Fast Friends: Big Thoughts Through Big Sur

Words by Tenzin Namdol, photos by Ronnie Romance

I was looking at everyone’s legs. The group of 13 included professional and semi professional racers, life-long athletes focused specifically on their relationship to the bicycle. There aren’t six packs; there’s, like, eight to ten pacs. Some even have muscular faces! How is that even possible to accomplish? Seeing my own soft animal body as lesser than their impressive builds. The grass kept getting greener and greener on the other side of my eyeballs and I felt myself getting smaller and smaller. Where in my body is this discomfort living? I had three days and the grand views around beautiful Big Sur to find the site of where this discomfort lived in my body. Aside from physical discomfort from physical exertion, I came up empty. Instead, I found an interstice where feelings of awe grew and that became my saving grace.

There’s so much talk about how cycling makes us happy, but at the beginning of this trip, I kept feeling like it was actually triggering my self-loathing, defeatist tendencies before I even started pedaling. “My body is not as sculpted as theirs, I’m going to slow everyone down and disappoint them, I’ll never be as amazing as them.” These thoughts swirled as the pavement ends on our ride away from Carmel By the Sea. I had huffed and puffed to my full capacity just to keep up last place with the Fast Friends. As the days went on, the distance between me and the rest of the group grew and I gave up trying to keep their pace. Choosing instead to keep my pace which is spirited but slow by most standards.

Going my own pace gifted me ample time for moving meditation on my troubling tendencies. My mind begins to calm, my attention is drawn to the forested expansiveness of the California mountains. I focus on the power of snowmelt rivers carving rock to form canyons large enough to swallow the Notre Dame Cathedral tenfold. Trees that pre date my ancestral trauma remind me that there was a time before all of this doubt took hold. Feelings of being an imposter cyclist gets replaced with awe at what I am seeing- something bigger and much much older than my narcissistic anxiety.

This is exactly what psychologists at Berkeley found when they were investigating the healing power of nature on veterans and youth suffering from PTSD. The “research found that awe, as opposed to joy, pride, amusement, contentment and other positive emotions, is the singular sensation that goes the furthest in boosting one’s overall sense of well-being.”  Studies have also found that feeling of awe is linked to more altruistic behavior. Essentially telling me what I already knew- long, meandering bike rides through forests not only boost esteem, they also encourage loving kindness.

This is such a comforting thought as the state of mental health in the US sees troubling patterns of,increases in the number of adults who take their own lives and young people who are having more major depressive episodes. I wonder how much a hard bike ride with awesome views can help those of us managing our own mental health concerns. Psychologist Paul Piff thinks that “awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift [where] the people have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goosebumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others.”

Roasting my butt over the campfire with all these top notch athletes, I thank Earth magic for the Fast Friends who create the atmosphere for inward journeys toward healing. Thankful even more for the awe striking intrigue of places like Big Sur to provide solid ground for activating wonder instead of dread. Though our stories are completely different, I am sure I am not alone in having troubling tendencies and feeling inadequate at times. Feelings of awe naturally brings me to the understanding that feelings of discomfort are not the center of the universe- they are merely fleeting reminders of the trauma I’ve experienced. Nothing more. Now, I’m getting to work on how to catch up to those fast friends.

See our route at Ride with GPS.