Tuesday, September 29, 2015

There Will Be Hills: Finding myself in the driftless zone part 2

The hills were as long 
as my late summer shadows.
Do they ever end?

Looking down onto the Amish farms on Hickory Grove road

My face flushed red when I was startled from a near slumber...moments prior I swayed back and forth in a breeze, my body heavy like lead, forcing the branches supporting the hammock I was in to sag under my weight.  I had been brought back to a hazy awareness by the distant sound of horse hooves on pavement, yet continued to drift since I knew the closest paved road was a half mile up a long gravel driveway.  Not knowing the farm I was staying at did trade with the local Amish farmers, I continued to  "bliss out" with a beer in one hand and an unread book in another.  Before I knew it, the sound of a buggy and horse hooves came flying by me (I was positioned near the gravel driveway) and slowed almost to a stop.  Anyone who has spent much time in a hammock knows you can't just gracefully jump out.  So instead, I just waved and tried my best to conceal my beer.

It was Saturday afternoon.  I had just ridden a bit over 70 hilly miles, and yet I felt sheepish about choosing to be lazy when the Amish rolled by to collect eggs.  My Scandinavian/Lutheran work ethic, I realized at that point, had been far too deeply ingrained in me.  It is for this exact reason I choose to do mini cycling getaways in the driftless area a couple times a year.  Sure, the driftless starts a mere three miles from my house, and there are a plethora of jaw dropping rides I could fill my weekends with and never leave Dane County, but at home there is yard work and housework to be done.  If I were to stay at home, I would never find myself in a hammock--instead I would most likely mow the lawn and weed the moment I got back from a ride...in my kit no less. And so these 2-3 day getaways are a reprieve, not from hard work mind you since they usually spell miles and miles of climbing, but from reality.

Life O'Riley Farm seen from county road T

Old schoolhouse 

near Castle Rock

round barn near Blue River

saving turtles near the Wisconsin river

I have considered, many times, buying a few acres of land in the deep driftless and building a small cottage for trips like this.  The only issue is everyone I know who owns a cabin or cottage spends more time with its upkeep than they do enjoying it, so I've come to the realization that for now it's just best to rent or camp until I break down one day and buy a piece of land out there to live off of full time.  The driftless area, after all, is some of the best land to sustain yourself with ample spring water, fertile land and lots of folks who are willing to trade or barter with.  The only big thing holding me back is no matter how hard I try, I'm not monastic.  I really do need a strong social circle around me, and since the roads are tricky to navigate in the summer, let alone in the winter, my guess is I'd be spending a heck of a lot of time out there on my own--something which makes me cringe.

Like on most of my driftless bike adventures, my "ooooo's" and "awwwwes" make me sound like a broken record because each valley and ridge have that jaw dropping magic.  Even two valleys that are next to each other can have a completely different feel--brining their own surprises around each bend.  Pictures can never do this area justice and I often get a bit of vertigo because I find myself looking around so much.  But a sore neck and slightly dizzy head is worth what I experience each time I visit.

For this trip I stayed once again at Life O'Riley Farm in the granary.  It's location, four miles outside of Boscobel, perched high on a ridge, makes for a great cycling jump off spot.  Granted, every ride from there ends with an enormous climb, but that just makes the beer taste better once off the bike.

saving snakes on the road
My rides consisted of one low mileage road ride (a bit over 40 miles) down to Blue River, over to Excelsior and back through Boscobel, a moderate length road ride (70 miles) to Castle Rock, Highland and Clyde and finally a 50+ mile gravel road ride through Mt.Hope, Mt. Ida and Werley before heading back.  Each ride had hills ranging from a 16-20% grade (the gravel ride had a couple 20% grade hills), and each ride had descents that make me giggle and scream like a little girl (some of the fresh gravel descents just made me come close to crying).

On each trip I do into the driftless, there is one thing that usually stands out.  This time I realized my generation will be one of the last to truly experience the power of old barns.  As I passed barn after barn that was on its way out, I felt a bit more overwhelmed.  I knew in two years time, many of these structures would no longer be standing.  They were beautiful in their own right, weathered boards, a faintness of red lingering, but my desire to keep them standing outweighed my love for their current beauty.  I completely understand why farmers don't put money in them to restore them--instead opting to erect large red metal outbuildings--but it's painful for me to watch the essence of my Midwest farm dreams sag and buckle.

there are so many beautiful farms in the driftless

about to enter the "gravel zone"

low traffic gravel roads are found everywhere here

running with the horses

making friends with the farm kitties

If you find yourself in this area to ride, and you're nervous about the hills, just remember all the pain from climbing will be taken away by the sheer beauty of the views.  If it's not, there are usually three bars in even the smallest towns where beer runs like springs and the farmers sitting on the bar stools will understand your plight when you tell them the hills you just climbed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

When Two Worlds Collide

What would you do
If it all came back to you?
Each crest of each wave
Bright as lightning


Flashes of my past came rushing back to me this weekend.  Memories of the cyclist I used to be.  Of the little girl I used to be.  Of the daughter I used to be.

My father came to visit me in Madison for some riding.  We hadn't spent more than a couple hours with each other for years.  I didn't know how to act, who to be, how to feel.  So much of my current life now is what it is because of the springboard he gave me with cycling as a child.  I have stated before I was born on a bicycle, and I'm not joking when I say that.  My entire life has revolved around two wheels.  The problem is my former cycling self is nothing like my current cycling self.  What my father raised me as, what he knew me as, is a very different person than what I am today.  From the outside, everything may appear to be the same, but at some point in my teens and early twenties, my old self burned to ashes and I emerged, like a phoenix, a completely different beast.  

If put to the test
Would you step back from the line of fire?
Hold everything back
All emotion set aside it

Because of this, my father and I don't know how to "be" around each other.  We know how to talk about cycling, and yet even that is strained since we both see the bicycle as something completely different in our lives--I see it as a full lifestyle, merging with every cell of my body and he still sees it as mostly a form of fitness and a hobby.  

You would think we would have so much to talk about, so much to share, and yet everything seems so distant and contrived when we talk.  We are blood relatives, sharing the same passion, and yet strangers all in one.  

This weekend was a test of sorts for me.  Could we be together for more than a few hours and give each other the respect each person deserves.  Could we see each others differences and honor them?  Could I be the strong woman I know I am and stand my ground--show him who I truly am and not the nine year old I was and am often times still seen as?  Or would I revert back to who I felt I needed to be to placate him and smooth over the situation--essentially, choose not to rock the boat.

Convince yourself
Someone else
Hide from the world
Your lack of confidence
What you choose to believe in
Takes you as you fall
Takes you as you fall

This entire life I live is essentially a school.  With each new day, and each new situation, I will continue to learn from my achievements and mistakes and hopefully feel more and more comfortable in my skin.  Thankfully, whether I move forward, back or sideways--both physically and mentally, my bicycle will always be not only my chosen mode of transportation, but also my friend.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Spinning in "neutral" and loving it

For some odd reason, the word "neutral" has gotten somewhat of a bad rap.  Folks tend to see it as being stuck in one place, being dull and emotionless, not caring etc.  After this past weekend, and after a friend used the term "keep it in neutral" with the meaning of not thinking, or wanting to think, about the future or past--instead just being and enjoying the here and now, I fell in love with the word neutral.

You see, I tend to have a bad habit of always thinking about what's to come--I thankfully don't think too much of the past since I can't do anything about it, except maybe learn from it.  This bad habit sometimes makes me not fully enjoy what's happening all around me at that very moment.  Well, I'm learning.  Yes, this old dog might actually be able to change her ways.

Over the past few months I've started to realize how important the little moments are.  Whether it be enjoying a good beer with friends, going on a long ride solo or with friends, smelling the change of seasons in the air or waking up to the sound of rain falling on the roof.  These "moments" can never truly be had again.  Once they slip by, I might be able to experience something similar in the future, but nothing quite the same.  Now I'm not saying I can, or want to be, present all the time.  No way.  That would actually be exhausting.  But I can, and will, purposely put my mind into neutral once in awhile and just idle a bit while my senses take over.

Thanks go out to all my friends who have shown me the way.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Crushing Gravel Part 11: The Night Bison Gravel Nocturne (riding in darkness to lift a darkness)

This past week I've been in a strange place.  No, not physically, but mentally.  I've been questioning my place on earth, who I am, who others think I am, and what I want to become.  All of this thinking nonsense had put me into a strange state of being.  Too heady.  Too emotional.  Not a place to be for the final hurrah of summer.  This, after all, is supposed to be a hedonistic time.  A time to rejoice everything earthy from the bountiful harvest to the sound of cicadas.  A time to feel each drop of sweat roll down the body, gather at the end of a limb or at the tip of the nose and fall effortlessly to the ground.

Yesterday morning I woke frustrated with myself.  I wanted to shake all these thoughts out of my head and just feel.  Bring myself back to the bare bones if you will.  I didn't want to have to wait 13 long hours to mount my gravel steed (evening events make me extremely squirrely since my favorite time to ride is at dawn).  Stupid as it may sound, I chose to shake the cobwebs loose by going on a 23 mile urban ride prior to a 56 mile gravel ride.  I had to do it.  I was acting like a caged animal and none of my friends should have to see me like that.

Loading up
At 4:15pm, the troops converged at my place.  Plan was to caravan down to Dekalb, IL in two carloads and ride the entire Night Bison together.  My guess is we were all a bit slap happy since the drive consisted of flipping each other off and trying to figure out how to pay the toll booth attendants.  This specific group hadn't ridden together since Riverwest24 (we were only missing one of our beloved teammates due to an earlier bike accident--we missed you Harald!) and it just felt kinda like going home.  The summer air was thick (just how I like it) and a mix of Built to Spill and Son Volt was blaring through the car speakers.  Thoughts began to change in my head from "the meaning of life" to "how will I survive without summer?"  The change was happening as we rolled at 70mph down I-90.  I was becoming more present...more in my skin.

As we pulled into the parking lot near North Central Cyclery, a sharp pang hit me.  NCC was essentially no longer.  The doors were locked, the former owner, Tobie DePauw, was handling waivers vs. running the cash register, and no one really knew the future for this marvelous bike shop which started Axletree and a string of some of my favorite bike events.  Although I didn't use NCC as my bike store since it is 2 hours from Madison, I felt a bit sad because it was a second home to several friends, and a place to spur the cycling addiction for so many people in Illinois.  I had only heard positive things about the shop and staff and it made me want to live closer to it.  But as Tobie said about bike events in an interview I did about the shop and Axletree for Silent Sports, "all events should have a shelf life"--I guess the same could/should be said for retail businesses and the staff who work there.  Change is not only unstoppable but it is often times also what's needed.

Watching the sun set from the NCC parking lot

The one thing I am extremely grateful for is that Axletree, although connected to NCC, was and is its own identity.  Run as an advocacy group and as a non-profit, it didn't go anywhere when the changes occurred with NCC.  Because of this, the Night Bison was still put on--thanks to all the amazing volunteers--and will go down in my books as one of the best gravel events I've ever done.  No, there weren't grand climbs and descents.  The views consisted largely of the riders ass in front of me, the hazy red lights up ahead obscured by the gravel dust, the corn running along the gravel roads which make me think of the movie Children of the Corn, and the farm roads lined with old oaks forming an eerie canopy which casted long shadows.  Time seemed to stand still.  My computer decided to quit working so I had no clue how far we had gone.  The miles ticked by, the slight rises and falls gave way to short bursts of power and feelings of feelings of flying.  A not so brief stop at a convenience store led to laughter since a group of 25-30 riders couldn't figure out how to get back on course, so we stood around drinking beer and eating candy until a few brave souls led us out.  Silence fell over our group as we dropped into a paceline trying to push through the last 27 miles.  And then, out of nowhere, came the oasis.  For those of you who don't partake in gravel events, these little surprises usually come at the best time.  Gravel events by nature are completely self supported, but once in awhile, the organizers set up tables of sugar and salt along with coolers of beer.  They are a place to not only refuel but laugh and celebrate why we're all really out there.  It was at the oasis that I got to also see Chad, one of the former staff members of NCC, and the organizer for Ten Thousand, who I thought was up in Madison for the weekend.  Getting a cold beer and clinking bottles with my team was great, but it was even better seeing a person who has put so much energy into keeping the soul of gravel events alive.

Let air out of my tires (something no one EVER sees me do)
photo by Dijon

gathering up on the gravel
photo by Stu Garwick

My partners in crime for both RW24 and the Night Bison

One of the few sections of pavement

Our group split up a bit for the last 5-10 miles.  I think we were all in our own little world--but all happy to be out under the stars.  We rolled up to the parking lot covered from head to toe in a fine gravel dust--our pearly whites shining under the parking lot lamps.  It was surreal driving back to Madison on narrow country roads--not really knowing where we were but following the cues from a smart phone.  Hitting I-90 once again was a bit of a shock to the system but it also meant a comfy bed (and more importantly a pee break) was near by.  We were treated to a lightening show followed by a deluge which surprisingly didn't clean much of the gravel dust off our bikes (it just turned it into gravel cement) and everything in my world seemed to make sense again.  I was too tired to be in my head.  My body felt exhausted in the best possible way.  I had spent an evening with loving friends on my bike and I was quite certain I knew who I was once again.

Me and Dijon post ride--matching shoes, squirrel socks and grave grime!
photo by Dijon

Enormous thanks go out to the Axletree crew and to my Madison friends who chose to come along for the ride!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Battling Demons

People often ask me why I choose to do long solo rides--this sums it up perfectly.

My demons,
though quiet,
are never quite silenced.
Calm as they may be, 
they wait patiently
for a reason to wake,
take an overdue breath,
and crawl back into my ear. 

It's my birthday and I'll bike if I want to: Hiccups are sometimes just what the doctor ordered


noun hic·cup \ˈhi-(ˌ)kəp\
: a sound in your throat that is caused by a sudden, uncontrolled movement of muscles in your chest after you have eaten or drunk too much or too quickly
hiccups : a condition in which you make hiccups repeatedly
: a small problem, change, or delay

Hiccups occur.  It's part of life.  The magic happens when you learn how to go with the flow and make the most out of one.  This past weekend, I was supposed to be up in Minneapolis with a friend for a birthday weekend of riding, eating and drinking.  Due to a work snafu, it didn't happen.  But here's the thing...even though I was a snively little brat about it at first, I finally settled in and decided to make the most out of hanging out near Madison.  No, it wasn't what I had planned, but thanks to several wonderful friends, it was probably better than what I had planned from the start.

Some of you who have been reading my blog for awhile probably know I like stupid adventures/shenanigans on my birthday.  Really, it has nothing to do with the birthday itself--other than the fact I'm sometimes surprised I made it to 41 years old.  I see it as a cheap excuse to get friends together to play.  Although I enjoy larger parties, I've never been keen about having one for my birthday since I'm not fond of being in the spotlight.  Instead, I choose a handful of close friends, who enjoy similar things to me, and turn a weekend into complete gluttony (gluttony of riding is always included).

Since my escape plan of riding to Milwaukee was also thwarted due to rain, I had to switch some gears quickly.  Here's what I came up with...

First, I'm not the only virgo in my circle of riding friends.  My partner in crime, Dijon, celebrates his birthday just three days prior to mine. When I found out I was staying in town, a ride with him on the H8TR gravel trail was certainly needed.  I thought to myself, as I rolled down to his house, what a lovely way to start the weekend--rocks, trees, moss and a friend who I consider family.  After caffeinating ourselves to the max, we split ways...both enjoying the splendors of the heavy air, gold and purple flowers and heady, earthy smells.

Saturday was a mix of hiking in one of my favorite spots, Parfrey's Glen, riding to see another cycling friend play a concert at the Orton Park Festival, drinking waaaaay too much thanks to T-Fats, who has become another partner in crime, stuffing my belly with tacos, more drinking, mellow evening with movies and music and essentially praying I would shake the hangover I knew I'd have for the following morning's long ride.

Shakey at the Orton Park Festival

Because virgos rule, Sunday's ride had another birthday boy involved AND a guy I had met during the Dairy Roubaix two years ago but hadn't seen since.  The route was planned by the b-day boy, Endo, and aside from a broken derailleur cable, it was exactly what was needed...by all of us.  Follow a long ride up with heavy German food and beer and I might as well die and go to heaven.  Oh wait, I think that heavy food put me a few steps closer to heaven (or hell), but it was worth it.

Tim, Endo and Jason

Yellowstone state park

Refueling at New Glarus Brewery

I worked on my actual b-day, but that's okay.  I never really care about the day itself.  What was really cool, however, was that a few friends did an impromptu ride with me that night.  The air was thick and warm (exactly what I love), and the pace was brisk.  Essentially, it was the perfect way to cap a perfect weekend.

Trying to stay on these guy's wheels

I've gotta thank all who were involved in getting me into trouble or keeping me out of it.  Here's to another year of riding adventures!