The little plot of earth that inspired resurrection.

Posted: April 26, 2015 in Outside on a bike

About three or four years ago, I was travelling the stretch of Route 81 that I traveled twice a day, every stinkin’ day on my way to and from my job at the time. And every day I’d pass by a mountain I used to ride bicycles on twenty years previously. I’d look up at it and say to myself “I’d like to ride a bike there, just once more before I die”.

I never said it out loud and always followed it with “But I probably won’t”. Until one day when I finally DID say it out loud. Just in passing. My ex wife was driving me to work that day (we were long divorced already, we’re exceptionally good friends to this day) and when she heard me say it, she said, simply “Well, get a bike and do it”.

Now, at this point in my life, I would generally begin expounding the difficulties involved in executing such a plan, but for some reason, something in the simplicity and plainness of her statement made me just go “Yeah. Yeah, I’m gonna!”. It took me a year or so, but I did.

This place I longed for was amazing. Technical up and down. Long, rocky climbs that were equally long and rocky on the way back down. Amazing scenery, beautiful streams and laurel stands, huge rock formations, hemlock groves and massive firs as well as gnarled, windswept scrub above the treeline at the top of the climb. All part of the reason it’s called to me continually over the years.

There is one thing that had been eluding me until today, despite a couple of rides in the general area since I took up the handlebars again. A place on the mountain we’d discovered accidentally twenty years ago and the actual place I was talking about whenever I’d say “I’d like to ride THERE one more time…”

At the top of a steep, long climb one hot summer day in the mid 90s, we stumbled upon an odd cul-de-sac surrounding what looked like an abandoned orchard or grove of gnarly old trees off to the right, and to the left, directly along side the trail, a weird, cylindrical stone tower. No mortar, just stones, expertly stacked and sturdy.

The trail had once been a road, there was no doubt. These same stacked rocks supported every bend and it had obviously been well engineered in centuries past. Of course, time had made the surface of the road a wild, rutted mess of a rock garden (Thank you, time. You make the best trails better!) but it was still obviously a feat of manpower and planning.

There is something about this place. Over the 20 plus years of NOT riding that had passed, this was the one place I always dreamt of whenever my mind drifted back when my life was better because… well, because bicycle, that’s why.  I still thought about a million other rides with fondness, but this one…this one GRABBED me! Over and over until I finally succumbed to it’s allure and flung my old, flabby leg over a top tube again (Said leg is no longer old, nor flabby, thank you very much. Because bicycle…)

Then… last week, Gopher (Lifelong friend, riding partner, contributor to my continued delinquency and the other part of the “we” mentioned above) suggested we finally rediscover this place of lore. I was surprised that neither of us had thought of it before, but in retrospect, I’m glad.It’s a difficult ride, but we’ve been training for this season since January. This was the time.

Goph had a couple surgeries over the winter that laid him up from Christmas on, and quite honestly, we were already tired of winter and base mile rides on Rails to Trails runs that began as predictable the very first time we rode them and got exponentially more tedious with each return. When he healed up sufficiently, we both decided we wanted technical singletrack like a guy married to a vegan wants a chili dog, so we just started pedaling.

We rode the entire valley, and every hill we could get our tires on. We rode up the hill to Aylesworth park in Jermyn, then bombed back down and across town to ride up the on ramp to the Casey highway (if you’re not from around here, just substitute these few lines with the phrase “a bunch of really big hills”).

If there was any way to make a ride more challenging, we’d do it. We’d ride to Scranton or Carbondale or both, trails and roads and weird paths between houses and every hill we could find. Anything . Oh- by the way, Scranton DPW, if a guy on a bicycle has to find the good line on a paved alleyway, you guys are doing it wrong. Just sayin…

So…today… we set out around 12:30 and got to the trail head about 12 minutes later because Goph drives like a fugitive. It was chilly and overcast and I regretted not having worn a shell. The trail in was the same as it’s been as long as we’ve ridden it, but we were confused as to how we ever rode here in the first place. Especially since the trail splits, but on the side we take, the trail just STOPS. If you didn’t know where the portage up the rocks to the left is, you’d just turn around. Who, we wondered, who brought us here? Try as we might, we couldn’t remember. Perhaps the place had always just called to us, as it was today and had for all our years off the bikes.

We hiked up the short, totally camouflaged rocky portage to the trail that just STARTS. It was once a road, but it just starts and ends at this terminus at a cliff. It’s bizarre.We plop our rides down & start to pedal. Immediately we remember- this ain’t no disco, this is technical shit. Within a quarter mile in on this trail up, Goph comments that “Dude, you couldn’t just BRING somebody to ride here.” It’d just be too much for anyone not used to technical riding. So…how did WE get here the first time? I doubt we’ll ever remember. The trail won’t allow it’s mysteries to be revealed, yo.

No 5 Dam

No 5. Dam. South Siders know this place by heart.

We stop at #5 dam (ya gotta, it’s gaddam pretty!). They’ve dragged up some big ass rocks to the entrances to the trail to keep the quadders out (we ran into a bunch of them, and they’re always courteous & slow down when they pass. For a trail to be closed off to them, it means a few bad apples fucked it up for everyone. Something mountain bikers can relate to). You cant ride your bike along the wall unless you lug it over the rocks, so we just peeped the dam, then got back aboard our trusty steeds. We had bigger fish to fry. Oh- Goph was riding his 1994 Trek 930 Singletrack. Aside from a fork swap decades ago and some new Tektro center pulls and a powder coating job I did on it about 20 years ago, it’s stock. Excellent bike.

We rode on and the climb began. We headed up and up, over babyhead rocks and sharp busted mine waste stone while negotiating massive washouts and loose gravel. It was a gloriously abusive climb. The area has recently been logged, but the new, environmentally conscious methods of logging is a far cry from the utter devastation of days past. With the exception of some stumps and rabbit piles of bucked branches, there’d be no way of knowing it’d been done if you didn’t know what it looked like before.

We got to the top, then down the brief decent to Lake Scranton. The trail back up the mountain starts just before you get to the road around the lake, because bikes aren’t allowed (it’s heavily trafficked by walkers and families) and we headed up. I promptly blew a manual over a log, landed at an unfortunate angle and just kinda fell over on my right side at full gallop. Whacked my giant dome on a stump- one of a dozen instances that made us go “Yay! Helmets!” throughout the course of the day.

So…I got up, although I would have laid there and groaned a bit if Goph wasn’t there and I’m already getting sore as I type…but I digress… and because I dumped, finding a place to get back on the bike took a little walking. It was loose, large stones laying on top of huge, jagged rocks on a fairly steep grade going up, so I have zero shame about the stroll up, and we rode the entire thing back down, which is way harder. So, it kinda balances out. When we finally did hop back on, it was a grind. We had to spin where we could, slam the pedals hard to clean some sections and just plant our asses on the saddle to keep the back wheels from spinning out and killing our forward momentum. That’d result in a disappointing dab at best, or a catastrophic high-side dump at worst.

Switchbacks with high berms (of loose gravel!) on the outside line, deep ruts on the inside, covered with last falls dead leave, waiting to grab your front wheel and send you ass over teacups like some sort of nasty trap set by Charlie just outside of Ong Thaan. Well, not really, but you get the idea…

Up further, checking the vistas through the bare trees and marveling at how as we’ve gotten older, we’ve begun to ride in all four seasons and how we’re just now noticing how different the woods look from season to season and creating a new appreciation for each. It’s just amazing how much more we appreciate EVERYTHING to do with cycling in general, and mountain biking specifically after being denied the chance to ride for so long.

Gravel is NEVER your friend.

See, Goph had a vicious car wreck over a decade ago that took him out of EVERYTHING for a long time. Almost lost his left arm and went through years of surgeries and physical therapy. Even after he was physically healed, it took several more years to get his head straight and get back into the saddle. Me, I was doing the Rock-N-Roll thing, sleeping til three, up all night, booze, drugs, slow horses and fast women. It wasn’t until I found out my excellent little man, Gideon was on his way before I finally cleaned up for real. So, we both had our reasons for not riding. Now, that we’ve tasted the awesome again, nothing is reason enough NOT to ride.

My fat ass at the Stone Tower

Fat guy finds a huge pile of rocks in the woods after 20 years of searching. Vasco da Gama I ain’t.

Finally, we start to recognize stuff. neither one of us were clear as to how we got there the last time. But now we knew we were getting close. When, fuckin’ foo-wow! Thar she blows! The weird, “nobody can tell us why it’s here” tower! “I thought it was bigger.” Sez I. “Me too.” sez Goph. We dismount, chow some Clif bars & chug some Nuun and discuss how we’re going to ride the cul-de-sac across the trail because we never did it, but always wanted to.

Cul De Sac

Cul-de-sac at the top of the mountain. I don’t care who you are, that’s pretty.

So…we do. It’s just a loop in the woods at the scrub line, but we can see enough through the trees to realize that this view must have been fucking amazing 100 years ago. We’d heard this was once a stage coach line, although the name of the trail on some maps is “Ore mine road”. After we make our loop, we head further down the trail, and it descends gently, but is still as technical as the rest of the ride. We end at another reservoir and we can’t see any way around, so we head back.

The climb back to the top is surprisingly short and we’re both kind of impressed with ourselves and the climbs we can handle without fatigue this season. We’re on the near side of fifty and not exactly skinny. But we’re good. We’re good cyclists. We have decades of experience and this season we’ve ridden enough that all the stars have aligned and all of our amassed experience in the saddle came rushing back. We’ve been tackling terrain and speeding down descents that scared us in our 20s. Not a lot of things I’ve gotten better at after doubling my time on the planet. Cycling is one of the few where that’s the case exactly. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it is for us. And we’re insanely thankful!

Now- back down! My cyclocomputer has my top speed at around 25 M.P.H. Now, that may not seem like much, but this was on a road that is basically nothing but large, sharp rocks, punctuated with large, deep ruts. All covered with a dusting of loose gravel and logs. We aced it.

The once familiar squeal of applied brakes never arose. We we pounding the pedals, cleaning gnarly boulder fields and hopping deadfalls in a manner our 20 year old selves would have stood agape upon witnessing. Now- we’re on hardtails. 26 inchers. One of which is a quarter of a century old. And I can’t repeat this often enough- this would have frightened me 20 years ago. I had nothing but complete calmness and focus today. I have no issues with approaching the half century mark. I’m simply better at everything now.

We gleefully hit the end of our run, and before we hiked back down to the main trail, we took a peek at a trail I’d seen on a map headed up the other side of the mountain. Nearly grown over, but rideable,  we made plans to do so with fresh legs ASAP.

Scrambling back down the rock face to the trail back to the car, then hopping back in the saddle to peddle swiftly along the contrasting smoothness of the old access road. On more quick dip & scrambling technical climb up the other side and we were back to the car in no time.

Dismounting, strapping the bikes to the back of the car, we get in and I say that I think this might be the best ride I’ve been on in twenty years. Goph replies “You know what, dude? Me too.”

I did things today with a cool confidence I simply could not have done as my 23 year old self. Gopher did the same (we discussed out surprise at length on the drive home).

Because of today, I feel perfectly okay with making the following statement-

Dude, we fucking rule.

Me N Goph diggin our return

Gopher and Fud. We’ll be doing this when we’re 75.

  1. As always, there is the man I knew so long ago that was lurking in the shadows of your own self. I am glad you finally let him out. I like him very much.

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