The bank sign read 59 degrees just after 5:30 p.m. Monday.
"Ah, it's still warm," I thought. Golden sunlight cast long shadows on the streets. "And it's a beautiful evening."
I put on a long-sleeved jersey, shorts, and a thin pair of gloves, and set out toward the mountains. The subtle warmth of the low sun caressed my skin, and sweat began to bead on my forehead as I climbed Pattee Canyon. I felt particularly strong, perhaps because it had been several days since I had ridden a bicycle, or perhaps because I was finally getting into singlespeed shape. I ramped up the pace, veered right on a narrow logging road and churned up the steep gravel as twilight descended. I crested a saddle and continued climbing toward the Miller Creek Divide, as night opened the sky to an expanding spread of stars and a sliver of the moon. I felt amazing. I love to climb and climb. I'd climb into eternity if there was a mountain high enough. But the Miller Creek Divide eventually crests out and drops into a bewildering maze of logging roads, and it was there, at 8 p.m. or so, that I finally slowed to a stop.
A rush of cold air struck me like a freight train out of the darkness. I gasped and insta-frozen breath swirled in the beam of my headlamp. I shined it down on my feet and saw hints of sparkle on the grass. Was that frost? The chill needled in before I could investigate. It was cold! How did it get so suddenly cold? I opened my frame bag to confirm what I already knew - that I had failed to bring an extra layer. Because it was summer, right? No, no it wasn't summer. The temperature was near freezing and plummeting. And there was nothing I could do but descend 3,500 feet of elevation - on a spun-out singlespeed, no less - into the frigid night.
Unpleasant would be a kind word I could use to describe that descent. I tucked into my handlebars if only to glean off my own body heat, and dropped into black canyon. My dim light turned the gravel road into a flicker of shapes and shadows as the icy wind stung my bare legs. My fingers lost sensation first, then my toes, and then the windchill worked its way into my arms, legs, and finally butt. I am blessed with what I think is uncommonly good heat retention in my core - especially in dry cold - so I managed to stave off shivering. But my limbs were for all practical purposes frozen. I was a statue on a bicycle, a blur in the dark night with only the tears in my eyes to reveal any sign of life.
By the time I reached the bottom of the canyon, I still had to pedal home, but my legs absolutely refused to move. My hands were so numb that when I went to adjust my helmet strap, I found it completely impossible to even unbuckle it, so I just placed the frozen stumps back on my handlebars and strained to push every ounce of warm blood I still had in my core toward my legs, on the off chance I still had muscles to move. I wasn't sure, because I certainly couldn't feel them. I creaked robot-like toward home, then fumbled with my keys for nearly 10 minutes just to get the door unlocked. After that came the shower of much punishment: 10 minutes of hot agony as the thousand invisible needles pricked my skin back to life, followed by 10 more minutes of numb recovery, still trying to make rigid fingers work.
Ah, the early season. Have to respect the annual lesson in the importance of warm clothing.
But the truth is, it's been difficult for me to accept that Missoula has any other seasons besides summer. When I moved here, summer had just begun, both literally (it was June 21) and figuratively (the long spring rains finally let up, and haven't really come back since.) It's been four months of sunshine and long evening rides and warm nights. I can't even really imagine Missoula any other way. Until Monday, cold nights seemed to be a long way off. Winter felt like another lifetime.
Then I woke up this morning to thick frost on the grass and porch, and I knew it was probably time to start saying so long to the summer, for real this time.
But not yet. Not quite yet. Tuesday was Dave's last night in town. He, Bill and I rode up the Lincoln Hills and worked our way up to a particularly challenging series of singletrack trails called the Larch and Sidewinder families. We climbed into fading light and dropped into expanding darkness, losing the rest of the twilight to a 20-minute stop to saw a fallen tree in half. I launched into the darkness with wide eyes. All the obstacles seemed more insurmountable, the trees more foreboding. I struggled with this trail when it was still summer, and with the early night, my headlamp cast it in a new, even eerier light. The air was still, the temperatures falling, and the city lights of Missoula sparkled like a sea below us. But my apprehension began to diminish as I tucked into the turns. I smiled with the warmth of my fledgling confidence, because I've experienced much in the past four months, and those are the remnants of summer that will never fade.