I lay on the mattress with arms outstretched and feet apart, completely naked, like Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man. As the 55˚ water from my shower evaporated from my body, sweat began to replace it, and the mattress was soaked, swimming in the dewy Oklahoma summer heat. My apartment, unfurnished, but for the 20-or-so brown cardboard boxes stuck to the worn-wood living room floor, served only as the roof under which I slept and showered. An old brick apartment facing the Arkansas River owned by one of Tulsa’s many slumlords, the window by my bed was painted open and the door was ajar, for outside and inside were the same. No money, no utilities, always with 55˚ water. Three and a half years of ramen noodles and work. So many hours at work that sometimes I would fall asleep on the rubber mat in front of the stainless triple sink. Just rest a minute, and then I’ll finish the dishes and I can get ready to go home. And then waking suddenly, realizing it was time to open again. Life plunked along like a phantom, a waking dream. Like the nightmares I had as a kid, where I was semi-lucid and walking, searching for a way out, a way to wake up and end the drama. Friends buoyed me. Friends I made at the DoubleShot, who pitied me or admired my dedication, or fell in love with the person they hoped I was beneath the filth of exhaustion and primitive living.
Three-quarters of the packet is all you need if you add 3 sausage links from the freezer, stolen from tomorrow’s toad-in-the-hole. And then add water to my collapsible backpacking pot, one I borrowed ten years before from my adventure-mate, Brad; the water should be hot when you put the ramen brick in and replace the lid. Not too much water, just enough to cover, and never boil it. I prefer to strain because I don’t like broth that much.
And I distracted myself for several years. Some people knew how I lived, and they asked me questions, and I lied. I lied to them and to myself about wanting to live like that. And I thought some people pitied me, but maybe they liked me like that.
Because over time, things change. Here I sit, undeservedly some would say, in an $83,000 house with a $14,000 HVAC that senses the temperature and adjusts based on the time of day and season of the year, keeping me comfortable and weak. It’s now dark outside, but light inside as the fixture hanging over my dining table, a round antique table my dad lovingly restored, casts soft yellowish light on my paper and across the seamless, popcorn ceiling. I ate meat three times today - pork sausage, smoked turkey slices, and ground beef. Three times in one day, just like the three times I ate “meat” in the five or six years of struggles in The Beginning. But change happens slowly.
Moab was my home in 2002. I didn’t “live there” per se, but I was a “local” for all intents and purposes.
I once met a girl at the Moab Brewery. She was sporty and blonde and flirty. And I was reading or writing, more immersed in my books than the TVs or the patrons near by. And people find that interesting for some reason. “What are you reading?” As if it must be the book of the century to keep me rapt, because no one reads, right? Yeah, I’ve read Desert Solitaire. Three times. It’s not about Moab, it’s about whores in San Francisco, I think. I’m not sure what it’s about, but I like it. And this cute girl took an interest in me. She asked me if I’d come back later and hang out with her after the restaurant closed. But I was on my bike. I was a cyclist. A mountain biker, really. My bike had a name that evoked Muhammad Ali, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee. My bike and I were inseparable. We just knew each other. I was the kind of rider who could and would ride the two hours uphill to the trailhead to meet my friends for a 5-hour ride. They called me “the adventure racer” because I lacked the patience of my compatriots who would try to ride a technical section over and over again until they succeeded. “Three tries and I’m out” was my motto. But I was fearless and talented and strong. When everyone switched over to full suspension bikes, I stayed solid on my hardtail, and almost no one rode what I could ride on a hardtail.
I wanted to meet the girl, but it was a 30-minute ride back to my camp along the Colorado River between towering red rock walls. And then the return trip to town in the dark, and I was tired, already thinking about the epic day of riding tomorrow. So I came up with an alternate plan. She worked at a plant nursery during the day, which was an hour ride from my camp, but happened to be at the trail tail of the Moab Rim Trail. So I’d meet her at her other job the next day and we could visit some more. But when I got back to camp that night I realized that I owned a car. I’d been so immersed in the lifestyle I enjoyed in Moab that I’d forgotten how I got to Moab. Needless to say, this didn’t impress the girl. “Why didn’t you ask me if I had a car?”
The first time I went to Moab I expected to see sand dunes, like the way I envision the Sahara Desert. And I wondered how it could be the Mecca for mountain biking with a desert full of sand. And there is sand. But not like I thought. I happened to meet a guy named Malcolm - “Rider Mel” - who was one of the only mountain bikers in Moab on August 1st and he took me under his wing.
We rode together twice a day, morning and evening, and sometimes I would go for a hike or run midday in extreme heat while Malcolm rested in his swamp-cooled apartment, drawing maps of the trails we rode that morning. He taught me the ways and encouraged me as I crashed repeatedly in this new terrain. “You have really good control of your handle bars.” And soon I was off on my own. Deftly riding the hardest trails without fear, skirting close calls, reveling in the excitement of empowerment and independence.
I could ride almost anything, mastering new skills each time I rode, confidence gathering like a storm. I found peace and communion amongst the ancient rocks of Moab, where perhaps my ancestors roamed, watching now as I pleased them with skill and boldness. Or maybe it was the rock that liked me, that knew me. Its life force in rhythm with mine, allowing me to do as I pleased.
Moab felt like home. It made me happy, if happy is a feeling I allow myself to feel. In fact, I promised myself that if I ever actually decided to kill myself, I was only allowed to do it by riding my bike off a cliff in Moab. A fitting death, but I knew I would never do it because all my cares were gone in Moab.
I was there at an unusual time, during the rains, during the jeeps. Riding to reconnect. And I decided to ride a trail I’d never ridden. One known to be wearisome in summer because of the deep, dry sand. But I was good at riding through deep sand, and up for a challenge. Poison Spider Mesa, just above the dinosaur footprints, was a typical Moab ride starting out, though I wasn’t used to being with so many jeeps. Rock crawlers, modified to look like spiders climbing over seemingly-insurmountable obstacles, leaving black burn-out marks on the grippy sandstone. Like a rollercoaster, I rode over and down the slopey rock. I knew my bike and I knew my tires intimately. I knew when they would grip and I knew when they would release. And I used both to jump and drop - it’s bad form to skid and leave a mark when mountain biking (only jeeps and amateurs do this).
I stopped to wait for a line of jeeps to come up out of a puddle and spin out climbing a very steep 12-foot climb, opposing my path. I scouted the drop and decided I could roll off, and pull very hard on my bars a few feet from the bottom and land hard on both wheels in a 6-inch water bowl. But as I descended, the tires I had such a close relationship with failed me. The water on the rock created a slippery surface like nothing I’d ever experienced in Moab, and at once I knew why it is called “slickrock.” The bike I knew so well went completely out of my (and its) control. We careened down this near-vertical rock face, free-falling, panicking, with no chance to correct or right the bike, and we landed fast on the front wheel, handlebar wrenched sideways, nuts on aluminum, face-down in dirty water. It was only a 12-foot drop and I was uninjured. Just scraped up. But that moment was the first time I lost control. True, hard-core mountain biking is done at the edge of control. (Really out of control, but where you know you can reel it back in quickly as needed.) But this was fast, unexpected loss of everything. And in a different circumstance, it would’ve been my demise.
I got up and wiped the mud from my face, restored my blurry vision, set my bars straight, and tried to soldier on. But it was over. I lost my confidence in one moment. And my years of riding Moab ended instantly. It happened so suddenly, the trauma, that I never recovered, and I lost my happy place. I’d probably even be too afraid to ride my bike off a cliff to kill myself. But change happens suddenly.
You die. Or you grow old. You move or you migrate. You climb the economic ladder or you win the lottery. Change happens slowly, or suddenly.
Climate scientists have been telling us for a decade that if we don’t change our behavior there will be dire consequences for mankind, for species of animal, insect and plant. It will happen in 100 years or in 500 years or in some amount of time that equates to touching a hot pan and feeling the burn two weeks later. They beg us to alter our consumption and our travel, our use and our waste. To be conservative and conservation-minded. To act sustainably.
And now, here we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, and the response has been one determined to sustain human life, though not as we know it. It’s an environmentalist’s nirvana. Air travel has virtually come to a halt. Spring break might as well have been cancelled. National parks are empty. Events drawing hundreds or thousands of people are no more. We have become stagnant and our economy will feel this crushing decline.
It’s the difference between consequences now and later. We’ll all die in 500 years if we don’t limit air travel? So what. You might die if you fly. Now, that’s a big deal.
So environmentally, one might applaud this pandemic as a wake-up call, and the first step toward true positive climate impact. But when it all blows over and our stockpile of toilet paper begins to dwindle, the landscape will be different. In the midst of the panic, let’s not forget to practice real environmental change, and begin to support more local business. More local resources. Think about the supply chain for the products you consume on a regular basis. How can you change your buying habits to support local products? Because for these people, change normally happens slowly. But in these days of societal reaction, change can happen suddenly, and your choices will be different (and worse) in the aftermath. Buy local. Be smart.