26 November 2021

Let's ride a singlespeed!

Slimmed down, single (41.6") and ever so sexy.
Living her truth.

"When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run."
- Henry David Thoreau

I recently converted my Surly Pugsley "fatbike" from an eight-speed geared bike to a singlespeed.  After a thousand or so very rode-hard miles in the past 8 years (and having been put away very wet more often than not), the mostly original drivetrain components had become seriously clapped-out.  Rather than replace them at great expense, I decided to just remove them instead. Best part of this decision: we shed almost four pounds of extraneous gearage in the process, and the Pugs is now renewed as a bike that is, as it always has been, an unmitigated hoot to ride!  In a way, it feels almost as though this was how she was meant to have been set-up all along.

I've been riding singlepeed bikes in the forests of northern Arizona for almost 30 years, and speaking from experience, I'm here to tell you, dear reader: geared bikes are fun. But singlespeeds are truly enlightening (pun intended).

Despite this radical weight loss and her new svelter aspect, my oldest friend, Derrill, who's never understood singlespeeding and has often railed against it, again wondered why when I told him of my Pugsley's recent transformation? "Why not just ride around in one gear without shifting? I just don't get it." 

Nevertheless, I think he does.  

1950 Willys CJ3A
You see, Derrill's owned a 1950 Willys Jeep for many years. He and his dad meticulously restored it back when we were in high school in the 1980s.  To this day, when he can find the time, Derrill still likes to take his old flathead four-banger out wheeling on long days all over eastern and central Arizona, often in very remote places, bumping along at 4 miles per hour over rocks and logs in his ancient, bone-jarring, slow moving, doorless, roofless Army truck.

That's because Derrill, at the core of his being, understands something that Henry Thoreau and every true-believer singlespeed rider I've ever met also knows in their heart-of-hearts. And that is: regardless of your means for achieving it, there's something really good for your soul about doing something simple, something analog, something slow, something uncommonly, better yet, unnecessarily difficult. 

Inside many of our brains, there's a hard-to-articulate compulsion to undertake a thing that has had most, if not all, of its creature comforts and modern advantages stripped away. A thing that requires you, the operator, the driver, the rider, to muster a great effort, to seek and find a sort of oneness with, or a focus on a particular moment in time as you actively traverse a landscape, endure a set of adverse conditions, without any of the technological aides or advantages others might commonly require.  To be reminded, at the end of the day, after a good ride: I can do hard things.  

There is something satisfying about developing a skillset, a proficiency, an ability that is otherwise nontransferable, in any practical sense, to your survival in the real world.  Let's be honest: in a world where bikes with gears exist, riding a singlespeed bicycle in the woods is kinda stupid.  At the same time, it's also very rewarding to be able to say you did it, that you conquered that arduous task, that you struggled productively to be able to take in the view at a spot not everyone gets to enjoy and that you arrived at that place the hard way, that you did something which reminded you that, at least for today, you're alive and your heart is racing and you feel vital and conscious and attenuated, at one, albeit sometimes all-too fleetingly, with the world around you.

The older I get, the more I am compelled to contemplate and appreciate these moments.  I think that's because, as I find myself aging, I'm beginning to better understand that there will surely come a time when decrepitude will catch up with me and I won't be able to do such things any longer.  Moreover, as I've watched in recent years several of those who have been dear to me pass away, I have become more aware of the inevitable fact that there will come a moment in time for me when, quite simply, I will cease to Be, and that opportunities for me to be reminded so vividly of being alive will end. 

Like Thoreau said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Was Thoreau a singlespeeder?  I believe he was, if not in practice most assuredly, nonetheless, in his soul.

I often tell the people that I encounter out in the woods, if they ask me about the singlespeed bike I'm riding, why do you do it, and what is it for, that, "I never learned to play a musical instrument.  And I never learned to fluently speak another language. But I did learn to ride this single gear out here in the woods really really well, and, one way or another, it took me everywhere I needed to go." And that has made all the difference.

Speaking of "one way or another," check out the post post-punk sounds of Sit, Stand, or Push, a song about using all three of the gears on your singlespeed by FLG-local band, Thee Deores.


Finally, I present to you my real singlespeeder bona fides, the other one-speed mountain bikes in my quiver:

Coconino

Chester

Rock Lobster

Schwinn
 

13 October 2021

Let's ride with a dropper-post!

Sure, 2021 is more than a little bit late-to-the-game to be writing an article advocating for the use of dropper-posts on mountain bikes. But I ride on a regular basis with a few old doods, militant Luddites all, who have yet to upgrade their bikes to a seat-post that drops with the pull of a trigger. I've been trying to convert them for years, at every opportunity singing the praises of dropper-posts loud and clear, to no avail. This blog post is all I've got left, my last-ditch effort to try and get them to see the light.



I got my first dropper-post as stock-spec on my Specialized Fuse Expert when I bought it new back in 2017. 

Hite-Rite & Rock Lobster
both ca. 1985
Actually, no. That's not an entirely accurate statement. See, I've had a Breeze & Angell Hite-Rite on my Rock Lobster singlespeed for years. The Hite-Rite is undisputedly the world's original dropper-post and it's actually very effective and efficient. But, it's also super tough to operate on-the-fly. Unlike contemporary dropper-posts, which can be moved up or down with the flick of a trigger, a stop-and-dismount is required of all but the most practiced riders in order to move the saddle up or down using a Hite-Rite. As a result, the Hite-Rite on my Rock Lobster was installed as period-correct bling, mostly for show (the frame, fabricated in 1985, even has a specific braze-on on the back of the seat tube intended for it), and, for the first fifteen-plus years that I owned it, I used it on rare occasions, only to move my seat down at the top the most ridiculously steep/sustained descents (and sometimes not even then), otherwise it mostly stayed-put and looked pretty.

Old school
ca. 1993
So I can admit, when I started riding my new Fuse I was actually a bit perplexed as to the real functionality of the dropper-post. As a bona fide old-schooler, having ridden, as I was saying, most of my rides over the course of some 30 years with a stiff-posted seat forever glued to my ass, or wedged between my thighs, or pushed up into my belly or ribcage, depending on the contours of the trail. For decades I held firmly to the belief that a fixed, immoveable seatpost actually made me a more skillful rider, that it was an essential point-of-contact which had to remain forever in its place, that to stop to reduce one's seat height was nothing short of admitting to one's innate dweebishness. In my mind I really did believe that all this was crucial to my ability to shred my bike like the "pro" I have so often imagined myself to be.

And then, shortly after buying my Fuse, I went on a few rides with Joe.  Joe, you see, is a legit pro, and has even, a couple times, been a NORBA National Champion, and he is a Skunk for sundry secretive bike-related enterprises, and is also a real live Mountain Bike Hall Of Fame (Class of 1988) inductee. To this day he still practically lives on a bike as his fulltime job. Safe to say: he knows how to ride, in the sense that it's like watching someone make pitch-perfect music to watch him ride.

And what I saw as I watched Joe ride was at first surprising to me. Turns out, Joe used his dropper a lot, and not just when he was descending, but also when he was cornering. In fact, he used his dropper a lot a lot, as in dozens and dozens of times in a given ride, in almost every fast corner and on even the slightest declines. I watched as he lowered his natural center much closer to the ground and used this new position on the bike to make quicker microadjustments to the terrain than he would have been able to on a traditional stiff posted bike. And he was able to tip his bike well up onto the side-knobs when cornering, too, literally putting him on rails in the corners, which was a thing of beauty to behold, indeed. Riding behind Joe was the epiphany I needed to figure out what I could aspire to when it came to incorporating my new-school dropper-post into my riding.

New school
ca. 2020
And I am here to tell you, several years and many thousands of miles on, that it has changed my life, and especially my riding, all for the better a gajillion times over. Another old friend once told me, long before I ever rode with a dropper, "They're even more essential an advancement in how we're able to ride than clipless pedals were." And, while I didn't want to believe him at the time, I am more than compelled to admit now that he was right. 

Nothing (other than perhaps the flat-freedness of tubelessness) has made my riding funner, faster, or has improved my ability to navigate my bike more capably (and safely) over all types of terrain than riding with a dropper-post has.

I've since come to develop quite a dependency on riding with dropper-post, and now find that riding without one has become quite challenging. So, I've recently upgraded my Coconino singlespeed with a KS eTen dropper-post (a decent post, albeit with limited travel, from one of only a few manufacturers who make a 27.2mm diameter post). I've considered installing droppers on the Pugsley and the Chester, too, but for the time-being, I've reverted both of these bikes back to levered seatpost quick-releases, rather than bolted clamps, while I mull things over. 

And, for the record, I'm also using the Hite-Rite on my Rock Lobster a whole lot more these days, too, despite the fact that I still have to stop-and-dismount each time I use it.



05 July 2021

Archival footage: Curriculum vitae [UPDATED]

Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best...
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
Monty Python - The Life Of Brian

Select images to enlarge
I was never crazy about my job as a school principal.  It feels a bit silly now to admit that I only took it on because our out-going principal and the then-district superintendent asked me to, but that's the god's-honest truth about how I ended up doing it.  I never aspired to be a school leader and I struggled every day, for seven long years, to try as best as I could to graciously manage, keep safe, and empower our staff and students.  Despite my best intentions, each of my many missteps were all too glaringly public, and any meager successes I may have wrought from the endless stream of contention that always seemed to be waiting at my office door, were far too few.  

In the final months of what was to become my last year in the role, when a midcareer faculty member on one of our hiring committees responded to the question asked of her by an earnest young interviewee, "Why do you love working here?" with the shoulder-shrugging reply, "I'm sorry, you should skip me. I've got nothing," I knew my time as a school leader had to be done. My heart now fully broken, I sent a 3:00 AM email to our new superintendent that night asking to be relieved of my administrative duties, and to be allowed to return to the classroom for the remainder of my career.

During my time as a principal, whenever I found myself "chewing on life's gristle," rather than grumble (or whistle), I instead worked secretly on a couple of personal projects that helped salve my broken spirit: the first, a letter of resignation that I was never able to honestly give to our faculty (though I did send it to them via email as "a gag" one April Fools Day morning); and, second, what follows below: my professional curriculum vitae, or "the course of my life" for the seven interminable years I spent in the principal's office, styled intentionally as study guide, such as one might purchase and pore over to prepare for an important test like the SAT or GRE. It's not much to show, at the end of the day (or moreover a career), but it really is all that I've got as proof of my time spent leading one smallish, too-often dyspeptic elementary school, as best as I could for as many years as I could do it and only until I just couldn't do it anymore.

Needless to say, after happily accepting a 40% reduction in pay, it was with nothing but  great relief and almost giddy anticipation that I returned to the classroom to teach again, for what would be the final two years of my career (COVID actually foreshortened my last term (with the best class ever) by about two months).  I ultimately concluded my time in public ed as a fifth grade teacher in July 2020 after something like 28 years (1 as a sub, 7 as a principal, and 20 as a teacher).  For whatever it's worth, I never actually considered applying for another school administrator job, but I did find encouragement working on my CV whenever I was feeling melancholy.

It's reproduced here (select page images to enlarge) for the first, last, and only time, merely as an historical record of what was and, perhaps, I suppose, had it not been for the shoulder-shrugging and constant stream of contention, what might have been.

Update: September 2021

While volunteering over at my wife's school the other day, I bumped into Bob, one of the assistant superintendents in our local school district. We've known one another for many years and worked well together during my time in the principal's office. I've always liked Bob. More than that, I've always trusted him, and have long felt the district's well-being was his top priority, that I could believe whatever he was telling me. On a more personal level, I've always felt that he had my back in times of trouble or contention, which is a great thing to be able to say about one of your bosses.

"Hey, how'd you like to come back and work a couple days a week? " he asked me, smiling. 

"Are you kidding, Bob?  I'm living the retired-guy dream. All play and no work!"

"I know you are! But I'm not kidding. We're short-handed everywhere these days. Right now we really need someone to help out at the bus barn, doing student discipline. The director is doing what he can to stay on top of the big concerns, but otherwise no one's doing discipline for the buses right now. You would be great at it."

And so, as they say, long story short: I got all my sh!t together: certs, background checks, work history, etc., filled out an online application packet like a newb, and got myself all signed up as a bona fide sub-administrator.

And here I am, working again. Every day, actually, not the "couple days" a week Bob forecasted during his sales pitch.  Can't have safe buses just two days a week.  It's a five-day-a-week effort for sure. But I really don't mind. Each day it usually only takes me a few hours to work through the stack of hand-written disciplinary referrals the drivers leave for me. And when I'm done, I'm done: zero homework. And they're paying me well. And most folks seem appreciative of the work I'm doing (I get my ass chewed, usually by an angry parent, at least once a week, which really isn't a big deal. After seven years as a school admin, the once delicate skin that covers my ass is all scar tissue and callous now). And, honestly, I kinda like the feeling of having a bit of a plan for part of my day, but one that's flexible enough to allow me to do whatever else I want with the rest if my day on either end of my shift. And it's nice to be back working with my friends in the school district again, too. I'm still very much a true-believer in public ed, afterall.
 
So, it's a pretty good gig. Not sure how long it will last. Technically, it's an interim role and I'm just subbing-in 'til it's filled. In fact, the district still has it posted for hire, on the off chance you're interested.

But I'm not stupid. This isn't my first rodeo, as they say. The last time I took on an interim role in our district, I did that job for seven years.

27 May 2021

Just about a bike: Matt Chester MuTinyman singlespeed

Select images to enlarge
Near as I can figure, Matt Chester, a resident of Leadville, Colorado, began fabricating and selling bicycles made from titanium tubing out of his home workshop sometime early in 1999. Per his now-mothballed website, he only built bikes from Ti, focused his work exclusively on singlespeed bicycles, and tried very hard (though not always successfully) to convince all of his customers to get their bikes built with 29" (700c) wheels.  He refused to install disc-brake tabs, entirely shunned eccentric bottom bracket shells, yet nonetheless eagerly charged people for repairs to other manufacturer's broken or damaged titanium frames.  

Also, near as I can figure, sometime around 2003, Matt Chester, now a resident of Salida, Colorado, had moved his operation down-valley to the south and was building his bikes in a friend's garage.  It would seem that, around this time, Chester began to carry-out a kind of haphazard, perhaps even initially unintentional, deceptive scheme amongst his customer base, apparently taking new orders along with hefty deposits, purchasing tubing and supplies for older as-yet undelivered orders with the new-customer money, and hoping everyone, including his friend (a mutual friend of both of ours, as a matter of fact) who was leasing him shop space in his garage, would remain none the wiser (he did not; he got wise).  As with most such schemes, Chester's seems to have eventually come apart, as he most likely fell further and further behind in fulfilling his orders. It appears he was at times years behind, failing to deliver to those who had put down $1000, $2000 or more, anything but empty promises of "Soon," proffered only after persistent pestering and almost always via email.

Finally, near as I can figure, by 2006, Chester's operation was likely failing in earnest, possibly due to the recurrent concussive traumatic brain injuries he occasionally complained of which rendered him unfit or unable to work, or possibly because he met a girl who lived in Canada and he chose to refocus his life-goals around being with her instead of making bikes, or possibly because he became fixated on the fact that, as a Canadian, she offered him a way out, beyond the reach of his increasingly disappointed and often angry customers and creditors.  Regardless of his motivations, and with little forewarning, he announced mid-2006, on his now defunct Livejournal blog, that he was officially going to stop framebuilding, presumably with a number of orders still unfulfilled and deposits unreturned.

In the end, near as I can figure, at some point prior to 2010, it seems he and his wife/girlfriend had moved to a small town near Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  A handful of customers, some of whom had ordered their bikes as far back as 2002, report that a few of their bikes were finally delivered via international shipment through Canada/USA customs in early 2011.

No one knows how much real cash money Chester absconded with, if any.  No one really knows how many of his frames went undelivered. Other than Chester himself, no one knows much about the actual whys and wherefores of his apparent inability to honor his commitments to his customers.

All anyone really knows is that, while he was productively making bikes, Chester made some (comparatively) very affordable, very fun-to-ride bikes out of a difficult to conjoin, quite highly sought after, genuinely exotic material.



And now, a decade or two later...

We also know that, of the bikes that were delivered to customers by Chester between 1999 and 2011, many of the frames eventually failed.

Thus it has gone with mine, a 2003 Matt Chester MuTinyman 29" singlespeed, serial number #whothehellknows 1.

It busted. A lot.

I bought my Chester some five years ago from the person who was its original owner. In fact, he's another mutual friend of mine and the guy in Salida who was renting Matt Chester shop space in his garage.

Small world, huh.

Chester now
My friend, the guy who originally arranged with Chester to have the bike built for himself is, to put it mildly (and especially in comparison to myself), something of, shall we say, a man of means. So, once the frame-build was finished, he had the bike shipped down the road a few short miles to where it could be assembled by the good folks at Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado, with what, in my world, I can only describe as "quite a bit of (classic 2003-era) bling," silver Chris King hubs and a black King headset, Stans ZTR hoops, Fox F29 80mm fork, Hayes Oro hydraulic front disc brake, black/silver Pauls rear v-brake lever, Avid Black Ops Research rear v-brake, XT M760 175mm cranks, 36t Blackspire ring... it's a sweet now-vintage build and I've done little over the years to alter its stance.

Chester then
I did replace the Thudbuster post with a lovely Ti unit that I had in my parts bin, and the too-narrow Answer Monkeylite carbon bars and too-short 50mm Salsa stem with a much wider (725mm) sexy blue anno SpankSpoon unit (matches the top caps on the Fox fork), along with a gorgeous 80mm silver Thomson stem.  And I also took off the fugly  carbon Shimano brake booster and replaced it with a one-of-a-kind brushed tubular steel Vulture Cycles brake booster (handmade for me in Oregon by Wade in the 1990s on IRD Rod Moses' jig, I'll have you know).  It looks a hell of a lot better on the Chester than that ol' Shimano horseshoe ever did. Works just as well, too. Possibly better.




After owning the bike for more than a dozen years, my friend listed it quite unexpectely on Facebook one evening several years ago now (at a time when I was still a part of that compromised clusterfuck of a website) for a very fair price, along with a couple other bikes that he said he wasn't riding very often any more.  I  contacted him as soon as I saw the ad, and gave him every penny he was asking for it without any negotiation. I think we both felt we were getting a good honest deal. That's always nice.

Anyway, after about four years of pretty legit riding by me all over our local shield volcano, the bike's seatpost seemed to get super creaky as I was headed out for a shred one morning.  I stopped to apply a tiny bit of lube to the post and noticed, as I was preparing to slicken things up, that there was a tiny crack visible in the weld on at the top-tube/seat-tube junction.  On further inspection, I noticed there were also cracks on both the seat-stay welds... and beneath the top-tube/seat-tube joint... and at the head-tube/top-tube... and who knows where else. I made myself stop looking and gingerly rode home, back the way I'd come. I've broken bikes before, but never so catastrophically. There was no question, the frame was cooked. End of story. I was sad to see her go.

She had been a real hoot to ride.



Then, one afternoon not long after that, I flipped the story of my broken titanium Chester past Kyle, the general manager of Absolute Bikes in Flagstaff and, as I would soon come to learn, a skilled fabricator of various alloys of metal looking to try his otherwise experienced hand for the first time at the intricate art of welding titanium.

"I'm set up and ready to work with titanium," he told me after listening sympathetically to my tale of woe. "Haven't actually done it yet. All I need is a guinea pig. You pay for the materials and I'll do the labor for free if you'll let me practice my techinque on your Chester."



Deal.  I mean, the bike was going to be wall art otherwise, so what was there to lose?  Thus, a few hundred dollars in Ti tubes and rods, a number of months of patiently waiting, and voila! 

The bitch is back!

She's got a brand new carefully mitered and affixed top-tube 2, and a super sexy collar-gusset at the top of her seat-tube now. And a whole bunch of damn good looking, albeit raw and unpolished, Ti welds 3 in all the places where she needed them, which, as noted above, was several.

Do I think it's going to break again?  Oh, yeah.  Based on what I saw, how the frame failed in so many places simultaneously, it seems inevitable.  If you look carefully, Kyle also ran a tracer bead down another short crack he found in the downtube near the headtube. And then there's the bottom bracket shell joints, where so many of the stresses of riding are concentrated in one area, those welds are key to a bike's survival. And I'm pretty certain Chester probably didn't spend any more time building-in frame integrity there than he did anywhere else.  So yeah, I think it's going to break again.  When?  Who knows.  How?  Hopefully slowly and with a lot of warning and not in a way that kills me. 

I'm thinking we're gonna stick to mostly XC-style riding from now on.

Won't bother me a bit, because regardless of where I'm riding, or how, it's great that I get to shred my resurrected zombie-Chester singlespeed again!

'Cause she is still a hoot to ride!



Footnotes

1. Oddly, Chester never put serial numbers on his bikes.

2.
 Based on what little I know of frame building, and the way this frame cracked so catastrophically in so many places, seemingly all at once, I've come to suspect that Chester could probably have been a lot more precise about how he cut and mitered his frame tubes prior to assembly.

3.
Chester's tube-joinery has always looked a little too smooth to me, like it was finish-filed, akin to what a frame-builder often does to complete a fillet-brazed frame.


References

15 May 2021

Cosmic Ray [UPDATED]

It is no small thing to say that the course of my life was, quite literally changed forever, when, shortly after moving to Flagstaff, on one of my first visits to our town's original mountain bike shop, Cosmic Cycles, I spent a few of my then very-limited funds ($5.95 plus tax to be exact) on an early edition of a little day-glo green self-published guidebook entitled Fat Tire Tales and Trails written by some dude who called himself Cosmic Ray.

I moved to Flagstaff, into a dank charmless little studio apartment, located conveniently right next door to the Greyhound bus station, in the middle of the summer of 1991, admittedly quite broke and, also, more than a little bit broken of heart/spirit/mind/body as well. 

During my first weeks in Flagstaff I had absolutely no idea (and no friends to show me) where to ride my bike. To learn the lay of the land, I regularly bumped around my neighborhood, rambled around downtown, and cruised through north campus on my bike. A couple times I rode down the two-track dirt service road that ran beside the railroad tracks as far as a big red-sandstone bridge. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, I struggled in my first days in town to find a good way into the woods. All I found on my first forays along the railroad tracks were a few abandoned transient camps, the shell of a wrecked car or two, and several piles of surreptitiously dumped trash.

Cosmic Ray's little green book changed all that. I was hooked on page 4. 
"The world is a serious place... [but] someone somewhere got an inspiration to put a few skinny tire bike parts on a fat tire clunker just to see.  Why? Fun! That's why this little trail guide... so that we here in Flagstaff and the rest of Arizona can share our fun.  This is a guide to that elusive trail disappearing into the woods. That trail leads to the very heart of imagination... of our childhood dream of wander. Mind you, there are always secret rides... red hot pokers couldn't make me talk! Or there are trails not meant to be biked for the good of Mama Earth. But there are also rides so fine all over our great state that they just yell out to be shared. This is them!
The day after I purchased his book at Cosmic Cycles I followed his Observatory Mesa map out my door and into the woods. It was this one:


I did the ride backwards. I made the dumb decision to do the ride in a clockwise direction because the end of the loop, per Ray's written directions, was not far from my apartment, on the other side of the train tracks, right where the pavement ended, not too far from the big sandstone bridge, at a place Ray described as Tunnel Spring. 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. 

Of course, I got quite lost.  Very little of what I encountered on the ground that afternoon matched with what I had read in Ray's book. "...an unmarked road takes off to the left heading south. There are two huge twin pines which mark this intersection..." Seriously?

Good lord. 

I learned that day what all of his readers would come to know about Ray over the course of the ensuing years and multiple editions of his book. That is, despite the fact that he was destined to become a kind of regional celebrity in mountain-bike circles, it would not be for his cartographical skills or his ability to provide detailed textual descriptions of critical waypoints. Instead Ray's notariety would endure for decades because of the way his elevated level of stoke for riding bikes came through on every page, and because of the way his witty prose so naturally projected his unique patterns of speech and dialect, and because of the way his compelling sense of humor cut through the typically sterile and carefully succinct diction more common in other glossier guidebooks, and most especially because of his genuine love of mountain biking which he was so obviously eager to share with anyone (for a small fee, naturally) so that they, too, could find and enjoy a few of the places and adventures he loved.  

As an author, and an increasingly talented artist, Ray will always be known for writing guidebooks that changed people's lives for the better because they were more than a bit short on accuracy, and sometimes quite confusingly rendered, where north is more a state of mind than a cardinal direction, and distances are measured more by one's feelings than with a carefully calibrated odometer. These were intentional conditions to which Ray readily copped, upholding in each edition of his book the famous Tolkien addage, "Not all those who wander are lost." In the epilogue of a later edition of his guidebook Ray similarly noted, 
"Sorry my semi-accurate treasure maps still look like the primative doggerel of a demented adolescent.  I'm a bike mechanic by trade.  Be thankful.  They used to look like the scribble of some tweaked out rat on glue. My maps are rough like mountain biking, not an exact science.  It's hard dirty fun and it frequently hurts."
It rained a lot while I was getting lost on Observatory Mesa trying to follow Ray's perplexing directions backwards, hailed a bit too, none of which I was adequately prepared for, leaving dozens of large welts on my bare arms. It was hard. And maybe even a little scary. But I persevered, undaunted and undeterred, through it all, to return back to my dank-but-dry studio apartment near the bus station, eventually, nearly hypothermic in the end.

And it was awesome, life-changing, transcendent, healing! I'd been on many mountain bike rides before that one. But I am convinced it was on that ride that day that I became a mountain biker. I remain a dedicated mountain biker to this day. 

I owe it all to Cosmic Ray, who showed me the way.  

Kinda.

As my years in Flagstaff and my time on our trails accrued, I got to know Ray personally, to go on a few wide-ranging exploratory rides with him, and eventually to consider him a good friend. I met him the first time because, as the sole distributor for his always self-published books, he often came into the bike shop where I worked in the summertime to personally check on our inventory and, he hoped aloud, to sell us more books. On the first occasion when I met him I was so pleased to be able to tell him how much his book had meant to me. And then, a little later on, I had the chance to publish a few reviews of newer editions of both his bike and hike books for Flagstaff Live when I was briefly the interim outdoors editor there. In each of those articles, I did my level best to convey in the most earnest words I could muster the special role Ray's books had played in helping me reshape and redirect my life.

Ray died quite unexpectedly not too long ago, during our COVID year, but not, fortunately I suppose, of that awful virus.  I heard he crashed on his bike, got badly banged up, and later succumbed to a serious septic infection that resulted from his injuries. I haven't spoken with his wife or daughter since I read his obituary in the newspaper, so I'm not absolutely certain this is the way he went out.  But I think this story's probably pretty close to accurate.  We live in a very small town.

The honorees for this year's Viola Awards were announced last week. The arts commission in our small town gives them out each year as "Flagstaff's Oscars" to artists and organizations in our local community who have been duly nominated by other grateful beneficiaries and admirers of their talent. Having lost Ray this year, I'll admit, I was a little disappointed to find that his name wasn't on any of the organization's lists of nominees.  I think Cosmic Ray is well deserving of such posthumous recognition, for a lifetime spent using his unique artistry to inspire and inform thousands of people to seek solace and well-being astride a bike.

Next year, when the Viola noms open up again, I'm determined to adapt this post as need-be and submit it for the commission's consideration and in hopes that the Viola's will commemorate Ray's abiding, life-changing, clever and challenging contributions to our greater good.

If you ask me, he more than deserves it.



Update: 29 May 2021

Ray's widow, Marcia, has put a few of his bicycles up for sale with all proceeds generously going to Flagstaff Biking Organization.



Portions of the preceeding text have been adapted from a previously published post.




May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey