The Joy in Harder Things

Evan and I camped out in the parking lot of McDowell Mountain Cycles, a bike shop in Fountain Hills, Arizona that’s co-owned by one of our former coworkers from The Bike Shop That Shall Not Be Named, back in Pittsburgh. For most of the week, it rained, which we were told multiple times was such a rare thing this time of year, a truly freak occurrence. We had only been planning on staying a few days, long enough to ride the trails, but the weather kept us there much longer. We went on a hike or two when the clouds parted for a few hours here and there, and went for many walks around the infamous fountain, but for the most part we just ate burritos and read in the camper while we waited for a new, sunnier day.

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Eventually, the weather did clear up. We helped with some trail maintenance at some of the more popular local trails, which helped give us a sense of what to expect once the trails were dry enough to ride. Many people whizzed by us on their own bikes as we shoved sand and raked rocks into the mud and dug trenches to prevent further erosion. The likeliness of stopping people from riding is about as plausible as stopping rain from falling, so despite how frustrated some trail builders got while their projects were being ruined before even being finished or given a chance to dry, it is all a labor of love, to help maintain the trail as it comes apart. Like a favorite pair of jeans, you sew one rip even though you know the thin fabric will just rip somewhere else.

While we waited for the trails to dry, which only took a day or two, Evan and I went for a road ride into Tonto National Forest, first riding through the pristine developments on the outskirts of Fountain Hills, with golf courses so obscenely green in an otherwise stark landscape.

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Once we were in the park, the roads meandered up and down, occasionally crossing over sand dunes that had washed into the road. Just before the road turned completely to dirt, we turned a corner and crossed paths with a herd of wild horses, maybe seven or nine in all, standing in the road.

Unlike the horses kept in stables at the nearby country clubs we’d ridden past, these horses had an erotic wildness to them. Their coats, which were brown and white and black, were thick and patchy, especially on the hind quarters where they may have scratched against a tree to relieve a bug bite or, more likely, where their skin had scabbed over from repeated scrapes of cacti spurs against their impressive, wide muscles. Their manes were also of course uncombed and windswept, much like my own, and they didn’t care at all that we were in the road or that there was any road at all.

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We did another ride the next day with the guys at the bike shop and some of their friends, a “gravel” ride that pushed threw sand roads and single track. I was on my Fargo. It was the first time since Pittsburgh I’d ridden that bike, and it was the first time I’d ridden it on sand, or really that I’d ridden anything on sand of that depth and magnitude. That feels hyperbolic, “magnitude,” but riding in a group like that was one of the many fears I tackled while visiting Fountain Hills, and until I felt comfortable on the sand dunes, their difficulty really did feel that impossible. Evan, Jake (our friend from Pittsburgh who is part owner of MMC), and I rode separately because Evan and I were running late. We met up with a large group of cyclists but eventually they split off and we rode until just about sundown, to the final sprint up the hill and back into town.

By that point, the trails were all dry enough to ride and Evan and I rode some of the more technical single track we’d been dreaming of. The trails swooped and flowed, with a good deal of climbing that never felt overwhelming or even very challenging. There were a few sections with lots of rocks but for the most part I was surprised at how clear the trails were. We passed a few jackrabbits who hopped out of are way as we sped past, and large saguaro cacti that looked like people standing just in the distance with their silhouettes against the bright sun.

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The next day, we rode some more and then met up with a group of riders from the bike shop, possibly the same people from the last ride, and we all went for a night ride together.

It was billed to me as a casual, no-drop ride, which was favorable due to the 20 miles we had just completed and my uncomfortableness riding with groups, or in the dark, or next to cacti, or in the sand (until recently!), or with strangers, or with people much faster than me. We got to the dirt lot right on time, and headed out immediately, chasing the headlights of the first pack. The group dispersed as the trail meandered uphill, and I caught people’s wheels and then was dropped, or people caught my wheel and then pulled away after riding with me for a while. Most of the time, though, I was alone for that first stretch. Headlights sporadically came in and out of view in little flits of light before disappearing, and behind me I occasionally caught a glimpse of someone far, far behind me. But the majority of the ride was gradually uphill, and indefinitely open in the expansive dark. There was no moon. It was uncommonly cloudy, the storm still passing by despite the stopped rain. The stars, when they were visible, looked cloudy in their depth, the Milky Way spilling out from the edges of the passing storm. We eventually got to the top of the first climb, where the first batch of riders were waiting, warming themselves with homemade apple pie moonshine that was promptly passed to me. The last of the riders arrived and announced they were riding back to the cars in case anyone wanted to join. I had the same opportunity to peel away with the slower riders and the other women during the last group ride, and my decision to stay with the fast group was rewarded with magic. As I’ve written in my blog before, I think it’s important to say yes to things that push one’s limits, so I agreed again to keep on with the faster group.

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Maybe it’s because I had been murmuring under my breath about riding for so long by myself and feeling like I was on an exercise machine since I couldn’t see anything, but shortly after we took off for the next climb, I found myself leading the pack up the ascent that was turning increasingly single track. Evan was the first rider behind me, and I kept asking him if people wanted to pass me. I could hear him ask the group, and then he’d respond, “No, everyone’s cool at this pace, they’re just holding onto your wheel.” I hate people riding on my wheel. I’d be lying if I said I don’t know why I don’t like it (which is what I had originally typed). I feel rushed, like I’m holding people back. It makes me feel weak, which is a horrible feeling for an athletic person who is really trying her best.

At some point, Evan shouted that the moonshine must have kicked in because I was riding so strong, and as I stifled my hyperventilating tears I forced back, “No. Panic attack. Can’t feel my legs.”

I was really just riding as fast as I could so that I could lose them, which was obviously in vane. We stopped again at the top of the mountain and I let everyone ride in front of me. Jake was riding sweep, which means he was riding in the very back of the pack, much to my chagrin. But most of the pressure was finally off my shoulders, leaving me only with the sad understanding that I was, in all likeliness, holding everyone back, since the peloton took off and us behind. Without the pressure, though, it was fun to chase a pack of wheels, to carve through the dark Phoenix wilderness. I was still upset, though, mainly at myself for simply being upset in the first place. I didn’t want to be dropped, didn’t want to make Jake ride slow. My legs felt good, however tired and bruised my ego may have become, and I was amazed when we reached the parking lot that the ride was over. We had ridden 20 miles together, making it a 40-mile day for Evan and I.

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I peeled into the dark lot, not realizing at first where I was. The fastest riders were already setting up a portable heater and digging the cooler from the back of the truck. I was again murmuring under my breath to Evan, this time that I didn’t ever want to go on a night group ride, when someone called me over to the heater. I was greeted with a choice of local beers to choose for myself and Evan. I picked a porter for myself and an IPA for him. It clicked. I can’t say I was being a total baby, because my emotions were valid for breaking through so many levels of discomfort at once. But I was being judgmental towards my riding buddies, projecting on them the judgment that was coming from within regarding my worthiness of riding with the group. At the end of the night, I was just as welcome to stand by the fire, share warmth and booze, and go to the local burrito spot for a post-ride meal.

Once I got over myself, I could appreciate the parts of the ride I had been the most stressed about: riding along a ledge on a perilous switchback, ducking under a rock outcropping, the endlessness of the desert, the flowers cutting into the blackness with surprising color, riding over rock gardens and through sand pits at full speed, catching air over rocks, having not powerful enough lights to allow my fear to react to any one trail feature.

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