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Over the hills and through the woods
PORT GAMBLE — As I rumbled down a dirt hill on two wheels, over rocks and fallen branches, I glanced to my left and was surprised to recognize my surroundings. I skidded my bike to a halt, just as I had an hour ago in a spot across the path from where I now stood. I looked down at the track I had previously left in the soft earth and wondered how I had gotten there.
My journey through the woods near Port Gamble began two weeks earlier, at a bike shop in Kingston. I had brought my 15-year-old Motiv in for a tune-up after a decade of non-use. Tim, the shop owner, shook his head. My vintage cycle was “beyond repair.” Fortunately, someone had dumped an old, fixable bike on him, and he whipped up a sort of Frankenbike by combining the donated frame with some of my old parts.
I was keen to test my mettle (and my new metal) on some trails, so when I found a free weekend, I bolted for the woods. Having never done any true mountain biking before, I wasn’t sure where to begin. But after driving through Port Gamble and up and down Highway 104 a few times, I eyed what appeared to be a trailhead just south of town.
With my shorn scalp slathered in sunscreen and encased in the densest styrofoam helmet known to man, I started peddling up the dirt and gravel path. It was mostly uphill for the first couple of miles, and I was in no shape to take on even this slight grade. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m fit enough, but trying to get that chain moving on a slope was just something I was not used to.
After 15 minutes I was deep in the woods, wishing I had brought a map and a better toned pair of quadriceps. I would soon be wishing for a lot more than that.
I kept telling myself I was having fun, but the sweat and sore muscles and flies that circled every time I paused to rest made my case rather unconvincing. So I rode on.
Finally, at a crest, I came to a small clearing. Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one that led downhill. And that made all the difference.
I barreled down a pair of hills at what felt like breakneck speeds but were probably in fact less than 25 mph. I tried to resist the urge to brake, but seeing the rocks and turns in front of me made that urge overwhelming. I slowed as little as possible, and wondered how bad a wipeout would really be. It would give me some battle scars, which would make me feel like a tough guy, and it would certainly spice up the story. But who was I kidding? I didn’t want to crash. So I zipped down the path, but kept my rig steady. See? Calling my bike a rig makes me seem tough, so I don’t need to crash to earn points.
At the bottom of the hill, I skidded to a stop at a crossroads and looked left, then right. As my dust cloud caught up and wrapped around me, I chose to continue left, down the slope. I took a short break, though, to write some notes, and encountered my first fellow riders of the day. After a brief, friendly exchange, and a near run-in with a field mouse, I sped on down the trail. I kept my backside on the seat and my entire body jittered. I squeezed the brakes just enough to steady my vibrating vision, ducked under a fallen tree, and finally came to the end of the path at a section of Highway 104 far south of where I had begun.
I was actually having fun now. I wanted to keep going. So I did.
I rode into a giant sand pit, which was littered with spent shotgun shells and small appliances. My wheels started getting stuck, so I turned around and headed up a trail parallel to the one I had descended. The climb was trying, but my legs were getting used to the effort. I had to jump off and walk up a few hills, and my sweat was starting to dampen the handle bars, but I was still enjoying the day. I figured I would ride a little further and find the next path leading out to the highway.
After another 20 minutes, I was low on water and the heat and soreness were getting to me. The gear shifters dug into my gloveless hands, carving out little notches in my skin. My bony rump ached and my fingers felt strained the way they had the first time I went rock climbing. I was far from miserable, but I longed for a soft chair and cold drink. I stopped to get directions from a pair of experienced riders, who kept looking at my Frankenbike like it was some sort of two-wheeled pariah. They pointed me down another hill, which I descended a little more slowly than I would have earlier in the day, and that’s when I came into my familiar surroundings.
I was at the crossroads where I had met the field mouse an hour before.
I chuckled in amazement. Now I could find my way out.
Soon enough, I would be back in Port Gamble, where hamburgers and Coke and Band-Aids awaited.