So much of what I remember about being a kid revolves around playing outside, whether I was digging for limestone-entombed fossils and climbing trees in empty neighborhood lots, or searching for perfectly straight sticks and overturning sparkly rocks while on park hikes with my parents. It didn’t matter if the experiences had predetermined goals or not; the purpose for being outside was always the same: explore.
As an adult, I regularly read stories decrying how we old farts have lost that ability to just go outside and play. Leave it to technology and expensive gadgets to complicate the use of a simple machine that, fundamentally, hasn’t changed much in decades. But I already don’t “train.” I don’t race, so my rides are all about fun. I don’t use Strava, GPS devices or even cheap cycle computers. What’s left for me is to to go even further back, to the kind of exploration that doesn’t care about whether or not the trail is exactly the type I like to ride, or if the bike I’m riding is the perfect tool for the job, or if I’m going to be able to finish somewhere interesting (or that serves beer). The only thing left for me is to go all the way back to fossils and sticks and rocks.
Late last week, I was working from home and feeling the mid-afternoon drag when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a cloud covering the mountain most near! Calling it a mountain is a bit generous—mesa is probably more appropriate—but the rocky rise visible from my kitchen window is covered with trails and once you get to its flat top, the city and its noise below vanish. It’s easy to feel like you’ve transported yourself to another world, where the only things visible are the sky and the distant peaks of Colorado’s rocky interior. I go up to that mountain top so much that by mid-summer, I’m already bored of riding there.
But on that afternoon, the unusual spread of low clouds made my rocky, stoic neighbor particularly enticing. Despite subfreezing temperatures, I felt strongly pulled to check it out, to go exploring. The Denver area usually doesn't get enough snow that sticks around long enough to really justify owning a fatbike if resources are stretched thin, so riding on a snowy day is still a novelty for me. I saddled up my bike and set off into the cold, gray landscape.
The most expedient (and boring) way to the top is a painfully steep dirt access road. On that day, the trails were so thickly coated in slippery, uneven ice chunks that the road was my only option on 2.2 inch, stud-less tires, but it wasn’t exactly ideal. Every rock on the road appeared to be individually and completely sheathed in mirror-smooth ice. I had to push my bike the half-mile to the top, carefully picking my way up the far edge of the road where I could dig my shoes in deeply enough to find traction. Not much of a "ride."
I assumed the cloud cover would descend on me gradually as I trudged higher, but the transformation was quite sudden. In just a few steps, I thought my senses had shut down and was gripped by disorientation. Colors and sounds were gone. I couldn’t see where I had come from or where I was going. In the frozen landscape (and thanks to my own sweaty self buried under several technical layers), there wasn’t even anything to smell, and my fingers were so numb that I had to look down once in a while to make sure I was still holding into my bike’s handlebars.
The clouds thinned slightly at the top but, still, I could have have been on Mars. I have to admit, it was a little eerie. I was acutely aware of being alone, of being small and of having lost any sense of direction (and sensation in my extremities).
Sometimes, adventure is simply experiencing your local trails in a new light or, as was the case, seeing them in brief moments of filtered, muted sunshine. The singletrack trails contouring below were too icy to risk a descent down off the flat mountain top, so I threw a leg over the bike and just started to wander, slowly tracing the tangle of trails back and forth until I was too cold to think straight. Fossils and sticks and rocks.
The descent back down the access road was equal parts terrifying and life-giving. I think I may have burned out my brake pads and worn a hole in the butt of my pants from sitting on the rear tire, but riding turned out to be the safest mode of transport, and 120 seconds of 20-degree air in your face at 20 miles per hour will keep you awake for a week straight. Once, I put my foot down in a particularly slick spot after starting to fishtail. But, there was nowhere to put that foot; it just slid right along the ice with the bike. Forward momentum was the best bet, so down I barreled, feeling free.
How would I describe the ride? Damn cold. Traction on ice is quite the challenge; a fatbike would have been a much better tool for the job (so, of course, I now want one). The trails were pretty vanilla and I didn’t exactly get in a lot of mileage. The ice was so thick and uneven on top that I spent a good deal of mental energy focusing on keeping my tongue away from my teeth so that, in jostling around so much, I wouldn’t accidentally bite it off. I didn’t venture anywhere new, see anything I had never seen or run into any friends on the trail. And I most certainly didn’t get rad.
But it was one of the most enjoyable mountain bike rides I’ve experienced in recent memory.
That kind of aimless wandering can seem pointless and wasteful to a restless, driven person. But just like racing is a part of the mountain biking culture and experience, so is unstructured play, exploring for exploration’s sake, and doing something just for the hell of it. So that’s what I did. And it was fun. Fossils and sticks and rocks.