"But to be part of the treetops and the blueness, invisible,
the iridescent darknesses beyond,
silent, listening to
the air becoming no air becoming air again."
-Frank O’Hara, Three Airs
To my right, a sheer white rock face stretched upwards and out of sight. To my left, a wall of a different kind: thick white fog that hid the long drop below, just barely visible in the not-quite-dawn hour. I was snaking along a road strewn with fallen rocks and cracked pavement, constantly scanning the ground and changing course to avoid puncturing the skinny tires of my bicycle. The few riders who accompanied me had surged ahead, picking up the pace to ward off the quickly dropping temperature, and I was alone, my legs beginning to acknowledge the 20,000 feet they had climbed so far. Suddenly, I was ripped from the line I was following and into some gravel on the uneven road; a blast of wind whipped my face raw and I hunched over, trying to continue my pedal strokes. The wind wailed, carrying with it my yelp of surprise, and off it went down the mountain so quickly I wasn’t sure I had made a sound at all. The curtain of mist that had floated harmlessly began to billow and eddy, spiraling into a fast-moving cloud. I was surrounded, absorbed by a cloud — my breath, gone. My body, forgotten. I waded through millions of water droplets suspended in mid-air like pearls, skin pricked by each tiny fleck, until the cloud cloak unraveled around my shoulders, continued on towards the peak, and left me exposed again, witness once more to the jagged rocks that make this section of road impossible for cars to pass. Back to the task at hand; I’m not done climbing yet.
This closed stretch of road connects Route 39 to Highway 2 in the Angeles Crest National Forest, a national monument just North of Los Angeles comprised mostly of the San Gabriel Mountains. In Los Angeles and the sprawling suburbs that surround it, vestiges of dead rivers haunt the neighborhoods they define; flat ranch homes spread out ever further along flat land, until the massive range crests abruptly from the valley, walling off the basin on the North side. Hulking, blue, and hazy, the mountains watch. Disinterested monoliths, they stand high and seem to mock miniature freeway traffic, your conference call, your personal brand. They occupy (literally) a different plane, a separate atmosphere. They hold storms in their bosom, casting entire cities in the uneasy glare of bated breath, waiting for a drop of rain that never comes.
Formed by a massive uplifted fault block, the San Gabriel range vaults up from sea level to 10,000-foot peaks in a matter of miles, making the climbs steep and the presence of the mountains ominous. The fault that ripped upward and drew these mountains out of nothingness does not exist on the eastern side, making the decline from the peaks to the dry, red Mojave Desert beyond a gentle slope, like an inverted check mark.
Those steep canyons on the south side of the range are short but dramatic in their transformation. As the foothills begin to climb the mountains appear as from a desert: warm, golden, and sandy they rise, dotted with cacti and yucca. But as the elevation leaps to 4,000 feet, the unforgiving landscape is replaced almost shockingly with the hospitable presence of evergreens. So radical is the change you might forget you began the day in Los Angeles, as the trees begin to rise around you and the sounds of creeks and waterfalls trickle in from just out of sight. Here, where the seasons visit Southern California and the world feels transformed, is where we found ourselves one weekend in October, riding bikes for 22 hours and just trying to survive.
It’s funny to think of survival in this way: self-imposed, even melodramatic. And sure, logically I knew that this was not a fight for life and death. At any point, I could return to warmth and shelter and just stop riding. I could call an Uber. The point, though, is that when you take on a challenge that’s incredibly hard and that you are not sure you can finish, you decide not to crawl back to safety. No, I was not fighting for my life in a literal sense. But I was standing on the edge, straddling some precipice of what I can do and what I can’t, and trying desperately to simply stand there, without fear.
So why does one decide to try to ride their bike for 22 hours? To climb upwards of 20,000 feet when there is no real goal, no glory, no finish line? Besides the guarantee of misery, there is always that faint gleam of possibility. A flickering light that cannot be ignored, of learning something about yourself when you approach that dark place, enter it, wallow in it and eat it up and surround it and cradle it … Of what happens when you find yourself creeping up on the edge of some place you’ve often tiptoed around for fear of falling in.
This particular void is not new to me. I’ve been toeing that line for as long as I can remember, as a woman at constant odds with the urge to self-destruct. That delicious, satisfying temptation to pull the plug on it all, watch the world burn as they say, that blasé, that commonplace, that constant pull towards nothingness — to make people hate you, to hurt those you love, to make the world around you and the people you love and the feelings in your own body as disgusting and painful as you can.
For many years I found myself operating most often at some boundary between what I was supposed to do, the everyday goings on with which everyone seemed content, and the visceral desire for nothingness, that black void that seemed to live inside my gut — a constant and sometimes painful pulling inward. The awareness of the absurdity of the every day (falling prey to that inevitable if cliché obsession with existentialism so common to adolescence) coupled with the inability to get past the deep pit of sadness that started within my body and seemed to bleed outward ever further until it covered every surface I could see or touch, created a mode of living which seemed impossible to continue. The oft-used metaphor that depression feels like you are operating under deep water, moving in slow motion and working harder than necessary to complete even the most mundane tasks, is not wrong. Though I didn’t feel I was the only one dragging my way through waist-deep water (on some days) or water far above my head (on others) while those around me moved quickly and easily through thin air. It seemed that everyone I encountered (and would ever encounter) was too moving through thick molasses, was too battling each day the insatiable hunger for vacuity: the impulse to slide deeper, to drown.
When I turned inward, I saw darkness … like an empty parking lot of cracked pavement with bits of trash drifting through, floating, just there. The charade I had been signed up to play (without ever having been asked) just seemed too much and too badly put on. I could see the boom hanging just off screen.
This game, too big even to wrap my brain around, is what creates the temptation to run the opposite direction. It’s what makes living (untreated by whatever self-medication you choose) so fucking hard. It makes you itchy, makes your skin crawl, your hair hurt, your eyelids burn. So you drink. Or you have sex with the most repulsive creep you can find. Or you snort shards of glass from a broken vial in a public toilet stall. When what’s inside you seems worse than anything you could put in, there are no limits. See your own blood and you might look down, surprised, because you thought it would be thick black tar.
But in the face of a massive, larger than life, magnificent heft of rock, formed by the painful wrench of a tectonic plate from its brother millions of years ago, you are infinitesimally small. So I climb. In that calming, sublime range that looks down like a god on Los Angeles, I climb and I scream and I cry into a hailstorm and no one can hear me. I push on towards survival and it is an intense personal glory, though a quiet one.
This is what I’m here for. That intensity of experience, that invigorating breath of life that comes from toeing the edge, from bringing your body to the brink of what it’s capable of, shouting into the howling wind on the side of a mountain and savoring every sweet drop of that sheer potency like honey. Like the inside of a bag of cocaine. That welling up of despair when you are shivering so violently you cannot pedal and the simultaneous welling up of joy when your partner places a hand on your back, a silent I am here when those teary, sobby breaths catch in your throat like a punch to the gut.
I ride a bike because if I did anything else it would kill me.
I climb mountains to be reminded of the big earth and the hardness of rock and the insignificance of my worries. To combine pain with overwhelming beauty, wild freedom with tender intensity. To find myself looking down a cliff to a sprawling city below and the ocean beyond that and not feel tempted to jump. To wake up tomorrow and do it again, to go further, and feel everything from hopelessness to joy.