Friday, April 28, 2017

Getting Older And The Fires That Cleanse

I went to Moab this week to celebrate my thirtieth birthday.

As I'd been planning a trip to Sea Otter and then a detour through Yosemite to hike the falls, it was a last minute trip change due to a combination of some unforeseen circumstances and some undesirable outcomes. I wasn't thrilled at first, but it culminated in what I feel is probably an important series of lessons as I start this new decade. 

My twenties weren't easy. I don't think anyone's are, to be fair, but mine were particularly rocky as I battled my own willful stubbornness, social anxiety, traumatic brain injuries and a rapid (and completely unintentional) ascension towards sports infamy. While reflecting on these challenges, however, I was startled to start feeling grateful -- my severely-ADHD brain often moves too quickly to process more than brief bouts of gratitude, so my sudden onset of overwhelming thankfulness surprised me.

Mostly, I'm thankful I survived it. Literally. I'm lucky to be alive, have a roof over my head and have pickles in my fridge. Through no work of my own I've stumbled into some of the best friendships and situations to ever exist and whether it's fate or circumstance that has led me to where I'm sitting right this moment, I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth... Except I am. Because that's what I do. I'm introspective and curious to a fault, which often leads to much eye-rolling from my better counterparts. So as I critically examined the last twelve to fifteen years of my life, I figure that I'm either the luckiest person alive (no, I'm not kidding) or the universe has some ulterior motive in keeping me alive, mostly sane, housed and sort of well-fed. 

Don't ask me what it is.

After three life flights, two drawn-out medical sagas, one kidney down and more concussions than modern medicine needs to declare 'potato status', I am, very literally, incredibly lucky to be here. I've put myself in some very stupid situations, some very careless positions and a few needlessly ridiculous predicaments. And yet.

Here I sit. 30 years old and still punching back. Hard

At what point do I just point at the sky and kind of giggle? Is this the  right time to feel completely indestructible and go about thwarting evil (a la Bruce Willis in Unbreakable)? Or do I count my blessingsand simply walk away from further risk, content with the fires I've started? I'm not sure I can answer that. But what I do know is that while my neural plasticity exists, I'm going to try to suck everything I possibly can out of this situation called 'life'. What can I say? I'm kind of an opportunist. 

In keeping with my thirty-year streak of damn fine luck, this week has been no different. We rolled into Moab Tuesday afternoon to beautiful spring temperatures of 65F and nothing on the calendar but moderate sunshine and time on two wheels. A spin through town  proved it was still standing despite my emotional departure a month ago and a warm up wheel spin in the cool evening air of Klondike Bluffs ensured that we were ensnared with the possibility of more fun to come. You know the rides where everything works and your legs feel right while the smile just won't go away? Tuesday's quick ride was one of those, despite a loose rotor on my rear wheel, and as Brian and I got back to the car, I spread my arms wide and spun in circles as the sky brightened in the most beautiful sunset I've seen this spring. I've been #blessed to see so many sunsets. Seriously, though. Absolutely blessed.


It was quite the welcome.

Afterwards, we wandered to North Klondike to meet up with Isaac Miller and his fur son Rico who were posted up at their Airstream basecamp. As we chatted about the road life and tossed tennis balls  in the light of a halogen lamp, it struck me again: what a life. To be able to stand there in the chalky white moon dust and firelight reflecting on my travels and laughs with good people who loved me... That was a gift. And as suddenly as it had appeared, the thought spun off into the dark night under a blanket of stars as Rico approached with his second tennis ball.

I woke up the following morning in order to pee in sync with the tittering of sand pipers as the sun rose to highlight the blooming Sego lilies. With the grey clouds outlined in gold and the sky turning pink, it seemed an appropriate sunrise for the first day of my third decade. Shortly after climbing back into the tend, Rico puppy offered an excited jump on the walls of our temporary shelter demanding that we rise and start the day. 

We set off from camp with coffee in hand and a Porcupine shuttle booked. Our preparations didn't clue us into the hilarity that would  be the day, however. If they had, I'd have worn a bubble suit and carried a flask of tequila. We met up with The Jeffs* to grab a shuttle to the top of Kokopelli and after some hot-coffee-down-the-pants-and-into-the-shoes action, I was on my way! We bullshitted the entire shuttle ride up, chatting about racing, laughing at dumb jokes and mostly trying not to touch each other in a packed van. Upon  arriving at the drop-off point and finding it twenty degrees cooler, we all realized that an extra layer would have been prudent and bitched for a few minutes while swinging our arms and pretending we knew the finer points of human thermodynamics. 

Then we dropped in. 

This is where I think I'm supposed to start lying. I should probably tell you what fun Porcupine is. I'll explain the different stages, how I crushed them all, then how we all ate lunch at the overlook at sang Kumbaya.

But I won't. Instead, I'll tell it how it really happened: we dropped in, I almost ate shit in the first turn, sucked wind on the fire road pedal, then had to stop to check Trailforks to make sure we hadn't missed  the turn onto UPS. After that, we took some pictures, rode some rocks, had intermittent bike weirdness and then met a friend. This was the cool part, because what had been four was now five. Me, Brian, Jeff Richards and Jeff Skalla had to stop because Brian's bike  was a bitch and blew a shock. Somewhere along the way, Skalla's friendliness had extended to a solo rider and this rider rolled up on us to chat and compliment me on the weird staircase that I had rolled, clipped in halfway. As I stood eating my strawberry M&Ms, we exchanged some chit chat about where this rider was from, what the hell we all were doing, etc etc etc. And then came the question: "Do you mind if I tag along?" 


As it turns out, Roman would become a fixture in our trip and despite having recently started riding in June of 2016, is a total badass on two wheels and a whole lot of fun to hang out with. Go figure. Trail friends, amirite?

I should probably lie to you all a bit more about how I stole the QOM on Porcupine and rode triumphantly to the finish in a cactus confetti shower with music and cold beers and back slaps.

But I didn't. I crashed 1/3 of the way down on one of the easiest drops, broke a couple of ribs, couldn't breathe, got back up, whined a bit, and then whined the rest of the ride while alternating between mad sprints and struggle-bus seated pedaling. I finished it off by angrily hiking the bottom portion of Porcupine rim and mutter-shouting "who puts a fucking trials course at the bottom of a 20-mile-plus descent?! ASSHOLES! That's who!" 

Good times.

Then we pedaled into town and wheezed over to Milt's where Brian treated my already sizeable ass to a double Santa Fe burger and large peach milkshake as we all sat around and commiserated about the ridiculousness of the day and how we'd likely not do that again. 

The perfect birthday.

In all reality, it taught me a few things about not expecting situations to be enjoyable because they're overhyped and that my sort of 'fun' is still consistent with what psychiatrists call 'type 1.5' fun. In other words, I don't want to struggle. There are struggle riders and there are struggle fun riders and then there is me. If it's not immediately threatening my life while being totally enjoyable at the same time, I'm unlikely to avoid whining. 

These are good lessons to know when one is entering the hallowed temple of thirty when everyone else seems to be a grown up and one still has Cocoa Puffs debris stuck to one's shirt.

I am Jack's milk-saturated cocoa puff. 

Of course, Wednesday culminated in birthday cake and ice cream courtesy of both the hilarious waiter at Moab Brewery and Brian, who orchestrated the most obscene public birthday spectacle known to man: the restaurant-staff birthday song. My fellow bike compadres were deaf to my pleas as they laughed their asses off in the corners of the booth (I will get you both, Jeff and Roman), so I was left to sit and blush furiously over the remnants of our nachos and a delicious brownie cake thing. 


After a bit of tequila and more cake and ice cream, I settled into the $29 hotel room like a bear preparing for hibernation: with full intent on not coming out for a few months. Unfortunately, I had to wake up the next morning, despite a sugar hangover and a pounding head. While an interesting experience at a bike shop didn't dull my headache or the pain from my broken ribs, it made for a funny story and provided a fascinating Twitter saga that would unfold as the day progressed, as well as an interesting look into why I still fight so heavily for an inclusive sport. It was also narratively consistent with me turning 30: nothing says "I ain't changing" quite like keeping up  my usual antics. Who said brain function doesn't improve with age?! 

We met Skalla and Roman for a quick jaunt up Hymasa to ride the massively-overhyped Captain Ahab (I'm sensing a theme here) and after Brian and I bailed at the upper intersection, we ran into the third  faith-restoring character of the week: Rob from Tahoe. Now, Brian has been looking at new bikes recently as he jumps back into MTB (pun intended) and after the horrific demo experience Thursday morning, needed a bit of a pick-up and some positivity that I couldn't really provide. Enter Rob, the YT Capra-riding patron saint of size-small MTB riders everywhere. As we pulled over to yield to uphill traffic, Rob pedaled towards us before inadvertently catching a pedal and swinging off his bike to hike the rest of the rocky corner. Brian, upon seeing the YT logo on the frame, immediately asked "hey, which model is that?" This wonderful, beautiful dude of a man grinned and said "The Capra" before handing Brian the bike. He really did. He smiled at two strangers he didn't know from Adam and then proceeded to hand over his BRAND NEW RIG that had TWO FUCKING RIDES ON IT for Brian to inspect. As B asked what size it was and then ogled the ride and began asking if he could maaaaaybe just swing a leg over, Rob gestured to the trail and says "Hop on, man. Take it for a spin. Seriously. Great bike."

Now, I'm going to stop right here because I've suddenly started leaking from the eyes and my keyboard is covered in some weird, viscous nasal slime. I wanted to blubber like a goddamn baby yesterday and right now as I write this, the reality of what happened on that trail is hitting me again. This random rider, not knowing a  thing about the two goobers descending Hymasa, saw the look on my friend's face and without pause, handed his brand new bike to a stranger so that the stranger could see if it fits.


DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANT TO US?! I mean, I may as well have been hit by lightning as I stood there with my stupid mouth agape and nearing a full on emotional monsoon.

I've had a crisis of faith for so long, thinking that the spirit of mountain biking has slowly died off. I have cried into my hands at the lack of respect on our trails, in the forums, at the way we portray other riders and disciplines and each other. It has slowly killed me and eaten at my core to see the very thing that saved my life and my soul turn into something ugly and cruel. The disrespect, the pettiness, the lack of sustainability... It's wrecked me.

But then along comes Moab with its strangers and incredible examples of the very best parts of this sport and it destroys the hope-sucking monster that is disappointment. These people inside of this thing, outside of this thing, just getting into this thing.

These people.  

Three days, three experiences, three prime examples that the soul of everything I love still exists. 

And now I'm crying again.

Because this is what matters. The fringe bullshit, the constant turnover of technology, the hype, the nonsense, even the bad attitudes (like my own) can all disappear in the face of what is still the greatest thing to ever happen to me. Bikes saved my damn life. Bikes gave me back everything I thought I had lost, everything I never had, everything I'll ever become. The goodness that lives inside of me exists because of what I've learned on two wheels and what they've taught me about the world. My perspective and undying hope were created by the balance struck between where I've been and where I'm going, and the eternal lessons of forward momentum. Who I am and what I bring to any situation have been irrevocably and unfalteringly built by the bicycle and the people who also love two wheels.

Everything I am is because of experiences like those of the past week and these experiences have been shaped by the people in them.  

May I always strive to be that person for someone else. 

*Jeff Skalla and Jeff Richards, two of the best people to play bikes with.

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