Image after image, burned onto the surface of the mind, drifting through like clouds reflected in a lake. The reality of the sun burning my back, the sound of raindrops on the water’s surface; all of it shadow now.
In meditation I see myself there, sitting not beside the lake, but upon its surface. Crags rise on all sides into a limitless sky. Cold blue depths fall beneath me. I can hear the wind in the grasses on the shoreline, whistling through rock saddles in the peaks above. Sitting on the lake, becoming an island in its center. Words echo: I have arrived, I am home.
So many of the mountain poets speak of Glory and Light and God and yet I seem to be among those that find a sweet despair, a state that only magnifies the indifference of the universe. I have become a seeker of sadness and streams. A collector of sights and sounds to be lived and then filed away in a library of shadows. A historian now scrolling through old images, trying to discern which world is more real.
The indifference becomes a looking glass through which a great pointlessness can be observed, precursor to the timeless reminder to be present, to bear witness: A single flower struggling against all odds to carve a small niche of existence at 11,000 feet, surrounded by rock and snow and unceasing wind. Life simply doing what life must do before it is extinguished. That we may be no different is an imperative to be ever grateful for having experienced the warming rays of morning light, life itself, if only once.
I sit here recalling the images of summers past, clinging to shadows, knowing that shadows alone are not enough, planning my return.
The urge to go do something stupid and hard is always present somewhere in the background of my mind, no doubt spurred by some asceticism. Some of us like to suffer. It’s also in no small part due to a time in which I laid in a hospital bed, stared at fluorescent lights among beeping machines, filled out an advance directive, and wondered if my body would fail me long before it was “supposed to”. There have been many moments in which a future with the physicality I crave has been called into question.
So I figure I’d better use it while I’ve got it.
I’ve been deeply interested in local trips, partly out of simplicity, but mostly out of desire for filling in blank spots on the map and connecting canyons and roads under my own power. Getting to know my home. In the last year it’s become increasingly obvious how lucky I am to live in this proximity to the mountains, that I can find contentment so quickly out the front door without touching car keys. Doing it in this style means more and more to me.
Getting to and from the canyon by bicycle is not much to speak of, other than that it possibly wins some amount of “style” points (in some circles known as stupidity) and that it must be factored into the cumulative fatigue of logistics planning. It’s one thing to do a hard canyon, another to be somewhat tired going in and know that your work will not be done at the end. The 35 miles to the trailhead was uneventful, save for being quite fortunate to hit overcast skies for the ~3000′ climb into the mountains. The 35 miles home was hot and slow for the first ten miles, graced with a tailwind that exactly matched my rolling speed, leaving me in dead air and heat radiating off the road. I walked as much of the uphill on the ride out, figuring 2.7 MPH pushing was just as good as 3.2 pedaling on the bike. When it’s that steep, what’s the point? Not to mention a bad case of chafing aggravated by pedaling due to wearing shorts with a soaking wet chamois through the entire push. I won’t do that again. But the final 25 miles were a neck-stiffening, nonstop 30+ MPH downhill; no complaints there, save for being buzzed by 4x4s too close for comfort and too many times on HWY 39. The downhill was another almost comical moment to reflect upon how the mind tends to want to be anywhere but where it is, hopping like a flea and grasping for whatever it can find. When climbing you dream of descents; when the neck stiffens on descents, you dream of getting off the bike…
And then there are those precious moments when you shut all that noise down and embrace whatever is happening because you’re simply alive.
The real work was in the canyon, on foot. Mileage is all over the place; Harrison maps place the canyon at about 16 miles. CalTopo says the route is a bit over 14. Google Earth closer to 20. Regardless, all of the riding I was hoping to be able to do was quickly shut down and I found myself pushing continually from the first miles. And soon the terrain was rough enough that pushing became the wrong descriptor. Pushing implies the bike is working with me and rolling…but this was a battle. Bowling ball sized rocks, tangles, blowdowns, countless river crossings, and occasional boulders the size of cars, requiring pressing the bike overhead and climbing them.
The stupidity of pushing the bike through this canyon grew quite strong, pace being reduced to 1 MPH at best. Crossings were deep and fast enough in places that the bike was knocking me over if when I foolishly placed it upriver. In most places the canyon became so choked that walking in the river became the only reasonable choice; the banks only offered thorns, punctured tires, snags, and scratched up legs. So a good deal of the hike became stumbling through submerged boulders in knee deep water, dragging the bike at my side, and hiking through an overgrown tunnel that the river cut through the trees. A perfect way to be trapped for a bear encounter.
The first time I rounded a bend and we surprised each other. I was downriver and downwind and my sound was drowned out by the rushing water. The bear exploded off the edge of the stream and went crashing up an impossibly steep hillside, showing nothing but a giant cinnamon ass with a few bare spots. I worried it would run out of climbing in the rocks above and have to come down and challenge me for space but it made it over the top and disappeared. My pace doubled while the adrenaline lasted.
The second encounter was nearly identical but more harrowing, the bear obviously overtaken by confusion. Once again we completely surprised each other. This time the bear was in the stream. It instinctively spun to run from me, as black bears typically do, but obviously felt boxed in, and wheeled around in a last-resort sort of charge that it seemed it didn’t really want to make. I obviously had no way of knowing how serious it was. This happened so fast that my only instinct was to try and put the bicycle between us and yell. The charge came alarmingly close, about 5 yards, before the bear very briefly halted, squared up, then wheeled around to run again. This time it crashed through deadfall in a panic at the riverside and went up a hill on the left bank, sitting there eyeing me from 20 yards, sniffing and licking at the wind. I can say with certainty a weapon or spray would not have helped me in the moment if I had it. Everything happened too fast. I suspect this is how any very rare physical encounter with a black bear would go, complete surprise being the main provoking factor, nullifying any chance of a coherent response.
Around this point I’d truly had enough, exhausted and coming off the high of the animal encounters. The upper East Fork is wild and lonely; deer, bear, and coyote sign everywhere, no trails or signs of people to be found. Night would be falling and I wasn’t quite as close to the climb out as I had hoped to be. I found a gravel patch not far from the Prairie Fork/Vincent Gulch junction and dropped my gear. No shelter, just a tyvek sheet, pad, and bag. It was a bit of a psychological blow to find my ramen was a no-go as I had really wanted some salty broth. My esbit tabs and stove were in the bike’s saddle bag for half the day and got rattled enough to fill my cookpot and stuffsack with white hexamine powder. Huh. Something to remember for the future. So dinner was a quart of water and a few bite-size Snickers bars before climbing into the bag and drifting into an aching sleep. Between the bike and hike, I was about 15 hours in.
Come morning I surprised myself with the wreckage I had left in the night; gear strewn everywhere, wet clothes on rocks, bike laying beside me with a rear flat tire- a scene of exhaustion. The old wreckage of a single engine plane was on a bluff just above me; it seemed like I had found a fitting spot in the dark to crash. I went about patching my rear tire at the stream, searching for punctures in the tube. I quickly found 5 and stopped looking; I had four patches left and a single tube. Thankfully yesterday’s patches on the front had held well enough, though there was a slow leak. I calculated that I’d better push it out of the canyon with the flat and save my last tube for the ride out.
I escaped the madness of pushing through rock and canyon rather quickly, intersecting the trail climbing out of the canyon in an hour or two. The next three hours were up, up, up with a flat bike. I met a bear hunter on his way in to check his trail cams; he was quite excited about my experiences, not surprised in the slightest about the bear density. It’s a wild, seldom traveled stretch in the upper reaches where I found them, chokecherry and manzanita covering the slopes above the river and creating a perfect, lonely habitat. When I explained the bike push I was met with “I’ve done some crazy shit up here but…” and a shaking head. No doubt. I would be fairly surprised to meet anyone else that has done this.
Pushing the bike into the Vincent Gap trailhead and parking lot became surreal, emerging from a wild dream-world into one of cars and Boy Scout troops gathering to mount assaults on Mt. Baden-Powell. I dealt with mechanicals on the bike in the dust under a conifer, discovering a ripped cable at the rear derailleur. Fortunately I was able to jam and ziptie it into a climbing gear. Seriously weighing the idea of asking someone for a ride down the mountain, my mind drifted to the times when I had feared I wouldn’t be able to do this. As the pushing hell of the canyon and its bears drifted into illusion, I reminded myself that so to would the ride home.
Walking into a taco stand stand at the bottom of the mountain, stinking, bruised, and dehydrated, I quietly laughed as I scarfed a plateful of asada tacos and a large Coke. I reveled in the stupidity of it.
Out of the Dreamtime and back into the world.