I was dead tired halfway through the trip, my legs were rubber, and I was bleeding from a knick on my shin where a branch had whipped me as I rode past. I had a theory that I was terrible at mountain biking; now, I knew beyond a doubt that it was true.
It was mid-October, and the summer heat had slowly slipped away to a sweet Autumn chill. The sky was clear, though, and the air was crisp and clean. With each meadow we rode through, I could feel the wind whip at my clothes, tugging at me, clearing my head and filling me with cold, exhausted happiness as we flew over the single-track.
Of course, that had all been on the downhill. Now, having reached the quiet spread of Sheep Creek, crossing through the reeds and the willows to the other side, we were faced with the long, slow climb back up.
We were a third of the way there. Or a quarter. Or a fifth—I had no real way of knowing how far we’d come, or how long it would take for us to get back. But here I was, in the middle of the dense-knit pine trees, with at least four hours of trail between me and the car. The single-track drove on before me, a thin finger of black dirt that hooked back and forth up the mountainside, leading off to who-knows-where. I sighed, took a sip from my camel-back, and started to pedal onwards.
Above me, the trail curved its way onto a gentle plateau before turning left and disappearing into the trees. The other members of our group sat there, waiting patiently for me to reach them. I got most of the way, and they turned and took off, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Annoyed, I rode on.
There’s something calming about chugging up a mountainside. Everything is drowned out by the static of the rhythm of your breath, dragging ragged in and out of your lungs. It doesn’t leave much room for the aggrivation, or the petulant thoughts you have at being left behind. Most of the time, anyway. Today was turning out to be the exception.
Grumbling as much as my ragged breathing would let me, I followed the trail upwards until I reached the plateau where the group had been waiting. I stopped, caught my breath, and drank more water. Then I looked up at the trail where it curved, following the line of the hill before it vanished behind the crest. I saw the wheel of the last group member disappear behind the rise, counted to thirty under my breath, then pushed on. The count shortened to a simple one-TWO one-TWO that followed the pattern of my pedals. I barely even saw the trail, I was so intent on my breathing.
Finally, I reached the top of the hill. I stumbled as I dismounted, cursing quietly to myself. Then, after a moment, I looked up.
In front of me spread a sea of golden, brilliant aspens.
It was like nothing I’d ever seen before—a great sea of leaves the color of sunset that spread up the mountainside, vivid and bright against the clear blue sky. As I watched, a gust of wind swept through them and the foliage whispered sweetly to itself.
I stood transfixed. Everything in that moment was forgotten—my chagrin at being left behind, my aching legs, everything. The trail before me dove into the soft white branches of the aspens, a thin black ribbon that wound around their trunks for what seemed like forever.
At that moment, something clicked for me. There may have been miles of trail ahead of me. I might be riding it until the sun goes down. But, Hell, if they were all miles like this, I guess I’d be okay with it.
I smiled, and with a deep breath, I pedaled on through the aspens.