I can’t speak for everybody, but first time I do anything, I always learn a lot. Those first lessons are important ones, they’re the foundation for the years of hiking, paddling, climbing or whatever that lie ahead of me.
It’s no surprise then that I learned a lot on the first bike-tour I ever did. I just didn’t expect to learn as much as I did. I know now that backpacks are for walking and that bushwhacking is hard enough without carrying a bike. I learned exactly how much a new helmet for Thomas costs and I also know that it would have been much easier if we hadn’t been determined to do an off-road tour.
I’d found a blog post on some manufacturer’s website a few weeks previous, detailing a gorgeous, serene trip through the fire-roads of Michigan. The entry had pictures on pictures of spit-shined gravel roads that led straight into a world of sunshine and adventure, and all you had to do was pedal and coast underneath fiery, autumn leaves from campsite to campsite. I was really pulling for our trip to turn out like that blog, but, somebody decided that single-track would be more fun to tour on and the other one of us was dumb enough to agree. So we decided to load up our packs and meet on top of the techy trail that serves as an entryway into the Pandapas Pond trail system (Blacksburg what’s up holler at me ladies). I was late getting off of work, and was very late by the time I managed to drag myself to the top. Thomas, in addition to being patient, is about four times the climber I am and so had been waiting up there for some time. We scoped out each other’s gear setups (panniers? psh, we don’t need any stinking panniers) and then starting off into the setting sun.
Which means it was pretty much a nightride to start with, and bombing down one of the fastest trails on the mountain, at night, with no lights was a recipe for disaster to happen. I was about five minutes into the descent when an overhanging vine caught my backpack and almost yanked me backwards off my saddle. According to a post-trip Wikipedia search, this particular species of vine spends much of its natural life growing slowly down towards pack level on mountain biking trails, praying the entire time for some poor bastard to try and slip under it. I still don’t know how Thomas, who is 6′ 5″, managed to miss it, but he did.
It was full-on dark by the time we reached the bottom, and so we started to climb up to a campsite that Thomas swore he knew the location of. To cut a long story short, on the way there Thomas broke a spoke, got a flat and the Mystery of The Disappearing Campsite remains unsolved (we tried to call in The Hardy Boys, but all they sent us was two geriatrics on commuter bikes. We had to ditch them after they wouldn’t stop talking about how nobody makes nice lugs anymore.)
We did, however, follow a rainwater rut uphill until it became clear that we had wavered dramatically from our planned course. After a brief discussion, we both decided to press on into the thorny underbrush, in the hopes that we’d eventually stumble across a suitable place to sleep. It took another hour of uphill bushwhacking (with bikes and gear, no less) before we found a flat-esque area in a patch of blueberry plants. It wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered the bear scat and clawed up trees that surrounded our campsite. There are not many bears in Pandapas Pond, but we’d definitely managed to find their living room.
In any case, we woke up and bushwhacked back to the trail we’d been on last night, passing several pastoral campsites on the way. I had just finished fishing the bear poop out of my tire tread with a stick when we decided to ride out of Pandapas on a fire road that snakes it’s way through the park system. The gravel led out to one of those hilly back-roads that every cyclist in the Appalachians loves and/or hates, which would lead right back into our cars. We’d drive separately to Dublin, where we’d celebrate our successful excursion with bad food and worse beer.
Unfortunately, during a feigned argument and subsequently fake battle (Those long climbs can get kinda boring) Thomas suffered a very real crash when I clipped his handlebar during retreat maneuvers. After he swerved around for a few milliseconds, struggling to regain control, his head hit asphalt just a few feet away from me. I was worried, but it didn’t look too bad initially; he crashed at a such a low speed and had almost avoided hitting the ground altogether. The end result, however, made it the most serious bike injury I’ve ever seen or been involved in. Thomas jumped up, swore and ripped his helmet off of his head and told me it was cracked. I didn’t believe him at first, and in a way, I was right to doubt; the foam insides were destroyed from the impact, not just cracked.
I took some inventory on the situation, which means I fixed Thomas’s bike while he stood around and fought back the adrenaline rush. When I looked over at him again, his face was sheet white-I told him to sit down, in between apologies, and he obliged. After a few minutes, he hopped back on his bike and rode back to his car.
By the time we got back to the house we both lived in, things seemed better. Thomas was talking like Thomas, which is this weird mixture of unrelenting optimism and weird aphorisms. We even laughed about airing his bourbon-soaked gear out in the yard; the crash had claimed another victim in the bottle of Wild Turkey Thomas had packed.
It was the next day that I had to convince him to go to the hospital after he related a brief anecdote concerning bathtubs and what I knew to be brain fluid leakage. To spare you the gory details, Thomas got a severe concussion and had to spend the next three months off his bike. I, like any good friend, bought him a new helmet and half a case of cheap beer. My memory is hazy, but the point is that the hatchet was buried under crushed PBR cans and 60 dollars worth of plastic and foam.
Shortly after, I moved out of the house to live some 20 miles closer on my commute. That summer, Thomas ended up touring cross-country with only one significant crash. I ended up thru-hiking the PCT without causing anybody else serious injury, although I definitely ate it once or twice.
I’ve since come to the conclusion that the harrowing incident can be classified into one of two categories; 1. Wrong place, wrong time or 2. Jackassery of the worst kind. I lean towards number 2 most days, but I also always factor in number 1. It’s a strange world we live in, and bad shit can happen in the blink of an eye, even to the most experienced or skilled people in any given field.
We’re going on our second tour next weekend. Thomas is bringing a metal flask and a football helmet. I’m bringing a map and have promised to not initiate military maneuvers unless threatened by an enemy cyclist. Wish us luck.