The Heights and the Depths

200 kilometers of ups and downs

I can close my eyes for one, maybe two seconds as I let my head tuck down and rest my neck. Any longer would be potentially perilous as the road requires sustained focus to be safe from cliffs, or cars or…whatever. Although I feel like we have been building mental as well as physical stamina on our 4-to-9-hour-days of cycling over the mountains and across the countryside, there are still dozens of moments (mostly during climbs) that I have to close my eyes, grit my teeth and just keep pedaling with the knowledge that ‘what goes up must come down,’ …but one never knows how soon this will be true and how much climbing one must endure before that time. As I’ve said before, trying to look too far ahead is just depressing and never fails to just knock the wind out of my sails, what little wind I might have at this point. And yet I know from the last several ‘cols’ or summits, that the time to go down does always come eventually, and when it does, pure exhilaration and perfect exaltation await. One’s whole reality flips inside out in these moments. Your face is burning and stinging with sweat, your lungs are churning, your arms are shaking and balancing, and your legs…oh your legs… they are reeling tighter and tighter, and every whirl seems like an amazing feat. Then suddenly you start to feel the tension ease and you start to feel stronger as the sharp incline softens beneath you. At the same time a vista opens up below and you see how high you are in the mountains above the rolling fields and rivers. Fresh air seems to pour into your lungs as you gain speed and the wind cools your face. Where just a moment before you felt every hulking inch, now you are flying…weightlessly through the sky.

This is what I try to remember when I face the next climb, I remember that I have chosen to do this tour and I have chosen this journey. Also, that you cannot have the full thrill of the descent without the labor of the ascent… and most of all, that I would rather be suffering the climbs and relishing the coasts through the countryside than to miss all of it because I didn’t try or because it seemed too difficult. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the author Sheldon Vanauken (It’s a bit longish, but worth quoting in full I think):

“How did one find joy? In books it was found in love– a great love… So if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have it, if he could find it, in great love. But in the books again, great joy through love always seemed go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain– if indeed, they went together. If there were a choice– and he suspected there was– a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths. Since then the years have gone by and he– had he not had what he chose that day in the meadow? He had had the love. And the joy– what joy it had been! And the sorrow. He had had– was having– all the sorrow there was. And yet, the joy was worth the pain. Even now he re-affirmed that long-past choice.”

(Sidenote: I think it is no coincidence that the fullest expression of health is life and perhaps the fullest experience of life is in the heights and depths and that this is intimately connected to “great love.” Definitely more thoughts on this later.)

I too suspect that there is a kind of choice between some sort of safe, cautious middle way and a life full of great heights and great depths. A life that comes when we decide to live into our potential to love, or to take risks and to try to do something we’ve “only” dreamed of, or to try become vulnerable, or to decide to have just a little bit of faith. But I think one must become aware that they are able to make this choice and then make it, accepting the concomitant circumstances, be they difficult or comfortable, thrilling or mundane. It’s really okay if you choose the safe path. Just know that you are choosing it and be at peace with that. Choose it consciously and be as safe as you like, and remember that it’s never too late to change your mind. In fact, the most fearless and powerful cyclists we encounter on the road are “old” men and women. I’ve said so many times “Man, the old people are killin’ it out here.” Only you can choose how you want to live, but you’re alive now. Go live.

How to Know a Weed When You See One

and Other Profundities from the Dirt

 

It’s easy to see why gardening metaphors pervade wisdom sayings. Yes, of course it’s because many systems and structures functioning at the cosmic level are also functioning at the level of our little garden. But also because, well, you have a lot of time to think when you’re pulling weeds. Robert, our host, said that he learned everything he needed to know about life from his garden. This was the idea that was germinating in my mind as I plucked out weed after weed. While I don’t expect to unearth anything completely new in my gardening thoughts (see what I did there? ;), I did appreciate a little bit of time to muse on the idea of weeding. I was snatching and tugging and yanking and tossing the weeds into a pile when I was suddenly surprised to find tiny potatoes dangling on the end of the roots of the plant in my hand. Is this a weed? Well… ummm… I don’t know, I thought. I guess this isn’t the patch for potato plants…so…yes.

Huh.

I remember always having trouble with idea of a “weed” as a child because a weed is, by definition, whatever you say it is. Weeds are conditionally and intentionally defined. If it’s not what you intend to grow and it’s growing in the place meant for what you want to grow and therefore in competition with it…it’s a weed. This “Agriculture 101” epiphany is only slightly more profound than dirt and  common sense, and yet it’s something I think we forget very easily. Robert does grow potatoes on his farm. We ate them. They’re delicious. Potatoes are wonderful, but just because it’s a potato doesn’t mean it can’t be a weed, and just because it’s a weed doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful. The real question is: What would you like to grow? You can only identify a weed if you know the answer to this question, and there’s no point in weeding if you haven’t planted something. The metaphor is obvious. What are you trying to grow with your life? For your body? For your health? In your character? In your relationships? In your career? In a way, you could just fail to decide and just see what you can find in the thicket of wild plants. In fact, when you do scatter seed, there’s a necessary “wait-and-see” period. Maybe something nice will appear. Maybe not. But if you want a garden… if you want something beautiful and productive, then well, you must decide what you will grow. You must plant it. You must nourish it and you must uproot everything that will choke it out. Even the pretty weeds. Even if it’s a plant that you’d like to grown in another place. It’s like the expression that goes something like, “Sometimes the enemy of the best isn’t the worst, but the good.”

The first day we tended the garden we were timid because we were so afraid of uprooting the wrong plants. The gardens we were weeding were in their first year and so the seeds he planted had grown up in a dense heap of all sorts of other plants. The neophyte gardeners that we are, at first we left a lot of “good looking” weeds in the dirt. When Robert returned I think he was probably a little amused at our paranoid weeding habits. But he didn’t take us to each good looking weed we had mistakenly protected in order to explain to us why this particular plant or leaf structure indicated that it was a weed and so on and so on. No, he simply walked into the garden and pointed very clearly at the plants he had planted and said “This. This. And This. Everything else, you pick.” That’s it. At a later stage our weeding required a bit more of a fine-tuned excision of hair-thin weeds among a dense patch including young parsley plants. We could have used tweezers. We called it “surgery.” What became important in this task was not our knowledge of the weed plants, but of the parsley or coriander we sought to protect. The more familiar we were with the color, shape, size and basic character of the parsley, the easier it became to discern everything that was not THAT plant and did not support THAT plant, the weeds. Even if we have to spend a lot of energy uprooting the bad things that always seem to grow just fine without our help, or even pruning the good things that are out of place, the focus of our study, the object of our attention, the heart of our energies, should always be the good stuff.

Do NOT Keep Your Eye on the Prize

The uphill climb and downhill dangers from Italy to Nice

 

It burned. It burned so much.

The burn became quicker and fiercer as the day dragged on, but we had to continue. Why? It’s not a race. It hurts and there is no competition, so why continue? But on we went and on we would go until we made it to Nice. We knew that this tour would push us in a variety of ways, but we didn’t know how soon.

One thing I love about cycling is how it connects you to the character of your landscape. If you are in gently rolling hills you can expect a gentle ride. If you are in a flat, open country your ride will be also be flat and everything is open to you. So it should have come as no surprise that the dramatic cliffs around Monaco would offer a dramatic first day.

The weight of our bikes and baggage equaled almost half of our body weight, but there was really nothing we could afford to toss that we wouldn’t need. We set out from Menton with our bikes fully loaded, but secure. Feeling prepared and optimistic about the first journey. However, our first prolonged climb was sobering. Like swimming up-river, the weight felt as if it was pulling you backwards and you had to pedal hard to make any progress. Even holding the bike on the slopes while stopped required some effort. Our pace got slower and slower as our legs burned and the sun pressed down on us. At one point we stopped to regain some blood in our legs and check our maps for navigation. “We still have a long way to go.” Tiffany’s eyes filled with tears. “I just don’t know how we’re going to do this! I don’t know if my body can do it!”

Lots of sporting wisdom tells you to “keep your eye on the prize,” but I’m not totally convinced that this is always a good idea. You set out for the prize (whatever the prize may be) and you train for the prize, but in the moment of action I think you must only keep your focus on the present moment. Our greatest moments of distress came from looking at the prize. The prize was a tiny speck of dust on the horizon. Looking at the prize, or in our case, at the elevation above us that we must climb with our loads was just depressing. Forget the prize. Keep your eyes only on the switchback curve in front of you. You can pedal a little while longer now, so keep pedaling. You can make it to the next turn, so for now don’t think about the next turn and the next and the next and the next. There will be time for that later.

About 2/3 of the way up we came to an overlook and we stopped to refill our water bottles and take in the view. It was truly astonishing. The struggle made more sense once we could see how far above the sea we actually were. We had started at the beach near Italy that morning so we knew we started at sea level. Now we looked down at Monaco and the Grand Casino and all of the vestiges of last week’s Grand Prix all far below us. It was completely and utterly satisfying to see how far we’d come. Although, we still had some climbing to do and it felt like my legs had reached maximum fatigue over two hours ago. Slowly but surely we climbed. A few other serious-looking cyclists without loads came along. We were a bit gratified that at least they were breathing hard too. When they passed us, their eyes widened as they looked at our packs. “Oooo la la,” said one. When we finally made it to the little town of Turbie on top of the mountain it was pure bliss. A quiet evening in a precious little town with delicious food and wine. A perfect little reward, and appropriately, Turbie possesses one of only two ruins of “Roman Trophies” (structures built by Caesar to celebrate a victory) in the world.

“Ahhhh, thank God! It’s all downhill from here,” we thought. Which was just  a little bit too true. We had gone a long way up and we had a long way  down. It is usually a joy-ride to speed down a hill you’ve climbed, but this was a really big hill and we were practically riding weighted bobsleds by steep mountain edges along with other cars. To keep control of these bad boys we had to apply a ferocious grip on our brakes for nearly 10 miles of downhill. Now instead of my legs, my forearms burned and my fingers ached, but we could not afford to let up and lose control on the mountain. At one point, I could no longer see Tiffany behind me and I was afraid of my fingers giving out and no longer being able to stop, so I clinched down and finally came to a halt. When Tiffany came to a stop behind me, her voice started to shake and the tears rolled. After a few sniffs she reigned in her fears and bravely continued.

Although I did not cry, I still think Tiffany showed the greater bravery on this ride. I love the simple line from William James, “Be not afraid of life.” It’s true that life begins just beyond our comfort zones and bravery is what it takes to step outside them. But the thing is that no one’s comfort zones are exactly alike. It could require more bravery for an acute introvert to smile at a stranger than for a stunt-double to jump off of a building. What bravery looks like for me will not necessarily be what it looks like for you. In this way, I have to appreciate how incredibly far beyond Tiffany’s comfort zone we were at this moment. I grew up in a family of actions sports and adrenaline junkies. Tiffany had never done anything like this until she married my brother, and here we were flying down this mountain at dusk with ledges on either side and cars whizzing by and our ability to stop becoming weaker every moment. It was dangerous. She was right to cry, but she was brave to keep going. She didn’t call a cab but decided to put her fear aside for the moment and continue on. To forget the far away prize and all the potential pains and pitfalls along the way, and just continuously decide to act bravely in the present moment, I think this is bravery.

 

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A thousand little strings

and preliminary decisions

It doesn’t matter how much planning I do, I never get much sleep the night before a big trip. When I’m crossing the pond I can pass it off as strategy for being sure to get sleep on the plane, but I had no such reason flying from Germany to France and yet still…no sleep. Everything of major importance is sorted and done, but it always takes the impending reality of departure to actually put things in the bag and zip it up. And there are always a thousand things to think about. A thousand practical little strings to tie up before boarding the plane to Nice, all of equal importance, or non-importance more accurately. And of course there are the intangible strings as well. The sense that you’re about to be tested in a number of ways. The fears and excitement of setting out to do something you’ve never done before. There was no sense in waiting for my alarm to go off. I decided to keep my eyes closed for another 10 seconds, and when I opened them that the Tour will have officially begun. 10…9…8… As I counted down I thought about how grateful I am for everyone’s support on this crazy journey… 7…6…5… I decided I would not hold back anything short of my best effort and that I would forgive myself and try again if I screw up….4…3…2… I decided to make my excitement, not my worries about the tour define its beginning… 1. The Tour de Farm has begun.

130 handfuls of chicken

Packing for the Tour de Farm

It’s not exactly fair to compare packing for a two-month cycle tour with the “What is the one thing you would bring if you were stranded on a desert island?” game. Let’s be honest. Bear Grylls is not about to get dropped in the south of France, and I’m not really laboring over decisions that will determine my survival…I don’t think. Like the island scenario game, the question is really more about what’s most important to you. In this case, everything I bring must be important to me because I’m about to literally carry it for over 800 miles. Space is important, but there’s always creative ways to strap more stuff to your bike. So, weight is probably the greatest factor I’m bearing in mind while making decisions. And as everyone who’s shopped for cycling equipment knows, shedding even a few grams is going to cost you, but you’ll still have to pay in sweat for the grams you do pack.

Standing in the cycle section of a shop in Germany with my friend Kelly, we compared specs on various equipment. “So it’ll be about 20 euros more to save 100 grams.” Rusty on thinking in metric I tried to think about what that actually meant. “Well, a handful of chicken is about 100 grams” said Kelly cupping her hands together to illustrate. While this is a perfectly reasonable way to think about 100 grams, a standard food measurement, I laughed imagining her hands full of chicken and someone paying me 20 euros to carry that little chicken all the way across France. After that, I couldn’t help but make all my cost vs. weight decision in terms of how many chickens I would be willing to take across the country. I might take one little chicken for 20 euros, but I definitely wouldn’t take three. Although, I might take two for 50 euros.

So, in this highly-unscientific approach, it’s pretty apparent that capturing this adventure is pretty important to me because my camera equipment weighs about 13 kilograms. In other words, I’m willing to carry 130 handfuls of chicken over 800 miles to do it right.