Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Land of Moab

And the Lord God raised up a mighty host of tourists, and caused them in their numbers to depart into the land of Moab and to sojourn there in the land of the Moabites. And I was among them, and I went among them and sojourned there with them in the land of Moab a full two days, and rode my bicycle in the midst of the Moabites. And the hearts of the Moabites were gladdened and the Lord God did not smite them, neither did He smite their firstborn nor their cattle, nor did He lay waste their gold and silver. And the Moabites prospered and were glad.

The Land of Moab

It was a charity bicycle ride that brought me to the Beehive State over the weekend. If you remember the "Nicknames of States" category from your 1972 edition of Trivial Pursuit (what state is known as the Empire State? the Keystone State? the Lethal Injection State?), you'll recall that the state symbol of Utah is the beehive, memorializing the industriousness and social cohesion of Brigham Young's followers to the Mormon state of Deseret. The Mormons being the very devils of irony, they chose the beehive, a polyandrous matriarchy, to symbolize their polygamous patriarchy. It's a terminal form of sociosexual dyslexia. Or something.

Be that as it may, I went cycling in Moab with four friends who, had God and Brigham Young not already seen to matters, could have turned a wilderness into the land of milk and honey. But as with any wonderful time, I took it as an opportunity for a bit of self-reflection. In the midst of these heady exertions, in the midst of a gorgeous landscape, I felt an odd sense of . . . well, of oddness. Of looking at my situation at a distance and finding a thread of weirdness in its warp and weft, if you see what I mean.

Let me be more specific. There are certain pursuits which I enjoy, until I realize that I am in a large group of people who are enjoying the very thing which I generally prefer to enjoy either in solitude or in a more select group. And large groups of people doing the same thing fervently impart the unmistakeable veneer of strangeness to whatever it is they're all doing in a group.

One example that springs to mind is that rather peculiar activity called "birding." I enjoy being at one with nature, alone, binoculars in hand, spotting various sorts of chats and gnatcatchers, tits and titmice, goatsuckers and sapsuckers. I can freely whisper odd little descriptors in my own inner sanctum - green-tailed or yellow-breasted, yellow-bellied or sulphur-bellied, and so on - so long, that is, as no one else hears me say them. 

But when I find myself, as I have on occasion, doing this in a pack of people laden with exotic optical equipment, cameras with lenses as long as an elephant's dong, with assorted books, pamphlets, sesame-based snack foods, plaid bermuda shorts or overstuffed Dockers, raptly whispering the same things to one another, then I must draw the line and betake myself to another quarter of the great outdoors. I am embarrassed for myself and for them.

"En fin, madam, have you no decency?"

On one such occasion I was out with a wildlife biologist doing environmental due diligence -  looking for prairie chicken leks at the site of a proposed wind farm. We were alone on the predawn prairie in a chill April wind, creeping about in the dark, listening intently for a telltale booming, when the biologist whispered, "I just heard a Sprague's pipit!" Bless his heart, thought I. The ministering angel blushed for the poor chap's dignity.

And so it is when I find myself in a large group of cyclists, many of whom are at least my age, bulge and sag in roughly the same places, wear a similar disarray of stretched and worn stretchy fabric, depend on vigorously strong eyeglasses not to lose their way, and in general wear all the fool's motley of the senior citizen. This is not universally the case. But charity rides seem to attract an outsized representation of the types I have just described. In a perverse moment, I took photos of un petit dejeuner au canyon.

In the first place, the median age of the charity-ride bicycle culture is well into the Medicare-eligible range. I include myself in this category. So our clothes don't fit, we're too cheap or too indigent to buy new ones, which also wouldn't fit, and as a consequence we're always losing something down our backside.

(Lost an entire set of bicycle tools)

Since many of us no longer have very much hair beneath the abstracted phrenology of the bicycle helmet, and what hair remains in situ is an attenuated feathery gray halo, we affect exotic and outrageous headgear much like the pirates of the Caribbean or the Somali Coast.

In fact, there are evidently no bounds to the fashions we are willing to sport while in cycling mode - clothing we frankly wouldn't be buried in or bequeath. Jerseys purchased at other charity rides seem to be in favor, a way of counting coup for all the 65-milers you've suffered in the heat and cold and chalked up as a "metric century" (which is only 65 miles, no matter what you call it.)

(Jersey from the Retired Clowns for Abstract Expressionism Century)

This soul looked so forlorn that I simply borrowed an iPhone from my friend Bobbie and dialed 911.

Still, there I was, telling myself that I was among them but not of them. Whatever works, I suppose - I was there, nonetheless. The collar helps me keep my head high enough to see over the bars. And you'll note I never cycle without my little helmet. In case I should hit my head and forget what I was doing.

 Miguel "Le Cycliste"

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