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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Drawing Lines: MTB Axioms and Other Random Considerations For Simpleminded Geezer-Bikers

We are all on a quest for meaning...heroic journeys, from the time of the ancients to present day, begin with a call to adventure–a challenge or opportunity to face the unknown and gain something of physical or spiritual value. American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who coined the phrase "Follow your bliss."  

The old inverse relationship axiom is true: The slower you go while mountain biking, the more likely you will crash.
In fact, my most injurious and bloody falls have occurred after stopping and simply trying to start up again, especially on uphill sections where a mere pebble thwarts forward momentum while feet flail about in search of pedals. Invariably, at least in Arizona, this happens when surrounded by weaponized cholla cactus. Such encounters with cholla IED's requires carrying tweezers, if not needle nose pliers, in order to pluck dozens of barbed cholla bombs that have a death-grip on exposed skin and clothing.     

Such was my day on a 7.5 mile loop-hike that Bobbie engineered from camp. She did it by connecting three existing trails that wander amid the lush and rolling Catalina Mountain foothills. This little used loop gains nearly a thousand feet of elevation, granting hardy horseback riders, hikers, and simpleminded mountain bikers exquisite far views to the north and west across Oro Valley where the Tortolita Mountains take centerstage.

MTB Axiom # 2: The path that makes for a glorious hike does not necessarily make for a glorious bike ride. 

A view from the Summit Saddle

Having hiked this loop with Bobbie, then once again with Brent and Anita on the day before they headed home, I thought I had done my "homework." I was not seduced by false illusion, that a meandering horse trail could be ridden end to end. Not even close. This would be a hike/carry-a-bike outing, one with a great probability of hike-a-bike as much as ride-a-bike. Being a simpleminded optimist, I've always been quick to bite off physical challenges that, in hindsight, leave wondering what the Hell I was thinking. Can I do that? I won't know if I don't go.

Since Brent and Anita had headed home to Golden...dodging blizzards and arriving in temps that hovered below zero...I was on my own. No Biking Buddy Brent to second guess this choice or bail me out should I go OTB. I packed the SPOT, just in case...

If only half the trail was like this it would have been worth the misery

Turn's out that I was not the only starry-eyed "fool on the hill." Both times I hiked Bobbie's Loop, I noticed come and go knobby tire tracks interspersed amid Vibram Boot prints and horseshit. 

Hmmm. If some hardy, slightly insane person was willing to pack a mountain bike up this steep, rocky ascent, there must be a long, free-flying, gravity powered descent...you know, the kind where you get to stand on pedals and weave through picturesque thorny vegetation. What have I got to lose, other than a little skin and blood?

Hoses string for miles to bring water from springs to cattle troughs 

It was a struggle from the start. Sections of the trail I thought ridable were fraught with under estimated obstacles, tight turns, and steep grades. This was a horse trail, after all, with few straight runs where I could maintain momentum enough to stay upright. 

Thus I was more off the bike than on, disappointed at what I thought rideable on foot could be quite the opposite, a labyrinth run with boulders and tight turns. This, before I even reached the narrow, bouldered and rutted steep parts where I was already pushing and carrying my bike and falling, of course. 

Another short section of decent trail

 So narrow and bouldered were the steep sections that I was forced to carry my clunker more than push. When I could push, there were ledges over which I had to hoist the bike...first the front tire, lock the brakes, step up (if you had the luxury of a place to find a place to step), then the rear wheel, up and over. If I had a nickel for every calamity as a result of this method of propulsion, I would be rich enough to call for rescue by helicopter. But what good is money when you are rich in experiences, I thought, while staring a streams of blood trickling down knees and elbows. 

Inch by inch, I lugged, tugged, and carried my bike to the saddle-summit. It's all down hill from here! I rejoiced. But as I said before: my hiking memory often differs from reality. The trail remained tight turned and narrow on the way down. Wait-a-minute bushes shredded legs and arms while IED cactus bombs lined the trail waiting to flatten a tire...or catch an errant falling body. 

When I finally reached straight sections, they were steep...mined with tight turns and cactus and boulders. One steep down section was on a slab of solid rock. It looked innocent enough, until I discovered it was dusted with sand, which rendered brakes useless. Fortunately, there was a run-out into a wash at the bottom where my inevitable crash was cushioned by sand. 

All the long sweeping downhill sections of trail that took hours while hiking evaporated in minutes on a bike. WTF? Did my eyes deceived me? What made me think this would be "fun?"  

MTB Axiom # 3: Hiking a trail is not the best way to scout out a potential mountain bike ride. 

It was my last fall that was the most debilitating. Sweeping down, somewhat out of control, I came to a lesser wash. It had a rocky-but-doable uphill exit on the other side. If I keep my momentum up, across the sand, then find low gear and stand on the pedals... 

It sounds so simple. But rare are the times that narrow, rocky, cactus-lined, uphill trails are "simple." Everything was rougher and steeper than it looked when hiking, of course, and I was one gear too high to muddle through the "trap." I stalled...balanced on pedals for an micro-instant, looking for a the least damaging place to fall. Right! Fall right! I thought. But lucky was not my lady on this ride. I fell left, into a long needled prickly pear cactus buried in an overgrown cat-claw bush.  One of the prickly pear spines speared deep, just above my ankle. I popped up wondering if I landed on a rattlesnake. I've been bitten! 

In retrospect, all I can figure is that the spine must have hit a nerve and caused a temporary loss of function in my foot. It felt numb and tingly and wouldn't obey orders. I hobbled as best I could, trying to get some feeling back. Finally, I sat down on a boulder and pulled off my boot and sock to see why my foot was no longer responding. I examined for tale-tell fang marks from the imaginary rattlesnake, but found none. Just a drop of blood oozing from a pinhole. I limped around for a good 15 minutes before sensation and control returned to my foot. Still, it was extremely painful to put weight on. I know...weird. 

I finally reached a final segment of trail I was quite familiar with. It's like a ride at Disneyland, a gentle free-fall with banked corners and numerous jumps with long run-outs to land before diving into the next sweeping curve. This is what I had hoped to experience on Bobbie's loop, I thought. Oh well. 

About that time I spied Bobbie hiking up toward me. 
How was your ride?
I still have a pulse...all's well that ends well.

Over the next few days I felt a need to purge the trauma...explain (whine) away all the cuts and tares and scabs. The entire story dribbled out in pieces, including loosing the use of my foot, thinking I got bit by a rattlesnake, and, ultimately, that I would never, ever, ride that trail again...EVER! Unless, of course, Brent wants to do it next year.

Like a baseball batter facing Nolan Ryan, and the count is no balls and two strikes. If you don't like sports analogies, picture a black cat that's used up 8 of it's 9 lives crossing a busy highway at night. Or, if you don't like cats or sports, think about the sacrificial canary in a coal mine. The point is, I've taken some hard falls over the last couple years, wicked OTB's (over-the-bars) on wicked downhill sections in Utah's Klondike. And, more recently, the high speed face/shoulder plant while riding sandy foothills near the Superstition Mountains. Recovery is arduous and ongoing. But I'm back on my bike...happy to be alive and well enough to do so, even though some of you will point out my eventual obit: Third Strike takes 70 year old mountain biker out; Brain bleed finally snuffs out a mountain biker after 9th crash; Canary asphyxiates in coal mine, along with an old and too curious spelunker. I can think of worse ways someone my age might leave this world (see above). 

After a glorious month of mountain biking with Nephew Brent, not to mention Anita and Bobbie, it left me wondering how long I could keep going at a (for my age) reasonable level of proficiency. In other words, how long beyond 70 can one expect to continue tackling semi-technical trails at speeds that releases a rush of endorphins, that I seem to need to feel alive? Better yet, will I know when to back off...when to settle for less...of, God forbid, when to hang it up

As with everything, there is a "catch," a "trade-off." Play it safe and I might live long enough to die of something a little more respectable than "an accident." But what, God forbid, if I live too long? It's a legitimate and fair question, is it not? One that anyone in their 70's has likely mulled over. What if I live long enough to become a burden? What if my memory fades to a point where I ask the same questions over and over to people I no longer recognize? What if I live long enough to lose my mind but my body doesn't have the sense or decency to die?

Unfortunately, I've never had much success at living in the "moment." My bike and the trails I ride forces me to do that. But I can't ride a bike 24 hours a day. It used to be silly, to overthink "living too long." Who doesn't want to live to be a hundred years old?  But now, considering all the likely possibilities, not so much. It's something to consider, maybe ever prepare for. Something to motivate us to do a few basic things that "may" postpone the possibility of mind and body deterioration. Maybe end of life issues are not cast in concrete. 

One thing I know this for sure. I do gain "something of physical (AND) spiritual value from the simple act of climbing on my mountain bike and peddling for all I'm worth up and down a challenging trail that forces me to be "in the moment." There may come a time, sooner rather than later, that my body, reflexes, and balance will not be up to those kinds of tasks that helps maintain a semblance of sanity in a world a world gone mad with conspiracy theories and angry rhetoric. 

I love my bike, even, no, especially when I have to push and carry it. Find something you like to do outside, even if it's something as simple as walking, and do it everyday. It's good medicine, trust me. 

All is well,
If you live to tell...

Peace Out,
Mark and Bobbie, Back on the road to nowhere in particular.


  1. Mark, you need never cease to amaze me. We are all so different. After half a lifetime hiking mountains with no trails and a backpack full of dirt samples and carrying a shovel, a spade, and a rock bar, there is nothing I love better than a gentle smooth trail with a view carrying nothing, especially a bike. Your story makes nether parts pucker. I'm so glad you can do it and I pray you never have to hang it up.

    1. Sue, you certainly paid your dues working that job! When the time comes to "hang it up," I'm afraid the Docs (or Bobbie) will have to pry my hands from the handlebar and chain me to the dreaded exercise bike with bike videos playing on my laptop. :(

  2. Good to see you’re finding some daily bliss! Try and keep the wheels down! Love you you Big Guy!

  3. Get a pocket comb and carry it on rides. When an entire cholla pup imbeds itself in your shin, or your hand or wherever, slide the comb against your skin, under the pup and lift. It won't get the little spines, but it saves your hand from trying to pull off the pup. I had one flipped up by my front tire, into the palm of my hand the other day. Too bad I didn't get a picture, it really did happen. So, hiking and biking gear bags need a comb.
    We've learned over the years that vision is selective, what looks like a doable trail, frequently is not.

    1. That's a great idea...and funny, a bald guy with a comb :). Those cholla are tough to get off, what with those nasty barbed ends. I've had that happen too, a tire flinging a "pup" up. Lucky it caught clothing rather than skin.

  4. Howdy Mark, sorry that Prickly Pear kicked your butt, don't know which is worse, a Cholla or one of those. But I gotta tell you, I stopped riding really technical stuff years ago, not worth the blood and pain. Do I miss it? Yeah, but I'm still out there riding the easier stuff and damn happy that I am. Be careful out there!!

    1. Cholla is worse to me. That's the ultimate goal...just to keep riding, even if it's a tricycle. :) Keep it up Jim!

  5. Oh Lord here we go again and we have been waiting and waiting for something anything so we know M&B are enjoying life under a gorgeous Winter Sun having some fun and making memories to follow then thru the years ahead. Don't have to comment on what ensued except to say that at least his mind has got it right, the next to last paragraph lets me know he's going to be alright in the END :)
    While a good portion of the country is going thru HELL it's just another beautiful day in the life of the Box Canyon Boggers.........

    At 77 I can't do the things I use to do nearly as well but the mind keep saying "isn't it great just to be Alive" .....so watch what you are THINKING :)
    D & A

    1. Thanks Doug and Al, Nice you can keep an eye on your favorite place during winter!!! Rushing home tomorrow to (hopefully) get our 2nd shot!!! Leaving Dazy in Camp Verde, so we will be back in a few days and pick her up...then head to eastern Utah for some more mountain biking!!! Stay well guys!!
      mark and bobbie

  6. Love your potential obit! Maybe you should write your entire obit now rather than have Bobbi do it later?

  7. Love this. I've had a couple of silly crashes on my bike this year, and each one left me with more residual soreness then I remember experiencing a decade ago. Mountain biking seems a sport for the graceful and the young ... and for the truly stubborn. But I too relish the simple joy of the flow state the difficult endeavor forces. It's tough to decide when to stop and when to keep going.

  8. Jill, I know my days have numbers on them...at least for the kind of riding that gives me the "high" I so desperately seek. There's nothing that compares with the feeling that comes from acing a difficult section, and nothing so painful as an unexpected OTB. I not good at "dialing it back" yet. Of course that could change with the next serious crash...


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