Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mountains, Mobility, and The Nature of Motion

Who remembers their first time riding a bike?  Although most of my childhood memories exist as snapshots and short films in my mind, I can pretty well recall my first experiences of two wheeled ecstasy.  While my trike and training wheel days might be lost in the haze, that first time I managed to balance and pedal my way across the front lawn has stuck with me to this day.  The sheer delight of those few moments being pushed between my mother and father, and eventually learning to roam around under my own body's power are powerful memories that I'll be hard pressed to forget.

The bicycle is nothing new, and it's anything but unpopular, everyone from the homeless to the most affluent, the cyclist riding purely for transportation to that of the racer riding for physical achievement, everyone who's ever ridden a bike has experienced this ultimate, and simple, childlike happiness.

Riding a bicycle can give you the sensation you are flying, it is an experience filled with joy.

Yes, slogging up steep mountain roads in blazing heat with no wind can be an unforgiving experience, and riding alongside speeding traffic has lead to many a near-death experience, but the satisfaction of moving under your own power, and the knowledge that at some point you'll be cruising downhill with the wind on your face, trees and scenery whizzing by, is enough to keep you pushing to the top.

Not many people learn to ride a bicycle after they're 10 years old, it's something they learn to do as a kid, and it'll stick with you for life.  I haven't heard of anyone learning to ride a bicycle purely for it's efficiency and mobility, in fact, when I ask most people why they ride their bikes, the most popular answer I get is "for fun".  For many folks, the choice to ride a bicycle for commuting and transportation is less about why you want to ride your bike then about why you don't want to drive a car.  A life choice so seemingly at odds with the ease and independence of the modern world is likely to spark discussion and debate about our many different world views. For myself, as for many others, this choice came about as more of an evolution than a decision.  Today I'm writing to give some insight into what the Nature of Motion is all about, why I no longer want to own a car, and more importantly why I think the bicycle is such a simple solution and amazing means of transportation.  Basically, here are some words about why I'm so happy to forgo the car, ride a bike, and climb mountains.

First off, I'd like to say a few words about the concept of sustainability in regards to humans and their relationship to the Earth.  For the sake of simplicity, lets say that there are two main aspects of this relationship, the first is food, the second mobility.  These are the two most direct ways humans interact with the Earth, through the food we eat and our physical movement across the land.  I strongly believe that the regionalization and restructuring of our food system is the absolute best and most necessary way to move towards a more sustainable future.  I'll probably write more about this in time to come, but right now I want to talk about our mobility and motion.

In today's world the choice for many individuals to give up their personal automobile and commute by bicycle is a reflection of their affection for simplicity, as well as their awareness of sustainability, health, fuel and energy use, but mostly, this choice is a reflection of their urbanization.  Most individuals choosing to commute by bicycle today live in cities or other large urban settings, these locations offer the most ease and accessibility to the bicycle, and often outweigh the benefits of driving a car.  The average commuter is driving somewhere between 15 and 20 miles,  or 25 minutes, one way.  The average bicycle commuter is riding less then 10 miles to get to work, with numerous alternatives for public transportation should the weather or their mood inspire them.  Car shares, planes, and trains are also abundant if you want to escape the city for a long weekend or vacation.

Adapting this concept of urban mobility to a more rural setting, and to the approach and recreation in the mountains was my inspiration for The Nature of Motion.  Trying to maintain the freedom and active lifestyle of a climber with only the use of a bicycle is an experiment that offers more appeal then any race or physical challenge I've ever done before.  Having the chance to test myself, adapt, push my own limits, climb and experience new mountains, all while helping to evolve the sustainability of the sport of climbing and society as a whole has been an experience I hope to continue for the rest of my life.

While I've generally disliked cities for their waste, absence of natural qualities, their poor air and angry, unhealthy people, it is from these settings I've received the most inspiration to commute by bike.  Mainly, whenever I'm in a city, the sight of so many people driving around like zombies makes me want to puke.  Although I favor the small towns and close knit communities I was raised in, the chaos and creativity flourishing in urban settings is undeniable.  It is in these congested spaces where our future lies, for better or worse.  If we're going to continue into the future with tens of billions of humans cohabiting on this planet, we're going to be getting cozy.  While some people in our younger generations are fed up with what they see, giving up and escaping to the country in a rejuvenated back to the land movement, others are hunkering down, embracing the digital community, learning to live together and creating solutions towards sustainability with what society has given them.  It is in the metropolises where the solutions for our overpopulated world are blossoming.  Don't get me wrong, the small scale organic farms, permaculture gardens, eco-communites, and educational homesteads in the rural settings across North America have inspired me more in terms of simple living, the sacred nature of the Earth, and a sustainable, agrarian lifestyle, but it's the understanding that without taking their adaptations and solutions to the cities, that these places will be the only communities left when our cities become as burnt and eroded as the mountains.

Climbers, by nature are ecologists, finding stimulation and inspiration in the vertical wilderness.  However, like the inhabitants of rural towns and communities they're likely to use more fuel and energy to get to the next town or adventure.  The irony that lovers of nature, diversity and sustainability use more fossil fuels for their recreation and transportation is slightly offset by the advocacy and influence these people have towards the conservation of wilderness and the evolution of a sustainable society.  These folks love the Earth, they are more likely to support local, organic food, be growing some themselves, and recreate in ways that don't require boats, quads, motorbikes, or other fossil fueled entertainment.  However, the heavy reliance on cheap fuel and mechanized transportation climbers and mountaineers have today is undeniable.  Our race to climb the highest and most remote mountains gives our minds a legitimate reason to use automobiles, planes, and helicopters to land us deep into their hearts, ultimately making them less commiting and more easily accessible.  The hipocracy of a sport that worships the cold, icy places of this earth while burning fuel that has been millions of years in the making has not been lost on me.  For the majority of the last quarter century I've been recreating this way, and today I still spend my winters enjoying the luxury of ski lifts.  But a luxury it is, and realizing these luxuries is the fist step towards enjoying them in moderation and taking steps to limit our fuel use and impact on the planet. "Because it's there" used to be an understandable reason for climbing a mountain, now it's an acceptable excuse for using the infrastructure of fossil fuels to get to them.  I am not racing to climb the newest, toughest routes, and if I was I'd probably be flying there in a plane, afraid someone might get there before me.  I've decided to slow down, take my time, hope that with luck and hard work I can make it to the ranges of my dreams, and have good faith that the individuality and creativity of my eye will be able to pick out lines left unseen and unconsidered by others.

I strongly agree with the sentiment that wilderness can only be preserved through it's use, and that by using it we understand our impact and effect on it.  Similarly, after the years of independence and freedom that the personal automobile has afforded us, we're now witnessing the impact of it's fossil fuel infrastructure on the environment.  The air we breathe and water we drink is being taxed by it's pollution.  This, coupled with our increasing awareness and compassion for the health of the earth, as well as the very motivating factor of the economical strain and our increasing understanding of the finite nature of the fuel itself, is making for the motivation for proactive change we're beginning to see.

The most selfish and overpowering reality of owning a car is that you are free to go anywhere at anytime you please.  Giving up the independence and mobility associated with the automobile is akin to ending a drug addiction, pulling the plug on the disjointed reality of mobility and transportation.  Long-haired hippies gobble up psychedelics in the hopes of experiencing a "trip", or escape from their bodies, minds, and the realities of life, a close parallel can be drawn between the chemicals and substances we suck from the earth and feed to our machines to power our fantasy world of mobility and long distance travel.   

For Liz and I, as well as most of our generation of middle class Americans, cars have been part of our lives for ever.  We were riding in cars well before our memories (or minds) were capable of any tangible responses other then smiling, shitting, or pissing ourselves.  My point is, cars were never a question, they were fed to us as a staple of existence to be taken for granted along with fresh fruit year round and the confidence and understanding that food will always be at the grocery store.  This is not a fault of our parents or their education, in fact, they were all doing their best to show us alternative ways of life; and gave us the tools to think independently, and more importantly creatively, enough to make solutions of our own.  Thanks again mom's and dad's!

This is where I mention I'm not trying to save the world, and that actually, I don't really believe the world needs saving.  The people of Earth are the one's in need, and I'm working for the health and endurance of a civilization that lives in balance with the planet.  By using my bicycle I'm hoping to increase the popularity and awareness of this wonderful means of transportation, but moreover, my motivation is multi-fold.  The environment, peak oil, sustainability, these are all 'reasons' that simplify deeper insights from my own mind, but as much as they motivate me, I'm riding my bike because it's fun.  Riding your bicycle is a way of life.  Choosing to commute by bicycle changes your perception of time, gives you perspective on mobility and takes you a step outside and above the car-culture, giving you a position to witness it's waste, destruction of communities, and overall lack of necessity.

Before this summer, my bicycle recreation and commuting had usually been a leisurely undertaking.  Aside from a few tours at home and abroad, most of my car-less commuting and adventuring has been ad hoc, wishing I had a car but making do with what I had, riding the train, bicycling, hitchhiking and catching rides with friends to get where I was going.  Traveling by myself meant I was willing to put up with some pretty uncomfortable and challenging situations.  When Liz and I met, our shared passion for wilderness and mountains gave rise to delusions of grandeur and ultimately, this dream of bicycle powered adventure.

Dreaming about the endless possibilities of climbing is a far cry from buckling down and making them a reality.  For some, the imposing first sight of a mountain they've been planning to climb can be intimidating enough for them to give up and turn back.  As our ideas and plans grew, the the reality of this experiment started to set in.  This idea of a human powered life wouldn't be easy.   Understanding we'd probably experience numerous forms of failure, we wanted to set ourselves up for success and make our first season of human power as easy as possible.  Without a truck or van to live out of, we knew we'd want a home base from which to launch our day, overnight, and weekend trips, with the possibility of branching out on longer distance tours should we want.  With this in mind we began to look for a place to live for the summer, favoring small towns, but really only requiring a proximity to alpine terrain.  Among many others we considered Bozeman, Boise, Salt Lake or Seattle, but serendipity and luck conspired to land us in Leavenworth.

This small town on the eastern side of the Cascades is home to a prolific number of accessible crags and alpine peaks.  The climbing around Leavenworth includes boulders, bolted climbs, or multi-pitch traditional routes just a few miles from town, as well as classic alpine gems just 4-15 miles away.  Our climbing here has evolved in just this way, from the easiest and most accessible crags, with heavy ropes and a bunch of gear on our backs, to multi night adventures to the highest peaks of the range with minimal gear and more efficient transportation.  Overall this summer has shown us that anything is possible, our confidence in ourselves, the climbing and bicycling community, and society as a whole has increased drastically.  We're happier and having more fun than ever before.  We can all do this and it's so much fun!

So, from here, where do we go?  Make things more challenging of course!  We're excited to embark on longer distance tours with several nights to a week of approaching by bicycle.  Also, climbing more demanding and committing routes is something we're always pushing ourselves to do, adapting to the physical stress and exertion a 20+ mile bicycling and hiking approach has taken some time, but were stronger and ready to to take it to the next level.  Taking the idea of a climbing road trip or long weekend and adapting it to the bike seems like the next logical step, but overall, this season of human powered adventures has shown us that this is a reality, it's satisfying and enjoyable, and we're ready to take it beyond the experimental phase and devote our lives to its purpose.

Bicycle mountaineering isn't a new sport, most alpinists know the story of Herman Buhl bicycling through the night from Austria to Italy to climb the Piz Badile in today's light and modern style.  That was in 1952, since then there have been many bicycle powered climbers, whether quiet individuals training and living as mountain monks, or the more publicised expeditions such as Garan Kropp's bid to summit Everest without oxygen, while packing in all his own gear and approaching by bicycle all the way from his home in Sweden.  In this new age of environmental awareness and modern free-climbing mentality, the bicycle powered climber takes on a new light.  Minimalist, light and fast, with little or no artificial means of ascent, weather it be car engine or power drill, the bicycle offers another evolution to the ethics of free climbing and travelling light and fast in the mountains.  I don't claim to be the first or finest to partake in this sport, but I'm excited to commit to it in light of today's ecological and social crisis, as well as to share my experiences and increase the popularity of this most fun way of life.  Liz and I are psyched to be part of the human powered movement and help to evolve this fringe aspect of bicycling and climbing.

As climbing and the sustainability movement continue to evolve, so will we, so will you.  Whether or not you own a car or climb a mountain, we're all on spaceship Earth together, breathing the same air and drinking the same water.  A future without fossil fuels is coming, weather or not it will be a reality for us, our children or grandchildren is unknown, the mountains will continue to be patient.  What is for sure is that we can work to make our lives happier, healthier, and more fun now, we can also put our positive energy and sweat equity into a more sustainable future.  Riding a bicycle and climbing in the mountains are two of the most fun things I can think of, combining them into this reality of mobility has been a dream come true.  Today, I find myself more satisfied and patient with every mindful moment, and less and less obsessed with what's next, what's wrong, or what other people should be doing. Be the change you want to see in this world and you will find boundless joy for life.

This guy is loving it.

When I first started out on this adventure, one of my many reasons was that I liked fixing a broken, dirty bike, much more then a broken, dirty engine.  I figured I would rather be spending my time pedaling a bicycle then sitting at a stoplight, gas pump, or in the seat of a car.  So here I am, taking my time to get where I'm going and loving every minute of it.  Faced with a downhill what would you rather do, drive or ride?

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