I couldn’t resist this meme-y questionnaire that was floating around Facebook, and luckily the girls were into it, too. No real surprises here, which is probably good! (Neither one mentioned beer in any response!)
J = Julia, age 11, sixth grade
G = Genevieve, age 9, fourth grade
1. What is something I always say to you?
J: “How was your day?”
G: “I love you!”
2. What makes me happy?
3. What makes me sad?
J: Not biking
G: When I’m sad.
4. How do I make you laugh?
J: “By doing weird stuff.”
G: “By tickling and being super strange.”
5. What was I like as a child?
J: A fat baby
6. How old am I?
7. How tall am I?
8. What is my favorite thing to do?
G: Bike and snuggle with me.
9. What do I do when you’re not around?
10. What am I really good at?
G: Cheering me up
11. What is something I’m not good at?
J: Punishing Genevieve
G: Getting mad [“You never get angry.”]
12. What do I do for a job?
G: Grant writer at Carleton
13. What is my favorite food?
14. What do you enjoy doing with me?
**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease.
A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!
I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking.
The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great.
I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!
I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding.
Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.
The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.
I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.
The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.
Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.
That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.
Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.
Wednesday, I watched Jumbo Wild, an accomplished and moving documentary about the ongoing fight to keep a developer from building a massive ski resort in a pristine valley in the Canadian Rockies. The place took its wonderfully odd and fitting name from a failed late-1800s mine.
The film is gorgeous, full of jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains in all four seasons. And while from the first the filmmakers are arguing against this particular project – which would, let’s be honest, ruin any wildness in the Jumbo Valley – they are also pretty good at respecting the perspective of the developer. (They are markedly less respectful of Canadian provincial and national government officials who seem weirdly eager to advance the project almost no matter what.)
Against that perspective, the film advances at least* three separate but interconnected points of opposition. White Canadian locals don’t want to see big money come in and permanently alter the valley where they live. Scientists – represented principally by a grizzly-bear researcher – think that the project would irreparably damage the region’s ecology, fragmenting one of the last big chunks of wilderness in the Canadian West. And members of First Nations oppose the project for the way it would literally profane a sacred space where they’ve lived for generations.
All of these views are woven artfully and engagingly together in a film that concludes just where you thought it would: in a vigorous call to defend wild places. Jumbo Wild a wonderful film that anyone interested in wild areas will love.
* I say “at least” because a) the film is sponsored by an outdoor-clothing company with a vested interest in wildlands recreation in places like Jumbo and b) the landscape is present in the film in such a way that the mountains, snow, and trees offers powerful opposition of their own.
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 Scott 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.