Quick Overnighter

It’s a busy time of year, but I still managed to get in an overnight bikepacking and music trip. I have to make time for these things. I’ve been too much in the company of humans for the last few months and I’ve lost touch with the infinite thread that keeps me grounded, that I only find with sustained physical effort in natural surroundings.

So, I used some of the routes from the good folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle and I pedaled about 70 miles from Morristown to Stokes State Forest. I was mostly on the Patriot’s Path for the first part, which runs the gamut from flowy and smooth to abusive and punishing. Here’s some of the flowy stuff:

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Here’s some of the abusive stuff:

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That kind of singletrack is a blast on a normal mountain bike, but it’s tougher when you’re loaded down. Here’s my rig:

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That photo also shows why some of that singletrack is so slow. Deadfall! Lots of it! We had some big storms this winter and the trails are a mess of deadfall. Some of the riding was on the order of pedal for 30 yards, unclip, lift bike, repeat, repeat, repeat. Slow going, but still way better than doing paperwork . . .

It was also slow going because of the mud:

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I often had to walk around that stuff because I didn’t want to destroy the trail and because it’s nearly impossible to ride through it. Here’s my front tire, getting sucked in:

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At any rate, I had a blast, as you can tell from this photo:

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I just love being out there. I didn’t do any singing this time, but I spent a lot of time listening to the woods and the creatures that live in them. The sounds are just incredible, and so varied, and so nurturing, and so inspiring to me as a composer and improviser. I spent 40 minutes sitting in the dark after the sun went down, out by the lake at Stokes Forest, listening to the frogs. Their individual chirps mass into a drone of phenomenal complexity and ever-changing sonic color. Extraordinary. I fell asleep in my sleeping bag, totally exhausted, my ears ringing with frogs, feeling refreshed and inspired.

The next day I took a slightly shorter route back, for a total of about 135 miles. I only climbed something around 6,000 feet total, so it was pretty mellow, but still a nice outing. Bikepacking in New Jersey is pretty cushy because of the abundance of services, but the singletrack is tough going sometimes. At any rate, I’m super excited about my Sonic 8 adventure this summer in Vermont, and I think I’m basically on track with my training.

Marty’s Fat 50 2018

Every year the good people at Marty’s Reliable Cycle host their “Fat Fifty.” Anyone can sign up for it so long as your tires are at least 3 inches or bigger. The route is an out and back, 25 miles each way, mostly dirt rail trail. Since it’s January in New Jersey the weather can change dramatically and today we were treated with cold (about 25 F), wind, and wet, muddy conditions. Parts of the trails looked like this:

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The result of riding in this kind of muddy water at freezing temps is that your bike freezes up. I had to stop twice to clean out my upper pulley wheel because it had frozen shut. Check out the pictures of all the ice on my bike:

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And here are my shoes, with a covering of muddy ice:

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It was a tough day. I finished in about 5 hours, which was my target. The route this year was mostly flat (the single track section was eliminated because of the heavy rain yesterday) so that meant grinding along in wet, soft dirt at freezing temperatures. If you stopped pedaling you’d drift to a stop in just five feet. It was pretty punishing and my legs were trashed by the end. I rode mostly by myself, enjoying the solitude and the beautiful scenery, though working hard. I wore a heart rate monitor and I was able to keep my HR right around 130 for most of it, which is sort of Zone 2 or 3 for me. Enough to be really working, but sustainable for 5 hours. But I’m wiped out, and tomorrow I’m taking a day off.

I was using my fat bike with 5 inch tires, which were a bit overkill for these conditions, but I cranked them up to 10 psi, so they were pretty hard. I was glad to have the extra width for the big puddles, though.

I enjoyed the challenge, and I was impressed with how good of a job Marty and his crew did in providing a fun environment. They had empanadas, beer, a fire, and a cool hat for schwag. I even got to hang out with Marty, the man himself! I highly recommend this ride.

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Marty’s Fat Fifty birthday training ride

It’s not every day you turn 43, so I decided to challenge myself on my birthday with a 43-mile fat bike snow training ride. Every year the awesome folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle hold a “Fat Fifty” ride in January. It’s 50 miles of snow riding, mostly rail trail, with a few miles of steep single track in the middle a few miles of pavement to get to the trails. You can use whatever bike you want as long as the tires are at least 3″ wide. Mine are 5″, so I’m good to go. I’m signed up for the event in January and I need to start training for it so I jumped on a group ride.

There were about 20 or so people at the start, and we got rolling at 8:00 a.m. sharp. It was wicked cold, at around 19 degrees F (-7.2 C) when we rolled out, with some wind to boot. I kept the mutants at the front in sight for a while, but I felt I was pushing too hard for a training ride, so I settled back after a bit and found myself in a nice group with Greg, Denise, Lisa, Mark, and Barbara. Here are a few of us, all smiles. (All of these pictures are from Denise. My phone froze and wouldn’t work!)

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We stopped at a store about 15 miles in and a woman looked at us and said “you’re crazy!” I laughed and responded with “Yes, but we’re HAPPY!” I get the “crazy” comment a lot, but I think people are completely turned around on that one. Getting to places under one’s own power isn’t crazy, it’s empowering and inspiring and deeply nurturing. What’s crazy is sitting in a car, then sitting at a desk, then sitting in a car, then sitting on a couch, then going to bed. THAT’S crazy in my mind.

But I digress. So we pedaled and pedaled. It looked a lot like this:

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The snow wasn’t deep, but it still required a lot of work to ride. I’ve only had the fat bike about six months and I’ve used it exclusively for short, intense, gnarly single track. This was my first time doing a long, slow grind on rail trails and I found it very tiring. It’s sort of like a trainer workout, though much more dynamic and beautiful with the fresh air and lovely woods. Here’s a shot of Lisa at the top of the one steep climb:

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After several hours we made it Calafon, a small town about 20 miles in. The rest of the crew decided to go the final five miles and then turn around and head home (the route is an out and back), but I needed to get going because I had family commitments, and frankly I was getting tired, so I rode home alone.

Although I love riding with friends and groups, I also love the solitude of being in the woods (or the desert or the mountains) by myself for long periods of time. The ride back was tough, but also transcendent. I was getting sore and tired, but I was also finding my purpose again after a rough few weeks emotionally. I was reminded that it’s the struggle that makes art and life and love and athletics worth it. The process, not the product. Getting my ass kicked on a fat bike in the woods when it’s cold and grey is a beautiful thing. I got up the next morning feeling inspired. I also felt ready to train hard for the Fat Fifty and to put in a good effort on the day. It’s not a race and I could care less if I’m the last one to finish, but I’d like to ride a bit faster than I did on my birthday.

Thanks to Greg, Denise, Lisa, Mark, and Barbara for being fabulous riding mates. And thanks to the great folks at Marty’s for putting together the Fat Fifty. If you’re thinking about riding it I highly recommend it. If you don’t have a fat bike just go down to Marty’s and they’ll help you out. You don’t need a suspension fork for this ride. I have one, but I kept it locked out the entire time. My tire pressure was at 6 psi, but I think that was actually too low for those conditions. It is icy in a few spots, so you’ve got to keep your wits about you, but otherwise it’s a safe and enjoyable ride. (One tip: if you’re using SPDs be sure to keep your multi-tool handy or bring a small screwdriver so you can dig the ice out of them if you need to stop and walk as they’ll get all caked up.)

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Schooley’s Mountain Bikepacking

The good folks at Marty’s Reliable Cycle have several great routes posted on their site HERE.  Marty’s has become the nexus point for all things bikepacking in New Jersey.  They’ve been hard at work hosting clinics, putting together group overnighter rides (which are a blast, I went on one a few weeks ago), and doing the hard work of developing routes and maintaining trails.  I strung together two of their routes, the Schooley’s Mountain Bike challenge and the Fall Bikepacking Adventure route.  Thanks to Jesse and Megan for their hard work on these.

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I started at the Morristown Marty’s location and hung out a bit with Jesse and Dennis.  Jesse warned me that the Schooley’s route would be slow going in places.  He was right about that.  The route mostly follows the Patriot’s path, which ranges from gravel to pavement to gnarly single track.  I was only a few hundred yards into the first segment of gnarly single track and I started to wish I brought my front suspension fork.

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The singletrack is dominated by rock gardens like what you see above, which are tough to negotiate on any bike, but a fully-rigid, full-loaded 29er is exactly the wrong tool for the job.

But there are some nice flowing sections, like this:

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Staying on the trail can be tricky, though, especially with all the leaves down.  Do you see a trail in the photo below?

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Hard work is always rewarded, though, and there are also some nice views.

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The Schooley’s Mountain Bike challenge route is about 26 miles so I thought it would only take me about three hours, but it was around four hours before I finally rolled in to the Marty’s Hackettstown store.  I spent some time hanging with Mike, Megan, and the other awesome folks there, and then I got going.  By this time it was getting dark and cold and I was getting tired.  Originally I was planning to ride all the way to Stokes State forest from Hackettstown, but given how late it was getting I decided to camp at Kittatiny instead.  I always feel some weird “hard-core bikepackers guilt” when I make those kinds of mileage adjustments, but the single track was so much slower and harder than I expected that it was really the best decision.  I was starting to get in to The Slog zone.  I’ve spent thousands of hours there before, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it on this trip.  I wanted a challenge, but I always wanted to relax a bit.

The hike-a-bike gets tiring, as does the constant on and off the bike, lifting over deadfall:

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As it turned out I had a phenomenal full moon once I got to the campsite (which was empty) and once I pitched my tent, I spent some time singing Raag Chandrakauns, a lovely late-night pentatonic raga inspired by the powers of the moon.

I was up early and pedaling back home again before dawn.  I took my time, stopping at several streams and lakes to sing and listen to the sounds of the water.  I have a big project brewing in my mind for next summer in Vermont that will involve bikepacking, film, and music, like the Sonic Divide.  I meditated on that project as I pedaled home.

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Check out the nice flowing water in the back of the photo below.  That was a lovely spot for singing.

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I also spent time thinking about my rig and what I would do differently.  Next time I will use a front suspension fork and a seat-post dropper.  A full-suspension bike would be even better for the single track, but then I would lose the space in my frame for my frame bag.  It’s always a compromise for routes that have a mix of surfaces.  The suspension is overkill for the pavement and gravel sections, but once you’re in the middle of the gnarly singletrack you wish you had it.  I think just running the front fork and the dropper post would be the sweet spot for this route.  I’ll have to carry a backpack, though, for the stuff that would ordinarily go in the saddle bag.

Overall it’s an amazing route and one I look forward  to doing again.

Busy year!

I’m not sure how a whole year went by and I didn’t update this once, but maybe it had something to do with the Sonic Divide.  The good news is that I did it.  I premiered 30 pieces in a month, at remote wilderness locations that I got to under my own power, pedaling my mountain bike 2,500 miles from Mexico to.  I Canada.  I also filmed the whole thing and I have finished the first draft of my first documentary film, called the Sonic Divide.  My assistant editor is working on it now and we will have it done in a few months.

It was a massive project and I’m still amazed that I pulled it off.  The level of vision, preparation, discipline, creativity, and courage it took was well beyond anything I’ve ever attempted before and I’m proud of my accomplishment.

And it’s amazing how I’m now developing a whole new dimension in my career as a film maker.  I’ve always loved film and always secretly wanted to make films, and now I’m actually doing it.

The Sonic Divide was so successful in so many ways that I’m already pumped up for my next project in 2018 . . . to be announced next year . . .

 

Sonic Divide

After a busy few months in August, September, and October in which I was quite busy singing Dhrupad, but now I’m back in the world of contemporary music, playing percussion and singing.  My big project is the Sonic Divide.  This is by far the most ambitious and difficult project of my career so far.  I’m very excited about it and it’s fueling my practicing with a great deal of positive energy.  I invite you to check out the website.  All the information is there.

Winter Woodshedding, the Path to Sadhana

The last few months have been pretty hard-core winter here in New Jersey.  It’s cold, often grey, and the days have been short.  It’s not my favorite weather, though I’ve made a good faith effort to embrace the energy of the season and put it to good use.  Hence the intense practicing.

I haven’t been doing any traveling or concertizing, just holing up in my basement room, shedding away.  “Shedding” is short for “woodshedding,” a term jazz musicians coined that means going deep into practicing.  (Some of the major jazz musicians in the early part  of the 20th century were banished by their families to practice in the backyard woodshed . . .)  In the Hindustani realm we call it “riaz”, which basically means dedicated practicing.  “Sadhana” is yet another level, where the practicing and life become entirely intertwined, one and the same, complete dedication.  Here is a good and short interview with one of the major Hindustani musicians of our time discussing this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ThcVhMxZYg.

I feel it is arrogant to say that I’m completely in the realm of sadhana (especially as there are distractions at home with the kids and various administrative duties I have to attend to for the university and otherwise), but still I’m pretty much wrapped up with practicing, composing, and teaching from early morning until late at night seven days a week.  Of course I take short breaks to rest my mind and body, but then I’m soon itching to get singing or playing marimba again.  The inspiration is flowing.

In fact, I DID have a musical event scheduled for last night (March 5), a late night experience up at the university.  I was planning to sing some Raga Chandrakauns and then bring in the beats, but Mother Nature had other ideas.  She unleashed a powerful snow storm that shut down all of North Jersey and shut down the university.  I was disappointed as I had put a lot of effort into promoting the event–not to mention the work to get ready musically–but what could I do?  Well, there was one thing I could do and I did just that: practice.  I put in a good session on marimba and also sang.  It was quite lovely watching the blizzard outside through the window while I sang Raga Chandrakauns!

Dhrupad tours 2014

The most significant thing that I’ve accomplished in the last few months as a musician is completing two tours as a Dhrupad singer.  When I embarked on the Fulbright journey a year and a half ago I never dreamed that I would someday be performing as a Dhrupad singer.  I imagined I would go much deeper with it and it would become a bigger part of my life, but that it would mostly service my creative work as a composer and improvising percussionist.  But things changed.  I practiced hard (and continue to practice hard) and by the time I left India my Gurus were encouraging me to perform.

I work best when I have deadlines and targets.  I knew that if I didn’t have any performances lined up my practicing would languish and my progress would slow considerably.  So back in April I set up two Dhrupad tours: one in the Midwest and one up in the Montreal area.

The Midwest tour included four performances at U. of Wisconsin-Madison, a yoga center in Madison, U. of Northern Illinois, U. of Michigan, and a performance/workshop at Oakland University near Detroit, Michigan.  Todd Hammes accompanied me on these concerts, playing tabla.  Pakhawaj is typically the preferred instrument for Dhrupad, but there are no pakhawaj drummers in the Midwest.  I’ve known Todd for a long time so it was a great excuse to work with him.  He played beautifully and I enjoyed my time with him very much.  I learned something important, though: the tabla don’t have quite sustaining power of the pakhawaj, so we had to adjust the tempos upwards a bit so things didn’t sound so empty.  Interesting.

The performance at Madison was especially engaging for me as I was singing in the Morphy Hall, the same place I heard my Gurujis the Gundecha Brothers about twelve years ago.  Little did I know then how much they would change my life . . . At any rate, all five presentations in the Midwest were successful, with good turnouts.

The tour in Montreal was also wonderful.  Shawn Mativetsky was with me for those three concerts, which included two yoga centers and one bookstore (the bookstore was part of an improviser’s series).  Shawn is a long-time collaborator and although he usually plays tabla he got himself a pair of jori drums, which imitates the sound of pakhawaj.  He really did his homework and his jori playing was just as solid as the pakhawaj drummers I work with in India.

I loved touring as a singer.  Dhrupad is such a sacred and special place.  It was so enjoyable to get up each morning and focus my entire day around the evening performance.  I would sing for a bit, review my compositions, go for a walk, take a nap, stretch, do yoga, and then go perform, feeling the energy of the location and incorporating that into my singing.  Dhrupad saturated my every moment.

I grew by leaps and bounds.  I recorded each concert and listened back the next morning with hyper-critical ears.  Doing this sharpened my ears and I had a chance each night to improve upon the previous night’s performance.  Singing night after night also built a lot of strength in my voice.  I was pretty worn out by the end of each tour, but noticeably stronger as a singer.

This was also the first time I got to sing at Yoga centers and in some ways I prefer it to concert halls.  I’ve been very blessed to have performed as a percussionist and singer at many of the best concert halls in the world and I always enjoy that, but there is definitely a distancing from the audience that I didn’t feel at the yoga centers.  I felt much more connected to my audience.  I suppose it was the lack of formality, but it was really nice.

There is more to come.  Stay tuned . . .  And thank you so much to my Gurujis for all of their support and generosity.

Tour Divide 2014

After two years of training and dreaming I finally got my chance to ride the Tour Divide, a 2,800 mile mountain bike route that goes from Banff, Canada all the way down to the Mexican border.  Before I would ride, though, I spent a few days in Banff, which is a wonderful town.

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The bike all shiny and clean before the race started. Just outside of Banff.

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Crazy Larry. He’s one of the unofficial organizers of this unofficial race. He’s awesome. And a bit crazy.

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I stayed at the YWCA, with about 60 other bikepackers. It was a fun hang. Bikes and cool gear everywhere.

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The bike after one hour of riding. We were hit with very cold rain right from the start. Within an hour it was snowing. Mud, mud, and more mud.

Finally we got started at 8:00 a.m. on Friday morning, but alas, the weather was unbelievably bad.  It rained every day, for hours and hours on end, with each day only giving us an hour or two of clear weather.  The rain was cold and it turned to snow up on the passes.

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Ah, no rain. This was toward the top of Cabin Pass, a massive climb that took me several hours.

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Also towards the top of Cabin Pass. That’s usually how I felt after climbing for hours on end.

My body and bike held up just fine, but I just wasn’t focused.  I’m going through a lot of big changes musically and professionally and I kept thinking I should be home practicing and composing.  However, I still averaged about a 100 miles a day this time, and finished 450 miles of the route in five days.  That was much slower than I had hoped for, but the elevation and weather was giving me some trouble.  I rode from about 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. each day.

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The rain was relentless. This is a shot from the hotel floor on the second day. (I shared a room with four other dudes. $20. Perfect. It rained all night . . . ) I wasn’t the only one trying this. But it didn’t work that well.

The terrain was a mixture of single track, double track, gravel roads, and pavement.

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Look carefully and you’ll see a few bikepackers towards the top of that hill. Singletrack/bushwack.

Sometimes the trail just disappeared and became a river, like this photo below of the bottom of Flathead Pass.  We had to carry our bikes for miles through the icy cold water, or try to navigate the brambles on the side of the “road.”  Fun!

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I rode with other people off and on.  I never tried to catch up to stronger riders as I didn’t want to injure myself.  That was a good strategy.

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All this junk food plus some slices of pizza in my back pocket would keep me going for another 100 miles of rugged wilderness. It’s not great food, but it’s portable, doesn’t go bad, and is all that’s available in small towns.

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When the sun did come out for a few minutes my cockpit would become a clothes rack.

There was a lot of hike-a-bike.  Miles and miles every day.  In the photo below are some avalanche remnants across the trail on Whitefish Pass in Montana.

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Top of Redfish Lake Pass. Gorgeous place. I was by myself for most of the day and had a lot of time for thinking, which is always more clear in the wilderness.

  So, somewhere in the middle of Montana I called it.  I have no regrets.  It was an incredible experience.  I’ll be back next year and I look forward to finishing it.  Not a second goes by that I don’t think about that route.  It’s very original and American in all the right ways.  There’s nothing else like it in the world, riding the spine of our continent from one end of the country to the other.  I really appreciate Jessica’s support.  She “gets it.”  I’m a lucky guy.  I also appreciate all the efforts of the people behind the scenes, like Matthew Lee, Joe Polk, Crazy Larry, and the folks at ACA.  Congrats to the riders who finished.  One day I’ll be able to say the same.