Day 47: What a beautiful ugly place

Start and finish: Off trail in Mountain View

Mountain View is reliably sunny and hot in the summer, and today was no exception. While the weather is idyllic for me and it was good to get outside, I was longing for the pristine beauty I’d been spoiled with over the past month. The California coast is stunning, but it’s more than an hour away – usually longer on the weekend when traffic builds up. The Diablo Mountains have a few great spots tucked into the folds of the hills, but they are also about an hour’s drive. The closer parks in Los Altos and San Jose also have their corners of magnificence, but it’s hard to evade the sounds of traffic and guns popping at nearby shooting ranges. And in Mountain View proper, the only real options are the wetlands at the south end of the bay and the concrete canal – misleading named Stevens Creek – that cuts through the suburbs and empties into the bay.

The creek and wetlands aren’t bad by any measure, but they also aren’t great either; they are simultaneously beautiful and awful. The views over the flat squares of water trapped in dikes is expansive, but the fetid shores are lined with trash. The avian life is diverse – white herons strike yoga poses as they wait for the moment to strike, terns dive bomb overhead for unseen prey – but I can’t shake the thought that they’re nesting in waters that leech TCE, a carcinogenic chemical used to clean jet engines between runs. The spires of electrical lines fade gracefully out of view into the haze of evaporation, but they block the yellow eastern hills and remind me I’m in a sprawling city. The landscape is aesthetically pleasing while also being an eyesore, transfixing while being repulsive – in short, it’s a well-executed manmade ecosystem, but artificial nonetheless.

This is where Ansel and I spent our morning, cycling around the southern shores of the San Francisco Bay. Our ride started on paved bike paths cutting north from downtown Mountain View toward the bay. Ansel, who has a much better bike than me and is in much better biking shape, would cruise ahead while I furiously pedaled on my mountain bike with its thick, friction-heavy tires to catch up. When we got up to the city golf course and a small lake, a favorite stopover for migrating Canadian geese, we turned east and hugged the water’s edge. To our left was the bay with its duality of nature and development tied up like a Gordian knot. To our right was the massive Hangar One – once a military depot for naval planes, then a NASA property, and now on lease to a subsidiary of Google – and a private golf course formerly managed by NASA.

The exercise was good, and I relished the challenges that we encountered, thirsty for some semblance of adventure. The biking track was rough and rocky – fine for me on my mountain bike but very difficult for anyone with a road bike – and I criss-crossed the road looking for the clearest path in the gravel. The wind whipped past, cooling us slightly in the unbroken sunlight but also providing constant slight assistance on the way out. I periodically closed my eyes, feeling the heat of the sun on my skin.

After more than 10 miles, we stopped and decided to go back. My legs were feeling great and I could have kept going; indeed, there was a part of me that just wanted to continue for hours. I had just gotten to the point where my muscles were straining, a low burn in my quads, and my brain interpreted this not as pain but as the twisted pleasure of accomplishment. It didn’t matter where we ended up or what hills we crested. It didn’t matter how many miles we rode or what speed we went. What mattered was that I was working, moving, pushing myself, and I had desperately missed this feeling while I was resting.

Ansel and I took the rest of the afternoon off to enjoy the calm that comes after a good workout. I was content with the company and playing video games, but the bike ride had spurred in me a restlessness, stirred in me sensory memories of what it was like in the wilderness, and the verisimilitude of nature that I had seen today hadn’t satisfied me. I knew I should rest over the next couple days before I returned to the trail, but it was going to be hard to hold myself back from exercising. Something deep inside me was letting out a primal scream: Run. Anywhere. Now.


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