Going Deep: the Mendo ‘Hopper

Going Deep: the Mendo ‘Hopper

If there’s one lasting lesson the world has taught me it is that things change. Friendships, addresses, jobs, favorite bands, everything changes. I mention that because the Grasshopper Adventure Series started as underground as a Mississippi punk band. Somewhere along the line 50 people became 700 and the series got mentioned in interviews with real pros.

I’m among those recently arrived Johnnies. An interloper to a tradition. I’d like to think the best parties welcome the guests who show up even as the keg is running dry, and for that reason, my personal introduction to the Grasshoppers combined equal parts of localized epiphany as well as editorial revelation, and zero embarrassment for being so late as to be unfashionable. Nevermind. I tell myself that if back in the 1990s I’d moved to Northern California instead of Southern California, this is the crowd I’d have fallen in with.

The briefing by organizer Miguel Crawford before the start of the Grasshopper took a good 15 minutes, and when he says watch out, he means it.

Dude, you have got to check out this event. 

The Grasshoppers have grown up over the last 20 years. There’s more (any) support, the sag stops are well-stocked and the prizes can include wines that people spend the equivalent of a tank of gas on. They are respected as much for the courses as for who the races attract. After all, if you need to be Ted King to win a Grasshopper, the field is pretty deep.

This past weekend marked a big change for the Grasshoppers, though. This was the first Grasshopper held entirely outside Sonoma County. It was also the first two-day Grasshopper. The first Grasshopper to feature camping. The first with breakfast.

Though the road was wide, there was plenty of washboard, bordered by very loose gravel; there were fewer good lines than it appears.

The plan was simple. Start at the Ukiah high school, ride north to Willits and then turn westward and hit two different stretches of dirt road on the way to Fort Bragg, where we’d camp for the night. The second day would see us ride into Jackson State Forest, rail some singletrack, briefly revisit the coast and then head into the inner reaches of Mendocino County before a long fire road climb delivered us to the descent back to Ukiah.

There’s a quote on the Grasshopper site from Joseph Campbell:

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. 

One the first stage we crossed so many dry creeks I lost count. 

If I needed to point to one tiny detail to illustrate that organizer Miguel Crawford gets it—the “it” being how we are looking for Maslow’s peak experiences, stuff worth remembering—this would suffice. Only a person with vision, someone who has lived deep in his own marrow would navigate by such a star.

It’s hard to convey to potential event entrants the fitness one should possess to reach the finish line, but one of the hallmarks of a Grasshopper is the fact that they never offer more than two fuel stops. If you need Oreos and Coke every 10 miles, these might not be the rides for you. Rather than see this as elitist (I’m sure someone will, though), I appreciate that there is an implicit suggestion that you need to know how to take care of yourself, that you can’t only eat and drink once you pull over.

I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a prop from Breaking Bad or the S.S. Minnow. 

When I reached the second stop at mile 43 on stage one, I was more than three hours into my ride. It’s 2200 feet high on a plateau north of Jackson State Forest and after pulling out you hit a steep, 500-feet kicker before you begin the easily interrupted descent into Fort Bragg. It was in the last two miles of dirt, as the road wound between giant conifers that I had that unmistakable moment of gratitude.

I’m glad I’m here.

There’s no real way to convey how much pain I was in at the time. For me, the day had largely been about managing pain and trying to push through the hot nerve enough that I could see the route in terms other than more or less comfort. As I looked between the Redwoods and out over the sprawling greens of the forest and out to the sawtooth horizon, I was reassured of my place in nature, that I’m a tiny spec in a vast world, that there is much to see, that beauty will not plop itself down in your lap, that no matter how much pain I felt, this view was worth it.

Crawford took time to explain the ins and outs each stage before we rolled, even pointing out hazards on the map taped to the U-Haul.

And with less fanfare than a burp, I was back on blacktop and rolling into Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg is not quite one square mile, a community on an atomic scale. I was through downtown and onto a bike path edging the beach before I had a chance to register what the town’s major industry might be.

Our digs for the night were the campgrounds at MacKerricher State Park, and while many people were pitching two and three tents per campsite near the food, I chose to walk a bit away and put my tent up in a lone campsite with the goal of actually sleeping through the night, rather than listen to a fellow cyclist snore. I woke once around 2:00 am and poked my head out of the tent to see the white spill of the Milky Way bright as moonlight on water. Perseids streaked across the ocean of stars, little reminders that our planet is a traveler, too.

In the morning we loaded up on the fixings for breakfast burritos. Sausage and bacon? Who says no to that? (That’s rhetorical; don’t anyone comment, “Vegans, you dolt.”)

Riders were quiet, even solemn, at the start of Sunday’s stage; we had a long day ahead. 

I’d love to know the last time any group large enough to be termed a peloton streaked through any part of Fort Bragg, let alone on the bike path. People stepped off and waived even as their eyes opened wide in surprise. I heard a few cheers and clapping; knowing what was coming, which is to say the whole of a difficult day, I couldn’t help but chuckle.

The left turn onto dirt seemed innocuous enough; we passed a gate and serpentined into Jackson State Forest, a place of such remove that I wonder how settles ever reached Fort Bragg. On the next point my memory is hazy due to my effort, but somewhere along our route the fire road turned to singletrack. A ribbon of umber swam through the tan of fallen leaves with the ups and downs of a of a place still wild. A dozen miles into 80 and we were negotiating double-digit switchbacks on bikes with no suspension or dropper post.

We didn’t expect to be cheered on the bike path.

Absurdity, unlike a good joke, can elicit a number of responses in people. As I’ve evolved I’ve come to see the absurd as an elemental form of black comedy. If laughter is healthy, then absurdity is good for me.

Even after the singletrack returned us to the light brown road the challenge remained enormous. A 1.4-mile drop gave up some 800 feet, rolling us down frequently rutted dirt firm as rock, and at double digit grades sometimes cruising past 20 percent. It turns out I can’t laugh at something so absurd that I have to concentrate. I laugh later.

Our entry into Jackson State Forest seemed easy enough, but we were soon into challenging singletrack—too challenging to shoot.

For most of the weekend I was content in my modesty, that I would be riding the event, not racing it. It’s a distinction I don’t know how to explain; it’s something you can distinguish in your body, but prose is too blunt an instrument. Only those who have gone to their absolute limit know the difference. There was, however, a stretch in which I truly raced.

The only real requirement riders faced was the need to arrive at the second sag stop by 3:00 pm. Get there later and the gates would be closed and you’d have to take the road back to Ukiah. The reason was simple: they didn’t want people on a dirt road as dark approached. As 2:00 passed I commented to the one rider I was with that we were on target to reach the stop before 3:00 as we had less than five miles to ride. For reasons I still don’t understand, I’d somehow substituted 51 miles for the more accurate 58 miles. He corrected me and by the time I fully understood my error, we had 12 miles to cover in a half hour.

This road descent is the only occasion I recall being relaxed during Sunday’s stage.

We hit Larson Grade on Ukiah-Comptche Road and I abandoned my companion. I reasoned that I’d say something about him being on his way if I managed to arrive on the bubble. Even though the math told me I should surrender all hope, I kept scrolling through the screens of my GPS, looking at my speed and heartrate, then the coming grade and then the turns on the map. The climb sustained such cruel grades that at one point as the slope eased I looked out at the shimmy of the road and thought that the grade looked easy, that to my eye it looked maybe four or five percent, only to say to myself that my eye was deceived by having ridden so much titled terrain. It couldn’t be so shallow and when I scrolled back to the gradient I saw just how fooled my eye was: 9.5 percent.

When I pulled up at the stop I was asked if I wanted to take the dirt. My “Yeah” wasn’t as emphatic as I’d hoped. “You’re the last. We’re closing the gate.” I wondered how many more riders were behind me and whether or not they’d be relieved to have the choice made for them.

This was before the “road” became seriously rutted.

Support on Grasshoppers isn’t elaborate, but it is both deliberate and thorough. Even though there are only two official stops, you can’t go far without running across one of the Grasshopper’s understated minders. I rolled up to an unexpected bridge that passed over a shocking slash of asphalt below. A pickup passed. Our moto support rider, Dirk, sat on the side of the bridge and held up a red can.

“Want some Coke?”

I may not have answered. I recall taking the open can and drawing to sweet pulls. It wasn’t particularly cold but the carbonation and sugar dazzled my brain. With the rest of my experience rooted that firmly in the terra, the soda swirled in my mouth with the mind bending effect of a drug.

Dirk told me of upcoming overlooks, some lensing the distant ridgelines, another a lookout’s view on the Mendocino Complex Fire and its rising pyrocumulus clouds.

The Redwood forest stretched in all directions and very rarely were we afforded a view, one that seemed less panorama than mirror.

What I didn’t know was that the front group that passed hours before, led by Levi Leipheimer, encountered not one but two cougars on the road. Leipheimer said he gave the most primal scream he could and the cats slunk into the brush, but he looked over his shoulder for minutes, concerned they might develop an interest in him.

By the time I saw the view to the fire I was convinced I’d been so deep in my effort I’d missed the vistas. But there it was, an expanse of air great enough to hold much of Los Angeles and at the very edge the gray rising like fumes from a volcano in a Tolkein epic.

A final climb took me to 2600 feet on grades that saw me riding at barely a jogging pace, but as I reached the saddle and felt the pitch evaporate like fog in the morning sun, I smiled with the assurance that the course was truly all downhill from there.

As bad as it looks, we were mercifully free of the harsh air and smell of smoke. 

The final nine miles of the course was fire road decorated with washboard twists and scarred by eroded ruts that kept me guessing. Diving into one left-hand switchback and I recall asking myself if I’d ride this course on caliper brakes, to which I audibly laughed with enough volume to startle myself.

When I rolled to the finish, Miguel and Tera were there along with a host of other volunteers as well as other riders who had already finished. A short line extended from the side of a nearby taco truck. Someone handed me a beer.

When I was a racer, we ignored the finishes of those dropped from the main field. In the parking lot I was greeted and congratulated by people who had finished hours before I had. High fives. Head shakes. Muted laughs. Delighted curses.

I don’t think I could do an event like this more than three times in a year. But I’m willing to try for three.


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