By Michael “Pass Me” PiersonIdon’t believe in omens, period. There are no such things as auguries or premonitions; tarot cards and chicken bones cast by shamans and seers are good marketing for some but, in the whole web of time, they tell us nothing. It’s not to say that seeing or hearing something at a moment in time doesn’t put a frame around what happens for the rest of the day. Dripping some egg yolk on your tie at breakfast when you’re already running a few minutes late is not an omen but it will certainly change your view on the day.
For example, a month or so ago my wife and I went for a trip in our RV to the San Juan Islands in Washington state. While most of my rides ended up being road, I found a trail up the side of Cady Mountain. About two thirds of it was fire trail, but the last few kilometers up were singletrack laced with high roots and rocks, making it nearly unridable, at least for me. The view at the top was worth the hike-a-bike, though. You could see the wakes of sailboats as they skimmed through the strait and the ferry from the mainland as it entered Friday Harbor. Further to the east were the beige grasses and black rocks of Shaw Island with its bald eagle aeries nestled in the tree branches, and goat herds moving in and out of deep fissures along the beach.
Further to the east were the beige grasses and black rocks of Shaw Island with its bald eagle aeries nestled in the tree branches, and goat herds moving in and out of deep fissures along the beach.Michael PiersonBut what had set that moment up, what had made an otherwise boring ride into something memorable, was a sound I heard as I was pedaling around a curve at the beginning of my climb. The forest was too thick to actually see it, but it started as a splintering sound, something you might hear as you cracked a dry branch across your knee, but much larger. It continued to snap and pop as I looked for the source but I could only hear it. I’ve got to say, it sounded as if it were going to crash through the stand of trees and fall at my feet, but there only the sound. I could hear the chaos of limbs snapping and smaller trees breaking until it was over and everything became quiet again. Maybe ten or fifteen seconds, at most. Not exactly a supernova changing a distant galaxy, but the forest had changed and I had been the only witness.
A few weeks later we had to go up to my daughter’s house in Park City. Well, it wasn’t like a legal requirement that we go. My granddaughter was having her tonsils out and, could we sort of babysit for a week or so? That’s the kind of ‘had to’ it was; of course we went.
I’d ridden PC twice before yet never in the mountains themselves. Not that I didn’t want to; the first time was when I still had my WalMart ‘Mongoose’ so there was no way I could have for a multitude of reasons. The second time was a couple of years later however it snowed while we were there so I was limited to some of the lower elevations. Trust me, I had great fun; some of the foothills in Round Valley were daunting enough. Plus, I was at 6,000’ which made it even more so. After two days though, even that got snowed in.
And I’d always wanted to ride with my son-in-law. He’s the one who got me my first real mountain bike as a retirement present, he is truly a world-class athlete in his own right, and he lives, eats, and breathes biking. All kinds: mountain, enduro, road, cross-country, velo; if its got pedals and wheels, he’s on it. And he’s competitive; it’s more what he is than who. His problem as far as competition is: he lives in Park City. That’s where Olympic cyclists from all over the world live and work out. If he were here in Orange county he’d be a rock star; in PC he’s just an ‘also ran’. Still, he’s a great rider and I’d always hoped to have both the skills and endurance to ride with him at some point.
So Linda and I pack up our clothes, load my 29’r, and head up the I-15 to Park City. We stay overnight in St. George and arrive at my daughter’s house the next day. It’s a Tuesday. Kevin comes home that night and, five minutes after he walks in the door, he asks, “You ready to ride this weekend?”
But there were several things going on before Saturday, the most important being the tonsillectomy on Friday. We knew it would be a little tense, a little trying, so we all assumed tasks to bring down the tension a few degrees. Linda and my daughter would deal with Zoey at the hospital. My job was to keep Allie, her older sister, occupied. Allie is an empathetic young seven year old and we all knew that sitting around the house while her sister was in surgery would make her, and by osmosis all of us, crazy.
So while Zoey was in surgery, Allie and I went for a long ride down to Starbuck’s at Kimball Junction and back. It was a total of six miles from the trailhead, three downhill and three back up. All paved and nothing steep, yet it was still six miles for a seven year old. She decided the most important part of the ride was drinking from my CamelBak every quarter mile or so; it was achingly slow but incredibly fun and she was tired at the end. I was sure there would be no problem getting her down for a nap; there wasn’t. When we got home we got the good news that her sister was in recovery and everyone was going to eat ice cream for dinner.
I woke up early Saturday just as the purples and blues of night were colliding with the oranges and reds of morning, those moments just before the sun arcs over the horizon. Through the breakfast room window I saw it: a hot air balloon drifting from Round Valley over the aspens and pines into the sunrise. Like I said, I don’t believe in omens or premonitions of things to come, but seeing that balloon float through the pinks and yellows of the morning set a palette for the rest of the day.
Kevin was already up; Zoey had kept both of them up for much of the night. He could have begged off and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
But he looked up from his cup of coffee. “Ready?” he asked. My guess was that he was as ready to get on a trail as I.
I loaded the bikes- matching Santa Cruz carbon Tall Boys- onto the racks, threw our helmets and Camelbaks onto the back seat, and off we rode into the same sunrise that, an hour or so before, had lifted the hot air balloon like a brightly colored sprite above the treeline.
“So where are we going, Kev?” I asked, “and what’s it like?”
“Mid-Mountain Trail. It’s about eleven or so miles, this leg at least, just to The Canyons. The whole thing is about a 25 mile loop in all, some ups, nothing harsh, no big technicals, and all singletrack,” he replied. “Piece a cake, should be.” Precise and to the point. I felt that, yes, this would be doable. I just wondered what the differences might be in a serving of cake.
“What’s the trail like? Rubble? Clay? Roots?”
“Nah, not a lot of roots, some rubble, but mostly hard dirt,” then, “make a right here, around this circle.” We were headed toward Deer Valley and the Silver Lake trailhead.
“Mountain Trails Foundation sponsors a race here every year but they do a ten thousand foot climb that’s crazy.”
“You done it?”
“Yeah, me and Brandon, a few years ago, and I damn near puked my guts out,” he laughed. “They don’t call it ‘Puke Hill’ for nothing. And what’s amazing is that these Olympic guys blow up that thing like it’s a parking lot. No way can anyone compete for a KOM around here; they sort of trade it between themselves from one week to the next.”
We climbed another thousand or so feet, made a few turns, then pulled into a public parking lot adjacent to a condominium complex with small balconies peppered with barbeques, satellite dishes, and bikes. The lot was full but we pulled in just as another car was leaving. It almost wasn’t a space and I had no idea how we’d be able to get out. Hey, I said to myself, that issue is three or four hours from right now, a near infinity… and besides, I’d seen the hot air balloon.
People are always trying to relate something they know to try and understand something they don’t. So the Egyptians saw groups of stars that coincided with the ebb and flow of the Nile and now we have constellations and astrology. It’s what we as humans do; this trait is part of what makes us human. The Oaks, my home stomping grounds, is mostly baked, cracked adobe clay; it turns into stiff red muck with axle-deep ruts after a heavy rain. On the other hand, Sycamore Canyon in Riverside is almost entirely pulverized sandstone which makes for excellent drainage; we ride there for a day or two after it rains. Different still, Ski Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains and, to the north, the Mt. Wilson area, are both decomposed granite with sharp edged pieces ranging in size from softballs to grains of rice and, like Sycamore Canyon, they’re also great rides immediately after a big storm has come through. In California, though, it hasn’t rained much in the last decade so the clay in The Oaks decomposes into loess. This has the consistency of talcum powder and settles as dunes on the banks of all the switchbacks and turns. The sandstone and granite resolve into mounds that have the consistency of kitty litter. Try slipping into a banked turn of kitty litter or talcum powder at downhill speed and see how that works for you.
Those are what I know. Mid-Mountain was like riding on none of the above. The slopes exposed for ski runs were more like the compressed rock you might find on a groomed park trail. Because it snows rather than rains, there is almost no erosion, which means no deep ruts. Besides being shaded and cool, the forested sections were moist and tacky; my tread stuck to the dirt like a post-it note to a refrigerator door.
Kevin said there was a half mile or so uphill leg to connect to the Mid-Mountain and I was prepared to come out of it breathing through a mask, but it was nothing. Really nothing. We transitioned from the Spiro section of the Mid-Mountain over to Fenceline, a few more uphills, some short chutes and rock gardens but, again, it was nothing, really nothing.
“OK, we’ve just gone through the toughest parts.” OK, yeah, OK, I thought to myself, I really will just enjoy this and not think about the stupids.
Wherever you ride, nature is always beautiful; sometimes it’s indescribably spectacular. Everything in the forests was a brilliant emerald green woven through and through with undulating black and gray shadows. There were ferns and mosses peppered with motes of sunlight that would twinkle like gold from the fairy dust kicked up by our tires. There was the sound of idling gears and quick gear shifts, of birds and crickets and aspen leaves chattering in the breezes.
Everything in the forests was a brilliant emerald green woven through and through with undulating black and gray shadows. There were ferns and mosses peppered with motes of sunlight that would twinkle like gold from the fairy dust kicked up by our tires.Michael PiersonAll of this would change the moment we shot out of the forest and onto a groomed slope. Instead of the deep forest greens, a chaos of colors from acres of meadow flowers would explode along the side of the mountain down to the valley below. Instead of the mottled flecks of sun dancing along the forest trails, it became all brilliant sunlight, all blue sky. It was these ten or so miles of contrasts, of brazenness and subtlety, brilliance and shadow, that settled in my soul like my head on a pillow.
Too soon, I thought, too soon we were at The Canyons; the day was over. Well, not really, but the part of it that made it a day was. As we sat with my wife and Allie sharing with them our adventure over lunch, it was still there; it is here still. The hot air balloon rising above Park City had started the day, and the ride with my son-in-law along the Mid-Mountain trail had been the symphony, yet it is the memory of the day and the hot air balloon that has become a coda.
©2015 Michael Pierson