Free Solo

Casen posed a question on The Dihedral, a climbing blog I follow (see “Blogroll”). It is based on the film “Free Solo” so, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to look here or here first, and/or go see the film, now playing at a theatre near you.

I went to the movie thinking I was seeing a film about free soloing; rock climbing alone and without ropes. The film is about Alex Honnold, considered by many to be the greatest free climber alive. “Alive” is an´important distinction.

Alex speaks of free soloing as a “high reward/low risk” occupation. By this, he means he gets great rewards (he loves it) and he minimizes the risk by his care in preparation, as well as his ever-present awareness that a mistake means death (ed: or badly-broken survival and wishing he were dead).  It could equally be seen through another lens: low risk/high consequence. By that, I mean that, while the risk may be low (and that is debatable), the consequence of  failure is high (death).

What constitutes high risk? I think it is relative. When I worked in Nicaragua, I realized that most people in the US thought of Central America as a war zone. In Central America, Nicaragua was seen as a war zone. In Nicaragua, the Matagalpa Region was seen as a war zone. In Matagalpa, the area around Muy Muy and Matiguás was seen as a war zone. Where I worked (between Muy Muy and Matiguás), the war was always over the next ridge. We were not in the war zone, but close. We were safe, but it didn’t look that way to folks in the US. In a similar vein, what Alex does is not nearly as high a risk as it would be for you or me. Sure, he could die. You or I could die crossing the street tomorrow morning. 

While I thought it was a film about climbing, it is at least as much a film about relationship. Early on you meet his girlfriend Sanni. She approaches him at a book signing and gives him her phone number. He calls, they go out, they become involved. Mind you, this is a guy who lives in his van and makes a living traveling the world to climb rocks. His quest is to climb El Capitán in Yosemite National Park, considered the pinnacle of free climbing by those who think about such things. It had never been done.

As their relationship develops, she fears that he could die in the attempt, leaving her.  My initial reaction was “you get what you pay for”. She went into this relationship knowing that this is what he does. She is attracted to him as a free climber – that’s how/why they met. To try to get him to stop is a recipe for relationship disaster. Can you say “resentment”?

On the other hand, these are feelings she has a right to, and a right to express. They are likely feelings she didn’t know would develop as she became closer to him. Now here they are: what does one do? The film becomes at least as much about dealing with this as about climbing El Capitán. Does relationship change acceptable risk?

It also becomes a film about physics and metaphysics. Free soloing is, by definition, a solitary endeavor. Does the observation of a phenomenon change it? Will he climb differently when he is being watched, being filmed? Does a solitary endeavor become a performance? The filmmakers grapple with this and question whether they should even make the film. If he dies, will they be responsible? Did their presence and interference lead to his death? What do they do with the film footage if he does not survive the attempt? How do they make a great film without interfering? And how do they live with what they have witnessed, burned into their retinas and their brains, as well as their film stock?

The questions Casen asks include: What constitutes success? and What is the balance between performance and happiness? I realized I had more to say than I felt comfortable saying in the comment section of someone else’s blog. I read another blog in which someone does take over via the comments. My internal response is “get your own blog”. Since I have my own, I won’t usurp The Dihedral. I’ll invite them to come over here.

PS: Even if the only thing you ever climb are the stairs to your room, I recommend this film. A co-worker (and climber, who hasn’t seen the film) asked if I thought the film would encourage others to try this and die in the attempt. I doubted it. The cinematography is so amazing that it is clear that this is not something for mere mortals to try. You see Alex squeezing a handhold the size of a pencil. You see him doing pullups with his fingertips. You see him standing on footholds that you wouldn’t have seen if the narrator hadn’t pointed them out. It seems pretty clear that this is an elite athlete and this is not something to try at home.

PPS: Don’t try this at home (or on El Capitán).

PPPS: No mention of bikes here.

An open letter

to my Cycle America community. To jog your memories, there will be one photo from each week, none of which have appeared here before:

Dear Friends,

trailer loaded, ready to head to ride start-WA

We have now been back in our respective real worlds for longer than we were away in our circus world. We used that metaphor during the trip because it seemed apt – we rolled into a new town every night, set up our tents, and were gone in the morning before most people were up and about. We didn’t put on much of a show, but…

Einstein in Jackson, WY

It’s also timely because I spent three days of the last week in Baraboo, home of the Ringling Brothers and the Circus World Museum. It was also where, for me, the two worlds intersected. My friends, my son and his wife, and my boss all came to Baraboo when the Cycle America Circus rolled through. It was my reminder that our circus world was fleeting, that the other world beckoned. It was the best of times…

Devil’s Tower, WY

And now we’re scattered across the globe doing whatever it is we normally
do; though even that is new for some – Ally went from being a student to being a nurse during those nine weeks. Mike stayed away longer than the rest of us to ride down the west coast of the US. How’d that go, Mike?

Did anybody do a Johnny Paycheck when going back to work?

Needles Highway, SD

I miss that world. I missed the daily routine of riding already by the first Monday I was home. I had my day of rest and was ready to ride again. I’m still looking for anyone who wants to pay me to ride my bike. From the headwaters of the Mississippi to the delta seems like a good route. Who’ll drive sag?

The jersey that got us in trouble in Belgium-Northfield, MN

But I also miss all of you. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya on you. If we all lived in the same town it’s not like we’d all be hanging out every night after work (those of us who do still work) or be drinking coffee together every morning at the corner cafe (for the retired among us).

Wind farm – Pepin, WI

But we had a community for those nine weeks; a loose-knit one, perhaps, but we shared something I will never forget. We shared fun, we shared miseries, we shared deeply transforming moments.  We found out what we were made of. Some of you, who had done this before, may have had no doubts about it. But I bet most of us had moments when we weren’t really sure what we had gotten into, weren’t really sure we could do this. But we did. And we probably knew that all along but it seemed too arrogant to say out loud, just as voicing the fears seemed too insecure to say out loud.

100 miles is just a number – almost a century in Ontario

We ate some great food and some food that we may not have eaten had we not just ridden 80 miles. We saw the USA in a way that most people never will. We didn’t fly over flyover country. We didn’t cross the plains at 80 mph (~130 km/h for those of the metric persuasion), staring at the ribbon of pavement and ignoring all else. We did wake up sober in Nebraska (or close to it – Nebraska, I mean). Climbing mountain passes didn’t mean just stepping harder on the accelerator.

Cycle America International Bobsled Team – Lake Placid, NY

We did all that, and we did it together. I, for one, already think about a reunion. It’s entirely possible we will never see each other again. I know some of you are friends in real life and do hang out. The rest of us? Maybe we’d feel awkward, not knowing what to say. Maybe we’d need a long ride together with margaritas to follow. Maybe a short ride, but actually together as a group, like the brief stretches when we were together for ferry crossings or through construction zones.

End of the road, Gloucester, MA-only one way to go

And maybe doing it again in 2020 doesn’t sound crazy after all. (Don’t tell anyone here I said that!) If those of you with the wherewithal to do it again do it, I’ll meet you in Baraboo with a case of beer. Or we can find an Irish pub and Mike can show the bartenders the proper way to pull a pint of Guinness.

See you on the road!

Love,

Steve

Maybe a motor next time?
Maybe Hogwart’s next time?
maple
Home again

 

Baraboo re-do

Who knew you could get to Baraboo by car as well as by bike? Even on some of the same roads! Frankly, any scenery that looks good at 60 mph looks better at 20. But this weekend found the half-fast cycling club off to Baraboo for the second time in a week; this time in a car.

The occasion was our 25th wedding anniversary. We stayed in an apartment above the Little Village Cafe. It was a beautiful 2 bedroom apartment overlooking the town square and decorated with circus posters.

I had no idea who Mister Mistin, Jr was, so I had to look him up. He was the star of the 1953 season of the Ringling Brothers Circus, discovered by John Ringling in a circus in Sweden. In Sweden he performed under the name of “Baby Mistin”, but Ringling, to emphasize the child’s prodigiousness, dubbed him “Mister”. Mistin had made his debut in Belgium at the age of two and, by the time he came to the US, claimed to speak five languages. His tenure with the Ringling Brothers lasted one season.

Baraboo is a small enough town to walk everywhere – to the Al Ringling Theatre next door, to the Circus World Museum, to the park and zoo, to the children’s museum, and to the Driftless Glen Distillery. Devil’s Lake State Park, Parfrey’s Glen, and Durward’s Glen are all a short ride (or drive) away. Walking past the children’s museum at night we saw a dragon (one of several in town) and a firetruck.

A great dinner at The Little Village, breakfast at the Broadway Diner (where we sat almost close enough to the griddle to cook from our stools), but the hike in Devil’s Lake was derailed by a cold mist that made the apartment seem much more inviting. We finally ventured out after dark again for dinner at the Driftless Glen Distillery. A phenomenal dinner ( a great mushroom sauce on pasta) and the spirits weren’t bad, either. Back across Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac Ferry and the real world beckons once again. The leaves that were just a pretty sight in Baraboo have to be raked here.

ringling-1
Al Ringling Theatre – from traditionalbuilding.com

The Last Roundup (Blue Spoon to Little Village)

“It was a fine fall morning; early and cold and sweet as cider. It was one of the prettiest times of year at one of the  prettiest times of the day…” (Ken Kesey, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear)

And so we met at the Blue Spoon Cafe in Prairie du Sac, WI.  Breakfast (for me) was cakes bluespoonand eggs with coffee. It was about 35 degrees, no wind, a bright sun low in the sky. By the time we finished our breakfast and were ready to hit the road, it was over 40; still pretty crisp, but with a promise of warmth to come.

We (the stalwarts of the Half-fast Cycling Club) headed out, crossing the Wisconsin River and making our way to the Merrimac Ferry.ferry (For Cycle America folks, the morning route was more or less the route from the July 26 posting “I will never wear shoes“, only in reverse.) We wound our way up the switchbacks of Devil’s Lake State Park and on to lunch at the Little Village Cafe in Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum (and former home of the Ringling Brothers). Lunch was a grilled chicken sandwich with pesto accompanied by an Argentine Malbec, followed by bourbon pumpkin cheesecake and espresso. No pictures of food. I’m not that kind of guy.

Leaving Baraboo the temperature was over 60 degrees. The wind began to pick up, out of the west, meaning we’d have a headwind early but a tailwind to push us home. The afternoon is the hillier part of the ride, so it was a good thing we were well-fueled. We headed up Happy Hill (and were happy), Freedom Road (where we felt free) and Swiss Valley (where we saw Brown Swiss cattle).  Rollie and I waited for the others by an old stone barn foundation with a silo in the middle. Since I’m used to seeing silos outside of the barn, I decided it’s really the top of an ancient and long-buried castle.

You can see the slits for the archers to shoot through at the top of the parapet, and the lookout tower above. After crossing a busy highway (with only a few feet of milled pavement – see the August 6 post “Back in the US, back in the US, back…”) we crossed onto a bike path for the last few miles. We saw a bald eagle perched above the river, which looked much better through the viewing scope than in the accompanying photo.eagle

Back to the Blue Spoon for drinks and hors d’oeuvre on the patio overlooking the river (just upstream from the eagle) and then it was back home for dinner, driving into the rising and nearly-full moon. Today was probably the most beautiful day of the month, a perfect day for what may be the last ride of the year that is just for fun and not to get somewhere. We’ll see how many of the Half-fast Club are up for the New Year’s Day ride.