think about my own mother ship. On occasions like the one that began my day—an hour-and-a-half drive south to the trail head—I know my purpose. This is where I gas up there writer’s tank. I can’t do it by always riding the same routes from my door. And while I was leaving my wife with our two boys (fortunately, none of the three were up yet), this was a variety of hall pass I can cash in from time to time because it’s meant to feed my muse. But what about those occasions when I burn what I meant to cook?
What I’ve realized is that because my family—my wife and boys—are my own mother ship, that they give me the security of purpose to go chase rides that don’t fit with ordinary routines, purposes. That realization should have been enough to register, the demi-epiphany that salvages an experience I might otherwise classify under “disappointment.” But I couldn’t stop there.
That was the positive, the driver, the force. And for every action, we know there is an equal and opposite reaction. If my current life was the product of my choices, I couldn’t help but wonder who’d I’d be if I hadn’t married my wife. Single, childless and 50s? Not criminal but also not the life I’d have chosen to lead, and it made me wonder how I might define that life. Unhappy? Probably not if I was busy living it, but from this distance it is cloaked in disappointment, missed opportunity. “Fulfilled” just seems too lofty an assessment to apply.
It’s a moment that is easier to snap out of than you might think. Throwing the car in park can snap almost anyone from almost any reverie.
I wasn’t looking for one of those days on which I look back and laugh. No one ever goes looking for that. And to punt by saying that I had good company with a friend is a kind of intellectual dishonesty; I went looking for more. I wanted time with a friend and a good ride.
I got a ride in but the net result was less confidence, less fulfillment, less whee. Not the sort of day you build on, the sort you recover from. I don’t care about the blood, the bruises (the physical ones, that is). I get caught thinking about the word “setback.” I get caught thinking about “retrograde.” I get caught thinking about every experience that ever made me shier, not more outgoing.
It’s okay, though. Even if I call this one bad day, I weigh that against what my life might otherwise be. To spend an afternoon on the couch with Mini-Shred, playing Minecraft and holding the ice in place is its own kind of win.