It seemed like it had been years since last hearing one of Fr. Jim's homilies at St. Anne's Church on Mackinac Island. In one, he referred to a snail as a metaphor for living deliberately in the here and now. At the time I had seen my bike as a yellow snail. Now, the metaphor caught up with me, literally, as I pedaled up and over the fourth and fifth sentinels of the Pacific.
I climbed over the mountains via Washington and Rainy Pass. Their heights arose from approximately 2,500 feet above sea level to 5,500 feet and 4,900 feet respectively. Below, where the dusty village of Mazama served as an outpost to mountaineers and cyclists, and arid pinelands towered into the cerulean sky, a logger asked, "Are you one of those damn bikers who ride in the middle of the road?" For a moment my mind relished the idea of the middle road-to just stay my course along a path of my own choosing between the road less traveled by and the mainstream, between humility and pride, neither far to the left, nor to the right. I told him that I didn't ride in the middle of the road that I always ride on the edge. At this, he seemed satisfied, and we parted ways.
Jagged peaks surged across my vision. It was at a snail's pace that I ascended, sometimes steering my bike in switchback patterns along the deserted road. Ever so slowly, I emerged from the serrated jawbone of a titanic serpent.
After all these days on the road, shouldn't I have enjoyed a cake ride over the mountains and through the trees? It has been about three days of recycled ascension, descension. My home, my yellow snail shell, the innocent trailer with all my burdensome, worldly goods became a boulder. The hoary mountain gods of the Cascades punished me for my arrogance and vanity. The four guardians of the Pacific resembled Mt. Erebus each and every moment, and I sampled the fate of Sisyphus.
The climb was long and tortuous. Motorists zoomed by, their engines groaned like the decrepit portcullis of Hell's gate lifting open via an arthritic winch system. I choked on their exhaust, as my lungs screamed for more oxygen, their exhaust like ghostly remnants of eldritch, prehistoric creatures ripped from their graves to fuel a brave new world. Their bumper stickers proclaimed, "The Power of Pride."
On this road I saw terrible beauty and death. It was not something motorists saw as they sped across the mountains. They did not see the intricate details of the road. Driving an automobile is much like watching television. The windshield is a TV screen, and the car seat is a couch. They only saw the Hollywood version of the road. The road was passively experienced. For them the road was merely a means to an end. Motorists saw the forest, but not the trees. And as for me, I might as well have been some forlorn shade traversing the haunted peaks of Hades.
Though I was in agony, my limbs sore from drudgery, the details of the here and now sanctified the pain, made it meaningful. At first, all I saw was the detritus of the underworld, the sun bleached bones of animals littering the road's center, crosses and flowers marking its casualties, and shards of glass from beer bottles, windshields, and headlights. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of travail, the process transmuted into pilgrimage. This was true alchemy. Pines rose like bristling pikes, their pungent evergreen scent tingled my nose like incense, as rays of sun cast through snow-flecked peaks, enlightening the shaded road at odd intervals.
I crossed the Cascades at Washington and Rainy Pass, approximately 5,500 and 4,900 feet above sea level respectively. At Rainy Pass with Cutthroat Peak towering above me, the line of demarcation between the arid, eastern slopes, and the fabled emerald forests of the west, I fancied that I could smell the Pacific even though it was still another 150 miles away.
The day fell behind the crags. I zoomed down the mountain faster than cars had passed on the way up. My bike became a racing snail from the Neverending Story, but the warm, golden presence I had felt coming up disappeared. In the shadows of the valley my muscles, bones, and blood went leaden, heavy, and cold from darkness and wind chill. I braked. It took minutes to come to a complete stop. Somewhere along the road, upon a precipice overlooking a green-clad gorge churning with the mad flow of rivulets, I bundled up with gortex, arm, and leg warmers. My breath leaked from my nose and mouth. Even though it was only late afternoon, it felt like midnight on bare mountain. I flew down the mountain at about 40-45 mph, strapped only to my camelback. Diablo Lake and Big Devil Peak zoomed by. My ears crackled and popped from the changes in air pressure. My hands, face, and feet went numb. All the while it got darker and darker as the sun, invisible, yet in faith I knew it was there, dipped below the mountains, and finally the horizon.
I bivouacked near the hamlet of Newhalem upon the Skagit River. I shivered uncontrollably as I set up my tent. I was starving, dehydrated, and damn near hypothermic, but happy as hell that I had made it over the mountains, had bested the threshold of the Pacific. I knew that in years to come, when life seemed slow and dull, wrought with Sisyphusean toil, in moments of tranquility, and after my hippocampus and imagination cut the rough hewn stones of actual experience into priceless diamonds, I would relish these days, and mark my life's journey by them just as a navigator, weary of kraken and tempest, plots his course by star and moon.