Traveling has left me caught in an expanding web of magnificent eccentrics. Last night I had dinner with a pair of mountain bikers I met in Chamonix this summer. Though we’ve known each other less than three months, I knew by the light in their eyes – knew by the grin that started in the right corner of Tom’s mouth and didn’t stop until the left corner of Gloria’s (across the room) – that their latest expedition was a grade A sufferfest. A two hour bike ride that turned into eight, uphill over roots and boulders, through the viscous, silty mud that forms in the rain that really hasn’t stopped falling all season. Only a coke and a few madeline’s to sustain them.
I can’t ride a two-wheeler. The closest I came was the red tricycle I scooted along on as a toddler, or the wheelchair I used on and off as a teen (also red). It’s not bikes at the heart of this friendship. Preposterously, my life is filled with long distance hikers, rafting guides, mountain climbers, SCUBA divers, kite surfers, base jumpers, van dwellers and ultra runners. At least one of my friends was employed to hike into back country Alaska and teach bears to fear humans. If there is a unifying theme – at first glance – it might be recklessness – it might be an underdeveloped impulse toward comfort and self preservation.
This is a life populated with people whose passions take them beyond the A.D.A. approved sections of guidebooks. Beyond the edges of maps. On the surface this makes absolutely no sense. It’s been on my mind a lot this summer. With these folks, in a mountain range so steep that my quads burn with rage and question my sanity on the way to friends’ houses, where almost all conversations at least touch on experiences I’ll never share – I’ve been feeling completely understood. I’ve been feeling at home.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car, listening to and nodding knowingly as another new friend, Elliott, told his story of running the 80k course of the U.T.M.B. I thought my connection to his story might have something to do with the ideal of becoming the ultimate self rescue princess. He ran on a whim. Unprepared. Unregistered. At 65K his legs were fried. He was ready to take the lift home. Ready to quit. Of course, as an unregistered weirdo, they wouldn’t let him on. He would have to pay a lift fee or run. Past his personal point of no return, he self rescued. He ran.
What possible motive do we share? Why ride bicycles up a muddy, clusterfuck of a trail? Why run up, around, over, across and back down some of the steepest terrain on the planet? For that matter, why with all the physical prowess of Humpty Dumpty, decide to fall in love with wild landscapes and move to a foreign country for a summer? There is undeniable discomfort built into these activities. Suffering beyond what the average bear could stand to bare. But, here we are. We are grinning; sometimes we are so stoked that we radiate. We glow.
It might be a need for self reliance. It might be a drive to test our own limits to their breaking points. It might be a love of filth and sweat and pain. It might be a need to work so hard physically that all of the mental noise is drown out. It might be a need to challenge ourselves beyond reason and prove that we can overcome. I think it’s all of these, but only a little.
Riding the AlpyBus back into town, a nearly imperceptible crick in my neck, a slight shift and tilt of my head landed my eyes on a much clearer answer. Fifteen parachutes. Fifteen perfect humans dangling in the sky. Taking a needless risk. Probably freezing cold in the wind and altitude. Crowning the first limestone cliff on the way from GVA to Chamonix. It was a gray Tuesday. Raining on and off. Mostly on. But they hung and spun and dangled thousands of feet above the valley floor in the one spot of pure blue and sunshine the afternoon had to offer. Just watching – in my stomach – butterflies fluttered faster than heartbeats.
This is the thing. Gloria and Tom ended their sugar fueled slog on a perfect section of single track. On their bikes, for at least a few moments, they flew across some of the most captivating landscape the alps could offer. Elliott was joined by a jubilant dog friend for his last 10K – the way he told it they may as well have been dancing across the finish line. Every time I walk through this steep little town, I watch the light change on the glacier, or hear birdsong echoing from both sides of the valley. However fleetingly, at our edges of endurance, we are sometimes enveloped by grace.
It’s hard. We are uncomfortable. But there is so much grace in the world if you can get yourself in the right place to meet it. We feel the pain and cold. We are tiny and vulnerable. This isn’t about conquest. It’s not about proving anything or being better than anyone. It’s about the unexpected spaces within the grind that contain enough grace to overwhelm the senses. Enough grace to make you glow. These are moments so fragile and perfect you almost burst. But they are flighty suckers. You can’t plan for them, but I think this necessary humility is part of the draw. All we can do is put ourselves in what we think might be the right place, focus, and pay attention. We can’t even blink. No matter. For some of us, grace is always worth chasing.