Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Biking before writing

I didn’t intend to set a precedent on Monday, but the combination of robust physical exercise in the morning and then attending sessions of the Aspen Writers’ Conference all afternoon worked so well that I did the same thing on Tuesday. Only this time, instead of hiking, I biked through Aspen’s West End onto the bike path and from there out to the Maroon Creek Road. Most bicyclists hit that road with the intention of pedaling all the way to Maroon Lake and the base of the Maroon Bells; I knew I didn’t have the stamina for that entire ride, but I decided to just start riding and see how far I could get given the time, and the strength, that I had.

In that respect, it was similar to Monday’s endeavor. I wasn’t under a tight time crunch, which is a rare situation for me when I’m at home, but that’s typical of being away: the restrictions we put on ourselves when home, and particularly the tight scheduling that tends to lay claim to every minute of the day, doesn’t take hold in quite the same way. I wanted to attend a writers’ panel at 2:30, but I set out on the bike four hours before that, so I knew I’d have time to do all the riding I wanted.

The ride was physically similar to hiking as well: a steady uphill climb, and I took it slow. It was terrain I’d covered many times before, but only by car or bus. Being so exposed, and moving along so slowly as I rode, gave me a close-up view of the river, the meadows, the wildflowers, the rocky red-dirt facades. It’s a restricted access road; the few cars and tour buses that passed me were minutes apart. Plenty of cyclists passed me; they were all on racing bikes with slender tires, pedaling hard and flying along even though they too were heading uphill. I was on a mountain bike not intended for that kind of ride even for someone with more pedaling strength than I have, but it didn’t bother me that other riders flew by. I was happy just to be out biking.

Eventually I looked up the road and saw still more uphill and decided I’d covered enough ground. An hour and a quarter had passed since I’d left town, and I had no particular goal in mind as an endpoint, given that I knew I wasn’t going to reach Maroon Lake. So when it felt like I’d worked as hard as I needed to, I turned around and coasted the same distance, all downhill. That part was easy and gave me even more time to admire the scenery, and also mull over a lot of memories of that valley.

For many decades, my grandparents owned a cabin just uphill from where I’d turned around; when I was growing up we’d have family picnics and occasional sleepovers in the cabin. When we reached our teenage years, sometimes our cousins had parties there and invited us, which was charitable of them: we were from out of town and not of much interest to anyone else attending. One of my cousins was married there, though I realized as I rode that my only memory of his wedding ceremony was having to drive back to the cabin from town with the brother of the groom after it ended because the father of the bride had not shown up at the reception and it was feared he had somehow keeled over while still at the cabin and needed help. (None of this was the case, but the drive with my cousin was an adventure in itself.)

Our family doesn’t own the cabin anymore, but that’s all right; like everyone else who visits this part of Colorado, the whole valley is ours to enjoy as hikers, bicyclists or bus tour riders. My ride back to town was fast and easy, and I arrived in time for a quick dessert stop at the Paradise Bakery before I went to the condo to change clothes and head to the conference center for the afternoon events.

When I sent my husband a photo I’d taken of myself on the bike ride, snow-frosted Maroon Bells in the background, he texted back, “Aren’t you supposed to be studying, not biking?” Not to worry, I told him, the afternoon would be full of educational content. And yet as I thought back on the bike ride with all its similarities to the hike on the previous day, and how I’d pedaled slowly, concentrating only on moving forward and not on how far I would get, absorbing the sounds and sights and smells that surrounded me, welcoming the memories they brought, and letting my own pace rather than external instructions be my guide as far as when to turn back, it occurred to me that maybe the morning had in fact been just as educational as the afternoon.

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