Why WOULDN’T You Choose a Mountain Bike?

It was fear that turned me into a mountain biker. Fear of cars driving unpredictably within shoving distance, fear of the warning honks that invariably made me veer into their lane. Fear of falling off the narrow bike lane into a ditch.

Even after we moved to Denver and I suddenly had the Great Plains all to myself, there was the fear of the cacti and stickers that used up my spare inner tubes and forced me to walk all those miles home, hopefully before my children got off the school bus to find the house locked.

Ron joined the mountain bike movement just after moving to Colorado, primarily so we didn’t have to ship his bike from California. Let Lockheed transport his road bike in the Bekins truck once the house sold. And then it was my birthday and I test rode this knobby thing that didn’t have drop handlebars. My back didn’t hurt, the tires didn’t look ready to pop the moment I looked away, and best of all I could ride it anywhere!

Did it matter it weighted twice a road bike? Of course not, because I don’t ride for speed. It’s the calories that count, is what I heard.

Mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You’re alone on a trail on a spectacular day, feeling the sun on your face, going over rocks and gangly roots, up and down the hillsides. Birds singing, you’re cruising along with Mother Nature’s encouragement, until she trips you up on an errant pinecone.

Much as Walking is a learned skill, you have to learn to stay upright and steer straight at slow speeds. Or heck, at high speeds too, on the inevitable backside of the hill you just climbed. You learn to carefully watch for sand pits.

To bike on a dirt trail, through ponderosa pine forest or meadows of mid-summer wildflowers, occasional views of the Front Range or distant snow-capped mountains – this is what the term “Joy” was created for!

Sweat doesn’t drip off your brow as it does when running. And unlike running, there are periods of rest on the downhills, with the tradeoff being having to focus on not going off a cliff at full speed.

Hmmm, so what is a typical ride like?

Pump up the tires to a pressure appropriate for the anticipated terrain (low pressure for soft ground). Fill up the Camelback, put on riding shorts, bike shoes, colorful shirt and socks, and the helmet. Padded gloves if the ride is long or it’s cold out. Then you go!

Slowly at first so your old body doesn’t pull a muscle, you pedal up, then down, warming up.

A section of tight turns through the woods is next, and you try to look through the scrub oak for a horse approaching on the single track. By the way, if you like your shirt clean, try to avoid the horse poop.

So you slow down on the turn, downshift before the slope, then take off once you’re clear. Upshift, upshift, now you’re passing boulders and bushes on the straightaway. Fast! Freedom in the strength of your body and mind.

Uh oh, a dog. Will the owner reel in the leash, you wonder. Maybe this time you have to walk your bike to safety, but sometimes they get off the trail, dog firmly held beside them. Smile and wave thanks, you’re cruising again.

Sand pit! Brake fast before you’re in too deep. Downshift and plan to steer straight, unclip the cleats in case you end up falling anyway. Pedal as fast as you can in granny gear. You can do it if you can just keep moving. Think “light” as your legs begin to tire. It’s always nice after a rain when the sand pits are reasonably solid and you stand a good chance of arriving on the other side. But it hasn’t rained or snowed lately, and you end up slogging through the bigger sand pits.

Back in the trees, the light is dappled, a disco effect that first constricts then dilates your pupils. Your skin is hot and cold at this high elevation. You can’t always pedal fast enough to stay warm, so clothing is a factor, and hopefully you planned well.

At the next straightaway, you let go one hand, get a sip from the Camelback. Checking your mileage you see that you’re about halfway. Most has been downhill, so you know that uphill switchback is coming up. The one you sometimes try several times before you make it without walking. What will it be today?

Just as you downshift and are about to steer wide, getting on the left for the dreaded right hand turn, a couple of bikes come screaming around the bend from the opposite direction. You’re already out of your cleats because the one time you fell onto the big rock while clipped in, you ended up with a bruise that lasted several weeks. So you pull back to the right and let the couple pass, then you turn your bike around, walk down the hill a little to where you can make another attempt. Hard to start pedaling on the uphill with high friction, but you get moving. Again downshift, steer wide, push on the handlebar to help you lean and turn. Will you make it? No rocks or fresh pinecones on the trail today. No goopy horse manure. Stay on the outside of the curve where it’s less sandy. And…and…pedal…lean… Success! Gold star for you!

I don’t know what makes those right turns so much harder. Ron’s theory is ice rinks that make you skate counter clockwise except for 10 minutes at the top of the hour. My crossovers are crazy good in just one direction, so I think he’s on to something, and we can talk about this more when I write about how it feels to play hockey.

For now, we’re still on the bike, riding uphill on a winding single-track, pine-scented forest, sandstone outcroppings dating back to the Cretaceous. The path is fairly well packed up here, out of the valley.

Before long you’ll be back to the start of this loop. A few more turns to go, but it’s different. On the way out, the forest was less dense. You crouched on your pedals, hands loose on the handlebars, as you banked left and right, the trail winding between the trees, little effort expended on the downhill part of the ride. You swayed back and forth, the rhythm hypnotic. Your mind wandered, you found yourself humming some elusive tune. Stresses vanished as you were lulled into the next curve. It’s peaceful all around, just you and the ponderosas.

But here you’re pulling hard on the grips, working the quads, your arms are sweaty as you fight the hill. Rocks, pines, scrub oak all give you the evil eye, crowd your thoughts. You pedal on, moving slowly, just a bit faster than walking, or so you tell yourself because to get off the bike is to surrender. You have done this before, you can do it again! Even that dread right switchback bowed at your pedals today!

Riding on the flats or downhill is such a rush. The speed requires quick reflexes and sometimes a bandaid or two after. It’s an exercise of the brain to see and avoid obstacles. But there is equal pleasure in straining the body, feeling muscles contract as you push hard on the uphills.

Pretty soon the trail levels off, sounds reach you from the trailhead, equestrians brushing their horses. Another half mile to go, and it gets easier. You’re breathing normally again, have another sip of water, and then sadly you are back. With a refreshed soul, you unclip and put feet back on solid ground.


Becoming One With The Moose

Over the years, I have done a ton of hiking. And as long as I can remember, I have had a camera handy, just in case.

But I’ll tell you what — hikers and photographers are different breeds and, although it’s probably not PC to say it, they shouldn’t be allowed to fraternize.

A hiker pulls out topos, figures out the best way to get to The Thing That Must Be Seen, packs as little as he can considering factors such as weather, length of the hike. And off he goes.

On the other hand, the photographer spends an awkwardly long time contemplating what fraction of his gear can go on his back. Camera body, assorted lenses and filters (hopefully well-suited to whatever he might encounter), lens cleaner, extra batteries and memory, tripod. What doesn’t fit on the back could be put into hip packs, chest packs, or carried on the shoulders.

Seemingly as an afterthought, he finds a spare corner for maps, a sandwich, apples and water with the expectation that all this can be carried long distances.

As a mixed breed, I hike with both types of people. But I make sure to leave behind most of my camera gear when hiking with hikers. They are focused on the goal, glare at me if it isn’t attained, and won’t invite me back if I had anything to do with the failure of the expedition.

For the photographers, the PROCESS is the goal. You hike in a teensy bit, and if there are elk or baby mountain goats, you might spend the whole day there feeling utter satisfaction.

It’s sort of like the deer that meander past our house, who hunker down for the afternoon. They’re not in a hurry. They’re not “going” anywhere. This is it! They live “everywhere”. They have arrived, and there is nowhere else to be. The process IS the goal!

Since Ron picked up photography again, after losing interest toward the end of the film era, we have become hiking photographers rather than photographing hikers, and as a result my “good shot” hit rate has gone up, no longer needing to snap quickly as we trot past a bear delivering twins. We almost exclusively shoot using tripods and cable releases. And although we try to impress each other with our trophy shots afterward, our different visions keep us humble. Ron kids that if I were a journalist sent to shoot a house fire, I would return with photos of ants hurriedly crawling on the hot brick walls, whereas I insist he would have not only a shot from a block away, but also overhead shots of the neighborhood. And it’s true. Being an ex-scientist, the “how” invariably fascinates me. I love to get in close and closer, learning the behavior.

But I digress.

I wanted to talk about what it feels like to go on a photo shoot.

One morning, long before it was bright and early, we set out on the Inlet Trail out of Grand Lake, Colorado. Backpacks weighed close to 20 lbs, and if I had a sandwich with me, I don’t remember. We had on headlamps that illuminated trail or woods equally well as we made our way toward the lightening horizon where we planned to shoot the peaks at sunrise reflected in the river.

About halfway there, around a bend, appeared not just one moose, but a whole handful of them, silently munching their way through the willows. Gigantic, shadowy figures, all legs and antlers. Graceful, at peace with their world.

Some passed along the trail, antlers of others were visible behind bushes, and beyond that we could hear still more rustling.

As we dropped tripods from our shoulders, we began mentally sorting through our gear. I could set the ISO to 800, which should give me some flexibility with the shutter speed and aperture. If they lay down, I could increase the depth of field, but if they’re on the move, I’ll have to use a faster shutter speed. Maybe I can go to ISO 1600 without the shots being too grainy and not have to compromise so much on shutter speed. Can I focus well enough before the sun is up to allow a narrower aperture?

Piece by piece we assembled our optimal configuration for capturing the feelings evoked by these tremendous animals, all the while keeping left brain engaged, and an eye on their discomfort with us.

First one click, as one of us recorded what we saw. More clicks. Each change in position, every step, every head movement. Interactions between animals. This being the digital age, we were not impeded by the 36-shot limitation of film. We could snap now, sort later. No need to erase that last shot we knew was bad. Move on.

Now that we had documented the moose, what could we do to convert them to art?

The sun was sleeping in, the mist slowed down our thoughts. What if we stood over there, by the clearing? Maybe several moose could be caught dancing if they continued in that direction. There wasn’t a creek, but maybe we could catch layers of moose — one in the foreground with antlers to feet visible, one behind the first row of willows, head visible; and behind him just antlers of a third one poking out. Could they be lined up cutting a diagonal across the frame?

We wait, they move, we snap, then reposition, trying to anticipate their next move. Becoming one with the nature they inhabit, coming to understand them better by just a little.

It was an hour or more that we were permitted to be part of their herd, an hour or more that cleansed our minds of the clutter imposed by humanity, allowing us a glimpse of a life no more complicated than the pursuit of food in this moment alone.

Our heartrates surely went up coming around the bend so long ago, an eternity had passed, and as the sun rose, we emerged from this baptism with new understanding, with a calm spirit, a contentedness reaching deep into our core that would last.

At least until we emerged from the magic of the forest and returned to our car.

They may come in pretty, un-scary colors but…

It was on our anniversary. Twentieth maybe? I don’t remember.

I wanted to do something special, and we had decided to take a weekend sailing class in Bellingham, Washington to acquire a few more skills, while living on a sailboat. So I thought “How great would it be to do some kayaking in the San Juans while there?” The romance of sailing around the numerous forested islands had always appealed to me, but as yet we clearly didn’t have the sailing skills to make that happen.

After an uneventful weekend on the sailboat, during which nobody fell over, we headed to Anacortes Island and caught a ferry to Orcas Island, where we hopped into a van pulling a trailer of brightly colored kayaks (presumably waiting for us) for a short-ish drive across the island to a peaceful cove.

Apparently there is some critical equipment and information needed before venturing into Puget Sound. Such as:  “If you time your trip without consulting tide tables, you’ll be sucked out past Victoria and be deposited in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where you will circle into eternity,”  or  “This is the paddle, hold it from this end.”

Ron and I had opted for a tandem kayak, primarily on account of my problematic fear of water, such that washing my face in the shower can result in hyperventilation. Ron, fortunately, had kayaked in rivers when he was growing up, and as usual he imparted an air of confidence to me. Sort of.

We put on spray skirts that would firmly attach us to the kayak to give us that steady underwater view of sea otters should we flip over. We put on life jackets to keep us afloat should the frigid waters render us unconscious. Cameras, however, were well-protected in thick plastic bags, aptly named “dry bags”, and further protected in watertight compartments within the kayaks.

There was no champagne bottle broken to celebrate our maiden voyage. We just sat down inside the boat and waited for our guide to push us out into the calm waters of the wild blue yonder.

And calm the waters remained, up to and including the edge of the cove. Ron practiced steering using his foot pedal rudder. We practiced paddling — turn right at the waist, core engaged, arms extended, paddle approaching vertical, dip the spoon part into the water near your toes, PULL. Shift paddle to the other side, again turning with the whole torso, repeat and PULL.

We coordinated our strokes, and in no time were out of of the safety of the cove. It was deep here! It was wavy here! Who knows what scary sharp-toothed creatures had fins crossed that we’d flip over!

I needed to calm myself. Breathe… It was fun, right? Enough adrenaline to make it interesting, right? And the kayak felt pretty stable.


We followed our guides, who HAD consulted the tide tables, as we paddled with the current, along the island. The day was warm, the water sparkled, the sky blue and cheery, the motion rhythmic and calming. PULL…PULL…

We paddled, enjoying the sound, the physical activity of muscles that would surely protest in a day or two. Our efforts grew more natural and we began watching the birds skimming the surface, the pines, the shingles of beach in each cove we passed. This wasn’t like the solitude of hiking. It was noisier, with the sound of the waves. And it wasn’t anywhere as sweaty, as cool salt-water dripped down our arms and onto the spray skirt someone ingeniously devised.

The smell of the sea was starting to make me hungry as the lighthouse came into view, the beach just beyond it our destination.

We skillfully paddled into the shallows, pulled the knob on the front of our spray skirts to detach ourselves from our trusty kayak, and splashed and pulled it onto the sand far enough for the waves to not drag it back out.

After a hike to the lighthouse and a hearty lunch of hummus and veggie wraps, with plenty of fresh fruit to help rehydrate what we had lost by evaporation, we felt like we knew what we were doing when back into the kayak we went, reattaching spray skirts, keeping paddles firmly in hand. We could have pushed ourselves back into the water, but heck, weren’t we paying the guides for that?

An excited shout, and we saw them motioning outside the cove, encouraging us to follow. What was that? Something bobbing in the water? The sun was in our eyes. Something dark? It was pointy, did you see? There it was again. Several of them.

Dorsal fins of orcas! Wait, what now?

Shouldn’t we go back to land? Why are we headed TOWARD them? What if they splash and we flip over, somehow get entangled with them and are dragged downward into the cold darkness where there is no air to speak of?

But the cove wasn’t all that big and before I knew it we had caught up to the guides. As each of the kayaks in our group arrived, we were instructed to grab a hold, to create a makeshift raft. The myth around this is that orcas will see our “raft” and not try to pop up among us.

We held on to this thread of truth primarily because it was too late to make our way back safely to dry golden sands. And besides, five hands held on to our kayak with death grips.

And so it came to be that orcas swam toward us, submerged within a few feet (10 maybe?) ever so gracefully that were your dilated eyes not affixed to their forms, you would not have believed they had gone under you and emerged silently a few feet on your other side. Not a single one bit into a kayak, hurrying off with a limb or two. Nobody drowned in a pool of saltwater-diluted blood.

Having survived this wilderness experience, I suddenly drew on inner strength which hormonally materialized and started paddling back to our starting point that morning.

But our guides may not have been entirely lucid when planning the trip. The promise had been that we would have lunch as the tide turned so that we could easily ride the current back. However, now a wind had picked up, big waves threatened to roll us over, we were fighting to paddle into them. Six, maybe twelve inches high, this was eerily similar to the Poseidon Adventure. Were we even making headway? There were kelp beds we were trying not to get tangled up in, as we held more tightly onto the paddles. Up and over the waves we went. We could hardly hear each other over the wind and waves. My world shrank. Twist the torso, paddle into the water, PULL.

Slowly we passed one cove. Then another. What seemed to be hours passed. The scenery slowly changed as we pulled hard. PULL…PULL… The glitter of the waves was all but forgotten as I ignored my fears and just worked. PULL…PULL…

And then our guides were turning into a cove. There was the van! We had gotten back!

OK, perhaps the trip back was fun after all, maybe it wasn’t so bad, now that we were back on ground shedding our gear.

It had been spectacular. There had been an air of adventure, along with a challenge and elements of fear. For me anyway.

Looking back, I’m so glad we did it. So glad that in fact this past Spring we bought our own kayaks. Mine is the widest and longest I can still paddle, but it hauls like the dickens on the calm lake waters that beckon here in the safety of land-locked Colorado.

Happy Trails!

San Juan Island - Friday Harbor Mt Baker   San Juan Island - killer whale 1 San Juan Island - lighthouse     San Juan Island - Ron in kayak

Riding on the FRONT of a motorcycle

I think the first time I was on a motorcycle was in college. Freshman year, a fellow student in the chemistry program. Red headed handsome young man with whom I had nothing in common. But still, he was handsome, wasn’t he? Plus he had a motorcycle. So when he asked me out, it went against everything I believe in to refuse.

We rode west, into the foothills, up Clear Creek Canyon to Nederland, which back in the 70s was mostly just the old diner, from what I remember. During lunch at the diner (where else?), I remember how my arms tingled from the wind that had blown my hair follicles into a frenzy. What a strange and wonderful feeling! He had been kind enough to let me use his helmet, so there was no similar feeling in my head hair, though likely I would have attributed it to infatuation anyway. We did a little rock climbing along the canyon on the way back to Denver, but I never forgot the tingling on my arms.

When I moved to Minnesota for grad school, I befriended another fellow whose dad had a motorcycle, and who rode it to school periodically. He’d give me a ride home on occasion, and I just loved the sense of freedom, the way the wind blocked out all sound other than a low hum of the bike, how we leaned in curves. It was a bizarre magic that took hold of me.

Over the years, as my children grew, I kept thinking about the wonder of a cross-country motorcycle trip, all four of us. I knew my husband, Ron, wouldn’t get too excited about it as it’s a very dangerous vehicle as compared to, say, a Hummer, and so I consoled myself with a Jeep Wrangler, taking the top and doors off during summertime.

But back in my mind, I pondered the experience of each of us riding a motorcycle across and around the US when Shannon, the baby, got her driver’s license. We would go without a plan. Pack tents and sleeping bags. Go wherever the backroads sent us. And come back with a boatload of memories.

Well, when Shannon was 16, there was no way I would let my babies ride motorcycles!

Now my babies have married and moved away, starting to have their own babies, and so it was time for a new dream.

A little while ago there was a Groupon for a motorcycle school in Colorado Springs. Fifteen hours of instruction, both in-class lecture and skills. How could I not pounce on it? No illusions of getting a motorcycle, but I wanted to know what it feels like to ride one. Is it hard? Can it be safe?

I’ll tell you what it is for SURE — SCARY!

We had a series of lectures in the morning of the first day, and after the lunch break we met up on the range where about 10 others were gathering around the bikes. Oh man, my tummy got all in a knot suddenly. I was going to have to control one of these? Suddenly they loomed larger than I had remembered from all those years ago, and I contemplated listening to my fears and just going home. Could I really GET on one and make it move without puking?

Yes. I sure could! I had conquered my fear of water by learning to scuba dive. I could DO this!

Turns out, you need to be sized for a bike. Intuitively, I had picked out the tiniest bike they had, a Standard style, Honda something or other. Or Toyota? Do they even make bikes? My mind was in a tizzy, though I probably should have paid more attention as it ended up being really comfortable for the 10 hours of riding I did on it.

Eventually we had to turn on the engine. Apparently, this bike couldn’t get into Neutral unless the engine was off, which I didn’t find out until way too many times that I was the last student doing just that.

Left foot is the gear shift. Push down with your toe a notch from Neutral for 1st gear. Push back up a “half step” for Neutral, or a “full step” for 2nd. From there it’s easy — after the lever comes back into position, again push it up to get into 3rd. Release, then up for 4th. Release, then up for 5th. I got into 3rd probably 6 times during the whole experience, with a rush of speed, wind blowing in my…sunglasses. To downshift, push down the lever the number of times corresponding to the number of gears you want to go down.

So, you have gears. You’re gonna need the clutch. Easy enough — left hand, where the brake on a bicycle would be.

Now you’re moving, how do you stop? Front right hand, where a bicycle brake would be, is the front wheel brake. And if you look carefully at your right boot, just in front of your toe is a little pedal, unfortunately easy to miss, which is the rear wheel brake.

And how did you get moving in the first place? Ah yes — the right grip really rolls back and forth. That’s your accelerator pedal.

So much to learn, and it took several attempts before I could reliably turn on the durned thing. FINEC — Fuel valve on -> Ignition on (turn the key clockwise a notch) -> Neutral using your left foot -> Engine cutoff/on (toggle the red switch) -> Clutch in. VROOM VROOM VROOM! YIKES!

Over the course of the 2 day class, we went from pushing the bike with our feet, using the clutch to control the speed while in first gear, to learning to swerve around an object such as a bus that suddenly appeared from who knows where. We were weaving in and out between the road cones, knees nearly touching the ground (in our visions of ourselves), and learning to stop quickly in case some bozo pulls out in front of you. We drove over 2x4s, standing up and releasing the throttle right when the rear wheel was about to go over it.

And each time we turned off the engine (push the red button), it was like an amusement park ride was ending, which we wished we could keep riding forever! From terror to addiction in such a short period of time! You feel the weight of this massive machine below you. Unlike a horse, it doesn’t have the sense to stay upright, so you — YOU — have to keep it moving, keep balanced, keep from running into something unpleasant.

Tight turns are really a trick, as you balance this noisy thing, turning the wheel, keeping speed under control, not stalling. All the students agreed we would boycott these, would rather just make 3-point turns in the future, as it was just too hard to learn. Do people really do this in real life?

Did I mention how the weaving around road cones was so much fun? A few days later and I’m still remember the joy, the feeling of the lean. So much like doing slalom skiing, just exhilarating to feel like you and the bike are a single unit, that you can lean over so far and let the gyroscopic forces take over.

That first night I read through the 50 page book explaining things like bike parts, recommended gear, how to turn, road courtesy and safety. And midday the 2nd day was the test, which is pretty easy, stupid questions with no ambiguous responses to select from.

I must say that I have much more respect for the bikers out there, for their skill and abilities, especially when they have a passenger or cargo on board. Perhaps I might be willing to ride in parking lots in the middle of the night, but to get onto a road? Far scarier than learning to drive a car, I can assure you of that.

And yet, in the back of my mind, who knows what plan might be starting to coalesce?


ADDENDUM:  With the card signed off by the motorcycle school, I went to the DMV to get the “motorcycle endorsement”, which is what they call the new license. Eye test, organ donor, registered to vote, new photo, you know the drill. But they punched my license with a spiky thing shaped in “< 8”  (for August)? Is this license still valid? I sure hope so!

POSTSCRIPT:  Uh oh, I just figured out that it’s not “< 8”. What do you think this is? And what are the chances that TSA will let me through Security at DIA next week?

I’ll give you What For

I’m curious about life, about humans and the world we inhabit. More so the latter, which is why we live in the boonies, but that’s neither here nor there.

What fascinates me is what things feel like, how things work. As long as it doesn’t get too greasy, or is in dark confined spaces.

And after going through a chocolatier program, I decided I ought to be capturing all these experiences, have now decided to write them up as a blog rather than in a Word document, which was my initial thought.

Are you curious about what it feels like to temper chocolate so that you can make delicious truffles? Do you wonder about what it feels like to sail down a mogul run or blow a glass vase with swirling colors? How about stalking elk for a day in order to get that one photograph that makes all the discomfort worthwhile?

These are the things I plan to write about. All the weird things that I have wanted to try doing and finally signed up for.

This is also an attempt to improve my writing skills, so bear with me. Or not. Your choice.

I hope you enjoy what you find on these pages! I know I enjoyed each experience.