Years ago, a newspaper photographer snapped this photo of me making my way up the road to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain, the peak of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Sometimes, it speaks in ways or languages that don’t make sense with mere words.
For me, this photo is a memory of an absolutely surreal moment. My daughter, the one who got stuck with more of my genetic material than any of my other kids, had kept me up for most of the night before. Finally, at about 7 a.m., my wife and I had what is still today the most awful argument of our marriage. We were exhausted and drained, emotionally, physically — every way imaginable.
Rendezvous Mountain had been on my bucket list for a lot of years. Sure, I’d done plenty of road bike hill climbs before, but I’d never done a mountain bike hill climb. I always wanted to give this one a shot. So when I looked up at the clock and realized there was still time to make the race, I looked back at my wife and said, “Can we go?”
For reasons beyond my comprehension, she said yes.
Now, a little background: I’d been having trouble with my position on the bike. Really, I’d just been swindled by some goofball on the internet who talked me into messing around with my clipless pedal setup. So I’d decided, “Forget it — I’m just going with platform pedals for this one.” If you’re not a cyclist, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. If you know anything about climbing steep gradients on a mountain bike, you understand that was a mistake of epic proportions.
But a few hours later, we arrived at the event. It was a hot day with a bright, blue sky. I paid my $20, collected my number and went to warm up … as if anyone needs to warm up when it’s already 90 degrees out. At some point in my warm up, my front tire skidded out from under me and I went down hard on my knee. It was bloodied and sore, but I’d just drug my wife and children on a two-hour drive and paid the $20 to enter the event, so I wasn’t about to abandon.
I lined up with the other racers — the smallest field I’ve ever seen at a cycling race. The race organizers told us to go, and I worked my way up the group. I caught one gal just as the trail got steep, and suddenly, my rear wheel slid out from underneath me. I was walking.
I threw my leg over the saddle, rode past some trees, and there was a wall of radiating dirt in front of me — the steepest quarter-mile pitch of fire road I’d ever set eyes on.
“It’s not possible to ride a bicycle up that,” I thought to myself … just as I watched the rest of the pack ride up it … and then disappear around a switchback.
I pushed and hiked just as another cyclist came up behind me — the only one left. He and I chatted for a minute. Because of work, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle more than once in the past few months, but his wife was in the race, so he felt obligated to do it — but just for fun.
I climbed back on and rode away from him. Eventually, I got to where I could see another rider up ahead of me. Again and again, I’d reach a hot, dusty switchback, lose traction, get off, and start hiking. I’d remount and go again. Switchback after switchback.
By the time I reached the photographer, I was in a state of utter delirium — microwaved from above by the sun and below from the reflection off the bright mountain soil. I managed to keep the pedals turning as the photog caught me in a moment of barefaced agony. Before I got out of sight, I was walking again.
Toward the summit, I finally remounted just in time to ride past my wife as my daughter ran out to see me — and then tripped and fell on her face. But instead of crying, she just stood up, stopped and stared, listening to my fragile breathing.
As I looked closely at her dirtied face, I thought of all of the jerk things I’d said to her mother. And I regretted them, soulfully — viscerally. This little girl deserved better, I told myself.
“I love you,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes as I rode past and meaning it more than I’d ever meant it before.
Moments later, I crossed the finish line. Jill Damman, the racer I’d been chasing, who was just ahead of me, and whose husband I’d ridden with at the beginning of the race, would go on to win the women’s division of LOTOJA just weeks later. The picture at the top of this post, which I requested from the photographer, would end up on the front page of the sports section in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. And although one rider finished behind me, I would be listed as the race’s “maglia nera” or “lantern rouge” — the last finisher — the only time I’ve ever had that distinction, ever.
But for me, when I look at that picture, I think of how deeply I’d scraped and clawed into my soul that day. I think of the version of me who was completely exposed on that mountain that day, the me who loves his wife and daughters so much that he’ll do anything to be better for them. And I think that maybe the person on that bicycle on that mountain telling his daughter he loves her — the person in that picture — was the real, genuine me.