Monday, July 07, 2014

Continental Divide Tour

Why write a blog post?  That’s so early 2000s.  True.  I’m tired of letting my writing skills become lazy for the short facebook blurbs.  Plus, my aunts and uncles are not on facebook don’t get to hear my stories there.  So, after a long absence, to the blogosphere it is.

I love bike touring.  So, with a few days off in a row, off I go. 

The Continental Divide tour.

I love the approach toward the wall of mountains, the eager and nervous feeling of knowing that your destination is somewhere on the other side of the pass, of knowing that no matter the weather, the strength in your legs, or any gap in confidence, the only thing to do is to ride up and over that beautiful intimidating wall.   There is something heart opening about not knowing what is over the horizon but being fully committed to going there.

 And so, after finishing night shift, I drove from Denver to Buena Vista, stopping for an hourish nap, had some lunch, and at 1pm started biking up Cottonwood Pass (12,126 feet), hoping to beat the afternoon thunderstorms.     With a little drizzle and some thunder and lightening to the north I wound my way up.   A beautiful sundog shown in the sky and the summer snowfields glowed in the sun shining between the dark clouds.

  Generously, by the time you hit the switchbacks it’s almost a relief. By then it hurts as much as you would expect it to.  Biking after nightshift, I found, is a special type of hurt.  Your body is hungry and thirsty but doesn’t want food and no matter how much you drink, it never feels right.  But it’s not enough to stop my awe at this beautiful place.

I reached the top of the second highest pass in Colorado, completely out of water and gasping but also grinning and triumphant.  I had been to the top of Cottonwood Pass by car about month earlier and knew there would be a number of cars at the top, admiring the continental divide.  I knew I could find someone to give me some water.  Sure enough, I made friends and soon was on my way down the winding dirt backside. 

Check out those curves down the back of Cottonwood!!!  

At 5pm, rolling through the beautiful valleys of the Rocky Mountains, my body gently reminded me I’d been awake for basically the last 24 hours.  Then it not so gently reminded me.  But there was nothing to do but soak in the amazing view and continue on.  

 Still half in nurse mode, I ran self systems checks, wondered how my kidneys were fairing and how my electrolytes were.  I considered my likely glycogen deficit, wondered what my pH was chillin at and had a snack while riding. 

I arrived at a lovely hostel in Gunnison, CO after 6 hours of riding and eagerly went to sleep.

Day 2:  Riding alone vs with friends has advantages and disadvantages.  For instance, I can wake up, have a snack, plan to skip a real breakfast in favor of eating protein/food bars on my bike “until that first town vaguely in my mind somewhere on Rt 92 on the map….”  This is a good choice for covering lots of ground.   If I was traveling with someone else, they probably would have noticed it was over 100km until that first little town on Rt 92 and that’s a long way before having a proper meal.  But no matter, I had plenty of snacks with me and the desert mesas, colors and rivers were stunning to ride through.  It’s * almost * like you can eat the view.

I love long distance bike riding because the pace and repetitive motion helps me reflect and process.  

I work in an ICU.  There are a lot of stories to process.  In the moment when all of the critical care is happening, there isn’t space to absorb the sadness of it all.  In order to be effective, it’s better to focus to some extent on the tasks, the critical thinking, the science of the body.  Within that, of course, there are moments of connection, of being a part of people’s journeys, of taking someone’s hand, of holding the space for people to be who they need to be in those moments.  But during the workday, it’s not the space to lean into the sadness of chronic disease, death, and loss.  We focus on the small wins, the big wins, the hope for people to get better, the hope that people will walk out, hug their loved ones again, snuggle with their dogs.

Biking up this beautiful quiet highway, suddenly the stories and words of the patients I’d recently lost hit me hard.   The gravity and the tears for these people I’d cared for who didn’t make it came all at once and left me at the side of the road, gasping for breath, crying, unsure of how to make sense of it all.

In February, someone posted a video of a stand up poet talking about her girlfriend who was a trauma nurse.  Together they would read news about outer space in the hope that they could capture that sense of the universe being big enough to hold all the grief in these deaths.  Looking at the beautiful road winding it’s way up through quaking ghostly Aspen to look out over huge glacial valleys, I reached for that feeling. 

The sky is big enough to hold it all.  It’s big enough to hold these people’s stories of their lives and hopes and deaths.  It’s big enough to hold our hopes and our sadness for the losses.  The sky is immense.  And beyond the sky, beyond the things I think I know, out on the horizon, there are mountains beyond mountains.

And so the road continued to an eventual lunch and a few little towns before turning up another valley.  At the hundred-mile mark, the road headed up.  Somewhere over McClure pass, in the Aspen valley, my dad waited for me to arrive. 

There are days on a bike where you feel badass, crushing one hill at a time, flying through space.  And there are days when your strength is long gone and it’s only stubbornness to pull you up the hill.   I’ve told people that biking up mountains is 20% preparation and 80% moxie.  Either I’m wrong on that ratio, or I hadn’t actually completed enough training to get me through this 227km (142 mile) day.  I stopped to fix a flat tire, I soaked up the incredible scenery, I admired the sky, I paused to listen to the Aspen and very very slowly I made my way over McClure pass.  

If I was traveling with someone else, I would have likely split the day, staying in Paonia, having a glass of local wine to end the beautiful day.   In that case we would have hit the pass fresh and early in the morning, the slow climb up comfortable and easy. 

But there is also transcendence in embracing a road that you know will hurt like hell.   It’s a different adventure when you face that voice inside that wonders, how are you going to find the strength to do this? 


The last six miles to the top of McClure Pass, neither particularly hard grade or high elevation compared to other recent rides, was some of the hardest and slowest riding I’ve ever done.  It was not a victory march, but it didn’t matter because it gave me time to be breathless for the sky and the mountains and the whispers of the trees as I inched my way up.  

I cleared the top at dusk, descending in the fading light into the White River wilderness, granite cliffs and gorgeous rivers.  The air cool, refreshing and infinitely rewarding.   I rolled into Carbondale around 10pm, thirteen and a half hours after leaving the hostel, 10 hrs, 20min of time moving on the bike.

Day 4:  The route was simple, bike path from Carbondale to Aspen.  Highway up Independence pass.  Return to my car in Buena Vista.

And so it goes.  The trick to riding long distances up hills is
1) keep the rubber side down
2) point the bike up hill
3) keep pedaling
4) if you are tired, keep pedaling.  If you are thirsty, drink some water (or whatever) but keep pedaling.  If you hungry or feel weird, eat something and keep pedaling.

These rules do break down for me a little at high altitudes, though, because I’m breathing so hard I can’t keep moving and eat at the same time.  But that’s ok, Aspen Valley is beautiful and photogenic and it was lovely to take photo and snack breaks.  Though the highway is busy, the traffic moves pretty slowly due to the tight turns.  I was one of at least a dozen cyclists out that day, some faster than me, some not. 

As I approached the final push, you can see the road cut into the side of the valley.  Cars yelled encouragement and the slow glow of pride began to swell knowing I was only miles from the top of the highest paved pass across the continental divide (12,095 ft).   From there it was a stunning descent in mountains that rival Patagonia and may be some of the most beautiful in this incredible world.

There’s a lot of internet buzz about why people run long distances.  Is it to fight the blerch?  Is it to overcome that small darkness within us?  

For me, it’s more to find that spot within that knows resilience, fortitude, courage, and persistence and when I’ve found that small flame to nourish it, to grow it, to make it big enough that I can carry it forward to difficult conversations, to moments at work where I fear I won’t be good enough, to days when I don’t want to get out of bed.  Because if you’ve found that place within that can cross the continental divide twice in a long weekend, begin a tour straight from night shift, bike over McClure pass at the end of a 100 mile+ day, be ready for the hail or rain of any mountain storm and push through the worst saddle soreness of any tour, then the rest of the daily struggles should be well within my grasp, right?

I bike to feel small.  I bike because the mountains are so much bigger and more permanent than any of my worries, heartaches, or angsty rants.  I bike because it’s the closest I feel to touching that big beautiful sky that can hold everything.

I bike because it’s a different way to inhabit my body, to know what I’m made of, to explore the world, to feel curves of the earth, to have a relationship with gravity, to celebrate the glory of these mountains.

I bike to settle comfortably into that space where I know how much I can improve, where perfection has no place, where the pretty ones are always painful and the dirt road is where it gets interesting. 

And by biking through these places, I make them home.

The adventures continue…

Monday, May 30, 2011

Moving, 2011 version

It's just stuff, I say.
I'm lying. like I so often do.
There is my old cell phone with the radio, lying in the trash. There
are the hopes that I would listen to the radio like I did in high
school here, feeling part of the pop culture, singing the same songs
everyone knows, feeling full of hope that this could be my life too,
feeling like I wasn't just an outsider posing in a uniform like
everyone else (but on the weekends running to the park and listening
to Sheryl Crow over and over and dancing all alone)
Box and all, goes in the burnable? no, I should separate out the
instructions... which I've work so hard to read, though repetition
drills and sitting with a coworker reading out loud between classes,
with hundreds of dollars invested in books and dictionaries. It's not
my language anymore.

And the phone should go in unburnable, right? Or can I maybe recycle
it? Does it still have my old pictures of biking through the Nikko
mountains and feeling so unstoppable and free? Is the browser history
long dead after long train journeys skimming through craigslist ads,
wondering how I can find more people and fluff up my life and settle
down here?

And those comics on the wall? I might as well throw them out. I
mean, sure they are my brother's but they are printed off the online
versions. Sure they are this link to what we both felt in the jungle.
Sure they are a link that pulls us closer in a common subtext that no
one else really gets.


And the maps. Sure they are just from a hundred yen store. One I
made a point to go out of my way and visit because most dont have
these maps. Maps that I stare at and find inspiration over and over.
But where will that inspiration lead me now? I have different hill to
train on and different roads to ride. These mountains will soon be
too far away to hear their seductive calls weekend after weekend. But
no. I'll pack these anyways.

My mother's art and a beautiful handwritten birthday letter, packed
safely away. But what about all these drugstore cards? My experience
tells me that you never know when that stupid and simple card will be,
suddenly, the last letter that loved one has sent. And what then?
Does that make everything memorabilia for the possible sudden death of
everyone I know.


Burnable, nonetheless. I know how they say the words, 'I love you'
and I know how they sign it on the bottom of cards. I know that in my
heart. I will always be able to picture my mother's hand writing.
That is enough.

People tell me of all the things I should keep. People tell me that
surely, I'll have room in my bag for this or that... maybe I do. but
really I don't

I can still feel the cold of sitting on the cement in the storage room
with all my moms stuff. One year after her death, my brother and I
finally doing something about it all. Her old clothes with the same
smell. The childhood chair that was the best fort turned upside down.
The flour grinder that she used before baking her own bread, the
house smelling of yeast and a warm oven for days.

I will never find cinnamon rolls as good as those, filled with walnuts
and brown sugar and hours of her strong hands kneeling the dough.

But what could I do with a 100 pound flour grinder when I live my life
out of a backpack more than an ocean away?

And away it goes.

The pots and pans I don't mind. Most are stolen anyways. When I
moved back I swore I was going to invest in a good set of kitchen
knives and that, alone, would make a symbol of home.

Backpacking through Argentina, my temporary romance blooming with a
man who loved to cook and got so tired of hostel knives he bought his
own. Carried it around in his backpack as we traipsed through dusty
wine country towns. Because to cook is to make a home. Even if it's
for a single night. Garlic and onion stained hands, the rhythmic
attack of vegetables preparing to make a lovely piece of a story that
seems to always be so filled with laughter.

But in the end I never got good knives. In the end I picked up some
cheap but sharp ones off of craigslist. Slicing open my finger early
in the year, desperate to make dwindling savings account stretch to my first
paycheck, sacrificing sleep to cook for myself and save a few yen.

Those knives can go. Any home is fine for them.

And the mirrors, glued to the shelves that had to be moved closer to
the floor as aftershock after aftershock hit my life. The mirrors
that I stared at my naked body, sometimes with a proud smile and far
too often with eyes trained on imperfections. But that is too normal
to mention really. What I will miss about those mirrors, much more,
is how my lovers would catch secret glances of themselves. In that
quiet relief of, ok, I guess I'm good enough after all. Or in that
hidden grin. Or in that understated flex. In that raised eyebrow and
that completely personal moment when we regard ourselves so truely
naked. I will miss being that witness. The mirrors will go where ever the shelves do. Burnable?

The last time I moved myself across the ocean, preparing to adventure
with only a backpack full of sundries to my name, I culled my life
with the glib motto of 'burn it all down.' The glib is gone this
time. Perhaps because I tried harder. Had stronger intentions. Sunk
my teeth in more. This time wasn't a lark. And nor is what I'm jumping into.

So with every piece of stuff, out goes a good intention, a fantastic
idea that might make everything ok, straw after straw after straw that
were never enough to break down my resistance to settling for this.
And with every clunk into the trash I send a small prayer upwards that
my life is not just doing the same thing over and over and expecting
different results.

That despite my constant movement and slipping from one place to
another. Despite never owning a goddamn plate all 5 years in Tokyo.
Despite all the trouble I have having a real conversation with
anyone... That I still made some mark here.

Being on the road I came up with something. And when I told it to
people they tended to repeat it. So maybe it was something worth

Home is where you can find your way to the bathroom in the dark. Where you know your trails.
Home is where you plant something and it grows, whether it be a friendship or an idea or a fix to some problem.
Home is where you'll be missed when you are gone.

And so even with the culling of things. Even with the murdering of
all those lost good intentions that never bloomed. Even with the
eagerness and hope I find in thinking about dancing in Oregon and
being able to kiss someone goodnight.

I hope that this was still home. I would rather grieve for losing it
than for failing to make it. Better to have loved.

And with that.

The adventures continue.