Dreams: Afghanistan’s Biggest Loss

Everywhere I have gone in life, I have carried myself living and breathing Afghanistan. Often times when I step into well-equipped classrooms in the U.S., I think back to my decrepit overcrowded school in Kabul, enlivened with students electrified for learning. When I drive on empty roads, sometimes the lush green hills morph into beige rocky mountain faces. At once I find myself in our 1993 Camry wagon kicking up dust on windy dirt roads leading to my birthplace in the heart of Afghanistan; the journey sweetened by fresh apricots from a roadside stall. I ride my mountain bike on trails punctuated with roots under a dark forest canopy, but it is really fantasizing the thrill of descending an animal track in the Hindu Kush Mountains, sparsely dotted with adobe homes under a deep deep blue sky, that my mouth waters. I am not in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is in me.

When we lived as refugees in Pakistan, some twenty years ago, my grandfather’s only wish before death was “to quench his thirst from a natural spring in Afghanistan.” He was a lucky man; upon returning to Kabul after nine years living in exile, we drove out to our village five hours away to fetch him a pitcher of water from the spring above our farm. He died two years after that.

In 1995, my family escaped the Taliban to seek shelter in a rickety corner of a Pakistani city. I was barely a toddler. From the saga going through checkpoint after checkpoint of Taliban fighters who specifically hunted Hazaras (the ethnicity I belong to), my mother’s most pronounced memory is how a moment’s neglect of me almost had my thumb chopped off under the sliding door of the van we were escaping in. What I read from her recounting of this story over and over is that even in circumstances of death, a mother’s only concern is preventing the mildest scratch on her child—the reason people take on the dangerous refugee path in the first place.

In Pakistan, my father, a medical doctor, used whatever cash we had fled Afghanistan with to set up a practice. Six months passed before any patients walked in to see him. In 1999, he sold all our assets to pay a smuggler for a chance to jump on a fisherman’s boat and cross the vast Indian Ocean, navigating many near-sink situations, in hopes of making it to Australia. Once there, he worked the backbreaking (he literally broke his back) job of a meat packing factory and various other odd jobs before he racked up enough savings to open his own shop. But just as he was beginning to build a comfortable life, and relocate the rest of our family to join him, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on the grounds of eradicating Al-Qaeda and a moral obligation to liberate the Afghan people, particularly women, from Taliban tyranny—a move that Afghans by and large celebrated. One fall day in 2003, instead of going to Australia, we packed our belongings on the back of a jingle truck and piled into a minibus to take the bomb-scarred road home.

Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 was a destroyed city similar to cities after World War II. Photo: Steve McCurry

In Afghanistan, we bought a parcel of land in a poor neighborhood of Kabul and built our house. There were no running water, electricity, and proper roads. My father began working in a state hospital with a beginning salary of $65 a month. He chose a meager existence in Kabul over an affluent life in Australia because he loved Afghanistan so much. He came back because realizing his dream for a better Afghanistan was far more enriching than a comfortable life abroad. Later on in his new role in the government, every year he planted thousands of trees in Kabul, partnering with schools to promote a national arbor program. Among his legacies is banning wood and coal for commercial energy use in Kabul. His dream was protecting Afghanistan’s natural beauty. He pushed for these changes, amid frequent suicide bombings and rampant corruption, on the good faith that the international community would remain an ally until the hard work of ordinary Afghans like him formed a solid foundation on which our fledgling and fragile democracy could thrive.

How I ended up in the U.S. is a rise-from-ashes story in itself. In Kabul, I began my schooling under the scorching heat of a tent. My teachers, who were more often absent than not, got more out of pushing a fruit cart than teach us. Us students didn’t mind it. Rather, we empathized with their struggle to provide for their families. Easy schooling allowed us to become laborers too—going in and out of tents as we pleased, sometimes genuinely listening to a soft-spoken bearded teacher, and other times for mischief. I manned my father’s pharmacy; stocking shelves, fulfilling prescriptions, and injecting IV in patients. With my father, who practiced in the adjacent room, I had an agreement: any given day he had more than five patients (at a rate of $1 per visit), we would buy fruits that night.

It was in that pharmacy when someone told me about a scholarship to the US. “Just apply! If you get accepted, they will send you to America”, the guy had said. I didn’t want to believe it would be that easy. For my teenager mind back then, going anywhere like America or Europe demanded paying a smuggler, crossing half a dozen countries under barbed wires and an ocean on a fisherman’s boat. The way my father had. But I sent in an application, and was accepted.

In the US, everything was a first for me: choir concerts, libraries in every small town, after school sports programs, and more. It was on a tennis court where I had one of the biggest revelations in my life: that until that moment, I had lived like a 40-year-old in the body of a teenager. Afghanistan’s politics and war had consumed me so much that it had robbed me of my youthfulness. That day, to bring play and joy to Afghanistan’s young generation became a life goal. That summer, I returned to Afghanistan to build a tennis court at a girls’ high school in Kabul. Prior to that, there were just three courts in the entire country: at five-star hotels and the U.S. embassy. On the first day of the court’s construction, more than twenty of my friends, boys and girls of high school age, showed up to dig and lay down concrete. With bare hands, we were rebuilding our country.

The tennis court my friends, family and I built at Rabia-e Balkhi girls school in 2011

That was 2011. Kabul in those days—despite having frequent power shortages, suicide bombings, corruption and poverty—was more exciting to be a young person than anywhere else in the world. We scavenged scanty bookstores in search of volumes with such titles as Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. People, still living in poverty, had become masters of online piracy, downloading pdfs in hourly paid internet cafes. These books traded hands or were shared in thumb-drives before getting discussed in coffee shops popping everywhere, also by young people.

Kabul was exciting because decades of progress elsewhere (women’s rights, celebration of diversity, and advancement of film, music and arts) was being pumped to life there in a matter of years. What made the fast-paced change meaningful was its execution in the face of ever-present life threats to the activists themselves, particularly for women. So many paid the price with their lives. People took to the streets to protest knowing that they may not return home in one piece. And many didn’t. In one protest five years ago, more than one hundred Afghan activists were killed and several hundred injured. My father and cousin were there, but miraculously survived the attack.

By 2021, Kabul had transformed into a cosmopolitan capital, home to nearly six million people, and a young population who championed a thriving civil society. Photo: Hassan Rezaei via Facebook.

What so many championed and paid for with their lives was snatched away overnight on Aug 15, 2021 when the Taliban took over Kabul. Since then, there have been so many tragedies it is hard to keep up with any. The humanitarian crisis in Kabul airport, horrors of a kind the world had never seen before, was just the tip of the iceberg, visible only because the Western Media turned it into a theatre stage to feed a cycle of nonstop breaking news while mostly ignoring what was going on in the rest of the country. Beneath people falling from airplanes, there were and still are: ongoing massacres of innocent people across Afghanistan; hundreds of thousands of families who are displaced from their homes; closure of workplaces and educational institutions for women; and millions of people who are waiting for the first opportunity to leave the country, through routes that are just as, if not more, dangerous than hiding at home. Keeping up with these layers of tragedies is a task that my body frequently fails. I barely begin processing one when my mind is invaded by another, and another. Then it circles back to where it began: the execution of an eight-months pregnant policewoman before her family.

But among our long list of disasters, the most painful is the death sentence of our dreams. We have lost loved ones in this war, and became exiled. Nothing hurts more than seeing our collective dreams vanish. Without dreams, everything else—becoming a refugee or enduring tyranny—becomes a symptom, not a cause to our pains. It is dreams that build roads and kingdoms, give life to poetry and art, and spring to life a community to reopen their classrooms the morning after their school is hit with a suicide bombing. Today, I realize that in all the years we struggled, we did so because Afghanistan to us was synonymous to dreaming. Today, we are robbed from our dream, that invisible driving force behind our identity as Afghanistan’s young generation. Without dreams, we are left in bodies that are numb. Without dreams, we just are. With dreams, we were Afghans. And that meant a huge deal.

Since their takeover, the Taliban have already massacred minorities, asked female workers—including journalists—to stay home, whipped female protesters, banned music, destroyed instruments at the National Institute of Music, and more. I am utterly hopeless about the future and whether the changes we implemented for a better, free and equal, Afghanistan will stay. What will become of the tennis court my peers and I built with our sweats? Will two schoolgirls carrying racquets and wearing smiles ever step on it again, or will it be men with Kalashnikovs and fear? There is, however, one thing that I am certain about: the thousands of trees my father planted all over Kabul will provide shade for years to come. To friends and foes alike.

Afghanistan Needs Us. Here is What I am Doing to Help.

I was born during the Taliban regime’s rule in the 1990s. After spending most of my childhood as a war refugee, my family returned to Afghanistan in the 2000s during a period of hope and stability. For a couple years while I attended classroom inside tents, the new Afghan government repaired my bomb-scarred school. As the walls of that once reduced-to-rubbles school went up, everywhere people too were healing from the aftermath of a civil war and subjugation to the Taliban’s draconian laws. After decades of war, it felt, we were finally on track to build a nation on the foundations of democracy, human rights, and equality. And we achieved a great deal towards that.

Now as the Taliban try to take over our country once again, we each need to do our part to protect our freedom, values, human rights, schools, roads, cultural sites… but more importantly, our promise to leave behind a better country for our future generations. We cannot allow history to repeat itself and the cycle of violence and enslavement of our people to become the norm of life again.

There will not be a more important moment in our lives than the current hour where what we do for our country could guarantee us having a country at all. This is the test of our time.

As an Afghan cyclist, I asked, how can I use my passion for cycling to help my country? And this is my answer.

Next Tuesday, July 27th, I will climb the elevation of Afghanistan’s tallest mountain, Naw Shakh (24,580 feet), in a single day on my bike to pay tribute to the victims of the horrific May 8th school bombing in Kabul and raise funds for student survivors. To reach the elevation of Naw Shakh will require me to climb the Appalachian mountain pass in the state of Vermont 21 times over for a total distance of 115 miles. This will be the hardest bike ride I will ever do, and through it I aim to raise 24,580 dollars (exactly the elevation of Naw Shakh) to help the school. My crowdfunding campaign has already raised $6,000, and with 10 days to go, I need your help to reach my goal.

How this initiative was born

In 2020, when bike races were cancelled as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, cyclists everywhere turned to personal challenges of epic nature to find meaning and purpose for staying fit. The most popular of these challenges, “Everesting”, is climbing the elevation of Mount Everest (29,030 feet) in a single day on a bike, which takes an enormous effort.

As a former competitive Afghan cyclist, I wanted to do this too. But instead of Everest, I had a better idea: why not climb Naw Shakh, Afghanistan’s tallest peak? Living in the U.S, I have always had a hard time with the false image outsiders have about my homeland. Countless times, people have called Afghanistan, which is an incredibly mountainous country, a “sand desert.” Doing a Naw Shakh ride, I figured, was an opportunity to educate people about Afghanistan’s mountains. 

Then on May 8th, when terrorists targeted Sayed Ul Shuhada girls’ high school in Kabul I knew I wanted to dedicate this ride to the victims and surviving students. Just a day before the attack, I had an online class with some of the students. One of them got injured in the bombing. At a time when the Taliban are forcing school closures for women across Afghanistan, I am inspired to use my occupation in cycling to support education for girls. At the end of this ride, I will hold a candlelight vigil and some friends are joining for part of the ride to show solidarity.

Naw Shakh peak by Feroogh via Instagram
Mount Naw Shakh in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province stands tall at 24,580 feet. Photo by Feroogh via Instagram.

Why is this important

The attack on Sayed Ul Shuhada shook the entire world. About one hundred student lives were taken in an instant. It was the same kind of attack that almost took Malala’s life. Except these students were not so lucky to live. The unspeakable size of the death toll showed the length to which terrorists would go to impose their views—stopping girls’ education—on our people. This was an assault on Afghanistan and its future generation. Therefore, standing with Sayed Ul Shuhada should become a national cause. We must do so much for the school until it’s clear to the perpetrators that their crimes cannot be tolerated. That if they destroy, we will build back stronger.

Then there is remembrance. Because it has become very easy for Afghans to die, before we can fully process the grief from one attack, we are forced to forget about it as another attack rocks us to our core. This constant induction of trauma into our collective psyche has reduced the worth of human lives to numbers only. We need to change that if we have any hope for the future. Collectively, we must show terrorists that if it is so easy for them to take innocent lives, we will not forget about those lives so easily. That if they can take human lives in an instant, we will honor those lives for years until we have made it clear that we care about every single one of the victims. The students who died in this attack were fully realized humans, each with a dream for themselves and Afghanistan. Their loss cannot fall out of our national discourse because if it does, then attack after attack, we have only learned how to mourn and not much else. By doing this ride, I will keep the candles lit for the victims of Sayed Ul Shuhada.

And lastly, the school needs help! After talking with the principal, I learned that their most urgent need is addressing students’ trauma. Many students have lost classmates and friends to the attack. To help students heal, feel safe and welcomed again in their classrooms, the school wants to kick off a series of fun workshops and activities. Therefore, the funds I raise will go towards implementing school-wide initiatives to bring joy and excitement back to the school.

I need your help to make this campaign a success. Please donate and share far and wide.

Please use this Social Media Kit to share my campaign. I have written the language to make sharing easy for you. Simply copy & paste the text on your social media platforms. Feel free to use this image.

Twitter: Help #Afghan cyclist @afaridnoori’s fundraiser to support #SayedUlShuhada girls school in Kabul that terrorists bombed in May. Thru his memorial 12-hr bike ride for victims, he aims to raise $25K to help the school keep its doors open. Donate & learn more: https://bit.ly/3ivfeLL

Facebook & Instagram: With all the dark news coming out of Afghanistan these days, here is something positive you could support. Afghan cyclist Farid Noori will climb the elevation of Afghanistan’s tallest mountain, Naw Shakh (24,580 feet), in a single day on his bike to pay tribute to the victims of the horrific #SayedUlShuhada school bombing in Kabul and raise funds to help the school provide trauma counseling and re-entry programs for surviving students. On May 8th, just as female students were exiting Sayed Ul-Shuhada high school, a bomb inside a parked car went off at the school’s entrance. As hundreds of students ran away to the street, two more explosions took place, instantly taking many lives. In the end, nearly one hundred students—mostly girls—died, and another one hundred were injured. Just a day before the attack, Farid had an online class with some of the students, one of them was injured in the bombing. Now, he is taking on this challenging bike ride to honor the lost lives and help the school keep its door open. Please make a generous donation today and share this with your network to help Farid meet his goal. https://bit.ly/3ivfeLL #NawShakhSummitChallenge #EducationWillPrevail #NawShakh’in4Education

Thank you for donating, sharing, and taking the time to read this.

To Nowroz 1400

Celebrating a special Persian New Year with lots and lots of riding, 1400 kilometers to be precise… almost!

First things first, the facts:

  • The Persian New Year, also known as Nowroz (Persian for “new day”) always coincides with the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. That makes the new year also the first day of the spring. Makes more sense, right? How could it not when signs of new life are everywhere? The blossoms, that refreshing spring breeze and the scent of new grass, flowers, and moist dirt… While only half a dozen countries officially celebrate it, namely Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan, it is a universal (ahem… global) celebration of our planet’s yet another successful trip around the sun.
  • March 20th this year marked the 1400th Persian New Year.
  • Although Nowroz has roots in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, today it is widely a secular holiday, open for people from all faiths to participate. The Persian calendar, which predated Islam, was reset after the Muslim conquest to reflect the origins of Islam. Thus, the year 1400.

1400. Why is it a special year? For starters, the double zeros are emblematic of a new era, a reset of centennial significance so to speak (even though the new century doesn’t kick off till next year because calendars start at year 1). But it marks an end to the 1300s, which as you may know, half of those one-hundred years consumed Afghanistan with foreign occupations and internal conflicts. Against that calamitous period, 1400 is more than just a new year. It is a new beginning; an opportunity to leave behind our troubling past. The question we need to be asking is “what do we want the next 100 years to look like?

Dasht Shadyan, Afghanistan is a popular destination for Afghans during Nowroz who visit it for its wild tulips. Image: Zabi Habibi

To my surprise, in the weeks leading to 1400, despite its symbolic significance, I witnessed a lack of hype among my Afghan friends. Even TV stations back home were not drumming up excitement. So to generate some buzz, I set out to do my own celebration. In the last 7 days of 1399, I resolved I’d ride 200 kilometers a day—countdown style—to arrive at 1400 by the turn of the century. Thus, #Nawroz1400 Challenge was born.

200 kilometers (~125 miles) is a lot of distance to cover in a single day, and it can take you far, far from familiar territory. The total distance, 1400 kilometers, is long enough that had I done this challenge in Afghanistan, I would have biked across the country from the border in the West with Iran all the way to the Northeast in Badakhshan, almost touching China. As a cyclist in training, even my longest days on the saddle rarely come close to 100 miles. To bike longer than that, seven days in a row, was an immense physical challenge. But it also presented an opportunity to explore new places in Arkansas. I was excited when the wonderful nonprofit Bike Northwest Arkansas (Bike NWA) jumped on board to let me share the journey through their social media platforms with the local cycling community, and in doing so raise awareness about our much cherished Nowroz tradition.

The ride was an opportunity to explore places in Arkansas that I hadn’t seen before. This picture was taken during the challenge, showing Arkansas in full spring bloom

A Rocky Start – Seven Days to Nowroz 1400

March 13th was a quiet overcast Sunday, with thunder forecasted in the late afternoon. To avoid getting hit by lightening, I began the ride early at 8am, enough time to ride 200 kilometers before the clouds unleashed their anger. Or so I thought. But after just 10 miles, I got a flat tire. No biggie! Quick fix, and back at it. Five minutes later, while I was busy greeting cows and singing to them, the hissing sound of another flat joined the chorus. That was like power outage. It sucked the life out of what was beginning to be a pretty good morning concert. With no extra tubes and increasingly darkening clouds, whose roaring thunder had the effect of a cosmic sinister laugh at my miserable start, I phoned a friend and woke him up from his sweet Sunday sleep in.

Desperate, I must’ve missed the details on Google. The sign on the bike shop we visited said, “Sundays: Out Riding”. It was 10am and the another shop didn’t open for another hour. By the time there was a new tire on the bike, it was already midday. There were still enough hours to pedal another 180 kilometers but a soft drizzle had already begun.

Back on the bike, I pedal for two hours feeling as though the clouds are following me. Then, out of nowhere, a downpour. You see, sometimes heavy rain, the kind that causes flash floods, is more tolerable than soft rain because you quickly get passed the agitation of riding in the wet. You get soaked at once, instead of a chilly rain slowly seeping through your bones. It’s like eating half a pint of ice-cream when you intended to eat only a few spoonfuls, at which point you are like, “well I might as well eat the other half!” That’s how you feel in a rainstorm. At one moment you are dry, then, ten seconds later, you are fully soaked. You tell yourself, “Now that I am drenched, I can ride like this all day.” But the frequent flashes in the sky and the speeding cars reminded me of my mortality. So I made the wise decision to stop at 105 kilometers. That meant, in order to complete the Nawroz1400 challenge by the New Year, I now had to add an extra 20 kilometers to the coming days.

I will save you the boredom of reading a day-by-day diary of the challenge. From the dramas of that first day, you get a pretty good idea of what I was up against. When I set out to do this challenge, I had no idea how it would go. Will my body keep up, and the weather cooperate? The low point came after day 4 when my face including my eyes had swollen, and overall the body wrecked. I woke up the next day, not wanting to get out of bed. The weather was in the low twenties (Fahrenheit) with cold rain throughout the day. I took that as a welcome sign to rest. With only three days left till Nowroz, I was 600 kilometers short of the goal. A day off would put me at a 200 kilometer deficit. But there was no way I could have ridden in the terrible conditions of that day, and risked getting really sick that I would be forced to completely abandon the challenge.

Fortunately, I got approached by Neal Kraus, a fellow cyclist who wanted to join on Nowroz, the last day of the challenge. Come Nowroz, I was on pace to finish 1200 kilometers. But with him, our combined distance would get us to 1400. What a nice new year gift from Neal to help me finish the challenge. And after riding solo for the past several days, each day anywhere from 7 to 9 hours, it was very nice to share the ride with him. I have long believed that the bicycle is the most effective tool to bring together people from different backgrounds and help them experience each others’ cultures.

On March 1st, 2021, after a long day riding through some of the most beautiful countryside in Northwest Arkansas, Neal and I were climbing the last of some serious hills on the day’s 213 kilometer route that had taken us all over the region. Despite being depleted, we were filled with a renewed sense of energy from what was awaiting us after a straight descent to Lake Fort Smith. What awaited us were some Afghan friends who had, in pure Afghan fashion, thrown a Nowroz picnic by the water.

As the lake came in to view, the sun was setting down fast, shining a pink glow in the famous Ozark sky. The date was 01.01.1400. With Neal’s help, I had just ridden 1400 kilometers to welcome the new century. Our friends came to congratulate us. But they were not all Afghans. Among them were Neal’s wonderful family, other American friends, and two Fulbright Scholars at the University of Arkansas from Bangladesh and Benin. This was the most international Nowroz I had ever celebrated. As we rested our bikes, we followed the smell of chicken kebab mounted on top of Qabuli Palaw, a famous Afghan rice pilaf dish layered with raisins and shredded carrots, served with okra curry and dolma, the Turkish fermented grape leaves stuffed with rice. Our friends went back to an Afghan rug laid down on grass. Music resumed to a loud blast, and an international crowd formed a circle to do Atan, a traditional dance in Afghanistan. This was Nowroz 1400 in the Ozarks.

Friends celebrating Nowroz 1400 by Lake Fort Smith, Arkansas. Image: Khalid Ahmadzai
01.01.1400. Lake Fort Smith, Arkansas

And how do you know, after such a big effort, you might have made a difference? If I may remind you why I set out to do this challenge in the first place, it was exactly to generate excitement among my peers for a very special new year. Speaking on national TV about the ride was one way to get the conversation going and hopefully inspire a handful of people back home, especially cyclists, to do something special of their own. I say the next hundred years should be the century of cycling in Afghanistan. To that end, Nowroz 1400 hasn’t ended. It’s just the beginning.

Reunion on the Trails of a Wildfire

This is Granby, Colorado. It is spectacular as you can see. Last week, two of my brothers and I (there are five of us) met there for our brief and mostly accidental once-a-year reunion. Just a couple weeks before that, the ski town of Granby was at the epicenter of one of Colorado’s biggest wildfires in its history, the East Troublesome.

Bashir who is a year older than me lives in Canada, and Hamid, my oldest brother, in San Francisco. For eight years until Bashir earned his Canadian citizenship in 2018, we hadn’t seen each other. It was pretty challenging to suddenly get separated after growing up in Afghanistan doing most things together: school, play, fight each other and as a team against bullies. The separation was made extra painful when for five years I lived a short bus-ride away from him on this side of the border in Vermont, while attending Middlebury College as an undergraduate. But because neither one of us had a visa sticker on our passports, we relied on FaceTime long before the coronavirus pandemic made connecting virtually a norm, all the while hoping for that one day when we could see each other in person… That moment came two years ago, just before my graduation from college, which Bashir was able to attend. Since then, we have managed to meet on a few occasions including last summer when together with two friends we took the road south from Colorado to New Mexico for a fully-packed 48-hours of mountain biking, hiking, camping, and indulging in all things made with roasted red and green chilis—a signature of New Mexico.

Living 6,000 miles away from home, each in a different part of the continent (another brother lives in North Carolina), we make a point about getting together at least once a year. A reunion with the whole family, after almost a decade, is yet to happen (my parents live in Afghanistan and another brother in Germany). Until then, it is random small get-togethers in anticipation for a complete reunion.

This time, the three of us decided to meet in Colorado because we wanted to spend most of our time outdoors, and because we miss real mountains—the only physical element in exile that invokes a felling of being home (in Afghanistan, we come from a jagged mountainous region, and in Kabul, we grew up surrounded by the mighty Hindu Kush mountains). Like previous reunions, this was also a brief one. I personally like that because the short cap on time forces us to make the most out of it. In 48 hours, we managed to fit in two hikes (one sunrise hike with a glowing view of the Rocky Mountain peaks), a gravel bike ride through the most interesting and desolate landscape I have ever ridden, and more.

To be able to carry both of my bikes, I drove to Colorado from Arkansas—a 15-hr drive that I did in one day going from springtime temperature to navigating my way over the dreadful but spectacular snowy Berthoud Pass in Colorado which goes past 11,000 ft. Riding a bicycle with Bashir feels special in a way we have only experienced here in the U.S. (back in Afghanistan, my parents were strictly against riding, mostly for safety reasons). For this ride, because I had with me the Specialized Crux and Specialized Epic, both of which are perfect for dirt, we wanted to do a gravel ride. I used Strava’s smart route generator which spits out ride options based on filters such as distance, surface type (paved or dirt), and elevation gain (hilly vs flat). We picked the first option that Strava recommended without checking the details (I like the uncertainty and surprises along an unknown path). What we found was more adventurous than we had anticipated, and it made for a memorable ride.

We started on a quiet state highway. The road quickly became a steady climb with breathtaking views of the snowy mountains. But soon, the scenery got taken over by large black spots across the land, remnants of the bushes that had burned in the East Troublesome wildfire. Every now and then, a lone-standing holiday home came into view, appearing unharmed among trees, whose only thing remaining was a blackened bare skeleton. After a smooth descend, I saw on my Stages Dash another long climb coming up, this time on dirt. This being Bashir’s first ever gravel ride, I hoped for something special.

The dirt, wide at first like any country road, soon narrowed to a class-4 type forest service road. The further we went, the more it narrowed and started to look less of a road. At times, dominated by overgrown bush, we wondered if we were off the beaten path. Adding to our suspicion was how unusually soft and powdery the dirt was. We wondered if this was also wildfire impact, breaking down the soil structure, through intense heat, into powder while also replacing topsoil with new and more refined dirt carried through erosion and intense winds (this turns out to be true). Recent snow, a huge blessing to firefighters as they tried to extinguish the fire, had made the soil extra soft. Signs of the fire’s destruction was everywhere: the charred landscape, blackened trees, and the ever-present smell of something burning in the air.

We felt utterly sad to witness this colossal natural disaster (caused by humans). At the same time, there was something thrilling about stumbling, by pure chance, on something in nature that we hadn’t seen before. It was humbling to find ourselves among few humans who get to see such a sudden and significant shift in an ecosystem, caused by our very own demanding (economic) activities that have offset earth’s delicate environmental balance. For as long as the ride lasted, we felt like explorers in some scientific expedition. And the bicycle had allowed that feeling, each pedal stroke getting us closer to the heart of where the East Troublesome had burned. To share those sentiments during the only two-days in a year that I get to see Bashir made it all the more exciting and special.

Upon returning, we picked Hamid and headed to Hot Sulphur Springs, a nearby town to, well, take a dip in the natural hot sulphur springs. The water was surely a remedy to our sore legs, but more importantly, it was our only moment to really slow down time and catch up with each other. As we each claimed a spot in the hot water that smelled like dynamite, with clear and cold skies above, we got caught on where each of us are in life, how we have fared with the challenges of the pandemic, and plans for the future. As the sun set and the stars grew brighter, and we intolerant of the hot water, there was only one thing on our minds: our next reunion… hopefully with the whole family.