The Sunday night before my first day of fourth grade, I rolled my black-and-gold Huffy Thunder 50 BMX bike up to the retaining wall on the east side of my parents’ driveway at the end of Crestline Drive. It was about 20 inches high, three railroad ties stacked on top of each other. I had watched my older brother launch his bike off it several times.
I rode up to the edge a few times, wondering how much speed I needed, what exactly I needed to do. Then I went for it, pedaling up to the edge and assuming I’d land out in the middle of the concrete driveway on both wheels.
I landed mostly on my face. I guess at the moment of truth, I choked and failed to pull up on my handlebars as I went off the edge, or I hadn’t pedaled hard enough. I basically rolled off the wall, landing on my front tire, which dumped me over the handlebars and onto my face. I went to my first week of fourth grade with a dime-sized scab under my nostril. Probably a big hit with the 9-year-old girls, but I don’t remember now.
From this event, and several years of not performing too well in junior high and high school ball sports, I deduced as an adult that I just wasn’t great at “reaction sports,” “fast sports,” or “downhill sports.” As an adult, that meant skiing, mountain biking, kayaking, anything that required fast decisions. I took up climbing and loved it, the long suffering, the big decisions where I could take seconds, even minutes to try to figure out a solution before … finally … going for it.
A couple weeks ago, 26 years after smashing my face on my parents’ driveway on my Huffy Thunder 50, I pedaled six miles up the JEM Trail near Virgin, Utah, and turned my bike around for the descent, dropping 800-some feet over six miles of singletrack. This was my seventh mountain bike ride since I’d bought one at age 33, giving it a shot to see if I could get it. I was tentative the first few rides, but following experienced friends on several rides and asking a thousand questions had helped me understand it better — I started noticing moments during descents where I didn’t white-knuckle the bars and imagine crashing every time I rolled over a rock bigger than a soda can.
I would tell myself to relax, look where I wanted the bike to go, not where I didn’t want it to go, and control the bike, don’t let the bike control me, like my friend Aaron said. And every once in a while, it would happen: I would get it. For a few seconds, I would flow like I was in a waterslide, turning exactly where I needed to, not thinking about steering or braking or pedaling — just doing it.
And that afternoon, on the JEM Trail, I walked my bike down one mega-technical descent, got back on it, and rode. For miles of mellow downhill, I ripped the shit out of it. In my head, I was a dude in a mountain bike video, all fearless grace, maybe in slow motion with dubstep in the background.
It lasted all of about 15 minutes, and it made up for crashing my bike in my parents’ driveway, dozens of turnovers and missed jump shots in junior high basketball games, dropped passes in football games, and misfielded ground balls. I finally just relaxed and found a state of flow. Only took me 34 years.
Outdoor sports are full of chances at grace, and whether we know it or not, we spend hours doing them for a few seconds of perfection, whether it’s linking perfect powder turns, riding singletrack or cruising whitewater. The walk into Solar Slab in Red Rock National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas takes about an hour, and my partner and I spent half the day climbing and belaying eight pitches of climbing to get to the endless handcrack on Solar Slab. But when I started up it, I hit a machine-like stride for 150 feet: step up, jam, crimp, step up, crimp, place gear, clip, crimp, jam, step up, on and on until I ran out of good rock.
I moved for 12 straight hours last Friday approaching, descending and climbing 1,500 feet of Red Rock’s jungle-gym sandstone, and when I think back, I’ll remember five minutes in the late afternoon sun. The same way I’ll remember the 15 minutes of bombing the JEM Trail, or the five minutes starting at the beginning of the second hour of a trail run.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in the introduction to his book Flow:
“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”