Outside the cabin, a motley crew of people gather. Some have been strangers until now, some are friends reunited after too long, some know each other all too well. Some ride every day, some a couple times a week, but for a few, this will be their first ride in months. Our ages range from 23 to 54. We all have different backgrounds, different jobs, different everyday lifestyles, different beliefs. But as much as everyday life may separate us, this evening we are all here together to ride mountain bikes. Perhaps we all ride for different reasons, but we are united in this shared activity, a common passion. For a few hours, as we fly down hills and huff and puff and grunt our way up them, nothing else matters.
Bikes of every size and color and form lean against trees. Fat bikes, fat fronts, full suspension, full rigid. Gears and singlespeeds. Red, blue, orange, green. There is a flurry of preparations, changing clothes, filling water bottles, checking tire pressure. And then, without much ceremony at all, 9 people are pedaling up the hill. It’s a bigger group than usual. A few of the recent Wednesday night regulars are here, but there are also a few guys I’ve never ridden with before. Each week, the dynamic is a little bit different, depending on who shows up, how people feel, what the weather’s like, which trails we ride.
The brief warm-up on Stony Trail leads us out into the open of the Bakers Hollow Lot, and we rest for a minute, little groups of two or three forming together, talking, smiling, laughing, totally stoked to be out here. It’s a beautiful evening, the impending rain holding off, the sky beginning to clear. We ride circles in the gravel, then veer off onto the trail again, and soon we’re bombing downhill. The trees flash by, blurry in my peripheral vision. The trail twists and turns, smooth dirt punctuated by the occasional root.
We turn onto Red Legs, and I am reminded of how much fun this trail is, with its rollers that send me launching into the air, through trees that act like slalom gates, skidding out occasionally on the loose leaves, catching myself and continuing on. We take a shortcut to the vista, down the grassy road, across a field, catching a glimpse of the pink clouds streaking across the sky on the western horizon. Through the woods, briers prick our arms as we walk the bikes through the brush and over piles of fallen logs. I smile to myself, familiar with this secret off-trail route, while others undoubtedly wonder where the hell we are going.
But in no time at all, we are at the benches overlooking the lake, and darkness is quickly falling as we attach lights to our helmets and handlebars. We take off again, and I hang back, letting the others go first down Rays Revenge, knowing that I grow cautious in the gray haze of dusk.
Halfway down the trail, I am stopped short by my chain popping off, and as I kneel to fix it, the headlights of my fellow riders grow farther and farther away up ahead. I am now alone, just me and my bike, my headlamp and the moon. All is quiet except for the chirping of the last of the seasons katydids, the crunching of the red-tinted leaves that litter the trail, the raspy hum of my rear hub as I coast through the turns. The nearly-full moon shines bright even through a thin layer of clouds, and I think I catch a glimpse of the glistening lake far below. I am vaguely aware of the drop-off and dark abyss to my left, but I am focused on the trail, intent on the beam of light ahead. There is the distinct scent of fall, a smell that is reminiscent of childhood, of walking the streets costumed as something other than myself, of buckets of candy and Halloween parades and pumpkin carving. It is the smell of the falling leaves and the crisp, cool air, a smell that reminds me how much I love this season.
I revel in all this feeling, in the solitude of being alone, of flying through the woods on two wheels. I forget about the job and commute that drains my energy, the money that I don’t have, the cars that don’t work, and all the things I ever wish were different. Because right now, all is perfect.
I see a train of lights ahead, the group that has stopped to wait for everyone to catch up. And then I am riding with the pack again, in the middle now, the line of us winding down the trail, riding berm after berm. At the bridge, Evan leads us on another unexpected route through the woods, across a stream, over logs. On and off the bike, sometimes carrying, sometimes pushing. We all wonder where we’re headed. There’s anticipation in the air. We’re quickly back on a gravel road, and then it’s a long uphill. At the top, I recognize the shale pit and realize where we are. I am spent, exhausted, pulling out my water bottle to take a big swig. We ride in circles again, waiting for everyone to finish the climb before picking up the trail again, homeward bound.
Back at the cabin, a fire is started, beers are passed around. We cook elk burgers and pork tenderloin and mountain pies, a meal as eclectic as the group that gathers around the warm flame. It’s just another weeknight, but for many of us, it’s the highlight of our week. A break in the daily grind. An opportunity to let off steam, to commune with others who, as different as they may be in every aspect of their lives, share this one common thread—a love for the woods, for mountain bikes, and for the company of fellow riders.