Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On Wheels

On reservation lands, western New Mexico

Each cresting hill birthed new miles of the same reality: sunlicked desert, tumbling weeds, and a diminishing road steering my eyes to the next horizon. For all our eyes do, they just can't see the grandness of these places. They only look side to side and try to piece it together like your phone's panorama feature. This is the catch of binocular vision: you will see deeply, but narrowly. A camera does even less, so here I find myself trying with words.

I felt camaraderie with larger things like this tree. We are shadow casters. In a monotonous landscape, we are the markers of relative distance. On the day I saw three vehicles I began saluting the trees. The solitude was wide as the sky, and my tree friends reduced my loneliness to a manageable level. To some degree, the thing I most noticed when looking over enormous stretches of desert road was how wonderfully and terribly alone I was. There's no burst of adrenaline at the realization--just the steady understanding that if I don't make my body make my bicycle carry me over that horizon, I'll be sucked into this unfeeling, barren black hole and end up shadowless as a shrub.

I kept a list of things wonderful and horrible. Here are some highlights:

1. Ol' Willy: Ol' Willy died a day or two before I got to Quemado, NM. He was the talk of the town. These are direct quotes from conversations I recorded.
-Ya hear 'bout ol' Willy?
-Yeah--did. How old was ol' Willy?
Then, the next morning, two other (skinny) locals:
-Diabetes finally got him. You see the way he used to eat? Hell, that'll kill ya bigger'n shit.
-The way they all eat...I bet you can't find 10 in this county that can walk from one end of town to the other without stopping to catch their breath.

2. The dogs: I am an aberration here. The dogs know this and shout themselves hoarse at the strange, metallic humanoid. Their growls end in question marks tagging sentences of instinctive, guttural confusion. They give chase but for their chase no answer is given. I appreciate their lives. On the day I rolled through 70 miles of unmaintained roads, they offered bursts of fear-energy needed to push harder, farther, faster.

3. Frozen bottles: 15 hours is a long time for it to be below freezing. So long that all of your water bottles will freeze overnight if you don't empty them. Duh? I guess? Luckily, the morning I woke up at El Morro National Monument to a gaggle of frozen friends, I was only a half mile from the park office where there was hot water to melt them back to usefulness.

4. Lyman Lake State Park was closed for the winter, but the closed gate allowed plenty of room to sneak my bicycle under in order to camp away from the highway. I arrived at Springerville, AZ around 4pm from Quemado, NM and found a Subway to munch some carbs. From there, I had about one hour to reach Lyman Lake before sunset at a distance of 18 miles. Holding that average speed for an hour felt too tall a task for how tired I was at that stage, but I knew it would be a big help to cut into the next day's planned 110 miles. I can't explain how I rode so fast, but I made it before sunset and got the tent set up as the temperature dropped into the 20s. It wasn't a downhill, but it was a short, manageable goal. Reaching it was a highlight I celebrated alone. Were they self high-fives or clapping?

5. Park rangers: The one parked 20 meters from my tent was just waiting for me to get up. I was camped two feet on the wrong side of the fence at Petrified Forest National Park. He knew it was illegal. I knew it was illegal. But the night before, I arrived five minutes late to the exit, and as the sun was setting I had to move quickly to make camp. Explaining this and showing my bicycle won a smirk of sympathy: "Damn cold last night, huh?"

6. FriendsIt is a blessing to have friends whose lens for the world is set to the same aperture and zoom as mine. Chris and Tarah Hall were a part of one of my defining times in Costa Rica, and out of those shared experiences and general like-mindedness, when we get together we do a lot of idea chewing. C and T don’t have much time these days to dissect all their experiences with others: they have quite a bit to process as graduate students and elementary teachers in largely native schools. Our conversations could be described as stimulating and overwhelming among other adjectives of greatness. They gave parking for my car and showed me around Gallup. They took me to get stuffed sopapillas and let me borrow some gear. These are friends you keep.