Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Unfinished business

Normally I don't do yard work for fun.
When we got home from vacation, there was lots of unfinished business waiting. By definition, it was stuff I'd rather not do and rather not face. If this was the fun stuff that gives energy rather than sapping it, the stuff that makes life worth living, I'd have found a way to take care of it immediately.


Well, not quite. There were several exceptions. One, my financial person had switched company affiliations so there was a stack of paper with little colored Sign Here arrows sticking out. Oh no, not again... meaningless paperwork.

And there was that legal matter. The last one from the accident. Legal matters hurry for no one - in fact, it is a well-understood strategy they must teach in law school, how to make things take As Long As Possible. Unlikely though it seems, there was progress on that front.

Lies, abuse and surly silence for years. Now, progress. The thought of closing all that off and being done with it lifted me up. There I was, blowing leaves around the back yard, making little piles. Making everything neat and beautiful.

There was a meeting, followed by more stupid lawyer games. While the insurance company seemed ready to deal, its partner in crime (my former employer) was not. I was fighting a constant urge to speak my mind. I wanted them to admit what they put me through. There was a repeating loop in my head, about the law and accountability. If people are accountable, corporations have to be too. But I could say nothing.

Then, the day came.

It wasn't enough money, by any stretch. They didn't admit to a thing. But pay they did.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Se reposer

The rain feels like an old friend I haven't seen in years.

Three weeks ago now, I left home. On Sunday morning after a tough Mt. Tam Double, I unhitched the Waterford and put it in the padded case. Said goodbye to Bella (on the bed) and Danny (at the curb at SFO) and loaded myself, the clumsy bike blob, and a red duffle into an aluminum tube bound for Paris. No small project, that.

The idea was to get there early and get over jet lag which seems to take forever now. And significantly, figure out if, if, IF a person who can't ingest gluten can even survive in France.

In short, to get my bearings.

The first two weeks sped by, working from a "hot desk" in the Paris office. Yes, working! I felt like a flame-eater, juggling projects on fire and timezones and jet lag, until I was choking on my own effort. Trying to be a good Airbnb guest, trying not to get too lost, trying not to get sick from food (or anything else). Succeeded at all these things...mostly.

The third week was Paris-Brest-Paris. Which is literally one thing after the next. From landing in the western suburbs on Friday afternoon, to taking care of all the administrative stuff, to riding from control to control, within the time limits. Without crashing. Or eating gluten.

Oh, what a circus!

Danny arrived, and we decamped to Burgundy for a couple of days. I slept in the car. Then we headed for a B&B in a remote little valley near Grenoble...

...where it happened to be raining. Real rain, wet stuff coming down for hours. We did not feel it was ruining our vacation. Rain has been rare lately in California. Beyond hydrology, rain does this great thing.

It says slow down, be patient. Do not charge up a mountain pass on a bike, or on foot for that matter. Do not explore historical ruins, or picturesque villages. Do not seek adventure. The world does not need you to move around right now. Stay put!

And that's what happened. We had a rest day. We stayed indoors, in our comfortable and beautifully renovated room, gazing across the field at a rock, and the changing light. The only sound was the rain coming down. We read, and took a nap. The only thing on the calendar was dinner (delicious and gluten free).

Try doing that in Paris, or during a 1200K. Or at home.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The more it slips away

The more you try to control something, the more it slips away
   -Jorge Aguirre, personal trainer and former Marine

Marly-le-Roi is all traces and outlines now. A study in negative spaces. They say nothing here, not any more.

At the end of the path and up the hill, that flat spot is where the chateau used to be. Lavish all-night parties. Over there were the guest cottages. Ponds full of fish. A pool just for horses, where they could lean down to drink then wade right in. Over there is the sculpture garden, what's left of it. The sculptures are too white and too perfect, because, well, they're copies. The originals are in the Louvre.

There is something that draws me to ruins. Maybe it's the stories they have to tell. Maybe it's a fascination with failure, which we hardly ever talk about. Yet there it is, the physical evidence of some human ambition, no more. Hard to deny. It took planning and desire, time and work and money. And it ended up falling to pieces and revealing all its secrets. How exactly does that happen?

Marly is a good place to ask this question, because of Louis XIV. He was at its center and we know a lot about him. The king had a system for everything; nothing left to chance. Absolute power. A highly-structured religion. The manicured, scripted expressions of art, architecture, horticulture, and music at court. The hierarchy of titles in the nobility, along with wealth, appearance, reputation, gender, lineage. A system of protocol for human behavior, rigid and unforgiving.

French, a complicated language that was not widely spoken. Even in France.

Everything you saw here, every interaction you had, reminded you of the king. So much control! If you received an invitation, it meant you had an in with him. You had mastered the complicated layers of systems, as a member of the aristocracy you spoke French well, and so far anyway, you hadn't been caught conspiring against le Roi Soleil.

Today anyone passing by can just step over a threshold. No invitation, no hard work conforming or scheming, nothing like that. Anyone can have the silence and solitude and bird calls. Free, unfettered, temporary. The sky is wide open, for your thoughts to run wild.

For some reason, it gives me faith. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

All fall down

What is this...a European beech? That would be my guess. A shallow, spreading root system, multiple trunks with scaly red-grey bark. It's been growing here a long time and each tree is unique, making it hard to say for sure.

It is an old tree, from the roots and bark and height. Its genus and species may be uncertain but its origins are not. This tree and all its neighbors were planted and cultivated by human beings starting around the year 1670. Which means it can't be more than 350 years old.

If it is a European beech, it has found the perfect spot: a steep slope overlooking a humid valley. While individual trees have lasted for 300 years, their normal lifespan is more like 150-200 years. It's likely a descendant of an original tree that was a seedling in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Happily for me, traveling the shady paths on a summer afternoon, the trees of Marly-le-Roi are flourishing. Of the human beings who used to live and visit here there is barely a trace.
Dans les années 1670 Louis XIV a fait construire un château non loin de Versailles à Marly-le-Roi. Son intention était d'avoir une demeure où il pourrait se détendre entouré seulement de quelques courtisans loin du faste de Versailles. Bien sûr, comme à Versailles le château était entouré de bassins, de statues et de fontaines majestueuses. Aujourd'hui il ne reste plus que le parc et quelques statues, le château et les bâtiments annexes ont été entièrement détruits. 
It was the private bolt hole of Louis XIV, the seventeenth century monarch who did not share my socialist worldview. He built a luxurious, exclusive theme park full of statues, pools, and sculptures. Not to mention a small chateau.

Louis discovered Marly and bought the estate in 1676. Work began the following year. He was tired of Versailles, which was full of noblemen and official French values. He wanted a retreat for himself and a select few whom he favored with an invitation.

Originally, it was a deep valley and a swamp. There was an abundance of ground water, even drinking water for the royal table, something that Versailles lacked. The location was secluded, and the estate as it took shape was on a modest scale compared with Versailles. Buildings and pavilions and pools and gardens were distributed across the property, not concentrated in one area as a display of wealth and power. The bald patches I saw in the clearings are the footprints of former buildings.

If you want to read more about what Marly was like, check out this blog post from a boutique architecture firm in Paris. If you want just a quick snapshot, in 1724 the estate looked something like this:

You can imagine the size of the crew tasked with maintaining the grounds and buildings! So many projects were going on day and night that visitors imagined fairies must be roaming the estate, transforming it:
Where I left a lake, I find a grove and a bosquet; where I left a forest, I find a large basin, into which some thirty admirably beautiful carp will be released this evening.
   -Madame de Maintenon
Some of the trees and plants were grown on site but many were transplants, brought in from elsewhere. Almost everything, including the carp, was imported (except water). There must have been a steady procession of delivery vehicles coming through the gates.

Louis spent copious amounts of money; Marly cost at least as much as Versailles. The complete reworking of a landscape was costly and complicated to maintain. The method of selecting guests was complicated. The custom machine for moving water around was complicated. At the end of the day, it could not be sustained.

Ruines d'une terrasse dans le parc de Marly, c. 1780 Hubert Robert
During the summer and fall of 1789, instead of fairies it was starving, angry peasants who were roaming the countryside near Paris. Versailles was heavily guarded, Marly was more vulnerable and already in decline. The buildings were pillaged and left to ruin. Many of the statues were removed to Paris as a defensive measure (where they ended up in the Louvre). A few years later the chateau was sold to an industrialist. He turned it into a cotton mill and then a factory for making bedsheets.

When the factory failed, the entire chateau was demolished and its stones and lead from the roof and any other materials of value were sold. The following year, Napoleon Bonaparte bought the property on behalf of the state. When that empire dissolved in 1815, Marly was abandoned to the elements. Nature transformed it from a fabulous retreat to a set of ruins to a walled garden to a wall. Only the trees were equipped to survive.

The workers who planted them and changed the bulbs in the flower beds daily and swapped the giant carp from one pond to another at the whim of the Sun King, do you think they knew this was coming?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

An open door

Suppose you were pushing a bicycle up a big hill on a warm, sleepy afternoon and saw this. What would you do? Would you press on, or put a foot down and investigate?

To tell the truth - and the truth is important - this isn't exactly what I saw. It was the view from the other side of the wall, the street side. A motorized scooter parked on the cobblestone entryway, just out of sight, inviting me in. Essentially pointing to the open door saying 'people can go in here'. The stone wall stretches for at least a kilometer, delineating something. It might very well be private property but there's that open door.

Across the threshold, paths and greenery and open space in all directions. Where trees meet the sky, a definite horizon. There's no kiosk at the entrance, no admissions fee, no parking lot. There are no buildings at all, no cars or humans. Am I dreaming? Is this really the outskirts of Paris?

It's that dead time between noon and 2pm. This door is probably not the main entrance and somewhere out of sight its guardians are enjoying a fabulous lunch on a terrace. I move forward cautiously. A bounded space that's not entirely wild, not tamed or manicured, tended but apparently not owned. What is it?

The Waterford handles itself with grace on the paths, which lead through the trees from one clearing to the next. It steers nicely around a few humans out for a walk. With hardly any loss of traction, it bears me with speed and security to the heart of this massive, understated park. It almost feels like cheating to travel in such an efficient way and I fully expect a shout of outrage from an authority figure. But none comes. This is France, land of the bicycle. It appears to be completely legal.

A clearing gives a view of a small lake, with two or three clusters of picnickers sitting at the edge. There are intermittent bare patches in the grass, all rectangular in shape. There's a sculpture garden with classical, stone figures.

It's enormous and beautiful. I spend a lovely hour, wandering and reading signs. They are in French, which I'm grateful to be able to read, with a hand-drawn map that makes absolutely no sense. The chateau? There's no chateau here...

This is Marly-le-Roi. Never heard of it. The town on the other side of the door had the same name. I do find a museum (closed until 3) at the edge of the property, at the main entrance. I leave happy, but confused as hell.

On the other side

Word to the wise: do not just hop on your bike and ride out of Paris. The city itself is plenty bike-friendly, after years of effort. The suburbs, not so much. Really not at all.

And don't try to escape with just a smartphone. What if it is Saturday morning and you've been jet-lagged and starved for exercise all week. A Garmin (which you don't have) is mandatory. Better yet, a train to carry you past all the bad stuff to the outer reaches of Gotham.

Otherwise you'll be miserable, somewhere like here, in the no man's land past La Defense. No end in sight, scared, and incurring the wrath of drivers as they swerve around you in the narrow lane.

Never mind the Parc Vexin, wherever it is in this mess. How am I going to make it back to the apartment safely? Not by this route! So how?

Finally a sign for an RER and Metro station. Blue block letters in a blue circle. Huge relief. This one says it's Maisons-Lafitte; any one will do. I'm almost in tears, I'm so relieved. Yes, yes. I'll train it back into the city. No need to do that thing again. No need to figure out what went wrong, either. It's a kind of urban mercy.

The next worry: my phone's battery is draining fast. Google Maps shows some green space up ahead. I'll ride in that direction, holding onto the bearings of the train station. Just being able to spin and relax, it feels good.

The green space turns out to be St-Germain-en-Laye. Well really, this:
Les jardins du chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (La Defense in the background)
The formal gardens of a very old chateau.

Not being a cathedral person and not a castle person either, whenever possible I steer clear. (In California, this is easy.) For example, never been to Versailles. Couldn't care less about Louis XIV. All that splendor and corruption comes tumbling down eventually. You think you're so great and then, dust underfoot. Just wait long enough.

The same goes for formal gardens. All that control...who wants it? I long for the unruly nature just beyond the boundary. My eye is drawn there, and then I follow.

It is definitely quieter here, more peaceful. There is a calming force to arranged beauty. It's orderly! Taking a moment of respite in the green space,  I wonder about its stories. Who else rested here, how did this manicured thing with trees all in rows come to be? It took a lot of human labor to do all this.

(That's another thing - the people who invested their energy in building these places did not get to enjoy them.)

There is more than one reason places like this exist. Ego, for one. You need a really big open space to show off your really big wealth. Yet it also feels as if whoever decided to build a compound here might have needed something calm and apart. An antidote to the crowded urban center. A blank canvas where they could express themselves more freely than back there across the river.

The rest of today's accidental route will usher me past not one but two more massive royal estates, Marly-le-Roi and Versailles. I'll never be completely on board; for me the exaggerated display of luxury will never be magical, like Disneyland. I still won't pay to go inside the castle. My heart will be with the people who had to plant the trees.

But now I kind of get why they're here.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Body and soul, partie 3

A crowd of people roams along the river, migrating in a pack toward the Ile de la Cite. People of scattered backgrounds, destinations, interests who have never met. Our paths nevertheless overlap. It's both warm and dark, the richness of summer in a northern latitude.

In Paris, when the sun goes down things are just getting started. Anything can happen... the night is young! This is the time when the workers of Silicon Valley normally scuttle back home, cozy up in a media room, and fire up the electronics for an evening with Netflix, or Amazon Prime. When Danny and I go for a walk at night, the streets are quiet and lonely except for the dog owners. The houses are dark but sometimes a window is glowing blue.

You have to come to Paris to be with fellow humans. Along the quai, we are illuminated by streetlamp, and starlight. We wait at intersections to cross, en masse. Pass a narrow footbridge over the river where a band has set up, playing with sincerity and without artifice, for tips. People cluster around them. It feels very basic and right, almost primeval.

A guy bumps into me from behind, and apologizes nicely. He blames looking down at his smartphone. I smile, why not? Practice my French, which is just starting to come back. I work for the company making the software for the smartphone that caused the collision. And I'm not proud of it, but my hands go down to my purse to make sure it's intact.

It is.

Thus begins a friendly conversation. French people talk a lot. So much! It's dizzying, rapid fire in English and French. It's that weird language duel where both of you are determined to show off your skills. And this guy has way more practice. I hang around introverts, engineers. We're trying our best to be invisible. We're trying not to know each other. In France, conversation is a competitive sport.

About 10 minutes in, I realize my talkative companion is rather focused on me and this might not be a random encounter. No smartphone in sight. This lovely man, who spends his days wheeling handicapped travelers around Aeroport Charles de Gaulle and his evenings apparently giving informal walking tours of the Left Bank. Yes, he is out for a casual stroll on a summer night. But he's also thinking, the night is young.

He likes to dance. Would I like to dance by the river? His hand goes to my arm and gently whirls me around. I'm off-guard and it's the most awkward twirl ever. But my purse is safe and it's dark and no one knows me here. Still I feel deeply embarrassed, like the geeky girl at the school dance. Everything else about this scene might be different, but I'm still me.

A few minutes later, I let him go. It makes me smile from the inside, and go on smiling, an endless secret smile in the dark. What a cheeky, harmless caper! And how unexpected, a stranger's gift - the gift of being seen in a crowd.

Body and soul, partie 2

This is the truth, what she really looks like, the Seine at dusk. No retouching, no magic wand, no beauty aids. 

It is evening, early August. Outside the air is just the right temperature for strolling without a jacket. Many people are doing just that; walking along the river, across the river on the Pont Neuf or one of its sisters. Some of us finding the stone stairs right down to the water itself, where you can pass close to the houseboats and the floating bars with terraces, their chalkboards listing the offerings du jour. 

The open decks look inviting. Most of the boards offer libations; they all look good, but I'm burning off the wine from dinner. Another reason to walk: the thought of sitting alone, with a view fit for a king or queen and no one to share it with. 

The river draws a multitude, but no one from my life. It feels really strange to be alone. On the other hand, the apartment is off-limits tonight. Jean-Baptiste is throwing a huge bash for his girlfriend's birthday. It's a bacchanal, with food, drink, loud music, strangers. The excess shows that he loves her, or maybe that they're so young. I'm staying away.

After a few minutes, I find a worthy spot and sit there on the edge of the Left Bank, watching the dark river. Watching the light of the day fade slowly, slowly. On the quay there are families with kids, couples, a few singles. Many languages being spoken. But there's no tourist queue to grow old in, no sweaty and unruly crowd to wade through, no gaudy souvenir stands with stuff made in China (Le Chat Noir! Le Tour Eiffel!).

The soul of a place can't be bought and taken someplace else, taken with us. It is not a thing. These few moments watching the river, watching the sky and the buildings between river and sky, this might be all we have. 

The word exists in French: passe-temps. The Romans who settled far from home in the boondocks of Lutetia, they must have done this simple thing. The peasants who wrought their fury in the Revolution, the artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many whose names are known only to a few, maybe only to their families. All of us.

The sky gathers colors and transforms. Sightseeing boats drift by, several per minute, quickly, as if they have someplace else to be. The larger ones look like they might have casinos and dance floors and other luxuries. All are lit within, giving a good view of the people on deck and at tables in the dining rooms. Some of the boats have external floodlights that they shine on the river banks and the undersides of bridges, even at us. 

The lights swing around, the people change one position for another on the boats. We sit there in the almost-dark, part of the backdrop. We sit there taking it in.

Body and soul

On Day 5, I feel somewhat human.

Until now I've been staying close to home, wearing a groove in the pavement between the apartment and the office. It's at most ~300 meters, 100 as the crow flies.

In Paris, the neighborhood streets radiate like bicycle spokes from a central plaza, the local hub. It's the classic design. In this case, the plaza was the Place d'Estienne d'Orves. A real mouthful!  I managed to avoid invoking its name. And chaotic! Its crazy traffic and busy intersections were something to avoid; I traversed it only when strictly necessary.

Luckily, crossing the Place d'Estienne d'Orves was not required to get to work. From the door of the building where I was staying, it was a simple route.

You crossed the street and tacked left to the corner near the Bistro des Deux Theatres, skirted the side of the Ecole des Garcons, curving behind the Eglise de la Trinite. Then you crossed on the diagonal, tacking left on Rue Clichy toward the bistro Vert Tulip (watch the cars), turning hard right again onto Rue de Londres.


Parisians have their well-defined routes. I felt validated on the way to and from the office, observing other humans doing the same crazy zigzag tango. They walked quickly and purposefully, head down, in that way, giving it a certain grace. Sometimes I recognized a fellow traveler. Bon!

Having mastered the routine, and now (mostly) sleeping at night, it was time to venture forth. I felt up to it. Feeling adult, I left work at 6:30, walked to the Metro, bought a token, got on a train. I texted my niece Laura. That place, the restaurant we went to in 2007 with the group. You know the one. Is this it?

A text came back: mmm maybe. Then, bless her heart, a few minutes later she found the real place. Chez Fernand. It was early; they fit me in. One for dinner? No problem.

Chez Fernand is easy to mistake for a classic French bistro. Visually, it's a dead ringer: ground floor with vaulted ceilings, red-checked tablecloths, convivial ambiance. The menu is in French (English on the flip side). The food is fresh, stylish, delicious.

Yet just like last time, as I look around the dining room almost no one is actually French. The service is so accommodating, so warm, that foreigners seek it out. Stumble with your French? No problem, we speak English. Need to know if there's flour in the sauce? No problem, we're savvy to gluten-free.

You can see why this is the place I chose for my first real night out.

I order the beef and a glass of Crozes-Hermitage (in French). If I had failed, used the wrong verb form or tense or something, it would have been OK, no shame.

They bring the food; marvelous. All week I've been dining chez work and the simple places around the Place d'Estienne d'Orves. At home I would be raving. Now all I have to do is sit here and eat solo gracefully, pretending the world is my oyster.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Blé noir

Paris in August is hot and crowded. I swore I'd never do this again.

Not only here again, but 2 weeks early...why is that? Not for vacation, nor the privilege of mingling with hordes of tourists. To tell the truth it feels a little weird. It feels weird carrying a laptop bag around the streets of the 9th, and stopping at a tiny supermarket for provisions on the way home. Just like one of the locals (not).

Two weeks to learn how to eat here. When my manager heard what I was doing, he said "France, isn't that the land of bread? Bakeries? Sandwiches?" He wishes he could work out of the Paris office, he's a little jealous. But no one would wish this project on themselves. La baguette, la quiche, la sauce, la brioche, le croissant, la crepe. Gluten free, and mostly dairy-free? Nearly impossible.

I need something in my favor and that thing might be the system. There is a formula to many things in France including food. This was a lesson from touring in 2003 and 2007. If a town was just big enough to have something, it would have a little Cocci market or Petit Casino. If it had a place with tables and chairs, here's the order of likelihood: a bar, a pizza restaurant w/a little of everything, a creperie, a real cafe. 

Since I don't know where I'll be when hunger strikes, and hunger is a constant for cyclists, the project is to figure out how to eat in as many of these institutions as possible. In advance, not when hungry and tired. 

The closest store to the apartment is the little Franprix on Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. It has a happy orange banner with its name out front. I do my best to look normal. Except I'm reading labels. Scanning the ingredients of prepared foods, looking for dinner. Looking for those patterns. 

It is tedious and uncertain work. French already has a lot of words that mean similar things. There is a forest of words for wheat and flour and glutinous grains like épeautre (spelt) and boulgour (bulgur).

Then after only a few minutes, a hit!
Unbelievably, these crepes don't contain any wheat flour! Just the blé noir, farine de blé sarrasin, buckwheat (which is gluten-free).

Can't believe my luck. Thanks to some pesky invaders of the 9th century this package is coming home with me. And creperies are on the map! 

Hey, Paris

She was always the popular girl that everyone loved. She's so beautiful, so romantic, so well-dressed! Everyone loved Paris except me.

What I saw was copious traffic and snobbery. Wealth and power. Tour buses, armies of tourists. Dirt on the buildings and dog poop on the sidewalks. The smell of pee. Hypocrisy, noise, smog. The occasional tree choking under tons of pavement.

I don't exactly remember the conversation. How or when I told my manager that I'd be working from the Paris office for a couple of weeks. Like the rest of the arrangements for Paris-Brest-Paris, it just kinda happened. I registered on the last possible day. I bought a plane ticket (with trepidation, because Air France). I looked up the office location on Google Maps and found a place nearby on airbnb.

Need time to get over jet lag, I said. Need to learn how to eat gluten-free in France (of all places). All true.

Need to flee a thing at work that no one can talk about. An acquisition of sorts. With consequences and politics and stress. Feelings of helplessness. Need lots of exercise, a change of scenery. Naturally, riding Paris-Brest-Paris for the fifth time. At least it's good for my brain. At least I can control the bike. It's better than being here.

Something else has to be said about Paris. It's a fabulous place to escape to. Once you remember some French. Once you stop waking up at 3am. Taking melatonin, then sleeping like a dead person until 10 or 11. Using the shower to get conscious. Fumbling around to get dressed. Stress testing the coffee machines at the office. (Ceramic espresso cups!)

After a plane trip the hangover goes on and on and on. Hey, a party girl needs a place to crash.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Contre la pluie

Paparazzi, take note: I'm no fan, either in the moment or afterwards, when photos eventually surface on social media or say, the official web site of Paris-Brest-Paris.

This one had a humorous caption: De quoi contre la pluie (something to protect against the rain).

There's enough going on to distract anyone, and the truth is I've forgotten about the shower cap. Jonathan and I are in Loudeac, Brittany at 1:30am, surveying the elements of a much-needed meal: roast chicken, potatoes, haricots verts.

It's August 2011, 2.5 years after the accident. I've realized I need to take steps to help myself and it might be a struggle. There's denial about how long the process might take.

By then it's also clear that exercise helps. A lot. Wouldn't more exercise help even more?

My brain was against it. Strong negative thoughts: no way could I ride a 1200K again. No way! I could stick to a routine, but it only took small variations for everything to go haywire: appointments and meetings, everyday items like keys, water bottles, mood. I was that person, holding up the airport security line. At work I could barely keep up and things were about to get much, much tougher.

It seemed hopeless. Therefore, I had to try.

Six months of training and qualifying and registering. Somehow, before dawn at the start line a fourth time. Riding hard and long the first day, again. With the theory that it would be good for the brain. Something familiar. Well-stocked controls. Thousands of riders, arrows at every turn. Hard to get lost...

After five hours on the road, it did seem that way. Mortagne-au-Perche at mile 100, only 650 to go. Un morceau de gateau!

The weather wouldn't be perfect; some rain was likely. It gave one day's warning on the radar maps, a crescent-shaped front moving in from the Atlantic towards Brittany, towards us....

On the road heading out from Paris we could see the clouds getting thicker, grayer. And there was a smell in the air, humidity and freshness. As the day wore on, it was a little too warm for my safety vest.

Then forty miles down the road the first thunderstorm cell burst, over Villaines-la-Juhel. Instead of getting back on the bike and heading out, I headed back into the control. Found stuff to do. Loitered and fiddled, waiting it out.

In the beautiful countryside of the Mayenne we rode straight into the second cell. Lightning flashed over a field in the distance. Then, closer, then outrageously close. We were surrounded by farms and pastures, nothing taller than a cyclist for many miles. Thunder booming and rain pelting down, epic angry torrents of rain.

All of us have cycled plenty in the rain. This is different. The road has dissolved into a mob of furious drops. The world is in shades of light and medium grey; no recognizable shapes. We're essentially blind.

The drops have so much mass, so much momentum they feel like pins against my face. It's painful to move forward. No way around it... try pointing your gaze slightly down and staying on the road, try riding like that. Thankfully, the few passing cars give us lots of room.

At some point, on goes the shower cap. Why not?

No one imagined the next 12 hours would be like this. The front was running exactly parallel to the course.  From the first dim flash in the distance, we knew the next cell was on its way to us. We learned the pattern, resigned ourselves to it. We were going to ride through the whole beast, this thing covering the entire sky.

We stayed in groups, wheels offset to avoid the spray. No one mentioned fenders; normal measures were not doing a lick of good. Together we were larger and less vulnerable, statistically speaking. If lightning struck, it might pick the rider next to you. There was a chance.

I lost count of how many cells we rode through. Coming into Loudeac, the last one was winding down. It poured on the descents into town, soaking the fences and barns and pastures, the road slick and black stretching out ahead.

It dialed back to regular rain and as we ate dinner, became an epic misty fog. 160 miles of jeopardy and misery and mortal fear. That's what is on my face in the photo. It brings back not only that day four years ago, that struggle to survive, but the entire experience of trying to survive and recover since the accident. All the days since then.

Storms are a metaphor that's used for recovery from some brain injuries. The ones that don't resolve completely, or right away. It's an iterative process that takes every bit of energy you throw at it. Sometimes it feels like the storm is following me. It's moving along the same track, and it covers the sky, and no one can really say when we'll be free of each other.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Parts is parts

Four hours on the bike today.


Randonneurs are a restless lot, on the whole. It might be a good thing that bicycles need maintenance. It keeps us home once in a while, in the garage. Doing something other than riding. We ride enough to wear things out.

On went a new chain and cassette, with coaching and some muscle from Danny. Adjusted the seat, because a loose bolt flew off somewhere on a road in Northern California. This made the seat tilt backwards, not a comfortable position.

Replaced the computer battery. Its display promptly came back to life, even the backlight! Danny had suggested it was dead and needed throwing away. No way - it came from Route 66. A new battery and a few nudges with the end of a paperclip and it is resurrected, speaking kilometers per hour and Central European Summer Time.

Replaced the handlebar bag. The previous one split a seam 3 months in; no endurance. Back to REI. It holds all the placebos: gels, lip balm, salt tabs, and (yes) OTC meds. Wallet. A little tube of sunscreen. An extra Larabar (or 3). A tiny cloth soaked with Windex. Repack it all.

New Continentals, front and rear. Off comes the rear tire, that same weary specimen that collected a piece of glass and went astray in the dark between Fort Bragg and Philo. Tires should not have stories to tell.

Now, in the hot summer sun, I take a good look and see a big horizontal cut, shallow. Another deeper gash in the tread. These wounds are new, from 2 weeks ago. The Official Spot of Sorrow on 101 where Jack's tire got sliced.

The front tire is whole but completely used up, floppy and tired. Into the bin.

Where the wire connects my headlight to the front hub, the connector looks loose and unreliable; turns out it was stuck on there good. New electrical tape. Test the light; still works. Gussy up the lamp with some stainless steel polish. Gotta look in the mirror.

Go through the tool kit. Make sure everything in there is strictly needed. No artifacts of spare tubes deployed months ago. Make sure nothing's missing. Touch every piece. Get rid of that extra little chain tool; no one needs two. Lighten up! But at least one tire boot...

Replace the spare rear light with one from Portland that's impervious to moisture. Check the spare headlamp. Batteries still good.

Wipe away the sand, dust, grime, grease, dirt. Clean it all with a rag and Simple Green. It will get dirty again, soon enough. I'm not much for clean, but this bike is getting taken apart and put in a box.

Honestly, it's sweaty, hard work. Exhausting! Four hours in the garage and I'm beat.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inside out

Our biggest weakness is our greatest strength waiting to be told well.
                                                                             - A high school art teacher I never had

One theme of this blog is reuse. The old roads are more interesting and you still get there. The brain is plastic, so a person can reinvent themselves. With much help and encouragement, it's been possible to quilt things back together after a brain injury. It's not quite the same life I had before. In many ways it's better.

But right now, we turn away from stories of the road and toward a more practical topic: double-shorting. Because no matter what the journey, you need survival skills.

Anyone who has spent hours that turn into days on a saddle knows the padding in a bike short is a mixed blessing. The chamois that feels soft and plush at first against your skin, and that you paid big money for because face it, the rest of the short is less than a yard of black Lycra, can turn on you. 

With repetition (much), with moisture and maybe some salt, this best friend on a bike can become a fearsome enemy, an unsolvable problem, a source of constant pain. 

There's nothing complicated or secret or proprietary about double-shorting. Yet for some reason, it is rarely practiced among people who spend hours on end in the saddle. One reason might be that it's hard to explain. Every time I've tried to use words to describe it, the listener walks away confused. They give me the benefit of the doubt. But they don't understand how this simple technique works. And my enthusiasm might come off as slightly eccentric...

So today we will not only speak of double-shorting; we will show double-shorting. With photos!

There's no law of the universe saying a cyclist must wear one, and only one, pair of bike shorts at a time...

For two pairs of shorts to play well together, I find it helps if they're different brands, with different seam patterns and chamois designs. If one of them can be a little shorter in the leg than the other, you might avoid double elastic competing for space on your quad muscle. Which can feel like a tourniquet....

So, you've rummaged around in your shorts drawer and found 2 pair that are not the same. Now, slip on that first pair with the shorter leg, but inside out.

That's correct, inside out! Look, you can see the chammy!

Have you ever dreamed about going to school or work naked or in your pajamas and wandering around like that? Yes it looks funny but trust me, it will be OK. When we're done here no one will know.

This is an old pair of Bellwether shorts with a cheap chammy from back when "shorty" shorts were a thing. When Spinning and girl cyclists, for that matter, were new. The black material is tough but thin; that's another bonus.

These are Spinning shorts, commute shorts, second-string shorts. Great as part of a double outfit.

Now, are you ready? Time to become socially acceptable...

Over the first pair, pull on a Second Pair. Yes! This is the pair on the right in the big photo: righteous, high-quality, long-distance, gender-specific.

A short you would not hesitate to wear on a brevet or a tour. In fact, you have not own 6 pairs of these shorts, you love them so much. And you're afraid the manufacturer might stop making them. At which point you'd have to stop riding a bike.

For the curious, this is the Shebeest SSS short. The acronym stands for Shebeest Shorter Short. Despite the name, it has a slightly longer inseam than the first pair. The Lycra is thick and plush.

It also has the incredible Shebeest SheLastic chammy. Feeling oh-so-luxurious to start with and at some point after ~12 hours, turning to sandpaper scraping against your sensitive skin and parts.

Now you look totally normal! No one can tell you're wearing two pairs of shorts. And there's a whole compression thing going on for added goodness. It's like Spanx for Cyclists. No need to suck in the tummy - all done for you!

When you realize there's no chammy against your skin, none at all, just smooth Lycra you say to yourself:

This feels so good! Why didn't I think of this before?

So you can get on the bike and ride 600K or 1000K or 1200K, with only the normal intense weariness and sleep deprivation and some Lantiseptic applied at regular intervals. No chafed, raw, painful skin where you and the saddle meet. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In search of a good time

Since early March I've been riding my heart out. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Every spare moment. It has felt like a job. Not an easy job, and not one I really felt motivated to do.

Someone asked 'so why are you doing this'? Setting goals is the only way I can force myself to do the right thing: lots and lots of exercise.

People around me are riding a lot, too. Easy to get pulled in. It's a Paris-Brest-Paris year. Ride like mad or get left behind.

So, I've been riding without motivation, and without much joy. Grim, grim, grim. Longing to read and blog and vacation and... all the stuff that's not compatible right now.

Then, this happened:

Eric Norris and Jack Holmgren and Ryan Thompson are enjoying the top of a kinda short but significant climb on Middle Road. It is a luxury to stop for a moment, and no one suggests we keep moving.

At the very northern edge of Marin County, south of Valley Ford, this is our scenic alternate. We declined a section of Highway 1 full of RVs and trucks hauling boats, opting for Middle Road instead. It's rare to have a choice on a brevet, but today is different in all kinds of ways.

The guys are giggling and clowning, savoring our little slice of heaven. A narrow, beautiful, country road. A perfect Sunday afternoon. One car in 45 minutes. Lots of cows.

They're joking about the spoon I carry for eating yogurt, which has taken a header out of my seat bag onto the pavement. Not too many cyclists carry spoons, I guess. It's a quirk. But as you might guess, they all have quirks too.

Eric can grin like Wallace of Wallace and Gromit. Jack is Mr. Conspicuity, neon Lycra everywhere. It's painful to look at. Ryan's normal but he rides with the likes of us.

So here it is, my first good ride experience since March. Despite the joking and camaraderie we rode it fast: 200K, self-supported, 9.5 hours. In the morning, a group of ~8 stayed more or less together against the wind. In Bodega Bay I hauled out a GF bun from my seat bag and Diekmann's General Store proceeded to cook a hamburger to put in it. The simple burger: excellent fuel.

After lunch the sun came out. Fortified, I then found myself with 3 riders who knew the way. They turned on Middle Road, and I, you know, followed. If not for the hill, all this goodness for free.

It happens to be the Summer Solstice.

As I said to Jim on our trip to Mercey Hot Springs, you just really need one good ride to be a believer again.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Close to the sky

Twenty miles on Panoche Road, 20 miles of a pattern. Climbing for a few miles followed by a discouraging descent. Jim calling out the elevation level from his Garmin, then silence while we both buckle down and push.

For that part I could hear Jim's breathing change and imagine his fatigue; both of us have been riding so much lately. Getting up early, doing long, hard things. It has a way of wearing you down.

This morning, in shady Stevens Canyon next to the creek, the conversation was all about how to manage the impossible. On Paris-Brest-Paris and other 1200Ks, the secret to enduring and having a good ride is getting sleep. Rest, paradoxically. It changes everything.

If you work at it, you might earn some rest on a brevet. Training hard now might mean another half-hour of sleep somewhere in France, by the side of a small road like this one. When you really need it. Your weariness suddenly lifted, and optimism in its place.

On Panoche Road, in a rocky canyon that could be a cousin of some areas of Route 66 in Arizona or maybe New Mexico, the conversation has definitely shifted toward things that are out of human control, and finite.

We've been lucky with the heat. Hollister was cooler than San Jose today, by 12 degrees. It could be scorching on this road, but we've been lucky. There's some cool and wildflowers, still. Rain would be welcome but we're not going to get any from that thundercloud. For the third time today we agree it's probably the last weekend for this ride until fall. Summer's not the time to be pushing your luck out here; it's just too hot for humans.

Jim's on his dad's bike, all repainted with those nice wide tires and fenders. A big handlebar bag in the rando style. Last week he lost the last uncle on his mother's side. There have been illnesses and family members and loss. It goes on like the sky out here. We can't stop it.

Jim says with a smile, let's just focus on here and now, this road, these miles. And that's how Panoche Pass becomes just what we need.

When the flag outside the fire station shows itself at 1 o'clock, it gets a holler. Less than a mile later, we're suddenly looking at a small green rectangle, calling out the summit. A bunch of hungry cows at Summit Ranch, one of them bellowing for food.

Eight miles of fast downhill that looks utterly flat. The earth is not symmetrical, and it has its tricks.
After the left turn, the last turn, the one that leads into Little Panoche Valley, there's actually another little pass. A bump.

It gives the best view of the day.

Mercey's plain, gravel driveway is easy to miss. Danny's there, as promised, with a smile and food and clean clothes and soap. We need all those things! The rehabilitation work begins...

Later, soaking in the weird slippery water from underground that smells of sulfur and salt, the water you can't really drink but it heals whatever ails you anyway, I fall asleep under the stars.

Betrayal for Mercey

In Paicines, the market/taqueria/liquor store is trying hard to be hip enough to make fun of how small it really is. It's the center of the universe, or at least this junction, where we turn onto Panoche Road.

It's also mile 91. After a seriously tough morning, Jim wants to sit down here and have a break. Me too. The ride from Gilroy was exposed and busy. I'm after several things: quiet, cold liquid, cool shade. Basic things.
We sit outside the store with a big bottle of cold Gatorade and a big bag of Fritos and a big bag of ice for the Camelbak. My feet stop expanding against the bike shoes and compressing the nerves. Really, the only thing missing is quiet. 

Traffic streams past on the highway between Hollister and Pinnacles. Loud motorcycles and trucks, in constant motion. It's high season for road trips.

We unfold the map on the picnic table and look at the last stretch of road. The last 30-odd miles of the day. It's the Krebs bicycle map, which shows things cyclists are interested in. Like hills and water and places to eat.

Jim's pretty sure I didn't tell him about a pass between us and Panoche. I'm pretty sure I did. Anyway, there is one. We're both surprised at how high - nearly 2200'. Jim's altimeter says we're at 500 here in Paicines. So that's something...

According to the expression on his face, more than that is needed. I say look, it's one carat, one carat, one carat. Not a huge deal. There will be a fire station, then the pass. Mercey Hot Springs is off the edge of the map. Mr. Krebs knew we'd be heading there so he was kind enough to note the total mileage from Paicines: 36.5. Jim nearly falls off the splintery picnic bench.

Immediately I feel bad for leading him here, with the promise of a hot springs. It probably sounded like a mini-vacation, what was in the email. There definitely was a line encouraging him to bring his ukelele. Also something about books (plural) for me to read. These long hard rides just eat the flesh off our days. It will be dinner time before we get there.

The truth is, I don't remember much about this part from the first time I was here. Things look a lot different when you're comfortable. It was earlier in the year, earlier in the day, way less wear and tear on the legs.

And the dirt, the dirt this morning was tough, slow going. Our legs are covered in dust. Well, to be accurate there are layers: sunscreen, sweat, dust.

Two years have brought something else: work stress. Was that a different human being, who actually rode for fun?

Nothing can be done about it now. To get this project started again, I say "It's a real 200K". That's ~127 miles with no "almost" in front of it. The implication is, there will be suffering. There will be pride and bragging rights, too.

It's a truce. With full Camelbaks we head off in silence toward that huge, beautiful thunder cloud, waiting.

Making up time

Jim makes us detour into downtown Gilroy. The lunch place I picked out on the far fringe of town closed at 1, and it's currently 1:45.

We are "behind schedule". That's what happens when you descend at 7.7 miles per hour to avoid wiping out in loose sand that's just a little too deep. And dodge rocks that are slightly too big and too many to roll over.

On Route 66, bring at least 32s. Jim's bike has good, wide tires; the Waterford has 25s. Great in a rainstorm or on a packed dirt fire road like Montebello. Back there on Summit they weren't up to the task. I could see Jim's tracks winding ahead of me and could not follow them. Had to pick my own slow, uncertain path.

When there was pavement again, finally, there was relief and we both let out a little holler. Then, proceeded to make up time on the descents. On Mt. Madonna Road, suddenly forested, shady, still damp under the trees. Stunningly beautiful.

And on Hecker Pass, of which I have a vague primitive fear. Narrow, no shoulder most of the way down. Today we luck out: construction is our ally. Two stoplights slow the cars down and batch them together. This helps us keep it together until lunch.

Which is somewhere.

Jim and I have known each other a long time. We can really get on each other's nerves. For example, I'm feeling kind of peeved, dodging the Harleys and cars and people walking around on Monterey Street. It's a real main drag, crowded and noisy and hot. He jokes about there being a slight chance of us finding a place here that serves Mexican food.

Gilroy is an old, old town that was a little too eager to abandon its roots to the automobile. Most people know its car dealerships and fast food joints and gas stations and sprawling outlet mall along 101. There's a downtown?

It's a mystery, then, what draws me to the bowling alley. Its little cafe is open: Scotty's. Serving "American, Mexican, Asian, and Hawaiian food". Exactly the sort of place I'm leery of. If Jim had picked it, there would be mutiny. We lean our bikes in the little waiting area. The place is cozy and full of locals. He makes a beeline for a booth.

Both of us go for breakfast. It seems safe and comfort food goes down fast. Jim, two eggs over easy and sausage and hash browns. Me, Huevos Mexicanos (no cheese), hash browns. Iced tea. While they make the food we each hit the restroom (through the lounge) to freshen up. Our waitress was nice to us, even though I smell bad. That's the kind of place it is.

I swear, there's something about these big diner plates in the waitress' arms, landing on a clean formica table in a booth... That part is slow motion, but the eating is not. Everything is fresh-tasting, hot, delicious.

Jim's literally the fastest eater I've ever known. Fastest Fork in the West. On a bike ride, it's an unfair advantage.

At this point he says "If only I had an English muffin or something to clean my plate..." And looks deliberately around the room at the other patrons.

I roll my eyes and hand over a corn tortilla.

Something new

Jim says "I hope that's not our road, the one that goes straight up behind the gate."

It's the middle of a hot little climb from Summit Store up to the ridge. The actual ridge! The road we're looking for is dirt. There may or may not be a sign.

The usual route is paved, more or less, winding gently down along the fault past the Forest of Nisene Marks and the epicenter of the last major earthquake in the Bay Area, toward Watsonville and Monterey. That road has carried me many times southward, with full panniers and plenty of optimism...

It took me away to Route 66, but today the project is something different. Something new.

If we can just find it, the dirt road will keep us up high and away from cars. It will mysteriously lead somewhere behind Mt. Umunhum (elevation 3486), Loma Prieta (3806), and eventually over Mount Madonna (1897). It will connect with a paved road down to Gilroy at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley. It goes through; that's definitely part of the appeal.

Residents of these hills drive with some urgency. When you think about what's out here - an old radar tower, the Store, a few wineries, Christmas tree farms, churches - it's hard to understand. Propane tanks and propane trucks. A whole lot of residential solar.

What you don't see are fault lines and old railroad tunnels, pot grows and meth labs. It may be close to Los Gatos, close enough to commute. This is not suburbia.

And until recently this part of Summit was private, aggressively private. Residents would come out and chase after cyclists who dared trespass, with attitude and guns. Sometimes, dogs. The rough welcome and rough terrain got the desired result: it discouraged exploration.

Then word came, via newspaper stories and the Internet and other cyclists: now it could be done. No guns anymore, no dogs. No chasing crazies looking for a fight. That was a few years ago. What happened? What changed?

There was a fire. A crisis. It was not small and it happened right around this time of year. Lots of heroic types who built themselves something and protected it then quickly saw it destroyed. Suddenly letting outsiders in was no longer a threat. Overnight it turned into necessity, a good thing.

They even put up a sign so we might know what road this is, and where to go next. It looks relatively new. Mt. Bache Road End. Loma Prieta this way. We hang a right and follow blindly.

Excellent cell service...from the tower over there.
As the pavement ends and turns to packed dirt, the views stretch out for 50 miles all around. The Pacific, Monterey Bay, the hulking ridge of Big Sur. The valley and Diablo Range. Mt. Hamilton and south of there, the epic badlands of Henry Coe State Park.

Both Jim and I are wearing Route 66 jerseys. There is route-finding, an old road to be discovered (by us), and dirt. There is heat, too, enough to stop under an oak tree and reach for electrolytes. Very fitting.

It's uncomfortable to be dripping with sweat, noticing the scars of the fire all around, and for another reason, too.

We're doing that rare thing; exploring something new close to home. Feeling a little lost and  uncertain. It's good to have to figure things out, though. It's a challenge and as we know, challenge is good for the brain.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

So how was it?

How was your 600K? After years of riding 600Ks, a dozen or more of them, it's still nice to be asked.

A 600K is basically 2 double centuries on consecutive days. Saturday and Sunday, a weekend spent almost totally on the bike.

During this one we rode from the Golden Gate Bridge to the former lumber town and seaport of Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast... and back again. Yes it is a long way, long enough to defy summaries. Long enough to go off-script. Long enough to feel euphoric, then wretched, then come out the other side and finish feeling good.

In short, it was everything. 

Many riders want to ride it fast, as fast as they can. The other riders talk about the fasties, sometimes wistfully. But this is not a race. Instead it is a gateway to the longer brevets. The main goal for me is not to ride for time but to practice the right behaviors: eating and drinking (and eating and drinking) and taking a sleep break, and making it through the low times. They must become ingrained, reflex.

Happy to report I did great on that. Finally!

Sometimes you ride with others, sometimes you ride alone. This distance forces the issue. Come prepared to ride the entire 600K solo, that's the only way. Then when I need to stop and the others need to ride on, everyone does what they need to do. Chances are we'll see each other down the road. There are no guarantees; I practiced riding my ride.

One not-so-proud moment: disassembling a Big Mac in Fort Bragg and trying to scrape off the special sauce and reassemble everything on an Udi's gluten-free bun. Yuck. It is really, really hard to be gluten-free and mostly dairy-free for 600K.

A proud moment: on the shoulder of Highway 128 in the dark, 17 miles west of the campground, fixing a flat. That new headlamp is handy. Feeling for a little sliver of glass, working the tire with a fingernail. I'm a demon for root cause. No point in putting everything back together until you've found it. Kitty says do you happen to have tweezers? I reach down to my heavy toolkit on the road and from a mini Swiss Army knife pluck a set of tweezers. Bingo! Nothing better than the right tool in the middle of nowhere, having carried it for literally thousands of miles.

A not-so-proud moment: for some reason, the pump only wants to put 50 pounds of pressure into the tube. Riding 17 miles uphill, with a sore back and tired legs, on a squishy tire. After a stressful week at work, too sleepy to ride through the night. Just want comfort.

Up and down. And so it goes...

Sunday, May 3, 2015


Lately, moderation has been in short supply.

Beginning March 7th with a 200K in Davis. I ride fast but blow up ~15 miles from the finish.

Eight months. It hasn't been that long since the 3CR 1000K (worker's version), not objectively, but apparently long enough to lose all the self-management tricks, especially staying on top of water and food.

All those days have been broken up into smaller chunks. I've been shuttling 4 miles back and forth to work, bushwhacking tasks and interactions and errands, waking up at oh-dark-thirty to climb Page Mill as fast as possible and thence to shower and breakfast and work. Drinking and eating before and after, no multi-tasking required.

Thus the patterns of daily survival completely displace the long-term strategic habits that are essential to making it through a brevet.

And that is why we have brevets: to remember how it's done. Reincarnate the patterns of last summer so they become habits again. You stop and fill the water bottles instead of stubbornly riding past Lake Solano County Park because you don't want to lose time. And empty water bottles are lighter.

With Kim, après 300K
Your hand goes to a pocket for a snack, and you don't even notice whether it's exactly the right flavor of Larabar; you can chew and swallow it, that's the trick. The little incremental things can head off a wall of dizziness and nausea when you run out of fuel on Putah Creek Road. To keep riding, it helps to remain conscious and upright.

A little more practice, maybe not a bad idea. So the next weekend, another 200K in Santa Cruz. Same story, with heat and adversity in the afternoon. Eating and drinking not dialed in. Heat exhaustion and gluten-freedom making everything worse.

The following weekend, Pescadero. The weekend after that, a 300K. Hard, but things mostly go well.

April 4, up before dawn to get to the base of Mt. Hamilton in San Jose. Do a 104 mile loop with friends, 8600 feet of climbing. Good! Fun, too. Carry an Udi's hamburger bun for a pulled pork sandwich at the Junction.
The lone photo from a 400K

Then a windy 400K with little sleep and an upset stomach. Manage the eating and drinking OK, porting GF bread. Speed not great. Impaired at work and home that week; Sunday starts are officially a bad idea. I nap in bed, on the couch, in the car. Sleep is officially important. I make friends with the espresso machine again.

The next Saturday with Danny, force myself up Old La Honda. April 18? Something like that... My legs feel dead. Almost can't stand to be on a bike. No destination sounds appealing. No ride sounds like fun.

If this is Friday, it must be the top of Kings Mountain
Meanwhile, the ride-before-work buddies have been ramping up their speed for weeks. They're fresh and impatient,  legs coiled like springs. Time for Skyline, 5 Ways in 5 Days. From south to north, all the paved routes up to the ridge from Silicon Valley. Similar to the Death Ride, but during the work week.

Redwood Gulch and Highway 9 (crawl w/ zombie sweat), Montebello. Page Mill, Old La Honda (miss, have meeting), Kings Mountain. With 1000 miles on my legs, the others rabbit on up the hills, leaving me behind.

All week I have wicked mental clarity, which helps at work, and vivid dreams every night, which do not. My dreams are stories, sagas that go on and on. I bail out of dinner and we get Thai food. The laundry piles up. I fall asleep watching TV. I wear the same jeans 3 days in a row.

But I survive...and in a few weeks maybe I'll even be fast.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The way in

Bob, riding on my left, asks about the route. Does it just go straight along this road into Davis? I say "yup" without even thinking. Signed up for this event a few days ago. Skipped the part about looking at the route sheet. Technically I don't know, but this is the usual way.

While brevet routes tend to resist change they're not immune. When you're not looking (and I have not been), they can mutate. This 200K has at least two forms: in 1999 it started in central Davis, threading through the university and leaving town on Old Davis Road. This led to at least one strange ending to a 300K, weary cyclists in reflective gear passing in front of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, dodging VIPs in fancy dress on their way into the hall. The cyclists laughed...

From 2004 on, the start point has been in East Davis at the Park 'n Ride, using Mace Boulevard to exit town quickly and avoid such encounters. This route is simpler, too. The original was shorter and thus involved riding about a mile and a half past Pope Valley to an orange cone by the side of the road, which served as the turnaround point. You had to be careful to keep your head up for that part; the cone was easy to miss. Every year someone did.

The road is Putah Creek Road, the classic route west into the hills from the Great Valley. It meets State Route 128 near Lake Berryessa, near Monticello Dam. If you ride a bike in Davis, you know this road well. This morning on the way out, Eric Norris said it feels like he's worn a groove in the pavement. So it's a good bet.

It's ~2:30 on a hot afternoon that feels more like early May than early March. It's even caught the boaters by surprise, the weather; they're not out yet with their trucks and boat trailers and jet skis. It's almost relaxing!

We're spinning through an agricultural plain that looks spare and flat. It has some interesting stories to tell, both natural and human. Good farming country. All it takes is a nice strong headwind to see it differently, though. Today it's a real struggle. A fight.

This rational thought does not stay long. Over a few short minutes, Bob is sucked ahead into the distance, my brain waves go flat and with each passing moment my legs are feeling heavier, more reluctant. As if they're barely capable of walking, much less riding back to Davis. The next thing is a dizzy spell that's so intense it seems like I might pass out.

Or perhaps throw up. My stomach doesn't like heat. It never has, and yet after brain injury and its stomach havoc and the sneaky way it has of sending the balancing systems of the body (electrolytes for one) haywire, the new pattern is for these moments to arrive without warning. Of course, I haven't been eating enough - tough to do in the land of little stores selling Hostess Donettes. Especially tough when you're feeling sick from the heat.

Good reasons, and yet... when you get out here on a brevet, on some level you pledge to deal with all the messy, unwelcome complications that visit you on the road. Figure out how to ride on in. Headwind or no. Cooperation from the body, or rebellion on multiple fronts. During the Randonneur Social Hour in the morning and the solo despair that visits you in the glaring afternoon.

Somehow I get my right hand back and down into the jersey pocket. Pull out a bar, tear it open, and  eat half. To my surprise it goes down. Better.

Enabling me to reach for a gel flask and take a pull from it without gagging. Yuck. Again, a little bit better.

Then Paul, whom I passed about thirty minutes ago, passes me with Sandra in tow. going impossibly fast. I latch on for dear life. Stop paying attention to what it feels like to keep riding, and focus on staying with them.

Almost out of water. The mini-mart at the corner of Sievers Road and 505. Paul and Sandra aren't stopping. There's water in Davis, too. It's not going to kill me, nine dehydrating miles.

But it's a hell of a way to end a ride.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The aftermath

A month ago Friday there was an incident on Old River Road near Ukiah. It can't realistically be called an accident.

Several people have asked if I'm related to these people. Well, yes. And no.

I know and have ridden with all 5 cyclists who were hit. Two of them are Danny's brothers. He almost lost them both; it was a close call. But as far as being related to me, that is not at all clear.

When the phone call came, about 5 hours after the collision, Danny's face went still and then it went grey. He listened, asking a few key questions. No one had life-threatening injuries? OK. I waited for him to hang up, then got the story. The brother who called was less seriously injured and already out of the hospital. No doubt in shock, and a ton of pain.

The older brother, the more seriously injured of the two, never did call. There was no request to assist with the shuttling of cars and the crazy logistics that are required when something serious and unexpected happens. Danny's offers of help were refused. We did not go to anyone's house to visit or help out. We did not deliver food. There were no updates, except when Danny reached out.

The accident in Elaine's TBI Story (in 2008), created a rift in Danny's family. Many families go through something similar, but this rift is irregular and unique. For one thing, it is based on avoidance or denial of facts. The person with the most severe injury in the accident becomes the target of anger. The family member who ultimately suffers the most and is hit the hardest, was not in the car at all.

The rift, the reaction of Danny's family to my brain injury, is the last piece of this story. Too long for one post, but the background is here. Pull up a chair, get a cup of tea...

The two brothers and their wives were at the center of the family cluster here in the Bay Area. It  seemed like a happy, close-knit bunch, often getting together and doing fun outdoor stuff like hikes and bike rides. Noisy, joking, plenty of food. Gatherings always happened at one of their houses; ours is really too small.

Over the course of a decade, the older brother and his wife and I often went on bike rides and trips. In fact, we were on our way to a bike trip in San Diego when our car smashed into the stopped cars on I-5. The sister-in-law was at the wheel. Danny's brother was in the front passenger seat, which my head was thrown into.

Then things got weird. There were no visits and the few phone calls that came, more or less had the same theme: what was going on with me? Not exactly how was I doing? but more what was going on? It was hard to tell.

After the accident, it took a while to understand I was hurt. Then it took a long time to get help figuring out what exactly was wrong. That is normal when you have the kind of injury that's tough to diagnose. The insurance company was difficult. They say it's to protect against fraud but I think they behave badly because they can. They're in the middle so they play the parties off each other.

After much wrangling, they offered $5000. Almost nothing. More had already been spent on medical help, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Neither I nor anyone else could define what was happening to me and my daily life was spinning out of control. My performance at work was suffering. Two years in, as the legal deadline approached, I filed suit.

In California, there's no way to sue an insurance company. You have to sue the policyholder. Which in this case was the owner of the car, Danny's brother and his wife, the driver at fault. They were never in financial danger but the insurance company no doubt spun them a different story. One that they chose to believe.

Fast forward 4 years. But life does not stop, it goes on. A phone call with serious news. My heart goes to Danny, and my thoughts to the cyclists who were hit. Instinctively, in our own minds, we are part of the family.

After realizing they are more or less OK, the thought comes: I wonder if they will understand? The  broken bones were visible on X-rays. Severe abrasions. A horrible outcome on a beautiful day, a nightmare. But (probably) no brain injuries, nothing truly complicated, nothing you need a neurologist for.

Will they understand?

That is an open question.