It’s too early to be 90-plus degrees.
The air feels thick, almost soupy. The mosquitoes and black flies relentlessly swarm me. It’s another glorious summer morning at Douglas State Forest in Massachusetts.
I unfold the step stool that helps all 5 feet, 2 inches of me wrestle my mountain bike from the top of my car. This is a feat worth witnessing, at least for a few minutes of mild amusement.
This 5,907-acre forest borders Connecticut and Rhode Island and is popular for a slew of outdoor activities including swimming, boating, hiking, fishing and horseback riding. Lately, it has been my go-to spot for mountain biking.
Always Looking Out(side)
I didn’t plan on falling in love with mountain biking. It was just something to pass the time when I couldn’t rock climb.
I get restless when I’m inside. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny and breezy, cold and damp, or like today, sweltering and humid. I always want to be in the thick of nature, between the trees, on the rocks and in the dirt, rubbing elbows with squirrels, snakes and spiders. Since there are loads of surrounding trails in my little town, mountain biking allows me to choose an adventure in my own backyard.
Push the Limits
The mountain bike terrain in the Northeast is rugged. The trails are constructed of dense roots, logs, rocks and seamlessly infinite hills. This is exactly the kind of “fun” I seek out, the tough puzzle I’m determined to solve and the therapy I need to keep my anxiousness at bay. This is an activity where scrapes and bruises are not prices to pay, but badges of honor.
A few days earlier, I conquered a classic intermediate-grade trail named White Pine. I previously battled the middle section and failed due to an unforgiving rock garden – a sea of burly, intimidating boulders with no clear line. This rock garden looks you in the eye and says, “come on, come at me,” then kicks you when you’re about to reach the finish line and mocks you when you fall. It’s gnarly and cruel.
At least, that’s what I thought until recently, when something just clicked inside me and I confidently sped through it as if it were a smooth road. Mountain biking can play a mean mental game, where the tiniest trace of doubt brings progression to its knees.
The Long Haul
Today, with my loyal pack of mosquitoes following closely, I am eager to tackle another challenge. I come prepared with the essentials: water, bike pump, multi-tool and spare tube. I tell everyone I know with a daughter, “every girl should know how to fix a flat.”
I plan to ride the Midstate Trail toward some of my familiar favorites, but along the way, I come across Pack a Sandwich, one of the more difficult-graded and creatively named trails. It intrigues me, and just like that, my plan changes.
The steep hills are merciless from the start. The two short and somewhat flat areas offer no respite with slick, rocky stream crossings. As I am painfully regretting my spontaneity, questioning myself “why I do this,” and cursing Pack a Sandwich, another mountain biker approaches from the opposite direction. He asks, “enjoying going that way?” I then realize most riders enter the trail from the other side – to go downhill, but his question reminds me that I am here to push myself. “Love it,” I say.
Ready for Anything
I reach a turn onto an easy trail, where I can accelerate to an enjoyable, fast speed, until almost immediately, my tire becomes flat. Sigh. Out come the tools.
When changing a tube of a mountain bike, one must first slightly inflate it before putting it on the rim. Oddly, as I pump the just-out-of-the-package tube, it doesn’t seem to hold the air. I bring it close to hear the dreaded, faint hiss escaping from a minuscule hole. The new tube is faulty and I have one option – walk my bike more than 5 grueling miles back to the car.
Embrace the Suck
I choose the steeper, but shorter way. I torment myself by frequently checking the map on my app to see how much farther I need to go: 4.75 miles, 4.5 miles, 3.83 miles. All I can think about now is a veggie sandwich. A bunny darts out, startling me back into reality. It quickly disappears into the green brush.
I arrive at Eagle Bridge, a slightly uphill yet easy 1.1-mile trail that always seems more agonizing than it should be, especially at the end of a long ride. Today it feels endless, but I still have my flying, buzzing friends to keep me company.
It’s About the Journey
My final mile is on a relaxed, horse-poop-adorned trail where I once frightened a wild turkey. I didn’t know they could run so fast. I felt awful, turned around and rode away, giving the turkey its space. Right now, I am thankful there are no turkeys in sight, just the open dirt parking lot and my lonely dust-covered car.
I’ve hiked trails like these many times, carrying a backpack in lieu of a bike. I remove my helmet, lean against my car and look around, feeling exhausted and grateful.
I appreciate the time I can spend in the outdoors. I wanted an adventure and got one. I also have never wanted a veggie sandwich more.
Share your epic outdoor adventures in the comments.