Last February, looking to get out of the winter muck in Salt Lake, I took a trip down to the St. George/ Zion area to do some mountain biking with my wife. We met someone mountain biking that changed us forever.
We arrived in the parking lot of the JEM trail, near the town of Virgin, in the mid morning after taking a couple of wrong turns. As we were getting our bikes off the rack and in general getting ready to ride, a dusty pick up truck rambled into the parking lot a little distance from us. It looked like a typical “ranchers” truck and similarly out popped a weathered and sturdy gentleman in his mid 60's dressed like a rancher in work clothes. I didn't think much of it until out of the corner of my eye I spotted him pulling from the back of his truck a beautiful blue 2010 Ibis Mojo mountain bike.
Now, the Mojo is a special bike with a cult following, pretty exotic and damn expensive. With modern full suspension technology, carbon this and that, it just wasn’t what I figured this classic ‘ol rancher to even know existed or care about. Hmmm. And, uh, I happened to be pumping the tires up on my 2009 Mojo as he surprised me with his.
As we all got dressed in our cycling clothes, we exchanged pleasantries, told him we were thinking of doing the JEM trail, that we had a couple questions about doing this loop option or that option, etc. He right away offered that he knew these trails better than anyone and would be happy to show us around. As I approached his truck to talk to him further, he said in a firm but pleasant voice, “Don't come any further!” Thinking he was just taking a pee, I laughed and said, no worries, take your time relieving yourself. He quickly positioned himself oddly away and somewhat upwind from us and said, “You're going to think I'm crazy, because I would think the same thing, but I suffer from MCS, or multiple chemical sensitivity, which makes it impossible for me to be around pretty much everything you take for granted, including other people.” I asked if we should leave and he said no, that the wind was providing the perfect relief as long as he was upwind from us, otherwise he could smell all the chemicals on us- our sunscreen, fabric softeners, detergents, et. You name it; he was hyper sensitive to it. He sure didn't look crazy or act that way other than this very strange piece of information, so we agreed when he invited us again to come with him and he'd be our guide for an amazing 20+ mile loop of great single track.
After learning the few rules of riding with him, which involved giving him the proper space and letting him lead, we were off. Before leaving he had quietly apologized in advance that he’d be slower than us, and he’d do his best not to “hold us up”.
Within a quarter mile I could see this guy had sandbagged us. Yes, he was a little older (64.) Yes, he had a few extra pounds around the midsection. But his guy rode like the wind. Carved tight lines around difficult corners, danced over technical rock sections. All the time pleasantly telling us about the trail, other trails in the area, and his very strange life. We rode hard but gracefully, the kind of riding where you feel you're transcending whatever expectations you may have had for the ride, and were simply lost in the moment. Time only moving from one obstacle or turn in the trail to another. Occasionally we would encounter other riders, and if he couldn't get upwind from them, he gently exited the single track and got about 15 ft. away from the oncoming riders and let them pass with a smile. Mile after mile we rode and asked questions about his life.
Six years ago, out of the blue, he woke up extremely sensitive to all the chemicals and off gassing that a normal person takes for granted. Carpet, plastics, lotions, diesel, packaging, just about everything in this modern world puts off a chemical component that overwhelms someone that suffers from MCS. In his case, it affected him so much that he could barely breathe. He tried everything. Medical research on his own, spent time at a medical center in Dallas, sauna sweat therapy, you name it. It quickly became obvious to him that he needed to go somewhere as free from all of that as he could find, so he moved from Montana to 650 acres of desert wilderness in the Hurricane Cliffs area near St. George. This is the true desert. Sand, rocks, some scrub bushes but not much. All under an immense sky. In doing so he gave up everything he was. He left his wife behind, to whom he's been married 45 years. They talk every night and check in with each other. He left his job as a chiropractor. He left his home and friends and just about all human contact.
When he describes his life it's beyond belief. His trailer is so isolated it has no electricity other than a few minimal solar panels. In the summer, where temperatures can easily reach 110 degrees, he waits in the relative shade of his trailer for the night to cool and relieve him. He cannot handle smoke, so in the colder months he can't even have a fire to have light or warmth outside the confines of his trailer. He has a hard time dealing with the chemical in paper or ink (!) so he doesn't read very much anymore. So there is this immense, absolutely immense solitude and quiet about his entire existence that is heartbreaking in a way. He laughed and said it's rare for anyone to get to know him from the start without his gas mask. It turns out that when he is in the small town to pick up supplies, or run errands, or in any way around humans, he has to wear a gas mask, the kind you see painters wearing.
His charm and easygoing manner make the whole condition he's living in even more unsettling, because you can't help but see he's just, for lack of better way of putting it, exactly the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with. And you can see he's starving for more human contact as well. But day after day he goes back to his trailer in the desert, a ship adrift in a huge sea of quiet and space. Obviously, this “condition” has elements both authentic and psychosomatic, but it doesn't really matter- he is in a world unlike any you can imagine. People see him in the grocery store and stare at the “freak” that wears a mask. All people that come into contact with him are given the slight impression that they are “poison”. How isolating can this be? It boggles. Yet he isn't broken from this experience and that is the beautiful part of the story. He's not broken. He does what he can without an ounce of self-pity. And what can he do? Well, he mostly rides his mountain bike.
You see, riding a mountain bike ensures he always has a fresh wind in his face. And, more importantly, it allows him to be with other people without a mask and live a moment in a somewhat normal life. It is everything to him. It is exercise. It is adventure. It is hope and most importantly, it is real human contact. He rides everyday, on thousands of miles of beautiful desert single track in that area. He usually rides alone, but occasionally with the huge gift of someone he may meet in the parking lot that takes a chance on him. Of course his mountain bike can only have water based paraffin lubricants, his tires are off gassed for months before he can ride on them by hanging them on the clotheslines that circle in trailer campsite. Even his rubber grips need to be off-gassed. But he has his system down, and he can ride. At least he can ride.
We ended the day at dusk sweaty and hungry and happy and tired. We laughed and talked and even at times cried a little with him on the trail as he told us tales of what it's like for him now in this condition. When we got to the parking lot he went over to his truck on the far side and changed while we did the same and had a cold beer from our cooler. After changing into our jeans we saw him walking toward us to say goodbye. As he approached he was wearing his gas mask, which we had not seen up until that point. I said, “Oh, so this is how most people know you” and in the muffled voice you make speaking through a mask, he laughed and said, “Yep, this my face to the rest of the world that can't mountain bike with me” We all let that quiet and powerful moment pass, then got on to our goodbyes.
As he was saying goodbye, he choked up a little and told us how pleasant it was for him to share the day with us, that he couldn't wait to call his wife in Montana and tell her about the nice “young kids” he had met from Salt Lake City that didn't run away from his strange condition and rode gracefully with him for the whole day. He also said that he wished we had known him before all of this had happened. He was a farmer, a successful doctor, raised llamas, rafted rivers, hunted and backcountry skied among other things. He also admitted that back in the day, the early 80's, he biked quite a bit at a competitive level. That explained a lot to us. But most heartbreaking, he told us he did all of his playing with his best friend in the world, his son, but that his son was killed along with his 3-year-old grand daughter 11 years ago. He didn't say how and we, in silence and shock, didn't ask.
As Jenny and I sat in front of our campfire that night, under the moon and stars that only the desert fully illuminates, we thought of him, alone as always, stripped of everything that he owns. Suddenly just huddling together and sipping some coffee seemed like a hugely luxurious and profound gift to us. But you know what? He has his mountain bike. And he can ride. It's his whole world and the basket that carries all his hope and joy.
Look, a bike can be the smallest thing. It can be just that contraption that hangs on a hook in your garage with two flat tires. A few good memories, but mostly a dust catcher that dings you in the head when you lean over to get the lawnmower. Or it can be the biggest thing. In this rare case, it turned out to be something that sustains a beautiful person in the midst of all odds. A gift that carries him through the extreme loneliness of the desert toward a life he can endure, and possibly, in fact surely, even enjoy. It’s a miracle to him and to anyone else with eyes to see.