Friday, August 5, 2011

Interlude: That is, a temporary change of subject

Each spring I go for a massive adventurous bike ride. I have done this for several years, ever since I discovered mountain bikes. The idea of a bicycle that one can use to ride through the woods was something that hit me like a forest fire. So sometime early in the season, usually April sometime, I go riding and come home a mess of scratches, bruises, and brambles with a giant grin splattered on my face along with a fair quantity of mud. I have even figured out a rather convoluted system of rating my bike rides on a scale of 1-10. The following is not a complete list, but gives you some idea of the rating scale. In order to achieve a 10, among other things a ride must include:

  • riding off-trail -- off-road goes without saying
  • a fairly spectacular wreck WITHOUT equipment damage (mandatory half point deduction if you break the bike)
  • blood, preferably in limited quantity (hospitalization is a disqualifier)
  • seeing wildlife, the closer the better
  • mud on all major parts of the bike and body
  • minimal "carrying the bike" over obstacles
So you begin to get the idea.

This year if you live in Minnesota you know that the spring was miserable. I barely got on my bike at all, and certainly didn't get to take The Ride. Then June got miserably busy and then we were on vacation for the first two weeks of July. I forgot all about The Ride and just started riding my gnarly off-road Gary Fischer bike as a commuter vehicle back and forth from home to the church and home again in order to get some exercise. This is sort of like using a monster truck to shuttle the kids to and from soccer practice. It's just sad and wrong, even if it's functional.

I woke up yesterday morning with no idea at all that this would be the day of The Ride. In spades. I rode down County Road 1 to work and enjoyed the blessed coolness of a seventy-degree morning, then late in the afternoon changed back into my biking clothes to ride home. On hot days, I often take the Elk River Parks' beautifully paved railroad grade up to County 33 and then cut over to County 1. This route gives me a few extra miles of shade, as the railroad grade glides northward through heavily wooded parkland.

En route I mentally praised those who so promptly cut up and removed trees which had fallen across the trail. They had done their job so thoroughly that I barely noticed the number of trees which had been removed.

You see, this has been a summer of storms. We've had more than our share of straight-line winds and near-tornadoes, cumulonimbus clouds and wall clouds and thunderheads and heavy rains and flash flood watches. It's wet, and the ground is saturated, even in the sandy country where I live. The swamps and the creeks are full. The grass and the underbrush are thick. These details will become important in a moment.

Yesterday I decided not to cut across County 33 to County 1. You see, the railroad grade continues northward. In fact, the newspaper said a couple years ago that the county plans to pave the remainder of the grade from the Elk River city limits northward to the municipality of Zimmerman, which would make my commute a true joy. So generally a couple times a year I take the railroad grade north beyond County 33 in order to see if work has begun yet. Slowly, slowly I am beginning to realize that the newspaper story is exactly the kind of thing governments publish in the press to curry favor among the voting public. Said story has little or nothing to do with actual facts.

Yesterday, given 1) the heat of the late afternoon, and 2) the beauty of the day, I decided it would be a good day to ride northward beyond County 33. You can't get all the way to Zimmerman on this railroad grade, but you can get halfway there, then pick up another side road, skirt the edge of U.S. 169 for a quarter mile, then follow the backroads to my house. That was my plan.

The pavement ends at an arbitrary point (technically the northward limit of the city of Elk River) behind the landfill. From there, the trail is gravel, but generally there are people on four wheelers that keep the weeds beaten down and it makes a good biking path for someone with a killer mountain bike. It was greener than I expected, but still very ridable. I didn't anticipate too many trees down across the path because most of the storms, as I remembered, were worse toward Elk River and not so bad nearer to Zimmerman. And there had been few trees down on the southern portion of the trail, at least few that I saw. So I rode over a tree trunk, then over another tree trunk. After a half mile of gravel I encountered my first full-blown downed tree that forced me to get off my bike. I slithered under and through the branches, pulled my bike through behind me, then got back on and resumed riding down the trail. After a mile I had ridden over a half dozen trees and had to get off for three or four. Not bad, and about what I expected.

Five or six more downed trees forced me off the bike and around, over, or through. The mosquitos were thick whenever I had to get off my bike, but when I resumed riding I rapidly lost them. A deer fly or two buzzed around my head and tried to get through the vents in my helmet but they didn't last long in the wind once I got up to speed. I marveled again at what it must have taken to build a railroad grade through these wetlands. To either side of the trail water stood in small ponds. The quantity of rain lately has turned most of the low-lying forest into a swamp.

A mile and a half into this trail I began to anticipate coming out onto a road again. I knew I had another half mile, maybe a little more, to go. Then I came on a tangle of trees that you'd have to see to believe. There must have been thirty within a hundred yards, all down, limbs akimbo and tangled over the trail making it totally impassable. Fortunately, I thought, there was a four-wheeler trail headed east into the brush, up a steep bank, and out into a meadow that paralleled the trail about a hundred yards away. The easiest course of action looked like the meadow, then I could come back to the trail at some point. That was the plan.

I climbed up into the meadow, mostly walking my bike because there were trees down over the four-wheeler path as well. When I reached the meadow, the tracks continued east, so I turned and rode through the thick grass in low gears. Everything was going swimmingly.

At this point, working backward from the evidence, I have deduced that one of two things happened. The first possibility, if you read science fiction, is that I hit a space warp and was immediately transported a quarter mile to the east. If you're more government conspiracy oriented, the second possibility is that the Army Corps of Engineers came in at that point with a prototype squadron of their new silent propulsion bulldozers and built a new trail that looped a quarter mile to the west, in the process removing all traces of the old trail and of their presence.

Like I said, the evidence could point either way. What happened to me was that I turned west at the north end of the meadow to work my way a hundred yards down the slope through the woods back to the trail. I found a swamp. So I worked my way, mostly carrying my bike, through the swamp, around the swamp, through the swamp, over the logs and through the underbrush and through some more of the swamp. The swarms of mosquitos were ferocious. The deer flies had disappeared and been replaced by large herds of their massive cousin, the moose fly. Not a breath of wind stirred down their in the brush. Nothing at all happened to disturb the squadrons of insects, busy at their feasting. Occasionally I dove through an especially thick section of underbrush to try to get them off my back, arms, shoulders, neck, and head. That resulted in scratching up my body in fairly thorough fashion.

My one comfort was that I was walking in a straight line. On a cloudy day I might well have lost my way and begun wandering in circles, but the sun, sinking toward the western horizon, gave me a clear point of reference to ensure that I was making progress toward the trail.

I began to calmly catalogue resources. I had my wallet, a couple granola bars, a chain repair tool, inner tube puncture repair kit, air pump. And my cell phone. I kept carrying my bike -- a fairly light thing up until yesterday, but at some point someone had filled its aluminum frame with lead -- over and through the swamp. I thought about that cell phone and realized it would be absolutely no help. What could I do? I thought about that last, sad call to my wife. I would get her to promise me that she would never come looking for my body. Someday, in a dry year, someone would find my bike, but by then my body would be drained and sunk into the muck.

It felt like miles, but honestly I don't think the Corps moved the trail more than a quarter mile to the west. After several false alarms, I finally climbed out of the swamp up a bit of firm ground and found the trail. Had the bugs been any less thick, I would have bent to kiss the ground. As it was, I simply said a prayer of thanks and proceeded to turn north and climb aboard, clipping my shoes into the pedals and trying to get up enough speed to evade the mosquitos.

My next obstacle was another fallen tree, but this one I was sure I could ride over. I got up a little more speed and proceeded to hop my front tire over the trunk. Then I saw there was a second trunk hidden behind the first. My front tire came down and stopped. The rest of the bike took a second to come to a halt, so I found myself in a curious position. The bike hung in the air vertically, balanced on the front tire. I was still astride the bike, hands on the handlebars, shoes firmly clipped into the pedals. I hung there for a full second, then, like a Ponderosa Pine, began slowly to topple northeastward. Fortunately I landed on the gravel and was able to roll enough that I took most of the impact on my right kidney. I carefully unclipped, got my bike and me up, and proceeded to crawl through, over, around, and under the next thirty or forty trees that were scattered across the next quarter mile of trail.

Then, blessing of blessings, I saw the road. One more tree, and I was able to shakily get clipped in for what would hopefully be the final time. I began to ride toward the gate that crossed the trail just before the road. Just before I reached the gate, I turned left to follow the four-wheeler access where they've gone around the gate. I had to slow down in order to pedal through a couple deep puddles. Riding at about a mile per hour, I heard a rustling in the tall grass to my left, maybe five or six feet off the trail. Small animal rustling. Suddenly a thick, heavy sensation filled my nostrils and mouth.

Being in close proximity to a skunk that has just sprayed is nothing like the gentle odor you get when you pass one that's been hit on the highway. Close up, the scent feels like the back of your throat has turned to ammonia, like you're eating tangerines that were allowed to rot for a week in the sun, then soaked in vodka. It's unbelievable. I rode out onto the pavement (blessed pavement!) and turned up the hill toward the highway. The flood of skunk scent dwindled and faded. I hadn't been hit. It was a near miss. Thank God.

I stopped to call my wife. It was already a half hour past the time I'd told her to expect me home. When she came on the line, I said, "The good news is that I'll be late for supper. The bad news is that the railroad grade north of County 33 is totally impassable."

When I finally arrived at home, we sat down to supper and I told this story. The kids wanted to know how I'd rate the ride. The question stumped me a little bit. I finally settled, all things considered, on an 8.5.

I rode my bike to work again this morning. I'm about to leave my office as I finish writing this. I'll be taking County 1 home, thank you very much.


  1. I will need to modify my definition of interlude!

  2. Sometimes it's just good for me to change the subject and not take myself too seriously. I'm sure I'll be back to writing about ponderous theological topics soon!