Friday, February 12, 2010

BMX-rated: The Pain of Adolescent Fred-dom (Part III: The Whitney Challenge)

Hyper-critical readers (hi Mom!) may have noticed that in my recent post about setting goals I did not actually set any athletic goals for the coming year. I cleverly skirted the issue by re-directing your attention to my goal for 2013, sort of like when Sarah Palin says "freedom" every third word to distract you from the fact that she's not answering the question or even, technically, speaking English. Since I am not a highly paid "pundit" but only a poor blogger, I can't get away with abusing my readers or the truth this way.

So it's time to come clean and announce this year's riding goals, starting with The Whitney Challenge, a charity ride I invented. This ride is actually a segment of the Everest Challenge, providing a delightful 10,000 feet of climbing in the White Mountains, a desert range in Eastern California. The Whites are a fine place for me to ride a bike, in large part because there's virtually no one there to see me. I see this as a good thing, since my climbing form generally resembles a cross between an epileptic baboon and an early steam engine. Unlike participants in Critical Mass and Mario Cippolini, I prefer to be out of the limelight. In fact, out-of-the-way wilderness has been my preferred place to ride since childhood.

Back in Seventies Malibu, as I learned the theory and practice of BMX, I tried hanging out with the neighborhood kids, doing tricks. I learned to bunny-hop and how to fly off of jumps without auto-neutering myself anymore. I picked up a bunch of ludicrous surfer lingo and a shaggy haircut. But I never really got good at the fancy stuff, the "cross-ups" and "kick-outs" that lend a jump style and grace. It's a congenital failing, where Fredliness starts at the sub-conscious level. Doing tricks implies you want someone to watch. Freds never want anyone to watch. That's why so many of us ride recumbents. Watching a middle-aged man ride a recumbent is so painfully embarrassing most people would sooner listen to John Ashcroft sing or undergo treatment for fecal impaction in a hotel lobby. No, Freds are most comfortable when everyone looks away in horror.

As for pre-pubescent me, I soon tired of never being as good as the other kids, and began to gaze beyond the corner lot where we piled and re-piled mud and plywood into jumps and berms, staring out into the dusty gold of the Santa Monica mountains. I don't recall the first time I summoned up the nerve to pedal my Schwinn up the fire road and into the hills, but once I did, I was hooked. I had a little canvas rucksack with leather straps and buckles which I would fill with water bottles and a PBJ or sometimes, being a former Brit, a can of baked beans. A crumpled stash of vile homegrown (good pot hadn't been invented yet) and a pipe made out of a film canister provided courage. And of course I always had my trusty Swiss Army Knife, in the event I should need an emergency toothpick or fish-hook remover.

Thus equipped, I would venture out for hours at a time, riding old fire roads, trails and deer tracks deep into the sun-baked hills. I discovered all manner of marvels: a sandstone boulder shaped like a breaking wave, a burned-down cabin full of fascinating rusty things and tattered porn, ticks. I found a giant pour-off for a creek that no longer flowed and once had to bunny-hop over a rattlesnake. I learned about flat tires, specifically, that they suck. Relatedly, I learned that a pair of Vans make very poor long-distance hiking boots. I got hot and thirsty and sweaty and tired. I damaged myself on a number of occasions when gravity got the upper hand, one time concussing myself on a boulder so hard that my vision went all swimmy and I had to ride home with one eye closed. In short, I discovered cycling.

Other than a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful flirtation with baseball, cycling soon started to consume most of my leisure time (not that a 13 year-old has any other kind of time). I began doing things that cyclists do: poring over maps to create improbable routes, reading technical reviews about brake-shoes in tiresome magazines, seeing food as fuel. Here I am carb-loading at a barbecue at my Grandma's house. (This is the first and last time I would have what could be called a "climber's body.") Note the pre-SPD sandals. Sharp.

No, that's not a podium girl. That's my sister.

So basically, I discovered bikes and the joy of wild places at the same time. And while I was already markedly un-gifted at riding a bike, I was very well suited to being left alone in the woods for long periods of time. Visiting the wilderness satisfies a number of requirements for Freds: it requires the accumulation of gear like specialized pants and altimeter watches, it can be done with only minimal amounts of athletic ability, by definition it calls for little in the way of social skills or personal hygiene, and of course, an unkempt beard full of dead bugs and ramen noodles is de rigeur.

Small wonder then, that my bike expeditions soon led me to backpacking and climbing. I was introduced to these, only somewhat against my will, when my parents shipped me off to Camp Unalayee one summer. Initially resistant, I quickly warmed up to Camp when I discovered there two things I would enjoy my whole adult life: the Trinity Alps and girls. I'll talk about those things, and more about Camp, in later posts, I reckon. For now, suffice to say that amongst the strange and wonderful people at Camp, I found kindred spirits and amongst the peaks and pines of the Trinities I found a place in the woods that felt like home. Also, there were girls.

So it should come as no surprise that I've stayed involved with Camp U over the decades, and why I decided to create the Whitney Challenge as a fund-raiser for it. If Camp had not helped me cultivate a love of outdoor athletics, while helping me understand that being unskilled is both okay and ineluctable, I would not be riding a bike today. It's more likely I would be this guy:

So this post will end with a plea: if you can, visit the Facebook Cause or the Camp website and make a small donation. You'll be propping up my rickety motivational abilities while sending some lucky kid, possibly a Fred, to camp.