Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fear and Aging on Mt. Diablo

The Grizzly Peak Cyclists
Gathering for the Diablo Ride at the
Pleasant Hill BART station,
9 am January 1, 2015
 They're not the whole truth, those confessions we make to ourselves about failure. But on the Grizzly Peak Cyclists annual New Years Day Mt. Diablo ride, mine were convincing. Pedals and wheels turned slowly, the bike wobbled, while my goal shrank to just making it a few more feet, to the next curve.  I scolded myself: you're 64; you've ridden only once since Labor Day; you're an imposition on your friend Oded, who's spending much of his ride time emailing on his cell phone while waiting for you to catch up.  Yet it was hard to feel chastened, immersed in the Diablo landscape, deep green thanks to the December rains. In a few weeks it will be a heartbreakingly beautiful vivid green, then fade to brown if the drought continues.  How lucky to be right here in this luminous moment!  Perhaps the prosecution overstates its case?
        Chronological age could not be the whole story. Oded turned seventy in November, and he still commutes by bicycle to the large financial institution where we toiled together for a quarter century.  Most weeks he rides his bike into the Berkeley Hills, and he went on the Diablo ride even though he's recovering from a bad cold.  It took us over four hours to reach the junction where the North and South Gate roads converge, elevation 2,170 ft.; just 58 minutes for him to continue solo to the summit, elevation 3,864 ft.  Alison, 65, was one of the dozens of cyclists who passed us on the way up, notable because her bicycle sported front and rear pink panniers, and a stuffed animal fastened to the rear luggage rack.  More about that lass in a bit.
        And if there's really no excuse for going months without riding, there is some interesting context. Over Christmas I had the stomach flu, and spent most of three days in bed, needing to sit and rest each time I hiked from the bedroom to the kitchen. It was a slightly altered state of consciousness: dozing; listening to excerpts of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on NPR; calling the Aetna advice line.  The nurses were reassuring, prescribing rice and clear fluids, no dairy products; I was compliant.  The gonzo journalism was oddly reassuring too, showing that language could follow where mind leads, even unto the recesses of recreational drug use.  Nevertheless, there was no denying that I was sick, and living alone too, and fear introduced itself.
        At midnight, 3 days post-flu, 6.5 hours before I'd set my alarm to wake up for the Diablo ride, I was toasting 2015 with sparkling apple juice at a folk dance in Palo Alto.  It was a moment Jean would have savored.  In the cozy delirium of our marital myth, we had our own style of gonzo, say with carrot sticks dangling from our lips instead of cigarette holders à la Uncle Duke. A widower should not stay at home like a shut in on New Years Eve, especially after the lessons of recent illness.  The two dancers I talked to on the topic of New Years resolutions both agreed they were futile attempts to appease insatiable inner prosecutors.  You might have a careful, healthy existence, and still come to a horrible end because you bored yourself to death.  Better off trying to find a path to joy.
        It's not always joyful, obviously, but there is a sweet solitude in a long bike ride, when the rhythm of your exertions sets down a bassline as your eyes
Oded, South Gate Road
Elevation approx. 1,500 ft.
 explore the landscape and your thoughts roam over memories.  I thought about the slyly adventurous Jean, her "slackpacker" strategy when she hiked the Appalachian Trail as a college student: take every shortcut, but say you do it because it's the scenic route.  A slackpacker would point out that even if I stopped many times, and walked a few steep stretches, I did make it up to the junction.  And had a good time.

Alison was resting at the junction when I arrived, and quite willing to talk when her bicycle sparked my curiosity.  She's proud to have reached medicare age, and thanks the American people for their generosity in providing her health care.  Fair enough, since she attends to the people's health in her capacity as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist.  The rack ornament is named Moosie. Alison acquired him in the Glacier National Park in 2002, and "He has ridden every mile 
Alison at the Junction
Her windbreaker is pale pink,
and there are pink stripes on her helmet
 with me since."  If you're thinking those panniers must be stuffed with cotton candy, you'd be in for a shock if you tried, and possibly failed, to lift her bike; I'd guess it's over 100 lbs.  Alison denies any cultural significance in her pink motif, no pre- or post- feminist parable, nothing whatsoever to do with the PINK lingerie line.  She trains with heavy panniers because she and her husband love to go on exotic bike treks, and she wants to be able to leave at the spur of the moment.  She admits she stopped a couple of times on her way up, but unlike me she never walked. Like me, she turned back at the junction.


        Oded and I agreed to try a ride into the Berkeley Hills in February, after I recover from New Years. Then he left for the summit, while I rode down to BART.  Oded's a loyal friend, and since I got laid-off in February, he's been a reliable source of quiet encouragement.  I'm starting my own bicycle commute in a couple of weeks—got a job teaching a C++ night class at a community college—and I resolved to be a better friend myself, in the uphill riding department.
A view descending North Gate
        Arguably, that's copping a plea to the indictment for today's ride, but it's also hoping to engage more with the busy world.  For example, our Labor Day ride, along the Bay shoreline from El Cerrito to Pt. Richmond, was an excursion into American industrial history. We stopped by the Rosie the Riveter museum to chat with a docent.  Rosie was the poser girl for women recruited into the war industries after Pearl Harbor, and the docent told us that the genders, and the races, got along better in the factories than they ever had before.  And quite possibly since: Ferguson burst into the headlines in the months following that ride.  Those visions of perfect wars, those shining moments of national unity—they're not the whole truth about us either, are they?
His Majesty Clark I
On the dining room table, 
waiting to be served.

         Clark was ecstatic to see me when I got home to Alameda, two short hours after leaving the junction.  I filled his food bowl, then attacked the fridge like the savage wolf I am at heart: two mugs of soup, two large carrots with hummus, a tin of sardines on a slab of bread.  It was winter, it was cold and dark outside, yet I was warm and well fed.  Happy 2015 to all.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, really enjoyed this post. No doubt you shared a talent with words with Jean. Well written, clever, and soulful. I love your snippets about Jean. Ha, slackpacker is a term I might borrow. I bicycled home today but just 3 miles up a gentle grade. Happy New Year and sunshine.