The sky is particularly beautiful this afternoon–a flirty patch of blue that peeks out from between gaps in the brilliant blaze of red and orange leaves. Occasionally a cloud skitters across the scene. I'm enjoying the whole Ralph Waldo Emerson moment immensely when it suddenly hits me–What the fuck just happened?
A second ago I was warping downhill on a test bike, feeling like the king of the world. So, why am I flat on my back now? How did I get here? Why does my shoulder feel like somebody's giving it a shiatsu massage with a roto-hammer?
Aw, crap. I try to sit up. Bad idea. Head swims and shoulder goes all electric and crunchy. I spy the test bike about 20 feet further on down the trail. I got clotheslined.
I stumble over to the bike and get back to turning the pedals. It's not the first time I've hit the deck and it won't be the last. I climb to the top of the ridge, take some photos and head back down the trail. Somehow I take a wrong turn. Weird, but that happens a fair bit in these dense Vermont forests. I get back on track and try to savor the descent. It's good, but still a bit jangly and out-of-sync, the way it always feels when you've been plowing the earth with your face.
The Gross Domestic Product of Zimbabwe
I keep pedaling. And pedaling. None of this looks familiar. And then, after a half hour of this I come to a big stretch of asphalt. Huh. I know I haven't seen one of those in days. I rummage about in my pack for my map and open it up. It's all dog-eared and sweaty from being opened and reopened dozens of times. But it's cool, I have most of it memorized. I hardly even need a map at this point. But….maybe I have the wrong map in my pack, because I've never seen any of these trail names before. Where's that trail I keep descending on from the house? You know that one called….
I can't remember. At all. And it's not one of those 'It's on the tip of my tongue' moments. I can feel that I have about as much chance of recalling that trail's name as I do of remembering the gross domestic product of Zimbabwe.
I sit down for a second. I know my name. I know the president of the United States. I hold out four fingers, waggle them a bit in the air and ask myself how many digits I have in front of me before I realize how incredibly stupid that is.
Well, I know I have to climb to get back to the place we're staying at, so I get back on the bike and start the ascent. There are about five trail junctions–all of them have alien signs on them, but some of the trails just feel right…I follow those. It's like trying to follow a foreign movie without subtitles. After a great long while I arrive back at the barn where we're storing test bikes. The ride's over. But first I gotta go puke because everything is starting to smell in Technicolor and my stomach isn't onboard with that program at all.
A Less-hazardous Occupation
Later in the day I ring my wife back on the west coast and let her know I've rung my bell. I can hear her telling my mother in law that I've had a concussion.
And I can hear my mother-in-law in the background wanting to know why I do this crazy, dangerous mountain biking thing. Don't I know I have a family? And responsibilities? And that there are all sorts of things that I can do that don't involve semi-regular blood-letting and broken bones?
I know. Yeah, I know.
But not a lot of those things are actually worth doing. Don't get me wrong. I'm no adrenaline junkie. I love books the way a fish loves water. I find podcasts about the history of the American electoral college absolutely riveting. I have never, ever, snorted a line of coke off of anyone's ass. I live the turbulent, whirlwind social life of an 80-year old Amish farmer.
Riding bikes though–damn. If it's a vice, I'm its junkie.
I came to this whole two-wheeled thing late–as a teenager–at about the time that most of my friends were discovering the allure of the opposite sex and driving their parents' station wagons down country roads at speeds Detroit's engineers never dreamed possible. All of those things had their appeal, but railing a sweeping corner at 50 miles per hour on 21-millimeter wide slicks? If that doesn't make you feel alive, you're already dead and in the ground. Mountain biking took that Oh-crap-oh-dear-God-oh-hell-yes! feeling and stretched it taut, all tingling and raw, for hours at a time. There are drugs that do all this for you, but I've never seen the point. I have bikes. I ride.
Maybe that makes me irresponsible. It's been more than three decades since I had that first delicious hit of real speed on two wheels. That's a pretty long stretch and I know it’s going to end at some point. I mean, all of the guys I originally started riding with gave riding up long ago. Their bikes hang dusty on hooks in the garage while they've taken up more responsible pursuits: barbecuing, Sunday afternoon college football games and the like. I suppose something like that waits for me in the future; a quieter, calmer and safer life.
But I sure as hell ain't going there peacefully.