Author Topic: Climbing Mount Improbable


Climbing Mount Improbable
« on: August 06, 2008 »
A surveyor wouldn't agree, but as far as I'm concerned my back yard includes Pook's Hill, which I cycle on and around regularly. The high point is Jack Fuller's reactionary launchpad; getting there taxes muscles which even after a year of singlespeed silliness still don't seem quite up to the challenge.

It's beautiful countryside, and pedalling through it helps me to keep from taking it for granted. Nevertheless I am often lost in thought, occasionally reaching for a battered voice recorder which gives me peace of mind even if it's not always well fed.

The route, in case I haven't mentioned it, is mostly up. Granted there must be equal down, but that goes by fast enough to make me doubt its authenticity. The pyramid can be attacked from all directions. It depends how much I want to sweat. Today's ride finds me taking the middle road, which involves an easy warmup culminating in my first hill.

You know the type. Starts slow, seductively easy. Wraps around a corner so you can't see where it's headed. (Hint: ↑.) When you've been there before you know that the pain and heartache are only temporary. My limits are a known known, and the short sharp climax offers shuddering release to a quiet village plateau where one day I saw a man standing at his front door in his underwear. He was either pausing after the exertions of retrieving his morning paper, making a house call, or locked out. It's not a situation which invites interrogation.

La petite mort leads not to a cigarette but the smoky exhaust of traffic on the main local artery. I find a capillary and earn my reward: a winding leafy lane offering glimpses of the Rother valley. It's populated by the occasional country pile and a solitary horse. There's a church at the bottom of the hill, surrounded as usual by deceptively spacious basement flats with views of eternity.

I skim along, happy in my work. Scoot through a roundabout introducing another village, formerly home to a monastery and current base to a large and peaceful group of Anabaptists who my wife and I once joined for dinner as part of a regular mission (theirs, not ours) of neighborliness and good PR. The climb starts again in rural peace. I take a turning at a defunct pub and the bottom drops out like a roller coaster, taking me under a skinny viaduct which serves as part of a miles long conveyor belt patiently hauling gypsum – used in overpriced houses, undernourished soil, and according to Wikipedia, a traditional Chinese medicine called Shi Gao which "clears Heat".

The next hill, which comes moments later, means business. It's only a few minutes work, but on a 70" gear every inch is a conquest as you approach the summit. I have, to my personal shame, been forced to dismount once or twice. My jersey is zipped halfway down my chest in a bid at air-conditioning; my cycling mitts are soaked in forehead sweat. I breeze through the hamlet perched above it then complete the ascent to the pyramid.

If the movie 10,000 BC can be relied upon, woolly mammoths come in handy when constructing polyhedrons. I don't know offhand who built Jack's. He obtained indulgence from the church to erect it in the graveyard. You can't climb it, you can only raise your eyebrows. As with Richard Francis Burton's York stone tent there's a window for the curious to rubberneck his kip, though the porch is locked. Fuller died unmarried, so he's alone inside, not even Sussex maidens pressed into service as permanent mourners in another folly. Needless to say, I'm fond of follies.

I pass the old observatory, clocked by the camera obscura, and once again enjoy the difference between fixed and freewheel. Down, down, down. This is a good place to idly worry about the reflexes of deer. I don't take the elevator to the ground floor but get off on the mezzanine, apparently for an appointment with a snake in the middle of the road. About as thick as a chainstay, he rears back his head exposing a mouth full of teeth and venom, or so my brief reverie informs me. My Specialized Mondos nearly ruin both our day. I have no interest in making a sleeping policeman even if it would only wake a starving fox.

A few minutes later, still mulling over today's rare sighting of Eve's friend, I'm forced to dismount because a large black dog is blocking the way. The teeth in his mouth aren't imaginary, and he's not shy about showing them. I've been riding this route for five years and don't remember having made his acquaintance.

We consider each other. His attempts to communicate are successful: I'm getting that he's not happy. Once upon a time I might have barked back, but you never know when you're going to end up on YouTube. Instead I hold out my hand, palm forward, in the universal language of Stop. This I alternate with stern pokes in the air in front of his nose as if I'm either trying to make him crosseyed or he's being recruited

for K-9 duty. It's not the first dog I've ever dealt with – we had them in Ohio, too – but it's usually young women on horses who give one pause in these parts.

The palaver lasts until he realises my bicycle is not a weapon, which puts him one up on many motorists. He disappears into the hedge and I carefully pass, not wanting to be ambushed.

"Everything OK?" asks a man on a Penny-Farthing.


Climbing Mount Improbable
« Reply #1 on: August 08, 2008 »
"Sorry about Cujo. He's been in a mood since Carol Vorderman left Countdown. The canine demographics on that show are actually quite high, you know. By the way, I'm Puck. Pleased to meet you." He holds out a bony hand for me to shake, the other keeping his Ordinary steered. The dog scampers from the hedge and leaps nimbly through the spokes in his bike, disappearing again in the unnettled brambles on the other side.

Puck is the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln. His black jacket flaps in the breeze. His long legs keep the big wheel spinning at a prodigious rate and it's a struggle for me to keep up.

"Hilly around here, have you noticed? I particularly like this one." He makes a sharp turning into a lane I'd never noticed before and we begin to climb again. First it's steep, then it's steeper. Finally it's impossibly steep. I've cycled up steep hills before but this is ridiculous.

"Don't worry," he says. "A hill is only high enough to reach the top of it."

"Is he still telling that one?" laughs a woman on a stylish velocipede who appears beside me.

"Florence! So glad you could make it," booms Puck "Lady Harberton," he whispers to me in an aside. "Don't you look splendid this morning in your 'rational cycling outfit'. Is that a new bike?"

"It's just an old thing I found lying around the place," she beams. "Last year's model. My new Rover is still in the garage."

The three of us strain at the pedals to climb ever higher. Occasionally the dog appears, chasing a squirrel or being chased by a large rabbit. At one point a badger enquires as to right of way with exquisite politeness.

"If neither of you boys minds, I may undo my top button," says Lady Harberton presently. Puck loosens his bow tie. The road turns it up a notch as if it had only been toying with us before; and yet still we keep pedalling.

"Do keep up, gentlemen," booms a dandy as he passes us on a draisienne. "And Lady, sorry," he tips his hat while running along.

"Jack is mad," sighs Puck. "He thinks pedals are an abomination."

"I heard that!" shouts Jack, who having made his point now drops back to a brisk walk, or as brisk as his finely tailored bulk will allow. "To facilitate good mental and physical hygiene, bicycles should be no more complicated than necessary. The orientals have a word for it: Zen."

"Whatever you call it, we're pleased to have you along," says Puck. Let's stop here for some tea." Up ahead is a tea room. We park our bikes and go inside. It's filled with the raucous singing of a French chain gang. They spot Lady Harberton and add a verse which brings high colour to her cheeks. "Three Earl Greys and a pot for the house," orders Puck, which brings a cheer until it's translated. "I'm sorry, we only have Earl Grey," says the proprietor. "That will be fine," says Puck.

At the table we are joined by Adam Hart-Davis, who parks his pink Brompton by his chair, and a blacksmith who introduces himself as Kirkpatrick Macmillan of Dumfries. "Hello, I invented the rear wheel drive pedal bicycle," he announces.

"Then you'd better have a seat," says Puck.

"Are you sure you haven't been debunked?" asks Hart-Davis.

"Not that I'm aware of," says Macmillan.

We gather strength for a renewed assault on the hill. Jack tells stories of his time in parliament. Lady Harberton undoes another button. Macmillan keeps saying "Hello, I invented the rear wheel drive pedal bicycle" to everyone who enters the tea rooms until the chain gang locks him in the toilets.

We let him out as we depart. "Hello, I invented the rear wheel drive pedal bicycle," he informs us brightly. "And what a fine invention it is," says Puck as we mount up. Cujo reappears and makes himself comfortable in the commodious front bag of Hart-Davis's Brompton.

"Now comes the fun part," says Puck. "Honk if you feel the need. We don't stand on ceremony here."

After awhile I look at my watch and note that it's earlier than when we started.

"The air is thinner up here and time is slower," explains Puck. "As a consequence we've climbed higher than we would have if we hadn't climbed so high in the first place.

"The laws of physics don't work that way," comments Hart-Davis.

"Works for me," replies Jack.

"Sound's sensible," says Lady Harberton. "Didn't Einstein prove that time is relative?"

"Yes but no but yes but no but yes but no," stutters Hart-Davis, astonished to suddenly notice that the beast that had jumped into his basket back at the tea shop is now a mere puppy. Cujo wriggles around to lick his face.

"Dog years in reverse," suggests Macmillan, in the process of running over the snake I'd seen before.

"Watch it fella, that smarts!" snaps the snake, not fond of the camel effect. We all stop and Lady Harberton gets out her pump to blow him back up in the middle.

"Thanks, doll," he says as he wraps himself around her handlebars for a better view. "Let me know if you need your bell rung."

We carry on, ever upward. Pass a cloud, then the conveyor belt from the gypsum mine, ferrying tourists who are using it as a ski lift, then the chain gang, who all have flat tyres. A giggling group of sprites and pixies scurry into the woods.

"Do you boys need any help?" offers Puck, but they have abandoned their bikes to give chase on foot.

"Why do they do that?" I ask.

"What else would you do if you were a puncture faerie?"

The hill is now very nearly vertical. I didn't see how we can continue without ropes and pitons.

"Have some ropes and pitons," offers Macmillan, starting to share them out of his panniers. "I carry them everywhere to bag Munros."

"That would be cheating," scolds Puck mildly. "Keep pedalling. You can do it if you believe."

Higher and higher we go, slower and slower. The view is incredible: we can see the curve of the earth.

"You can look down if you like, but whatever you do, don't think about Zeno's arrow," cautions Puck, "or we really won't get anywhere."

I'm starting to wonder if my singlespeed is really the best choice for today's ride. Hart-Davis stops to retrieve a plumb bob from underneath Cujo. As it drops from the string he whistles: "According to my calculations, we're actually cycling at a 95 degree angle. Technically that's impossible."

"If you didn't have pedals you wouldn't even notice," says Jack.

The snake hisses that watching all this work makes him sweaty and requests that Lady Harberton take off her hat to fan him. "I thought you were cold blooded," she chides. "Not for you," he leers.

A few minutes later it gets easier - much easier. We are finally at the top! Along with an ark.

"What the deuce is this doing here?" exclaims Jack.

"It appears to be made of gopher wood," says Hart-Davis, unpacking his spectrometer for further analysis.

"Hallooo!" cries Macmillan, knocking on the door. "I invented the--"

The snake cuts him short. "Arks make me nervous."

Orville Wright peers down from the deck. "Do you have the pizza I ordered?"

"Sorry, no," admits Puck. "Can we come in anyway?"

"Wilbur! Get the door," says Orville.

We're ushered inside. Mechanical bits are everywhere, along with schematics on post-it notes. Orville joins us, looking preoccupied.

"Do any of you people have a duck spanner?" he asks. "I seem to have misplaced mine."

"Quite a boat you've got here sitting on top of this mountain," says Jack. "And people think I'm mad."

Wilbur explains that they bought it on eBay when their bike shop got too small. "Seller wouldn't deliver."

"Are you working on an aeroplane?" asks Hart-Davis.

Orville pricks up his ears. "An aero-what?"

"Wrong timeline," mutters the snake.

The brothers suddenly notice that there is a lady present and clear a seat for her. "Would you like some Shi Gao tea?" asks Wilbur anxiously. "I'm afraid that's all we have."

"Yes thank you," says Lady Harberton.

Macmillan wanders over to a wheel with a saddle attached. "What's this?"

"Orville calls it a unicycle," explains Wilbur.

"No pedals?" observes Hart-Davis.

"It's the basic model, for purists," says Orville somewhat defensively.

"Quite," harrumphs Jack.

Wilbur returns with the tea. "How about a tour?"

He shepherds us past hundreds of stables which have been converted to workspaces and storage areas, each holding a different species of cycle. There are frames and components crafted out of all sorts of exotic materials, including eggshell, strontium, and carbonated tin. "Don't look at that one," cautions Wilbur. "It's only built to be viewed wearing special goggles."

There are reticulated tandems; trybrids meant for roads, trails, and ballroom dancing; folders which nobody can remember how to unfold; and countless varieties of recumbents, "All pants," admits Wilbur. 

When the tour is finished we discover that Orville has dismantled Hart-Davis's Brompton. "Bicycles shouldn't be pink," he says simply.

"It's getting late and we should start heading back," sighs Puck. "Thank you boys ever so much."

We gather outside. It starts raining. "I'm sorry to have to tell you all that going back is also uphill."

"That's not possible," murmurs Hart-Davis, not so sure of himself anymore.

"Anything's possible," says Puck.

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Re: Climbing Mount Improbable
« Reply #2 on: November 04, 2011 »
Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!


Re: Climbing Mount Improbable
« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2011 »
I'm not sure why this thread in particular was used to hitch a ride. It's probably just the randomness of the universe, again.