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.