Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Fat Pursuit Bike, Gear, and Kit

A lot of people – cyclists and not – have asked me about the clothing, bike, and gear I used in the Fat Pursuit.

On the start line

Given how much I’ve learned from talking with fellow racers about their systems, I thought I’d share mine.

With a couple exceptions, I’ve used the items here in several other long races, and the new items had been tested on long rides this fall and winter.

I’m not trying to name-drop with the brand info; I just want to be clear about what works for me.

And yes a lot of this stuff is expensive. I don’t think I bought a single item here at retail, though – I watch for sales, use shop/club discounts, buy on clearance, etc. Even the Buffalo, my beloved adventure partner, was bought used (albeit from a bike guy who took very good care of it).

CLOTHING
Worn Continuously (* Craft brand items)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • cycling shorts
  • compression socks (Alchemist)
  • heavyweight wool socks (Da Feet Woolie Bullie)
  • upper thermal base layer*
  • lower thermal base layer*
  • heavyweight cycling pants (Endura MT500 – new to me this year and fantastic)
  • synthetic soft shell jacket (a discontinued model from Eddie Bauer)
  • wind vest (Pactimo, Salsa branded)
  • wool neck gaiter
  • heavyweight gloves (Outdoor Research PL 400)
  • thick wool cap (45NRTH Stove Pipe)
  • cycling boots (45NRTH Wölvhammer, 2014 model)
  • clear-lens glasses (cheapies I bought at a gas station!)

Worn as Needed (when it was so goddamn cold)

Spare Clothing (stashed in a dry bag in my seat pack and never used)

  • wind briefs*
  • wicking undershirt*
  • compression socks
  • heavyweight wool socks
  • upper thermal base layer*

FATBIKE AND GEAR


Bike: the Buffalo, a 2011 Salsa Mukluk ti, size large, and far from stock.

  • 1 x 11 drivetrain with a 28T chainring (the main change since my last winter ultra)
  • Carver O’Beast carbon fork
  • Easton carbon handlebars (metal bars are too cold!)
  • 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires (no, not tubeless)
  • Surly Rolling Darryl rims
  • Crank Bros. Mallet 2 pedals
  • Brooks C17 saddle (given to me free by a Tour Divide racer who hated it!)

Bags and Gear

EQUIPMENT (* required items)

headlight setup (back)
headlight setup (back)


Grandma Cat, RIP

Grief drove me to spend a couple hours tonight combing our digital photos for the best shots of Sabine, our wonderful grandma cat. I was surprised by how few there were, but the photos we do have are nicely representative of her beauty and calm. “Beaner” was quite a cat, even leaving aside the fact that she lived 21 wonderful years (nearly half my life!).

Sabine was a stray, adopted by Shannon and me with her “brother” Snowshoe (also a stray but not her actual littermate) from a shelter in Chicago. When Shannon and I – newly married – adopted the two cats, we were making a real home for ourselves. In the contract with signed with the shelter, we promised to always keep them both indoors and to never declaw them. We were silly kids, but we kept both of those promises! “Schoobie” died of cancer when he was only five, which felt until tonight like an impossibly painful event. “Beaner” lived another 16 years! I asked her, at the vet’s tonight, to make sure she told Schoobie that we missed him and that we did a good job with her.

The defining aspect of Beanie’s life was being the object of the girls’ inexhaustible love. She sought out their love, and paid them back richly. Genevieve, especially, enjoyed a special bond with Sabine, whom she called by a million names, including “Benobi.” How many hours did Sabine spend with Julia and Genevieve on the sofa, snuggling into a blanket or draped over their laps?

She was a surpassingly gentle cat. I can’t remember her ever being truly angry, except when I trimmed her claws. And even then, she relaxed when Vivi would help me by cooing to her and stroking her back. She loved peace and quiet and sunbeams. Like most cats, but more so.

In the last couple years, as life with not-little kids calmed down, Sabine made a point each morning to come over to where I was eating breakfast and paw at my leg, reminding me that she wanted some of the milk from my cereal. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always patient with her begging, but I always gave her my leftover milk, which she happily slurped up. She often then waited at the door to the garage to go and inspect the situation there – but not if it was too cold. She liked to lick the spokes on the girls’ bicycles, bizarrely. Back inside, especially in these last few years of her life, she would find a sunny spot in the living room and make herself comfortable as I was leaving for work.

Even more than those weekday mornings, Sabine and I enjoyed each other’s company every evening, after the rest of the household went to bed. She and I had a little routine. When I came downstairs after saying goodnight to the girls around 8:30, she’d expect me to top off her food bowl. Then she’d sit with me or maybe sleep behind the TV in her “nest.” If I had a snack, she’d come over to check it out, dipping her paw in my water glass, licking salty chips if I looked away, and enjoying the last shreds of cheese from my nachos. Around 10, she’d come back for her bedtime snack, which I’d give her in the utility room, where she’d sleep overnight. If I fell asleep on the sofa or simply forgot, she’d politely come over from wherever she was and tap me on the knee or chin with a reminder. God how I’ll miss all of our evenings together, but god how I’ll treasure the memory of them.

Creosote

My maternal grandfather can be politely described as a distant figure. I didn’t know him well and was kind of frightened by him until one day when I was in my twenties on which I realized he was actually a pretty small guy with a flannel shirt over a barrel chest.

Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet
Grandma and Grandpa Jauquet

When I was a kid, he was an “owner-operator” at Jauquet Trucking, driving tractor-trailers for a living.

Grandpa in his truck
Grandpa in his truck

As such, during my visits to my grandma’s house he was usually on the road (hauling logs to the paper mills), working outside in his garages on his white and blue trucks, or asleep on the sofa.

My grandpa’s life then was as probably as far from my life now as two white guys’ lives can be, though of course his work (and my grandma’s, and my other grandparents’, and my parents’) made my present life possible. When I think about these facts of generational change, class mobility, and all that, I think that he would find my current life almost impossibly frivolous. Working indoors all day? In an office at a college? Not making my children work all the damn time? Spending my free time (free time!?) riding a bicycle?

And yet my bike has created an odd sense of connection to him. Being out in all weather? He might appreciate that, though he might also wonder why I don’t earn any money by doing my winter rides.

I’m hardly handy, but I handle some of the mechanical stuff on my bike now and then, and invariably I get grimy and have to wash up at the utility room sink with a dollop of citrus-scented pumice soap. That smell sends me right back to the kitchen at my grandma’s house, where I’d be sitting drawing or reading and waiting for dinner – maybe one of my Grandma’s homemade pasties. When Grandpa came in from the garage, he’d wash his hands at a tiny sink off the kitchen, scrubbing and scrubbing at the grease and dirt with a pumice soap that smelled faintly orangey.

the sink
the sink

His was a no-nonsense block of Lava soap, where mine is probably made from ethically-collected pumice and free-range oranges, but there you go. Once sufficiently (but never completely) clean, he sit down at his spot in the corner and we could all eat.

That indoors memory is complemented by an equally distinct but much less predictable outdoors memory. The truck garages were massive hangar-like spaces, dimly lit, full of trucks and truck parts and tools.

truck garages
truck garages

Their dirt floors were slick and black with oil, and the air was full of the smell of grease. My life now is as un-greasy as could be, except when I work on my bikes and at random moments out riding, when I encounter that same creosote smell. Sometimes it’s coming from wet railroad ties at the spot where some lonely road crosses the tracks. Other times, it’s coming from ties that someone’s repurposed for a bridge on a bike trail. Other times, it’s from telephone poles – maybe a stack of new ones awaiting installation or, like last Sunday, a pile of old ones stacked mysteriously at the edge of a marsh where I’ve paused to take a break. The melting snow was driving out an overpowering scent of creosote, and for the minute I was there, drinking water and pissing into the reeds, I was eight or ten or twelve again, standing in Grandpa’s truck garage. Luckily for me, there was a U.P. pasty waiting for me back home – not Grandma’s, but a good one just the same.

Montage of Heck

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.

Frances Farmer

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.)

Cobain
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.