An oft expressed intention was finally made real as my neighbor and I got out for a ride together. For a solid five hours, I saw the world without made-up political memes. At first my eyes stung but slowly they adjusted to the lack of hyperbole.
“We’ll have to ride sometime” was starting to seem like our neighbor version of that never-gonna-happen “we should grab lunch sometime” you might tell an old acquaintance.
As it turns out, it only took a few drinks at the neighborhood Halloween party to turn empty words into a promise. Next thing I knew, I was setting a Sunday morning alarm, something I don’t even do for work. It was serious.
A lot of rain in the day’s forecast prompted a last minute change of plans to ride the Danskin trail system instead of the Owyhees so none of the few dry hours are wasted with travel.
“What kind of trails do you like to ride?” Tony asks once we’re a few minutes away from the parking lot. “Ridges or …”
“Singletrack, in the ravines,” I answer quickly. Does anyone like whoopty ATV tracks?
Tony nods. That seems to be the right answer.
I follow Tony off the ridge to fall in along one of the area’s many tiny, shaded creeks. Handlebars and boots push through a season of now colorful growth encroaching on the undulating, narrow trail.
“Doing good?” Tony asks at an intersection as I stop alongside him.
“Yeah, great,” I say.
“I heard your motor cut out.”
“Just stopping for pictures,” I explain.
Tony lays out some trail options from here that I’m not familiar with. “I wouldn’t mind something a little more challenging,” I propose, wherever that leads.
“Bored, huh?” he asks, smiling.
Soon I’m working up a sweat to keep from falling over.
The big descent we just finished was familiar. I think I accidentally ended up here a few years ago while looking for a place to camp.¹
Steepness challenges are fun interludes but it’s the mildly technical, creekside trails I could enjoy all day.
“It was over your fender,” Tony tells me after I follow his lead and peg the throttle to escape the depths of a crossing lately made worse by a beaver dam.¹ Our bikes are wrapped in steam. For a moment his won’t start and we worry his air box was inundated. Tony pops the cover and sees it’s dry. The two-stroker just had a brain freeze.
Tony claims to know the direction to a waterfall he assures me really does exist (I’ve never seen it) but he’s not sure if the trail we’re on is a feasible route. We try to escape the ravine on a rising, narrow track but are turned back when it ends at nowhere.
I didn’t bring my tablet with maps since its connector stopped charging on the last ride.¹ And after rummaging in his pack, Tony realizes his paper map is back at the truck. It’s kind of funny that we’re mapless.
Tony thinks to pull up the track from his recent ride to the waterfall. He does have his tablet. It doesn’t show a map but we can see we’re near a line that has worked before.
Wind picks up as we stand assessing the route, its sound amplified in surrounding trees. The sky is getting darker. We figure the forecasted rainstorm is waiting until we reach maximum distance from the truck. We’re getting close to that point.
Impressive spires rise around as we continue deeper into desert hills.
I see Tony stop below and wonder what he’s up to.
“We should probably help each other across this,” Tony suggests when I catch up to where he stopped at a washed out trail section.
“Good idea.” It isn’t dangerous (a disclaimer for the wives and mothers) but would be a hassle to drag a bike back up from below.
Tony was telling me he had to repair another washed out section of trail when he was here last week, in order to get through. I think I see the spot up ahead. It’s always best not to look too closely at such things.
After the last little climb past Tony’s repair, we drop into a bowl around a massive (for this area) tree. The ground is thick with orange pine needles and leaves alongside a creek meandering among moss-lined boulders. What a neat place!
The smattering of rain is growing steady as Tony leads me back down the trail a bit on foot to confirm the waterfall really exists. I was so focused on getting up the narrow trail, I didn’t see it.
“I’m gonna take a closer look,” I say as I clamber off trail. “I’ll be quick. I hope there’s no poison ivy.” (My wife, kids and I pushed through a desert slot canyon last fall with quite an unpleasant result.¹)
After stepping over and pulling aside brush, the ground clears around an enchanted pool, perhaps ten by fifteen feet, at the base of the small waterfall. Vertical walls rise above, capped by massive stones, forming a small, natural cathedral.
Opposite the waterfall is a tunnel that leads into the rock. I see what looks like another pool of similar size inside and a dark hollow, perhaps continuing cave, on its far side. That’s worth exploring sometime.
With forecasted skies now upon us, we stay only a few minutes before starting back on the simplest route to the truck, here from our farthest distance, just as expected.
I zip all ports closed against the rain as it becomes a steady beat, mile after mile. “Are those waterproof?” Tony asks of my riding pants.
“These, not so much,” he says nodding at his own.
“My boots are too,” I add.
The desert always reminds me that beauty is contextual. The small stand of aspens, the patch of moss, the little pool that elsewhere would be mundane are here legitimate objects of delight. When I lived in forests to the north, it was stony outcrops, here commonplace, that there were little islands of wonder.
Happiness is the same way, less to do with overall circumstances — rich, poor, this political system or another — than how we experience daily ups and downs within those circumstances.
If not obvious from our own experiences, many studies have borne this out. The classic example probing the extremes of contextual happiness examined lottery winners and paraplegics or quadriplegics¹ — dramatic, unexpected changes of circumstance — to find their eventual, self-reported happiness ratings in a similar, middle-of-the-road range.
Philip Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1978, Vol. 36, No. 8, 917–927: pages.ucsd.edu/…/Class 3 - Brickman 1978
Contextual experiences aren’t intuitive, not what we predict. When I moved to Southern Idaho in 1997, I didn’t expect I’d ever think there was beauty in the surrounding desert. It looked so drab.
And it’s hard, at last in our culture, to avoid the “hedonic treadmill,” the sense that our happiness will improve once we achieve some new circumstance we’re pursuing.
But always our minds adapt and we experience the world in relation to the new normal — our happiness, sense of wonder, everything, much the same as it always was.
Not long after Tony and I become accustomed to our new normal, rain, it begins to blow off, leaving behind vivid colors and swirling mists, beauty out of chaos.
“Staying warm enough?” we ask each other even though we know the only guy-answer we’ll get, short of hypothermia, is “yep.”
When Tony starts warming his hands on his exhaust I think he might be less warm than he says. Rainproof pants, heated grips and a windscreen are holding me within the outer edge of comfort.
The nature of contextual experience isn’t new or surprising, having achieved canonization on craft store epigrams telling us to be present and find joy in little things. We surround ourselves with such Zen inspired folk wisdom.
Drum beat warnings that the upcoming presidential election could mean the end of the American Dream belie real belief in such wisdom, however, instead evincing ranks of bathroom wall Buddhists beside Sunday Christians admiring virtue as mere décor.
Worse than naïveté, worse than hypocrisy, is use of these alarmist misconstruals as license to treat others badly, even maliciously, as if political rivals actually mean to take away their happiness. It is sad to see.
Tony may wonder what’s become of me but I can’t help but stop and watch low clouds drag across arid hills as visible rays of sun play across the broad Snake River Plain beyond. The same scene has played out a million times before and will do so a million times more with zero effect from politics or ideologies.
If you can’t believe your bathroom wall epigrams then, as I’ve proposed here many times, let the outdoors restore a sense of place and time, and magnanimity for all who will quickly return to its dust.
It felt good to get out today. I’m even glad for the rain. Tony was fun to ride with. I don’t think I held him up too much so maybe he’ll let me come again sometime. I have other friends too I look forward to seeing again on the trail. Until then ...