It’s the first of the month, and I’m perched on my Voodoo Bokor, leaning with a hand on the tailgate of the truck. The July morning sun is quickly burning through any of last night’s dew, and the tattered mist retreats under the shady pines at the meadow’s boundary. Breathing deeply and listening, I click in and out of the pedals a few times and bounce the suspension up and down as I begin a test lap around the parking lot. I can make a list and duct tape it to the downtube, but my brain only kicks in to a final pre-ride checklist as the knobbies crunch through the gravel around the truck. Sunglasses and helmet, check. Gloves, on. Tube and CO2, in my pack. Water and energy gel, also in the pack, along with phone and keys…wait: the keys! Did I zip that pocket closed? The gravel scritches as I grab for brakes and sling my pack off of one arm and around so I can check my keys (probably for what is the third time here in the parking lot) and confirm that they are, in fact, secure.
This morning’s coffee sluices through my veins but can’t quite wash out the thoughts of the basket of bills on the table at home. There’s also an annoying buzzing in my brain; I can’t shake the worry hounding me since my boss told me he had to cut back on my hours. Before I know it, summer will be over and the girls will be going back to school. More Benjamins that won’t be falling out of the money tree any time soon. Not to mention the fact that we haven’t really been on a good vacation in a couple of years, though I don’t know how we’d pull that one off. And I heard a new noise under the hood of the truck just this morning as I was pulling up the las hill here before unloading the bike. . . .
. . . .Wait a minute! I came here to ride, to get lost on the crisscrossing, rusty ribbons of singletrack; I’m about to get lost inside my own head, but finally remember to spin the cranks and go. The topography here is programmed onto my muscle memory. The dark arch of the trail entrance zooms overhead and I drop into the cool forest and hook the high line on the berm of the first quick right hander and across the waiting bridge. Just after the flats on the other side of the bridge is a three-way junction: a hairpin left will take me through the sandy flats along the river’s edge. Bearing off on the right fork, will lead begin a short but very technical loop through some steep climbs and very low-lying and potentially boggy gumbo. Since there’s been a little rain in the afternoons, I decide to avoid the sand and the gumbo on either side and just shoot straight across to the slightly more gradual but long and twisting climb, aiming more or less for any heart of darkness that this trail system has to offer.
It’s a good choice; I know there’s a nasty upkick a few hundred yards from the top of this climb, but the first mile or so is old hat, so I keep steady big-ring power on the cranks. My memory of the twists and roots and stairsteps, is spot-on. My suspension fork smooths out the chatter bumps, and as the roots seek out my front wheel with more enthusiasm, I loosen my elbows, hitch myself up on the saddle a fraction, and gain some momentum with each stroke of the pedals.
Gravity always wins out, though. The annoying, buzzing worries of a few moments ago have been drowned out by the hammering pulse of my increasingly labored breathing and the wind singing in my ears. Easing my weight back slightly while momentarily soft-pedaling, I flick my left wrist quickly, shifting the chain down to the middle ring. All the weight is off the palms of my hands now, my fingers hooking around the grips and sensitive to the slightest need to lift the front wheel up and over obstacles as my overall speed drops dramatically. It’s very steep now; I make it a point to draw my gaze away from the summit (or, rather, where the trail will switch back one final time before the summit) and rake my eyes up only that 10 or 15-foot portion of the trail in front of my tire. It’s kicking up enough now that any minor misstep in my technique could result in a stall. Incorrectly shifting my weight would loosen the back wheel, especially now that I’ve grabbed a few clicks’ worth with my right hand, a plea for help from the bigger cogs nestled down there. No more breeze, only my gulping for air and the occasional click or rattle of bike feedback.
And then it’s done. I’m broken free of the worst of it. Right after the final switchback, the grade eases off and I hook back into a faster rhythm, pushing more power and speed along the ridge, holding back just enough to catch my breath and recover enough for what’s next.
The path here eventually breaks left and right, and both heading down. Going left will only get me back to the starting point sooner, so I hook around to the right, hungry for more of this rush. It’s here that I find it. On the way to the center, appropriately enough. This downhill sucks you in, gradually beginning her pull with easy sweepers and wide clearance, almost like a mysterious, forgotten section of double track or fire road on its way back to being reclaimed by the land. The slow drop in builds speed deceptively, though, and an off-camber left plays spooky hell with the rear wheel for a few yards. I end up just letting its drift bring me through the exit of the turn, though I have to put a little English on the bike and the front brake lever to stay upright. I’ve ended up scrubbing off most of my speed, but it’s just as well because I’m now hitting the first of four three-foot drops in a row. Up off the saddle, stay loose: drop, lean back, breathe…drop, lean, breathe…drop, lean breathe. One final sequence takes me down into a gully that’s narrower than the bike is long. the steep exit chute in front of me seems instantaneously vertical and I have to pivot the bike under me, bringing the handlebars nearly into my chest powering up and out of the chute. Fortunately, my momentum carried me through because I was in the wrong gear after the fast descent.
A few more miles of easy rollers and forgiving twisties got me back to the junction above the first bridge. I spun along the riverbank for a few final miles for one last rush of speed. Finding the loop at the end and circling it made for the out-and-back, and with the river whispering and gurgling in my right ear, I eased to a stop in the soft sand and leaned the Voodoo against an agreeable Dogwood tree. Easing across the trail to a rock outcropping, I lay back and crossed my arms under my head. The whining and buzzing of this week’s hassles had vanished, and the lapping of the water under my perch assured me a few more moments of blissful, thought-free treetop contemplation.
Later, I couldn’t help grinning as I got up and stretched and beheld the inevitable red muck that bespattered my bike; I think it’s a most beautiful, ever-varying accent to the glossy black paint. It will be nice having to take a few moments to clean her up in the garage, before going back to the bills and the chores and the noise under the hood. This I know: it’s not just a temporary fix,an escape. The riding is soul-maintenance. I can’t get away from one iota of responsibility by hitting this trail, but I can gain more energy and a healthier perspective once I make it home.