How many people with assault rifles did you see on your ride today?

"Why do I do this?" came back as a recurring question yesterday while I was riding up the Gooseneck fire road, the same road my sister nearly killed herself on. I've been up this road maybe a couple hundred times in the last three years. It's a nasty steep hill you have to be in pretty good shape to clean even in your granny gear. There's no view to speak of and there's a fair amount of truck traffic so you have to hug the shoulder if you have an ipod on. And you have to have an ipod on to dampen the noise from the shooters. Gooseneck road is the unofficial shooting range for Polk county and they love guns out here. Most of the shooters are friendly. Sometimes we'll talk a bit. Usually I just wave and crank by up the hill with music drowning out the gunfire and giving the whole experience a sort of redneck "It's a Small World" theme park ride kind of vibe.

The sun is out for the first time in as long as anyone can remember today so a long ride into the hills seemed the thing to do. A month of pedaling in the barn on the trainer has just about killed bicycling as a sport for me. I've finally taken the time to calibrate and use the heart rate monitor I bought last year and I was eager to see how close to heart failure I really get on this climb. It felt good to have scenery move by me for a change. The climb begins with a modest half mile grade to the clear cut where it levels out for a hundred yards or so. This is where most people set up to shoot and as I expected, there was quite a crowd. Today it was a bunch of kids. Teenagers, mostly. Gang banger wannabes. Tuner cars and, oh good, an AR15 assault rifle with a laser scope. And they set their target up in the middle of the road. Great. They're shooting up Gooseneck road.  Armed to the teeth and stupid. I rode past the target.

I want to pause here and tell you just how disturbing it is to find yourself riding a bicycle between a shooter and a target. Of course I would never intentionally do something like that, but we rarely make a single clear choice to end up in a particularly dangerous situation. We tend to end up there following a series of chance events pushed forward by our daily momentum and the understanding that things generally work out for the best. It just turned out that their shooting range occupied the same space as the road I was riding on and their bullets and my bicycle were traveling in the same direction. I was past where they were standing before I saw the target and two kids walking back from them with the assault rifle.

I got around the corner as fast as I could and they did wait a good few minutes before opening up. It wasn't too bad. I hadn't put my ipod on yet. And then BOOM! My keyboard lacks keys that can adequately describe how loud the concussion was. It wasn't the AR15. Someone had a 50 caliber something. That or a grenade launcher. On went the ipod. Passed another group of shooters just getting into the steep section. Marveled that my heart rate was up to 178. Around the steep crux corner. Up the next bump. Up the last bump. Steep run for a quarter mile to the top of the ridge. Heart rate back to 164. More shooters at the borrow pit at the top. I spun a low gear and waved as I got close. They waved back and I pulled off the headphones. I warned them about the kids below and their firepower. One guy asked what they had. I said "an AR15". I looked over at the other guy who was shooting. "Oh, you have one too." We ended up having a nice talk. It's really true. An armed society is a polite society. We all shook our heads at the few stupid people who ruin it for everyone.

I certainly wasn't going back the way I came - I do have some body armor for riding at Black Rock, but none of it would stop a stray bullet - so I headed up to the the lookout, another couple miles with a fairly soft grade up. The road had been tank-trapped in a few places so not many vehicles make it up here. The gunfire faded to the sound of distant skirmishes. I ditched the ipod and thought about where I was riding and why so many people need to come out here and shoot. It's a popular thing to do these days. All those thousands of rounds of ammunition people bought after Obama became president seem to be getting used in my hills.

There's no clearer line between ourselves and the Other in our country than the line drawn between those who own guns and those who don't.  The irony is, most of us make that choice for the same reason. Carolyn and I don't own a gun because we feel safer not having one. Most of our neighbors own guns because they feel safer with them. The truth is, all any of us are doing is preserving a myth that's important to how we want the world to work. Statistics say my house is safer without a gun. But it's also true that we have no protection from anyone or anything out here. Police, firefighters or the county sheriff would only be able to document what happened to us, not prevent it. There are clear reasons why owning a gun would make sense and might actually save our lives. On the other hand, the belief that always carrying a gun would protect you from violence is rarely borne out in reality. During the shootings in Tucson a couple weeks ago, there were two armed men in the crowd. One was the assailant. The other ran toward the shooting and nearly shot the man who had wrestled the gun from the assailant. Will owning an assault rifle protect you from the government if the government becomes a tyranny? Probably not, but their owners need to believe that it will just as much as I need to believe that the odds of a forced entry home invasion are so low, I shouldn't bother arming myself.

Once at the lookout, I usually drop into the Mill Creek valley and take the road home. Today I decided to go exploring. My brother in law Joe had found some trails over Christmas that started here and hooked up with another fire road system that led to some beautiful upland prairie and eventually dropped back to Gooseneck road (the paved one) and a quick ride home. I started off and was stunned by what I found. The trail was in pretty good shape and it had flow! It needs clearing but this is going to be a beautiful summer ride. All shade. Even now it was a lovely ride through a carpet of ferns. It traced the ridge for maybe a mile with occasional views of the Mill Creek valley, before dropping down and connecting with some old logging roads. These eventually hooked up with a series of recently improved roads leading to some active logging operations. Carolyn and I had been up here about six years ago gathering native grass seed. It's really only a couple miles from our house as the crow flies but if feels a world away.  I know there are some trails up here that lead down to Mill Creek but I was losing my light so I dropped down the road, nearly plowed into a locked gate that had been painted green - not the best safety color in a forest - past the homestead at the bottom of the road and then back on to Gooseneck.

I arrived back home two hours after I started, soaking wet, having covered less than eight miles for the whole trip. But I felt used up in a good way. Which, I suppose is why I do it. A mountain bike ride that takes you someplace you've never seen is a ride worth doing. Coming home tired, soaked, with your bike covered in mud and lichen, getting a hot shower and plunking down on the sofa in front of the wood stove with a glass of wine is a feeling worth dodging bullets for.


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