Simplicity and Solitude

And without further ado, my submission to last year’s DirtRag Literature Contest:

As my housemates fumble out of bed on a lazy Sunday morning, I stand clad in bike shorts, filling my CamelBak in the sink. I’m leading a planned mountain bike trip to some local trails for my school’s outing club. With the excursion conveniently scheduled the morning after a campus wide “Fun day” (Booze-fest), my hopes for strong attendance are few. Setting my doubts aside, I throw my pack over my shoulders, gather my gear, and leave the smell of day old party behind.

Sitting on the brick bench ten minutes early, I dream of students on mountain bikes riding up to me, ready to go. I’d spot the disc brakes glinting in the sun from across the parking lot, or I’d see a car roll up with a bike on the roof. I know for a fact that there are two full-suspension Stumpjumpers on this campus; they’re locked up on racks every now and then. My walks to class are consumed by methodical scans of all bike racks. I debate leaving notes on certain bikes; “Hey, I’m Mike, wanna go riding..? I love your frame. Here’s my number.” It can’t possibly be creepy. We mountain bikers all belong to the same breed. Though, if that’s truly the case, where are my brethren this morning?

I assure myself that everyone must be fashionably late, and I continue to toy with the sunglasses resting on my face. My surroundings are tinted a foreign orange hue. A car pulls up and I watch some friends get out with backpacks and walk towards the library. Studying before 11? Ambitious. One of them notices me sitting there alone with my bike and yells across the parking lot, “Whatcha doin!” I explain my predicament: no one actually confirmed they would come, but I’m here for anyone that wants to ride. It sounds poorly planned now that I’ve said it out loud. She leaves smiling, “Cute biking outfit.” Damn straight.

Though she was probably being sarcastic, I’m proud of my costume. A dry-fit tank top from my high school track days dons my chest and bike shorts are stretched snugly around my waist. My gray Vans slip-ons encase my Boy Scout high socks. I am a perfect blend of performance and style. Looking down at my watch, I realize it’s 11:08. Losing patience, I meet the eyes of passerby with a feigned nonchalance. Having told myself I’d wait a full ten minutes for any stragglers, I take out my trail map and begin to map a route that suits me. I have given up on the hope of company. 11:10 and no fellow bikers. Despite my low expectations, I’m still let down. In a feeble attempt at self-reassurance, I remind myself that everyone on campus is undoubtedly nursing the mother of all hangovers. But, then again, I’m still out here ready to ride.
The only scientifically proven hangover remedy that I’m aware of is spicy single-track. Recommended dose states 3 hours, but overdoses are often encouraged. My regiment was self-prescribed about a year ago, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Don’t get me wrong, I love my eggs benedict at the diner down the street, but a peanut butter and jelly on the trail trumps the greasy mess. Alas, the two-wheeled medication clearly needs more physician endorsement on this campus. I’ll talk to health services. Preparing for my treatment, I tuck my hair back and toss my helmet on.

In this moment, I am acutely aware of my surroundings. Quiet landscaping, overly manicured greenery, and maintained brick architecture suffocate me. The reply of asphalt beneath my treaded tires sickens me. There is nothing for my bike and I here; I feel out of place. I know of another world that will suit us better. Switching into my second gear, pedaling as fast as I can, I book it past parked cars and glossy eyed zombies. Taking a shortcut through a taped off descent, I fly past student apartments. Skidding around corners, my exit is routine. Past construction sites, down rocky paths, I’m hurdling myself off any small lip in the path. Finding the small pass between the trees, I take a deep breath as I officially remove myself from the world of studying and stress, the world of dim hung-over mornings and that arid, stale taste of flat beer on the next day.

As Henry David Thoreau would have it, I replenish my thirst with a draught of fresh air (and then a few chugs from my CamelBak). The link between the world I’ve left and the one I approach is thankfully short; A five minute ride brings me to a network of trails over 25 miles deep. In this short span, I have completely forgotten about my morning’s worry. I reach the trailhead, turn my lockout off, and prepare for my descent. After just five short minutes, I’m flying down a trail with endless opportunities.

Upstate New York is home to all the boulders I could ask for, and I treat each one like a jump made especially for me. I climb with tact and descend like a banshee. Blurs of tree bark and reddening leaves consume my peripherals while I focus my attention on the single-track that lies before me. No one told my 29er it wasn’t meant for nimble jumps and the mud beneath my frame celebrates each landing with splatters of murky joy. I gradually approach the trail titled, “Swamp-ass,” the title of which never fails to spark my corny sense of humor. A smile on my face, I dart across the wood bridge over the swamp, and continue on a trail that borders the body of water. I reach the spot where I eat my typical breakfast peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and dismount my bike.

The air is crisp and I take my helmet off, letting my sweat-soaked hair bake in the sun. I find a nice tree root to sit on and I pull out my tin foil wrapped delicacy. Only an iron chef could rival my culinary piece; extra crunchy peanut butter on both slices of whole wheat bread help seal the raspberry jelly and keeps the bread from getting soggy as I ride. Time slowly trickles by and all I can hear is the crunching of the peanut butter in the back of my mouth. A combination of beastly hunger and adrenaline turn this sandwich into a heavenly delight of which I savor every bite. The tap water strapped to my back pairs well with the entrée.

In these few hours, I have replaced my crowded and sterile environment with tall trees and jagged rocks. The cement walkways of everyday life are traded for dense woods and flowing lines. Thanks to the guidance of the trails, I am working with my surroundings rather than against. A dose of solitude and the freshness of the forest have enabled me to appreciate the simplest of things. All that exists, all that can exist out here, is my bicycle and myself. Oh, and that delicious PB&J.

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