Monday, December 22, 2014

Shifting down

Pressing against a headwind, 26 miles in two hours, still I'm happy and grateful for the sun and blue sky over the Pacific. It seems like the right place to put a foot down, where Highway 1 turns inland and begins to climb. Last chance to eat something before the push. This will be the end of the wind.

The bike doesn't make much noise, but stopped it is quieter still, a hushed and spatial quiet. Just a few small birds, softly chuffing somewhere in the vast matrix of the forest, talking to themselves. Perhaps a northern flicker, a winter wren, or chickadee.

In winter the earth breathes slower, taking its time. The trees and grass idle their energy-making machines, conserving fuel, tending their roots. All metabolisms gradually slow. The hawk and bear roam less and sleep more, yielding territory to the gentler birds, rabbits, and deer. 

Tourists also keep to their native habitats. This stretch of road, remote by Bay Area standards, is well-trafficked in summer as a famous segment of Highway 1, the Lost Coast. In winter it carries occasional, cautious locals and a few pilgrims. Like the clean-cut guy from Canada on his way south, topping off his truck outside the tiny store in Westport. He was shaking his head in awe of its rigorous twisting, tacking, sloping, and general unruliness. People like to make it through here from Leggett in their cars, these 22 miles. Tell the story and feel accomplished on the way to easier, more populated places. 

Having less daylight for navigation is all part of the restorative process. Winter is my favorite season. I do not need to be comfortable, or the truth to be obvious. I will suffer and dig.

And yet, a soft animal heart desperately wants to reach Leggett before night falls. It does not want to be alone on a dark, narrow road through the forest, in rugged terrain far from help. It wants to avoid jeopardy of any kind. 

Lingering one moment after the banana disappears will force the obvious. It will get dark out here, and before Leggett. Exactly where that might happen becomes a mental game. An obsession, a math problem. The first climb is shorter than the second, and shorter in this direction compared with the other side. Hills are asymmetrical; the earth is uneven. 

Two miles up, not bad, three miles down, that's 5 miles. What is left? 17 miles. How far to the second summit? Reach in daylight? 

Through Hales Grove, passing the rusty machinery and the dirty white single-wide, my mind runs back and forth like a slide rule, tracking the odometer and calculating how long the second climb, the long one, could possibly be. Subtract from Leggett, on that side it's 4.3 miles to the top. That little run-up beforehand. Afterwards it rolls for ~3 miles. 8 miles that don't need climbing. Good.

It comes down to this: every gentle mile along the creek is one that doesn't need to be climbed. Finally, where the grade ticks up those 9 possible miles have become less than 6. Everything is quantified and known. It is dusk at the bottom where I down-shift, and at the top where it starts to roll, night has fallen on the ridge. 

Descending in the dark. For some reason the thought brings a fresh wave of panic. When I was growing up no one ever did this. Even with strong lights, reflective leg bands, and loads of experience. Somehow my instincts are on fire, as if everything were brand new. I grip the bars and relax my shoulders. Stay methodical and control the bike, track the few cars that need to pass, behave predictably. I need to do these things and do them well. They are incompatible with panic.

Without trying, my thoughts conjure Martin on the roads in Sweden, where it's often dark. He rides for months on end like this. For him and his buddies it is completely normal, the black sky, the absence of sun, deep winter. They ride in the middle of nowhere in the dark all the time!

Just like that, the bubble pops and is gone. The panic, it was a dream. I'm home, in the forests of Northern California. A nighttime brevet with company on the road, it feels like one of those. Not alone. 

Looking up, the sky is heavy with stars. 

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