Dirty Words: The Darkest Hour

The bridge to the woods in question. Thank you, rich folks.

Words and Photos by Sal Ruibal

When I was a little kid, I really was a LITTLE kid. As in short. Some of it was just nature, but also because I was a smart little kid. I got to skip first grade and transfer from my cozy K-1 school to the big elementary school five blocks away.

When you're six years old in a school where 12-year-olds rule the roost, you're going to get beat down once in a while. When you're six , wear glasses and are smarter than sixth-graders, you're really going to get beat down.

There were many afternoons I had to run the gauntlet just to get home to watch cartoons. I had two older brothers, but their strategy was to torment me so much that sixth-graders would seem like cream puffs.

When it got bad, my mom would always say, "It is always darkest just before dawn."

Being a smart kid, I would tell her that obvious aphorisms were no defense against a punch in the nose. Then she would kick my ass. All those beatdowns probably stimulated my growth hormones and now I'm six-four, minus eight inches.

But autumn has arrived and the darkest hour is 6 p.m., Eastern Time. The Eastern woods are thick and, even with leaves on the ground instead of the branches, it is can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-you dark.

No problem, you say, "Just turn on your bike lights."

Well, it is a problem. The woods I love are in a nice suburban enclave, but an enclave that doesn't care to have mountain bikers riding in the woods behind their homes after dark.

It's not like they are meanies, since they gave up a big chunk of their homeowners association land to build a pedestrian-bike bridge across the Amtrak railroad tracks, cutting off more than a mile of nasty backdoor riding that included multiple wet creek crossings, in-your-face spider webs and a climb that we all called "The Nemesis" because of its steep switchbacks, low-hanging, helmet-banging fallen trees, wet rocks and general muddiness.

I learned to ride in those woods before IMBA came in and applied some sanity to the chaos of fall-line trails pocked with mud holes and rocks as big as your mama's bee-hind. There were creek "trails" that were really just a mass of roots snaking down to the water. You didn't touch dirt for 50 yards, just slimy, skinned roots.

The trails that replaced that junkyard are swoopy and fun, but not as difficult as the old network. I came home many a night with shins bleeding and big knots on my elbow from attempting to clean "The Halfpipe," a natural bowl with a line so fine that the slightest deviation would result in a major biff. Now, I can't even see where The Halfpipe used to be.

I don't work for USA Today anymore, so I can write for Bike and Paved from my living room couch. In the summer, I can in get in a post-work ride nearly every day. But when fall falls and winter winters, I need to be there by 4 p.m. I try to end my ride near the railroad tracks because the passing of the Virginia Railway Express commuter train at 5:15 p.m. tells me I have to head home.

I have made a point of photographing that train either from the bridge over the tracks or from a perch very close to the tracks. The juxtaposition of the natural woods and a screaming silver-blue- and- red passenger train is fascinating to me. I wonder if the worker bees see the flash from my camera as they hurtle past. They're probably already folding their laptops and grabbing their coats in anticipation of Burke Station just ahead.

I put my old Leica in a jacket pocket, click into the pedals and ride through the growing darkness. It is always darkest before I'm home.