The alabaster rock stuck up at the left of the trail, effective bookending the singletrack. In dozens of previous descents of the path I’d never taken note of it as anything other than something not to run into. A fun stopper. But this trip was different. First, I was supposed to be watching another rider’s form. She’d asked me to follow her and examine her body position and weight distribution when on the drop. So I was going a bit slower than usual, but honestly not that much slower. Even as I was watching how she shifted her weight in turns, I was also looking at what fresh lines I could take. So when I noticed that igneous fin sticking up, for the first time my brain saw it and thought: launch pad!
The rock protrudes from the earth by roughly 12 inches. It’s not the sort of thing that will cause an Atherton to report their flight path to the FAA. But I almost never hit anything that I haven’t looked at from 360 degrees. I tapped my brakes lightly just as I squared up to it, got my chamois behind my saddle and then pulled back.
It wasn’t my most graceful performance; my saddle banged into my belly because the pitch of the rock was so steep, which also slowed me on takeoff, opening a gap between the rider I was following and me. I pumped the bike through the next turn, took my fingers off the brake levers and closed up the distance in a few more turns.
I was not only able to report back on her form, I had simultaneously taken the most unusual lines I’d ever explored on that trail. I was grins at the bottom, a bit giddy. Sure signs of flow, but I was still too in flow to notice it. Minutes later I’d slip by a rider who lost traction on a climb by taking a tiny spit of trail at the edge of a steep slope. I’d never considered riding that line before.
I split off from the group a short time later, turning down one of the most technical descents I’ve ever encountered on a mountain bike. A veritable minefield of volcanic boulders, there are a couple of spots that are lava flows as big around as a VW beetle. It was in threading my way through one of these that I caught sight of two hikers and adjusted my line to the right, through an even more challenging assortment of volcanic lumps.
I don’t recall ever looking up from the trail to check out the hikers. Indeed, that section of trail is so difficult—I’ve been stopped dead previously by rocks on this stretch of trail—I can’t fathom looking away from the trail unless I wasn’t moving. And yet I know I must have looked up.
How? Well I can tell you that the pair of hikers was male and female. The guy had a baseball cap on backward and a jawline square as New York architecture and deep-set eyes.
I called out: “Is that Sheriff Rob?”
“Why yes, it is! Do I know you?” he responded.
By the time he spoke I was down the rock and onto much softer dirt. I was off my bike and hiking back up the hill before I could say anything else.
“No, but I’m a big fan,” I said.
Sheriff Rob would be Sheriff Rob Giordano, the Sonoma County Sheriff and the man who, possibly more than any other, gave Sonoma County the sorts of quality assessments of last fall’s fires that allowed us to feel we understood how the fires were developing and being addressed. He came to be lionized by residents because his communication was so good.
I’ve wanted a chance to meet him and thank him for his leadership in person, so when presented with the opportunity, I forgot about the Strava segment and ran back up the trail to shake his hand.
While this is a story about Sheriff Rob, he isn’t really the point of the story.
This is a story about flow. For all that I’ve written about the rush that comes when you hit flow and your brain dumps dopamine and serotonin into your bloodstream. Sure, that’s great fun, but one of the craziest aspects of flow is that the release of anandamide once you enter flow will encourage you to see creative new solutions to problems—like taking unusual lines on a trail. And the more creative you get, the more successful you feel (provided you don’t fall), and that furthers the flow state. Flow begets flow.
My body gave me a big dump of norepinephrine somewhere between the first descent and the second. When I spied Sheriff Rob, I did so with him covering his shiny pate with a baseball cap and not in uniform. At the speed I was going, he was one stick-on mustache shy of a disguise. Also amazing, to me, is that I not only recognized him as quickly as I did, but that I realized, “Hey, that’s that guy I want to meet!” And ask if he was, in fact, Sheriff Rob. So why did I ask his name instead of simply calling to him?
Oh ye of little faith.
I didn’t completely believe that I could have infallibly identified a person I’d only seen on TV while dressed differently while I was moving in three dimensions and at some speed. I struggle to believe I’m that amazing. However, that’s the magic of norepinephrine: the body’s natural stimulant is to caffeine what the SR-71 is to a Cessna. Thanks to flow, I had time to look up, recognize the sheriff, continue to pick my way through lumpy terrain and then call out to him.
Two days later, I’d hit the same sequence of descents. And this time, chasing all the speed gravity could gather, I never saw the alabaster. There’s no telling what your brain will decide is important.
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