All it takes is a few words from a stranger. “Ahh, they all talk it up. Get out there and try it, you’ll get better.”
As a beginner mountain biker, I have no reason to seek more difficult rides, but the trailhead happens to be two minutes from my son’s preschool. If I ride at Bracken, I can exercise and squeeze in a bit of work before I pick up my son at noon.
Nothing sways a single mom like convenience.
I get my bike out of my pickup and strap on my helmet. The only other person in the parking lot says hello before glancing at my head.
“Er, is your helmet on backwards?” To her credit, she asks in a tone concealing any hint of ridicule or amusement.
I reach up to find that indeed my helmet is on backwards, thank her, and fix it, all the while thinking how lucky I am to live in a place where everyone is genuinely so nice that I feel half as ridiculous as I might otherwise.
Before attempting the steep climb, I let the kind woman jog out of sight and circle around a few times in the parking lot.
The first twenty feet are brilliant. I’m pedaling, the bike moves forward, up and over roots.
At the first turn, my bike slides downhill and I fall off.
I push my bike up the steep bit then get back on and ride a stretch. Then my bike hesitates over a root, killing the slight forward momentum I had, and I’m back with two feet on the ground, pushing my bike around hairpin turns.
Turns out bike pushing is every bit as sweat-producing as actual bike riding so when I finally do reach the top, I’m mopping my wet forehead.
From then on and the ride takes a more promising turn, enough so that I am actually pedaling and can look around. The canopy is such a vibrant green that it lulls me into believing anything is possible, and I daydream about one day staying on my bike all the way up Bracken.
The forest sings with abundance. Blackberries hang just out of reach alongside the trail. A waterfall flows full, pooling into a creek of clear mountain water that I look down onto as I ride over a bridge.
My lungs finally stop screaming and I take a lingering inhale, expecting to smell the fresh-dewy-just-rained smell.
Instead a heavy fermenting smell hangs in the air.
I inhale again, trying to figure out the smell. It’s a putrid odor, like rotting cabbage or maybe even meat.
Chasing clean air, I ride further into the forest and still the rotting smell follows me. Something is decomposing, the smell of death surrounds me.
That’s when I see them – black and rotten, decaying mushrooms – everywhere. All the recent rain and storms caused the fungi to go crazy, but now they are all in the process of dying, bit by bit.
The mountain steepens and I’m once again climbing. My calves burn as I push down on the pedals.
The mountain is strong. I am weak.
This loops in my head before I realize it and decide if I’m going to tell myself a story, why not write a better one.
So I do. I’m breathing hard and thinking hard, trying to motivate myself to stay on my bike.
The mountain is a mirror reflecting my own strength that I’m just beginning to glimpse.
I pedal. I gasp. I inhale dead mushrooms. I look around at all the green, basking in the forest’s abundance. I remind myself that thinking I can ride will one day make it so.
Surrounded by reminders of both life and death, I climb, thinking about the ways I can make a beautiful life. Something about the juxtaposition of death among all that vibrant green gets to me, makes me think how death slowly happens even when we don’t see it.
I make it to the top, take a long pull of water and think about the book I want to write, the mom I want to be, the countries I want to visit, the community I want to cultivate.
On the descent, my grip is as tight as ever on the brakes. A few rotting mushrooms do little to remove the terror that lurks inside my brain that I’ll lose control and smash into a tree. I’m no faster on the descent.
Nothing changes, not suddenly, not all at once, but something small shifts. On that downhill I smiled a big wide-open grin, for the very briefest of moments letting go of the brakes and flying. There’s no guarantee I’ll ever ride more than I push my bike or that I’ll always put my helmet on the correct way, but all that seems insignificant in light of the simple fact that I am here, riding in the mountains.
I remember gratitude, feeling thankful even for the foul-smelling mushrooms. They remind me that I’m dying, we all are, and the fact of looming death lends even more beauty to our existence.
We aren’t yet dead – a statement so obvious that we often overlook it, but there are no guarantees of how long we are here. While there is still daylight, I feel an almost obligatory sense to enjoy it, to get out and climb the mountains.