Rolling the day away

It’s been a bad day at work. A vision-squeezing stressful kind of day. When the headache persists after a cup of tea, comfort food and some venting, one of us somehow summons the motivation to get out. And then, faster than second thoughts, we are out the door with our bikes. Out to the fields, out to the forest.

When the wheels hit the trail we are pedalling fast out the gate, racing our demons, chased by them. It is already late and the light is dusky and heavy with humidity. Parched by days without rain, the forest colours are muted, and here and there I notice the trees looking somewhat crumpled. Even the trail is a dull brown ribbon snaking through the undergrowth, a smudged canvas on which we roll out our frustrations.

We attack the first hill and I wrestle my bike and my brain to keep both glued to the trail, but there is not much time to savour the satisfaction that I’m making it before the sourness and burning starts. That taste in my throat – I don’t know what to call it, it is a mile-run-time-trial-in-the-6th-grade taste – but it goes with that lung-bursting feeling that goes with that leg-burning feeling and it is awful but it feels so good. So good to have something real to rage at: the pain, the hill, the bike, the burning.

At the top of each hill, we collapse onto our handlebars, rip off backpacks, helmets, gloves – everything is so oppressive – I feel like I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t get it all off of me. The weight of not just the things on our backs but the weight of the storm-laden air, of my heavy breathing, of the world: I can’t tell if they are adding up or canceling out tonight. And so we push swiftly on into the next climb, knowing the leg-exploding is around the bend and plunging into that place anyway. At the next break we are nauseous, gasping, speechless.

A third climb, and finally the frustration has been squeezed out, or maybe we just know the worst is over, and we are coasting, rolling, loving this upper section of open forest. The deepest part of the woods is ahead, and up there lies a rough stretch of rocks, but the darkness takes the edge off and reminds me to lift my head and look further out, and then I’m flying down the last open curves, leaning into them, gently pulling, firmly pushing, simply riding. Relaxed now, I let up on the brakes, roll over rock and root, faster and faster, the speed smoothing the trail under my wheels. Feeling the flow, finally. Finally feeling everything good there is to feel about this, about everything in this moment.

Fulfilled, I can go home and rest now.

When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.

The trail is the thing

“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.”

Louis L’Amour

My blog has a whole new look but in the spirit of writing, I am posting a photo from today’s trail. We ran out the front door, down the hill to Route du Soleil and then up to Clambin (the cluster of chalets where the lovely Chez Dany restaurant is). 

One of my favorite places

My road
My road

Alone on the bend in the road, legs pedaling, breeze blowing. Adam is a few curves ahead, there are no cars around. Only the whir of my bike and soft squeak of my chain fills the silence. It’s just me. The road and me. I can stop if I want. I can go if I want. I can do whatever I want – I am alone on this road and I’m traveling. I let myself coast and bask in the moment, enjoying the silence, the warmth, the view. I slalom around imaginary obstacles, slow down, look around. And then I pedal harder, just because I like the feeling of the wind in my eyelashes.

I’m spitting out a mouthful of sea water while bobbing between big ocean swells textured with rough whitecaps. Attached by a harness to my huge purple kite that flies above me, I’m looking around for the board that just came off my feet after my last crash. Each time I sink down behind another swell land goes out of sight and all I see is water all around. This is what I’m thinking: No one can see me. No one knows where my board is. No one can help me. I got myself here, and only I can get myself out of here. So after a moment to enjoy the wildness of this small scoop of wilderness between waves, I dip my kite back down towards the horizon to fill it with wind, and squinting my eyes against the water that rushes over my face I head upwind, tacking to find my board and start the ride again.

Kitesurfing alone
Kitesurfing alone

Perched on the edge of a rock-face I look down and see the space between my foot trembling on the ledge and the treetops. I rearrange my fingers on the holds and look out at the banana field beyond and no one is there. No one can see me so no one knows that I am resting my head against the rock as I take deep breaths and try to pull myself together. The insects are sounding off like alarms for a time-bomb: a reminder that I have to move on, whether it’s going to be down or up. And no one but me knows how many long seconds pass before my arms, hands, feet and mind are inexplicably pulling me upwards again.

Sort yourself out
Sort yourself out

There is no place where I feel more alive than that place where only I can sort myself out.

Why do I do this to myself?

March 9th, climbing “Take Forever”, graded 5b, 38 meters long…

We recently took a break from biking to climb for a week near Thakhek. It had been months since I’d last jammed my feet into my too-tight climbing shoes and tied myself to the end of the rope. I dipped my hands in my chalk bag to dry off some of the nervous sweat, checked my harness to be sure I had the right number of quickdraws, and, off I went.

Up, up, up, this is going fine. Yep, I love climbing. Feels so cool up here. Look at me go, I bet I look pretty good right now. Ooh nice move there with the little knee drop, yeahhh. Clip here, clip there. Shake out the  arms, nice breeze in my hair now that I’m 20 meters up. Man, I love this feeling. Now, where is the next hold. What? There is no hold. This is meant to be a 5b. Where. Is. The. Huge. Hold. Where? Panicky downclimb to the last clip. Shake out the burning fore-arms again. Chalk up. Chalk up some more. Why is there no more chalk in this bag? Climbing in the tropics is the stupidest idea ever. Feel around the cliff again – nope, no good holds. Tentatively smear a foot over there, and a foot here, nope nope not doing that, too risky. Back down to the last clip, but I am still just holding the cliff. Why do I do this to myself? Why am I up here? This is so not cool. I was perfectly happy on the ground. Isn’t biking thousands of kilometers enough of a challenge or am I that dumb that I need to go and scare myself like this? Every time Julie, every time. I cannot possibly hold that tiny bit of rock and put my foot on that tiny slippery place and move a step further. No way. No but I can. I have done this before. It’s 5b. I can do this. You can do this. You like the burn of adrenaline in your forearms. That’s why you are here, Julie. It makes you feel alive. Now don’t do it, don’t say it. Don’t say that terrible, awful, un-undo-able word. Look up, you can, you can, you can.

“Take!”

Shoooot. It’s done, it can’t be taken back. I’ve told Adam to take in the rope and my chance for the flash (doing the climb first try without resting on the rope) is gone. Forever. I knew it before I said take. I knew that if I tried I might have made it. Or I might have slipped, but the fall would have been okay – the rope is there, the bolts are new and solid, the wall is vertical so it would have been a nice clean fall, no problem.

Two minutes later I’ve had a rest, the burning in my arms has faded a bit. I reach up again, move my foot a little, stretch a little further. And, wait, what’s this, another hold? And that little tiny bit of rock to grab is not that small really. And, ufff, grrr, gahhh! …and suddenly I’m at the next bolt.

And this is why I climb. To practice not saying “take”. Climb till you fall. Easier said than done.

To experience the indescribable feeling of that moment before an irreversible decision, an irreversible word. To feel emotions more raw than my fingertips after a full day on limestone. To discover the clarity of mind that is only accessible above the last clip. To know what it’s like not to know if you can do the next move and to know that no one but you can do anything about it.

March 10th, climbing “Driving School”, graded 6b, 20 meters long…

There is more to it though. It’s to prove to myself that I can do the final three exposed moves above my last bolt on a 20 meter climb that has used every last bit of my strength because even with nothing left in my arms, I will NOT say take again. I WILL do this. Grabbing, clawing, fingers slipping, gasping, screaming, arms burning, I haul myself over the ledge. I don’t say take, I don’t downclimb. And I am finally, sweatily, ecstatically at the top of my first 6b ever. 

The view is amazing. The rappel down is glorious.

And more than the need to push myself, this is why I climb. Because it feels so good up there.

Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos
Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos