When you're living the good life, a lot of good opportunities can be thrown your way, and for some sad reason, you can't have them all. Last weekend I had to choose between some sweet social occasions and reunions, or a mountain bike extravaganza in the national forest outside of Santa Barbara. It was a head scratcher, but adventure called. Actually, it screamed. I've been working in the city now, and at times it is claustrophobic. I needed an escape.
Friday after work, Uncle Larry, my dad and I crammed bikes and gear in and on the car and headed south through an expanse of fog so thick I slept right through it. We slept in Solvang and fueled for a long day with a huge pancake breakfast.
The ride started as any extreme excursion does, with a 4000 foot climb. Soon we were up on the mountain ridge, overlooking Santa Barbara, the ocean and the horizon beyond. Since I've been back from Europe, my affair with the California coast truly has been strong. As the road turned to dirt, we dropped back down to nearly sea level. It was then that I realized the ramifications of not being on a mountain bike for 5 or 6 months. I was truly yolo-ing when I said yes to this trip.
The thing about mountain biking, is I've never gotten good enough to really like it a lot. Its so within reach, but I almost always ride road or hike instead of skills I have fear. On a road bike you can make up for lack of finesse with fitness, but on a mountain bike you can't hide your lack of technique under a huge engine. Some loose downhill sections and extraordinarily steep uphills were enough to remind me this, but not spoil the mood. We were under 90 degree, pristine blue skies with an expanse of sculpted hills, desert cactus and dry grass to make for an awesome backdrop to our suffering. The day finished with a cruise into Ojai under a rapidly pinkening sky followed by a some massive chowing. 9 hours, 9000 ft of climbing and 50 miles and i was stoked on the mountain bike.
Day 2 started with another big breakfast, followed by an even bigger hill. By 11 we had climbed 3000 steep dirt feet and it was sweltering. But I cruised a lot better down the hills and was starting to feel pretty good by the time we stopped for lunch by the creek. But a half hour later, as we turned off the dirt road, things took a turn for the much worse.
We were in a pretty desolate part of the Los Padres National Forest, and were supposed to follow a "trail" that cut across the valley. Too bad for us, the trail had pretty much ceased to exist, mother nature had taken over. Too bad for us, it was our way out so we did it anyway. It was sort of there for a few hundred meters, but only enough so to push our bikes. But Larry decided the trail was too destroyed, it would be better to follow the completely dried creek bed until it hit the trail later on (according to his Garmin at least).
So we pushwacked in dry sand covered in thistles for a mile or two, dragging our bikes, the sun beating down upon us. I felt like Sisyphus, bestowed with this grueling task that I had no interest in. The slow going, the obstacles, the heat made me furious. It only got worse as we turned out of the creek and forged through brush and bramble, shoving away branches and getting attacked by bushes as we headed towards the "trail." We made it, but i didn't feel any better. It wasn't a singletrack, more of a 1/4 track, unrideable for long sections, then disrupted by rocky creek crossings. Then it went straight up hill. Then it was totally washed out, with huge drop outs. I ran out of water. I yelled and threw rocks for a while. It helped get my anger and discomfort out of my system enough for it to sink it that keeping on pushing was the only way home. I resisted the urge to throw the bike off a cliff. I made vows in my head, no more routes planned by Larry, I'm never mountain biking again. Fuck this.
I said fuck all enough that I stopped caring, and started riding sections that had terrified me or seemed to technical before. Now I had a vendetta and had to prove the mountain bike wrong. I could do. I began clearing steep hills, technical turns, and loose and rocky sections. It felt good. The sun was getting low, and there was some serious lightbro in the sky as we reached a dirt road. It went up another motherfucker of a hill and I attacked it like I've never climbed before. The summit led to a real road, then all of a sudden, bliss. The car. Burgers. Beer. Fries. Rejuvenation.
The internal struggle still nags at me, and probably always will. Is all the shit that comes along with mountain biking worth the adventure that it affords? The scenery, the solitude, the fun rides were sublime. But I went to the darkest place I've been in a while to get there. Part of my love of road cycling stems from the sense of control you get, mountain biking embraces the lack thereof. I don't know if I can dig that. Regardless, it was adventure in the truest sense. Pushed to my furthest limits, I got lost and found in a radically new landscape via a new method of transit. I got dirty, angry, thrilled and stoked, and saw some damn pretty things along the way.