Monday, April 2, 2012

A Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven

Long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Like the river we cannot stand in twice, we never see the same face of Death Valley twice in one day.
Every hour the sun highlights different features, shades, shadows. There are earth tones never dreamed of by L.L. Bean. Winds shift direction capriciously and sift the sands around in ever-changing patterns. There is even a place called The Racetrack where rocks seem to move across the ground on their own. Belying its name, Death Valley is alive with sensory temptation.

Bikes at Zabriskie Point
It is also one of the places in North America where you can actually put your life in danger just by going out the door. Merciless sun and wind plus the driest air anywhere can make short work of any soul who ventures outside unprepared. Natural beauty notwithstanding, Death Valley would not at first seem the most welcoming place to spend a week of recreational cycling.

Which is exactly what we did at the annual Adventure Corps Camp this past week. Forty-plus cyclists descended into the Valley for five days of strenuous and stimulating bicycling tours. I think it would be hard to find a participant who would trade away a minute of it. Just to feel part of the overwhelming grandeur of the place is to feel different than you have felt anywhere else. A sudden shaft of sunlight illuminates a striated rock face, sculpted by wind and sand, and all of a sudden you are pedaling through a photo opportunity that could never be captured with a camera. To have such topography as a backdrop to a bike ride is a gift.
Riding up from Badwater

From Tuesday to Friday the weather was flawless: light winds and warm temperatures. We rode to a different corner of the Valley every day, trying out long climbs and descents and enjoying the stark beauty. Each afternoon there was a blessed Yoga session for relief of tired muscles and quieting of overworked minds.

In the evenings my friends and I would sit on the patio up at the Furnace Creek Inn and watch the sun set over the Valley while gentle desert breezes played with the fronds of the palm trees.

Sunset in Death Valley - thanks to Pam and Dave for these photos

The last ride of the week, on Saturday, was the Hell’s Gate Hundred, a tough century ride 4500 feet up through Daylight Pass and into the ghost town of Rhyolite. There was also a 65 mile version, a metric century, which I chose to do as it was more suited to my current talents. The ride begins with a tour of Artists Drive, which looks like an innocuous little loop on the map but is in fact a vicious, sharply-graded climb into the mountains followed by a steep, twisting white-knuckle descent. I rode this loop on my own on Thursday so that I wouldn’t be totally surprised during the Saturday ride.

But of course there are always surprises. That’s why the group is called Adventure Corps and not Boring Corps.
What I have learned, with some help from my friends Pam and Dave, is that cycling in Death Valley is not so much a feat of will or strength as it is a negotiation between oneself and nature. No one defeats the elements here; at best we learn how our abilities or limitations can work with what the Fates throw at us on any given day. My final lesson was about to come at me.

The morning of the Hell’s Gate Hundred dawned hot and clear, and violently windy. As it had at the Spring Century last year, the wind roared out of the south unchecked by anything except the bicyclists who dared to place themselves in its path. Remembering how I had exhausted myself back in 2011, I rode the eight miles south to Artists Drive slowly and patiently. The climb upward was bearable but the descent was positively scary with strong winds tearing through the canyons in all directions. My hands became numb from the death grip I had on the handlebars and brake levers.

There was a welcome respite as I rode the tailwind northbound for about 20 miles. Then a tedious 10-mile climb took me up to Hell’s Gate itself, the turnaround. I had ridden back down this route earlier in the week and had used my brakes to keep from going too fast. This time, with the wind charging up the hill at me, I had to pedal just to keep going downward and to stay upright. But the true challenge was waiting at the bottom of the hill.

Dust in the Wind
Turning due southward towards Furnace Creek for the last 10 miles, the full force of the wind slammed into me. It was scarily hard to stay upright on the bike without being blown over and forward progress was nearly impossible. Into this mix was added a sandstorm that deposited a small quarry’s worth of gravel into my eyes. Looking down at the white line at the side of the road, I pedaled one stroke after another, achieving a speed of perhaps three miles per hour. These conditions were worse than last year’s by far; in short, it was Hell. When riding became too difficult, I began walking my bike along the side of the road.

I continued in this way for about an hour, being buffeted and sandblasted, until my dear friends from Cleveland, Saint Dave and Saint Pamela came by in their car and saved me. I can’t say I was even reluctant to accept their offer of a ride the last five miles to the finish. I had given it everything I had but on this day, Death Valley had the last word, and I accepted it. For the rest of the afternoon a lot of very kind folks in cars spent their time fetching stranded and spent riders from the road; they are the true angels of this story.
All in all I had pedaled 60 miles (one for each year of my life…) in appalling conditions and I am proud of that accomplishment. On top of this I had magnificent riding in beautiful weather in the week leading up to the Hell’s Gate Hundred: thousands of feet of climbing and descending with hundreds of miles of cycling. I count it all as a success. If we pay attention, Death Valley gives us more than it takes away; we don't come here to show off what we can do, we come to learn what the Valley can teach us, and to leave wiser.

John Milton had a point: our minds are indeed capable of making a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven, sometimes both at once I would add. This past week our minds also had help from Death Valley.