We recently saw an Instagram post by our partner James Johnson of Gravel & Grind in Frederick, MD and were so moved by it that we asked him to expand upon it for our journal. It's an inspiring read that celebrates extreme cycling and the joy of nature, and gets at the heart of why we do what we do. The line that clinched it for us: "Freezing is important. Discomfort is important. Being alive is more than just Netflix and heated bathrooms. I can't exactly pinpoint why I'm here. But I am. And I'm glad of it." Enjoy.
by James Johnson
About halfway up the climb, my toes went numb. Wiggling them in my boots was like rattling little frozen Vienna sausages around in my sock. They felt disconnected, green beans dancing in a freezer bag. The moon was a tiny smear of lard in the night sky, a crescent that was barely there, but the stars and moonlight lit the forest and cast dark voids between the oaks and elms. My generator light was barely on. I was climbing so slowly that it was running mostly on reserve power, and when I cut across the road to lessen the pitch, it flickered out entirely. The dim beam caught Chad, who was standing on the side of the road, on the edge of a spring that looked more like a dark oil slick, slowly gurgling out of the ancient crumbling rock face. His hands were clasped in front of him, voice carrying over the percolating spring, giving thanks to the water that seeped between his feet. The man never donned a jacket, just a fleece and some Carhartt pants that he hand waxed and some wood shop safety goggles. It was about 10 degrees out, and the temp was rapidly dropping.
The primary road was paved and clear but the fire road climb to the camp was loose and snow covered. The snow obfuscated the terrain, hiding tire trashers beneath benign looking drifts of docile powder. Loose rock chunks and slick snow: we all eventually took to our feet despite big tires and low gears. We parked our bikes against a willing oak, the wind picked up, biting through our thin riding gloves and light clothing. Hands went painfully numb. We stashed our bikes (average weight, loaded, 75lbs) at the foot of a steep and loose pile of rocks, held together with lichen, mountain laurel roots, and gravity. The path to the camp went straight up the remnants of a geological feature, so old it can not be measured by the human experience. It was a hands and knees job in the summer but now, in early January, with a heavy pack, numb feet and hands, it was a whole ‘nother bag of worms. About halfway up, Tracy’s sleeping roll slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the rocks, bouncing and twisting through the air, only coming to a stop at the field at the bottom of the incline. I breathed a sigh of relief. It could have easily been a person, smacking and rolling from rock to rock.
Back in town, it was Saturday evening. The bars were filled. The restaurants packed despite the chill. At home, people curled up to binge watch dubious TV shows. Dinners came out of ovens and microwaves. We pitched our tents in a wind insistent on launching our tent components into the dormant mountain laurel. I got mine up, sort of, and loaded it with my sleeping bags and mats. Tracy’s fingers had become so cold that she could not operate the clips to put her tent together. We had to collaborate and use our combined remaining dexterity to finish the job.
There used to be a fire tower here, this was a great vantage point to look out over the rolling woods to spot smoke. It’s a high spot, exposed to the constant battering of the wind and rain. The fire tower was guyed out with huge steel cables, leavings of which you can still trip on with a dim headlamp. It’s a place to visit, not to live, but it was our home for the night. We expected temps to drop near zero.
Why be out there? To answer that, you have to know why you are anywhere. And to know why you are anywhere, you need to first ask the question: Why? Everyone has their own reasons, but I think many folks don’t actively seek out understanding why they are anywhere at all. They just are. We were out in the cold wind, huddled around a smoky fire, not talking. Drinking hot stinging nettle and cinnamon tea laced with cheap bourbon, because we had asked the why and we were seeking the answer. Finding and understanding nature and its sublime power is important. To understand our place in the world, we must more deeply understand our world, and recognize how small our place in it is.
I wrote this in my tent, late at night, as my candle lantern swung around, the tent poles gently bent in the wind.It's hard to talk about why you wanna go freeze your bits off in the woods when you could be at home with a hot cup of tea and some warm slippers. But life is often lacking in perspective. We spend our days with faces buried in work or social media or faux friendships and really we just need to remember that the world keeps turning and seasons keep changing and that being outside in that world is the reason to be. It's between 0 and 7 degrees out right now and I can't feel my left foot. The wind is beating across the tree crowns like semis on a turnpike. A whoosh and a roar and the snow spitting across the lightly flapping fly. Freezing is important. Discomfort is important. Being alive is more than just Netflix and heated bathrooms. I can't exactly pin point why I'm here. But I am. And I'm glad of it.
As a parting note, here is a recipe, in anecdotal form, that we accidentally concocted on our trip. It was born out of necessity and availability, and it was perfect. This is don’t freeze your bits off food. Caution: Don’t try this on a warm night while car camping.
After deep frying some tortillas and cheese and pork jowl in the fat from a pack of bacon, we had to get rid of the giant vat of fat somehow.... here's our camp fire recipe for Gravel & Grind Signature Zero Degree Taco Surprise: take ten corn tortillas. They can be store bought. Fry up a pack of good bacon over some coals. Eat it all but leave the pool of fat in the pan. Dump in 20 slices of Pork Jowl and lightly fry. Leave the jowl stewing in the fat. Add a tortilla, dunking it in the fat then tossing on some good cheddar. It'll be all shifty slidy but usethe force and it'll be ok. Before you do all this, boil water for an hour before realizing you forgot to add the lentils and rice. This is important. Make the lentils and rice. Half cup each. Bob’s Lentils and Goya yellow rice with the MSG packet. Prepare roughly as recommended. Dump lentils and rice on tortillas. Grab. Eat while scalding hot. Cover expensive gloves in bacon juice. Repeat as needed. Serves 3 hungry folk.
Go ride. Ask why, then answer yourself with an adventure.
As a kid, James liked to ride down to the stream in his neighborhood, push his bike through dense raspberry briar patches and to find hidden tiny rapids to mess about in. He is still pushing his bike through briars today. James Johnson has made the pursuit of scraggly dirt roads, hidden single track and wrinkled outdated topo maps his life. Wanting to share the idea of bikes as a tool to understand our place in the natural world, he co-founded a bike shop with Tracy Hathaway with the express goal of getting people into the woods. He is the Co-owner of Gravel & Grind in Frederick, Maryland, a hybrid custom bike shop and espresso bar. They specialize in steel adventure bikes and lifestyle bikes, select outdoor gear and books about exploration. Before being a shop owner, James worked in the bike industry for 20 years, managing shops, building bikes and wheels, fitting hundreds of riders, writing and documenting rides. In between shop jobs, he received his BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and his MFA from Penn State University.
Photos Courtesy of Jay Divinagracia.
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