Start off with a drive to the middle of nowhere.
Sleep in the cold and get up with the dawn.
Fuel up for a long day.
Then saddle up on the bikes and dive into the Five Miles of Hell.
A crisp November morning under washed blue skies. Under the sentinel watch of juniper skirted buttes. Following a white-painted dash of trail twisting over and through the petrified motion of ancient sand dunes.
Steep, grippy stone steps. Loose, tippy rocks. Soft wallows of sand. Unexpected turns. Abrupt drops. It's a trail that demands attention. Demands skill and muscle. And I was able to meet those demands, er… some of the time. My companions were better able to meet the trail on its own terms, repeatedly throwing themselves at tough moves and more-often-than-not, riding through.
I, being weaker and less skilled, was content to reap the more philosophical reward of walking and pushing my bike up the rougher sections, enjoying the bright sunshine. Cold shadows. And the convoluted stone re-torn from the earth by erosion and time, bleeding its iron red.
Not that I wasn't on my game. I was. Then I wasn't. Then I was again, or mostly. Then I wasn't and let my front wheel get out from under me, took a fall and smacked my wrist and elbow on the unforgiving rock. Then I was on it again. Then I was flailing like a tattered flag. I tipped over. I bruised my hip on a juniper trunk. I torqued my knee. I slipped on a loose jumble of nothing. And the trail kept going. And going. And so, necessarily, did I. Past towers of reddened white stone. Through washes of soft, unridable sand. Over lumps and steps and shattered rocks and rumpled sheets of rough-worn stone.
Rumor has it that the Five Miles are actually about Eight. Eight miles in a loop of eighteen. And I had no idea how much further we had to go. But shortly after my focus reached its fuzziest state, the trail began to get a little easier. Then we were rolling downward on a somewhat smoother trail and out of the tricky sections.
Five-and-a-half hours after starting we reached the turn around point. Which was a little disconcerting, since there were only about two hours of daylight left. But the trail out was much easier than the way through Hell. Just a rough-and-jumbled stony track, then some powdery soft soil that gobbled energy and flew to dust from the touch of our tires. No problem. Except that I felt spent. I was unable to lift my front wheel onto several ledges which, admittedly, were at least an inch or two high.
I remounted my bike after each of these, hefting my leaden leg back over the saddle, and glanced backward toward Alan, coming into sight behind me. Then I kept going, not wanting to see the reflection of my exhausted face in his. Instead I looked forward toward Mike's receding back, to the soft trail, to the plume of dust drifting away in the low sunlight.
There is a confusion regarding Hell. One Hell is the tortuous receptacle of souls that lives in the minds of those who live to keep the minds of others narrow, shallow, and focused on an unknowable imaginary world beyond this one.
But this Hell is merely a trail where one can push oneself too far. Where an amazing immediate world is within sight, within reach, within touch -- though a touch that may result in blood and scars. A Hell from which one can re-emerge. And emerge with a smile.