The Secret to Eternal Life, From Singletrack Mind: Finding Wisdom and the Poetry of Life on Two Wheels

Janne Tjärnström mountain biking in Riksgränsen, Sweden. Photo by Mattias Fredriksson.

The following essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Singletrack Mind: Finding Wisdom & the Poetry of Life on Two Wheels, by Albert Flynn DeSilver. You can pre-order a copy of the book, featuring additional inspired essays and stunning photos by Mattias Fredriksson, here.

What if you only had 411 days to live? Every sensate entity on this planet has its number, but no one knows what it is. Is it too easy to ask: Who would you spend those days with? How would you make those days yours? Where would you land?

You would find me riding the remote high mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, California, where few other riders dare to venture: devoting the full day; gobbling up an insane amount of vertical, both up and down (preferably down); stumbling upon rare ancient Western red cedars, oddly chubby Jeffrey pines, and striated and twisted pinyons weathered back into stone; listening to the mournful echoing call of the Clark’s nutcracker fill the hollows of my torso. You would find me riding with a dear friend, one who pushed me past my comfort zone into fresh domains of physicality far beyond what I thought I was capable of, not to mention what feels safe to do on a bicycle at my age. That was Chrissy.

Chrissy’s default setting in such an environment was always the smile, the connection, the nerve-singed ridiculousness of riding at the edge of your abilities. He sported a mop of wiry hair, a week’s growth of salt-and-pepper beard, and old Brooks Brothers button-downs. Post-ride, he could be found kicked back in a pair of tartan pajamas, maybe a fresh button-down, ratty slippers, and a cold beer in his lap.

John Muir wrote: We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. One day in July 2020, during the height of the pandemic, my nerves certainly crackled and my cells filled with giddy anticipation when Chrissy and I decided to set out with a couple of other friends for a thirty-mile epic ride in the Lake Tahoe, California backcountry. We started by burning miles of dirt road, then entered a singletrack wormhole along a narrow, exposed ridge. After hunkering down in some weathered sugar-pine krummholz for a snack, we jumped back on the bikes and set off deeper into the backcountry.

We followed beautifully tame and sweeping old ribbons of singletrack from one high mountain saddle to the next. We flowed through sparsely forested side slopes, rocky ridges, open south-facing meadows of mule’s ears and dying yellow mustard flowers. We’d topped out around another ridge to be met with sweeping views of the lake in its entirety. Around every corner we gasped in awe and of course smiled at the vastness and scale, the rolling hazy blue-green vistas, stretching out to South Lake and the Mokelumne Wilderness beyond. We rode on through meadow after meadow, mule’s ears slapping our calves, mountain mint stinging our noses, purple clover and Indian paintbrush splattering our eyes. We descended a couple of rocky stair-step switchbacks of sturdy crushed granite, the trail unfurling into threads of pure bliss rippling into the sun. Then we’d swivel into speedy, rolling grade reversals that provided ample double-helix flow, turn the next ridge’s corner and enter a technical shale traverse: out of the saddle, up on the pedals, alert to chunky twists, turns, and drops.

roll across a sea of scree
clink, clack, hollow clock of rock
clouds open wide & sigh

Midafternoon light, clouds dissolving into faint wisps, the lake edge glistening turquoise and sage-green along the white sandy beaches thousands of feet below. Then we were back in the dense Jeffrey, sugar, and ponderosa pine sprinkled with white fir and an occasional high elevation stand of aspen. After a series of vast open flowy traverses, we were in for a three-thousand-foot drop back down to the lake via chundery trail of russet volcanic igneous-rock clumps, dusty switchbacks, blind rollovers, and fast sections of trail, where we swooped and wove through the forest at unreasonable speeds.

We were like a pair of kestrels dropping from the high canopy, our wings tucked in tight. All the while, Chrissy was behind me yelling out nice line!, yes, man!, faster, motherfucker, faster!, and, most poetically of all, I’m gonna ram you! We finally let the brakes go, trusting the terrain, pushing the comfort level of speed and control toward beautiful reckless abandon, the adrenalin boiling through our veins like a warm drug.

Chrissy then took the lead and charged ahead at Mach 5, churning up dust-halo billows and mythic sun-splintered ghost-shadows he’d then get swallowed by. Trees flipped by like wind-flipped pages of a book. The birds cheered us on—the Clark’s nutcracker, Steller’s jay, dark-eyed junco, and red-tailed hawk—all screaming faster, faster, faster!

We finally came to a flat saddle and a rest point, where I hopped off my still-moving bike and let it roll into the bushes as I gasped for sweet air and collapsed trailside in fits of laughter. It was as if we’d gotten away with an epic heist and were bathing in obscene riches, as if we’d discovered the secret to eternal life. In such a celebratory blaze of glorious living, it never occurred to me that we were also pedaling ecstatically toward the uncertain mystery of death.

for Chris Geiger (1961-2021)

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