My friends in Europe think the American notion of going on vacation only to eat and drink ourselves into oblivion is as wrong-headed as our idolatry of the handgun. I’ve heard from a number of friends in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands who all told me that their number one desire on vacation is to do something that takes them out of the comfort zone, not to lounge within it.
Of course, I’m in contact with a skewed sampling of the population of Europe; almost everyone I know is a cyclist, so a friend describing a ski trip to the Dolomites is less surprising than for the general population.
I mention this because Thursday, after Adam had been taken to the hospital, I rode, wondering just what my purpose was. I had a wife and two young boys at home. Once the trip was over, I had responsibilities to fulfill, a duty—or two—to return to.
What I arrived at was the realization that for me, part of the purpose of the trip was to remove that impending future, that there is always something else that needs doing. With Western Spirit running the show all I had to do was eat and ride and enjoy myself. To the degree that being a decent person to hang out with is an obligation, I hoped I was holding up my end of the deal.
On one of the final descents toward camp that day I found myself whipping along at a vision-blurring pace. I entered a hard left turn and to my right there was a ravine crowded with saplings and a few other less trees of less bendy girth. My rear tire broke loose as I hit the apex of the turn. I can still hear a few rocks getting kicked off the trail and down the slope.
That sound continued to play in my head after rolling into camp and heading to the river for a dip. The current, colder than tap water in winter, accepted me more readily than I accepted it. I reached waist depth and was unable to make my knees bend enough to lower the rest of me into the blue. But the idea of not skirting the ragged edge of ability and control, of not pushing myself to be a better cyclist technically, if not aerobically is an affront to the spirit of the sport itself, at least, in my view. You can run that equation a dozen times with a dozen people and get a dozen different answers. Absolutes and values mix less well than oil and vinegar.
It’s this question, this issue, that I keep returning to when I go on a cycling vacation. If a cycling trip is meant to be the opposite of sipping umbrella drinks on the beach, then isn’t enjoying yourself on the drop part of that territory? Obviously, it would be foolhardy to undertake the sorts of moves that are likely to result in crashes, but if you routinely ride off two-foot drops at home, why would you limit yourself to six-inch drops on vacation? In essence, why would you go on vacation to be less rider than you are? I’ve often described the European tours that I used to guide on as being like our group rides back home but set in a fresh circumstance. Same fun, exciting new place. To me, that’s the point.
Done, but not finished
The last day of any vacation is one in which I remind myself over and over to soak in each moment, that this is the last chance to soak in this experience. While there wasn’t as much descending on our final day as during the preceding four, there was enough that I would pause to soak in the view before dropping.
Like so many other trips I’ve encountered, I really didn’t know what to expect going into this trip. Sure, I expected great riding and I knew I’d be well-fed, but beyond that, I had no idea how tight they ran the ship. The beauty to their style of guiding is that it was loose enough that you could ride in whatever manner suited you. If you wanted to be first to camp, first to crack a beer, that was cool. And if you wanted to roll in last after doubling back for a choice piece of flowy singletrack, you didn’t lose points.
If Oregon were closer, I’d have been back by now, would be planning yet another trip. One of my personal idiosyncrasies is that if I have a memorable experience riding in some new locale, that doesn’t check the finished column for me. I’ve yet to go to an amazing place for the first time and think, “Okay, that’s done. On to something else.” No, I find myself wanting to return to those places into which my love has fallen.
With so much of the city stripped away, the van ride back to town was quiet, and not just because so many of us napped. None of us seemed particularly ready to return to our lives, though Adam and his crew already had plans for future trips. They were planning fun two, three quarters ahead. Dang.
While the others napped, I stared out the window and contemplated the ridge in the distance and Ashland Mountain Adventures, the shuttle service our guides told me about that takes riders up to the top of Mount Ashland for the hour-plus ride back into town. Something had happened on the trip. I’d become okay with the idea of being carted to the top of a mountain just so I could ride down, something I’d never, ever consider on a road bike. I could do the first shuttle of the day, ride into town and hit the farmer’s market before getting on the road. Little did I know I’d be the only guy there without a full-face helmet. Sometimes, the only way to answer an existential question is to embrace what’s at hand.