Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Awakening the Giant Sleeping Baby

That's a street sign in Bakersfield, California, in case you didn't know. I certainly didn't know till I stood there and took the picture. Never have listened to Merle much, either, which according to a number of writer friends of mine is proof that I've lived a spiritually depraved and musically deprived life. I sometimes tell them, "You ever listen to Paul Hindemith?" They're like, "Who?" Like I shouldn't have brought it up. The important thing, and I'm finally learning this in later life, is that people really enjoy their Merle Haggard music and that's cool; and I really enjoy my Paul Hindemith music and that's not really cool; and there's nothing I'll ever be able to do about it but smile and have cool people think I'm an idiot for liking music they don't want to understand.

Anyway, I took that picture a few weeks ago, maybe a month ago now, maybe six weeks, when I was on my way with my buddy Seth to his family cabin in the Sierras. Seth, incidentally, is originally from Bakersfield and consequently holds Merle in the same esteem as people like me from Wisconsin hold, say, Bart Starr, or maybe Brett Favre before Brett left us for a stadium full of fat Norwegian women in Minneapolis. We were just going to the Sierras for the day. Seth had to make sure the place was ready for the winter. And I went along as a tourist, because I wanted to see some things in California I hadn't seen before. We had bikes with us, too.

Which brings up something else. My friends in California, even if they ride bikes like Seth does (and he's pretty strong), have a natural aversion to Spandex, to bib shorts, jerseys, arm warmers, leg warmers, and all the necessary clothing accouterments to the cycling life, except helmets. They see people in Spandex and they say, "I'm not gonna wear that shit." I say, "Ever listen to Paul Hindemith?"

What I lost when I moved to California is my identity. When I lived in Carbondale, Illinois, I had been a cyclist, first and foremost, which I full well understand was a misplaced form of identity. I should have thought of myself as a professor and a writer because those things were my official profession, but to be a professor and a writer in Carbondale - for me - was a constant humiliation, working in the kind of department where I'd teach books and my colleagues would tell my students that those books I was teaching were bad, not to mention that somewhere in there I wrote and published a book that detailed widespread heavy drinking in the English department, and consequently I was reduced to Turd Status after that. One definite aspect of Turd Status, especially at a university in a small town where people are bored shitless and can't think of anything else to do with their lives but to ponder university matters, is that once a person has been assigned Turd Status, this status is irrevocable. True enough, maybe folks could have read my account of widespread drinking in the department and instead of telling me I should seek work elsewhere they might have thought, Damn, there are a lot of terrible drunks around here; maybe we should do something about it? But they didn't. Therefore, I was a cyclist. My best friends were cyclists. We rode all day together and at night, we would get together and have fellowship and watch ball games and play music. We were people comfortable in Spandex. We wore sandals with sox. We were dorks, by California standards, but we were happy. And as far as I know, my cycling friends in Carbondale - the Heckawee - are still happy. The people from the English department? I wouldn't know. They were never my friends anyway. I haven't heard a word from any of them since I left.

But Seth is my good buddy, one of the best friends I've had. And he thinks Spandex is stupid. And his thoughts about Paul Hindemith? I wouldn't even want to ask him. But the guy likes to ride bikes. And he's a writer, too, a really good one. So when we took bikes up to the Sierras that day, either something was right with this picture or something was horribly wrong.

The family cabin sits at 7200 feet, in a Sequoia Grove, with some of the best-looking mountain bike trails probably in the world (which is why the location must remain secret), and to make this short tale even shorter, Seth and I went for a ride up there and couldn't hardly breathe because we live at sea level and the air is just way too thin in the mountains. We suffered. We had to take breaks every fifteen minutes. We thought we were going to die. Since I had come to California, I had done absolutely everything to put aside my life as a cyclist. I had come here to be a writer, not a cyclist, but until that day, in the high mountains, I had been miserable in California. You see, to suffer in the thin mountain air, to roll on perfect trails, can life possibly get any better than this? And why had I let that all go?

The point is, cycling is not really the meaning of life but without cycling, at least for me, life has no meaning. I love it. It's me. It's who I am. It's why I want to get up in the morning each day, not because I don't want to work and to be productive professionally (I want to do all that) but because the reward I can have for my efforts is I can ride my bike. I want to train again and race again and keep on training and racing till I'm unable to prop myself upright on my bike.

Whew, that felt good to say.

I know. I shouldn't have mentioned all this. You were more interested in Merle.


  1. Hi Mike:

    Cycling means a lot to me too. And you, good writer, came along precisely at the right moment a few years ago for this guy. You gave me the inspiration and encouragement, by example, to get back on the bike and do what needed to be done. Thank you. Your Heft book is an honest gem of straight-talk and great writing.

    And if it gives you any satisfaction, here is the result of some of your handiwork. You helped launch me over Mt. Washington for the second time in August of this year, in 1:24, with a chest-cold, at the age of 53. You even helped get me into the New York Times Cycling section. Good work!

    Here are the photos on my site:

    Best to you...
    John Sutton

  2. John, those Mt. Washington pictures are awesome! Sure would like to do that climb someday...

  3. How about this coming year, 2010. Think about it. Mount Washington is another world - a little over 7 miles straight up at 12-13 percent. The pain is glorious! Especially after the post event Turkey dinner. Keep in Mind that you have to sign up EARLY on February first.

    Go here: http://tinyurl.com/ybknedw

    Lots of guys and gals from your coast come to this coast for the event and it would be great to see you here too.

    There is also a site you should check out that's maintained by a guy named Doug Jansen. Doug is a great cyclist with a story similar to yours and almost as inspiring. He also writes meticulous ride reports. The six gap ride is one to be proud of: 130 miles, 14,000ft, one day.


    Regards... John

  4. Just stopping by to thank you for that life-altering book that granted you such permanent and lofty status. My account would be slightly different, but the story is much the same.

    I've lost 55 pounds since the end of March, and want to finish another 55, if that's in the cards. Signed up for the AIDS LifeCycle in June (SF to LA). Crashed my bike Monday, refused to stop training because...well, you know why...I want to prove to myself I'm not going to be a fat girl anymore, forever again, amen.

    So...thanks for helping me see the dysfunction in my function. Thanks for having the courage to become the turd, for my sake.

    And...Merle Haggard is big stuff in Bakersfield, too? I hail from the Redding area, and I think they all think he can walk on Lake Shasta up there. Hindemith? That's one of them fancy import beers, ain't it?

    Keep making circles, Professor. I'll be far behind, and if I catch sight of you...I'm winning. ^.^


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