With shelves hemorrhaging bike parts and a circle of friends we can barely recognize without helmets, it seems like forever ago when it felt like we were the only ones dabbling in the world of dirt.
It began by swinging a leg over an old, ill-fitting bike borrowed from a friend of a friend. Nervous and excited, we dove into the woods, unperturbed by the constant squealing of our barely effective brakes and our sub-optimal clothing choice of denim shorts. Winding through forest paths camouflaged by dappled light seems so familiar, but we can't quite figure out why.
It’s not until we lie with our backs on a bed of pine needles that we remember where we are: We're kids hiding in the thatch of woods behind Grandma's house. Back then we were prospectors of a fantastical wooded world, so magical that it was invisible to adults.
But as time passed, our adventures in the woods grew less frequent, until that magical world became invisible to us, too.
A few hours and only a handful of miles later, we exit bloody and bruised and covered in dirt. And we can't wait to do it all over again.
We save and skimp to buy a bike the magazines call "entry level." When weekend rides stop being enough, the bike tags along with us to work, where we will have to answer the same questions all day long. Yes, this bike costs more than your TV. Yes, I know that they make bikes with motors now. Yes, the bikes at the big-box stores have “springs” too, but these are different. Adam from human resources thinks it's an overpriced kids’ toy, but Jenny from accounting seems curious about mountain biking.
We give racing a try, ready to put our skills to the test. We go in cocky and come out DFL, deciding to modify our racing goals for the next year to achieving a respectable “not last” finish. We dream about bikes. We watch movies about bikes. The number of awkward tan lines in our social circle has grown exponentially since the time when we could count the riders we knew on one and a half fingers.
And still, we want more. More freedom. More escape. More time surrounded by people who understand the inherent awesomeness of a toilet-paper holder made from a 1994 RockShox Judy SL. Strange questions start sounding oddly normal. Which bike should I hang above the dining room table? Does the guy I ride with every Wednesday have hair? How can I turn this broken saddle into an office chair?
As once-thrilling backyard trails become routine, the search for new singletrack begins. We head across the state to attend the mountain bike festival they're always talking about on the local website where people love to argue about blowing fall leaves off trails.
The neighbors at the next campsite invite us over. They play mandolin and we crack open a box of wine. By the wee hours of the morning, we’ve talked about adventures, their dog's knack for puking into the heating vents and the one who got away. Crawling into the tent back at our site, we make a note to get their contact information in the morning, but never do.
Impromptu day trips evolve into long weekends crossing state lines. Eventually, travels take us to places where dirt's a different color and people who talk funny comment on our accents. After a week, we’re on a first-name basis with the shop mechanic and the clerk at the convenience store. In the middle of nowhere at the perfect sitting spot, we run into a group of people taking a break from their ride — great minds think alike and all that business.
After talking, we find out one of them is from our friend's hometown. Their brother went to school with his sister. The world grows a little bigger with each mile under our belt. A little smaller, too.
Items are checked off an unwritten bucket list as we volunteer for trail maintenance, take a solo road trip and finally adopt a trail dog of our own. Our dreams grow bigger than reality, but reality has no place in the realm of dirt fantasies, so we dream about riding The Whole Enchilada in Moab, racing the old TransRockies and training our new dog to stop rolling around in every piece of rotten muck he finds in the woods.
Somewhere between costumed races, trailhead BBQs and random adventures in the world of two-wheeled miscreants, strangers weave their way into the fabric of our lives. As more people crisscross through our world, familiar faces become synonymous with stories that hark back to when we first met.
Over time, repeated random encounters become annual reunions where shared experiences are rehashed until our cheeks ache with laughter. Last names may be as mysterious as job titles, but we know the important stuff. We know that by following their wheel, we’ll ride faster than we ever could on our own. We know they’ll always be five minutes late to a ride, unless we’re calling for help saying goodbye to that old trail dog, in which case they're already on the way.
We light fires and tell stories while sharing beers that bear a striking resemblance to canned water. We indulge in being surrounded by people who can talk into the night about the stupidity of ever-changing wheel sizes and the genius of detachable bib straps. But eventually it's time for our world to shrink back down.
Time to go back to regular life, to task lists and a daily grind where no one talks about the time that guy peed in the Gumby costume.
"Did you guys ever wash that?"
"Nah, it's still sitting in a box with our other costumes."
"See you soon," we say out of habit and hope. Sometimes soon is only a weekend away, and sometimes it slips away unnoticed. At home on our backyard trail, we end up right where we started — just us, an old bike and a trail of momentary connections in this great big small world of ours.
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