"Wow, where is everyone?" I muse as Bill and I ride into the Rattlesnake trailhead. On Saturday afternoon this same parking lot overflowed with dozens of vehicles. Now it's Monday evening, the weather is cool and damp, and the lot is completely empty.
"People in Missoula don't come out in the rain," Bill says. "They use it as time to catch their breath and regroup."
Catch a breath and regroup. Something I could use now more than ever. The death of my grandfathers. The emotionally draining trips to Utah. The constant traveling. Adapting to Missoula. New apartment. New job. Biking. Training. Running. Friends. Relationship. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Bill splashes through cold mud puddles and I race beside him. I only have one speed and tonight it is not a slow one. Pumping, breathing, crackling leaves, breathing, grinding rocks, breathing, while the mist-shrouded mountainsides close in around us. Golden aspens, green hemlock and larch trees crowd the narrow corridor. The mostly unseen river gurgles nearby. Bill and I talk about life and love, patterns and chaos. My lungs burn amid gulps of moist, cool air. The sky imperceptibly fades to darker shades of gray.
"Sometimes I really miss riding in the rain," I say. "Not that I want to do it every day anymore, but sometimes it just feels right, and real." We stop at the Sheep Mountain trailhead and stare longingly at the scar that cuts deep into the wilderness. When I look back down the canyon, all I see is curtains of fog draped along the treetops. The vista resembles Southeast Alaska, and makes me feel deeply homesick in a way I sometimes still feel. "I can't believe I've never been up the corridor before," I continue, more quietly. "I plan to come back often."
Bill suggests going farther, so we continue forward. The grade steepens and my legs struggle. Darkness sets in. Bats and grouse flutter through our headlamp beams. Elk bugle eerie songs into the night. When I look back, I can no longer see any reflection of city lights from Missoula. The sky is black. We rode far. I am tired. I am really tired.
Breathe, breathe, breathe. We look out over the darkened valley and search for the shadows of elk and bears. My breathing slows and quiet sets in. Night cloaks the canyon in mystery, a release from homesickness and a spark of new energy. The sweet autumn air is rich with possibility, and I breathe it all in.