Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tough Day at the Office? . . .

. . . or, How to Make Yourself Hurt Like Hell in 12 Miles or Fewer:

Blow out of work leaving things undone, grab the attorney across the hall for a couple of beers, then get on the bike and go, no water bottle, no preparation, kind of having to pee . . . just go.

Bates to Forbes to Stanton.

Instant therapy.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Then the wheels came off . . .

I've always been fascinated by the image of the wheels coming off. For me, at least, few metaphors are more vivid, more evocative, more perfectly descriptive of a certain state of affairs. The wheels break away and the carriage clatters to the road, scraping and groaning, its passengers tumbled together in the wrack or thrown free of the wreckage, bodies akimbo in the gutter or amid traffic, under the disintegrating debris that was, just a moment ago, a viable conveyance. Literally. Figuratively. No matter.

The romance, perhaps, is in the immediacy of the connotation. Mostly, one hears the figure of speech deployed in contexts that suggest suddenness, a lack of forewarning, an exigency unforeseeable and hence particular startling and traumatic. But therein the lie, a romantic notion belied time and again by experience.

Perhaps the warning appears in the guise of a new creak, nearly inaudible amid the road noise. Or maybe a subtle shimmy developed in the chassis, something only the most neurotic, attentive drover would discern amid the ordinary vibration of travel. That minor wash in the road down around the bend by Simpson's farm? You know the one -- you're always complaining about it. Well maybe it got wuder in those awful storms that tore through town in the small hours of the morning last Tuesday chased ahead of that cold front, and it grew just big enough to swallow the front axle whole and shatter it in its inflexible jaws, turning the carriage's momentum into an instrument of its own destruction.

But what to do what to do? For every shudder does not augur catastrophe, and, as though the contingencies outlined above weren't enough, the very act of sensing threat in every irregularity can so scatter one's attention that it effectively pries the wheels off itself, destroying the vehicle as surely as the supposed threats themselves.

And hence the dance. Do you hear that? No, not that, that's been there forever (a different anomaly once feared but slowly integrated into the understanding of the status quo), that other thing -- that ree ree ree? Shh! -- Hear it? -- Hear how its in sync with the wheels? -- It speeds up as we do -- Yeah, that, right, you hear it. Whaddaya think? I look and can't find anything -- But it's something.

It's a fool's errand, chasing down every noise, and it might be better, on balance, to ignore all of it, to welcome the suddenness that follows blithe disregard, to abandon any notion of prevention. But tonight, I really think I hear something. Something I'm pretty sure isn't nothing. It's there, I can just make it out, but I'll be damned if I can pin it down.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Touring for Dummies

We don't think about these things. Or I don't. The cold. The water issues. The sores. The frost. The reaching out of my sleeping back to find glasses frosted, cigarette lighter encrusted, the wet elbow from the wet sleeping bag from the cold morning. But then if we did, if I did, we'd never end up in these situations, and what's the fun of that.

So instead there I was, awake just prior to done, poking the fire as though to awaken it, lying back in the darkness to envy the moon her diffuse beauty through the pre-dawn mist, wondering whether sleep would return, whether dawn approached, which direction that was, east suggesting a great deal of night left, west suggesting morning's approach, wondering.

It all began innocuously enough: a Myspace bulletin from a friend suggesting a little ride: a jaunt out of the city, through Mckeesport, and twenty miles or so down the Yough Trail, 45 miles each way, Saturday into Sunday, not enough miles to really hurt, especially given the flat terrain, just a way out of town, sleeping in the open, a celebration of fall.

When we met Saturday morning at Tom's Diner, we were a ragtag quartet. B1 (of Urban Velo) and E (of BikePgh) and B2 (whom I finished an alleycat with, once), gathering for a heavy breakfast and a slow prep for the ride. After breakfast, we scattered, variously, to Giant Eagle, Thick Bikes, and REI for random gear and provisions, before finally reuniting at, and leaving from, REI on Southside a little after 1 for our ride.

The ride itself was much as B1 had suggested, short, low key, pleasant. Temps were between 50 and 60, and I changed out of my fleece tights even before leaving breakfast. From REI, we rode out to the end of the Southside trail, then walked a quarter-mile down the railroad right of way to Sandcastle. There, we rode over to the Greenwood Bridge, and climbed the stairs to its southern end, picking up on a strip of dirt alongside the roadbed down toward Homestead, finally entering traffic where it became practical.

From there, it was 837 through Homestead, out past Kennywood, and then toward McKeesport. After passing through McKeesport's blight, we found ourselves at the trailhead, where we passed up a short climb into the woods, B2 and I discovering the surprisingly well-maintained trail for the first time.

Whatever it is that opposes a sense of urgency is what we had, and we took our jolly good time. We were all on road bikes, so we didn't travel slowly, but we were perhaps too confident of the simplicity of the ride, and so we tarried, enjoyed our various and frequent breaks, were slow back to the bikes. B1 rode a track bike equipped with jury-rigged panniers over his front wheel; E rode a touring bike equipped with panniers over the rear wheel; I rode my Ti-bike, the roadie I don't use nearly enough, and my gear and provisions rode in an unfortunate backpack that my shoulders are still talking angrily about; B2 rode a roadbike and carried his gear in a messenger bag.

The mileage was easy, though, and aside from a few close buzzes in McKeesport, everything was very low key.

Finally, after a stop for ice cream at a trail-side convenience store in Newton, we reached our desination, a campground 40-plus miles from my house, fifteen miles or so down the trail. All along, B1 had been defining this trip by the fact that we'd reach a brilliant shelter, a three-sided structure with the fourth occupied by a working fireplace, stone, with a chimney -- the Lexus of lean-tos, in a sense. And the shelter was just where he said we'd find it . . . and occupied.

Ensued from there a faltering discussion of whether we'd ride onward, to the next campground some 12 miles (and the last hour of daylight) away, or set up without cover at one of the firepits in the same space. The campgrounds near the shelter featured firepits and cinder platforms for tent erection, which would have been delightful had we a tent. But of course we hadn't brought tents, confident that we were the only people in the planet who knew about the ubercool shelter B1 had identified.

After some negotiation, we opted to stay, confident in our gear and the rain-free forecast, and, at least for my part, vaguely excited at the prospect of sleeping under the stars on a cold night. We selected an isolated spot, for privacy, and settled in -- picnic tables, firepit, firewood, etc. It wasn't until after dark at 8 or so that we realized that the pumps at the campsite actually were fed by a conventional waterline, and had been shut down for the winter. Reluctantly, we were forced to consider whether four of us could get through the night on the 20 or so ounces of water (not including my bottle of frappucino) we had amongst us. Deciding that we could not, the two B's decided to head back down the trail four miles to the nearest convenience store, which (conveniently) was open. Eight miles on a star-lit trail, with only street-oriented headlights to guide them. Easily, the trip MVP's on that front alone.

All of this is building up to that moment, near midnight, when we bedded down. I can't speak for anyone other than me, but there's something special about lying down in the darkness, next to a fire, and sealing up a mummy bag to leave little more than an eyeslit, and staring up at the stars above. Within moments, the heal I was resting on the ground, the other foot resting across it, began to take on the cold (my pad is 3/4 length), and I pondered for the umpteenth time the prospect of hypothermia.

Of course, a night with a low of 30 isn't the most dangerous condition one might imagine, but I'm no veteran of this sort of camping, and my 20-degree sleeping bag is nearing 20 years old. I've taken care of it, but I had no illusions about it living up to its rating after so many years, and so I spent the first part of the evening suspicious, wondeing whether it was really up to the task, and taking dead seriously the danger implicit in falling asleep in an inferior bag on a night at or below freezing.

But my heel was hardly numbing, the bag seemed adequate in the heat of the first, and then there were the stars overhead. The stars were beautiful, the woods peaceful except for the periodic trains passing on the other side of the river and the snores of my friends.

For a spell, I slept deeply, my sleep growing irregular only near dawn, when I noticed the fire faltering and the fact that most of our woodpile had disappeared, the word of Brad2, who we later learned had slept poorly and thus tended to the fire intermittently all night, making all of us more comfortable.

And then my eyes opened on full-blown morning, B1 tending the fire, my bag and our bikes encrusted with frost, sleeping bag moistened outside with dew. We lingered for a while, hours in fact, toasting cheap bagels, drinking coffee from a nalgene french press, continuing the endless bullshitting session of the night before, warming to the morning.

B2 and I complained of sores; neither of us had done a long ride in a while. But for me at least the bike welcomed me when we finally got moving. Lots of bitching and moaning, for sure, but that's how these things go. We lazily returned, stopping for breakfast in Newton, for no good reason at a cemetery near the start of the trail, and finally saying good bye at the Hot Metal Bridge, where we split for our various destinations.

But what a way to welcome the cold, and to reject its tendency to drive us inward. Instead, we four consider the cripness of its air, its bugless clarity, its way of pruning crowds down to a hard core, and welcome the transition, the invitation, the challenge. I should do this more often.

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