When you find the quicksand, you know you've started the adventure
A personal story about pride weakly disguised as one about preparation
I don’t own a van nor do I actually want one, so it’s perhaps a bit unfair of me to appropriate the #vanlife hashtag for this #vanlife of podcasting publications. (If you’re new here, each week we “park our van” somewhere because this newsletter is always relaxed and always an adventure.) But, I think it’s ok since there are almost always #vanlifers across the street, or parked in front of our house. And yes, they sometimes keep the grass watered with their… lack of van bathrooms.
Today our van will park right here at my house. I’m going to tell you about an adventure I had last week. This is a personal story that has very little to do with audio, but I’ll at least try to tie it back to something like “preparing for the worst.”
When you live in a mountainous area, you spend a lot of time looking at the mountains. Your eyes get drawn to certain prominent peaks, and they usually have names and you learn what they are. There’s one near my house that I’ve always been interested in it because it appeared to have a huge grassy expanse on the top. I imagined it could be beautiful and green up there on that grass with a magnificent view of the whole valley. I wanted to go to the top.
One day last winter, I saw a beacon of light coming from the top.
Researching on Google Earth, I saw the light probably came from a reflection on a window of some unnamed building up there. And I learned the name of the mountain itself which I’ll happily share with you when we meet in person. Most importantly, I learned that there’s a road to the top.
Another thing that draws my eyes in mountains are the scars of roads and trails on steep terrain. When I look up and see switchbacks zigzagging up a steep face I want to be on them. I had been eyeing just such a road near the Colorado River for years, and from Google Maps I learned that the road I had been eyeing was on the far side of the same mountain. A plan started taking shape in my mind.
Last Friday I decided to execute the plan. I would ride my bike up to the top of the mountain on the clearly established roads, and I would ride down the far side on the zig-zag steep ones that had no names or numbers but were visible from the ground and in Google Earth.
The ride up to the top was about 10 miles long gaining 2,500 feet of elevation. The ride down the back looked shorter and steeper, so I figured the making a loop out of the ride could be done before lunch. I’m going to tell you right now that I looked very closely at the part where the back side trail dropped down to the Colorado River and I noticed that the trail kind of disappeared. We’ll come back to that.
The morning of my ride I got off to a late start. The sun was already fairly high in the sky and noticeably warm on my skin when I started pedaling toward the mountain top. There’s a mine near the bottom of the road and I passed huge tractor trailers hauling the stuff used to make drywall down to the processing plant. I don’t think those drivers see too many mountain bikers because they all waved super enthusiastically.
Once I got past the heavy traffic section, I put in my AirPods and turned on my
audiobook. I’m on my second ever book about cooking. The first, two weeks ago, was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and the second is Bill Buford’s Heat. They’re both behind-the-scenes stories about the kitchens in upscale restaurants in New York, and they both have an entertaining tension between unapologetic male peacocking and tearful sensitivity over food. I’ve loved them both despite their obvious macho flaws. (Quick aside, if you know of a cooking podcast that is on the level of these two books, please email me.)
So I’m listening to Heat, and it’s fucking hot out. Buford is saying Mario Batali’s kitchen at Babbo is so hot that it cooks him alive. I’m just sweating and pushing on my pedals. Since the last truck driver, I haven’t seen anyone. The miles are ticking by quickly.
Over my left shoulder the view starts to open up. When I arrive to the grassy area at the top of the mountain, Buford has an epiphany about pasta with shellfish (it’s the seawater in the sauce), and I’m getting hungry.
It’s not unusual for the final climb on a mountain to be the steepest, and my pace to make it to the top in an hour and a half slipped back to two hours, then more than two hours. I just kept pedaling and listening, and I got there. I learned the shining winter building is an airport radio tower. The view from it was incredible. The smoke from distant wildfires diminished visibility but amplified the feeling of aloneness. There were no sounds, and nothing moved. There was only heat.
I’ve spent a lot of time describing this ride already, but up until now, this isn’t a newsletter-worthy ride. Sure I had a certain pride in arriving at the top of a mountain I’ve looked at 1000 times, but it’s the kind of pride that other people tend not to share. “Sounds like a fun ride, was it hot?” is about the best I could expect from a story.
Now it was time to go down. The downhill is the fun part. Those switchbacks were gonna be …. tight! I took out my AirPods, and started down, realized I made a wrong turn, rode back up a few hundred yards, and then started down for real.
This road was different. It hadn’t seen truck traffic like the road to the radio tower. There were downed trees and loose rocks everywhere. I wanted to go fast, but the loose rocks got me thinking about what would happen if I crashed. If I broke my bike or myself, I would be alone over 10 miles from the nearest human with no phone service.
My brakes started to overheat and whine at me. A tiny stirring of anxiety started to take root.
I came to a fence with an opening in it. What is this fence for? Who built it? Maybe the opening is for paragliders?
Just on the other side of the opening was an incredible drop into a giant gouge in the side of the mountain. These cliffs were what drew me here. This is the view I had hoped for. The fence couldn’t be more than 30 years old, so I’m not the only one that has seen this view, but I still felt special. I was a kid with a secret.
From the fence gap, I resumed inching my way down the switchbacks across the faces of cliffs and along ridgetops. The descent was giant, and took at least an hour. Then, just before arriving to the bottom at the Colorado River, the trail ended. I had seen this on the map, but I didn’t expect it to end at the top of a long, steep drop off. The final slope was too steep to walk down with my bike.
I was able to ride my bike along the edge of the steep slope southward for a few minutes until I found a place where I could safely hike my bike down to the river.
Before reaching the river, I crossed some railroad tracks, and then had to drag my bike through a thick ravine.
I arrived at the river’s edge expecting to see some shallow rapids that I could wade across. The river was running deep, and smooth and brown. There was no way I could wade across it here. Worse, I couldn’t see a place to wade across upstream or downstream.
My Google Earth studies had prepared me for this. There were train tracks along the side of the river I was on, and upstream there was a bridge.
I pushed my bike up towards the train tracks through the brush. My Apple Watch told me that my heart rate from the effort was almost 170. That’s my threshold heart rate—I can’t sustain that effort for long, and any higher than that, my body says, “Jon we’re slowing down right now.”
I also noticed that I was getting a bit of a dehydration headache. I had less than half my water left because I had planned on needing it mostly for the climb. I brought two and a half liters which should have been enough for a three and a half hour ride in the heat.
Pushing my bike along the railroad tracks, I kept imagining a train tearing around the corner behind me.
Then I arrived at the next obstacle—a train tunnel.
When I had seen the tunnel on Google Earth, I thought it looked pretty short and I could probably dash through it real quick.
The tunnel wasn’t as short IRL as it was on my screen. I couldn’t see a light at the end of it. There was not enough room in the tunnel to safely stand aside if a train came through. No fucking way was I going in that thing.
It’s at this point of the story that my personality begins to reveal itself. The safest thing to do from here would have been to ditch my bike, walk on the river bank to the bridge, wait for a raft or car to come by and ask for help. But I was determined (a misspelling of “not about to be embarrassed”) to get myself and my bike across that river.
I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to get around this bend in the river. The whole reason for the tunnel is that the river bend was too steep to hold a train track. I started out, thought, “Hey this isn’t too bad.” Then I got to the steep section. It was full of small cliffs and rocks, and it had a few narrow ledges.
I walked along one of the ledges. The ledge got narrow. The drop off to my left got big. I would be injured if I fell.
I decided to put my bike down and scout ahead—pulse back to 170. Could I walk along the ledge without slipping, and did the ledge continue around the bend?
I was able to walk on the ledge, but it didn’t continue. I walked along it until it disappeared, and then found a place where I could zig zag straight down to the river’s edge.
Next to the river there was a small rock cave that looked exactly like the mountain lion habitat at the Denver Zoo. It also looked like there had been some animal traffic in and out of this rock cave. My mind reached the level of anxiety where I was convinced I was standing next to a sleeping mountain lion, but I had left my bike up on the ledge and needed to go back for it.
Back up I went, got my bike, and inched that thing along. Every step required picking my bike up and putting it back down while trying to find a root or rock to brace it against, and then taking a careful step with my feet. I crossed the dangerous ledge one step at a time in about 10 minutes. I zig-zagged my bike down the step section to the river, and then just before I got to the rock cave, I switched sides so that my bike would be between me and the sleeping mountain lion.
Now I was right next to the swollen, brown river, surrounded by tall brush. The brush was tall enough that I couldn’t see up or down stream.
I tried pushing my bike through the brush, and got my wheels tangled in branches and became instantly exhausted. I slumped over my handlebars and said, “Come on!” to no one.
It was around this time that I decided I would hail the next boat to come down the river and ask them to ferry me across.
I also decided to actually walk in the water instead of through the brush. I push my bike out of the brush to the rivers edge and stepped in.
I was so grateful for the cold water. My rising core temperature in the 95 degree heat had been working against me. Now I was at least cool if still exhausted and moderately dehydrated. That reminds me, have you heard the latest joke about dehydration? No? That’s because there isn’t one. Dehydration is not a joke. (My favorite dad joke.)
Walking up the river should have been easy, but it wasn’t. There was quicksand. Quicksand! It wasn’t really bad but over and over I’d step in sand and be swallowed to my shins, sometimes my knees, even my thighs, and at one ridiculous moment, to my waste. Again I yelled out, “Come on!” The quicksand wasn’t really scary, but it wasn’t not scary.
No boats came.
A train came. I would have been in the tunnel, so I guess I made one good choice.
After walking in the river for twenty minutes, I got to the other side of the tunnel. The bridge I was walking to was still not in sight. Again, I collapsed over my bike and said, “Come on!”
I had to get back up to the tracks to make faster progress to the bridge. In a last insult, I climbed three quarters of the way up a scree field leading to the tracks with my bike on my shoulder. I took my bike off my shoulder to catch my breath from exhaustion, and then I felt my foot slip, then my bike slip, then my whole body slip and I slid all the way back to the bottom.
Adrenaline and anger helped me make it up on my second attempt.
And that was it! Once I was up to that railroad track I was home free. I was even able to get on my bike and pedal along it until I reached the bridge. The whole ordeal of arriving at the river and trying to get across had taken over an hour.
Now all I had to do was ride 16 miles around the perimeter of the mountain I had just climbed.
There was traffic on the road, so if I really needed help I could flag someone down. I was super dehydrated, but stopping at a house or flagging down a car was unthinkable. Even exhausted, I was too proud to admit to being underprepared for the adventure I had just had. So I put my head down and pedaled.
The whole ride took five and a half hours. I got so hot that I got a few chills down my back. When I finished, I bought a Mountain Dew for the first time in 10 years.
Even though this post seems to be mostly about me confusing adventure with pride, I told you I’d tie it to the broader concept of preparation. I was obviously unprepared. I didn’t bring enough water and food. I didn’t have a good plan for what would happen if I was unable to cross the river. In retrospect it would have been easier to bike back up the switchback road than it was to cross the river. I should have been open to that possibility.
But maybe I wasn’t completely unprepared. During the Olympics, my wife Kelly told me that she had heard Michael Phelps talk about his preparations on a podcast about happiness.
He specifically talked about how his coaches emphasized visualizing swimming a perfect race. Phelps also secretly visualized some worst case scenarios. And in the actual event, when his goggles fell off, he was prepared to swim without them because he had put in that additional work.
In my case, I have spent so much time this year putting my body through extreme exercise, that I was also prepared for the worst. The ride I had planned wasn’t at the absolute limit of my fitness, so when it ballooned into something twice as difficult it was still doable.
Here we go with the lesson: I think the same holds true in podcasting—especially on the journalism end of the medium. Earned experience and preparation can do things like help you save an interview that’s going pear shaped.
Maybe that’s too much of a stretch, but we all have our best plans ruined all the time, and flexible thinking, experience, and stamina to go the long way around are our best defenses.
Thanks for reading! I don’t even know if I want you to share this. It’s kind of embarrassing. See you next week!