Set Fair

Last week I had dokusan with Fu, which is a way for me to check in about my practice, and stay accountable with Zen Center. The last time I met with her in December my mood was a little fragile, and I felt unsure about several aspects of my life. As I thought about the things that have happened since then, and the internal shifts I have made, it was a salutary reminder that moods are no more stable than the weather.
Our little corner of California has been sunny and warm for some time now – though the temperatures dropped a notch on Sunday as I discovered to my cost when I went riding in the morning and wished I had thought of winter gloves and a hat – and my disposition has also been good. The weather is a contributing factor for that, without a doubt; the fact that I could ride around in shorts, T-shirts and espadrilles most of last week gave me a real sense of ease.
There is also the fact that I have been house-sitting for a couple of weeks, and the part of Berkeley I am in is conveniently close to where I work, and to a couple of friends, so I have been enjoying rides on streets that are basically traffic-free – quite a contrast to my rides around San Francisco on the whole.
Another factor is that there are two dogs and five cats as part of the household I am taking care of. After the longish ride over the East Bay Hills on Sunday, which I have only ridden a couple of times before (though it was also where I spent some time helping with filming a couple of years ago – and I was also very aware again of how covering the terrain on a bike leaves a much deeper impression than driving it), I spent most of the day on the couch watching football with two cats lying on me and two dogs next to me – I could not help but be relaxed.
There are other things which are going well also; I am being more sociable than usual, and that feels good. No doubt the rain will come again (California certainly needs it), but I will enjoy this fair weather while it lasts (just typing out the words brought that old-loved song to mind).

I took my camera with me to Green Gulch when I went to see Fu, hoping for blossoms. It was a certainly a fine morning:



What I think about when I am riding

My usual cycling route out of the city takes me to the Panhandle, the first part of Golden Gate Park, and then Arguello north to the Presidio, and on to the bridge. A couple of years ago, I noticed that most early mornings there were two lines of people at different parts of Arguello. The first was outside a relatively non-descript bakery that won an award for having the best croissants, though whether that was in the Bay Area, or all of California, I don’t really know. The people waiting were young, on the whole, and looking at their phones as they waited their turn in line (very similar to lines at well-reviewed places elsewhere in the city).
Just a few blocks further north, the line of people skewed much older, mostly Asian-American women leaning on their wheeled shopping carts, outside St John’s church, where boxes of food were being brought in and then distributed.
I have often thought about the nearness of these two very disparate waitings and what it says about the current state of the city; more recently I have observed that the line for croissants is generally shorter now, while the line for donated food is just as long as ever.

After a dry December, we have had a decent amount of rain in January, and in between the showers, the skies have been blue and the air clear. The wind has come down from the north, which makes riding out over the bridge more of a struggle; one morning it felt as  if I had not drunk my pre-ride coffee – of course the payback on the way home is quite a sweet relief. I have been climbing a lot of hills this month; after making use of my friend’s car to revisit a favourite ride on the Peninsula, up King’s Mountain, down Skyline, out to San Gregorio and back up Tunitas Creek, I wanted to follow up with the two great climbs up the back of Tam, from the Bolinas side, and the Fairfax side via Alpine Dam. Both rides felt hard, and I had less energy than I wanted, but it was still great to try them. I also enjoyed the pockets of warm and cool air: at Richardson Bay, not flooded this time, it was cold enough for frost on the bridge planking; a few miles further north in Ross, a large magnolia was already blossoming in vivid purple; through the shaded tree-covered slopes, a sense of dampness; on the south side of the mountain, almost balmy warmth – all so close together, and yet so different, all making part of the interdependent whole.

What I Think About When I Am Riding

After being sick for a couple of weeks in the middle of the month (which set in the day I pushed myself to ride up Tam in the morning, and then went to Allison’s shuso ceremony in the afternoon), it was nice to have some time to get out during Christmas week and get some miles on the bike. The weather has remained alarmingly dry, and just a touch chilly; on one of my outings I was chatting on the way out of the city with someone who was visiting from DC, and on the way back, with someone who was visiting from Minnesota, and both of them were very happy to be back in California (I also heard from a friend who went running in Maine in 12 degree weather).

I had suspected that the hardest part of riding three times in the space of a week would be the slight tedium of following the same route out of the city, over the bridge (though tedium is not the word for that on any level), through Sausalito and along the bike path to Mill Valley – which is basically the first and last hour of a ride into Marin. On Boxing Day I took a right turn at the end of that and headed down to Tiburon under bright blue skies. On the Thursday I took a left and climbed over to Four Corners, down past Green Gulch and Muir Beach, and then back up the Muir Woods road, which I pushed myself hard enough on to really wear myself out. On New Year’s Eve I was heading for Terra Linda and Sleepy Hollow, which makes for a fairly easy four-hour ride without many hills.

What I had not reckoned on was the tides. I knew that there was a full moon coming round, but when I got to the beginning of the bike trail, it was under water. This is not a new thing, but I hadn’t experienced it for a while, and the level was worse than anything I remember for the last few years. On the first little stretch you can duck behind the shops and cafe, but after that, the only alternative would be riding on the freeway shoulder (and I have seriously contemplated that before). There were at least five submerged sections, some of which just covered my rims, but a couple of them were deep and long enough that I had to keep pedalling, and water seeped into my shoes… Apart from that discomfort, it is quite beautiful in a way, with Mount Tam reflected in the almost endless water across Richardson Bay and the marshes (this is a picture that represents the scene well), and egrets and wading birds making merry all around.
I got to thinking how optimistic so much of the infrastructure in California is; the trail is the old railway line, which presumably was raised a little higher, and probably was rarely stopped by the high tides. Further along highway 1, there is the constant entropy of landslides and slippages, which have meant some sections I like to ride are still closed after last winter’s rains. Much of the New Year’s ride was on the course of old rail tracks – once over Camino Alto, I took the path towards Larkspur, and then the tunnel to San Rafael, and then the cutting north to Terra Linda, where the restored rail line tunnels under, and the 101 gouges out the slopes.
On the return leg, the water had receded enough that there was mostly jetsam, though I did misjudge the depth of a pool as I came off the curb at a side road, and had a real jolt. Crossing the bridge with a nice tail wind, for once I was not wondering about what would happen if a large earthquake struck while I was mid-way across.

I thought about earthquakes again on New Year’s Day. Last year I had woken early and gone for a ride downtown before there was any traffic, taking roads I would normally avoid – Mission into the city, California out towards the ocean, Geary back. This year I went up Masonic, in on California, looped back via Columbus, over Mason and back home on Market. It was a misty morning as I made my way from Corona Heights to Laurel Heights, Russian Hill and Nob Hill – plenty of climbing to get my heart pumping. I had a chance to get views that I do not normally see, and imagined, as I passed the old mansions at the top of Nob Hill before the rapid descent to the Financial District, what it must have been like for the citizens in 1906 to stand at the top and look down on the devastation. I had the feeling, as I often do in this country that the city is just a thin skin on a long deep natural history.

The Weather Changes, The Clocks Change

It was ninety degrees the day I left San Francisco at the end of September, and ninety degrees the day I after I returned a couple of  weeks ago. My body had already navigated from the pleasant weather of Portugal to the storm-force winds of my last weekend in England, and then across eight time zones, but I could not have asked for better conditions to come back to.

As part of cranking myself back to fitness, the day after I got back I took myself off for a gentle ride down to Ocean Beach, just to remind my legs about pedalling, and to enjoy sweltering; on the Friday morning I took a spin around the Headlands, and found the bridge sitting on a bed of iridescent fog in the low-angled sun. Photographers were having a field day, and I enjoyed the contrasts between the warm slopes and the fresh valley bottoms, where the mist lingered before the sun rose high enough to burn it off.

And since typical weather systems in San Francisco tend to last five days, it was not a surprise when temperatures dropped at the end of that week, something else for my body to adapt to. On the Saturday I ran up to Mount Sutro, and found the usual divide between sun on the lee side of the hills, and dense fog in the woods on the ocean side. On the Sunday morning I intended to ride around the city, but the fog was so damp and pervasive I couldn’t bring myself to do it – remembering that it was exactly a week since I had put off running due to the challenging wind – and instead spent the morning finishing the editing of the thousand or so pictures from Europe. I made up for it last Monday morning, though navigating the rush hour is never completely stress-free, and I had a terse interaction with a driver about speeding through Golden Gate Park, when I would rather have been watching a coyote disappearing into the bushes with a raccoon in its mouth.

The forecast for this past weekend was not promising enough to schedule a roam, much to my disappointment; in the end, there was not so much rain about. I took a run over the southern folds of the city to Diamond Heights and back through the bare slopes of Glen Canyon on Saturday, and headed south on my bike to San Bruno Mountain on Sunday morning, under clear skies both times, the low sun warm, the autumnal breezes fresh.

When I went to join Zachary for the lunch-time sitting last Monday, I found the shadows under the olive tree had got much longer, and for the first time, rather wished I had been sitting in the sun, as the wind was a little fresh (not enough to actually move to a different cushion though). The shadows will be an hour further along when we are sitting today, and hopefully the sun will feel pleasant. If you are local, you are welcome to come and join us, and every dry Monday over the winter.


What I think about when I am riding

As it happens, during the weeks leading up to my second trip to England this year, some of my focus was on the same things as prior to the first trip in April. I rode straight up Tam the day after the Genzo-e finished in August, and, as in the spring, it felt okay. I wrote to a friend that the ride reminded me of the days after sesshin at Tassajara, when I would run up to the top of the road, just to get out of the valley, and to give myself a physical challenge of a different order to sitting on a cushion incessantly for however many days it had been.

And so I thought about trying to ride up Mount Diablo before I left. Since my weekends these are often filled with things that don’t involve riding a bike – albeit lovely things like going to Wilbur, and leading roams – I realised that even from a relatively decent base of fitness, it was going to be hard to get enough meaningful rides in over the remaining few weeks to be able to get up Diablo without hurting too much.
I repeated the rides I had done in the spring, the typical rides I do when I want to get some climbing in my legs. There was a bonus in that the Bolinas-Fairfax road had opened again, after eighteen months of shoring up various parts of the hillside, so I had to opportunity to approach the seven sisters from both sides.
One thing I did not have to worry about, unlike last time, was the weather. There were rare thunderstorms and unseasonal rain a couple of weeks ago, but the weekend was warm and very clear once that faint autumnal chill had worn off.

It is one thing to contemplate riding up a mountain, and of course another thing to do it. It was only riding along the arroyo between the North Gate and the State Park boundary sign, where the climbing starts, that I felt fully on board with what was happening. And then there was an hour and more of continuous uphill to remind me of how real it was.
Overall, I felt better and stronger than than I might have expected. Knowing the climb well enough, I took care to manage my legs, and my intake of food and water, trying to stay relaxed as possible. There was an occasional twinge in my left knee that is new, and that I did not want to exacerbate. I did not expect the breeze to cool down quite so radically in the top half of the climb – I was almost tempted to put on my extra layer which I had brought for the descent, but conditions were pretty good, and the mountain felt quiet – which made for an unfettered descent down the more exhilarating South Gate Road.

And what was I thinking about? Actually, the Brahamviharas popped into my head as I passed someone around the 1000′ i also think it’s worth saying…elevation marker, where the road rears up a little. I feel a great kinship with anyone who is on a bike on the mountain, however much of it they are riding, so lots of loving-kindness, along with the nods, the little waves, and the encouraging words; compassion for those who seem to be struggling more than I am; sympathetic joy for those many riders who look strong on the uphill, and fluid on the descent; equanimity to endure all the differing gradients on the road up, and the giddiness of the long road down.

What I think about when I am riding

Holidays are a good time to go riding. I had a lovely time early on New Year’s Day taking streets in the city I would never normally think to ride on (I wondered if I had written about it at the time, but looking through the archive of the month drew a blank – though I enjoyed reading a couple of other pieces I had forgotten about). Since I was awake at first light on the 4th, it seemed a good time to repeat the exercise.
It had seemed pretty quiet in town when I got back on Monday, and it was even more so on Tuesday. I went up to Twin Peaks via Market Street, which I have not done since my earliest days in the city when I did not know the quieter side roads (Corbett or Roosevelt in this case), down to the zoo, and then around the coastal edge of the city all the way to Mission Bay and Cesar Chavez (which is okay to ride on now it has a bike lane, though the lights are poorly timed to make it enjoyable). The volume of traffic was very low – in both meanings of the word: I rolled down Potrero (another road I would usually avoid) able to hear birds, conversations of people getting of buses, and the click of my gears. Those drivers who were out seemed to be less stressed and in less of a hurry than on a regular day, and I could not help but wish it were always like this. The only crowds were around Fisherman’s Wharf, where the tourists were already out and about at eight.
The following morning I went over the bridge, through Mill Valley and tested my meagre climbing legs on the roads up to Four Corners, and after descending to Muir Woods, back up past Green Gulch where the highway is now open again, having been closed all year so far (the other stretch north of Muir Beach is still closed, so the traffic was all local, and there were fewer cars than usual). There were two places where the new embankment work could be seen, and others where cracks in the road showed that previous shoring up jobs looked like they already needed repair. On the way down to Tam Junction, there was work on one of the lower hairpins, which meant I didn’t get the clear fast descent I had hoped for – though I did have that going down to Muir Woods. Returning through Sausalito, I fell in with a guy commuting into the city, who turned out to have grown up less than fifty miles from where I did in the Home Counties, and we had a nice natter until I decided not to push too hard to keep up with him on the way up to the bridge.
The highlight of both outings was when I was rolling along the top of Twin Peaks, enjoying the new road surface (I could write at length about how much of a difference this can make to a cyclist on skinny tyres), and I saw two coyotes standing close to the road. I started to wonder how this compared to seeing a bobcat at Wilbur on Sunday, before dismissing the idea of needing to compare. Anytime you see a bobcat is auspicious; I have seen a number of coyotes in the city, but never two together like that. And even if I was in the city rather than a glorious remote valley, I still got to ride alongside the Pacific Ocean and pass both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the course of less than an hour. I think my compatriot would agree – it is pretty amazing that I get to live here, and sometimes I do pinch myself to remember that it is real.

What I think about when I am riding

There is a well-known zen story I was reminded of this weekend. Here is one version – other versions have the same narrative but a different number of horses…

It is warm enough in San Francisco at the moment that I am having trouble sleeping – trying to balance staying cool with being exposed to the mosquitos who make themselves heard and felt overnight. The day after the solstice roam, I was awake around 4 am; that didn’t bother me too much as I wanted to get out and ride early. I set off around 6:15, and the sun was already shining and starting to heat up the city; it was beautifully quiet, perfect conditions for a ride.
The roam had been wonderful – well-attended, and apart from managing to make it to Land’s End in time to sit and watch the sun melt into the tranquil ocean, we had seen a large pod of whales breaching and blowing as they passed under the bridge, a memorable spectacle at any time. The only downside for me was that I had inadvertently left the house with my glasses in my pocket, and having put them in my bag, they had dropped out, and I guessed it was when I put another layer on after the sunset.
Starting out on my bike, still feeling a little tired from the walking and getting to bed a little late by my current standards, I decided that since the ride was just a general leg-stretching effort,  I might as well head down to the place where we had sat just in case they were still there, so I rode through the park to 23rd, then took Geary west, marveling that not a single car passed me in the twenty-five blocks to Seal Rock Road. When I got to the spot we had been, they were indeed sitting in the dust. I shared my good fortune with a couple of passers-by, who were enjoying the early morning sun streaming through the trees, and was thinking of heading back to the bridge for my intended loop of Paradise Drive. Putting my glasses in the back pocket of my cycling jersey with a feeling of satisfaction, I had a horrible realisation – my wallet was no longer where I had stuffed it on the way out of the house.
As I had rolled along JFK in the park, closed to traffic as always on a Sunday, I had been cleaning my glasses with my base layer, and had heard a slight noise, as if I had run over a flattened paper cup, and didn’t think to look round or check, but now I assumed it was my wallet dropping out of my pocket. The only time I can remember this happening before was in my first couple of years in San Francisco: I had ridden up Mount Tam, and in those days there was a pay phone at the summit (we are talking almost two decades ago now…) I had made a call and then descended towards Fairfax on the Bolinas – Fairfax Road, a lovely quiet stretch with some great descents and climbs. In Fairfax I thought I should stop for a coffee to help get me home; reaching for my wallet, I discovered it was not there, and with a heavy heart and equally heavy legs I set off back up the mountain, where I found it, most of the way up the climb from Alpine Dam to the Ridgecrest, sitting squarely on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road.
With a little more urgency in my pedaling than I had managed thus far, I rode back to the park to scan the road between 23rd and the deYoung, which is where I remembered hearing the sound. Nothing. Some park workers were already cleaning up yesterday’s rubbish, so I asked them for help, and they directed me to the park ranger station on the edge of the park. I stopped in there, and the adjacent police station, where I was also directed to the Richmond police station.
Having ridden around and made three reports, I didn’t want to continue with my original route – mainly thinking I should get back and cancel the two cards that were in the wallet – but I also felt compelled to ride back to Geary and Land’s End just in case it had actually fallen out later.
My mood was not desperate or even that despondent; mostly a little fatalistic in that I was expecting to have lost all the cash that was in the wallet (including all the dana from the roam, I had about $150 in there, much more than I generally carry, but because of the late arrival home and early start I had not thought to take most of it out), and that I would to deal with the calls to the card companies – and then I also thought about the DMV…
In any case, there was nothing to be seen anywhere I had been, so I rode down past the Cliff House and came back through the park – once again scanning the surface in that stretch of road, still to no avail. It was warming up, but still early, so I took the fast spin down Oak to catch the string of lights from Stanyan to Webster, and then, since I had a little energy left, I took my once-regular climb of Liberty Hill from 20th, over the top on Sanchez, then along 22nd to the top of Collingwood.
Once back at home, checking online that nothing had been done with the cards at least, I called my credit union and my English bank, told the story to my room-mate, and reflected on how I could use the experience as part of my teaching on equanimity this week – if I was not entirely equanimous, I would say that I had tipped more towards joy in finding the cheap glasses than towards despair at losing a sum of money I could have done with to make this month a little more comfortable than recent ones have been.

And then, as I was in the process of typing this story out, I got an email from a woman saying she had found the wallet, intact, and could I call her. It turned out she was local but had been in a hurry to get her son to a baseball game in the East Bay, and apologised for not being in touch sooner (among the other items in the wallet were some of my business cards, of course). So it was, at the end of the hot afternoon, I was back on my bike riding up to a large Victorian just north of the Panhandle, where I was given back my wallet, in exchange for which I offered my last jar of Zen Center honey which I have had for a while as a potential gift, just waiting for the right occasion.

As a kind of coda, last night I rode out to the Seacliff end of the Land’s End trail to take a photo of the beautiful views there, and saw plenty of whale blowing – here with Mount Tam as the backdrop.