The Covid 19 pandemic is isolating Alaskan writers. We can no longer attend workshops or public readings. The coffee bars where we met with other writers are closed. To bridge these physical gaps, 49 Writers is providing this on-line forum for Alaskans writing the distance. Today, Warren Libby offers a reflection to go with a photograph by Dennis Ronsee.
Alaska is offering us a dramatic contrast to the restrictions imposed by the viral presence. The “hunkered” sense of closure stands in stark counterpoint to the invitation to be outside in the spring sunshine. There is no better way to do so than on fat bikes. Recently, my son and I and my friend Clark were riding one of the local trails on the Campbell Tract. The trails were hard and fast, the sun was bringing the thermal energy of impending spring, though temperatures remained cool enough to keep the trails from softening.
We decided to climb Ticket to Ride and descend on Jeff’s Whoop Whoop, two new STA (Single Track Advocates) trails we had discovered last fall. We wanted to see what they looked like in the winter months. Ticket to Ride is a switchback climb from the Gasline near Hilltop Ski Area, a relentless uphill that terminates in an intersection with the beginning of a downhill section called Jeff’s Whoop Whoop. Jeff’s flows between banked turns, rollers, and some jumps if you are so inclined. The lower section empties in the overflow parking lot at Hilltop Ski Area.
We labored up Ticket to Ride, bodies warming as we pedaled in the cold sunshine. Curve after curve until we made the top. We spent some time visiting and took a few pictures.
Then began our first winter descent on Jeff’s. The trail was a true singletrack in places–not just a generic narrow trail, but the width of only a single tire. We passed the forensic evidence of those who had deviated just the slightest from that track into the softer, deeper snow. Impressions of bodies, boots, bikes.
We paused, mid-descent. We all remarked on how little room for error there was on the singletrack.
Clark mused, “Those ruts and holes have almost a magnetic draw when you look at them while riding.”
“Yeah, it’s almost magical how the bike tracks when you focus your eyes on where you want to go, and resist looking at what you want to avoid,” I replied.
We had stumbled on one of the simplest and hardest lessons of riding. Technical riding requires consistent focus on where you want to go. I lose balance when my focus wavers, when I get distracted, when I become passive, thinking the bike will guide itself while I let my mind wander. Staying on track requires attention. The alternative of riding while only trying to avoid obstacles is not only damned near impossible, it’s not fun at all. When I can string together a series of moments, turns, stretches of trail where my vision flits from one particular spot in the trail to the next where I want my front tire to track, and block out all the rest, my bike follows my eyes. I can stitch together a clean line in a balance that feels like flow.
This rapid change in the trail of our lives brings with it the opportunity for new discoveries, new gifts, new insights. The loss of independence reveals our interdependence that was there all along. The loss of our freedom to move around reveals how unnecessary most of our frenetic activity is. The loss of jobs and loss of income reveals just how much we actually need to make a living and a life. The loss of our usual human interaction reveals how meaningful physical, face-to-face interaction is to us as social beings. The impartial nature of the virus reveals how much alike we are, how arbitrary are the divisions we create. The crushing sense of uncertainty reveals how tightly we hold our illusion of control. How we experience our days and weeks is largely determined by what we find worthy of our regard.
At this very moment, in each moment, we have the choice of where we focus our attention. The siren song of obstacles, bad news, scarcity, loneliness, and fear are real and nearly impossible to ignore. But there is a way through. There’s no way around, but there is a way through. Find the flow and embrace the ride.
Warren Libby lives in Anchorage. When not trying to keep up with his kids on bikes, you might find him straightening teeth.