Renegades of Mountain Biking Debuts

Video work is amazing and impressive. It’s something I wish I could do better. Thankfully, wonderful people such as Zak Long at the University of California Office of the President do a great job at making films. Zak made a film about my research that I am thoroughly impressed by. Happy viewing!


Wild Writing

I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.


But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.

So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.

Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.

Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?

Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.

Now write…


Writing has been hard lately. Perhaps this is because life has been hard lately. Writing is a highly embodied process for me, and at the moment being connected to my body is a difficult thing. There’s lots of helpless emotions brewing and processing, sometimes bursting from my body in unexpected and sometimes embarrassing ways. I’m fairly certain my attempt to keep these explosions under control is part of what has made my writing so stilted and paltry lately.

At the same time, another strange change has occurred that I only recently became aware of. In the past, when I was upset, I ran. I found that I couldn’t cry and run at the same time, which brought a sense of clarity and control. Though I would never necessarily work out my problems on the run, I would often feel better at the end with endorphins and exhaustion coursing through my veins.

Lately this failsafe method of body-mind-emotion confluence hasn’t been working so well. In fact, running has elicited more breakdowns that it has helped in recent days.

What has helped is riding the smooth trails of the mountains on my bike. Concentrating on the curves and lines of a just-right technical trail make me exist in the moment with a new confidence that leave me feeling solid. The burning of biking is different than running, but more in line with my bodily needs at the moment.

I’ve yet to determine what this means for my writing. But like biking, I hope that practicing in this new writing-body will also produce comfort.

Telling stories

“The story of a ride like today is a freakin’ novel.” So says my riding partner.

He’s right.

Each ride is a story that stretches from the tendrils of the unopened lily to the straining and slowly decaying muscles of our bodies. It is massive rocks stacked like wafers, whose dimensions change with distance. From the trail, these tell a story of even symmetry and the ongoing patterns of layering in geological time. Up close, I imagine these massive structures talk about grain and texture, foothold and handholds, risk and wonder.

There is never just one story of a ride. It’s multiple from the start, and in the end I like to choose one strand that epitomizes what most needs saying. Today I need to tell the story of how impoverished telling these stories remains. Or maybe how fleeting they are. Or perhaps they are personal in a way that matters most to the one telling the story.

Ride reports are often long, and in my opinion, can read like the story of a longwinded and breathless child. “And then, this happened…and then, this other thing happened…Are you still listening? This is really cool…And then, something else happened…You shoulda been there…”

You shoulda been there.

Maybe that’s one of the important functions of ride stories. To invoke a yearning, in the self to ride again and in the other to join.

Ride reports often point toward feelings, sensations, and emotions. They are about burning muscles, fatigue, bonking, recovery, exhilaration, wonder, contentment, peace, adrenaline, focus, flow, one-ness, laughter, fear, hope, loss… These are difficult things to recreate in text.

Long rides–really any long endurance undertaking–can start to look a lot like a metaphor for life. Fresh-faced to weary, persistence pays off. It’s not always fun, but there you go. That’s life. This is a common trope in accounts of ultrarunning and “epic” ride reports.

Maybe telling the story helps us to sort things out. Sometimes a ride is not okay, and persistence does not pay off. Telling the story can help to reconcile the tragedies of varying sizes and proportions. They can give a series of events meaning and provide purpose, particularly in the face of futility and loss.

Maybe the little stories are practice for when we really need narratives that save us.

Criminal activity

This is what illegal trail riding looks like.

Four of us grind up to the high point along the legal fire roads. The front riders dismount in a suitable scenic locale, remove their helmets and backpacks, and settle in. The slower riders soon join in, and everyone pulls snacks from their packs. Some have fold-up pads to sit upon, or brimmed hats to keep the sun off their faces. Homemade cookies are passed around, and a pipe full of marijuana is offered to any interested parties. We admire the view, and more veteran riders point out the area landmarks to me.

After fifteen to twenty minutes pass, folks slowly pack up their belongings and prepare for the descent. We begin by descending along a legal fire road, until the dirt emerges onto pavement. Two quick right turns and we duck under a barrier barring off a long-abandoned road. Here is where the illegal ride begins. We barely avoid two walkers spotting us as we dive into the overgrown brush lining a four-foot wide stretch of dirt.

The riders in front of me slow as the brush encroaches onto the trail, narrowing our passage. One long thin tendril stretches across the trail at eye level. Carefully maneuvering around this innocent-looking bit of greenery, one rider tells me, “This is poison oak.” I meticulously follow her example taking care to brush neither my body nor my bike against the offending leaves. We slowly pick our way through the dense foliage, much of which proves to be poison oak, a native plant to the region. We push aside more benign brush to make way for our handlebars, all the time walking our bikes along the narrow trail. I slowly pick my way along, careful to avoid the potential rash of a poison oak encounter.

When I emerge onto an open meadow, my fellow riders are gone. I follow the trail, even as it grows more indistinct and overgrown by grasses. Soon, I am following the trail of bent grasses left from a recently passing bicycle tire. I catch up at an abrupt gully, which causes us all to dismount  and carry our bikes down and up its steep sides. More poison oak greets us on the other side, along with a canopy of green with slivers of sunlight passing through the overlapping leaves high above. We pause and comment on how beautiful it is here.

The trail is more distinct here, and I can see how this used to be a road. No one has cleared the fallen brush from last season, making the riding punctuated by recurring stops to dismount and wend our way over and under fallen trees and branches. When we do ride, I worry about one of the many branches I ride over and through flying into my spokes.

We stop at a particularly branch-ridden section and clear out the fallen debris. Logs, sticks, small fallen trees all move away from the trail into the gully below. After around fifteen minutes of this, the trail is remarkably clearer. We ride on, stopping periodically for more fallen branches, clearing as many as possible.

The lower brush grows thicker as we descend, and the poison oak more lush. At one point, I am fairly sure that virtually all the brush on either side of the trail is poison oak. I shield my face and ride quickly through. Dismounting would only increase my exposure.

We finally arrive in an opening surrounded by tall oaks and a few redwoods. Sections of two massive redwood trunks rest on their sides with benches carved out. The wood has grown decrepit with time, but they still support our weight as we snack, drink, and chat. One rider offers the pipe again, and we all enjoy the sun-dappled patterns of the leaves that give this grove a particular vividness of color. We are deep into this illegal ride, relaxing without a care in the world.

Reluctantly, we eventually don our helmets and backpacks to prepare for the final descent. I am cautioned to be quiet in the last half mile of the trail, so as not to attract attention from nearby homeowners. We have seen no one along this entire overgrown trail, and we hope our luck will hold. The dangers of getting caught on illegal rides such as this are always at the end. Rangers are known to lurk near the bottom of popular illegal rides. We proceed along the final stretch soundless save the cracking of branches and the telltale whirring of the freewheel. Emerging out of the brush onto the pavement, we quickly bike on.


Note: I wrote this after riding my road bike on a trainer on my back porch, watching video footage of this ride and listening to my field notes from the ride.

Conclusion: The best way to watch unedited footage of a bike ride is while biking.

Making Single-track

We are becoming single-track. Single-track is riding along desire, moving in a suspended line of dirt, rock, rubber, sinews, muscle, metal, and nerves. It is the possibilities of negotiation between things we think of as separate. Body. Bike. Trail. To make single-track is to fashion multiplicities.

Throw out a line. Let go and brake less. A thrill of terror enters the bloodstream. No time for logical reasoning, just motion as the rocky terrain passes faster than thought. We know this is working until it is not. Thrown.

Now we have new connections. Synapses that connect speed and nerves to fingertips gently squeezing the brake lever. Centers of gravity that account for slopes. Tires that skip off rocks of a certain size in direct relation to speed.

It takes awhile to learn how to use the sensory capabilities of the rubber pads. Sensations are crude, mostly limited to slipping at first, the times the dirt slips from beneath the rubbery nubs. Sometimes I can feel them dragging and sticking into the soft layer of pine needles. That means the tires need more air.

Everything crowds around me. Sight lines are short as movement and sight curves. In another configuration the trail is a raw sore cut open. Bleeding ruptures of tree stumps and broke branches, eroded soil and trampled grasses. Making single-track is an ongoing business that requires ongoing injury. Kill the life underfoot and alongside to keep the wound open and rideable.

A tight turn ahead, switchback. If I switch back to my body negotiating this bike around this trail turn, I stop riding. I stutter to a stop as my eyes track my fears. The brambles lining the trail that my front wheel stubbornly follows so long as my eyes see what is not the single-track. To make the switchback means not switching back. Look forward and lean, steady on the nerve-brakes. They are sensitive to even a millimeter too much in either direction. It really is a measurable thing, making this switchback. I know the formula, but the middle is the messy part. Moving outside the moment is disaster, or at the very least a minor inconvenience.

Making single-track is hard to sustain. I get scared at the flows, the loss of the me that I have grown so accustomed, and cannot sustain the line of flight. Nor can the multiplicity remain quite yet. I worry that I will get drunk on the flow and move beyond current possibilities into the impossible, the making of injury.

Riding single-track relies on making memory. Short term memory happens in the moment of making the ride. It relies upon those tendrils of long term memory extending from nerves down the metal frame into rubber nubs and flinging out to rocks and roots and soil. Memories are in the making but they don’t stay there.

It’s like riding a bike. You never forget. What they don’t tell you is that the forgetting is in the not-making. Remembering requires making riding, another multiplicity that’s more than just a memory in a body. Two wheels and a sense of surface make riding a bike a memory of relations. So we store ourselves in the middle, in making multiplicities that are always one less than the sum of the parts.

The above is a reaction to reading the Introduction to Deleuze & Guattari’s Introduction in A Thousand Plateaus.