Friday, March 5, 2010
I got my hands on a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and it has put me in a philisophical, wistful, sabatoge-ey state of mind. Forgive me if I ramble.
It was the perfect reading material to prep me for a river trip down the Rio Grande. His description of a rafting trip down doomed Glen Canyon before it became Lake Powell has always moved me. Awe at the grandeur of wilderness, sadness and anger over it's loss and contempt over it's commercialization.
Above all, the importance of wilderness, not just for the sake of preservation (or, as was the case with the creation of our National Forests, for a timber reserve) but as a salve for our souls. Adam has the sentiment permanently at hand, the Abbey quote "wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit" tatooed around his thigh.
It certainly seems like a luxury to me, sometimes. We took a guided overnight trip through the Santa Elana Canyon in Big Bend NP on the Rio Grande. Travelers on guided tours live in scenic luxury. Our meals were prepared for us (filet mingon, pancakes and sausage as compared to our usual pasta and grits). Our dishes got cleaned. Our trash was packed out. Our guide, Little Billy was incredibley knowledgeable and friendly - and we had him all to ourselves. We decided when to stop for meals, we got input on our campsite, and we set the pace.
I couldn't take much more of it. Don't misunderstand, it was great having Billy there to help guide us through the tight spots, teach us the flora and fauna, and tell us local stories. In fact, Adam and I both agree that Billy is the best guide we've ever had. He would be a great companion on any camping trip.
However, in my experience, camping has always been a socialist activity. We all share the chores- cooking, cleaning, setting up and breaking down - everyone works till the work is done. This capitalist form of camping is alien to me. I felt like a heel, sitting there reading Edward Abbey while Billy prepared our food and cleaned our dishes. (I wonder what Abbey would think of that)
The social dynamics of campsite labor aside, the trip was phenominal. It was a step more removed from real life than the rest of the trip has been so far.
First, it's important to understand how removed I feel from my former life I felt already. This whole bike trip has made me feel disconnected from the real world. Scratch that. This is my normal life. Wake up, pack up my sleeping gear get on the road and ride till I'm hungry or tired. Talk with Adam. Stop and investigate whatever piques my curiosity. Buy food. Cook it. My other life, the life of cars, bills, deadlines, routines, obligations and constraints - that's my abnormal life.
I thought about my car the other day - the first time in weeks - and couldn't remember it clearly. Does it even have a cd player? Stick or automatic? Doesn't matter, I didn't spend long thinking about it. I speak to my wife on the phone, and while I miss her terribly and love her with all of my heart, it is a surreal experience. I can see her face and remember her voice, but that doesn't seem like my life. It's someone else that's going to be going back there - I'm going to get up and ride every morning for the rest of my life.
The trip down the river magnified all of these sensations. The whole of my existince consisted of water, rock, boat, and companions. In my abnormal life, when I do my meditation, it is a fight for the first ten minutes to quiet the noise in my mind, the clutter and rush of daily life. The moment I closed my eyes to meditate on the river, all I saw was swirling water. No traffic, no houses, no infrastructure. Civilization did intrude. 19th century civilization. Mexican vaceros, cowboys, ranged down to the river, roping stray cows, splashing in the river. Billy spoke to them in spanish, letting them know of the stray cows we passed just upstream.
It's not that I felt even more disconnected - I didn't even think of my abnormal life at all. Rippling water, blazing sun and scouring sand washed it all away.
Tuesday night we camped in Mexico. River tours are allowed to camp and hike on the Mexican side, with certain restrictions. We discussed hiking south, perhaps stopping in Belize to let our family know where we are. A lack of food supplies thwarted our plan.
Coming out of the canyon was like coming out of a movie theater into the afternoon sun. Civilization asserted itself. Tourists appeared on hiking trails along the river. Fishing gear began to appear along the bank.
As we pulled out and loaded our gear back on to our bikes, normal life began to reassert itself. Once again, our path was bound to the asphalt, not the river.
We rode out of the mountains this morning, into Marathon, tx. There is a sense of sadness for me. It's all downhill now, literally and figuratively. No more mountains, and our trip is more than half done. It looks more and more like we're going to stop in Austin.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
We struggled against strong headwinds uphill into the Davis Mountains two days after leaving El Paso. It was spectacular scenery, each climb through a twisty canyon brought us to the edge of another volcanic plateau, before getting into the higher mountains.
The Davis Mountains are one of the darkest regions left in the US, with very little light pollution. This dark hole is home to the McDonald Observatory, which boasts three large telescopes, an 82, and a 107 inch, and a much larger composite telescope built for spectrometry.
We stayed with John, an observatory employee, whom we found on the warm showers list. His family and his pets were gracious and generous hosts, feeding us and giving us backstage tours of the telescopes.
At a "star party", put on by the observatory, we got a look through many of the smaller telescopes on site, and learned some more constellations. We were especially excited about this. Spending so much time laying outside, looking at the stars, we have been looking for some more education on what we were seeing.
Before leaving, John called ahead for us down to Alpine, home of the only bike shop for hundreds of miles. The shop would be closed when we arrived, but the owner was willing to meet us and sell us some inner tubes, as the mesquite thorns have been tearing through our supplies of spares at an alarming rate.
After yet another wearying ride against the wind we pulled into Alpine and called the Bikeman, also named John. Unfortunately, he was occupied, and could not meet. Fortunately, he was occupied at a BBQ, and invited us to join him!
After a donation to the family crisis center, we had a great meal of brisket, potato salad, beans, and beer.
The next day, winds were strong out of the southwest, and we had decided to skip our intended trip south to Big Bend National Patk, cutting out 100 miles of fighting the wind. At breakfast, however, we were befriended by a local businessman, Ron, who offered to drive us halfway there, if that would tip the scales.
We accepted his offer, and it has been a great decision! We rode through the park entry at 3:30 in a surreal atmosphere. A wind storm had picked up, and we rode through an alien landscape of jagged peaks and rugged washes in a brown murky haze. 40 mph gusts of wind slammed into our flanks, threatening to push us off the road as we began to climb. 2500 verticle feet later we crested the pass and rode down in the darkening night to our destination, the bunk house for the trail workers at the park. One of the guys here is on the crew, and also on the warm showers list.
Today we took a 10 mile round trip hike up into the mountains, where we found more spectacular scenery, and more wind threatening to blow us off the trail. By the time we reached the summit, snow was again blowing in our faces.
Tomorrow we have scheduled a river expedition down the Rio Grande, through one of the park's famous canyons. We splurged on a guide, and are looking forward to having someone fix our meals and set up camp on our two-day, one night trip.
There is no cellular service in the area, and no access to Internet, so this will not go out until tomorrow morning.
We have been keeping a good pace, and we broke 1000 miles of riding before we got to the observatory, and we're currently at around 1200 miles total for the trip.
Not sure when I'll be able to post again, we won't have cell signal for a couple days at least. Next time I get to a computer terminal, I'll have so much to post!