Getting the Gulch out

There was definitely something wrong with the picture. It was the day after Christmas, yet there I stood in the mud room contemplating a bike ride. See, it was one of those rare days when the kid was sleeping off a massive holiday-induced hangover, the spouse was happily entranced in the world of power tools, and I was left with a few, precious hours all to myself. Giddy with anticipation, I indulged in my possibilities. Skis, skates and other implements of winter recreation hung perfectly waxed and sharpened, beckoning me to take them for a spin. Yet it was my mountain bike, tucked into a dark, dusty corner, that spoke to me the loudest.

With this fall's sudden onset of winter, we had not said our proper goodbyes. Instead, the bike was hastily shoved aside, mud left to cake on its frame until spring. But with the December thaw in full swing and the mercury pushing 50, it suddenly held a certain allure. Perhaps it was the novelty of it all - the forecast said winter would soon be closing back in. Plus, after one too many trips to the See's bon bon box, there was something inside of me that cried out for the sort of punishment that can only be doled out from a two-wheeled trip up the Horse Gulch Road.

After improvising a makeshift ensemble of cold weather riding wear, I set off with the wind in my face, the sun at my back and time on my side - which was a good thing. See, I wasn't quite sure what to expect up there. Sure, I had taken rides during the winter before - but those were always during freak drought years when snow was not a factor. An earlier reconnaissance mission revealed there would be slick spots to contend with as well as the occasional dreaded encounter with black ice. I told myself I would just take a little tool around the meadow to stretch the legs and lungs, nothing major.

As I gingerly navigated my way up the snow-packed road, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of traction I was getting. Thus encouraged, and powered by my recent steady diet of egg nog and sticky buns, I decided to head out of the meadow and continue climbing. When I came to a fork - one path well worn, leading back down to salvation; the other less traveled, the condition of which was unknown beyond the immediate 20 feet in front of me - I opted for the unknown. I'd like to say it was my sense of adventure that drew me higher, but as we all know, there is a fine line between spontaneity and stupidity. And at that moment, I was hedging into the latter territory.

As the narrow trail ascended, the ratio of dry land to snowy tipped out of my favor. I held steadfast to my steed until one particularly hairy stretch of glare ice. And that's when I committed the mountain biking equivalent of the kiss of death - I took my feet out of my pedals. It's not that this act in and of itself is harmful so much as the precedent it sets. It's kind of like breaking the seal, so to speak, making it easier and easier to justify a dab here and another one there, until, before you know it, you're on that slippery slope of no return. Which is precisely where I found myself - pushing my bike through ankle deep crust in hopes the snow would clear up «just around the next corner.» Now in the shade, I could see the promised land of sun-drenched, western aspect that surely would be my salvation, if only I could get there. I trudged on, by now my shoe cleats hopelessly hobbled in a Precambrian glacial sludge of ice, rock and mud. I looked at my watch, an hour of daylight left - plenty of time. But my feet told another story. Apparently Italian leather is no match for Southwestern deathcrust, and the chill began to set in. Never one for the out and back, I hedged and hawed, stopping several more times to reassess the situation and weigh my options. Meanwhile, the toes grew more and more frigid. It was the exact sort of wimpy, wishy-washyness that gets people killed on Everest or in the backcountry. Fortunately, I was in my back yard, so the stakes weren't that high, and I decided to cash in my chips and head back. I managed to chisel enough debris off the bottoms of my shoes to cram them back into the pedals, threw on another layer and turned her around. After a sometimes-harrowing downhill, with feet firmly frozen to pedals, I returned to terra firma. And with 30 minutes to spare till sundown, I did what any sane person in my frozen, crusty shoes would do: I turned around and headed back up for one last lap.

- Missy Votel



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