Friday, June 15, 2018

Dirty Kanza: I think of demons

Somewhere in Kansas: now

My legs aired their grievance. Filed their complaint. Gave me the tell-tale shudder of a cramp. One in my left leg, somewhere behind my knee... in a pocket of sinew I didn't even know had room for things to cramp. And one in my right leg. In exactly the spot I'd torn something earlier in the year. Somewhere near my hip-flexor and groin. Doing plyometrics. Jumping around in my living room, trying to tax my body enough to stave off suicidal winter depression. A strange pop. Then tingling pain and bruising. Too impatient to let it heal the way I should have. Now just a dull and constant little ache. But I was used to that. I stood up on the pedals and pushed through the cramps. Once upon a time I would have stopped. Stretched. Whined. Then I figured out that eventually... my body just says "fine... whatever" and the cramps disappear. At least for a little while.
And pending nutritional meltdown or not... it wasn't my body.
Somewhere around mile 80, my head just started doing its thing. Standing on the pedals to navigate some technical crux of some kind... a steep incline... loose gravel... a deep rut... the past...
...the strength just left me. That strange flood of weakness that accompanies those moments when you remember something...  that you didn't want to.
When you scratch off that thin skin of the person you want to be... and expose the person you are.

Somewhere in Florida: before

I woke up to sunshine. Light and heat starting to break through the tattered curtains of the van.
There was bustle now. Voices. Cars pulling in and out of the formerly dark and quiet parking lot I'd found late last night- backing into a spot sometime after midnight... Tentatively setting up the bed and sipping whiskey in the dark... Waiting to see if I got chased off by yet another not-having-it security guard. Until my eyes closed... and I nodded... and drifted.
I peaked out the curtains... noting that I had neighbors: two men sleeping in an SUV parked directly next to me. Seats reclined. Mouths open. I wondered where they were coming from and where they were going.
I turned onto my back and kicked off the sheets. Stretched my feet out and touched the corners of the bed... one of those strange little rituals I've fallen into. Hanging my heels off the end of the mattress.
I could tell I'd slept later than I meant to... but it didn't matter. Things were changing. The winds that had moved me here were shifting. The fog was burning off. New weather.
I liked that. I welcomed it. I needed it.
Whatever plans I'd made were meaningless now. And that... was a good thing.
Because I'd driven down to Florida with a plan to kill myself there.

Wait...  What?

Somewhere in Kansas: now

I'd stopped eating. Or drinking, as it were. Which was a problem, as all of my calories were liquid. My ill-conceived plan. But feeling the last mouthful of whatever fluid was in my bottles press back up against the back of my throat... my body said "No. Please. We're... quite done with that. No more." I tried to force the issue, and it ended poorly - a lingering miasma of grape-flavored bile in my mouth and nose. And on the ground. And on my shoe. Nothing but more grape-flavored bile to try and wash it away. Again... ill-conceived. When I pulled up to the final aid-station, Dorrit had more bottles of grape flavored calories for me. "No." I less said than croaked. "Just water." She promptly dumped them out. Refilled them with water and ice. I pushed chews I knew I wouldn't eat into my already stuffed jersey pockets. She poured water on my head... I gave her a bile-flavored kiss... and rolled out. Unrefreshed and unready. But knowing I could do this. It just... wouldn't be pretty.

It's not hubris to say that I always know I can do this. Riding a bike... is just that. If anything... it's the easy part. Sometimes it hurts, yes. And sometimes it's a complete shitshow. And sometimes... I want to quit. More than anything. But not because I can't go on.
Because going on just seems stupid and senseless.
I never doubt that I can do this. I just doubt... if I should.

Somewhere in Georgia: before

When I was young, I could always tell when I was sick. When I was legitimately sick... and not just fending off allergies or some small cold. Somewhere below the fever. Below the aches. Below the coughing... below whatever symptoms I felt...
...there was a shape.
I could see it, but only if I didn't look at it. More than anything... I could feel it. It was round. Jagged. Soft. Sharp. Fluid.
It pricked and flared. Bit and pressed.
I can remember lying in bed and trying to find it. Trying to find the place it lived. Somewhere in my jaw. Behind my teeth. Somewhere in my skull.

It's much the same... when my head is bad.
There's a shape.
This one is more difficult. It's soft... and prickling.
Like a cloud. Like a hydra. Like heatstroke. Like nettles.
I can see it in my periphery. In the corners of my eyes. Feel it in that space behind my teeth. It has a sound. Like a quiet roar. Like the din of voices in a crowded room. Unmistakable and unintelligible .
It's harder to qualify... because it's always been there. I just didn't know it. Until one day... I woke up, and for reasons... it was gone. I didn't even know what was different. What had changed. Just that, for the first time in what seemed forever... I didn't feel like killing myself.

These things rarely last, do they?

Somewhere in Kansas: now

On a long barren stretch of gravel... my front tire passed millimeters away from the flattened body of a horny toad. Crushed by a succession of preceding bicycle tires. In the self-absorbed passion play of a day at Kanza... I crave those moments. It's like a pinch. A slap. A hard shake. Something to snap you out of ego. There was no meaning in it. No beauty. Just absurdity. Like a possum carcass on  asphalt. Babies still in the pouch. Just trying to cross a thin ribbon of road. Just trying to gather some food. Just trying to live and provide. But ultimately just a body with organs exploded out of its mouth. All because some shithole hairless apes were too distracted by their own meaningless bullshit to pay attention to anyone else's. All because they needed to speed to town to get 50 rolls of toilet paper at Costco. A $5 latte they won't even finish. More caffeine free Diet Coke to drink while they watch Jimmy Fallon make more money lip-syncing to other people's songs than they had made writing them. All because they wanted to ride bikes in a giant circle and wear pants and grow ironic mustaches and say stupid shit about gravel and unlearning and coif their hair and give themselves codenames and share pictures of themselves on some ether plane they barely understand. All because they wanted to pretend like their momentary discomfort was a river... and not just another evaporating puddle that no one ever even knew or cared existed. Some pitiful feint at recapturing the same hungry desperation that the horny toad felt as it crossed a sun-baked patch of gravel in search of some food.
And found its insides on the outside instead.

Somewhere in North Carolina: before

It wasn't until I was physically driving out of Greensboro that I'd even set a tentative destination for that first day. I just got in the van and started moving. Made an impromptu exit. Instead of heading south to Uwharrie and hauling myself up loose, rocky hills.... I'd go to the Whitewater Center in Charlotte. Ride as many miles of trail as I felt necessary. Bask in the sun by a fake river with a beer. Plural. Then later... I could just make more impromptu exits. To wherever. Before ending up on a beach. Listening to waves. Before... making another exit.

I hadn't intended to... but I sent Rich a message. That's... what friends do, right? Visit friends?

Confession: I've never been good at friends. As much as I may let everyone in on some level... Tell total strangers more than they want to know: That I'm suicidal... That I've intentionally smashed a brick into my head until I passed out... That I got hit by a car while out running one morning and shit all over myself (and the car)...
...I don't get close to people.
I have amazing friends all over. Most of whom I don't even really know. And I look forward to any and every chance to laugh and cry and sleep with all of them.
But I'm too selfish. Too strange.
I can count on one hand the people I consider close.

For whatever reason Rich... is one of those people.

Turns out he was around. Just drinking beer in his back yard. And in classic Rich fashion, he convinced me to leave the White Water Center and my dreams of beer in the sunshine by a fake river... and come ride the poison-ivy maze of the Back Yard Trails with him instead. So we did that. Killing an afternoon meandering around the tight and technical dirt of suburban Charlotte. Afterward, as we sat basking in our non-accomplishment, he could tell that I was reluctant to get back on the road. And I was. I had a plan, yes... but that didn't mean I liked it. So without saying more, we just went out and ate food and drank beer. Talked on his porch until I started falling asleep mid-sentence. Then I crawled into my van and passed out. 
Successfully distracting myself through another day.

So much of life seems to be... just that. Distraction. Little games and tricks. This strange, jaundiced engagement. Divert our attention with minutia.  Bolster it with stories about impact. Myths about significance. Anything to keep us from peaking behind the curtain.
Have you ever been watching a movie... and suddenly you're not? Maybe your vision found the edge of the screen... or someone coughed or farted... and your attention slips. You become hyper-aware that you're sitting still in a darkened room staring at moving colors on a wall. Even the images stop making sense. The audio just becomes noise. And you can't snap yourself back into the fugue. Can't put yourself back in that trance. Like trying to fall back asleep in the wee hours of morning and stop your head from replaying every shitty thing you've ever said or done in your life.
That... ever happen to you?
It happens to me all the time.
For at least half of Dirty Kanza I was just staring at my hands on the hoods of my handlebar... peering into the space between atoms and thinking "What the fucking fuck is even happening right now?" Hyper aware that my perspective was trapped in the narrow confines of a body. That bizarre claustrophobia of peering out of your own eyes.

This means something?
Flawed and fucked as he was as a human and a writer... one of the reasons I've always enjoyed HP Lovecraft was his fixation on the ineffable- with things outside of our understanding or capacity to communicate. Be it a color. Or a shape. Or a malignant and indifferent universe. He was obsessed with trying to convey the terrifying reality of our limitations. That there are things outside our ability to fathom. Maybe bad things. Very bad things.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open up such vast, terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

I feel... like humans, alpha species or not... are really just some bizarre middle class of existence. Smart enough to manipulate our surroundings in remarkable ways... but not smart enough to know what that means. Or doesn't. This strange polarized intellect.
We're like that dog who steals everyone's heart with his ability to problem solve his way into the fridge to eat some leftover birthday cake... but then turns around and tears his doggie-bed to shreds. Takes a shit on the sofa and eats it. Barks at a statue in a park.
We can harness the atom and store data in soldered conduit... build bridges that span miles and tunnel through mountains... but we can't get past the absurdity of our own melodrama. Still too stunted to gaze into time without props and abstractions. We have to pretend like we live a narrative. A poem. A thing that has a beginning and an end. A purpose. A reason. One that goes somewhere. Means something....
And doesn't just end with our organs exploded out of our mouths on a road as we set out to try to forage for food one day.

Somewhere in Florida: before

I have this straight razor. Given to me by a customer, for reasons I don't really know.
He dealt in antiques and had just acquired it earlier in the day. Showing it off to me as we finished a transaction. "Oh... look at this. Isn't this a neat piece?" And it was. It is. A polished ivory handle. An elegant and primitive marker of where we've been. Compared to the inelegant sophistication of "Mach 7 swivel blade action! Now with Retsin®!" Folding it up and putting it back in its ornate case. "I tell you what... you keep it. Thanks for all the work. Bike looks great." I hesitated, wanting to tell him... "You shouldn't give this to me. You... don't understand. You really shouldn't." But I accepted. And hid it away.
Sometimes... I pull it out and run a finger along the blade. Press it gently against a pulse. Test the elasticity of my skin.
Most days... I just do my best to ignore it.

It's almost impossible to explain.

It's... like a dull ache. Like the slow rise and fall of a swell. Just something I ride. Like a tide. But sometimes... it picks up. Breaks.

Some friends... had this idea. Boiled down to a hashtag.
I... wanted so badly to be a part of it. To be able to say "Yes. This." To hold each other accountable for our own head-fuckery. But the reality is... that when that tide rises... when that swell comes... there are no pacts. There's barely reason. There's just... maelstrom. A pull hard enough that even mouthing the words "I think I need help" is impossible. And all of the earnest well-wishing and well-meaning "you reach out when you need me"... is just more noise.
Because when I'm like that... I don't want to reach out. I can't. I don't want you to even talk to me. I don't want attention. Positive. Negative. Anything.
I just want to disappear.

It's a mania.
And you can smile and laugh your way through a day... Have a girl tell you how much you mean to her... Kiss your son goodnight and tell him you love him...
...and still feel it. Strong as ever.

The shape... the one in my jaw... had been building. I could feel it. Like biting something with the soft tissue of my gums. In that space where my wisdom teeth would be. Like a color you can't describe. Like having no brakes. My head going down road after road of just... disappearing. Wanting something sharp and painful to puncture me... whelm me... and just let me go.
Unless you know... unless you've ever felt that... I don't know that I can even describe it.
It's a wave.
And like a wave that eventually breaks on your head... holds you under... Sometimes you get up. And sometimes you don't.

Reaching out to Rich... had helped break that static. Broken a chain of thought that was becoming a narrative.
And now... somewhere on a red dirt road near Tallahassee... in rows of live-oaks older than my bloodline... it was subsiding. Once a beam, now little more than a mote.

For me... it boils down to motion.
For me... movement, however banal, recalibrates. Resets. More so than any drug I've ever taken... any talk I've ever had... any work I've ever done. Sitting still, settling in, rooting down... inverts my survival instinct. Creates a feedback loop that makes the voices in my head, the ones that tell me to disappear, echo. From everywhere.
I'm not tortured. I'm not complex. There's no well of pain inside me any deeper than the gaping hole in everyone else. I'm just... not wired right. Like a faulty circuit. Like a compass that can't find north unless it's actually in motion.

Somewhere in Kansas: now

Which is why I was here. Traveling in the van with Dorrit to some tiny midwestern town to ride my bike. Peeing in Tupperware. Exploring exotic places like Ohio and Missouri. Wading into ice cold lakes as big as oceans. Sitting in crystal clear rivers. Watching sun sets under a big sky.

Playing the age old game of: What about here? Could we live here?

I hate racing. So much. I won't lie and say that I don't enjoy "doing well", or that feeling of standing on or near a podium. Showing the world that I'm a solid C+ specimen.

Yay! We passed!

But damn, do I hate racing. Whether it's against myself, or against others. Something about competition kicks in every "fuck it" synapse I have in my body. Maybe I'll dig a little deeper when some kid passes me at mile 130. Or maybe I'll just back off. It just... doesn't resonate. My favorite moments at Kanza, or any event really... are when the field gets so totally blown apart that you might as well be the only person out there. And the dissolution of self that comes from turning yourself inside out for a little while.

Kanza is a double-edged sword. On some level it gives people a glimpse into the void. Because even the most shallow of riders is going to have a moment out on the prairie where things stop making sense. Where they feel the unsettling quiet of a sky that is ambivalent to their spectacle.
And on the other, it gives them meaning. A thing to do, however tenuous and stupid. Something to move through.

Reflection coupled with distraction.
Something to shake you up... and something to pass a day.

The ones who get it wrong think they've accomplished something amazing.
The ones who get it right know they haven't.
But maybe they all went some places they didn't know existed. In their heads. Their bodies. Their aching and blistered taints.
Maybe... they successfully ignored the pull.
Faced some demons.

And for those who didn't?
I got you covered.


  1. Incredible well said. All of it. Thank you.

  2. Putting thoughts, feelings and experiences into words others can connect to is probably the thing you do best. Even better than riding a bike.

  3. You should hang out with Rich more often. Friending is hard, but important.