10 March 2016

Archival footage: My ghosts engraved on this landscape

The following post was originally published at FlagstaffBiking.org in March 2004.

Carroll Ballard is one of the best film directors you've probably never heard of. But it's quite likely you've nevertheless been consistently impressed, as I have, by his movies -- cinematically gorgeous depictions of the natural world -- each of which speaks, I think, to how we humans often find ourselves humbled and awestruck by our insignificance. 

Remember the sea of caribou in Never Cry Wolf? The brilliant contrasts of water and sand on the island in The Black Stallion? The mysteriously compelled formations of Canadian geese in Fly Away Home? All beautiful examples, each composed by Ballard, of how unremarkable humankind is when viewed against the expansive backdrop of the natural world.

Like geese following an ultralight, I too am mysteriously imprinted and compelled. Often I'm totally surprised by what's imprinted me and on whose behalf.

Out in the woods, there is a long climbing section of singletrack that always reminds me of Wade. There's a difficult rock trap that recalls Chris to my mind and a log that always bears Lyle's name. There are also various overlooks, well-kept secret trails, twisty paths through widely spaced trees, and remote waypoints as well, all of which awaken long dormant but distinct memories of longtime and mostly long-gone friends like Ken, Shawn, Scotty, Mark, Huge, T-roy, Hils and the Bens. 

The recollection of friends, the ghostly apparitions these places and trails conjure, is profound and impressed upon me repeatedly, whenever I ride them.

Some rides have special moments, you see, where we become awestruck and imprinted. That's what I believe. Like images in a photo album, memorable passages from a familiar story, or notes jotted indelibly on the palm of my hand -- I will not, cannot forget these memories. Almost daily, I find myself both humbled by and grateful for their powerful influence on my life. 

They are my ghosts and they are engraved on this landscape.

21 February 2016

Give me rainclouds

Give me darkness when I'm dreaming
Give me moonlight when I'm leaving
Give me shoes that weren't made for standing
Give me treeline 

Give me big sky 
Give me snowbound
Give me rainclouds

-- Gregory Alan Isakov, 3 A.M.

Dark clouds poured rain over the untarped load, the entirety of my material possessions, stacked-and-tied in the back of my buddy Kevin's red Toyota pickup the day I moved to Flagstaff.  

In my mind, the dark clouds that hung over my life that day were nearly as oppressive. In the figurative wake of my old friend's ersatz moving-truck, as of the fifteenth of August 1991, I wasn't just leaving Scottsdale behind, I was also leaving a still-bitter fiancé and the smoldering remains of one truly bad relationship, a hardly-started career that I'd nevertheless washed clean out of, as well as every friend I'd made during the first 24 years of my life, including my best-friend, Kevin, who would within the hour turn his truck left onto Blackbird Roost, out of my run-down studio apartment's parking lot and, quite literally, out of my life.

I settled into my new, mostly solitary, life in Flagstaff with greater ease than I had expected to. Each weekday morning, with a tattered blue pack on my back, the same one I'd used for years while in journalism school at ASU, I climbed through the rough, kicked-in hole in my apartment complex's wooden back fence, walked across the Greyhound station's dirty, potholed tarmac, and then down the short dark alleyway behind Andy Womack's Flamingo Motor Hotel to bolt across Route 66 near the Dairy Queen in order to get to my classes in the College of Ed Building at NAU.  Each evening I walked back, often via the same route, but sometimes along Butler to Clay past the Furniture Barn after taking a detour from campus up to Southside, to get some slice at NiMarcos, a cup at Macys, or to drop in at Cosmic Cycles to smell the tires and Triflow and wander the floor lusting after new bikes.  

It is no small thing to say: the course of the remainder of my life was, quite literally changed forever, when, on one of my first visits to Cosmic Cycles, I spent a few of my then very-limited funds ($5.95+tax to be exact) on an early edition of a little day-glo green self-published book entitled Fat Tire Tales and Trails written by some dude who called himself Cosmic Ray.

As a lovely parting-gift, on the eve of my departure from the Valley, my parents had purchased for me, at their local Price Club warehouse store, a new Motiv mountain bike to help me get around in Flagstaff.  I'd been on several mountain bike rides in Phoenix on borrowed bikes in the years prior to moving to Flagstaff, but I'd never owned one of my own until now. 

I had absolutely no idea where to ride my new bike when I first moved to town. During my first weeks in Flagstaff, I bumped around my neighborhood, downtown, and campus on my bike, and I'd even ridden down the narrow dirt service road that ran beside the railroad tracks for a few miles, as far as a big red-sandstone tunnel, but I hadn't really found a good way into the woods at that point

Cosmic Ray's little green book changed all that.  

Having no TV (and this being the last silent decade before the cacophonous Internet replaced the bookish solitude of my life with cat videos), I spent that evening quietly poring over Ray's book, fascinated by every crudely-drawn map and the promises they each bore of new trails to ride and new places to discover which Ray related in a gregarious narrative voice that somehow felt familiar to me. "This is a guide to that elusive trail disappearing into the woods. That trail leads to the heart of the imagination... our childhood dreams of wander," he wrote in the introduction. As someone who had spent his childhood roaming around in the woods, I immediately understood Ray's intent.

The very next day I "followed" his Observatory Mesa "map" out my front door and into the woods.  It was this one:

I did the ride backwards, in a clockwise direction, because the end of the loop, per Ray's directions, was just down the street from my apartment, right where the pavement ended and down the service road to the big tunnel under the tracks that I'd ridden to once or twice before.  I figured I could piece together the rest of the ride, working the route out turn-by-turn by reading Ray's directions in reverse.

I was mostly right about this.

Tom Bean's photo of the "Big Meadow" on Observatory Mesa
Used without permission
Also, it rained a lot on that ride, hailed some too, none of which I was adequately prepared for, but through which I persevered undaunted and undeterred though too-near hypothermia in the end to consider the ride a victory.  But it sure was awesome!

The next day I spent a few more of my meager funds on a cheap green plastic rain-shell, purchased from a friendly guy named Mark at the Inner Basin Ski Shop which used to occupy the long, narrow storefront right next door to Cosmic Cycles.  Carried it with me thereafter, always at the ready, for years.

Over the years, I bought each new revision of Ray's book whenever it came out and used all of them faithfully to find cool new trails and interesting places to go on my bike.

Better still, I got to know Ray.  At first because, as the sole distribution rep for his books, he often came into the bike shop where I worked in the summertime to check on our inventory and sell us more books.  The first time I met him, I told him how much his books had meant to me. And then, a little later on, I had the chance to publish a few reviews of both his bike and hike books for Flagstaff Live when I was the outdoors editor there for a time.  I was able then, too, to convey to our readers the special role Ray's books had played in helping me reshape and redirect my life.

I saw him out riding around town yesterday on his stealth Coconino.  He didn't see us, even though we were out driving around in our not-so-stealth Forester.  But I was reminded, in that moment as we passed him: we've been on some good rides together, Ray and I, some when he was right there riding along side me, and a whole bunch more that he inspired me to go on by writing about them so cleverly in his books.

I'm glad that I've been able to tell him, both now and then, how much his books have meant to me.

And I'm honored to say, he's included a mention of that fact in the introduction to the most recent edition of his book.

15 November 2015

"It has been reported that I was seriously ill..."

"It has been reported that I was seriously ill -- it was another man; dying -- it was another man; dead...
As far as I can see, nothing remains to be reported." - Mark Twain

Whenever I stumble back upon a blog I've not read in some time, only to find it has languished, unposted to, since my last visit, I tend to wonder.  I wonder what the reasons are that the blog has not seen words, that posts have gone unmade for so long a time.  And I worry.  I worry that perhaps some tragedy has struck in said blogger's life, and that this is the reason for their absence from the 'net.

It strikes me that you may have worried and wondered the same on my behalf as well. Rest easy, dear reader, for just as Twain also is once said to have said, "The report of my death was an exaggeration." 

Since my last post, I truthfully have not suffered much, but for the rigors of long hours hard at work, and the soaring costs of repair to the slow entropy that must come naturally as a part of the ownership of material things.  Otherwise, I can report, we are all blessed to be well and in good health and that I have, in the main, had little else to say that was, as I deemed it, particularly worthy of note.

As my Facebook page and Instagram feed will both attest, a portion of which I will now repost here below for the record, I have likewise on occasion been able to enjoy life, as time-off, time-out-of-doors, and time-spent-with-friends-and-family have all been had in great abundance since my last update in July.

I hope this post finds you equally well.  

29 July 2015

Just about a bike: Panasonic Mountain Cat 7500

The way to work
I'm all about taking the long-cut.

I'm a proponent of riding the wrong bike.

And I believe you should do your best to run-what-ya-brung.

Over the years, I've owned many bikes which have equipped me to practice these ideals, utilitarian bikes, which I've always purchased for never-more than fifty-bucks and often less, bikes with big heavy wheels, fewer-than-optimal gears, and often with fenders, racks, and large bags attached.

The world sometimes calls this class of bicycle the "commuter" bike, which is an okay moniker, I guess, if you're after some sort of esoteric differentiation between what this-bike and that-bike can or can't do for you.  But I prefer to just call them all bikes: fat-bikes, cross-bikes, singlespeed-bikes, downhill-bikes, whatever.  They're all fine for getting you from A to B.  They all deserve to be ridden.  They're all fun.

In the end, they're all just bikes.

Nevertheless, of the many utilitarian bikes I've owned over the years, all of which have served me quite well, I've ridden at least three right into the ground, into a condition beyond repair, just because I rode them.  A lot. As in nearly every day: in my youth I thoroughly destroyed an old JCPenney bike that I used for years to deliver the Scottsdale Daily Progress newspaper six days a week; I essentially crushed an old Mongoose ATB which I rode to and from work through the woods for 10 years and which got "the cancer" and broke at one of the rear drop-outs; and I put probably 10,000 just-around-town, back-and-forth, through-the-woods miles on a lovely celeste-colored, Biopace-equipped, lugged Bianchi Incline that was never meant to do such work and which, probably as a result, also got "the cancer" and eventually snapped one of the seat-stays.

The cancer
This 1987 lugged, Prestige-steel Panasonic Mountain Cat 7500, my current go-to, utilitarian "commuter" bike, currently has "the cancer," too, a stress-riser that derives from a breather-hole at the top of the seat-stays.  Not a terminal condition at this point, but ya never know.

Meantime, it's a great bike and has been for many years.

I bought it maybe eight years ago for about forty-bucks at the annual FlagstaffBiking.Org Bike To Work Week bike swap event from my buddy Ken (not that Ken, however) who bought it new in 1987.  At some point along the way, Ken replaced the original stem with a nice Salsa roller-style model.  Otherwise, the bike is in bone-stock-beater condition, sporting mostly period-correct XT components: a U-brake (under the stays), derailleurs, hubs, top-mount shifters, and cranks. I did put a NOS black Hyperlite bar on it, but only because old handlebars make me kinda nervous and I had the Hyperlite in my toolbox.  I also installed a new no-logo, silver 1" Chris King 2Nut headset, but in this case I did so mostly because I had it just sitting in my toolbox, too, not because old headsets make me nervous or something.

The Panasonic hangs on a special "hook" in the garage, set apart from the other "fun" bikes, waiting to be ridden... to work, around town, or on some errand.

The garage

Over the years it's pulled our trail-a-bike and several different trailers, hauled tons of groceries, and transported long sticks of lumber and big bags of dogfood between here and there.  For years, it's taken me to work whenever I needed it to, almost daily, always without fail, and often via the long-cut through the woods: rain, snow, or shine.

It's a super-great bike, still brimming with utility, despite "the cancer" which appears to be growing within.

It's got serious style and harkens fondly back to a long-gone, bygone, exceptionally happy era in mountain biking, when bars were flat and narrow, brakes were cantilevered and often under the chainstays, top tubes were short, stems were long, gears were tall... and the woods were generally less crowded.

All good stuff and worth recollecting, which I do, each and every time I ride it.

16 June 2015

Archival Footage: Jimmy

Back around the turn of the century, my then-favorite print magazine, Mountain Gazette, held a "1000 Words" writing contest to see who among their readership could produce the most compelling story with this word-limit as a constraint. I submitted the following work of fiction just before the deadline.

I got an email reply from the editor, M. John Fayhee, a short time later wherein he stated something to the effect of, "Our editorial board was, in truth, fundamentally split between your story and one other. Yours is a good piece of writing. But in the end they went with the other. Apologies."

I am pleased to report, however that after this rejection, over the course of the next few years, they nevertheless later picked up a few of my photos and also an essay I wrote for publication.

And, some years later, after Mountain Gazette was done as a print mag, Fahyee also used a quote of mine in his book, Colorado Mountain Dogs, too. A fact I discovered only after stumbling quite fortuitously into a author-reading/book-signing he was holding at a small bookstore in Salida, Colorado, a summer ago. He kindly inscribed the book I purchased "to a mountain gazette alumni."

Anyway, for the record, here's my runner-up "1000 Words" short story, adapted from the first few chapters of a heretofore yet unpublished work that I've been slowly pecking away at for years now which still bears the simple title: Jimmy...


Once there was a little boy who dreamt of fire. All sorts of fire: fires that danced in trash barrels and sent flaming-kites and fire-bats high into the nighttime sky… fires that smoldered and ate up the edges of newspaper like the bright orange-red cousins of ants… fires that burnt in treetops and dropped like sun-ripened fruit to the ground… fires that raced wildly across grasslands, erasing the landscape with black charcoal…

His name was Jimmy.

Jimmy first caught fire when he was six, losing two fingers on his left hand in the blaze. It didn't hurt.
It had happened at night.  When he awoke, the smoke alarm in the hallway screaming, a marching-matchstickman dream interrupted, his thick yarn bedspread was smoldering in an aimless, quiet, warm sort of way. 
At the hospital the doctors and nurses were very concerned about Jimmy and they did tests on him and wrapped his injuries carefully with new bandages everyday.  When they took them off, Jimmy saw that where his fingers had been there were now two short, small patches covered with scabby, black and red, wet-looking sores.
One day, while poking at one of the scabby stubby spots and nibbling at some ice cream, a doctor came in and asked Jimmy many questions: “How are you feeling? Do you remember what happened?  Can you feel this?  And this?  Do you have any questions, Jimmy?”
Jimmy had one.  He asked the doctor when his fingers would grow back.  The doctor put his lips close together, closed his eyes some, and shook his head slowly.  He explained to Jimmy that his fingers would never grow back.  
"Fingers just don't do that, I'm afraid," he said.  
Jimmy had expected that was the way things were. He nodded, put his lips close together, and said, "Oh, okay."  
Then he asked for more ice cream.  

The second time Jimmy caught fire, a few months later, the doctors and nurses seemed even more concerned about Jimmy than before.  As soon as he was a little bit better, they wheeled Jimmy’s bed, with Jimmy in it, all over the hospital to meet with new doctors and nurses.  Once they even wheeled him down the sidewalk to a building down the street from the hospital to meet with a doctor there.  All of these doctors and nurses had a lot of questions to ask Jimmy and many of them put needles into his arms and legs.  They tapped on computer screens, gawked at x-rays, and plied Jimmy’s joints back and forth.  
They put him inside big, growling machines.  They put creams and lotions and other greasy things on his skin.  They stuck sticky things to his head.  And, once they stopped asking him questions, they talked about him like he wasn’t in the room or they whispered to one another with their backs turned.
During this hospital stay, Jimmy met most often with a doctor named Crosby. Jimmy liked him; he often brought ice cream, usually enough for both of them.
Jimmy could tell that Dr. Crosby liked him and wanted to find out why he burned.
“I can’t tell you why, Jimmy,” explained the doctor during one of their talks, taking a big bite from the top of his bright orange 50-50 bar before raising the sheet at the foot of the bed to look at Jimmy's leg.  “It’s chemistry, something very unique about you.  We know that, but that’s about all we’ve been able to figure out.”
“So, it’s going to happen again? Probably?”
“Well, if it does, we’ll make sure you’re as protected as we can make you.”
“How?” asked Jimmy, hesitantly; he’d learned to be suspicious of doctor’s ideas.
Dr. Crosby smiled, “Relax.  It’s not going to hurt.  I’ve just got a couple ideas, things that might keep you safer if it does happen again; I heard you did a little damage at home this time.”
“I don’t remember.”
“No, of course you don’t,” said the doctor.
“But you do think I will get on fire again?”
“Jimmy, the honest answer is, I just don’t know.”

Most mornings Jimmy rode a small bus to a special school for special kids, an inviting place filled with children who, like him, dealt with their own unique circumstances each day.
At school, Jimmy was best at make-believe.  He enjoyed melting crayons into wax in one hand by squeezing them tightly for a few moments.  Afterward he would dip the remaining fingers of his other hand into the warm colors and run them across his cheeks, turning himself into an Indian brave, a football player, a raccoon, or just a very odd looking little boy.
His teacher marveled as he watched Jimmy become these characters and he often encouraged Jimmy to tell the class stories based on them.  The other children loved Jimmy’s stories, too. They gave them names and insisted Jimmy tell them over and over again: 
"Tell Applesauce!" they shouted.
"Tell Leyland's Bones!"
"Let's hear Big Bear’s Morning Song!"
"Come on, Jimmy! Tell us a story!"  

But occasionally, during the mid-morning snack, or at lunch, or even right in the middle of story time or make-believe, Jimmy would need to crawl to his special corner of the classroom to wait for the warmth to pass.
If it passed, his teacher would come over and sit next to him on the large yellow fireproof blanket and he would touch a cool wet washcloth to Jimmy's forehead. 
"It's okay, Jimbo.  You're okay this time," his teacher would whisper for no one else but Jimmy to hear. And after a short rest, and a big glass of cold water, Jimmy would return to whatever he had been doing like normal.
But sometimes the warmth wouldn’t pass; it would become hotter.  When this happened Jimmy’s teacher would tell the other children and the grown-ups that helped them that it was time to leave Jimmy alone. 
And then quietly, without any tears, slowly, unrushed by time, in deep blues and dark oranges, tissue-paper-thin mare’s tales of black smoke peering and poking, sneaking out from beneath the red layers and out the white-piped-edges of his flame-resistant jumpsuit, lying atop his yellow fireproof blanket in the corner of his classroom with his eyeballs tipped back and showing only white, 

Jimmy burned.


© John Coe – Flagstaff, AZ

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