A little over a year ago, an essay I wrote for a competition hosted by Women On Writing made it through to final judging. It didn’t place in the finals, but I’m still proud of the piece. I based it on a blog post I wrote about the trip we made to Rossland a few years ago and the epic ride we undertook, which you can read about in full here.
Reading the essay again made me yearn to get out on mountain bike trails which have inevitably been closed down for the last couple of weeks. But this too will pass, and hopefully soon, and when it’s safe to do so we can drag the mountain bikes out from the cupboard again. For now, like most mountain bikers, we’ll just have to be satisfied with whetting our appetites from our armchairs. I hope I can help with that a little, and that you enjoy my essay ‘Siren Song of the Wild’ below.
Siren Song of the Wild
The world around me had shrunk to a bubble of trees and dusty trail crisscrossed by bulbous roots; raised veins on a weathered hand. My harsh breath disturbed the still air; leg muscles throbbed as they contracted with each painful turn of the cranks. My head hung over my handlebars as I fought an unspoken battle with myself – give up now before I was too far in or reach deep for some spark of internal grit. I leaned into the upward slope of the trail.
We had arrived the previous day in the Canadian town of Rossland high in the Monashee Mountains, a narrow band of ancient snowcapped peaks in British Columbia that inch over the border into Washington. I had spotted a moose – a hint of the wilderness that we were headed into – slate grey in the descending twilight, nosing through dense undergrowth in a shallow ditch beside the deserted road.
The gold rush in the 1800’s had made Rossland a city but in the intervening decades its population size had shrunk to that of a small town; the people who lived there now worked and played in the abundant snow during winter and negotiated space in their gardens with the wildlife that wandered through in the summer. We planned to ride the Seven Summits trail, 35km traversing seven mountain peaks with a gain of over 1100m in elevation. Rugged and remote, it promised an intensely physical challenge coupled with the chance to immerse myself in an elemental environment, a world bigger than the one I usually inhabited.
The night before our ride, sleep evaded me. Anxiety rose like bile as the darkness inside the tent surrendered to murky dawn. Would I be strong enough? What if I had a bad fall? What if my husband crashed? Only three exit points existed along the trail, the second was in such rough shape it was advised to avoid it altogether.
Unexpectedly dense morning fog slowly dissipated and bright sun emerged, elevating our spirits. Parking the car at the far end of the trail on Hwy 22, we were then picked up by a shuttle van, transferring us with our bikes to the beginning of the trailhead. I reread the warnings posted nearby: carry water and food, no cell coverage, remote wilderness, changeable weather. Kneepads, helmet and gloves on, water and food double-checked, I hopped from foot to foot. My teeth chattered; a mix of nervous adrenalin and early morning chill. I mounted the bike and started to pedal.
Starting gently enough, the undulating trail was in places thick with dew-dampened leaves and branches that gently slapped my legs as we rode past ferns and berry bushes before giving way to stands of cedar and fir trees, oxide green in the sunlight and backlit by a cerulean sky. Cold muscles, stiff from a night tossing on a tent pad, started to warm. Intermittent birdsong accompanied us as we easily pedaled along. Not so bad.
But after an alluring beginning, the trail revealed its true nature. Suddenly angling up, we ascended relentlessly for a pitiless two and a half hours. A couple of turns of the pedals were followed by an exhausted slump as our sea-level lungs heaved in the unaccustomed altitude. Relief and jubilation converged when we crested the first, and as it transpired, most demanding peak of the day. The West Kootenay mountain range hove into view – hazy in the early morning air, home to moose, bears, mountain goats and caribou alike – a wilderness of rock and forest that pulled me onward.
The trail thereafter bisected meadows liberally endowed with alpine wildflowers: lupines, Indian paintbrush, alpine daisies – blotches of purples, reds, whites, and yellows – before plunging into dark, dense woods, then shooting out suddenly to grassy sunlit slopes. A gentle breeze whispered as buff trail segued into a large, stubborn patch of snow we skittered and crunched across on foot as we shouldered our bikes, then into slate and sharp rock we rattled across, stones bouncing off wheel rims with a sharp clink. Sporadic clouds chased the sun, forcing us to stop and put on jackets in the sudden chill, before grinding to a halt to rip them off again as we started to overheat. We devoured sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate, shot blocks, water and energy drinks on frequent breaks. I rode as much as I could and when I was too scared of the precipitous drops to the side of the trail to pedal, I walked.
Gradually, mentally and physically drained, a kind of dogged determination took over. After 18km, an innocuous junction marked the final chance to leave the trail or carry on. We paused for a moment. I was numb with tiredness but automatically remounted, the rejected exit route tempting me back for the first few pedal strokes before I got my anxious thoughts under control. Pedal, rest, pedal, eat something, pedal, stop to look across vast treed mountainsides, pedal.
At last we crossed over a local forestry road, the sign we were nearing the end of our ride. A deep rumble of thunder sounded from the right. Panicked, we quickened our pace, the air heavy with the scent of ozone before the first drops of rain fell. Descending a steep cut, tense with fear, I hit a rock and flew over my handlebars. I stared up at a sky cleaved by fingers of lightning before heaving myself up, shaken but unharmed.
We picked our way down what was now a muddy mess of tight and narrow switchbacks, our aching hands barely able to hold onto the handlebars. The inevitable screeching of wet bike brakes heralded our arrival as we were abruptly spat out onto asphalt, steaming now in a warming shaft of sun. Eight hours of exhaustion and euphoria, glorious views and generous dollops of fear and it was over; the taste of wilderness like fresh spring water, the thrill of achievement thrumming through my body for hours, days, and months afterwards.