Monday, October 10, 2011

Tasting the Landscape

A poet friend of mine writes that "places speak their own languages.... you can come to identify with the language, the fragrance, the textures of a place so strongly that they become a part of you.  The French call it gout de terroir, the tastes of the landscape...."

I start here, with the notion of place, because this is an important week for me to consider it.  My bike has taken me many places: from Vancouver Island; Killington, VT; Moab, UT; to Death Valley, CA; and of course through nearly all of the regions of my home state of Michigan.  But this week is special.  I began this week (yesterday to be exact), with a warm fall and rare sunny ride through some of the most colorful landscapes that West Michigan has to offer.  I ended yesterday with a moonlit road ride with friends near the Lake Michigan lake shore.  Today, I have come to understand yesterday's rides as helping me--a girl who suffers from a rather extreme case of wanderlust--to once again connect to the place I call home, to connect to its sweet-smelling grasses and multi-colored leaves; to smooth rural roads that have been silenced by Sunday homebodies; a moon that peeks through the bare tops of trees just to let you know it's there, watching; and a clean, crisp Midwestern autumn air that will forever be a part of my lungs, my skin.

But, there is one other place I must write about today because it is so foreign and strange to me, and yet, I speak its language, when this time of year comes around.  Tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, several dear friends and teammates will travel to Death Valley, CA for the second-to-last JDRF Ride To Cure (Type 1 Diabetes) of the year.  And in JDRF lore, it is the oldest and perhaps most mysterious and beloved of the JDRF rides.  Death Valley is about a 3.5-hour drive West of Las Vegas.  And it is, as many have heard told, a world unto its own.

I first went to Death Valley in 2007 as a first-time rider for the JDRF Ride to Cure.  However, my introduction to the landscape may have been a little stranger than most.  Because I had missed my connection in Chicago, I flew in late to Vegas (via San Francisco), and carpooled, at nearly Midnight, into the Furnace Creek Ranch, where more than 300 people from all reaches of the US were staying for the ride.  My car-mates and I drove through pitch darkness to get there.  Road-weary and cross-eyed, I had no idea in which direction we were going.  The black night was more vast than I would ever know in Michigan.  There was no moon showing the way, nothing reflecting off of trees along the side of the road; only headlights and the constant undulating ribbon of two-lane road in front of us, seemingly coming out of nowhere, unending; the small cacti and sagebrush that moved past us in a staccato rhythm in the headlights.... flip, flip, flip, flip, flip.  The monotonous pattern repeated for miles and miles.  Without the variability I was used to in the Michigan landscape, my mind wandered to scenes of abandoned cars along the highway, with no trace of where the people went, no footprints left behind in the dirt, blown clean by the night wind.  Needless to say, my first moment in Death Valley was... a little spooky.

The road on the ride during the day.  Imagine this at night.  

But I arrived to the ranch in one piece, and luckily, to friends who were still up waiting for me, ready to greet my arrival with open arms, and to help me settle in for the night.  The next morning brought a brilliant orange sunrise, a variegated brown and purple, mountain-ridged landscape across the skyline, a crisp, dry, desert air, and the hopes of a much kinder introduction to the place.

The ridge line at 8 am just to the West of the road leading out of the ranch.

I could go on and on about the ride and the trip and the spirit that is the JDRF Death Valley Ride to Cure (and because I have only been there once, I feel, among my many friends who have been there numerous times, rather inadequate to write about that).  But here, I reminisce about the ride in terms of the landscape: the moonlit pre-ride dinner under the trees out in the grove, the stars that filled the sky and seemed "close enough to touch"*, the 35-MPH sandstorm that blew in during our last 10 miles of the ride in the 105-degree heat....  I did, indeed, "taste the landscape." (In all seriousness, no pun intended there.)

My purpose for this post is to linger a moment in what place means, as well as to send along a wish for my teammates and the other JDRF riders this week.  Mike Clark, a dear friend, and a Co-Head National Coach for the JDRF Ride to Cure uses the expression, "-ness" to explain a place and its... well... "-ness": its sweet-ness, its wonderful-ness, its strange-ness.  That's.... -ness.  Suffice it to say, Death Valley has grand-ness.  It has mysterious-ness.  It is surely a landscape that one must taste for oneself.  We craft our own -ness in our own tastebuds, our own senses of a place.

(And let me just add that I do no justice to the description of DV.  Mike, of all people, should be the one writing this post.  He, with his seven years of experience there, offers the most apt description of this place, the experience, and the JDRF weekend there.  It's hard to capture, and he does it beautifully.  If you haven't had the pleasure already, you should talk to him about it.  Maybe I'll invite  him to be a guest author here... hmmm....  Mike, warm up that computer of yours....)

Suffice it to say, every time we talk about it, his message is this:  the Death Valley ride is like no other, largely because this place is like no other.  With teams arriving from every region of the US, descending on this ranch, in the middle of the desert, with nowhere to go but somewhere else on the ranch, or out on the roads with friends on a bike, the experience makes folks taste the landscape and speak the language, to immerse themselves in this place.

Indeed, my friends re-create the place with their language, and maybe, themselves, if only for a few days.  Before too long, riders talk about "the ranch" as if it were their home.  They use words like, "below sea level", and "Badwater", "dry heat", and "hydration."  They'll say, "Jubilee" as if it's a grand celebration... and it kind of is, once they get beyond the 40-some miles of road, and the 6 mile climb to get there.  They'll talk of goals and reaching them, of pushing beyond and testing and realizing limits.  They'll become versed--if they aren't already--in road riding terms like "car back", and "on your left"and "single file" and "SAG."  Most poignantly, they'll be familiar with the language of Type 1 Diabetes: of lows and highs, and CGMs, of pumps, and insulin and all manner of terminology I have embarrassingly not yet learned.

Atop Jubilee Pass, just before descending.  (2007)

Mostly, my friends (and those who I have not yet met) will have a weekend they will carry with them for a long time to come.  Friends who have traveled there for numerous years will, I imagine, taste the landscape in both familiar and new ways.  Though they are a tad more versed, they will have another moment in this place that is uniquely created by the landscape and by the people there. Those who are new to the place will need a few days afterward, I imagine, to really understand it, as they reflect on the landscape, when they contrast it to wherever they call home.

I imagine, and hope, that someday I will get back there too.  But for this year, I will remain in my own place in Michigan.  I will feel the tentative fall Midwestern sun on my skin, as I taste the overly-confident desert sun in my imagination.  In this moment, I send along my wishes to my team, in hopes that they learn to taste the landscape in new ways this year, and to come back with stories of triumph and, of course, bike face.  And most importantly, I hope that they continue to do what they do best:  to ride to cure Type 1 Diabetes.  I will surely be in that landscape in spirit.