Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The View Up McGee Canyon

Crossing the Line

"You need to slow down."

Those are not the words anyone, at any age, wants to hear from a doctor. They were the words, though, I was hearing from my doctor a few weeks ago. He spoke them at the end of a visit I'd made to uncover why I saw a pink cloud of blood in my urine.

We sat, my doctor and I, cloistered in the intimately clinical setting of the little exam room, two acquaintances of long and unequal standing. My doctor, after all, was clad in the white coat of the high priest, and I was clothed in the rough, cotton gown of a mendicant. Unlike most past visits, though, I was feeling more like an apostate.

"You're older, and you should take it easy. This is from your vigorous exercise on your bike," my Dr. opined. "It's sometimes called March Hematuria, not from the season, but because soldiers would see blood in their urine from the pounding they took on long marches."

That might be true for soldiers on the march. For someone on a road bike made of carbon, designed specifically to reduce the pounding shocks from pavement, the diagnosis seemed unlikely, if not impossible, no matter what my age.

If my doctor's advice was to slow down, mine was just as simple: find another doctor. I
f only because I'm something of a contrarian, i
n asking me to slow down, to take it easier, to admit my age, my vulnerability, my mortality, my doctor had crossed the line.

Kathy on a Wet Part of the Trail

A more honest example of my mortality had come 21 days earlier, on the evening of August 11th, on a ride down the Ballona Creek bike path. For the first time, I lost the informal, 4.5 mile race to the end of the path, at
the breakwater on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, just past the main channel of Marina del Rey.

"I'm going to send you down to the lab for some blood work and you'll need to give a urine sample," my doctor said. "I'll order up a kidney scan, just in case you've got a kidney stone, but that's doubtful."


A half-dozen times or more, I had bested the men half and less than half my age. I won in part with my strength, and in part with my experience. I saved my energy by drafting those who pushed through the air in front of me, riding just behind their rear wheels, before passing them and then cracking their wills.

That afternoon of my visit with the doctor, stung with his diagnosis, I rode my bike. And I rode the next day, too. However, b
ecause I was leaving with my wife on vacation the next morning, I put off the kidney scan.

On a Day Hike Above Big McGee Lake

My young friends from previous rides had growing stronger, and on this night, there were some savvy new riders, too. Three cyclists, Zo, Mike (with the colorful tattoo of a bare-breasted hula dancer on his left calf) and Sean, had figured out the strategy of a 4.5 mile race to the sea, and now they were drafting off each other, and worse, drafting off of me.

We were all on fixed gear bikes, that is, bikes with but one gear, and no freewheel on which to coast. The first bikes were like ours, and today fixed gear bikes still used on the oval velodrome, which is the track cyclists use to compete against each other; and fixies are popular with young adults (which is why I have one: I feel as if I'm 25 again, when I climb on mine).

We rode in the dark on the narrow path, our headlights showing the way forward, with the creek on one side of us, and the marina's main channel on the other. Sensing that I was going to lose to at least one and perhaps all three of my companions, I made my move with 1,000 yards to go. There was no way I could hold the pace I'd set, and I knew it. My hope, though, was to break their wills.

The View From Our Tent

The next morning, three hours before Kathy and I were due to leave, I woke, walked out of the bathroom, and felt a strange pain in my groin, a pain I had never felt before; if I had to describe it, I'd say it was as someone had kicked me in lightly in my right testicle. I actually went back to bed for an hour, woke feeling fine and shrugged the pain off as one-time anomaly.

Soon we were off for our trip, the compass pointing us north, as we drove 300 miles to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the lovely McGee Creek Lodge. The next morning, we met our 10 companions at the McGee Creek Pack Station, left our duffle bags with the packers and the mules, and began the eight mile walk to our campsite, almost 10,500 feet above sea level, next to beautiful Big McGee Lake.
I felt fit waking the eight miles up to the lake.
Kathy, trying to recover from a recent illness, hiked with a steady resolve, the pace of a seasoned mountaineer, and I enjoyed following her lead.
I'm am so glad my wife asked me to make this trip with her.
This would be one of the most, if not the most, beautiful walks I've made in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The views of the peaks, formed in fiery forges beneath the earth, uplifted by the titanic movements of tectonic plates, then carved out by glaciers eons ago, were spectacular.
There were innumerable flowers still in bloom along the trail and next to the Big McGee Creek, which were were following to its headwaters. Even this late in the summer season, there were Indian paintbrush, columbines, wild onion, mountain asters, golden rod, yarrow, ranger buttons, monkey flowers, and more that I didn't recognize.

On the lower slopes, we walked through groves of aspens, their leaves "quaking" delicately in the light wind. On the upper slopes, we walked through a forest of tall, straight lodgepole pines, which became less straight and less tall the higher we walked. Above camp, the flowers and trees eventually gave out, as we gazed upon the massive walls of the peaks that surrounded us on all sides, adorned here and there with late patches of snow and tiny glaciers.

Our Camp Near Big McGee Lake, Kathy with Her Cup 'o Morning "Jo"

The mules had passed us at our lunch stop, and dropped our gear off before we arrived. This was luxury, because we humans had only to carry our day packs, while the mules were burdened with our
duffle bags, stuffed with bear canisters,
tents, sleeping bags, clothes and food. And there was a large cooler, filled by our trip leaders with ice cream kept cold on dry ice. We had our choice of four flavors, everyone brought toppings to share, and we ate our ice cream long before dinner, enjoying dessert in the warm, high altitude sun after our long hike. Kathy and I set up our little tent and secured it, limpet-like, on a flat rock, which formed a beautiful ad natural foundation, and kept us off the surrounding meadow grass.

Heading Toward McGee Pass and Red Slate Mountain

A few hundred yards down the path, I glanced over my left shoulder. The three musketeers were right behind me; I could no more shake them off than a dog could a trio of ticks. In seconds, it was I who cracked, I who watched them shoot by me as I faded and moved to the right, I who was the tail on the dog at the bridge. I was no longer 25. I was mortal.

That night, walking near our camp with my wife, I realized how mortal I was. I began to feel that odd pain in my groin again. Over the next few minutes, that pain built rapidly, until I found myself writhing in pain on the ground. Our car was eight miles away, even if I could have walked down to it in the dark.

My mother's father died of appendicitis, found after his death. My mother almost died from it. I pushed on the right side of my stomach, and again lower down. There was no change in the pain, and so I ruled out what had killed my grandfather. Prostate? Kidney? I wasn't sure. The pain, though, began to ease, and I stood up and walked shakily back to our tent. I tried joining the group for dinner a little, then hobbled back to the tent, where I spent the rest of the night, the pain gradually subsiding over the next few hours.

The View from the Top as Our Group Approaches, Looking Southeast

There was no point in walking out. Whatever had hit me hadn't killed me. Still, I had a frank conversation with my wife about what to do if I did die. The next morning, I told some of my fellow campers that I
thought I'd just suffered through a bout of prostatitis, a condition I'd read about and that was supposedly related to too much saddle time on a bike. "And if it's something that happens from illicit sex, it's called prostitutitis," I joked.

The pain would come back twice more during the trip, each time after midnight, as if someone had kicked me in the the balls again. The pain me awake for a few hours as I lay in my sleeping bag, neither incident as serious as the on my first night in camp.

The rest of the time, though, I enjoyed my vacation. On the second morning, ten of us left for McGee Pass, just under 12,000 feet, and then ascended massive Red Slate Mountain 13,136 feet above sea level. I've never felt better hiking in the mountains, nor stronger reaching the summit of a peak, which offered a commanding view of the High Sierra. No hike in the mountains has ever been more dream-like, as we made our way up over the red slate rocks that gave the mountain its name. As we walked over the old trail, the rocks that formed the path clinked under our boots. Unlike much of the rest of the Sierra Nevada range, composed of gray granite, the terrain here was metamorphic; the original rock had been heated and melted under pressure, until, in it's twisted form, it looked as if it had been tortured in the fires of hell.

More of the Group Near the Summit

On our return to camp, our leaders pulled out tortillas and and cheese, and the rest of us contributed the fixin's for Quesadilla Night: salsas, guacamole dip, chicken, oysters, and on and one, cooking them two at a time over the little camp stoves, and sitting around the serving/cooking table as the sun dropped behind the jagged peaks to the west, and bathed the far mountains to the east in a glorious alpenglow.

In the early hours of our last day in the mountains,, before my last bout with pain began, I stood outside the tent, looking up at the sky filled with starts, so many that I once again saw that there was most light from the billions of starts, than there was darkness. I marveled that I was in that place, on that night, with Kathy, beneath the vast canopy of night, and wondered how all around me, great and small, had come to be.

When I visited my doctor, the day after our return from the mountains, I told him that I thought I might have prostatitis, and that my bike might have indeed played a part.

"No. You don't have prostatitis. If you did, you'd be in constant pain. I think you have a kidney stone."

My doctor was wrong about that. I'd had a kidney stone; it must have liberated itself sometime the day before, up near the lake. The kidney scan I'd have the next day would confirm that no stone was present, although slight damage to the tissue in my right kidney seemed to show a stone had passed that way.

The View South as We Descend

I gave myself two days to unwind from the trip, putting away the gear and washing my clothes. For the next four days, I pedaled my bike over 90 miles. On the fifth day, I pedaled over to Mike's Bike Shop, for the Monday night ride to Ballona Creek. There were even more riders than usual, several of the regulars and some new cyclists. With the exception of Mike, 14 years my junior, and a new rider who was 53, it was the usual young crowd.

I let accidentally let slip on purpose that I'd passed a kidney stone a few days before, and hadn't ridden much in the past couple of weeks, intimating I was an ancient wreck of a rider.

We pushed off about 7 p.m., in the gathering darkness, and rolled five miles toward the bike path.
I rode off the back of the pack most of the way. And once we regrouped at the path, and began riding west, into the night, I held back again, staying always on the wheels of, rather than in front of, Zo, Mike and Sean, who again had pulled to the front.

Looking Back up the Bike Path on an Earlier Ride

The bike path dipped below several bridges spanning the creek. Each dip meant a short, steep climb back to level concrete. While some riders will start to fall back after a series of these little climbs, none of the four of us tonight seemed to tire.

Well after the last dip, the bike path reached the eastern edge of the marina, perhaps 2,000 yards from the finish at the bridge, open only to cyclists and pedestrians. With the end dimly in sight, I was right on Mike's wheel, who trailed Zo by the same distance; Sean was just behind me. As Zo began to ramp up the tempo, Mike kept up the pace, and I hung on, too, waiting until I thought I could wait no more, until I thought I could jump and hold the pace, whatever it would be, until the end of the ride.

It was Zo who cracked the whip first, though, leaping up off his saddle and smashing down on his pedals. Mike and I followed suit. Swinging left, I started to come up on the two riders. I felt surprising strong; by staying in their wind shadow, Zo, and to a lesser extent Mike, had saved me a fair amount of energy.

Relaxing at the Bridge

Perhaps I might have passed the other two. Looming up out of the darkness, though, was the silhouette of a pedestrian – no light! – blocking my way. I swung back behind Mike, and a little gap opened between the two riders in front of me, and I was riding into the wind. As I started to swing to the right, to try and pass again, a blur of a rider shot past me. It wasn't Sean, but Sean was right behind the other rider.

"You need to slow down. Take it easy." You're old, you're mortal.

I wasn't first, I was fifth. Zo or Mike weren't going to be caught. Yet for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, I spun the pedals faster. Without thinking about it, without having time to think about it, I put as much energy as I had left into the final 100 yards. My cadence increased, and as I dug deeper my cadence went up again, until it reached almost 120 rpm, my bike hitting over 28 mph, and inch by inch by inch, I made up the distance on Sean, until I reeled him in and then passed him just before the end of the sprint.

End of the Ride, Back in Mike's Shop

Totally spent, I rolled to a stop on the bridge, leaned my head over the handlebars, and greedily gulped in air for a few moments, before looking up as the rest of the cyclists turned onto the bridge. My heart rate slowed, my breathing was steady, there was no pain in my groin.

Yes, I am mortal, and yes, I'm older. And my contrarian nature will keep me climbing mountains, no matter what my age, until I decide it's time to stop. When I've pedaled enough miles, I will know it's time to slow down, as I cross the finish line for the last time.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

- From "Do Not Go Gentle in the Night," by Dylan Thomas

Note: For larger-sized views, click on the photographs.


Anonymous said...

You teach other photographers to go beyond the snapshot; now it's time to go beyond the binary winner/loser self concept.
The race for survival is not won by the strongest nor the fastest; it's won by the one most willing to adapt to change.

Dave said...

Anon opined: "now it's time to go beyond the binary winner/loser self concept."

True. It's not winning - or losing - that matters; sometimes what does matter, though, is trying.