Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just the usual ride

I think every mountain biker has their "usual:" that one route they've ridden considerably more times than any other route. It may actually be their very favorite trail; more likely, it's the best option closest to home. But either way, it's a place to memorize the tiniest details — the ruts and curves, the line through the rock garden, where to let off the brakes and really let 'er rip. And it's a place to be consistently surprised by the bigger picture — a mountain range of clouds hovering over the ocean or red sunlight cast across the hillside. Most riders' regular routes have boring yet endearing names like "Tin Cup" and "The Goose." Mine is called Steven's Creek Loop.

I've ridden it so many times and taken so many pictures of the same vistas. And of course they always look the same because this is coastal California and I'm fairly certain I haven't witnessed a significant change in the landscape in the 11 months I've lived here. But truthfully, I know these hills do change because I'm here often enough to notice the subtle differences. In March the skies were gray and wet; in April and May the hills were brilliantly green. June's heat added hints of gray to the greens. July gave way to the golden age of August, when the sky was so incandescently blue that it almost burned. In October some of the trees shed their withered leaves; those that stayed turned an undaunted shade of Army green. Now the winter grass is brown and brittle. But in the low evening light, the delicate colors come to life.

I set out almost defiantly this afternoon because Wednesday is becoming a good day to go for a mountain bike ride. But truthfully, I wasn't too stoked on riding today because my arm hurt — not the injured kind of hurt, just a bruised and battered hurt. So there was no risk of damage, just irritation. I pulled on my big elbow pad even though I dislike it because it's so stiff that it essentially immobilizes my arm. Right now, a minimal range of motion is a good thing. Still, every bump in the trail felt like a bratty child repeatedly slapping a sensitive bruise just to get a rise out of me. I reached the top of the steep hill where I crashed last August and thought, "I really don't want to descend any more dirt." So I turned away from the usual and mixed it up with an out-and-back. I was happy to be pedaling uphill again.

One of my favorite things about my usual is the fact it's so quiet here. Even after dozens of rides, I still marvel at the fact I can pedal away from my apartment at the edge of a crowded valley and ascend so quickly into the idyllic tranquillity of these hills. The silence here can be almost absolute when I'm not moving; and when I am moving, I can listen to all the sounds mountain bikers love — the purr of my freewheel, crackling gravel, and a gentle percussion of wind. I usually see more deer and osprey than people, and in the winter I often don't see any people. It's come to a point of solitude and familiarity where I often talk to the deer as I pass, like chatting with neighbors. Every once in a while I bump into the more reclusive residents, the bobcats and coyotes.

"Hey, Coyote, how's it going?" The coyotes rarely even bother to feign interest. This one was especially shy. I got off my bike to subtly stalk him and see if I could capture a better photo. Alas, coyotes are more wily than I am, and he knew exactly what I was trying to do after I snuck around a tangle of bushes for a clearer view. He raised his ears and I could imagine him rolling his eyes at me as he stood up and bounded away.

And maybe I followed him up the hillside, because sometimes it's just fun to follow the trail of a coyote.

The sun began to set as I began the long but mostly smooth descent toward home. I noticed a thin film of frost had formed on the road, which was actually kind of exciting because it meant the temperature had dropped below freezing — and this was something new. Of course, it also meant I was woefully underdressed for the next six miles, screaming down pavement at thirty miles per hour.

Happily, I brought my good bike light this time.

Which was perfect for really hammering the frigid but exhilarating descent into the crowded but beautifully lit valley. A giddy grin froze on my face as my fingers and toes went numb. It's just the usual ride, and yet I love it, every time.