Today was an amazing day spent with new friends and old, that included plenty of bikes, oyster shucking, and mild temperatures in the mountains. First off, I want to say we have a super cool and supportive bike community in Asheville and WNC. I sometimes forget just how great our community really is. Everyone is so friendly and supportive and just wants to have fun in the woods riding bikes with friends. I am so thankful to be a part of this great community. We started the day at 11am with a group of fun, new to me friends for the first annual Ride and Roast. Ride and Roast was a house warming party/ride organized by my friend Becky who owns Mountains to Sea Acupunture and Herbal Medicine in Asheville. She planned a group ride in Bent Creek with an oyster roast/house warming party following the ride. We had nine people show up for the ride and what a fun crew we had. It is so nice to ride with a group of people that just want to go out and have a good time in the woods riding bikes. I have been riding solo a lot lately and I forgot how fun it is to ride with a big group. Everyone had varying abilities and yet we had a super cool ride that was good for everyone. If you wanted to go fast, you went fast, if you wanted to take it easy, you could take it easy. There was no pressure and there was no race, which sometimes happens during some group rides. We all were just riding and enjoying each other’s company. The day started out pretty cold at 30 degrees at 9am, but quickly warmed up to a moderate 59 degrees later in the day. I rode comfortably with shorts, arm warmers and my summer riding gloves. I started with a vest, but quickly shed that after the first climb. The entire day we all chatted and regrouped at every trail junction and chatted some more. Everyone was in a great mood and everyone was being supportive of everyone. We talked about the warm day, bikes, our jobs, our passions, you name it. All day long I was in biking heaven. We hit one of our signature trails, Greens Lick and everyone was all smiles on the super fast downhill. The trails were flowing smoothly and the camaraderie was even better. After the ride we met at Becky’s new casa for the oyster roast. She brought in a huge bushel of fresh North Carolina oysters from the Outer banks and we fired up the grill and had an old fashioned oyster shucking party. I hadn’t had oysters for many years and these were fresh as can be. About 30 people showed up and we ate the succulent oysters for the rest of the afternoon. Once again conversations were had and general good camaraderie ensued. Now I sit here, thinking back on the wonderful day I had with friends, and the many things I am thankful for in my life. The week has been a very positive week. I had an amazing last day before Thanksgiving break with my students. We all shared things we were thankful for and I went into break with a very humble and inspired mind. My wife Shannon and I went to her parents in South Carolina and had a good visit with her family. The food was tasty as can be, and the conversation and company was uplifting as well. I was reminded at the beginning of the week that I love my job teaching and I am thankful for the challenge to help kids everyday. I was reminded in South Carolina about the importance of family and talking together. I am so thankful that I have family to spend time with and that care for me unconditionally. Then today I was reminded of how important it is to be with friends and to exercise and socialize together. I am thankful for my health and the ability to ride my bike with friends and I am thankful for inspiring people that just want to socialize and support each other in sport and camaraderie. I am thankful for my lovely wife, who kicked butt on the ride today, and I am thankful for my two kitties, who are watching me type this story as I type. I am thankful for love, health and sport. I am thankful for the little things, like sunshine on a late fall day and the opportunity to grow each day in my life. I am also thankful for this moment right now. Moments like these are all we truly have, and I hope I have many more moments like the ones I had on this perfect day.
What is it about extreme sports and injuries? It seems they go hand in hand, and don’t they always seem to happen at just the wrong time? Or do they happen at just the right time? Sometimes we learn things from our injuries and sometimes the lessons do not set in and we have to get injured again to really make it stick. In the end though, life has a funny way of repeating circumstances until the lessons truly take hold. Every time I get injured, I ponder all these questions, and I go through a range of emotions from anger to guilt to finally acceptance. Acceptance is the hardest one, and it takes a lot of introspection, but it usually comes. So first, I want to catalog all my major injuries and then I will talk about what I learned in the process.
My first really big injury was in 1990. It almost killed me. I was a young mountain sport enthusiast, living in Gunnison, Colorado. I was skiing every sick line I could find, jumping off big cliffs at Crested Butte, and skiing crazy shoots and trees 100+ days a year. I was kayaking every river I could find a shuttle to, biking every trail in the area from Gunnison and Crested Butte to Moab and Fruita. I was rock climbing every rock face I could find, and basically living the mountain lifestyle dream of doing everything related to mountains and doing it with wholehearted abandon. The adventures were always epic, and I do not regret the fast and crazy living of the Gunnison Valley, but did I mention that I was young and inexperienced? When you are young, you don’t have a healthy respect for fear, and you basically huck yourself into every situation without much thought about the consequences. When you are 20, you don’t realize that rocks can hurt and they can even kill. So that Fall season, we had gotten a lot of early season snow for about two weeks and the powder gods were dumping the area with tons of snow. We decided to hike for some turns on Crested Butte Mountain before it was open and we were treated to the best powder day I have ever experienced. It was literally chest deep and some of the best light and fluffy snow I have ever skied. We had been doing laps on some of the front side runs mid-mountain and during the last run, we were slowly making our way down the mountain. They had cut a new black run on the front side of the mountain and we wanted to check it out. Apparently, the stumps were not yet completely cleared out on that section. I noticed a few strands of long grass sticking out of the snow, but I figured we would be all right and I dropped in. I made three turns, caught a tip and went down on my side, right into one of the hidden tree stumps. In my inexperience, I did not realize that the early season snow had not set up an adequate base layer yet, and so we were basically skiing right above the rocks. It was fine up higher, but not down lower in the valley. Stumps do not mix well with ski tips, even if you are not going fast. I went down and did not hit hard, but the wind was immediately knocked out of my chest and I was in a lot of pain on my side and gut. I caught my breath, but was still having excruciating pain like a knife cutting into me with each breath I took, so I decided I needed to get out of there and find some help. Each breath and every bump on the way down felt like hell-fire and I was about to pass out from the pain. Something was wrong. At the bottom of the mountain, I laid down for a minute, while my friend went to get the van. Luckily, he was not able to hike up to where the van was because he had on old Sorrell boots that were terrible for hiking uphill. I wanted to lie there for awhile, but he sensed something was wrong. He came back to where I was and immediately got me up and we stumbled to the nearest clinic in Crested Butte. I started to knock on the door and the door opened simultaneously. The only paramedic in town was literally on his way to the store and we surprised him. If I had been a minute or two later he would have been gone, and I found out later I would not have made it to hospital in time, which was 30 minutes down the road in Gunnison. We went inside, took x-rays and determined I had two broken ribs. I was getting very dizzy and was about to lose consciousness, so the paramedic called an ambulance and we set out to the hospital. He got an IV in me and it turns out that is what saved my life. If I had driven on my own, I would not have made it. We made it to the hospital in Gunnison. They put a catheter in me and it was all blood. They did an exploratory surgery to see what was going on inside. The broken ribs had punctured my kidney and I was bleeding internally. The doctor thought it was not that bad and it would seal up on its own, so I sat in the hospital for a week with no progress. Each day I kept bleeding out a small amount of blood in my urine. A week later they sent me to Montrose, Colorado to have a MRI. The doctor there said I needed emergency surgery to repair the kidney. So they sent me to Denver General to a kidney specialist and he repaired the kidney the next day. Two days later the stitches broke and I had to have a second surgery. After about three more weeks of recovery, I finally was released from the hospital. Later, I went to retrieve my skis from the clinic in Crested Butte and met the guy who saved my life. He said I could have died from that injury and I was lucky to be alive. I thanked him and we talked a lot about the thin line of life and death. So as you can see, that day gave me a new-found sense of life and purpose, and I gained a new sense of the fragile nature of life. I decided I needed to slow down a little and think about things more before jumping in head first. In one quick moment, I was given a glimpse of the transient nature of life and it woke me up. I was thankful to be alive and it gave me a new sense of being thankful for every breath and every moment. I vowed to cherish life more and to live life with more purpose and direction. I would still ski, bike, climb and kayak, but now I would have a better sense of respect for possible injuries and I would listen to my gut instinct more when it said to back off. I was learning to turn off the ego, and to live for my own joy and not to impress others. When you are young, you sometimes do things so others will be impressed and my competitive nature always drove me to do better and to go bigger than someone else and to do it faster, etc. I was now realizing the futility of ego and I was learning to live for my own goals and aspirations. Who did I need to impress? Who cares what others think? In sport, you have to do things for your own joy and passion. When you can do that and learn to live in the moment, you are free to pursue sport for the sake of sport and you learn to push yourself in ways you never realized were possible.
My next injury was many years later and it was a big one too. I was rock climbing one day on a two pitch route in North Carolina at the Looking Glass called Rat’s Ass.
After the first pitch, I had set up a hanging belay in a crack and brought my wife Shannon up to the stance. I had noticed a shooting pain in my lower back and it was killing me. We finished the day and I went home and took some Ibuprofen to help with the shooting back pain. It never went away and for the next month, every time I was standing, sitting, or walking, I was in intense pain. The pain radiated down my leg and and was debilitating. The only time it did not hurt, was when I was laying in the fetal position in bed. I had been getting massage and adjustments at a Osteopath for a while and the pain would go away for a day, but it would come back with a vengeance. The Osteopath finally ordered an MRI and gave me a diagnosis of a slipped or herniated disc. A lifetime of skiing bumps and hard mountain living had finally caught up to me. Surgery was the only option, so I traveled to Dallas, Texas and had surgery with a neurologist friend of my dads. Two hours after the surgery, I was pain-free and I walked out of the hospital. The laminectomy/dissectomy surgery was a complete success. The doctor said I could not rock climb for three months, and at the time I was a complete climbing addict. What was I going to do? How could I not climb for 90 days? At first I was super depressed and angry. I got bored very quickly as well. The doctor said to walk as much as possible for therapy, so I started hiking more. Slowly, my mental state started to change. I went to some amazing places in North Carolina and started hiking a few 6000 foot peaks.
I discovered a hiking program called SB6K, which stands for South Beyond 6000. SB6K is a hiking challenge to hike all the states 40 peaks over 6000 feet. There are actually 60 peaks, but some are just sub-peaks of other peaks. I completed the program a year later and that was one of the most meaningful and tough projects I have ever completed. For a full write up of that experience, see my post Bushwhacking in High Places. In the end of that experience, I discovered that life can show you many beautiful things if you take the time to find them and step out of your comfort zone and try new things. The back injury forced me to stop climbing, and I learned to climb in new ways, through hiking. I saw places of beauty during that summer that I cannot describe, and I learned more about perseverance and overcoming great odds in three months than I had in all my entire life. I learned patience and how to wait for things. After three months I started climbing again, and the lessons I learned during that time helped my climbing tremendously. I learned to wait for the right moment, and I learned that injuries get better when the time is right. I learned that not doing your main passion all the time opens other doors of learning and opportunities that are sometimes hidden. Once again I learned about moderation and managing risk. I would still climb, but I would do it smarter and in ways that did not tax my back so much. I learned to respect my body and to cherish it for what it is, a medium through which I discover beautiful things and places in the world. I needed to take care of my body and slowing down is always a good thing for your body. I did not stop, I was just more mindful and not as careless.
My next injury was tearing my glenoid labrum joint in my shoulder while bouldering at the climbing gym. I had been pushing it really hard and completed a strenuous problem, but in an instant of ego, I dynoed to a higher hold to show I could do a hard problem, plus one more move. The instant I lunged for the hold I heard and felt the click, which signaled the tear of my shoulder. I instantly had a shooting pain all through my arm and knew I injured it. I rested for about a week and it still hurt bad, so I finally went to the doctor. He ordered a MRI and yes, I tore the joint. It would never completely heal, but he did say to rest for a while and see what happens. I did not climb for a month. He said to go out and test the waters so to speak. I went out and climbed on it. It seemed fine, so to this day, I still climb on it and never got surgery. I just have to be aware of it and not overly exert the shoulder too much. I can still climb hard, but I have to use my feet more and push through moves instead of yank hard on my shoulder or do a crazy dynamic move on the shoulder. So once again, the lessons were moderation and control. I learned to have control of my body to not flail around on climbs haphazardly and jump for holds. I learned to control my mind to not over do it when I might want to do “one more route before we go”, and most of all I learned to control my mind and let it go and relax in situations that might be stressful. I have learned to be in the moment more and to take things for what they are now. If I fail at a route and it is too hard, it is all right and I know I tried my best. At least I am still out there giving it a go. I do not have to be the best and I do not have to do every route, but I still get out there and do it.
Last year I was injured hiking. That injury was pretty funny actually, because I got hurt trying to help a dog get a ball out of the river. My wife and I used to walk a husky for extra money twice a week. That day we went on one of our favorite hikes to a local waterfall in Montreat College. Finn, the dog we walked, loved the water and he loved tennis balls and chasing them. He just did not really understand the art of fetching.
He would do it sometimes, but most of the time he would only bring back the ball half way, or he would drop it in the river, like he did that day. I threw the ball and he chased it and brought it back half way and it rolled back into the river. Slowly it tumbled down to a lower pool in the river. He would not get it and so dumb me went for it. I started to walk towards the slanting, slick wall of rock near the water and slipped. I tried to run it out, fell and almost made it, but hit my hand hard on the rocks and severely dislocated my ring finger. I had to get stitches and luckily I got my wedding ring off before the major swelling started. They later numbed my hand and finger with Novacaine and set it back in place. The shots on my finger and hand they gave me really hurt by the way. Have you ever had a shot right in the sensitive nerves of your fingers and hand? Yes, it burns like fire and feels like someone is grinding your hand with a meat cleaver. It is now a year and a half later, and I still have a swollen knuckle on my finger. I can get my wedding ring on and off if I put baby oil on it. At least I still have complete range of motion and I can still ride and race my bike and run my guide service I started called Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures.
So through this injury, I learned that even simple outings can become dangerous and if you let your guard down, even for a moment, things can happen that you do not expect. I was not thinking and went down the steep, wet slope towards the water just to get a tennis ball. I let my guard down and fell on a slope I knew not to tread on, but I did anyways in a momentary lapse of judgement. After this experience, I learned to slow down and evaluate situations, even simple ones, for objective hazards, and think before you act. One of the best lessons I learned from rock climbing that could be applied here, is to think of a challenge and fear of the unknown as a bubble. You have a circle around you at all times. If you stay in the circle, you stagnate and never grow. To grow, you must step out of the circle and push through your fear. You see the fear or objective danger for what it is, you evaluate all the hazards, you look at your abilities and know you are capable of doing a move, and then you decide to move forward. You do not do it recklessly, but in a controlled manner. You see the fear and danger and you push it aside for a moment and not let it paralyze you, and you move forward. In that way, you learn to have a healthy respect for the fear or challenge, and for the time you move through it and push it aside. In that way it does not control you and you learn to use it to grow and challenge yourself in new ways. You go outside that bubble and you make it safely to the next hold and you realize you can do it. In that way our fears are there to help guide us though the challenge and in the end it is our mind that breaks though the challenge. If I would have slowed down and looked at that ball and saw the danger of the steep, wet slope, I could have made a better plan to crab crawl down the slope or find an easier way around. I let my mind get clouded by the reward of getting the ball fast and I slipped and screwed up my hand. Once again, lessons through injuries.
Now we come to the present. Four weeks ago, I was biking and crashed hard in a rock garden and fractured my fifth metacarpal in my hand and got six stitches in my arm. The doctor this time said no biking for six weeks. I am four weeks out and I am finally starting to get range of motion back in my hand and fingers and it is healing great. I have been hiking a good bit again, bagging summits from the SB6K program again, and I am in a pretty good space right now emotionally. For the past year I have been biking really hard and the month before my injury, I had really been pushing it and exploring new trails I had never been on before. I was getting a little too comfortable with fast riding and taking things for granted a bit as far as health and injury. It is funny how your brain shuts out that part of life. I had been riding solo a lot before the injury and I was really feeling confident and dare I say a tad bit invincible? Then bam, I hit a tree with my bar, right at a serious rock garden, and go into the rocks way off-balance trying to recoup. The first rock my front tire hits sends me flying over my handlebars. I fly off the trail and land 15 feet off the trail straight on my arm on solid, sharp rocks. Blood is gushing everywhere and I was a little worried at first. I move my fingers and they seemed all right. It hurt, but not that bad. I thought I just jammed my finger, no big deal. After a few minutes, the blood stops gushing, and so I bike the mile back to the road, holding on with two fingers since my fingers hurt a bit when I put pressure on them. I walked any technical section and rode the rest. I made it to the road and coast two more miles to where Shannon had waited for me after our earlier ride together on the first loop. I did a second loop solo of course, and that was the new to me technical loop. What could possibly happen I thought earlier? I will be fine I told her. I guess I was a little off that day, because I crashed three times that day, once on an uphill fire-road even. Who knows? I came up to her and said I think I need to go get some stitches, since I had a pretty big gash on my arm. At the urgent care in Asheville, I learned I did indeed fracture my hand. Crap, here we go again.
I have been thinking a lot about this hand injury and what it means. I have tried to stay positive this time and for the most part I have done well with this part. It could have been much worse and I feel lucky that it was not my head or that I did not break any other major bones like my arm or leg. This time I learned to be thankful for what I do have. For two weeks I could not use my hand and that was a challenge. Actions you take for granted like showering or brushing your teeth, getting dressed, writing, etc., were impossible to do alone. Shannon had to help me wash my arm pits and help me get dressed. Luckily, we have a bidet in the bathroom. Even my wife draws the line at times. Slowly, I started to adapt and learn to do those things on my own. I got pretty good at typing left-handed, showering and brushing my teeth. In the process, it taught me to be truly thankful for health and simple things like grabbing an object, or writing my name on a paper. Now I am typing with my right hand and I am getting better range of motion each day. I learned to not take health for granted and I learned to be grateful for the little things. I know it will heal, it will just take a little time. In the big scheme of things, six weeks is nothing and it could have been much worse and I feel truly grateful that I will make it and live to ride again.
It is really hard to see events and circumstances just as they are and not have negative reactions to those things or events. When we can do that, we learn to control how we react to situations and we take them for what they are in the moment, namely learning experiences. We learn to regulate our emotions and not be attached to outcomes or controlling things that are out of our control. We then are free to be happy in the moment and learn from the experience and not brood over things. All these experiences have been hard, but I have tried to stay positive and learn from the experiences. In the big scheme of things, 6 weeks, 3 months or a year and a half is nothing, and all these injuries could have been much worse and I feel grateful for that fact. Injuries are great teachers. You just have to look hard for the silver lining. “Healing is a matter of time, yet it is also sometimes a matter of opportunity.”
Some of the best moments I have experienced in life are times when I am giving back and helping others. Two years ago I started a mountain bike club at the alternative high school where I teach English. We have gone on four bike trips so far, and each time the good feelings I experience just keep getting better and better. The best part of giving back is the fact that I loose my ego for the moment and all that matters is helping to facilitate a growth moment in another person. All worries and thoughts about life like job responsibilities, bills and other concerns drop off, and the reality of the moment is all that matters. These moments help clarify my life and make it real. When I see a student of mine smiling and growing in new ways and trying something new like riding a bike, it helps me to realize that life is more about helping others and creating new experiences for others. By doing these things my own life takes on more intense meaning and I feel whole. So much of our lives are about what makes me happy or what can I get in life. Giving to others makes life have more value and it takes the me out of the equation.
In that moment I am transcending myself and I am becoming a part of a life that is bigger than just me. I am becoming part of a community of people and a larger world, and in that moment everything seems just right.
*Thanks Stephen Janes and TripsForKidsWNC for the donation of 5 bikes to our club last year.
I learned so many amazing things this summer guiding mountain bike trips for Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures. It is incredible the things one can learn while guiding and riding a bike. The best thing has been sharing our incredible local trails and the emotions that were experienced with our clients while riding. I felt like I really tapped into something that was very inspiring on so many levels. There were so many moments talking with clients and them saying things like, “that was the best trail I have ever ridden in my life”, or “I have never ridden that far before”. or “I did not know I could do that.” Basically, what I experienced was sharing the love of biking, and in that moment I saw people grow in ways I never realized. When a client struggles yet perseveres to the end of a ride, and looks at you with a complete sense of accomplishment and beams with happiness, it makes me smile too. I get to experience breakthrough moments with clients every time I go out and it reaffirms why I do this job. When you see someone light up and smile with a grin so big after they thought they could not go another mile, I capture that moment as well, and am inspired and lifted up. Sharing trails helps me to find my purpose and to find my own joy.
I love showing people the incredible riding here, and when I am in the moment with a client when they have such joy, it helps me realize how good I have it in my own life. Sometimes we locals take the trails for granted and we loose sight of the beauty all around our area and how special it really is. Sharing trails creates clarity in my own meaning making moments. It helps me to be grateful to be alive and to experience these beautiful places both when I am guiding and adventuring on my own.
This summer I also got to experience families and friends coming together in a common goal of having fun and creating moments together. When I see a family struggling and laughing together, and ultimately overcoming obstacles together, it helps to seal my own bonds of family and the bonds we share together. It also helps inspire me to go home and hug my wife and to tell her I love her, and to pet my cats and revel in the bonds we all share together. Sharing trails strengthens my own family connections.
This summer was the summer of the kid at Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures. We took out so many young kids and helped to inspire the next generation of shredders. Kids on bikes is the ultimate expression of freedom and joy. When I see them smile and shout WooHoo, the only thing one can do is smile. Kids are the best Zen Masters and when they ride they pass a bit of that mastery on to you as well. I was inspired so many times by kids sharing their stoke to the world this summer. It is impossible to not smile when you see a kid ripping down a trail, fearlessly charging into the unknown. We all could learn a thing or two from that level of inspiration. Sharing trails with kids helps strengthen my own sense of freedom and spontaneity.
Last night I saw a movie about a guy named Frank Sanders, owner of Above All Climbing Guides, who guides rock climbing at Devils Tower, Wyoming. He was so happy and loved to share the experiences of climbing the tower just as he had so many times before. He has been there for many years and it seems that he will do it as long as he physically can. It brought him to a higher level of understanding and helped him to be at peace with the world. I am realizing that guiding for me is very similar. It helps me to be at peace with the world and my purpose, and it helps me to find my place. Sharing trails creates peace of mind and a sense of purpose, and it shows me my way in the world.
I hope I can do this guiding thing for a long time, and everyday I am reminded of how grateful I am to have the opportunity to be a co-owner of Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures and to share the love of biking with others. I have grown so much this summer and found moments of clarity that surprised me each day. Sharing trails has made me grateful to be alive and helped me to find my way home.
Do you like to get away from it all, and escape into wilderness away from the hustle of civilization? I recently traveled to such a place, and I will never be the same again. In the far reaches of Northwest Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, lies the Buffalo National River and surrounding wilderness areas. Two hours off Hwy 40, after many twisting and turning two lane country roads, one arrives to this sanctuary of wilderness and wild country. We were staying in the headwaters area of The Buffalo National River, which is roughly 12,000 acres of remote wilderness littered with waterfalls, mountain bike and hiking trails, caves, and the start of the otherworldly Buffalo National River, the creme de la creme of rivers. The headwaters area is part of the larger 1.1 million acre Ozark National Forest, which includes the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, the 135 mile Buffalo National River, and three other designated wilderness areas. The Buffalo is one of a hand full of undammed rivers in the country and is truly a wild and scenic river. Tall cliffs line its banks and the turquoise blue water of the river is spellbinding to the traveler. My wife, Shannon, and I had a week to explore the region and how I wish I had more. We just scratched the surface it seems, but made many lasting memories and experienced a level of peace and solitude that will last for many years to come.
We arrived on a Sunday evening just in time for the sunset and to check out our accommodations at Falling Trails, which is owned by How Kuff, a local mountain bike guide, author, and pioneer of biking in the Upper Buffalo. http://fallingtrails.com/ We rented a rustic cabin on How’s place that he just built on the 150 acre property. This cabin sits atop the highest point on the property with 360 degree views of the Ozarks and the surrounding wilderness. The cabin has no running water or electricity (solar panels and spring water sink will soon be added) and is about a 15 minute drive on a forest road off the small country highway. As soon as we arrive, we are greeted by the overwhelming silence, which will be the solace after each of our day’s adventures. Silence like this gets deep inside of your soul and cleans you out. It rustles your wildness inside and helps you to forget the troubles of life and get back to the simple concepts like gratitude and being awestruck at the world. We take a short hike on trails near the property and find some of the singletrack in the National Forest we will hit in the morning. We also say hello to the farm animals on the property, numerous goats and two horses. They roam freely on the property and add to the wonder of the place. After our short exploration, we light a fire in the cabin’s wood stove and relax on the porch watching the last of the sun’s rays dip behind the horizon. The sky is a mixture of deep orange and red hues and the picture adds to the sense of wonder and awe we are experiencing. We sleep soundly that night and set out to explore the singletrack in the morning. How gave us a small tidbit of information and said there is a 3 mile loop near the property off his driveway, so we set out on the first exploration into the unknown. We luck into the singletrack and the trails just keep opening up to more trails in an expanse of multiple forks and options. We take one of the freshly machine built sections of downhill and are treated to a beautiful section of trail with berms, flow and technical sections all in one. The trail eventually loops around to the section of trail we hiked the previous night and Shannon decides to cut it short and head back to the cabin. I decide to push on solo, since we crossed multiple sections of singletrack that were begging to be ridden. I hit a super technical descent down the mountain and was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah National Forest. The rocks, roots, tight switchbacks, and big drops were just like the local North Carolina trails. The trail loops back around to where we originally started and I decided to take a few variation side trails, which eventually led to the Buffalo River. One section was a really long, machine built section that was ripping fast and flowey. I was all smiles. On the climb out the rain started, light at first. I climbed back up to the ridge that headed to the cabin and then the rain came in earnest, along with lots of thunder and lightning. At one point on the ridge, the lightning and thunder crashing all around, I kind of got in panic mode and pedaled like a man possessed. The closest the crashing came was a four second count, and I probably should have stopped and gone into lightning drill. The cold made the decision for me and I high tailed it to the cabin through the storm taking my chances. The storm started to move off, and I made it back in one piece. Shannon already had a fire going and I ate a late lunch. I got 15 miles in and I was so psyched to ride later in the week with How. He was going to take me on a real tour of all the 40+ miles of trail on Friday. With all the multiple side trails and forks, I was so excited to have a guide for the next upcoming ride. Right now the Upper Buffalo River trails are not marked on any maps and are all unofficial trails. They have been like that for ten years. How recently met with the Forest Service and in June all these trails are going to be officially designated for mountain bikes and recreational use. The trail system has already received IMBA Epic status and it will be amazing when all the trails become official. How is creating a bike ranch that will have campsites, skills trails, local races and a cabin(the one we stayed in). The ranch will be a central hub for the trail system and How will help manage the trails and be a liaison with the forest service.
Day two, we decided to go rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch, which is a world-famous rock climbing destination. It is a sport climbing and traditional climbing paradise, with over 411 sport and trad routes and more than 400 boulder problems. The climbing is on sandstone and has a mixture of incuts, chickenheads, crimps, jugs and plates. Needless to say it is world-class. I hadn’t climbed in about a year, so I was a bit nervous. The moderate grades at Horseshoe Canyon and the safely bolted routes enabled me to jump right back into lead climbing with no hesitation. I was having a blast at my previous sport obsession of dancing over the stone. The day turned sunny and warm and as usual on the trip, no one was around. We only saw 3 groups of climbers the entire day, and only on very brief occasions. We had the entire canyon to ourselves. If this place was in Boulder, Colorado and not miles from anywhere, the crowds would be horrendous. The remoteness of the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness and the lack of big cities or even towns is the key to its isolation. The 1.1 million acres of surrounding forest is an isolating factor as well. Shannon and I were having a blast and we were having some good bonding time. After all, we met as climbers and climbed together for 15+ years. The day was just like old times and we were all smiles. Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch is worth a trip to Western Arkansas in its own right, but this day was just one in our adventure filled week. We took a shower at the ranch too, which was nice. They added a bath house since our last visit four years ago and have upgraded the camping accommodations as well to include a covered common area with a fridge, BBQ grill and a few more wooded campsites.
Day three would take us to the famous Buffalo National River and an eleven mile canoe trip on this mystical river. I had not been in a canoe for many years and this adventure was one of my favorites. The scenery is truly mind-blowing and around every bend there was something to look at and awe over. We put in near the tiny one gas station town of Ponca and floated to Kyle’s Landing. The scenery reminded me of desert settings in New Mexico with the cliffs and vistas keeping our eyes skyward the entire float. Again, we saw only three people. Two people were way ahead of us and we only saw them once and never caught up to them. One person we saw hiking down a side trail as we hiked up to view a waterfall along the way. The solitude was immeasurable and intense. You felt connected to a deeper feeling in nature and felt like an explorer discovering new regions. The only sounds were the wind and the gentle flow of the water against stones. Times like these open up your mind to wandering thoughts of deeper connections beyond yourself and how truly wonderful nature’s gifts really can be. Simple thoughts of oneness and calm envelop one’s being and smiles are not far behind. We stopped for a side hike to Hemmed in Hollow Falls. This magical place was one of the best places I have been to in my life. A gentle one mile hike leads to a box canyon with a 225 foot waterfall that shoots away from the cliff in a snake-like pattern. The wind was blowing the water in spiral-like patterns and creating a beautiful spectacle. We had lunch in the canyon and soaked up the sights and sounds. The water crashing on the ground put us into a mesmorizing trance and complete state of relaxation. I would love to come back and camp along this river and really experience what it has to offer. The day was one for the books and one I will never forget. This trip was getting better and better each day.
Day four was for hiking and caving. We hiked into Lost Canyon near Ponca to see a natural bridge, many waterfalls, an old Native American bluff shelter site, and to hike into Eden Cave that has a hidden waterfall deep in its dark chambers. It was raining hard on the way there, so when we pulled up to the parking lot there was only one car, and they left of course. Solitude once again. We hiked in the rain up the canyon and then the storm stopped. The sun started peeking out and the water was flowing loud and cutting the canyon like an orchestra of sound playing to a grand audience. We did not mind that we were the only listeners, two wanderlust travelers seeking truth and peace in the remote Arkansas wilderness. The natural bridge was a site to see. We walked through it and the water sliced the rock like glacier run off in Alaska, cutting a large channel through the rock. The sounds of water were creating a grand musical for our ears. Further up the canyon was the Native American bluff shelter site. It was beautiful there and I can just imagine people thousands of years before waiting out storms under the rock and storing their grains there. It was a site to see. There was a many-layered waterfall further up the canyon and another waterfall was coming out of the rock above the shelter site that free fell to the ground in gentle sheets. We stayed there awhile and then trekked further up the canyon to Eden Cave. A local said there was a hidden waterfall deep in the 200 foot cave that you can reach with a short squeeze through the rocks. We brought headlamps and my bright bike light for this excursion. Shannon led the way and fearlessly crawled through the thirty foot section on hands and knees to reach the waterfall. I was definitely out of my comfort zone and moved forward reluctantly. After crawling through the tight two and a half-foot high, 30 foot long squeeze section, the cave opened up to a large room with a waterfall crashing through the rocks at the back. The chamber was around forty feet high and the waterfall rushed out in loud and powerful gushes and sprayed water vapor all over the room. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth and at the site of creation. The sound of water hitting the rock and pool on the chamber floor was a force you could feel to your core. The room vibrated and echoed, charging your body and mind with energy and power. Once, we turned out the lights and just listened to the power. I felt like I was a rechargeable battery and was being infused with energy and life from this natural recharging station before us. We crawled back through the cave and walked back to the car in a daze for the remainder of the day. What a treat!
On day 5 of the trip, I hired How Kuff to guide me into the Upper Buffalo River to ride on his favorite singletrack. As I said before, none of the trails are marked, so having a guide was the way to go. It turns out my exploration ride from day one was just a meager scratching at the surface. We went on a full on, back-country ride and he showed me a wide selection of classic trails from machine built flow sections, to long, technical and rocky descents. The route had a mixture of climbing and downhill and was very similar to riding in North Carolina. We rode 30 miles of some of the best back-country trails I have been on, and never once did we see another person, except once we saw a car going up a remote fire road. A real treat How showed me, was a local fire tower I got to climb up. He volunteers manning a research camera that is housed in the tower. It takes pictures that scientists in Boulder, Colorado analyze to examine the area’s air quality. He unlocked the gate and we scaled the 150 foot tower. The 360 degree views were outstanding. My climbing skills came into play as we forgoed unlocking the ladder to reach the stairs 20 feet up. We scaled the metal tower like cats and needless to say, climbing in mountain bike cleats is a little sketchy and slippery. How had his flats on and climbed with ease. I worked my way slowly up the slippery metal beams and made it to the stairs safely. I wish I took some pics of this excursion, but I did not have Shannon’s phone. Memories will have to suffice. The downhill descent from the firetower was a really nice way to end the day. It was at least a four mile descent on fast and flowey machine built trail that led us back to How’s property.
Hanging out each evening was really fun and relaxing, too. We would make a fire, eat dinner, talk about the day, and just relax on the porch watching the sunset, or would just listen to the quiet sounds of the woods. These were some of the best times of the trip. They were times when your mind would move towards thoughts of thankfulness and happiness at the incredible gifts being shown to us each day on this trip. Sitting quietly among a still world of trees and clean air, one reflects on the joy that can be experienced in life, and one is reminded of the sanctitiy of wilderness and wild places. I now truly understand Thoreau’s quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In wilderness we become whole again. In wilderness, we cleanse our minds and bodies and can take on life with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. With heavy hearts, the next day we packed the car and started the long two day trek back home to Asheville. As a pleasant reminder of the gifts we received this week, right as we turned onto the paved road, a young bobcat walked casually out of the woods. We were able to walk fairly close to it and watch it meander slowly back into the woods. It was a special moment that sealed in the joy and incredible experiences of the week, making them permanently etched into our memories. Turning onto the main Highway 40, we went to get some food. I was definitely in culture shock at all the people and noises. The week of solitude and silence was in stark contrast to the busy world of life. We headed for our final treat to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a soak in the healing waters at Quapaw Baths and Spa. It was a refreshing end to the trip and a way to rejuvenate after all the weeks activities. We then started the drive home in a blissful, relaxed state. In the end, I am so thankful that there still are wild places we can go in life. Places we can go to escape and to reconnect, places we can go to remember gifts of nature and to create experiences that make us once again whole. Until next time, thank you Arkansas.
What a day at the Snake Gap Time Trial mountain bike race last weekend in Dalton, GA. Many lessons were learned and mental barriers came crashing down. Racing with a cold was probably not the best idea, and I literally never slept Friday night, so I was pretty delirious that last hour of the race. But needless to say I was happy with my goal of pushing through when I knew it would be really difficult. The mind is a very powerful force in life and capable of many great things. I was reminded of that many times on the Pinhoti Trail.
First off, this race was so unique and different from any race I have ever done. A time trial format is really cool for mountain bike races. Because we were all spread out, I never felt pressure or frustration at the beginning, which is so typical at other races. I never once felt crowded on the first climbs and singletrack and I never felt rushed in any way. Spreading everyone out by 15 second intervals really works. After awhile you found a group of riders to pace with and that was the case the entire 34 mile day.
So the next fun thing is getting to the race start. I registered at the finish, a.k.a.”the snake pit”, picked up my number and decided to forego the group-shuttle on the buses. I was with a friend who has completed the race many times and he suggested we do a self-shuttle instead of the mass bus-shuttle. The added benefit of doing a self-shuttle is that you get to be in the warm car right until start time. It was around 24 degrees, so I am glad we chose this option. Although I will have to do the bus shuttle one day just for the camaraderie. I hear it is legendary. People started to arrive and a couple trailer loads of bikes showed up and the line for the start quickly began to grow. We hopped on the bikes, put on our toasty shoes and got in line. We waited only 10 minutes to get to the start and the vibe in the air was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone’s faces were smiling like kids playing Hotwheels in the mud on a hot summer’s day. It is a very surreal experience waiting in line to start a race knowing that a huge test of limits was about to commence. I got through the line and started nonchalantly to the cheers of a few people and I was off. Everyone was going at a comfortable pace because as you know, The Snake has a bite to it. The first fang is within the first two miles. The dreaded river crossing that is the stuff of legends and endless chatter on every racer that has or ever will ever do The Snake. There are a million methods to cross a knee-deep river in January and today I chose the take off my shoes, run through the river with wool socks and stop and put on dry socks and dry shoes. I once again was happy I decided to take the few extra minutes to do this task. Only a few people rode through and many were there at the crossing doing the same as me. We all cheered on the brave souls who forgo-ed stopping. There was even a tandem bike couple that rode through to major applause from the gallery. Once again, a shared fun camaraderie that only this race knows how to create.
We then started the climbing. The Snake TT profile is pretty impressive and there is a lot of climbing, with around 10,281 feet of total elevation gain. But that number includes a lot of really fun downhill as well and ends up being around half of the total elevation. I had been on the course once before and I didn’t remember as much downhill, but there really are some superb stretches scattered along the entire route. I was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah so often and loved the mix of flow and technical all day long. There were lots of technical, rocky descents in the latter half of the day and many fun flowey sections scattered in between the entire day. The first big climb reminded me a lot of Spencer Gap Trail in Pisgah with a gradual accent on smooth trail heading up to short, mini-summits along the side of the mountain. There was a lot of cresting a ridge, riding down awhile and then slowly making your way up to various gaps on the mountain. I made a beginner cold weather mistake and forgot to get my Camelback flowing at the start, so it was frozen. I had a bottle of Infinite, but prefer to chase it with water. It thankfully opened up about an hour later, so I was able to get water at the second big climb. I don’t remember a lot about that climb, because I really was getting into the zone on the first half of the route. The trail was in really great shape, and everything was flowing so nicely that the miles were going by very easily and without much thought. I was in the flow, but I was also a bit sleep-deprived, which is a fun combo. I literally never slept the night before the race and that was a very interesting experience. I usually get a few hours of semi-restfull sleep before races, but Friday night I was having a terrible time in the hotel room I shared with my friends from Asheville. So even after a couple of hours in I was kind of numb to thinking, which was probably a good thing. More time to just be in the moment and keep going.
My main goals for these races were to have fun, finish with decent times, have breakthrough moments, and to use them as training for the Southeastern Endurance Cup that starts in February. My goal for this first race was to push through when I knew it would be challenging because I was sick, sleep deprived and not in the best endurance shape. My winter season has been slow and I have not ridden nearly as many long rides as last year, but that is all right. I feel breaks in fitness are good for a body. So in this race, I wanted to get to a point where I wanted to stop, but to keep going and to break through the pain and just experience the moment of forward progress. This experience would definitely come later in the day and it would be one of my best breakthroughs ever.
I made it up the second big climb and did the fast downhill section to the midway road crossing. That section is really beautiful with ripping fast, smooth singletrack all the way to the road. There are lots of jumps and twisty, flow turns and the bike just lets it go on that downhill. I made it to the halfway spot and decided to lube up the chain, take off my winter gloves in exchange for summer ones, eat a little and refill my Infinite bottle. I grabbed a couple of Fig Newtons as well. Solid food would be needed later. I took a few minute break and headed out on the next climb, which seemed long. There were a few hard transitions of up and down on this section where you were going along in big ring and had to shift down fast in order to make the transitions. After the big climb, I remember a really cool Pisgah-esque downhill that had lots of roots, rocks, leaves and drops. I was back in my element and ripped the technical downhill smooth as butter and even passed a few people. Pisgah really is the great training ground for riding everywhere in the country. Once you ride Pisgah, you can ride anywhere. I was really enjoying myself, even though I was starting to get tired. I made it up a road section climb up to the last aid station and knew the next ten miles would be the most challenging.
The last ten miles are really fun, but they also are the hardest, technically, on the race course. You are on top of a beautiful ridge and go up and down off the ridge in an endless roller-coaster like ride that plays tricks with your head at times. The views are outstanding in both directions, but one has to pay attention to the trail close here, because it gets more rocky and varied. The famous rock garden sections are in this stretch and they were amazing. I played it fairly conservative in these sections and walked places I probably would have ridden earlier in the race. I was able to clear a lot more than I thought I could by just peddling in a low gear and hanging on. It is a superb section of tech, views, downhill, climbs, flow, ridge riding bliss and everything all in one. I started to bonk somewhere towards the end before “the wall”. My pace had slowed tremendously and I was just moving along in a dreamlike state. It was pretty cool, I just kept thinking keep it going, be here now. I was having just the experience I wanted. The ridge kept playing tricks on my head and it seemed interminable. But I never lost hope or faith, I never lost my cool, I never got mad, I just kept peddling. Where was this determination and power coming from? It was really cool, I was truly in the zen. I was joking and talking to people, but not many were talking at this point accept this really cool single-speeder. They are always cool, so we stayed together awhile for moral support. He was talking away and it was great. I remember him talking about doing trail work in the area, and doing the race a few times. He was just out for a fun day and it was inspiring to ride with him. Before you know it we hike-a-biked the wall and rode a couple of more short downhills and climbs and the tower was in view. I had just passed through the old Civil War walls and caught up with a local from Asheville. I rode with him out of the woods and he took off. I cruised down the fast fire-road and last section of singletrack onto the road to the snake pit and the finish. I still had a kick at the end and sprinted to the finish line. I finished with a slow time of 5:19, but under the circumstances I was more than happy with my accomplishments. Mental breakthroughs like this one don’t occur very often and this grit and raw determination will carry with me into many other races and other areas of my life. Biking is capable of bringing the mind to places of acceptance and perseverance that not many other sports are capable of achieving. Keeping it all turning, round and round we go in this crazy world with a smile on our face. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in the woods with a bunch of other like-minded and hearty souls.
Labels or words? Names or what?
It depends on your context I guess.
I hear “they” or “them” used as words,
Words with labels attached.
Who is they that we are afraid of?
Or them that we distrust?
Labels or words?
Isn’t they or them
Really just we and us
And even you,
The same as me