Thursday, June 25, 2020

Sham/Shame

In the roadside ditches between my house and Nortonsville, between the road itself and the rolling green pastures and oak flats, there are three used masks.  They're not together.  The first one - a nice white N-95 - is right around the corner here, less than 500 yards from where I sit and write this.  The other two, a black one and a blue one, are about a mile past that, just on the edge of Buck Mountain, in some tall grass on the right.  It's possible they were purposefully discarded there together, homemade cloth masks that someone obviously labored to create, now spent.  It's also possible that they simply blew out of the window of a passing car, just an accident.  It turns out that masks, divisive little items which they have become, can also be litter, intended or not, and maybe that means something.  


On the same stretch of road, there are about twenty empty, blue bud light cans.  At least twenty.  That number goes up and down a little based upon the schedule of roadside clean up crews, how fast the grass grows, and presumably how often these assholes drive the road and throw their cans out. On long rides out through the county on hot days, litter is something I have struggled to understand.  Who on earth is doing this?  Is it on purpose?  Is it a single individual, a lone-wolf, bud light bandit in reverse?   It might, in fact, be a single bad actor, though if COVID has taught us anything, it's that bad behavior begets more bad behavior.  These things come in packs.  


*

  

My wife literally runs.  She logs her miles in a spiral notebook that she keeps by our bed, spends hours out on the narrow country roads that spread north into the surrounding counties, out into Greene and Madison, like roots. Hours per day, miles per week, she prefers to deal with our bizarre new reality on a one-dimensional plane, one foot in front of the other.  She was born here.  

 

“It’s like they’ve become emboldened now,” my wife summarized her experience on the road recently.  It's summer, Sunday, too hot for a long run unless she started early.  So she’d left home in the dark, trudged without coffee through humid air thick with fog and manure.  Along the way, she’d been horned twice, both times by big trucks, rednecks, whooping at her and catcalling.  She couldn’t read their license plates as they careened away, North, out into the county, but in the back window of both, the same kinds of stickers.  


*


I had a theory going for a while that the sub-culture of people who throw beer cans at cyclists, and the sub-culture of people that harass female runners, and the sub-culture of people who refuse to wear masks in public - if you mapped them all onto a Venn diagram -  would be a single, overlapping circle.  But that hypothesis got crushed on a ride recently, at the bottom of Bleak House road above the river, when I came upon a French-Canadian guy with an old steel Nishiki propped against the guard rail.  He was having a smoke and halfway through his first of two 20-ounce tallboys.  He had the two cans tucked neatly into the bikes' bottle cages, a perfect fit, and he wore a bright yellow safety vest. I spoke some French and he spoke some English, but eventually we settled on English because his English was way, way better than my French.  This man was quite a paradox.  He claimed, between enormous gulps of malt liquor, to be a former ironman triathlete, which I found believable as he recounted in detail the massive costs involved with race travel.  He'd just been coal-rolled, up near the intersection of Woodlands and Reas Ford, by some huge truck with a modified exhaust, and it had burned his eyes.  So he was pounding a couple of beers here, at the bottom of the hill near the river, to take the edge off before he rode home.  


"Motherfuckers," he swore, with a thick, French-Canadian accent.  We leaned against the guardrail in silence for a while.  He smoked, and I watched the flow of traffic.  


He asked me about the Virus, "What do you make of all of this?"  

I confessed that I honestly didn't know.  

He said he thought it was a Shame.  Or he said he thought it was a Sham.  I couldn't tell which he said.


That's vital information, of course, his whole point of view in the conversation hinges upon the existence of a single letter - that "e".  I wanted to ask him, but in a strange way I felt it didn't matter.  I didn't want to know anymore.  We're all just playing parts now, some bizarre, nationwide attempt at improvisational theater where we've all been assigned roles but no one knows their lines.  What would my character say about this?  We check twitter the way that an actor checks the script.  Line, please.  

But what do we really know?  


*

 

“It’s my faith in people, now,” my wife mutters.  But she cracks her knuckles anyway and jumps the three steps down off the deck on her way out for a run again.  She will never stop, I know.  It’s barely dawn but already hot, and she’s glistening under a thin layer of sweat, resplendent in her defiance.  Take your best shot, motherfuckers.    


It's a sham, or a shame.  Maybe it's both.  Maybe it's something else.  


Up, up, up.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Edge

I went for a pretty big ride on Sunday afternoon, out through the fringe of the northside of Charlottesville.  The trails I ride up here are all nooks and crannies, private land I do or sort of don't have permission to ride.  Some of them run down gaslines and across neighborhood HOA's.  Some traverse the river down the edge of unmanaged county land.  Some are old, deeded right of ways that don't actually give anyone a right or a way.  But I ride them anyway.  It's a lawless, wonderful place, the edge, where no one is really supposed to be. 

Along the Rivanna - somewhere above the reservoir - I came upon a guy diving and spear fishing in a deep hole at a bend in the river.  He was a madman.  I talked to him for a while.  He had canoed in there with his dog, a brown and white mutt that kept watch from the bank while he dove.  He had beached the boat on a sandbar there and spent the better part of the afternoon.  Two small speakers played reggae from the seat of his canoe, on top of a cooler of beer cans, mostly empties.  He was in and out of the water a lot, back and forth to the canoe, no oxygen tank or real equipment, just a set of goggles and big lungs and a spear.  It's illegal to spearfish in freshwater in the state of Virginia, but he wasn't worried.  He was Caucasian.  His skin was deep bronze, thick and loose like a mature hog late in the summer, the kind of permanent tan you only achieve after a thousand sunburns.  He didn't worry about sunscreen.   He didn't worry much about anything, I gathered.  His shoulders were huge, the kind of mass you'd never develop in the gym, only through a lifetime of paddling and rich food.   He was distracted at times, the way that high people can be, but also laser-focused -  diving underwater for two minutes at a time, searching for the big catfish that tend to push upstream from the reservoir this time of year to spawn.  He had seen some big ones.  He tried to sell me weed, but I declined.  So he tried to sell me acid, which I thought was a strong upsell for someone who didn't want to purchase weed, but I declined that too.  We talked for a while, but eventually he went back to spear fishing.  Intermittently, he would waive a bowie knife around above his head, swatting at mosquitos, or maybe just hallucinating.  He shot a huge bass.  

Then it got weird.  

A beautiful woman rides by on a horse.  She is by herself, young and very fit.   She wears her blond hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, and she pulls hard on the horse's reigns to control it as she carefully picks her way down the trail next to the river.  She stops the horse, tall and proud above the river like a statue, and she looks down into the depths of the hole.  Spearfish guy is literally chest deep in the water, speargun in his hand, scuba goggles on, with a huge dead fish, and he yells up from the river and tries to get her phone number.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  There is very little dialog.  She's like 50 yards above him, and the current is pretty fast around that bend, so he has to yell to be heard.  He sees something he likes and he bellows out to it like a bull moose.  She declines and rides off.  

But 20 minutes later she comes back and gives him her number.  

She doesn't make a show of it or anything.  She reads out her phone number in an even monotone, loud enough but also measured, like how she might call out the numbers at the local community center for bingo on senior night.  Spearfish guy scrambles to his canoe to get his phone, speargun dragging behind him in the water, still attached to his belt by some kind of lanyard, still loaded.  

Afterward, she departs upstream, and he leaves downstream.  It's a date, I guess.  I fish for a while, but the river is calm and empty.  

On my ride home, it's sunset and I laugh some.  They will make quite a pair.  She left, knowing better, but she came back 20 minutes later and gave him her number.  I have no idea what her story is, but I imagine her brain for those 20 minutes, the time between when she left and she came back.  She's riding her horse in the forest.  It's silent.  In between the green sycamores and the huge riverbank poplars, a transition of some kind must have occurred   She knows it's a bad idea, or...at least it used to be.  But this is the edge.  Things are changing fast.  

Everyone I know is somewhere in those 20 minutes right now.  


We're going somewhere, aren't we.  
But where?  
Up, up, up.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The part we all walked

I ran a Paranormal loop a few weeks ago.  In running shoes.  On foot.  That kind of running.  By "running" though - and I've found this is especially true of trail running and trail runners - there are parts -  many parts actually - where you walk.  But it's still called running.



I had prepared for this to some extent - 11 miles is a pretty big run for me these days.  And yet, like so many adventures in the past that I have felt OK about when I started, I emerged from the woods in absolute shambles.  Zombie-like, disheveled, I stumbled around The Paranormal field in circles, coming unglued.  Though I finished, I had to wobble and crawl back to my couch, tail tucked fully between my legs.  Running is hard.

Of course, parts of that "run" weren't.  I walked a considerable amount of it.  Similar to biking, if you're running slowly enough, walking doesn't actually affect your pace all that much anyway.  So I walked some of the uphills.  Then I walked some downhills.  Eventually, I walked the flat sections.  I just walked, off and on, like a caveman, hellbent on finishing and eating some leftover Bodos.  Cavemen ate Bodos.  Prove me wrong.

One interesting thing that I have noticed about running - especially long runs - is that you don't remember which parts you walked.  You're just out there, on foot.  It's slow, and it blends together.  A bystander might mistake you for a bird-watcher and strike up a conversation with you about the local thrushes and warblers.
"Have you seen any pintails, lately?"
"No, I'm actually running."
"No you're not."
"Yes, I am.  I'm running this trail.  This whole thing.  It's a race."
"Um, no.  You're clearly walking.  Look at how slow you're going.  Check out these cardinals."

The truth is, on a long enough time scale, speed isn't actually a useful marker to determine effort.  What you see here - me barely creeping along this relatively flat trail, with my tummy sagging and my tiny steps inching forward - though I might resemble a fat caterpillar right now, this is wide-open, full-bore, racing.  Please move aside when I get there, I'm accelerating.

As a cyclist, any race you do, if you walk a section - whether it's too steep or too scary or you're just too blown to ride any longer - you know it.  You remember that stuff.  Pushing your bike is so different from riding it that - when you finally do - it's emotional.  You trudge uphill with your cleats grinding on the rocks and your shins banging your pedals, and you know it: "I am fucking walking."  You remember it.

It occurs to me now that we, as a country...the entire world is walking.   We will look back on this - the part we all walked - and we will nod and say something about it.  We'll remark upon how little we really knew.

But we will remember.

Up, up, up.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Trees Don't Care

The trees don't care.

It's Spring, and Virus or not, they push out the brightest, greenest leaves I have seen in years, reflecting and glimmering dew in the cool, wet air.  The trees grow and watch and wait, without blinking.  They can feel the trails that Shawn and I have created - it's just empty space to them, filled with sunlight.  In a natural way they take it back, every spring, with every leaf and branch and vine they thrust forward to fill the gaps.  Nature does not social distance.  She doesn't oblige space.  Beneath the trails we are carving to pass the time, these trees - maples and oaks and loblollies, mostly - they push in and dig deeper.  They hold on.

For a few weeks now, I've been riding a fixie.  I won't bother to explain in much detail what a fixie is, because if you're way down here at the bottom of the cycling internet, you probably already know (or can figure out) what a fixie is.  Succinctly, it's like a bike that someone looked at and thought, "how much of this can I remove?"
Riding a fixie is a little sketchy at first.  Your brakes and your engine, paradoxically, both happen to be the same thing now - your legs.  It takes some getting used to.  But, like a world held hostage by a Virus, your brain adjusts.  The list of things that the human brain will adapt to - if you just give it a few days - keeps growing.

Bender is really showing his years, now.  He'll be thirteen in December if he can hobble along that far.  He used to accompany me on midday trail rides, in great unfaltering bounds, 20 feet at a time.  At one time, we would crank out ten miles on my lunch break, me on the bike and Bender a sleek black blur right next to me, like a panther, leaping downed trees and slipping through sketchy berms, fast and silent.  Now, he mostly just naps on the porch in the sun, not beholden to any schedule.  He picks his way carefully on short, slow walks, like an old dancer, reduced by the passage of time.

The one thing Bender still gets excited for is trail work.  If he sees me pick up a hoe, he sheds about eight years, immediately.  If I even think about the chainsaw, he knows, he can sense it, and if the trail I'm trying to fix is close enough, I let him come along.

Earlier this week, in a big storm at night, four big pine trees uprooted right at the base, toppled one against the other like dominoes, thrashing and dying out there in the darkness.  I heard them in the night.  They next day, I found them still and dead, log-jammed into a low spot in the trail.  They needed cut.

When we got there, I checked the chainsaw while Bender sniffed at them.  The air was fragrant with sap and dogwood blossoms and freshly splintered pine, alive one day and gone the next.  The saw was finicky, though, and it took me a minute to figure it out.  Thunder in the distance gave way to thunder right on top of us, and just as I got the chainsaw spitting the skies opened and it absolutely poured on us.  Not the time to be cutting trees, but we were already out there so...Bender stood back.

This Virus, whatever happens, it's hard to argue that we're not a little closer to death now, all of us.  We are more aware of it, more exposed to it, this hypothetical thing come to bare.  The chainsaw shrieks and guts the trail back open, time and time again, and nature gives way for a little while, anyway.  I'm careful when I cut the fallen trees that block the trail, but still, I'm out there.  So are you.  In every place that humanity runs up against nature, all of these trails and rivers and oceans, even the grocery store now, we try to twist around each other to co-exist.  But sometimes we break that trust.  What comes next?

After it's over, Bender hobbles back out from wherever he took shelter.  He sniffs at the carnage and pees on a broken branch.  He's old, and he can't quite lift his leg any longer, but this is still his forest.  He smiles at me the way that dogs do, so I sit with him on the ground there for a while, both of us soaking wet, right in with the ferns and the autumn olive.  The sun lunges back out, bright and low in the sky, and a gentle breeze picks up.  Everything around us shimmers, reflecting droplets of water and sunshine back into the bright evening sky, up, up, up, from which it all came.  I rub Bender's floppy ears and run my hands down the bones of his shoulders and hips.   We watch, and the whole forest sparkles and dances and flashes around us, like the finale of some show I wasn't prepared for, and it's winding down now and I'd better get ready.  A thing is always both living and dying.

I press my face down against his back, and I try to drink him in like I'm a tree.  I absorb him down into some deep root where I might keep him and grow from him - into the tremendous gap that will be hewn from my life when he finally goes - long after he is gone.

When I wake up early the next day, the room feels still and empty in the darkness.  Bender wags his tail at me a little.  He's awake, but he remains in his bed rather than come with me to the kitchen for coffee, granola, and intervals.  Lately, the kids have been feeding him hotdogs from the table.  Shannon literally tosses him entire slices of leftover pizza in the kitchen and praises him when he catches one.  His life down the stretch has become some kind of fantasy.  So he's got better things to do than intervals on a fixie at 6 AM.  

Out on the trails at sunrise, the trees rush past me, and the frogs buzz and croak.  I start slow, but the Fixie has a way of pulling you along, speeding you up before you think that you are ready.  But you are.  For a brief series of turns, the fixie and the world and I achieve some bizarre, fleeting unity, some unlikely rhythm down a ribbon of single track under a long row of pine trees, suspended and peaceful and buoyant.

The space created by the trail is vacant, but not empty.










Thursday, April 23, 2020

We were terrible at handshakes anyway

We were terrible at handshakes anyway.

When I arrive in the parking lot at Douthat, Ken is already there.  It's winter, not frozen or snowed in, but the trees are bare, their dead leaves piled up around their trunks like the shirts of a bunch of cold swimmers looking out over the lake.  I haven't seen Ken in almost a year, I estimate, but he's the same.  50 now, he muscles out of his truck, bald, lean, maybe 200 pounds of him, the shape of a man you're careful with when you shake his hand.  He will crush you, perhaps.  So when he stretches his hand out, I sort of go for a high five of some kind instead, though I'm not sure what exactly I'm proposing.  To compromise, or perhaps in his confusion, he drops his elbow and shifts his thumb back to point at his huge chest, like maybe we're going to arm wrestle.  I switch to fist bump, but I do so at the same moment he settles into fuck-it-let's-just-hug-mode, and things get away from us fast, and I just barely avoid punching him in the dick.

Nice to see you, buddy, it's been 11 months.  Here's a punch in the softies.  Happy birthday.

-

I think back on that ride with Ken a lot now, a big Douthat shred for his 50th birthday before the Virus hit.  Nearing 5 hours into that ride, and on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, we really settled in and started smiling at each other, at how weird we are, truly bizarre human beings who, for fun, take something they both enjoy immensely and then do it for so long that it's not fun anymore.  We finished right on time.  We drank a beer, ate some chips, and before he left I hugged the absolute shit out him.

In the future, I will...something else.

-

It's Spring now, stuck in my office and it's raining, and it occurs to me that maybe this Virus is our big chance to finally get greeting each other right.  If handshaking is over with - which there's sound epidemiology to support and has been for a long time - then maybe this is the moment we've all been waiting for.  If you've ever been accidental-handshake-slapped in the tits before, this is your chance: pick something.

Certain cultures put their hands together in praise, give a subtle bow.  Namaste.
Others simply raise their eyebrows and smile.
What will we do?

Last week, Ken invited me back to Douthat, another loop into the highs and the lows of it all.  I had to turn him down.  I've been a little sick.  I've got projects to work on with the kids.  I've been...running.  There I said it.  I've been running.  I'VE BEEN RUNNING.

But also, more than anything, I live in fear right now.  I don't know how to greet him when I see him again.

It's a blank slate, friends, or at least it will be someday.  Our good intentions cannot hibernate forever.  How will we express them?

Up, up, up.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

We, Viruses



Most rides have a beginning.
There's almost always a moment: your garage door creeps open, slowly, like some kind of huge mouth about to sneeze, and your house coughs you out into the world.  For a little while anyway, you're alive and free to roam the air.  You swing a leg across the way you always do, stomp the pedals, and away you go.  The wind carries you, borne out onto the roads and down trails, like a barrel into a waterfall, fast, and fully alive.

The duration of your toxicity is still a little unclear at this point.  Researchers are staying up late in labs right now, stooping and peering into microscopes with blurry vision while they struggle to breathe through dirty, used masks.  Around the clock they toil in an effort to sort out just when and where and how long you are infectious - this knowledge being a key element to fighting a pandemic.  But as a metaphor, let me be clear: You're the Virus.

We all are.

On March 12th, I went for my last ride with actual human beings.  I met Lee and Andy and Paul at Champion, and we shoved off down Main Street - riding side by side back when people still did that sort of thing.  7 PM on Thursday in early Spring, the streets were lined by crabapples and cherry trees that were just starting to flourish, but the warm asphalt was already nearing a bizarre level of desertion.  There were no people.  We rode west to O-hill, still laughing and spitting and jovial, sweating and breathing right there next to each other.   We turned our lights on and rode it out together, the sublime, shared experience of one last good night ride, before things changed.

Cyclist, we breathe on each other.  We are partaking in human-powered transmission of the soul, from here to there, and it takes oxygen.  Lots of it.  Our bikes are transportation, but so are we.  We both are passengers and have passengers, and we sweat and spit stories back and forth.  We cough and submit ideas.  It settles the mind, of course, but it's hard to imagine us as anything more than pathogens right now.  Carriers.  Big lungs full of, in pursuit of, in fear of transmission.  The perfect ride is out there for us, somewhere, waiting, like a host.  We probe the outer membrane.

In the days since that night ride,  I have lost track of the sequence of events, which day it was, what came first or next or last.  Schools were shuttered.  Work changed.  Group rides ceased.  People died.  We have grappled with these things in intervals, some slower or faster, and in fits and starts, each of us trying to find peace with the decisions we are making.  We are so distant now.

I've noticed something about us, Cyclists: we count on each other.  Roadies rely on each other, trade turns pushing our faces into the spring breeze for the benefit of the group.  Mountain bikers count on each other for tools, safety, for maintaining the trails themselves.  So there's a lack there now, a hole in that place where you used to push your hand square against the base of your buddy's spine and push him back into line.  Now more than ever, into this headwind, we need each other.  We are a broken chain.

Despite our efforts, John Prine died today, along with 1800 other Americans, each of them an entire universe of stories and ideas and friends and places that they had yet intended to see, now gone.  Consider this, folks, before you venture back out and try to re-find that vital thing which we have all lost: We Will Not Get John Prine Back.
You can fix the link, but the chain is never quite the same again.

Most rides have an end.
Back up your driveway and through your garage door,  you are always drawn.  Your house itself drinks you back in.  It will end, someday.  Won't it?

Be smart out there, friends.

Up, up, up.


Monday, February 10, 2020

Listening

Marco Pantani was bluffing.  No one knew it at the time, but Pantani had set a trap for Lance Armstrong.

It had started a few days before, when Lance had gifted Pantani the stage at the top of Ventoux, and Pantani was furious with the Texan.  Though both of them were most certainly cheating - it is believed that Pantani raced with a hematocrit above 60 at the time - Pantani still understood that Ventoux itself was holy ground.  And he had no doubt that Lance was a complete asshole.  Then Lance called him "little elephant" in the press, referring to Pantani's ears, and Pantani knew what he had to do.

After the rest day, on the way to Morzine, Pantani split the race with 120km to go.  He was well behind Lance in the G.C., but with 120km of road between him and Morzine, anything was possible.  So he put his head down, gave it everything, at a pace so difficult that Lance could barely eat or drink.

Lance was helpless.  To defend his lead from this far out, with no teammates that could match Pantani's pace, Lance was compelled to chase the Italian.  Whatever Pantani was doing, he'd have to follow.

Pantani, though, had no illusions of making it to the finish at Morzine that day, or even finishing the Tour at all.  He had one thing in mind - defiance.  He only wanted to break the Texan.  Well before Morzine, Pantani climbed off, ducked into the team car, and watched the Texan ride on.  Lance was completely blown, on the verge of dehydration, about to have what he would later describe as one of the the worst days of his life.

You wouldn't have guessed it.  Moreso, perhaps, than his aerobic capacity or his tactics, Pantani's greatest gift was his poker face.  He was bluffing that day.  Lance bought it.  We all bought it.




In hindsight, it was that day more than any other that defines Pantani.  With his head down, gasping for air on the way to Morzine, Pantani was putting in the ride of his life - more brilliant than all the days at the top of Les Deux Alps or his attacks on The Galibier, more himself than all the Pink jerseys on his wall.

--

The last time I saw Mark Robbins was at Tuesday Night Worlds in August.  I promised myself that I wouldn't write about Mark here, and I have honestly tried - but I can't help but recognize him now - that easy 3/4 smile, all the miles he rode, the way he fought on a bike - even if it's too late.

We raced that night, then we stood there at the top of the hill above the Mechums river, a pod of blown amateurs, all the hot air finally clearing and heartbeats subsiding, and the sun was starting to set.  Mark asked me so many questions there that night - how my wife was, how our kids were, how my riding was going.  His listening, I realize now, was jubilant.  Mark loved a story.

I told him all about us - Me, my wife, my family, my riding, me, me, me.  But I look back on that evening now, standing there with him right before sunset, and I realize the awful truth, that I didn't ask him a goddamn thing.  Three months later, he was gone.

Before the ride yesterday, we had a little moment of silence for Mark.  Then we shoved off, down Markwood road for the mountains again.  From near the front on a little rise, I looked back, and the line of riders stretched out to the south, all the way back around a curve and out of view.  Were there 200 of us there?  I continue to be shocked - year after year - by just how many otherwise kind-hearted, decent people actually want to come out and do this thing to themselves.  We continue to seek out real, genuine adversity, the same way Pantani did, that Mark did, and we emerge better people, I hope.

After it was over, next to the Downshift van, we reclined in the sunshine and drank that entire keg in less than an hour, the dirty mob of us.  You don't understand the savagery of the Pantani Ride until you see it through the context of how hard that tap worked for those 60 minutes.  I ate some banana bread and tried to soak it all in.  I almost passed out in the sun.

--

In hindsight, if you watch it now, slow it down and look at him there, resplendent in his defiance on the way to Morzine that day, you can see it - that Pantani was not racing to win, not even riding at all: He was trying to tell us something.  This was Pantani finally authoring the story of his own life, his own words that we would only understand about him later, about Armstrong and Ullrich, about this entire generation of fallen idols, failures both dealt to them and self-inflicted.  Pantani was literally dying.

He was bluffing Lance.
But he was trying to tell us the truth.



I hear you now.  I'm finally listening.

Up, up, up.