Death in the Mountains: Breathless and Quivering

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver,filling every pore and cell of us….

– John Muir

The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. So, if you cannot understand that…that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.

-Sir George Leigh Mallory, 1922

Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.

– Junko Tabei  after becoming the first woman to climb Everest in 1975


I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come?

Psalm 121:1, New American Standard Bible


It took me months to figure out, but finally I got it two Sundays ago when some friends and I were training hard on Mt. Diablo.  We were on our second ascent of the mountain that day, when yet another cyclist wearing a Death Ride jersey, whizzed by.

“Are you gonna get the jersey, Lauren?” my friend asked.

Breathless, I moaned, “They’re not even attractive!”   We both laughed at the obnoxious skull-and-cross-bones graphic, the loud purple and green colors.  And that’s when it clicked…

“This entire ride,” I declared, “the route, the advertisements, the hype, the jersey,  is testosterone at its most adolescent!”  My friend laughed again, which made sense since he’s a he.  I, however, was mesmerized by what had just come out of my mouth.  Images of teen males laughing at gapping wounds freshly acquired from a skateboard crash, or other stunt-related wipe-out, flashed through my mind.  Why, in the name of all things Holy, had I fallen for this ride?

The Death Ride (yes, that’s its real name) is an annual ride which happens on the second Saturday of July.  It’s open to the first 2000 registrants who are insane enough to sit at their computer on a random morning in December and submit their contact information and credit card digits before the event is full, typically within 2 hours.

The 129-mile ride happens south of Lake Tahoe and consists of bicycling up 5 mountain passes in one day, the cumulative elevation being 15,000 feet.

14,000 feet in the Andes, 2006

After registering in previous years, and then chickening out, I found new resolve last December; and since April, I’ve been training methodically.  Did I just put “I” and, “methodically” in the same sentence?  The training was really fun…until it wasn’t, which was about 6 weeks ago.   I was riding a tough route and struggling significantly with the climbs, realizing that the Death Ride would be asking even more of me.  But I had nothing more to give.  How could I possibly do it?  What had I been thinking?

I spent the next week fearful and depressed.  I began toying with idea of giving myself permission to NOT do the ride.  But that felt too extreme.  Maybe I needed to focus on finishing 3 mountain passes instead of 5?  And then,Marjorie, my dear friend and riding partner, sent a blog post to my inbox entitled, “Fear and Action.”  I gave it a click….


Anything worth doing, any creative endeavor, any new experience will come with a healthy dose of uncertainty. …Nervous energy is often a signpost that what you’re about to do really matters.” – Jonathan Fields


Thanks, Jonathan.  He’d reminded me of something that I’ve mentioned before about me and the bike, right?  That, for me – and I know I’m not alone here – cycling is a sacred, co-creative and dynamic act; it’s where I meet God in the exponential extremes of mental focus, physical effort, nature’s ecstasy, spiritual surrender …and meteorological surprise.

“Yes, dammit!” I admitted it.

“Of Course!” I heard myself say.  “If I finish this bloody ride, I’m going to get the bloody jersey.”

But I can’t ride this ride the way it’s been advertised.  At the age of 40, I’m only slightly less intimidated than I was as a teen, of testosterone at its most adolescent.  While I believe in the validity of, “channeling my inner 17 year old male,” and no doubt will during some insanely steep grade this Saturday,  the way I found my way out of the “fear swamp” a few weeks ago, was to figure out how to ride the Death Ride MY way.

The Andes - 12,000 ft

Riding my way is to ride with my Mother, the Great Mother.  Ah!  Suddenly, my training turned a corner.  I began each ride more relaxed, I softened toward the strength already in my being, and it’s hunger to grow when I call on the kind of rider I really want to be: She who Rides with The Mother.  Afterall, who but She knows better, the bends in the road?  Who, if not She, is the peak and plummet creating Monitor, Ebbetts and Carson Passes.


The Andes, 10,000 ft

It is She who receives the afternoon sun, thunder or hail with neutral appropriation,  and She  who decorates her slopes with trees, wildflowers, and beings in flight.  This Saturday, with every oxygen-limited breath I can remember, I will tap Her wisdom; I will channel her Strength; I will ask for Her Grace; and I will ride with Her at my side – breathless and quivering – for as long as I can.


Death Ride, 2012


Blessing Bicycles: worship and tongue-tied reverence


When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the the future of the human race.

-H.G. Wells

When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments.  Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man.  And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became.  Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others….

-ElizabethWest, Hovel in the Hills

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.

– SusanB. Anthony 1896


A good friend took me to task after my March post, “Lauren!” he emailed instantly, “You forgot Bicycles!  ‘Bike,’ begins with ‘B’!”


Gadzooks, it does!  How could I blog about Boys, Births and Bees and fail to mention my true love, the B-i-k-e???  Worry not.  I was simply waiting for May, National Bike Month.  I figured a month devoted to the two-wheeled machine would help couch my enthusiasm.  The honest truth is:  I feel self-conscious about my love for the bike.  It’s just so….extreme.


I say “the” bike, because, while I love my bike(s), it is the act of biking itself combined with all that a bike might represent (freedom, whimsy, courage, speed, economic brilliance, strength, efficiency, community, fun) that renders me breathless and tongue-tied.  It’s not unusual, when trying to explain what goes on for me with a bike, to begin weeping and just shrug in surrender.  Once upon a time, I felt this way about singing.  And I think it IS this way with our yogas — the practices that unite us with Spirit, God, the Great Mystery.


Direct experiences, those so sacred they don’t readily lend themselves to description, are a blessing in today’s communication-laden world; and our “divine charge,” if you will, is to embrace them.  So, to celebrate National Bike Month, I partnered with other cities across the U.S. and called upon my friends at the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and the City of Berkeley to create Berkeley’s First-ever Blessing of Bicycles.


Blessing of Bicycles, 5/5/2012

I began my thoughts with the quotes above and the words of Martin Buber who wrote, “God made so many different kinds of people: why would God allow only one way to worship?”  Those gathered, instantly got it.  Looking around the circle of cyclists – racers bedecked in their sponsor-graffitied spandex, and fathers pedaling their Extracycles with toddlers in tow – heads were nodding in consensus.


Renee Rivera, ED of the East Bay Bike Coalition, reminded us that while we were gathering to bless our bikes that, in truth it is our bikes that bless us.  Are we, on our rides, awake to the blessings they offer?


Renee Rivera & Mayor Tom Bates

I was transported, in that moment, to a workshop I’d facilitated two weekends before where I’d invited participants to use magazine pictures to collage an image of God.  The workshop was nearly over, with ten minutes remaining, when in walks Jack. Jack, I’m guessing, was in was, his mid 60s and looked about 49.  He was vibrant, with twinkling eyes and an enormous smile.  “Is this the ‘Million Faces of God’ session?” he beamed.


“Yes, it is,” I welcomed him, “Perhaps you’d like to see if there are a few pictures on the table here that describe your image of God?  I don’t want to rush you, but the rest of us are about to share.”


Resting his bike helmet on the floor, Jack set about to find an image in the first magazine he saw.  And then, while others shared ornate collages with intricate, twisting descriptions of God imagery and theology, Jack asked if he could speak next.   With a soft, pleased delight he offered the back cover of Bicycling magazine; it was an ad from New Belgium Brewery, where a young woman is standing near her cruiser bike and a frothy stein of beer.  Technicolor trees and birds swirl about.


“This picture,” he said somewhat shyly, “is an image of God.”  And then gaining confidence, “I bike everyday and from my bike, I see people and things I wouldn’t see in a car traveling at speed.  I go more slowly on my bike – slow enough to smell, appreciate.  I can make eye contact and smile at the world going by.  And this beer…(he sighs)… Well, I don’t drink except at communion on Sunday, but this glass just reminds me of the Eucharist and ties it altogether.”


Thank you, Jack.  I really couldn’t say it any better.  The words I would use are different, and they might be reflected in some of the interfaith blessings you’ll capture if you watch the video link below.  The late Carl Sagan, in his own way, offered a bike blessing with these words, “If constellations had been names in the 20th century, I suppose we would see bicycles.”


Happy May!  If you haven’t done it for awhile, dust off your handlebars and go for a pedal – ride to the park, the market, visit a friend.  And if cycling doesn’t do it for you, then lean into the practice that rapts your attention – is it gardening or hiking?  Meditation, cooking, music-making or prayer?  Fall in love.  Do it now.


Bikes & Cyclists, duly blessed

You can watch highlights of Berkeley’s First-ever Blessing of Bicycles here:

Please NOTE: the video is 13 minutes long and I would recommend advancing to the following highlights: 1) minutes 1&2 –  curious individuals gathering, 2) minute 3 – Mayor Bates offering his whimsical blessing, 3) minutes 5:30-11:30 – clips of interfaith clergy extending blessings.