In Spite of it All...

I haven't written in ages. I know. I'm not alone. Everything I try to write pales in the face of the reality of the world we live in now.  It's horrible.

Until it wasn't, at least for a little while.

I finally had something to tell you about. It was the most beautiful day. 

East Gauntlet Trail

Last Sunday I rode with my sister and her friend Elizabeth at Elm Ridge in the northern Catskills. I've ridden here a few times and the last time the leaves were beginning to change and I though I should drag them out of the lower Hudson valley to get a bit of leaf peeping in on their new, wretchedly expensive mountain bikes.

The three of us had been riding together for the last couple months. We're a good match. I'm probably a better technical rider but they are both stronger than I am. It's a good mix of push and challenge. My sister would nip at my heels all the way up a climb and Elizabeth, who was the biologist for the Mohonk Preserve would just talk to me about butterflies while we were climbing because she's a biologist and an ultra athlete, while I just wheezed like a chain smoker climbing Mt Everest because I have a desk job from home. I'm wondering why I'm there until we hit the downhill and then I got to shine in my own doughy way. 

We did the warm up loop off the parking lot. It was in the low 40's and overcast so warming up was definitely in order. Mallory crashed when she got her bars stuck between two trees while riding a bridge over a swampy area. It's a thing they do here in the East; running a trail between two trees with barely enough room for your bars to clear. Trail builders here like creating challenges. Or maybe they just think it's funny when people get stuck and get thrown off their bikes. Maybe it's a dude thing. For riders of a certain age and skillset it's an act of cruelty. Mountain bike handlebars were only slightly wider than road bars in the 1980s. Over the years they've gotten wider as the bikes left their road geometry behind and started to have slacker front ends. My sister just went from a 2007 Specialized Stumpjumper that probably had 650mm bars to a 2020 Pivot Mach 429 with bars maybe 100mm wider. We'll need to do some sizing and maybe cut them down a bit. I cut mine an inch and a half with no regrets. She rallied and I promised to keep away from bar eating trees as we crossed the road to the trail system proper. 

Elm ridge has a few miles of flowy trails on its lower flanks that get you part way to the ridge. From there you can push your bike up about half a mile of rocky fall line trail to the ridge top or take a gentler trail called Levitate that gets you there on a bit longer route. Mallory was still a little rattled from her crash so we rode Levitate. As you climb to the ridge the forest gets pretty thick and dark. Mallory commented she could use a headlight. 

We topped out on Levitate and needed to pick our way East along the ridge. It started rough with a couple hike-a-bikes up steep rocky sections. But the sun began to come out and the woods lit up as the trail got less techy and turned into a pleasant meander through the woods. We wound our way back to the top of Escarpment and the beginning of Run Noot, the most popular descent from the ridge and started down the mountain.

And the scenery flew by. The colors blurred. My tires occasionally left the ground. That's remarkable in and of itself. More remarkable is the fact that we are People of a Certain Age and we are not without burdens and damage. Elizabeth is one year out of cancer treatment. I'm a decade out from my prostate cancer. Mallory held the hand of the love of her life as he died from an unidentified cancer. Every year we carry more and more. We've lost friends, marriages, family; swept away by time and whatever capricious spirit decides what works and what doesn't; who lives and who dies. None of us can leave the burden behind. But we get up, get on with it and on days like these, we can set it down for a while. 

And as we rolled down that mountain the speed and the color of the forest that was giving up life to go dormant for the winter filled us with the life they were letting go. I know, it sounds ridiculous and cliché but there is something about Autumn that makes you feel alive even when you are just standing there looking at it. I rolled through berms that were so yellow with leaves it was hard to tell where the trail was. I thought that moment, that fleeting second of movement on a bicycle in the woods, of all things, was transcendent; still. Beautiful in a way I can only describe by circling around it. It was a beauty defined by experience.

The appropriately named "Gold Mine" trail

There are a few things I will never forget. One of them was Elizabeth rolling up behind me at the end of Run Noot and saying "That was So. Much. Fun!" A biologist with the expression of a kid who just rode the best roller coaster ever. my sister rolling up a minute later saying she thought she was going so fast because she was.

That. That was worth everything. 

There will be other bike rides; other Autumns. But this one was special. Elizabeth is moving to West Virginia next week to start a new job involving habitat restoration of old mine sites. Hunting season starts soon so we'll hang the bikes up for a month. Snow is beginning to dust the high country. When winter comes,  Mallory and I will start our quiet treks in the Catskills again.


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