Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My new favorite trail

One of the best aspects about being new to a region is that sense of discovery in everything you do - like a trail was created just for you; like you invented that tricky traverse. Of course this is far from the case; these places have been explored again and again, by tourists and college kids and REAL Montanans, who are second only to Alaskans in their ability to view long-term residency as a quantifiable gauge of status. So everyone and their brother has been to this lookout or that trail. What matters is that you haven't. You wander these mountains with an explorer's eyes, and you still see the mystery and wonder that are too easily forgotten.

I've had a bit of a hard time recovering from Hell Week. I took Monday completely off, as planned, and then on Tuesday headed out for a mellow ride with the Dirt Girls. We rode the Ravine Trail loop, about 25 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing total. The Dirt Girls are known for their fun, social pace, so I felt discouraged by how creaky and tired I felt trying to hold the paceline up Grant Creek Canyon. We collected the rest of the group at the trailhead and tackled the shaded singletrack 14-strong. I started off the far back but eventually passed most of the group. At the saddle, three of us encountered three guys who told us there were 17 men total in their group, all gathered at the SnowBowl Overlook. When we told them we were heading a group of 14 women, one guy said, "Awesome. We'll have a party at the top."

One woman replied, "Sorry, most of us are married."

"I didn't mean it like that!" he exclaimed with a huff, and took off. I had to laugh at the implication, but it's still quite the phenomenon when you think about it - 31 mountain bikers in two separate, segregated groups, all gathered at a remote little mountain knoll on a Tuesday night. But, unfortunately, there was no "party at the top." The guys took one look at our massive group of girls crowding the overlook and fled.

I still felt wooden and achy on the long, rolling descent, and contemplated taking Wednesday off as well. But then - and I should mention this happened while screaming over some guy's painfully earnest rendition of Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses" at a karaoke bar late Tuesday night during Dave's wife's 26th birthday party - Dave mentioned a trail he was thinking about riding Wednesday night. "I've never ridden it before," he said. "So I'm not sure about the conditions. It could turn epic. "

How does one say no to that?

We got an early start right after work Wednesday evening, and brought lights and extra water, braced for a hopeful three-hour ride but a possible six-hour adventure. We churned up the loose gravel of Mormon Peak Road. My legs started to ache early and I decided not to push it, hoping Dave wouldn't mind of I dawdled a bit. Even on the access road, the ride was stunning - sweeping overlooks around every corner, soft evening light filtered through dark thunderstorms, and even bright pink fireweed blooms lining the hillside (I didn't even know Montana had fireweed!)

I thought, "The trail can't be better than this."

We came to the Mill Creek trail junction and started up the singletrack, lined with sweet-smelling spruce trees and bright green groundcover. After the fireweed sightings followed by a trail through a loamy corridor beneath thick, tall forest canopy, I felt like I had found my own little slice of Alaska in Montana.

I thought, "The descent can't be better than this."

We came to a junction where Dave pointed out where a mountain biker could climb another 2,000 feet to a high ridge on a more ambitious day. The ridge offered high-alpine hiking access to the Bitterroot Wilderness and a number of peaks. I vowed to return on a more ambitious day, and we dropped into the singletrack descent. A thin ribbon of moss-lined dirt switchbacked tightly through the woods and suddenly popped out along the edge of a steep, rocky ravine. That's where the rock gardens started, and Dave attacked them with zeal, yelling out as his single-speed Karate Monkey rodeoed over the boulder minefield. I took the obstacles a lot more slowly or not at all, my rock technical skills largely untested and my confidence small. But I vowed to return to this Mill Creek trail again and again, and practice and practice until I too could squeal out uncontrollably as I bucked down the trail.

"I forget sometimes that riding a new, awesome trail is the best feeling in the world," Dave said at a rare quiet moment against a sweeping backdrop of green mountains.

"Pretty much what I've been thinking for the last month," I said. "But this one is definitely the best."

If a ride is nothing but amazing fun the entire time, does it even count against recovery or toward fitness? Often, I wonder.

Dave thought Mill Creek was fantastic, too: "Ride of the Year."