Early on a warm evening, early in a warm summer, the day’s work done, what is called for is a bike ride. Sometimes, a winding trail is the best way to unwind.
In a rare instance of planning, the mountain bike, a classic hardtail Santa Cruz called the “HighBall” has been chucked in the back of the pickup before running errands in a nearby town. Pulling into the lot of the main trailhead, biking togs are donned and the ride is commenced directly, no chance to waffle or overthink the situation. Just go.
An afternoon rainstorm has dimpled the dirt of the path; two bikes have gone before. One of the tracks is straight and direct, a rider with purpose, the other weaving from side to side, meandering even on straightaway sections, more of a daydreamer. We’re somewhere in between.
The trail climbs gently into a meadow studded with sage, electric blue with new growth, a ballroom of slowly moving dancers reaching skyward, hair on fire. Gliding smoothly through clouds of piney perfume that can be felt like pinpricks on the skin, muscles warming to the task, a climb is engaged up a low butte, a lovely wee hillock.
What sets these trails apart are their switchbacks. Specifically, their meticulous construction. Whereas most trails in the area have descended from old mining and pack trails, these are designed specifically with cycling and running in mind, and the hairpin turns have been smoothed with a loving hand and much toil. On shared routes, the main difference between horses and cyclists, besides bikes creating a smoother trail than their noble but sharp-hooved, quagmire-inducing counterparts — at least in the Southwest, where things are generally dry — is that bikers don’t leave big piles of crap in the middle of the trail. Most of them, anyway.
The turns here are steep and tight, but easily navigable going up or down, given the dearth of obstacles like roots and rocks. Not so with a lot of local historic trails, rutted by generations of hooves and eroded by weather. The result is more technical maneuvering, not a bad thing, but sometimes a clean line can help you get your mojo working.
And work we do, maintaining a steady pace, a pleasant sweat, engendering a comfortable cocoon of thought from which a world hurtling in erratic directions can be regarded with a degree of confidence. Gaining altitude, gaining attitude.
Near the top, a jumble of rocks has been left in place intentionally on one corner. An old codger, draped in cobwebs, with a corncob pipe, croaks in a small voice: “You ain’t gonna make it, it’s difficult; might as well get off and walk this section; you didn’t make it last time, heh, heh.” Reflexively you start to unweight and swing your leg over the back wheel to dismount, then another voice, firm and joyous, bursts in: “Screw it! You’re gonna do it!”
And you calm down, press the pedals, keep the speed down, open your eyes and see a line through the mess, climbing over a hump of cleverly stacked rocks — these guys knew what they were doing — through a gap that allows smooth passage between two large square blocks, over a bumpy stretch, climbing steadily all the while and screw it, you do it.
The worst is over, trail pumpy, heart thumpy. Hallelujah and pass the butter; small victories are sweetness. You top out and the next section, twisting through a juniper forest that later in the season, you know, will boast pea-sized berries the same neon cerulean as the sage below and make the place smell like a gin joint, has a floatiness to it that isn’t due just to the air in your tires or the ease of the trail.
Side-hilling now, the hill with just enough of an angle to command your attention, the trail arrives at an overlook affording a view of an expansive reservoir below, burnished bronze by dying sun, a sailboat cutting a wake in the distance through shimmering water that looks like migrating geese. A cool breeze shushing the trees feels liquid.
Double back onto a bit of trail facing south and in the middle distance the mighty Sneffels Range, overseen and anchored by the majestic pyramid of Sneffels itself, grand patriarch of crenellated ridges, is at the vanguard of the mountains of home, slopes of pink spring snow giving way to vivid green below, ranchers and farmers busy on the land, little ants, little toy tractors, seemingly oblivious to the scale of the scene and all else but the task at hand.
Down into the scrub oak the trail continues, new leaves mint green and backlit, translucent, veins tender and tough, life within unrelenting. They are blurred flashes of color as the way swoops into a series of tube-like ravines demanding concentration, the trail looping back and forth, in and out of the half-pipe, whoop-de-do for me and you, enough fun to make you almost regret you never took up skateboarding. But not quite.
They are brilliant enough, though, to be the envy of the engineers, as ingenious as they are, of the fabled Vertebrae and Rib Cage sections of Phil’s World. Montezuma, eat your heart out, instead of somebody else’s.
Climbing out of the last gulch for a smooth glide down a dirt road in the gloaming, back to the waiting truck, the sky has turned into a fantastic wide-angle painting, a purple-and-tangerine dream, the world below dark, the sage having drawn their shadow cloaks about their shoulders. The sensation of intense hunger is realized, but the day is better now for having rallied, a little tease, a reminder of the good things, enough to refresh the head for the evening ahead.
Sean can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.