Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Book, New Website!

Finally, the book is here! It is renamed The Bar Mitzvah and The Beast. For more info, go to my website Matt Biers-Ariel.com. April 22 is the book launch at the US Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis at 4:00 PM. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Death of a Blog

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for faithfully reading 99 GALLONS and for the wonderful feedback and encouragement you have given me. The bad news is that I am stopping the blog. The good news is that The Mountaineers will be publishing the renamed book The Bar Mitzvah and The Beast: One Family's Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike. It will be available in Spring of 2012.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter 22 - An Atheist Covers His Bases

A good omen at dawn: the campground flags snapped in a stiff west wind. The map indicated a 2,000-foot descent to look forward to. Because of that same law about life being a zero-sum game, yesterday’s arduous ride needed to be evened out; today we would ride like Lance.

Either the gods didn’t log onto Djina’s blog to learn of our trying day or we had inadvertently upset them, because by the time we ate, broke camp, and mounted our steeds, the good west wind had pivoted into the Wicked Wind of the East.

I was perplexed. “We gave the Family Dining waitress a decent tip, were friendly to the campground owner, and the people camping next to us signed the petition. What did we do wrong?”

“Do you think God changed the wind because he was mad?” Yonah asked.

“Of course not,” I laughed. “I was joking.”

Yes, I am a rational man and know that God doesn’t change weather based on a person’s or a nation’s merits or faults. I know that the righteous suffer and the wicked thrive. And prayer goes unheeded. Yet I pray to God on a regular basis, for better weather, for better health, for better everything. Even though this kind of prayer is delusional, I still do it. Many of us do. Why? We want to believe that there is something bigger than us who is in charge. We want to believe that there is an omnipotent entity that cares. Yonah, on the other hand, has the guts to say the universe is an impromptu accident.

“Do you think the universe or life has any meaning?” I asked.


“That’s what the existentialists say. Their answer to a meaningless universe is for individuals to create their own meanings. Whether existentialist or true believer, they both have the same goal, to imbue life with meaning. What do you think gives your life meaning?”


I asked differently. “What is your life about?”

“Finding happiness.”

I mulled this over and thought about Rabbi Hillel’s famous answer to a heathen who 2,000 years ago challenged, “I will convert if you can explain Judaism while standing on one foot.”

Hillel lifted one foot and replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” The Golden Rule. Perhaps Yonah’s answer to the meaning of life implied the Golden Rule’s twin, “What brings happiness to you, give to others.”

Rather than being the championship team breezing through Paris on the last day of the Tour de France, we were an exhausted family of four struggling against a wind carrying the combined smelters of US Steel on its back.

It was moments like this with the wind pounding my ears like an incessant bass drum and myriads of tiny sweat wasps stinging my eyes that I struggled with my inner Zen. The truth is that I know nothing about Zen except for the adage, "eat when hungry, sleep when tired." The bicycling equivalent must be, “pedal when going.” The idea is to focus on the pedaling and let all other thoughts wash over like water over the proverbial duck's back. That seems to be Zen. But—alas—hopes for a wind change were the only neural pathways firing, and more bitterness piled on with each new gust. My mantra was, "When is this damn wind going to shift!" Hoping for change that you have no control over leads to disappointment. I tried recalling my friend Chris Kelsch's mantra, "It's all good." No problem when you’re on a 40 mph descent. When it’s all good during a 6.7 mph descent into a 25-mph headwind, then you’ve found your inner-Buddha.

The winds attenuated in Capital Reefs National Park, a 100-mile-long "wrinkle" in the earth’s surface which created a narrow canyon with towering cliffs and hoodoos on either side. (Hoodoos are the rock spires that are left behind when a cliff crumbles.) Bryce Canyon has nothing on this real estate. We stopped at a scenic overlook and stared at a pair of gigantic hoodoos which were taller, asymmetrical versions of the Twin Towers. Their beauty stole my breath. Why does beauty have a hold on us? From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems likely that what we call human beauty is related to the passing down of genes. We want to make sure that we choose a mate that is healthy enough to produce offspring. This evolutionary health is defined as beauty. At least that’s the theory. But what of a hoodoo, a Mozart concerto, or a solitary red rose bud covered in morning dew? Once I was teaching Solomon's baseball team the finer points of sliding, and a rainbow appeared. An entire team of eight-year-olds, whose holy trinity was baseball, pizza, and Gameboy, stopped and stared. I couldn’t imagine an evolutionary reason which created this kind of response. And then understanding struck.

“Beauty is ambrosia for the soul,” I pontificated to Yonah as we gazed at the hoodoos.

“I agree they’re cool to look at, but I don’t think they’re ambrosia for the soul.”

“Do you think there’s an evolutionary reason to think hoodoos are cool?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But the reason I doubt they’re ambrosia for the soul is because I don’t believe in a soul.”

“If there’s no soul, then what are we? Is a person just the electrons jumping across our brains’ neural synapses? Is being alive simply the evolutionary drive to go forth and multiple DNA?”

“I don’t see evidence for anything else. Believing in a soul is like believing in the Tooth Fairy.”

“That can’t be right. I can’t prove the soul exists through mathematical proof or empirical experiment, but there are too many stories, coincidences, and déjà vus to dismiss the non-material world out of hand. If we are simply the sum total of neurons firing how do you account for goosebumps when you hear a beautiful song?”

“I don’t get goosebumps.”

“You’ve never read a passage in a book or saw a movie that made you feel something in your body? I've read To Kill a Mockingbird with my English classes over 20 times, and I still get choked up when Scout figures out that Boo saved her life.”

“Sure, I get feelings, but why say it’s the soul?”

“What else can it be?”

“I don’t know. I’m only 13 years old.”

We left it at that.

At the overlook stood a couple in their late-50s. He wore a long, gray ponytail to counterbalance a heavily-tattooed body. Crosses and the visage of Jesus shared his living canvas with his mother and granddaughter. He introduced himself as a prison minister. He had been a motorcycle mechanic and drug addict until one morning he arose and heard Jesus call him to minister to prisoners. He customized his Harley by welding on bullets, hand cuffs, and night sticks. For the next 17 years, he and his wife visited prisons spreading the good word. This is religion at its best, when it can save a person and motivate him to bring peace and a feeling of self-worth to others. Soul or no soul, this man was doing holy work.

“What you’re doing, riding across the country on bicycles, is noble. I’d like to pray with you if you don’t mind.”

We held hands in a circle and he offered a prayer, ending with, "Please, Lord, may they cycle no faster than angels fly." Nothing to worry about there unless the angel needed ibuprofen to deal with a pair of arthritic wings.

Back on the road, I asked the resident atheist what he thought of participating in a religious event. I expected cynicism mixed with scorn.

“Actually, it wasn’t bad. Maybe we should get more religions to pray for us.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“It can’t hurt to cover all bases.”

Either his spirit was growing, or the hot wind short-circuited his cerebral wiring, or my little boy was a whole lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chapter 21 – The Toughest Day Yet, I'm Not Kidding

At the end of every day, I'd say something like, "This was the toughest day yet." The boys knew that after the Baker-Milford fiasco of flats, I was just saying it to say it. But the ride from Escalante to Torrey was the toughest. How tough? It started in the cool dawn air of 5:30 a.m. and ended in the cool twilight of 8:50 p.m. In-between the cameo appearances of cool weather was a whole lot of hot. There was a climb of over 5,000 vertical feet and another grade where gravity needed defying.

It was Yonah's first day as mapman. Though initially against it, he came to relish the job for it bestowed him with power and made him de facto leader. He was good, keeping us informed much better than I had. The day began with a steep downhill to the Escalante River. The river valley is a breathtaking piece of natural art made of enormous, smooth, naked rocks. But with constant braking around tight curves, only Solomon could enjoy the scenery. As we dropped closer to the river, the light grey rocks turned terra-cotta red covered with lush green flora.

An overlook stood a few hundred feet above the river. We brought out the petition and every overlooker signed. Even, "only three of the top twenty scientists in the world are convinced about global warming," took up the pen. I asked where he found his "fact." He couldn’t say, but I’m sure it was somewhere on the Rush-side of the Internet.

After crossing the river, there was a 14% pitch which Yonah climbed with nary a bead of sweat. Solomon, too, looked pretty fresh at the top. Djina and me?

“Honey, which pannier has the oxygen?”

“Front left. While you’re down there, could you grab me a couple Vicodins?”

After downing our Gatorade (our blood-Gatorade ratio was approaching 50-50), Yonah informed us that the dreaded Hogback was just around the bend. Yonah first noticed this particularly nasty bit of pavement while poring over the maps a half-year earlier. On every hard climb he’d remind us, "This was tough, but it's no Hogback." The following description is lifted directly from the Adventure Cycling map. "The highlight (or terror) on this section is The Hogback. It is a 3-mile stretch of narrow two-lane road along a ridge spine with no shoulders or guardrails and has drops on both sides."

And then we were on it. Yes, it was narrow. Yes, if you ran off the road you would slide significantly farther than Ricky Henderson stealing a base before a tree trunk or large boulder would arrest your fall. But the wide-open vistas from Hogback were exquisite, and the road itself was actually flat, and the wind light. I think I speak for the entire nation of bicyclists when I say we would gladly ride a road flanked by rivers of 15-molar hydrochloric acid as long as it was flat and no headwinds.

Into Boulder, not Boulder, Colorado that beautiful college town home of good eats and microbrews galore, but Boulder, Utah (population 180). Not for the first time did a town's size belie its character. The Hills and Hollows Market was more than Gatorade, Doritos, cheap beer, and racks of breakfast pastries with "January 07, 2018" expiration dates. There were homemade breads, granola, and real chocolate chip cookies. The store sold Persian carpets, locally found seashell fossils, and gasoline. In addition, the proprietor ran a small lodge. Other examples of multi-tasking stores in rural America include: Gas, Tanning Salon, Groceries, Watch Repair; Gas, Dentist, Tarot Card Reading; and Cafe, Gas, Deer Skinning and Packing.

We bought a feast and took it outside under the shade structure to escape the sun. We chugged quarts of Berry Rain Gatorade, and thirty seconds later returned to the store to purchase Tangerine Rain quarts. Only I needed thirds.

Boulder was at 6,800 feet. The 9,600-foot summit was ten miles away. In other words, it was steep. Thankfully, there was a tailwind. If not, the 3.6 mph average up the mountain would have suffered. No steep climb was ever complete without a couple of chain-wedgies on The Beast. All in all, the climb built character.

One highlight was being passed by a car club of Things. Volkswagen built their Edsel in the early 1970s. Following on the wheels of their perennial success, the Beetle, they launched this vehicle that was so indescribable, they called it the Thing. Think proto-sports utility vehicle with a lawn mower-sized engine, surrounded by metal the thickness of a coffee can. That's the Thing. Probably the last twenty that escaped the scrap yard passed us. We heard them first. They sounded like small planes with asthma as they crept up on us. Truth is, they weren't going significantly faster than us, and that was only because they had sag vehicles hauling their gear.

Near the top was an overlook with a stunning vista of a valley filled with huge red rock obelisks and a snaking river. In the foreground, wildflowers swayed in a large meadow. Trees sang in the wind. The world was alive. The entirety of Creation was dancing, and we were fortunate enough to be invited. Taking in the vista, it was easy to understand why the Transcendentalists saw the natural world as the real church/temple/synagogue/mosque. The Hassidic rabbi Shneur Zalman said, "All that we see, the heavens, the earth, and all that fills it, all these things are the outer garments of God."

I thought of Anne Frank, whose only access to the natural world while hiding from the Nazis was an attic window, and recalled the young girl’s words,

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow...And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."

I paraphrased Anne Frank and asked Yonah “What do you think?” knowing he’d come around, for how could he argue with the noble thoughts of this articulate fourteen-year-old girl?

“It’s the grass is greener. She was inside a house for over a year. Of course she’s going to think nature is great. I’m in nature all day, every day. It doesn’t give me comfort. We should get going. It’s still almost 1,000 feet to the top.”

I wanted to argue, but he was right, not about nature or God, but about having a lot more to climb. I reluctantly listened to the new jefe and climbed back on The Beast, who also wanted to take in nature as evidenced by its moribund acceleration. We came upon a forest of quaking aspen and participated in the running of the cows. A herd of free-range cattle grazed along the road. Wanting to initiate cross-species communication, we mooed. They raised their heads at our poor accents, and as soon as we passed the first cow, they ran alongside us with reckless abandon until we reached the day’s last serious climb. One look and I knew we were cooked.

(Dear reader, I know you are thinking that I say this all the time and somehow we’ll summon our strength to get the job done, like always. Perhaps you think I exaggerate in order to build tension. [Perhaps you’re right.] But this time it was real. It was the end of our most difficult day, I had serious lactic acid build-up, and the grade was scary steep.)

Desperation is the mother of invention. While we couldn’t get The Beast to the top with both of us on, maybe if…

"Solomon, do you want to get off the bike and race me to the top?"


He couldn't jump off fast enough. He beat me convincingly, and we didn't have to push The Beast. Victories for all.

It was early evening and still no Torrey, our destination. Yonah was on top of the map, but the map was mistaken. First, Torrey was farther than advertised; and second, the eleven miles from the summit was supposed to be all downhill, but it wasn’t. I had used up all my strength on the summit climb thinking we’d coast the final segment. Each subsequent uphill was a personal affront. The veneer of good, responsible dad peeled off revealing a cranky kid in the back seat of his parents' car.

"When are we going to get there?" I barked at Yonah. Since he had the map, it was his fault. Instead of taking the easy parental action of turning to his son in the backseat and yelling, “Quit yelling or I’m pulling over!” Yonah talked me down. "It's just a little farther. We can do it."

Give a kid a little responsibility, and he grows up on you.

We pulled into Torrey's campground at 8:50 pm, over fifteen hours after shoving off in Escalante. Pulling the panniers off The Beast, my arms couldn't bear the weight, so bags tumbled to the ground.

Every few years, I undertake a particular piece of extreme bicycle masochism. The Davis Double is a one-day, 200-mile ride. It takes 12-15 hours to complete, and for the next few days, I lie around the house mainlining ibuprofen while tending sore knees and complaining muscles. The Davis Double has absolutely nothing on Escalante to Torrey except being easier having multiple rest stops stocked with food and much, much cooler weather.

To replenish calories we went to Family Dining. Like Good Eats and Mom's, one doesn't enter this brand of restaurant with high gastronomical hopes. Our expectations were met. That night, Djina made a rule to never enter another restaurant of this ilk or of any place that misspells a word on purpose such as Kountry Kitchen. But she was just sore because of the flying cockroach that attacked her as we stepped out of the restaurant into the night air.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cover Article American Bicylist Magazine

Esteemed Readers,

No chapter today. Instead here is the link to American Bicyclist magazine. Last month I wrote the cover story and now it is available online at:


Granted, this article is much more tame than the usual chapter, but at least the pictures are good.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 20 - Words Are Not Necessary

Ken doled out one more gift before heading home. He hauled our gear to Panguitch, so we could do the 5,000-foot climb out of Cedar City unencumbered. The climb had the same orange rock of Bryce Canyon. We looked down on long vistas of forests. The Nevada deserts were a memory of the past. It was no longer the Battan Death Ride. Today we were the Von Trapps out for a mountain picnic.

Solomon and I sang up the mountain and came upon a 10% grade.

“Ready to kick it in?”


We attacked the climb with relish and pushed the pedals hard.

“We own this sucker!” I yelled.

“Yeah!” Solomon agreed.

The Beast begged to differ.

There was a sharp snap sound accompanied by a spin of the pedals as if there were no load on them. The snap and the spin led to a sudden stop. I looked down. The chain was gone. Where could it be?

“Dad, it’s behind us.”

Forty-two years of riding bicycles and my first chain break.


Luckily we had the chain-tool I foresightfully purchased but hardly knew how to use. Turning to Djina, I proclaimed, "Don't worry. I can fix it."

A pin holding two chain links together failed, destroying the links. The two bad links needed to be removed and replaced with a special repair link. The operation was straightforward but tricky. The trick was to remove enough of a pin, so a bad link could slide out. Remove too much pin, and it falls out. Once the pin is out, it is impossible to insert it back into its hole. The solution then is stick out your thumb. Remove too little pin, and the link can't slide out. I managed to slip out the bad links, but the repair link demanded fine motor skill and patience, two qualities I am not genetically wired for. After I dropped a critical piece in the high grass, Djina volunteered to take over as relief mechanic. I don’t have any hang-ups about gender roles and insisting on doing the man’s job, so after dropping that critical piece in the tall grass twice more, I offered, “Want to try?” She snapped the links together like a pair of Lego pieces, and The Beast was again whole. Djina didn’t say, “Hah!” and lord her successful operation over me. She didn’t have to, for at that moment I knew who wore the mechanic overalls in the family.

* * *

In rural America, art is created by what’s at hand. Hence, the dollar bill wallpaper and the shoe tree. But what about the rancher? What is his art? He hunts, and after eating the venison and tanning the leather, he’s got antlers. What if you’re not Georgia O’Keefe? What if you don’t know how to scrimshaw?

Ranchers make art by nailing antlers to gates, fences, and the sides of houses reserving a central spot for an elk rack whose span is wider than a condor's wings. Until this one installation, none of us were particularly impressed with antler art. But this was different. A good quarter-mile from a lone ranch on a steep climb were sets of antlers spaced a couple of feet apart all the way to the gate. In terms of numbers, the average deer antler is about three feet wide. Fill 400 yards of fence with one set of antlers every five feet and you come up with—well—a lot. But the jaw dropping was reserved for the gate made of two posts planted in the ground twenty feet apart rising twenty feet in the air. A crossbar connected them at the top. Now imagine a colony of army ants attacking a lone hotdog. That's how tightly packed the antlers were on the gate. It seemed as if every deer and elk antler in the entire country came to rest in peace here. It was art of abundance.

If The Beast were to give up the ghost right then, I’d request the rancher allow me to nail it along his fence.

* * *

Two cyclists coming the other way stopped to say hi. Like most people, they looked at the boys with gaping mouths. At the mention of being a kind of Bar Mitzvah, the two volunteered that they were Mormons. I have nothing against Mormons. As I mentioned earlier, I respect their toughness and work ethic. Some of my best students are Mormons. But Mormon theology seems a bit silly with the gold hieroglyphics written in "reformed Egyptian." In addition are the white-shirted, tie-wearing, young missionaries combining a toxic mix of naiveté and sanctimony. Add it together, and you see why I’ve never taken Mormonism too seriously.

(“That’s what passion gets you,” Yonah’s thoughts burst into my mind.)

But these two cyclists were not wearing their religion on their name tags. They were interesting and intelligent. They had graduate degrees. They understood the importance of combating global climate change. Again I was forced to rethink my prejudices. The beauty of traveling is that during our "regular" lives, we stereotype in order to get through our busy days when we don't have time to meet people as they really are. But here the only items on the “To Do” list were riding bikes and meeting people. You automatically become friendlier to everyone, and—lo and behold—you discover you have more in common with other members of your species than you originally thought. You discover how once you become friendlier, everyone mirrors the friendliness back. You vow to hold onto to this new way of being upon returning home.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you vow, prejudices are impossible to extinguish. When the cynicism returns, it's time to hit the road again.

Following the 5,000-foot climb, I let go of The Beast’s reins, and plummeted down the mountain. If Solomon and I went any faster, time would have stopped.

The town of Panguitch was nestled in a picturesque green valley. Adding to the color were two festivals: the gathering of the hot air balloons and the Harley-Davidson rally. Ken guided us to the KOA campground. While we set up tents, Ken scoured the town and, given the hard-partying balloonists, was lucky to find a six-pack. Ha-ha. The balloonists were strictly a two glasses of zinfandel crowd since they needed to rise before dawn and fire up their balloons for the "Mass Ascension at Dawn."

Ken scored a six-pack of "Polygamy Beer." Its slogan: Why Have Just One? It's Utah, remember? Alas, after our beers, Ken had to ascend on a plane to California and invent a better almond harvester. So we were left at the campground, surrounded by fifty of the Harley crowd. At about midnight, they yelled at us to stop partying so they could get some sleep.

* * *

Though I'm a vegetarian, I have a genetically-induced belief that I should teach my sons manly skills such as hunting and fishing. If I were a real father, I'd teach them basic construction or plumbing, so they could at least build a picnic table or replace a broken toilet. In the old days, fathers taught their sons trades. Of course, the technology is infinitely more complex now, and you need a $50,000 gizmo just to tune a car. Nevertheless, there aren’t many useful skills I've taught my boys.

Yonah's front tire was flat, his first of the trip. Back in Davis, I taught him how to fix flats. Now was the time to demonstrate his expertise. Though he knew what to do, he was tentative with his hands. You can’t massage a tire from its rim, you need to yank it off. It's the difference between tapping the bathroom door to see if it’s occupied versus trying to knock it down when your four-year-old is in the bathtub behind a locked door. Yonah is a tapper. Eventually, after realizing that his father wasn't going to help, he got it. I can’t say if competency in tire changing lifted his self-esteem, but if his life depended on his fixing a flat, he would live.

It was a relatively tough day. Mostly desert, heat, wind, and elevation gain. Late in the afternoon was an ascent. Our destination, Escalante, stood on the other side.

"The summit!" If there are sweeter words after mashing your knees all day, I know them not. And there is no sharper knife to the heart than, "Sorry, one more," when the false summit is reached and another, steeper one, looms ahead.

Following this false summit, stood a short, but extraordinarily steep mountain with a fire road at the top. While I scanned the mountain to find the regular road that would take us over the mountain's saddle, a car appeared on the fire road. First I thought, what the heck's a car doing on a fire road? Then the ol’ heart skipped a beat when it realized the truth—that was no fire road. It was ours.

"No checkmarking way," tumbled out of my suddenly bone dry mouth. A goat would need ropes to scale this grade.

"Can we do it?" Solomon asked.

For our children we attempt the impossible.

"Yeah, we can do it. Slow and steady. Deep breaths. We can make it." The cyclometer dipped below 3 miles per hour and continued falling. At 2.3 miles per hour the thigh muscles unnaturally burn. And so it went, foot after excruciating foot we climbed. 2.2 mph and you can see which individual spokes are not perfectly straight. If we breathed any deeper our lungs would have burst out our toes, but we were not going to walk our bikes. 2.1 mph and your feet are ready to pull out of the cleats, so you can catch yourself when you don't have enough forward momentum to keep the bike upright.

“Don’t give up. We can do it.”


It didn’t seem possible that our legs could keep moving. We weren’t inching up the grade, we were centimetering up it. I wasn’t sure if my heart or knees would be the first to blow.

And with a final grunt/grimace/pull/push we were on top. Did Hillary feel prouder when he summitted Everest? Of course. But we felt pretty darn good as we caught our breaths and took in the Powell Promontory. As we stood gazing, a motorcyclist pulled up.

"Which direction did you come from?" he asked.

"Same as you."

"No way." Incredulous can't describe the look he gave us. It verged on horror.

"Yep," piped up Solomon. Yonah, too tired to say anything but grin, was proud. This was tougher than anything thrown at him yet. And he did it. Words were not necessary; his accomplishment said it all. That is pride.

From the summit was an easy descent to the Escalante Reservoir campground. We arrived at 4:45. There was an excellent camping spot near the showers. However, a sign reserved the spot for handicapped patrons until 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 it was fair game. It was obvious that no one would claim it in the next fifteen minutes, so we set up camp. Solomon didn’t talk to me because his outlaw father once again was breaking the law. At 5:00 he forgave me because both then we were swimming in the reservoir, and it is impossible to be mad when you’re splashing in the water. If there is a heaven, you can take your halos, harps, and wings and give me a jump into a lake on a hot day after a long ride. I could do that forever.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chapter 19 – A Hot Fudge Sundae for the Eyes

I woke early to check the tire hoping to find air. Sort of like hoping one day the Chicago Cubs will win the Series. Possible, but we all know it ain’t gonna happen. The tire was—no drum roll necessary—flat. The only hardware store was tubeless. I trudged to the train station to see about catching a train to Cedar City.

“Only freight trains here," the station manager said.

Any buses?"

He looked at me as if I asked whether their ionic transporter was operational.

"Car rental?"

"There’s one in Cedar City. Your best bet is to go to the edge of town and hitch."

Solomon would walk the 55 miles first. The last option was to inspect the tubes in the sober light of morning to see if there was a common failure point. And there was, all the seals on the no-glue patches leaked. Maybe it was too hot. Maybe they were too old. Maybe I did a crappy job putting them on. So with slightly more attention to detail than a newly-minted neurosurgeon employs, I repaired the two best looking tubes with old-school glue patches and—voila—they held air. (There must be a lesson about life here, but it eludes me. If you discover it, feel free to send an email.)

Though Cedar City was a mere 500-foot elevation gain from Milford, we averaged eight miles per hour, for as our path pivoted south we took the headwinds straight on. These southern winds weren’t content to keep us in Milford, they wanted to blow us past Polaris. Let me make this perfectly clear. If there is a choice between mountains and wind, mountains win. Mountains offer the satisfaction of accomplishment and then the downhill reward. Wheeee! Wind, on the other hand, offers more wind. It is relentless. It dries you out. It enters your ears, nose, mouth, and pores. It is as if some uninvited, rude visitor climbs into your skin and vigorously rubs. When you see a mountain, you calculate what you need to do, steel yourself, and get the job done. You are in control. It is a finite problem. It can be conquered. Wind, on the other hand, cannot be conquered. It has no form and you are powerless. Your only option is to pray for its demise. The mountain mantra is, "Almost there, almost there," until you're there. For wind it’s, "How long can this bastard blow?" If you’re lucky, the wind shifts. The cyclometer jumps from 7 mph to 28 mph. You can hear yourself think. But don’t get cocky. If Aeolus senses hubris, he will return with a vengeance, and you will weep.

The wind made me crabby until it blew the obvious thought into my head. If Nevada was the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, then Utah was the Iraq of wind energy. And Utah is a gentle breeze compared to the Dakotas. If our country’s leadership had foresight, we'd be putting serious resources into capturing wind. If wind can hold a 300-pound load rolling down a seven percent grade to ten mph, it can power more than a few refrigerators and laptops. China is investing big in wind and putting up humongous wind farms in the United States. Why should we cede wind energy leadership (and profit) to them?

Another idea to tell our elected officials in DC.

At Cedar City we were 13 days and 800 miles into the trip. 800 miles is a significant ride, it is a great accomplishment. It is a roundtrip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is 2 roundtrips between New York and Washington DC. It is a distance greater than the width of France or the length of Italy.

It was one-fifth of our route.

Between the heat, the wind, and The Beast, we were beat. We needed a break, a shot of TLC. Lewis and Clark had Sacagawea to guide them through their tough times. The Union Army had Clara Barton nurse their wounds. We had Ken Giles. After abandoning us in Fallon, he missed the adventure. He flew into Las Vegas, rented a mini-van, drove to Cedar City, jumped on his bike, and met us about twenty miles north of Cedar City. Had I ever been happier to see someone? Outside of watching my children's births, and outside of going to that party and realizing that my friend Djina was actually a babe, the answer was no. Seeing the tiny fluorescent dot on the road grow bigger and bigger and turn into Ken was a moment of monumental joy.

With his 25 mph tailwind, he rocketed up the road like a dragster, grinning like George W. Bush after the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency. Ken's new pancreas jokes, sumptuous delicacies, and news from Davis were palliative to the weary family rolling into Cedar City.

Someone once wrote that one's true religion is not Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Judaism, or even Atheism. Rather, it is what one focuses the majority of his thoughts, actions, and energy on. If this is the case, our true religious beliefs were defined by what the four of us chose to do upon arrival at the Best Western Cedar City. Solomon was a Cartoontarian, a devotee of Sponge Bob Square Pants and an equally inane show, Camp Lazlo. Yonah, while he denied any religious affiliation, was an adherent of Buffetism. He checked out the room where breakfast would be delivered in a short twelve hours. He praised the waffle iron and blessed the yogurt-filled glass refrigerator. Djina was a religious double-dipper. On one hand, she was an Epicurean. She went straight to the five brands of stinky cheese that Ken somehow smuggled by airport security. After gorging, it was a hajj to the hotel computer where she practiced Blogism. As for me, I was a disciple of Dionysus. After parking The Beast, the trauma of the windy ride melted into a single ontological question: beer or wine? Why choose, spoketh my inner soul, and hence my chalice did overfloweth with both.

After our respective reveries, we found a Mexican restaurant and consumed an amount of calories equal to the three nearest tables combined. Mis hijos los hablan con la waitress en Espanol. She was so moved by these two cute gringos that she brought them a special dessert consisting of tortilla chips, sugar, and chocolate syrup. To an epicurean, it might not sound gourmet, but between bites Djina pronounced it holy.

* * *

We took two rest days. The first morning was dedicated to The Beast. At the bike shop, I jettisoned the patched tubes for new ones. It also needed a new rear tire. The bike shop owner had difficulty finding a tire because The Beast’s wheels were—of course—out-dated. By the mid-1990s, bike wheels went metric, 27-inch wheels became 700 mm, and tire manufacturers recalibrated their products.

“There might be something in the basement. C’mon, we’ll take a look.”

We descended the stairs into a cavern so scattered with junk, it wouldn't have been surprising to find Jimmy Hoffa in cement shoes.

"Oh, that thing? I picked it up at a garage sale in Flint."

His only 27-inch tire was an ancient Schwinn designed for short urban commuting. Its heavy weight was balanced out by its proneness for blow-outs. Nevertheless, it was better than what I had. I sat in his shop and switched tires.

The entire time in the store, the radio was blaring the voice of Middle-America: Rush Limbaugh. I'd listened to Rush before and found him quite entertaining. Entertaining in the same sense of watching eight-year-olds play Little League baseball. The kids in their immaculate uniforms are serious. The coaches with their clipboards and shouts of strategies are serious. The 20 walks and 18 errors render the game ridiculous. And so too with Rush. He tries to come across as a serious, well-informed, political commentator, but his obvious half-truths and outright fabrications are so ridiculous, one can only grin. The question I grabbled with as I switched out tires was: Should I bring out the petition? On the "of course" side, he owned a bike shop and was a super nice guy. On the "are you kidding" side, he was a Dittohead, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh, a man who claimed that global warming was a conspiracy cooked up by Al Gore and his ilk because they hated America.

"Uh, do you want to look at a—uh—petition we're bringing across America on global climate change?"

"I'll take a look."

For a full minute he studied the document.

I was nervous he'd find a misplaced comma or some grammatical faux pas. (I may teach high school English, but "who" or "whom" isn't any easier for me.) I worried that he'd shout, "Ha! A split infinitive! I'd never sign such drivel! Get Rush on the phone! I got me an ignorant liberal elite here!" But he finished reading, picked up a pen, and said, "We need to do something about this."

I floated out of the shop on a new tire and the realization that if a guy who religiously listens to Rush thinks we've got to do something about global warming, maybe, just maybe, we've got a chance.

* * *

Imagine a giant the size of the Empire State Building built a canyon-sized sand castle. Now imagine a windy rain came and knocked three-quarters of it down. The giant then glazed the remaining walls and towers with paint made from the orange of wispy clouds at sunrise. That's Bryce Canyon. Still can't picture it? Get a Sierra Club calendar.

All of us but Yonah hiked the canyon. Normally we would have dragged him along, but a rite of passage has to involve freedom of choice. Without freedom, he'd remain a kid. Though I wasn't ambivalent about giving him the freedom to stay behind, I was sad. Hiking the canyon was a hot fudge sundae for the eyes and freshly baked bread for the soul. One of the tougher elements of parenting is when you let go and watch your child make what you believe is a mistake and not rag on him. Yonah, however, was anything but sad. He read a book while the rest of us hiked. After the hike, I told Yonah about all the cool sights in order to show him what he missed, so next time he’d want to come along. I’ve used this ploy plenty of times before. One day it’s bound to work.

Later we stopped at an ice cream shop. Solomon ordered a hot fudge sundae. His eyes sparkled with delight as the huge bowl was set down before him. By the time he knocked the spoon against the empty glass, the sparkle was a dull glaze.

Clearly you can eat too much of a good thing. Does the same go with nature? Can you take in too much beauty? Does it ever become dull? For me, the answer is an emphatic no. I’d like to imagine that this is a universal truth. That’s why I didn’t say anything to my older son.