What We Eat
(ode to a lesser peak)
Originally published in Mountain Gazette magazine #166 - Spring 2010

“He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land."
Fanny Crosby, 1890 

I watch the rocks.

From my desk at work all day long, for years, I’ve watched the rocks of Mount Elden, one of Flagstaff’s lesser landforms, out the window of my classroom.

Little has changed.

Again today, as it always has since I’ve known it, this mountain compels me: Come.

Three seasons of the year for the better part of the past two decades now, I’ve ridden its trails home each day, a few too-short miles of amazing boulder-covered, dacitic, woodsy singletrack with inspiring, evocative names like: Spring, Tree, Fat Man’s and Forces of Nature.

Along the way, I’ve sat near small trickling springs and watched birds, butterflies and bees drink and fight and fly away home. I’ve watched huge, complicated rain-borne waterfalls form and dissipate, both in the short span of minutes. I’ve taken refuge beneath overhanging rocks, huddled in narrow pockets while riotous storms roiled and lightning flashed close by.

Climbing aimlessly among its cracks and crags, I’ve found mysterious ancient glyphs and dark caches strewn with smoky potsherd.

And, once, I saw a lion with her kit.

I’ve struggled earnestly for years to learn to ride capably across this mountain’s rocky flanks, traverse its wind-scoured ridgelines and descend its dark, verdant faces.

I’ve acquired a layman’s grasp of the nomenclature of its geology, and squeezed through dark, narrow passages in its innards.

This overlooked working-class mountain and I possess one another. I’ve bled there many times: abraded an acre of my skin on its rocks, sucked in lungfuls of its dust, and eaten, no matter how unintentionally, its gravel and scree.

I’ve broken helmets, derailleurs, chains, rims, seats, sunglasses, shifters and even bikes upon it. It has shredded my shorts, shoes, tights, gloves, socks, pants, jerseys and especially my pride. 

It’s penalized me for boasting with a thousand flat tires.

I’d never heard of Mount Elden before I moved to Flagstaff. We met by chance. Or so it might seem.

The instructor for the Elementary Science Methods course in which I, a washed-out 24-year-old failed yuppie, was enrolled at Northern Arizona University in the fall of 1991, gave his class of newbie teacher-recruits an assignment: Go on a hike on the Mount Elden Environmental Study Area trails and write about what you observe. I was so new to town at the time that I had to ask a classmate to point out Mount Elden to me, and I used the city map in the front of the local phonebook to find my way to the assigned trailhead. I drove there in my car, and failed to see the narrow easement between two fine, large houses the first time I circled the cul-de-sac.

We were expected to spend 30 minutes walking around the area, taking notes on our observations: trying to determine how the forces of nature and man had played a role in shaping the environment, or something like that. I assumed I would fulfill the minimum requirement and turn in the requisite short paper. But instead I became so captivated by the mountain, by its evident history of fire and human settlement, its buff colors, its porous composition, its stunningly steep relief and massive scale, and its truly diverse plant biomes and animal communities, that I was compelled to spend most of the morning walking around, climbing, taking notes and sitting on big boulders watching the ravens and hawks.

During the intervening years, I’ve spent a lot of time doing much the same thing.

Nevertheless, though I continue to ride across its talus slope each afternoon, I still have not seen the view from every aspect of Mount Elden, nor have I ridden each and every one of its trails. I have not peered into all of its countless crags, or sat contemplatively atop every one of its innumerable rocks. Much of the mountain remains a mystery to me — undiscovered country right out my classroom’s back door.

But I can say this: I am glad to know Mount Elden, to have watched it year after year, to have had the chance to ride its trails home so regularly, to have formed in my mind this increasingly complex, joyful tapestry of inarticulate memory. It is good to know such a mountain well, or perhaps as well as one can anyway.

And so I am grateful. And the mountain yet compels me: Come.

John Coe, a writer and school teacher, has lived in Flagstaff since 1991 and is proud to be the original author of Wikipedia’s Mount Elden entry. You can read more about his bike rides at http://rockychrysler.blogspot.com.

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