Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.
Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)
Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.
Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).
The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)
The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.
In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.
I traveled this week to Hamilton College in upstate New York for an annual conference of grant writers who work at liberal arts colleges like Carleton. This meeting rotates each year from one college to another, but it’s always both informative and fun, with good speakers and panels as well as tons of well-spent time with friends and colleagues.
Since the host is different each year, the program usually includes a campus tour, which I always enjoy. Colleges are almost by definition beautiful places, and I have a professional curiosity into what particular institutions emphasize in their infrastructure – and how they pay for their buildings and grounds.
Of all the tours I’ve taken, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one more than Hamilton’s. The guide – a senior economics major – was knowledgeable, funny, and extremely adept at walking backwards, and the campus was stunningly beautiful, both on its own and thanks to the gorgeous autumn weather.
A beautiful footbridge over a beautiful ravine that separates one beautiful side of campus from the other.
The "Rock Swing," a weird but interesting contraption that supposedly can be manipulated in such a way that it carries people standing on the yellow ring up from this basement spot to the second floor of its building. Seems dangerous, which is probably why it’s bolted down now.
The cavernous and gorgeous concert hall.
A memorial (and former gate?) to Kirkland College, a short-lived women’s college that Hamilton spun off in 1968 and absorbed in 1978.
The street-facing side of the amazing new Kennedy Center for the arts.
A dam! Better than Carleton’s dams.
Everywhere you looked on campus, you saw amazing trees like these:
A cool dining hall styled, I think, to look like an Adirondack lodge.
An arresting mobile in a corner of the science building.
The college’s science building was updated recently with a gorgeous new facade, which houses a functional atrium and looked damn good at dusk.
Even the old buildings like this residence hall looked amazing.
A well-situated statue of the college’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, a real bastard who would’ve visited the campus if not for that whole deal with Aaron Burr.
The bell tower of the college chapel.
A neat sculptural map of campus (as of the 1990s) that by tradition Hamilton students should not walk over, lest they curse themselves to never graduating.
Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.
I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.
As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.
The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.
All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.
Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.
"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:
To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.
After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:
When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.
Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.
As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:
When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.
(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)
Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:
I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.
The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."
The girls’ new purple belts mean that tae kwon do training now often involves sparring with other students at or just above their level.
I hadn’t really seen them do this until Thursday’s practice, and holy moly was it stressful to watch. Sure, they were all done up in protective gear, but still: seeing your tiny babies getting punched and kicked – and of course punching and kicking their foes? Riveting and scary. They loved it.
A year or two ago, I read and loved Thinking, Fast and Slow, the huge but ceaselessly fascinating book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in which he explains how and why humans think – and mis-think – the way we do. Though thoroughly theoretical and empirical, Kahneman’s book is also a deep fund of ideas for thinking better – for instance, how to make better decisions by defying the natural (or seemingly natural) human penchant toward loss aversion.
Having really enjoyed the survey of behavioral sciences in Thinking, I have been eager to read Robert Thaler’s Misbehaving, a much less formal but no less interesting book in which Thaler applies behavioral-science ideas to his home discipline, economics.
Structured chronologically as a sort of history of behavioral economics, the field invented by Thaler and others like Kahneman and their mutual collaborator, the late Amos Tversky, the book explores the failings of standard economic theory to explain how actual people make actual economic decisions, from buying blankets to saving for retirement.
Far from being dry, the book is often hilarious, with Thaler telling funny stories from his (and his innumerable collaborators’) experiments, from history and current events, and especially from academic battles with traditional economists, especially in and around the University of Chicago, who adhere to the idea that people are (or can be) fully and inerrantly rational economic actors. Thaler calls these mythical figures "Econs," to distinguish them from the "Humans" who are intermittently rational but who are also subject to all kinds of cognitive and behavioral errors, flaws that are seemingly grounded in "human nature" – though Thaler thankfully doesn’t delve into that notion.
What sets this book apart from Thinking, and from the few other behavioral-econ books I’ve read, is the breadth and depth of the examples that Thaler uses to substantiate his arguments that humans ("Humans") are flawed thinkers and that standard economic theory often does a poor job of explaining what really happens in the economy and in society. Thaler predictably includes many examples of experimental contrivances like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game, but he also illustrates his theorizing with analyses of game shows, ski-hill season ticketing, and the Uber car service; critiques of the NFL draft, car-manufacturers’ rebate programs, and American retirement-saving policies; explanations of financial crises like Long Term Capital Management and the 2008-2009 housing bubble; and – most amusingly – a look at how the hard-core rationalists of the U of Chicago’s business school ignored economic theory in choosing offices in their new building. As an observer of (much tamer) faculty politics at Carleton College, I thought this chapter was worth the price of admission by itself.
Considered as a whole, Thaler’s book finally offers a subtle but powerful indictment of the idea that markets are the best way to organize economies and societies. Leaving aside the question of whether any market is really "free" (given the reciprocal habits of governments to encourage certain kinds of economic activities and of economic actors to seek governmental aid), Thaler shows that even the economy in which Americans live is riddled with flaws that impede everything from the "correct" pricing of stocks and effective saving for retirement to the structure of mass-merchandiser’ sales. Don’t trust the market, he seems to be saying, and don’t even trust others’ or your own thinking – at least not until you learn more about why and how you think the way you do, and try to misbehave better.
Through the first part of the year, I read a bunch of books on buffalo, all of which inevitably included at least a brief treatment of the Great Slaughter, during which colonizing whites annihilated the North American herd of bison that had numbered at least 30 million (and possibly 50 million) as late as 1850. By 1900, only a couple dozen survived, hiding deep within the Yellowstone country in northwestern Wyoming.
By the end of the spring, I was simply tired of reading stories about this and other destructions of nature, and so I sought out some reading that offered a more hopeful, if not exactly positive, perspective on environmental history and on our current environmental situation. Gradually, I shifted my bison reading to material on the array of bison conservation and restoration efforts that are underway throughout North America – perhaps most importantly, on the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, where conservationists hope to have a 12,000-head herd of wild, migratory bison by 2030.
I learned, in this reading, that these kinds of ambitious landscape-scale conservation efforts were called rewilding, and that under that rubric, many thoughtful, hard-working people all over the world are trying to reverse the arrow of human development (read: destruction) of the natural world and going back to something like the world that existed when humans were fewer, or absent.
By and by, this led me to George Monbiot’s Feral, an engrossing book on the idea and practice of rewilding. The concept could be merely romantic or misanthropically nihilistic, but Monbiot’s careful research and exceptional writing outlines a different vision. The kind of rewilding that Monbiot advocates rests on his particular perspective on nature (one learned from and shared with many others) and on his assertive, engrossing investigations of places where rewilding is already occurring, such as the nearly-lost Caledonian forest in Scotland.
More than anything else, Monbiot recommends – in a cleverly conservative way – that humans give up our drive to control nature (a drive that seems increasingly to doom us and nature) and recognize that nature is more complex, more obdurate, and more resilient than we can know. If – Monbiot argues and illustrates with powerful examples – people simply get out of the way, nature will take its course back to landscapes (and seascapes) that sustain a far wider range of non-human life than our arid cities and suburbs – and much more than even our “natural” areas such as denuded farmlands and largely un-natural parks.
Not only is this nature better for nature, but this nature would be better for humans, too – a world where we do not burden ourselves with the crime of destroying our home and where we can live in settings (forests, prairies, coasts) that look, feel, and are more like the places where we evolved. Of course, many can object – for good and bad reasons – to rewilding. It’s certainly just one scheme among many for living on Earth. But it’s one that resonates with me, and that I think makes more sense than a lot of other approaches to civilization that I see operating right now.
After successfully completing a very challenging tae kwon do test last Thursday, the girls tonight received their purple belts tonight at a lovely, relaxed event organized by their instructor, Dan Elo.
Dan said some nice things about each kid, and singled out the girls and their BFFs as being especially hard working. I hope they were as proud of themselves as I was. They’ve shown real discipline and dedication in coming so far so fast. Their belts and smiles are well earned.
Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Dale had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.
I was probably in elementary school when I first heard people talking about how the area where we lived, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – a.k.a. Upper Michigan, the U.P., or now, “da Yoop,” – could or even should be a separate state.
This state – North Michigan or perhaps Superior – ought to be separate, the thinking went, due to the stark geographical and demographic differences between the U.P. and the Lower Peninsula – a.k.a. the L.P., “the Mitten,” or just “Michigan.” Anyhow, the only reason “we” were part of Michigan was the stupid compromise with Ohio over Toledo.
I didn’t know then, but was fascinated to learn later, that (as Wikipedia says in its article on Superior) Yoopers had agitated for the area’s statehood in the years just before I was born in the U.P.’s southermost city. This agitation in fact reached a high point just after I was born, with an unsuccessful effort to pull the U.P. and the northerly parts of Wisconsin out of their respective states and combine them into a new state, something like this, which I saw recently on the amazing Lost States blog:
I loved the idea then and I love the idea now, even as I recognize that a state of Superior would probably be unfeasible, if not terrible, as a political or economic entity. (Recent-ish news coverage of the idea says as much here in the Detroit Free Press and here in the New Republic.)
One of the reasons that Superior would not be a great state is it’s big and empty – Wyoming, but all forests; Alaska, but no tundra. Wikipedia says in its entry on the U.P. (the actual place, not the imaginary state) that “the Upper Peninsula remains a predominantly rural region. As of the 2010 census, the region had a population of 311,361,” of whom only a third live in one of the twelve towns that have populations greater than 4,000 people.
Even if Superior included both all of the current U.P. and the Wisconsin counties that (or almost) border da Yoop*, you’d only get a total population (if you believe those lying liars at the U.S. Census) of 410,340. This scattering of humans over almost 22,000 square miles would make Superior – as of the 2010 census – the state with the smallest population, well behind Wyoming’s throng of 563,626. (The numbers would rise a little, but not much, if you included the several other Wisconsin counties that the Lost States map above include within Superior.)
For comparison’s sake, Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, had a population of 92,000 in 2010 – a third bigger than Marquette County, the most populous county in Superior, and 425% bigger than Marquette city, which, with a population of 21,355 in 2010, is the most populous city in the U.P. Superior. Marquette – as the putative capital of Superior – would be the fourth-smallest state capital, bigger only than teeny-tiny Montpelier (just 7,855 people lived there in 2010!), Pierre, and Augusta.
And like many a rural, underpopulated state full of white people and public lands and almost wholly dependent on tourism and natural resources (in the U.P., lumbering and mining), Superior would probably be a blood-red state. In 2012, all but two U.P.’s counties went for Romney in 2012, and all but one supported the (horrifyingly bad) Republican governor. The U.P.’s fifteen counties – grouped in Michigan’s first congressional district – have elected Republican and Tea Partier Dan Benishek to the House of Representatives in 2010, 2012, and 2014.
So yes, Superior is a terrible idea.
But still, we can have some fun with the idea, right? A few facts, ideas, and guesses about what Superior would be like:
Metal: Iron! Copper! Iron! Copper! How about cunife, the little-known alloy of iron and copper (and that non-U.P. metal, nickel)? Nah, let’s go with iron, since there are dozens of places whose names include “iron” (e.g., Ironwood) but only a few named for copper. (Copper Harbor is pretty awesome, though.)
baseball: Milwaukee Brewers or Detroit Tigers, though leaning toward Detroit
hockey: Detroit Red Wings
basketball: Detroit Pistons
football: Green Bay Packers
Titletown is only about 175 miles from Marquette, versus about 400 miles to Minneapolis and 450 to Detroit, so it’s definitely not even a question don’t get me started. GO PACK GO!
* Running west to east, Ashland, Iron, Vilas, Forest, Florence, and Marinette. The latter is the most populous in the group, and would be the second-most populous county in the state, after Marquette County in Michigan Superior.
This is narcissistic, I know, but dammit, I love them all.
While very eager to do races in the future that will get onto this list, here is the current top ten, in descending order:
10. The Lutsen 99er in June 2014. Not especially demanding physically, this race was my first mountain bike race. If nothing else, the sheer quantity of mud made this one memorable. I’d do it again, for sure! 8h 44m, 282nd of 421 finishers.
9. The Royal 162 in May 2014: At 165 miles (the 162 miles of the course, plus 3 bonus miles after a wrong turn), this was my longest-ever ride – so far! Though conditions were pretty good, this was just a long freaking way to ride bikes. Thank god Derek was there for company. 14h 23m, 39th of 51.
8. The Almanzo 100 in May 2011: (part I | part II | part III) My first gravel-century race, run in cold, wet conditions that made the riding slow and dirty and tough. I loved it as an event in its own right and as my introduction to ultradistance racing. 9h 8m, 80/150.
7. The Heck of the North in September 2014: The distance – 108 miles – wasn’t that bad, and the course was great, but my rear derailleur blew up at about mile 80, so I had to do some jury-rigging to convert my Salsa Vaya to a singlespeed and then limp in to the finish. 9h 55m, 139/174.
6. The Inspiration 100 in September 2013: Another gravel century, but run in temps above 90 and a heat index near or above 100. Heat exhaustion was a major factor, but I still managed a fast (for me) time: 7h 7m, 22/78.
5. The Cheq 100 in June 2015. This was a very hard race of attrition in which I didn’t get the result I wanted (a finish in the full 100-mile race). Pending my race in North Dakota in August, the Cheq now my #1 “off-season” goal for 2016. 10h 45m, something like 20/30.
4. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2015: Coming in well trained, decently rested (two weeks after #3, below), and very, very eager, I rode what I think is my best race here in pretty much perfect conditions. 19h 30m, 26/77.
3. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in January 2015: I worked so freaking hard at getting this race right. I tested my clothing, gear, and bike, I thought incessantly about my race strategy, and I trained like mad. It paid off with a solid effort and a finish of the full 126 miles. 26h 25m, 30/39.
2. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in March 2014 (part I | part II | part III): Run along the Continental Divide where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana meet, this was my first race at any kind of altitude. What the elevation didn’t take out of me, the brutally slow snow did. I couldn’t finish this one, getting pulled off the course at 100 miles by the race director after 32 hours of racing. I’d say this was the low point in my personal history of bike racing, but I drew a lot of motivation from my “honorary finish.” Not only did I return the next year to ride smarter and faster and to finish (see #X above), but I’ve treasured the connections I made to this race’s people and land.
1. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2014: my first and still the hardest fatbike race I’ve done. I’d never done race of longer than about 12 hours, but this one took me more than 24 hours, thanks in large part to temperatures that infamously ranged from -20° to -40° made the riding difficult, to say the least, but I stuck it out, teaching myself that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. 29h 9m, and a top-ten finish – 7/30.
Last night, I finally watched Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain by Brett Mogren. The film was moving, as I expected (or worried), and pleasingly focused on Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music. (The dude could shred on the guitar.) The music was in fact the centerpiece of the film: album and live tracks of classic Nirvana tunes, rarities and covers by others (a plinking, nursery-rhyme version of "All Apologies" early in the film gave me chills), and – surprisingly to me – actual pages of lyrics from Cobain’s own voluminous notebooks. Seeing the original lyrics to "Frances Farmer" magnified the impact of that amazing song, which is maybe my favorite. The animations of the notebook pages, and of key scenes in Cobain’s life, were a nice touch, highlighting the fact that Cobain was a talented visual artist – something I didn’t know about him.
Of course the film is also and maybe mostly about Cobain’s life, and incidentally about his death, which is treated far too abruptly. I wished that the Mogren had dealt even more with Cobain’s biography. After an excruciating look at his childhood, the film switches over almost entirely to the band just before Bleach. I can understand that choice, but given the detailed examination of Cobain’s youth, I wanted even more about being Courtney Love’s husband and Frances’ father. (Courtney does not come off well from the film.)
Maybe I was just falling prey to the tendency of a fan to also be a voyeur, which Cobain himself loathed in his ugliest moments and which he tried to redirect to his art in his best. Midway through the film, some journalist asks Cobain why he can’t or won’t explain his songs to his fans. "There’s nothing to be said, man," Kurt replies, visibly exhausted by the question. "It’s all in the music, man, it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat… I’d like to hear what they have, have in mind, you know, like, how they interpret it."
It’s a simple notion, but a profound one. Even if he were still alive, I could never explain to Cobain just what his music – Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks, and all the rest – meant and means to me. It’s literally too much. Too much noise, too much rage, too much humor, too much beauty, too much feeling. Maybe, finally, Cobain is a kind of sacrificial lamb for me. The feelings that poured out of him created a kind of hole where I could and can stuff my own feelings. For that, I have to thank him – even if I also wish he were still around to make more music for me, and for us, and for himself.
I was only snuck into the race after I mused to a friend that I didn’t have any races on my calendar between the Almanzo in May and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in August. As it turns out, he knew a guy who could get me into the Cheq, and another friend, Galen, happened to be going up there to volunteer.
Things having fallen into place quite neatly, I headed up north on Thursday with Galen. We planned to camp each night and help set up the course on Friday. I’d race on Saturday while he hung out, and then we’d do a bit of riding on Sunday before coming home.
Our leisurely drive ended at a lovely little campsite at Two Lakes Campground in Drummond (just a couple miles up from where we saw a bear crossing the road!). The spot was idyllic, dominated by greens and blues and very quiet except for loons.
On Friday morning, we helped set up a chunk of the course (which had the added benefit of acquainting me with a gorgeous and fun piece of the trail)
and then did some riding on the infamously hard Rock Lake Trail, a savagely difficult stretch of rocky, rooty singletrack. It was as hard as anything I’d ever ridden, and I was riding it with fresh legs in good, dry conditions. If I do say so myself, the Buffalo looked awesome:
For various reasons entirely under my control, Friday night was less restful than it should have been, but I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m. to get to the race, driving over with JB, a fellow Northfielder. Just as forecasted, a heavy, chilly rain started falling about a half hour before the start. By 7 a.m., everything – roads, trails, riders, bikes, gear – was thoroughly soaked. But off we went!
The opening few miles are on a gravel road, so we were not only wet but muddy even before we hit the needle’s-eye opening to Rock Lake. The single-file line of racers jockeyed as we moved along the singletrack. I let quite a few people pass me when I either bobbled an obstacle or pulled over to let them through. I was not enthused about giving up spots, but I could tell that I was in for a long day – my bike computer was showing an average speed of well under 6 mph – and I wanted to conserve every bit of energy rather than go hard just to keep a spot for five more minutes. When we reached a super-steep rocky drop called Wall Street, I was amazed to see many riders take the A-line down the drop rather than the easy dirt B-line. I took the B, and was pleased to scoot around unscathed. Discretion and valor and all that.
As I wound my way through Rock Lake, other racers became fewer and fewer. A couple friends like JB went by me, and I pulled back a couple people who’d gone out too hot, but I was pretty much on my own, and happy enough about it. That’s not to say I was happy, exactly. In addition to the oddity of my hearing aids popping and buzzing from rain getting into my ears (and my consequent fretting that they’d die on the ride), I was uncomfortably filthy, the mud was already causing the Buffalo’s drivetrain to act up, my front brake suddenly stopped working, and my tires were proving to be terrible in the mud.
And I was crashing a lot. I went down at low speeds and at slightly less low speeds. I went off the bike to the right, scraping my legs on the chainring and chain, and off to the left, trapping myself under the Buffalo. I went over the bars more than once, including one idiotic time when I simply steered into a tree and then flew into it when, sure enough, the tree stopped the bike. Just as I started thinking seriously about how I could lessen the chance of an irreparable bike problem or of breaking an arm or leg, we came off Rock Lake and I had a short respite in which to eat, drink, and calculate that I was on pace for a 21-hour finish of a hundred-mile race.
This was an impossibility. I didn’t have enough food or water to race that long, and I didn’t have any lights to ride at night. As I thought about my options, I came up on my friend JB, sitting in the grass at a road crossing, his face covered in blood. “I hit a tree,” he told me. “My nose is broken.” I dug out my phone to find the number for the race director, who’d need to know JB was dropping out. (As it happens, that was a fateful move, as my phone got soaked and stopped working later that day.) As JB organized himself to head back to the start, a couple other riders pulled up, talking exhaustedly about dropping out. One even claimed to be hypothermic, which struck me as odd given that the temps were in the high sixties and that he was wearing a long-sleeve jersey and knickers – all coated in mud and muck.
I headed back onto the race course as they were leaving, and at around that point the race became as blurry and indistinct as the view through my filthy sunglasses. I rode the Buffalo for at least eight more hours after that point, but I remember only little moments in the race. For one thing, the course is so complicated and my knowledge of the trails is so thin that I have little or no idea where I was at any particular time. The only constants were my efforts to get over the muddy, mucky trails, to focus on making the turns, to strive to enjoy the sound of the rain in the trees and the sight of the weak light through the trees, and to try not to crash over and over. In between the usual array of earworm music, dumb but profound sayings popped into my head, like how success is often just rising one more time than you fall. In this race, this was literally true!
At some point, a racer caught me from behind. We talked for a bit about conditions. She said she’d heard that many people had dropped out. I corroborated this. She said she was wondering if we could switch to the shorter, 62-mile race at the spot on the course where the two races diverge. I said I didn’t know for sure, but had heard as much. We traded a bit of intel about the track ahead of us: a short gravel-road section, then a really tough loop around mile 30. She headed off up the trail away from me, leaving me to consider my options. Since I was only getting more concerned that I might wind up with a broken bike or body, I started to really like the idea of switching into the short race, especially if – as seemed likely – that meant that I would still get in a solid ten or more hours of hard riding.
Amidst all that, I enjoyed the swoopy fun of the Danky Dank and Esker trails, which were challenging but not obscenely so. I did not enjoy Hildebrand Loop, which is rated as “Very Difficult” and might better be rated “Very Effing Difficult.” Racers who must have been the leaders of the 62-mile race caught me in this section, as did a number of others like my friend Finn Sunboo. I crashed my way through the loop, walking plenty of hard sections, including the dicey, wooden “No Hands Bridge” over a creek running into Hildebrand Lake. Relieved to get off Hildebrand, roughly a third of the way into the 100-mile course, I decided to reward myself with the Red Bull I’d been carrying in my frame bag. I eagerly dug it out, almost tasting the sugary fizz. The can was, however, empty: it had been punctured in one of my crashes and all the caffeinated elixir had dribbled out into my frame bag.
Expletives were uttered here, and I decided to definitely shorten my day by switching into the 62-mile race. Now, though, I had to make it to the course split and then ride 20 miles after that to the finish. Back out on a gravel road, my chain, which had been creaking and catching all day, finally jumped off my biggest cog and lodged itself very, very tightly between that cog and the spokes. I needed a good 15 minutes, or maybe more, to fix it, in which time drivers in two passing trucks asked if I needed help. Nice folks, Wisconsinites!
Getting the chain back in place was in some ways the last test of the day, because the rain stopped around then, and after the repair had a long, fast gravel-road section that my computer suggested would end at or near the magical course split. I hammered the road, feeling very much at home in the big ring, head down near the Buffalo’s bars. The rollers and sweeping curves carried me past mile 35 and on to 40. Just as I started to wonder if I’d somehow made wrong turn, I came across a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the edge of the road. “Almost to the checkpoint!” he shouted as I rolled past. I pushed a bit more and got there: a pop-up tent, some muddy trucks, and a few volunteers wading through the soupy mud. I tried to make my stop quick, first confirming with the race director that I could in fact switch to the 62-mile race, then drinking a Coke and devouring some sugary food.
I dunno how long I was stopped, but I felt refreshed and relaxed when I took the Buffalo back onto the course. The trails were now a little drier than they had been in the morning, and these particular trails were also much more fun to ride: aerobically challenging, but technically just right. In the woods, I realized that I could hear birds singing for the first time all day, and that I was really dripping sweat – also for the first time.
I enjoyed the work of trying to punch the climbs – including the ascent to the course’s high point – and then letting the Buffalo run down the descents, including some truly amazing corkscrewing descents that got less and less frightening with each turn. I stopped crashing, and even went long stretches without putting a foot down. More racers caught me, including some 100-mile racers who were now hours and hours up on me. But I felt like I was on the home stretch. The trails – now the long northwesterly Ojibwe (or Ojibwa, depending on the sign!) – continued to be much more fun than work, and far easier to ride than those early in the day. I almost – almost – regretted that the race was coming to its conclusion, and then looked down at my filthy legs, my muddy bike, my clanking chain, and thought, “Naw, a hundred kilometers will be fine.”
Around the time my computer said that I’d gone about 55 miles, my fatbiking friend Wisconsin Mark caught me. He was shocked that I was ahead of him, since I am way slower than he is (even through he’s 18 years older than I am), and then very relieved to learn that he was actually about 40 miles ahead of me, having done the full 100-mile route. I tried to hang with him as we wound through the trees toward what had to be the road section to the finish, but he got away from me.
Then suddenly I saw his red jersey on a switchback ahead of me, riding out a descent that was paralleling a road and thus had to be dropping to the end of the Ojibwe Trail. A few minutes later, the Buffalo took me down that descent, under a nice little archway, and out onto the gravel road to the finish in Cable. I put the bike into the biggest gear that was still working and pushed as hard as I could, seeing Mark off in the distance. When the gravel turned to pavement, I knew I was done. A couple more turns and I pulled into the finishing area, completely and thoroughly worked.
My friend Galen met me with a grin and a few words of sympathy. All told, I logged a solid 100 kilometers in a pathetically slow but brutally hard 10:45, good enough for 18th place in the “metric” field. Notably – and leaving out the complication that some of us stepped down from the long race to the short one – only 35 out of 131 starters finished the 62-mile short race (a 27% completion rate), while only 63 of 130 (48%) finished the 100-mile long race. (Even weirder, the winner of the short race needed 8:05 to do those 62 miles – almost ten more minutes than the winner of the long race needed to do the full hundred!)
At the afterparty, Galen offered to loan me his car so that I could head home early on Sunday while he and another Northfielder – neither of whom had raced – did a bit of fun riding. The drive home was slow and easy, and included way too many stops to take on and let out food and drink. I got home in time to have a great Father’s Day, which was perfect.
Two days later now, I am sure that I will be back to try the race again in 2016. I’ll definitely approach the race differently, in big and small ways. Assuming I can maintain my endurance base, I will have to orient my training around the challenge of singletrack. I need to get much more practice on true singletrack trail, for one thing. I also need to practice handling rough trail – logs, rocks, mud – when fatigued, which is a very different thing than handling obstacles fresh. I’m lucky in these respects to have some fun local singletrack to ride now – and to have the Maah Daah Hey as a goal and a gauge, exactly 40 days from today!
I’ll definitely also need to figure out how to eat and drink on a mountain bike. Unlike either fatbike or gravel racing, a MTB racing seems to offer very few opportunities for eating my preferred “real foods,” like trail mix and jerky. I survived the Cheq on energy chews, but I could kill two birds with one stone by using an energy drink that provides water and nutrition at the same time. And I definitely need to use water bottles, not a Camelbak bladder in a frame bag! (I dislike wearing a backpack, but maybe I need to go in that direction again anyhow…)
I’m even feeling a perverse pride in having some of the ugliest legs in Minnesota right now, thanks to all those crashes. They’ll heal.