I have two homes. Or do I have no home at all? I now migrate between two places that inspire me and I am seeing spring for the second time this year. It’s a treat. A reward for the decisions I have made. I have been alone, antisocial and happy.
Isolation is a fickle bitch. It is what I am inclined to do on any day. We are conditioned by society to perceive it as anomalous. But there are a lot of us lurking in the shadows. We are alone and we are OK. I present as social because that is what I am supposed to do when truly, I just want to be left alone. Alone in the deserts and mountains of the southwest to tell my stories while hiding behind this keyboard. Left the fuck alone in the dirt. It is what drives every decision I make in life. When I can’t escape I go crazy. Like like lunatic in a straight jacket or a tweaker in the back of a cop car. Let me out.
I drink on the mountain tops and smoke at the river. I pedal and think in between. I’m looking forward to what the world will look like in the coming months as humans awake from this social hibernation. What will it be like now that so many people were forced to jump into the rabbit hole that is their own brain? Did they hear the conversations with themselves? Did they actually listen? Or did they just curse it and ignore it like the neighbor’s barking dog?
Pay yourself a visit. Let it wash over you and learn a few things. Don’t worry. You will be “back to normal” soon enough.
I was thirty five miles into a sixty mile ride. The sun was setting at my back and my shadow was getting long like a fun house mirror. I was having a great day and feeling amazing. Even if I did get dropped by my riding companions. That’s fine. I wasn’t going slow by any means, but it happens all the time. I like being alone with my thoughts. Sometimes I think I get dropped on purpose. But usually I just like to saunter and take pictures more than most of my friends.
I could see the pass I was climbing to off in the distance. It’s a ways out there. But hot damn, I feel great. I go deep down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts, as I often do when I’m riding long by myself. How cool is it that the sandwich I just ate is being turned into energy? Then it is being being sent through all the plumbing in my body just to get me up there to that pass. I remind myself to drink some more water. I don’t want to mess with that plumbing. Neurons firing and calories getting combusted like coal being shoveled into a steam engine. Up the climb I go.
The road gets a little steeper and the sand a little deeper. I do the obligatory cursing of the washboard braking bumps and get on with it. I find that tempo and just move my legs to go forward. My breath is in control and body is still feeling great. This is fun as hell!
I remind myself to look around a little more. I’m in the desert and the sun is setting. Goddammit man. Look around! Then, almost involuntarily, I got off the bike and started walking. This used to happen to me a lot on long bike tours. But it’s been a while. I walked for about 100 yards with my head on a swivel, then got back to riding.
It is a really cool way to break up the ride for me. Forget all that macho shit you have been taught. That walking is somehow shameful. Hop off and get a little more in tune with your environment. Look around, behind and down. You will see a little more each time you do. Sometimes you just gotta walk it out!
When I was first starting to make words here on the internet, I posted a small tribute to MLK. It was 10 years and 2 days ago. I remember being surprised by the backlash of emails and comments from all the racists and haters. He wasn’t great because of this, he was a bad person because of that. “Dirty you are an idiot to fall for that liberal propaganda” (actual email I received).
My freshman year of high school, a teacher made us read a bunch of Martin Luther King speeches for a homework assignment over the long weekend. He handed out blurry photo copies to the class, it was a startling stack of papers for a kid to see. I wasn’t very good at school, or even reading, back then. But for some reason I was captivated by the thought of a man who led a revolution (and died for it) and now has a holiday in his honor. Just like a president or an explorer, this dude must have been the real deal.
I first dug into Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Right from the start, he comes out swinging saying basically, I don’t normally respond to dipshits but you guys seem a little less fucked than most. That’s some Punk Rock shit, right there. I kept reading. This dude sure does like to use a lot of words. But holy crap, he is dropping some knowledge.
I then moved on to the “I Have a Dream” speech. By this time I was familiar with the crescendo of the speech. We have all heard the soundbites. But I had no idea there was so much more to it. A line stood out to me: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note…” I didn’t even know what that meant so I asked my great grandfather, who’s porch I was sitting on. He explained it out of context and in, and my mind was blown. He started to tell me about how immigrant Italians like him were treated like shit when they came to America. But nothing compared to what the people with darker skin go through every day in this country. What the hell? I tried to take the conversation further but it wasn’t something he wanted to talk about any more. I remember that moment clearly. He seemed conflicted and angry. It was rare for such a badass to be flustered.
My lesson was rounded off with “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. This one seemed a little different, a little more casual compared to the other two. It fired up my imagination. I visualized the scenarios he described. I busted out a globe and looked where Mephis and Jerusalem were. I didn’t understand everything he was talking about, but I got the vibe.
“…because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
I had so many questions. Is the world messed up now? Why was it so messed up then? 1968 wasn’t very long ago. Holy shit. I sure hope everyone else in my class read these for their homework.
There are a whole bunch of great speeches. I would encourage you to check them out. We have supercomputers in our pockets. There is no excuse not to know. Three speeches forced on me as a kid opened my mind to the evil injustices humans are capable of. But also the power of the human spirit to not back down and make change happen. The likes of MLK, Mandela, Gandhi and Chavez will always stand up and be heard. Who is that going to be in this generation? I can’t wait to find out. It’s OK to stand up for what’s not right. Even if the haters have made you a little numb.
Today I celebrate the punk rock middle fingers MLK gave to the crusty old system. Let’s all go ride bikes and be excellent to each other!
Jealous cowards try to control Rise above, we’re gonna rise above They distort what we say Rise above, we’re gonna rise above Try and stop what we do Rise above, we’re gonna rise above When they can’t do it themselves Rise above, we’re gonna rise above We are tired of your abuse Try to stop us, it’s no use Society’s arms of control Rise above, we’re gonna rise above Think they’re smart, can’t think for themselves Rise above, we’re gonna rise above Laugh at us behind our backs Rise above, we’re gonna rise above I find satisfaction in what they lack Rise above, we’re gonna rise above We are tired of your abuse Try to stop us, but it’s no use We are tired of your abuse Try to stop us, but it’s no use We’re born with a chance Rise above, we’re gonna rise above I am…
There is a lot of crazy bullshit going on in the world today. I’m sure you have noticed. You can’t escape it on the screens in front of you. But I find it hard to get too worried. We have seen it all before and it’s a cycle that we will most likely see again in our lifetime. The world around us gets fucked up, some old guys in suits get power crazy, overly puritanical and life starts to get extra bland. Then eventually human nature takes over and we will reach a point where we finally have had enough and a resistance will form. The resistance is usually led by the youth, maybe because they have the most energy. More likely because they haven’t been conditioned to actually give a fuck yet. Never underestimate the strength of someone with nothing to loose.
The Ronald Reagan dark times gave birth to punk and hardcore. I don’t think you could have had one without the other because every hero need a villain. But in an era of complacency and the leftover dregs of disco, the kids rose up. They sang short songs with angry lyrics. Because fuck you. They made their own albums, printed their own zines and spread out across the country to meet up with others like them. They led a resistance and changed lives of people around them. Whether they knew it or not.
I was fortunate enough to witness the tail end of this resistance. I remember being a kid, probably too young to be going to such shows, and seeing all this go down. Technically what I witnessed was “post hardcore” but it had all the same themes of those who came before. For a chubby little kid, addicted to skateboarding from a squalid mill town it was fucking paradise. I was right where I needed to be and I thank those older dudes for letting me tag along those first few shows. Initially it was a novelty to see everyone in the pit smashing into each other and feeling the groove of the guitars crunching. Then after a while, I realized it was more than just bodies colliding and high volume. All these people were just like me, but completely different all at the same time. Rich, poor, kids from the country or from the projects and we all were there for the same reason. As I started going to more shows I learned more about this new world around me. Why were those dudes from Syracuse so damn angry on stage? What the fuck is a Vegan? That band sings about suicide and their parents fighting. Holy shit, other people think about that stuff? This crew shows up and calls themselves the Anti Racists Action? Yeah, that’s something I can get behind. Some pretty life altering shit for a 15 year old.
It was my first experience with a double life which I would later replicate in corporate America as an adult. I would go to school like a good little boy during the day and then get to shows by any means necessary at night. That was my real school. I learned about social engineering. Things like how to mooch car rides, navigate public transit, dip out on taxi cabs, and even hop the occasional freight train. I could talk my way into 18 and over shows on a weekday and still be home in time that nobody knew any different. At the shows, the person with the mic was the professor, the band were the TA’s. The people on the dance floor were my study group and the tables set up in the back were the extra curricular activities.
I wonder where the kids go to real school these days? I’m over a quarter of a century removed from my education but the lessons I learned still permeate my daily thoughts. I still have that fire burning inside even though I find myself a bit more out of touch than I’d like to be. But that is to be expected as home geography and priorities change with age. What I do see is kids rising up all over the world. Punk rage is alive and well in Chile and in Hong Kong and a young woman named Greta might just be the new Sid Vicious.
I am optimistic that a change soon come, but I have a feeling it might have to get a little worse before that can happen. What gets the kids fired up? What will make them say “Not in my house, fascists” “fuck you cop!” “eat this baseball bat, Nazi” like we did when we were mad. Maybe we aren’t supposed to act like that anymore. We should sit up straight, fall in line and reap the rewards of your first world privilege. Or maybe we are simply too comfortable under the warm blanket of complacency to rock the boat? I don’t see much problem with getting a little pissed.
No matter what happens, I hope we at least get some good new music out of the deal.
Fall. According to my social media feed, it’s everyone’s favorite season. I’m not into it. It means the end of summer and now that I live in the mountains, means that all the trails will be covered in bullshit snow soon. While all the tourons are walking around in a daze looking at leaves like suburban soccer moms at a yard sale, I’m in a goddamn hurry. There is an extra sense of urgency to cram more stuff into every day.
I was chilling at the Vail Outlier Festival on a Friday afternoon, doing some bike park laps and hanging with some good people. When I got the call from my buddy Liz. She is nomadic, living in a van, and her compass was pointing her towards me in western CO.
Liz: “We should meet up and do something dumb”
Dirty: “Seems reasonable. You ever climb a 14er with your bike? We should go up Mt Elbert”
Liz: “Nope, haven’t done that yet. I’m in. Drop me a pin when you get to camp. I’m probably five hours behind you”
Just like that. I knew what I was doing the next day. So I went home, grabbed the singlespeed (favorite and lightest bike for bad ideas), some camp gear and headed towards Leadville. I was really looking forward to this. I have been hearing so many great things about all the trail work that had been done there all summer long. It has been getting rave reviews from some very creditable sources. Might as well go have a look.
Liz met me at camp just as predicted. About five hours and a few beers behind me. We both agree that we are not in the “alpine start” mood. I teach her the term “Arizona Alpine Start” which is where you try real hard to get rolling before noon and pack lights. We proceed to stay up way too late catching up, howling back at the coyotes and staring at the camp fire. We set off the next morning at the crack of 10. I leave a little before Liz, since she is one of those athletes and on a geared bike and I am neither of those things. I head uphill right out of camp and it would be that way for most of the afternoon.
Mt Elbert is Colorado’s highest mountain at 14,440ft. Named after Samuel Hitt Elbert, the Governor of what was then known as the Territory of Colorado back in 1874. I love the history of the American west and shit like this make my imagination wander. I wonder if he was a good guy or just another scumbag politician. He was a republican and used to hang out with Ulysses S. Grant. What did they talk about? Winters must have really been shitty up here without puffy jackets. This is the type of shit runs through my head as I stomp on the pedals, wheezing up the hill and trying to embrace the suck. Things change the moment I turn off the dirt road and on to the trail. The trail was absolutely beautiful and covered in yellow leaves. There was no more suck, just work to go further up this mountain and see what I can see.
Liz caught up with me just below tree line. We spent the next couple of hours chatting away and stopping for lots of snack breaks. There was some riding, but once we were up high it was mostly hike-a-bike. It was a beautiful day and I didn’t mind leaning on my bike and going for a walk.
Somewhere around 13,000ft, Liz dropped me like a bad habit. It was nice of her to humor me for so long. I expected this to happen a lot sooner. At least she waited until the trail turned steeper and got considerably more rocky. Alone on the side of this beautiful mountain, I would stop often and make sure to look behind me. Hot damn, this is going to be so fun to ride down! I paused around 14,000ft to snap a photo of my bike laying on a perfect little piece of singletrack. I had a moment where I just laughed to myself. This is the stuff little mountain bike dreams are made of. Sixteen year old me would be really stoked on what 40-something me is doing right now.
“Alright. Enough emo bullshit. Let’s get this over with, my hands are freezing.” I say to myself as I look up and see Liz almost to the summit. I put my head down and march on. A half hour later, I push on up to the summit ridge to see Liz shivering behind a rock trying to get out of the wind. “I didn’t want to go to the summit without you. Let’s go”. Yes, ma’am. That was awful nice of her. We got to the actual summit and for some reason, the wind that was biting cold 100 yards earlier, was nonexistent. Pictures were taken. Summit beers were had. At one point, I jumped up on the tallest stack of rocks on the tallest mountain in the Rockies, did my best outdoorsy Instagram influencer pose and declared myself the highest mountain biker in Colorado!
Time to cash in all those feet of climbing and get the hell off this hill. We took exactly one photo of the descent because there was no need to stop having so much fun. I won’t even describe the downhill because I wouldn’t do it justice and you should go do it yourself some day.
We got back to camp, packed up and high tailed it into town. No activity in the greater Leadville, CO area is complete without a stop at High Mountain Pies for pizza and beer recovery snacks. Go there.
Riding and hiking at a casual pace, it took us about 6 hours to get to the summit and about 45 minutes to get down. That is a pretty good ratio, in my opinion. Especially for getting to the top of something so goddamn cool. This isn’t something ground breaking. Many have done it before and many more will do it after. But it is one badass weekend warrior objective and I would encourage any mountain biker who likes huge views and beautiful singletrack to give it a shot. I (We) owe that local trail crew a whole bunch of beers and high-5s for all the great work they have done. I hope I run into them next season. I can’t wait for all this stupid snow to melt so I can go up there and do it again.
I use the term “falling off a cliff” to describe partying a lot. It’s that moment when things go from fun and games, to fucked up in a hurry. Like when you are drinking beer and decide to switch to whiskey or tequila and you just fall right off the cliff of drunk. You know, when all you want to do is sing pop songs and fight inanimate object. Or when you are having yourself some edibles and you are all like “Man, I don’t think it’s working” so you have some more. Then the next thing you know you are shirtless, sitting in the refrigerator dipping cheese slices in a jar of mayonnaise. You fell off the cliff.
I’ve spent a lot of my life around actual cliffs too. From a past life as a rock climber, to all the sketchy trails I have ridden around the world. I have prided myself on never actually falling off one. Well, I can’t really say that anymore.
Life has been pretty hectic lately and I was looking forward to an actual vacation. I travel a bit for work and some for play, but in the past year I have rarely just checked out for an extended amount of time to simply ride my bike and party. That is where Singlespeed World Championships comes into play. This year’s meeting of the minds was in Slovenia and it would be my escape. Honestly, it is some place that I never thought I would go to ride a bike. But over the years I have made some friends from the region who have raved about the riding and I trust their judgement. So I bought the ticket and went for a ride. I will tell more of the event later, because SSWC 2019 has made singlespeeding punk rock again.
The friend family descended from all different corners of the world to the little mountain town of Kobarid, Slovenia. Some folks didn’t want to ride right away and decided to have a fancy dinner with some TV chef. But goddammit, I didn’t sit on an airplane for 9 hours not to ride. Gimmie a beer, a sandwich, point me to the trail head and I’m good. The ride was described at “EPIC” by our local hosts. OK, buddy… I’m listening, tell me more. “A two hour climb and then you will descend 2000 meters into Italy to get gelato and an Aperol spritz”. Well now you are just talking dirty to me. Let’s go.
We climbed for fucking ever. Up and over a mountain to a little stone hut with an Italian flag on it. Damn, I love crossing some imaginary lines on my bike. It was an amazing group of friends new and old. The vibe was full of stoke even for the folks who might have been in a little over their head. It was an ass kicker of a climb by any standards and not a single derailer in sight.
We reach the summit and it was absolutely stunning. Craggy mountains behind us and the Adriatic Sea way off in the distance in front of us. We snacked, made photos and waited for everyone to regroup. This is mountain biking, my friends. You know this moment. Tired but happy, sweaty and getting cold. Putting on your jacket that you thankfully remembered to pack and eating those snacks that always taste better on the tops of mountains. We made the group photo then it was time to drop in. I was smiling like a kid on Christmas.
We had a local showing us the way and he went first, then I dropped in behind Prosauce and Steph. Two Americans that I know pretty well, and after the ride we did the day before, I knew I wanted to ride with them today. We were hauling ass and having ourselves a hell of a time. Brakes heating up and my hands were starting to cramp. This is what I fucking came here for! I can’t tell you how long we descended for, but it was a really long time. At one point our local guide said we were only about half way down and it blew my mind.
Then he mentioned there was a mandatory hike-a-bike coming up soon. I wasn’t too mad to hear that because my old hands could really use a break. We got to this awkward little boulder field on an old bench cut trail, started to hike and chat among ourselves . At one point, I was looking right at Prosauce saying something witty, I’m sure. When all of the sudden my feet sipped out from under me and I started falling. Down the hill I went, ass first and bouncing off a couple trees. Once it registered that I was falling, I saw some roots sticking out of the hillside and grabbed them. It wasn’t the smartest idea, because this dislodged a cobblestone sized rock that bounced off the front of my helmet and my cheek. I got knocked silly from that and don’t remember much else, other than seeing my bike bounce past me. I eventually came to a stop and I took such a knock to the head that I was quite dazed.
It’s funny to me now, but I distinctly remember thinking “Why did somebody punch me in the face? It feels like somebody punched me square in the face. Everyone seems so cool. What did I do to piss them off?”. Our local guide was there in a flash. “Dirty are you OK?!” Yeah, man. Just give me a minute to get my head straight. I have felt this before and I’ll be good in a minute or two. Please stop asking me if I am OK. I did a little self assessment. The helmet took most of the rock and my arm is bleeding a little but doesn’t look like stitches are necessary. Where the hell is my bike? Then I see this dude from Belgium, who I’ve only known for a few hours, charging back up the hill with my bike over his shoulder. That badass went a couple hundred feet further down this gulch just to get my bike. Damn, thanks. I stood and looked back up to where the trail was, it was a ways up there and it was steep as hell. Everyone was visibly worried about me but I assured them that I was alright. I laughed to myself a little as I started to scramble up to them. I just fell of a goddamn cliff!
The tumble ripped my seat off the rails but the rest of my bike was perfectly fine. Not even a scratch on the grips. A little duct tape and ingenuity and we were back on our way. Luckily it was all downhill because I felt like dog shit. The trail popped out in this beautiful little village in Italy and, as promised, I got my gelato and cocktail. What a crazy ride.
*This was originally posted on my other site a few weeks earlier, but I also wanted it to live here.
I never could have imagined that I would find myself back in the sweltering heat of Kansas this summer. But here I am. A buddy needed a hand with some things so I said fuck it, bought the ticket and took the ride. Things move slower here in the summer time. The lack of topography leads me to a lot of thinking and daydreaming. It also leads to a lot of observation. Not unlike when a person looses their sense sight and they end up with super hearing. Less distracted by the visuals of every day life, they can now be purely focused on the sounds, smells and textures around them. You place me in a microscopic town on the prairie and my senses of mountains, cities and deserts are missing. I start to focus on the simplest of things around me. I notice the smells the most. The putrid smell of hoarding and mildew mixed with the aroma of stale cigarette smoke and unleashed pets. The hot grass as the morning heats up and the pleasant smell of home cooking. There aren’t a lot of hip breakfast joints around these parts. At the days end, the sun takes longer to set around here. The horizon is below street level and the shadows of the buildings distort like a fun house mirror every evening. Long and lean with a hint of unnatural.
I have a bicycle with me. I always have a bicycle with me. But I’m not out by that one place where the trails are good. The riding here is so hot and monotonous that it feels like jogging. So I just go for a run instead. It’s something different and having to watch where I step is slightly more stimulating than staring at the white line.
At least the people are nice. I’ve had a lot of very pleasant conversations with people living such different lives than me, that I often feel like I used my passport to get here. I met a woman on the street today who was the main character in the Listener song “Seatbelt Hands”. She even called me sweetie and honey in the brief fifteen second interaction we had. I wanted to know her story. How she developed that speech pattern and what was the story behind that homemade tattoo of a star on the inside of her wrist.
She’s the kind of lady that calls everybody baby honey, sugar, sweetie, she’s always making friends and she keeps us all locked outside her thick leather skin she always starts with a smile, it’s small and butter yellow but easier than a handshake, doesn’t like her hands touched she tans a lot, gets burnt a lot smoking through the cartons but then gets put out so much, she’s considered a bargain she was born on the fourth of July with her hand on her heart loves america, & being patronized…
I have been listening to the world around me a lot more lately. Mostly because my fellow man has been disappointing me so much, that I just don’t have much to say about it anymore. Maybe my expectations are too high despite keeping them lower than the scars of my past. I know it is a wave that will come and go. I’m going to play it different this time and keep quiet. I’ll let that wave of disappointment and deceit break and wash to shore without me. I used to fight it but it does me no good. Telling scumbags that they are scumbags only makes you sound like an asshole. It’s no different than trying to tame the ocean. It’s a futile effort. So I say it to myself, smile and move on.
Once I stopped talking and listened more, I noticed how many people have a lot of old stories. Tales of experiences they’ve had but they will never do it again because of this and that or the other thing. They blame parenthood and money mostly. Both are weak excuses. It’s as if the fun times in their life had an expiration date and it has already come and gone. A delicious and fresh past has now decayed into a spoiled future, rotting and waiting to be thrown away. It doesn’t matter if they are 25 or 65, most people tend to be living in the past. I love a good story more than most, but I am also addicted to the daily pursuit of making more. Most people around me appear to be addicted to the opiate of complacency.
I go over that cliche mountain pass into the second half of my life this week. This may in fact be my midlife crisis rant. But I think I have been in that crisis since I was twenty two. I’ll be damned if I am going to stop making stories. I am just getting started, motherfucker. I will not rust. I will not rot away. I will not expire early.
Talk less. Listen more. Make new stories. Keep it dirty…
I have never been a big fan of physical contact with people outside my immediate family. If you come in for a handshake, I’ll probably give you a high 5 or preferably a knuckle pound. I am not a germophobe, I’m just not really into it. Growing up in a lower middle-class mill town, surrounded by various machismo immigrant populations (my family included) showing emotions as a man wasn’t a thing. Not that it was directly discouraged, it just didn’t exist. As I grew older I started to notice the institutionalized homophobia around me. Men shouldn’t express emotions to each other for fear of ridicule or being somehow less of a man. That never really jived with me but I played along.
As I became more interested in alternative forms of sport, I evolved away from homogeneous playing fields of traditional stick and ball sports. Instead choosing to dive head first into skateboarding, mountain biking and climbing. This opened up a whole new world of friends and experiences. Like tends to find like and I soon met people from all walks of life, race and religion that shared my obsessions. I started to develop amazing bonds with an extremely diverse group of people. International travel, trips to the hospital, run-ins with the cops, hard fought summits, and multi-day bike rides tend to bond friends a little more than your traditional ball fields and locker room banter.
Over the years some of these relationships have become so close that the only thing keeping us from being brothers and sisters is the lack of shared parents. One lasting brotherhood is my buddy Joey. A mountain of a man, built more like a bouncer with an outward appearance of a motorcycle gang affiliation, he has become one of my better friends in this world. Since the first day we met, he has greeted me with a hug. I expressed my discomfort in the situation and he was not hearing any of it.
“I’m from the desert and we do things differently here. You are going to have to get over it, man.”
At first glance, he isn’t the kind of person you disagree with, so I kept my mouth shut. But there was no hiding the apprehension on my face.
“Plus, when you walk around all day looking like me, it’s pretty fun to give out random hugs.”
We had a good laugh and have been friends ever since. I reflect on that moment a lot when I have rough interactions with people. I wish I could be more like Joey. I want to squash my inner critic and my conditioned response to shy away from human contact. This year I decided to force a change. If the bad habits were formed out of repetition so can new habits be formed. I made a New Years resolution to simply hug more people. I will throw caution to the wind and deal with all the awkward moments. I’m pleased to say that, now deep into the second half of the year, it has been a success.
Saying hello and goodbye gets a hug. Sweaty, muddy or chalk covered hands? It doesn’t matter, you get a hug too. I’ll grab you and say it’s good to see you. Because it is. Or I’ll tell you that I missed you, because I did. I’ll grab a little longer and tell you to have a great trip and be safe, because that is what I truly wish for you. This new habit has dramatically changed the way I approach my day. It has maybe even made me a little bit better person. The world seems like a fucked up place right now and handshakes aren’t going to save us any time soon. But maybe, just maybe, grabbing a fellow human and smashing hearts together will make a difference.
I was sitting on the porch with a buddy talking about beer. It’s a favorite topic of ours and we can carry on for hours. At one point he asked me what was the best beer I’ve had so far this year. I hemmed and hawed and ultimately couldn’t come up with anything that stood out enough to be the best. The conversation moved on to other things but the best beer question was stuck in my head. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the best beer I’ve had in any given year, except for 2015. That was a special one, let me explain.
I was six days into what would turn out to be an eleven week bike tour from Colorado to North Carolina. With the cool hills of Colorado behind me, I was now significantly into crossing Kansas. I had underestimated just how goddamn hot the prairie could be in July. A steady crosswind blew hard against my left side all day, every day. It offered no respite from the heat. Some days it blew so hard that I would tack across the road like a sailboat just to try and get some advantage. Hot, humid and windy. This is what I imagined being insides somebody’s mouth must feel like. It was wheat harvesting season and various farm equipment moved about all day. Combines lumbered through the fields and pickup trucks filled with workers drove by in every direction. A steady flow of big trucks heading out to the fracking fields passed too close every time. Why do they always have to pass so fucking close? Kansas, the breadbasket and gas pump of middle America.
Shady spots were hard to find along the road. Even with the shadows getting a little longer in the late day sun, it was often a few miles in between patches of shade. I was roasting on the bike all day. My route took me purposely out of the way, where towns were a little further apart. I chose this route because it was completely different than the Adventure Cycling route. Not there was anything wrong with their way, I just wanted to meet people who may have never seen bicycle tourists before. Get to to know them without preconceived notions and have, what I considered, a more full experience. One of the experiments and goals of this ride was simply to wave and say hello to everyone I saw, just to see what happens.
I couldn’t tell ya exactly where I was at this point of my trip. My memory isn’t that good. Unfortunately most cliches are based on truth and everything really does look the same in Kansas. But one benefit of the homogeneous landscape was that it gave me plenty of time to think. I thought a lot about the demise of the family farm as I passed one factory farm and stock yard after another. I pedaled through towns that were still dots on the map but were nothing but modern day ghost towns with only a few scattered residents. Staring down at the white line for hours I would get angry, then a little sad and often lost in my thoughts as I pondered just about how complex the issue really is. The Walmart of the prairie, crushing the little guy in the name of progress. Manifest Destiny, the sequel.
It was later in the day and I saw a farmer a ways off in a field inside his combine. I waved, and to my surprise he waved back. I didn’t think to much about it and kept staring down at that damn white line. About 20 minutes later, a pickup truck pulls along side me and flags me down. We both pull over and to my surprise, the farmer from a few miles back jumps out. An older guy, maybe in his fifties with round face and a bald head under a poorly fitting baseball cap.
“Saw ya back there and thought you could probably use a cold beer. I figured since there ain’t no turns on this road for 12 more miles, you’d be pretty easy to track down.”
I reply “No shit? That would be great!”
Then he reaches into a cooler in the truck bed and throws me a can. I stare at it for a long second. It was an ice cold Keystone Light. Knowing where I was in the world, I quickly scan the can and my facial expression must have changed just enough for him to say:
“Yeah, I know it’s 3.2% but I can drink those things all damn day and still drive. So it’s OK by me!”
It’s more than OK. I crack the can and poured it down my throat. It was so damn cold that it made my chest hurt. I winced and coughed a little bit in between gulps. We both had a good laugh. He asked me where I was heading and I said North Carolina. He just laughed again and said “That’s a hell of a long ways away. Good luck, buddy”. Then he got back in his truck, did a u-turn and drove back to his field.
I was so caught off guard by the whole situation that I failed to even get the man’s name. The thought of him stopping his combine, walking to his truck and driving down the road to give a cold beer to a stranger is amazing. I owe a farmer in western Kansas a beer some day.
So there ya have it. The best beer of 2015, and maybe to date, was a 3.2% Keystone Light while standing on a country road in the middle of Kansas. Beer elitists and arm chair Cicerones will scoff, but you had to be there…
Every Tuesday I pedal away from the office and treat myself to some BBQ at the joint about a mile down the road. It’s a nice escape from brown bagging it at my desk. Why Tuesdays? The BBQ joint originally lured me in with cheap cider specials and mediocre beans, but I have always had an affinity for celebrating Tuesdays. They are the forgotten days. Not a buzz-killing bummer like a Monday and not as optimistic as a “hump day”. It’s like the forgotten middle child of the week.
The ride over there is short but it can be a little spicy. Two busy streets intersecting with no bike lane or shoulder. One of those situations where you have to be traffic just to stay safe. In less than a mile I was yelled at by some redneck about splitting lanes and some basic soccer mom tried to scold me for not wearing a helmet. Not being the biggest fan of unsolicited advice, I arrived at my lunch spot a little worked up. I sit down at the bar and order a whiskey-ginger with some beans and greens. Whiskey because I was mad. Well whiskey because my standards are low.
Normally I use this lunch time to listen to an audio book or read the news. Pretend I’m a productive member of society and all that. But lately I have been listening to a lot of Gram Parsons in my alone time. I already have a whiskey in front of me, might as well put my headphones on and crank up the tunes. You ever wonder who that guy is at the end of the bar sipping whiskey, listening to tunes and grinning like a creep? Now you know.
It’s bitter cold outside, even at noon, and it snowed a little last night. Just enough to dust the tops of the brown grass and make a little ice in the gutter. I look outside from my seat at the bar and the snow is blowing around like sawdust on the street. It’s the kind of dry snow you see in the high desert. The snow and the tunes take me away to memories of bitter cold days spent wandering around Joshua Tree. Sleeping in the dirt, dodging rangers, climbing rocks until there was no skin left on my hands and then riding bikes to all the remote corners of the desert while the skin grew back. A special place that shaped me as a man. A place where Gram’s buddies tried to cremate his body to honor is final wish. They fucked it up and got caught. But damn, those are some good friends. They don’t make them like that very often.
My bike is outside leaning against the window and the wind blows just hard enough to make it move. The bartender hears the brake lever screech on the glass and she gives me a death stare. Saying with her eyes “How man times do I have to tell ya not to lean that thing against the window!”. I take advantage of the eye contact and order another. She smiles.
I pay my tab and throw the rest of my drink in my water bottle. Sufficiently warmed from the drink, I unzip my jacket and let the cold hit my tshirt as I stomp on the pedals. Gram is still singing in my ears. I sing along like a madman cutting through parking lots and hopping curbs to avoid the car bound people. Nobody yelled at me this time. If they did, I didn’t hear them. The desert winter might be two thousand miles away but it is also right here with me on this ride. I’m on a time machine. An hour ago I was in Appalachia and now I’m temporarily in the Mojave. I smile and squint into the sun. Damn, I rode too fast. I’m almost there and “Return of the Grievous Angel” isn’t over yet. I swerve to take a longer bum trail across the train tracks. Standing between the rails, I slam what’s left in my water bottle. The song hits that final verse:
Oh but I remember something you once told me And I’ll be damned if it did not come true Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down…
It’s time to play grownup for four more hours. Then I will do it all again on the ride home.