Hello again, Dear Reader(s). There’s just no stopping this. As if tugged by the moon’s gravity, the curtain is now inexorably drawn to reveal the tale of my third (and let’s hope final) installment of Bicycle Crashes I Have Known. So, with only minor ado, I present South × Southwest × Head Over Heels!
·· ··· tepid applause ··· ··
Minor Ado: “head over heels” is the natural state of affairs. huh?
Bushwhack with me once more through the thorny thickets of Memory Lane, cruel mistress though she may be. To the exotic locale of the San Francisco Peaks on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. To the mostly unremarkable* summer of 1995.
I’d been in Flagstaff for a professional conference (back in the glory days when I was able to attend such functions on my employer’s tab) lasting the better part of a week. During the conference there were plenty of extracurricular trips and activities (Grand Canyon / South Rim, Painted Desert / Navajo Res / Tuba City, Route 66, margaritas, margaritas, margaritas!), but I decided to linger a couple of extra days since I’ve never been in the habit of taking dedicated vacations. Somehow I was seized by the notion that mountain biking was a good idea. Hey! You in the back! No sniggering!
So, the day after nearly everyone from the conference had gone back home to their drudgy lives, I breezed into town, to the local outdoor shop, rented a burly yet nimble two-wheeler and duly asked for some recommendations to where I should go. Thus informed, I pedalled merrily off to the nearby San Francisco Peaks. (Note to readers: if you haven’t realized already, “merrily” is a word indelibly stained with doom and sarcasm in the Panniverse™)
Travelling some miles north to the peaks, following the main roads, ascending to the beginning of one of the popular trails, I became winded because I hadn’t appreciated (a) the effort required to reach the top of the trail and (b) that Flagstaff itself is practically 7,000 feet above sea level (much higher than Denver, nearly as lofty as Mexico City) and my body hadn’t fully acclimated itself to the thinner air. I watched as others, mostly in pairs or small groups (an omen I took no note of at the time: mistake #1) arrived and proceeded to launch themselves down the side of the mountain. In truth, It didn’t look too intimidating: not too steep, not too twisty, and without any obvious dangers such as ominously leaning saguaros. Still, I continued my patient reconnaissance, gauging the ages, physiques, and attitudes of the other riders, silently comparing myself to my “peers.”
Finally, I felt both mentally ready and physically recuperated enough to begin my own inaugural descent. Still nervous and wary of embarrassing myself, I waited until there wasn’t anyone else around (mistake #2) and set off on my way. Gingerly at first, for I truly was apprehensive, I made my way down the single-track trail, growing more confident with each carefully-measured surge in which I would quit fingering and feathering the brakes and let the bike build up momentum. Hey, this isn’t so hard! I soon discovered that navigating obstacles was easier with speed: minor ditches and ruts, small stones and logs, not so scary! About three-quarters of a mile into the thing and starting to feel proud of myself, I was well on my way to imagining myself not only competent but proficient (mistake #3). At this point the trail opened up somewhat and levelled off, a natural stopping point. Since I’d become aware of a group of riders approaching behind me, I chose to pause and let them pass. The trio of women came by, slowed to say hello, then took off again, momentarily humbling my earlier thoughts of greatness with their casual speed and agility.
It was short-lived; I was damned if I was going to let those granola-eating hotshots show me up! Obviously, I was still being too cautious. I needed to move with more speed and more abandon (mistake #4). How true! Now I was really getting the hang of it, bopping down that mountain, maneuvering the wheels with grace and precision, the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was alive! Yeah! A quick learner, I soon intuited some probably standard techniques and strategies. For instance, sometimes it was better to bounce off the top of a few stones rather than to slavishly follow the “official” path.
Then it happened. Suddenly there was no trail. Just a bunch of rocks, like a boulder field on a smaller scale.
Eyes widened and bicycle zoomed forward, for there was too much momentum to do anything but keep going. The whole thing was so unexpected and unfamiliar that my brain didn’t even have the luxury of pulling the typical “time slowing down” trick common in such circumstances (see Parts One and Two). No. I was going to die, it was as simple as that. Not even enough time for a prayer if were the praying type. But what do you know? I was ricocheting that bike from stone to stone like a regular mountain goat! All I had to do was keep doing whatever I was doing until the normal trail resumed. It was too good to be true.
Indeed it was. Before long (probably about 5 seconds into that field, even though it already felt like a lifetime) things began to disintegrate. I was losing my grip on the handlebars, on the pedals, on my sangfroid. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Judder, judder, judder. It was hellish. It was mind-curdling. But there, ahead, I could see the end, where the trail, the beautiful trail in all its scrubby glory, beckoned to me like an old friend! Somehow I made it to the end, but the trail offered no consolation, no warm lover’s embrace. I’d used up all my luck and was unavoidably going to crash. There was a choice in the matter, though: crash to the right into a forbidding ditch, or crash to the left, among some short grass and bushes?
Mistake Number 5. Obscured by the foliage on the left was a wicked tree stump, for all I know a petrified tree stump. In any case, I slammed into it full-force with my shoulder. Dear reader(s), it hurt! I may have passed out. The last thing I needed at this point was to be run over by the next insane person hurtling down the way, so as soon as I regained my wits I grabbed the bicycle with my one good arm and dragged it and myself off the trail, backwards through the ditch (where I miraculously didn’t twist my ankle or step on a rattlesnake) and onto the side of the main road. Need I mention that, on cue, the sky cracked open and rain poured down, just in case I wasn’t miserable enough?
Presently, my knight in padded helmet arrived. He somehow spied me from the trail, made his way over, told me to hang tight because he had his car parked at the bottom of the mountain and would be back to pick me up shortly. Salvation! Ten minutes later he arrived in his station wagon, with an EMS van in tow. Oh no! Was it that bad? The EMT examined me and said my shoulder was separated. My mind flashed with the memory of the surfer who had dislocated his shoulder on a jetty and had to have it popped back in by a lifeguard. He screamed in agony. I cringed in anticipation, but the EMT clarified that it was a separation, not a dislocation, and it would heal naturally. At least I didn’t have to go to the emergency room. My savior flipped the bike onto the roof of his car and consoled me some as we drove back to the outdoor shop where I pretty much paid for the entire bicycle. I was happy to do so and couldn’t wait to slink out of Dodge.
I wish my luggage had had wheels. (Mistake #6.)