The Biking Lifeby: Naomi Bloom 10/1/2009
This past July we were driving south on Highway 89 from Lassen Volcanic National Park to the Feather River Canyon. When we decided to have lunch in Chester, I suddenly remembered: Hey, this is where Bodfish holds forth. So we went looking around the tiny town at the northern tip of Lake Almanor, searching for the man.
And there he was in the flesh -- the mountain biking pioneer himself, the guy who rode, led and wrote about challenging on- and offroad tours through the 70s, 80s and into the 90s.
He remembered me from the days when we both wrote freelance for now long-defunct California Bicyclist magazine. Back then I had eagerly read his books, interviewed him for a couple of articles, and rode at least one of his "Mountain Metric" rides in the Chester area.
Who is Bodfish?
Bodfish is Chuck Elliot, who once defined himself as "not an expert at anything, [just] an average-sized American male (6 feet) with no hair on my head and a threatening pot belly." (No way! When I saw him in July he looked as trim and fit as he did 20 years ago.)
Chuck was born in 1950 in Kalamazoo, MI. At 19 he took off for parts west. After a short stint in Hawaii, he landed in Northern California, where he attended state college, earned a modest living at things like carpentering and delivering milk, and discovered bicycling. When his 1963 Mercury died, he took it as an omen. Packing his worldly possessions in his panniers, he rode off to spend three winters in a cabin tucked into a Kern River side canyon called Flume Bodfish.
"I invested (rather than spent) most of my time exploring logging roads, studying maps and wandering to the ends of unmapped spurs," he says of those days. He wrote about his adventures in a column titled "Hiking and Biking from Bodfish" in the Kern County Review. His editors thought "Bodfish" make a great pen name, so he dropped his byline.
When he moved north to Chico in the late 80s he wrote a "Bicycling with Bodfish" column for a local paper. That's when people started calling him Bodfish instead of Chuck. "I didn't really like it," he confessed to me, "but I guess I've become resigned. It's kind of like bubble gum on my shoe. I can't shake it, so I've decided to accept it."
About the same time Chuck met Forest Service ranger Lisa Jo Sedlacek, the longtime and current Mrs. Elliot. "In a driving rain-and-snow storm, we were the only two people who dared to camp out with backpack and sleeping bag at a bluegrass festival."
Chuck continued writing for local newspapers and cycling magazines. And he began turning out self-published books. "It wasn't something I did to make money," he reminded everyone. "I didn't think about what will sell, but what would be valuable to the cyclist." He hand lettered them and drew his own illustrations.
Sell they did, to offroad and touring cyclists from all over. According to Steve O'Bryan of Pullins Cyclery in Chico, "None of Chuck's books ever had anything to do with the East Coast, but people from Maine buy them."
If you can find any of these Bodfish books, grab them while you can: "Butte Country Bicycle Journeys," "Cycling in the Shadow of Shasta," "Cycling in the California Outback" (with Lisa's portrait gracing the cover), and "California Dream Cycling," subtitled "50 of the quietest cycling roads between San Diego and Oregon, plus 25 off-road routes." The last two books are his best, IMHO, and I regret that there were no more forthcoming.
But by then Chuck and Lisa Jo -- aka Team Bodfish -- were running "Outback with Bodfish" off-road bike camping tours and one-day mountain metrics. Chuck and Lisa took good care of everyone, including plenty of carbo-loading provender. But the rides were no a walk in the park; they were tough. I remember someone quoting Chuck back then: "It's OK to toss all your cookies. We got lots more cookies."
Team Bodfish Lives
"Guiding trips was good for a dozen years or so," Chuck wrote me last month. "Most folks were appreciative and have remained friends, but there were a few bandits who want to steal our whole gig. We ducked a few bullets in the 80s and early 90s. We decided that roots were better than hoots and coots...so we planted the roots deeper, built a house, built a business, raised a child."
Colby Joseph Elliot was born in 1989 and almost immediately joined Team Bodfish as "Microfish." When he was only 20 months old, Chuck claimed he had "more vehicles than the average American male living in downtown Los Angeles -- two strollers, a Baby Jogger, and an assortment of bicycle trailers."
In 1991 Chuck "Bodfish" Elliot was inducted in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. According to his bio, "Bodfish has been riding logging roads and riding to the ends of unmapped spurs in California since the early 1970s."
Today Chuck owns and operates Bodfish Bicycles and Quiet Mountain Sports, a fine and funky establishment on a quiet side street in Chester. The shop opened in April 1994 and from the looks of things when we dropped by, business is thriving. Bodfish rents bikes and trailers all year round, plus pedal kayaks in summer, snowshoes and XC skis in winter -- the other "quiet mountain sports."
Occasionally Chuck pens an article for Cycle California. And Team Bodfish lives on, led by former Microfish Colby Elliot, now 20 and a Cat 1 road racer. "Colby has raced BMX, Downhill, Dual Slalom, Mountain Cross, SuperD, Cross Country and various Road events and that's just at Sea Otter!" Bodfish brags. This year Colby has been living in Europe, road racing in England, France, Belgium and offroad in Italy.
"It's good to live with bikes," claims his dad. "The more bikes the better but, it's also good to let them go. Bicycles, unlike children never raid the fridge and seldom ask for anything out of your wallet. You forget about empty nest syndrome as soon as they walk through the door and straight to the refrigerator.
"I now find it difficult to understand why anyone who's having a serious affair with a bicycle willingly submits to confinement within a web of high-voltage overhead wires and barbed fences, all the while tight-roping along eroding edges of blacktop teeming with impatient motor-heads. Life is too precious to put up with all that."
Indeed, Chuck and Lisa love living in Chester, "the point of collision [where] the Cascades continue to grind and push on the north end of the Sierra Nevada under us." Lisa tends to campers and wildlife at Eagle Lake, about an hour to the north, while Chuck runs the shop. "We're still enjoying the green shoots of those [earlier] decisions," says Chuck. "Dwell on the positive and let the negative fly right on by, don't let it stick to you." And never mind the bubble gum, I might add.
Naomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org