Notes from the Cliff’s Edge

If you like to read about bikes because you don’t like to read about politics, this essay might not be the one for you. Because my second trip down Utah’s White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park has me rethinking our precarious political moment. And I need to talk about it.

On bikes and in politics, pumping the brakes can be a survival skill. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

I struggled on my first trip into this canyon in 2021. I’d underestimated the White Rim Trail’s ruggedness and the severity of its climbs. The course called for suspension and low gearing, and my gravel bike gave me neither.

I vowed this year would be different. This time, I brought a mountain bike to a mountain bike fight. And Addison, Marty, Mike and I were all set to go faster in 2022. A lot faster.

I didn’t just feel confident our speed would increase this year. I felt certainty. Sun-will-rise-in-the-east certainty. Bedrock certainty.

And I was wrong as hell.

My assumptions all felt solid enough. I’d be on the same dry roads. In the same weather. With the same fitness. On a better bike. How could we not go faster?

Speedy Mike Suing’s addition to this year’s trip was another reason I was sure we’d go fast.

But I hadn’t counted on the ground itself shifting shape. As we snaked our way down into the canyon, we discovered that a drier year had worn the clay of 2021 into inches of fine sand in 2022. Rock and infinite dust. Rock and flour. Rock and face powder. Instead of gliding over familiar sections, we sank in and slogged. Mile after slow, powdery mile.

Hours and hours in sand like this was an idea we had to let sink in. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

This deep sand hid round rocks and sloped rocks and gaps in rocks. We’d point our tires toward 12 o’clock only to watch them twitch by tricks of earth and stone toward 9:30 one moment and 2:15 the next.

One of these sandy surprises sent me lurching left into Marty’s line. He swerved to miss me, and the sand tossed him overboard. He broke his fall with a cactus.

I felt like a turd’s turd watching him pick some 30 quills out of his hand and forearm. “Jeez, sorry about that, Marty. Does that hurt, Marty? That hurts bad, I bet. I’m sorry. I bet that hurts.” And so on.

When he was done plucking, we got back on our bikes and slogged some more. Riding a few feet in from steep slopes, I did my best not to imagine Marty’s same crash unfolding again with a cliff instead of a cactus.

This work and this worry wore on me for 40-something sandy miles. And as I grew tired, I also grew resentful—as if the dirt itself had played a dirty trick. I’ve read earthquake survivors can go through a sharper version of this feeling. There’s a geologic betrayal. If you can’t trust the earth beneath your feet, what on Earth can you trust?

The earth in Utah is full of gaps and cracks and hollow surprises. It’s nobody’s fault. (Photo, Marty Killeen)

At my lowest point, I told myself: I shouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be swerving all over the place along this damn cliff if I’d have known all the rules were going to change. (Reader, I felt much better after some lunch.)

Lunch by this 800′ drop lifted my spirits.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about our thoughtless assumptions. I’ve been trying to look beyond the decisions people make on the brink, down to the bedrock assumptions beneath them. When someone makes a mistake along the cliff’s edge, did an underlying assumption give way beneath their wheels and steer them wrong?

Not long after we got back to Nebraska, a feeble-minded man broke into Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home with the intent to torture or kill her with a hammer. The Speaker of the House wasn’t home. But her 82-year-old husband, Paul, was. He called police. And as they responded, the feeble-minded man broke Paul Pelosi’s skull with a hammer.

Right-wing conspiracies attract the likes of Pelosi’s attacker, who could be similarly outraged by the pretend doors painted on the fairy houses he bought. “They have lots of fairy houses,” he wrote,but NONE of them are MADE for fairies.” (Photo, Michael Short, San Francisco Chronicle)

The MAGA right responded the way it always does to the violence it inspires. And I felt that low twinge of our return to the brink.

Here was another MAGA attack on our government. A man armed with zip-ties and a hammer had come after the American official second in line to the Oval Office. And the GOP mostly cracked jokes. Played whataboutism. And wove yarns about an imagined gay tryst gone twirly.

I asked myself: What do these indecent decisions reveal about the GOP’s assumptions? When they call J6 terrorists “tourists,” or laugh at the beating of an elderly man, what are they assuming about the ground they’re standing on?

Brynn Tannehill is a Navy veteran who served in Iraq and studies national security and authoritarian movements. She tweeted on November 2 about the GOP inclination to excuse right-wing attacks. “There is the implicit assumption by Republican leaders that violence will come for their opponents, and not for them,” she said. “And at the moment, they’re correct.”

She continued, “The problem with their thinking is that they assume that the status quo will hold.” (The ground beneath their feet will continue to act like clay, and not quicksand.) “Their opponents will continue to feel like they can vote their way out of the problem, the threat is not perceived as existential, and they will eschew targeted violence.”

But in seeking to regain power, then keep it by further restricting voting rights, the MAGA-led GOP is betting that the left will keep its faith in voting as its best response. That bet may be correct, Tannehill said. “But it’s not a sure one.”

She said, “By tolerating or encouraging political assassinations, the GOP is raising the risks, and the potential consequences, of their authoritarian drive to end democracy and punish those they see as political enemies.”

On Tuesday, with democracy again on the brink, America will ride into another sandy stretch. It’s possible we stay upright, and manage to elect (and protect) representatives who respect elections. It’s also possible that we fall down. And if we do, chance will determine what we fall into: Cactus or cliff’s edge.

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