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.




3 comments :

MARCIA WIESNER said...

Hey, Mr. C, just came on this through a long search-and-click trail. This is a great piece of writing. I'm Ray's wife, and I'm just getting around to being able to read stuff like this. Thanks.

MARCIA WIESNER said...

By the way, your version of the way Ray went out was largely accurate.

johncoe said...

Thanks, Marcia. Truly sorry for your loss. I'm glad you got to read what I wrote about Ray. He was a very good guy. Be well. Johncoe

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