What is this willingness to suffer on a bicycle?
The hill we’re riding up is gradual and bumpy as hell and seemingly endless. My bike is loaded with gear, food and enough water for a couple of dry days. It’s heavy, my bike, probably about eighty pounds, maybe ninety. I’m carrying about eight liters of water. A few tools, some clothes, cooking pot and camp stove. Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, inflatable pillow. Energy bars, sunblock and mosquito repellant. Some TP, soap, ibuprofen, a small set of scissors. Essentially I’ve got a miniaturized home on my bike, with enough amenities to keep me alive and in relative comfort for a week or so.
My legs are going. Round and round in a small gear. They feel strong and fatigued, searching for some sort of rhythm with my breathing. The trail is erratic, though, little rocks big rocks, ruts and washboard, patches of sludgy red pumice; there’s no rhythm in dodging obstacles at this turtle speed. The worst part is my ass screaming at me, tired of being planted on this wedge while my legs churn. Sweat pours down my face and into my eyes. My hat, shirt and shorts are already soaked. My lower back is sore from leaning into the climb, and my shoulders ache from hunching over the bars.
Smitherman is beside me. His face is grim, concentrating on the struggle up. He looks as focused, mean and uncomfortable as I feel. Sweat runs rivulets of dirt down his stubbly cheeks. He looks at me, nearly doleful, and then it happens; his face peels into a big smile. And what a winning smile it is. He growls through his white teeth.
We’re both hurting, suffering really, trying to get up this damned hill. It’s been too long that we’ve been at this, way too long, our bikes jostling through ruts and over rocks for miles. My hands are sore from gripping, pulling, pushing the bars. My right elbow has a sharp shooting pain. But then this smile sprouts and it shines out through the pain. I laugh and ask him, Why the fuck are we doing this to ourselves?
Indeed, this is the question. If I could see the faces of any of my other friends on this climb, their expressions would not have hidden the struggle they too were experiencing. Misery, brutality, pain and suffering — these were words thrown around by my friends and I while riding the Outback this year. There were other words, too, positive words, but they didn’t come during these most grueling moments. This question — Why do we do this to ourselves — was something I had a lot of time to meditate on. I don’t think there is one answer to it, and I think it’s different for everyone. I’m curious what others might say about why they put themselves through things like this. Is it for the beauty of the surroundings, the nature? The remoteness, or the escape? The sense of adventure, of exploration? For the ultimate sense of accomplishment? For the camaraderie of a shared struggle that empties you throughout the day and and fills you again while eating and talking around a campfire? Is it just so you can say you did it?
My friends and I struggled, yes, and there were fun parts, too: Screaming gravel descents, riding alongside running cattle, stream crossings (Jrdn and I both dumped into the water to great laughter), a deer that flew across our paths and leapt like a gazelle over a fence. And of course the shared time at camp. We saw regions of Oregon that are too vast and beautiful for words. And we all made it through safely. Riding back to Portland after the Deschutes campground, our trip ended up being around 450 miles total. Jrdn and Smitherman left Portland the week before a and rode down to Klamath falls to meet us, at least doubling their mileage. Because we left a week after the "official" ride, we only saw a couple of other people riding the route.
I can imagine that there are many reasons we put ourselves through ordeals like this, and I think they change, morph and evolve from moment to moment. Especially while in the thick of a difficult climb, exposed in the sun, hot, everything hurting and the whole thing seeming very far from being fun. In moments like this I watch my mind going through story after story, which is me trying to convince myself to keep pushing the left pedal down and then the right, and then the left again. Each of the reasons listed above floats through, and any number of others. Philosophies come and go; Buddhist aphorisms about life and suffering; I could practically get down on my mental knees and beg myself Please Keep Going, or, sometimes, Please Stop Now.
At some point when things get really hard the stories become laughable, obviously bullshit. Monkey mind in a frenzy, and yet I’m right there, still pushing on the pedals, one after the other. At this point, when the stories don’t help anymore, my mind is all stripped down and raw; this is when things get really interesting.
And then I keep pushing on.
Here below, in no particular chronological order, are some photos from the trip.