The Hunted and the Damned

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” – Edgar Allen Poe

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Vapor or ghosts?

Eyes. Two yellow eyes were peering from between the pines as I rounded the rain slicked corner in the trail. I squealed to a stop as my brake discs shed the copious amounts of water and muck deposited upon them by the bogs and puddles on this rain drenched night. For a moment the eyes dulled and shifted in the rain, then glowed brightly again as the screeching stopped. The rain pelted down in sheets as I, transfixed, provided a convenient gathering place for the water before it pooled then dripped upon the earth like blood from a corpse.

The yellow eyes never stopped observing. They glowed like embers in the night. I stared back, peering into them to try and figure out to what they were attached.

With it being so close to Halloween it’s easy to get spooked by things that go bump in the night. One’s brain can play fun tricks on your perception of reality at this time of the year when we are told that the souls of the dead have typically wandered the earth. Be it the spectre of Samhain or Dia de los Muertos or All Saint’s Day (choose your cultural poison), there is no denying that this can be a powerful time of year – especially while riding around the woods at night in the rain.

This time of year the leaves have mostly fallen from their trees and the world opens up to display its secrets. The barriers are down and night envelopes the earth in a cold embrace that shivers with each leaf clinging desperately to its tree. It’s enough to make one believe the fables and folklore that surround the season. It’s enough to make a calm and rational person like myself believe in the supernatural, especially when confronted by yellow, unwavering eyes from within the pines.

Things are changing out there despite our desire to cling to the warmth of summer. Luckily I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

Regardless I still shifted a little uneasily as a swirl of vapor rose from my form and my body sought to equilibrate with the chill of the October night. Meanwhile the eyes moved from one side of a gnarled old pine to the next as if searching for something.

Despite having read way too many Stephen King novels in my formative years I’m not inclined to believe that ghosts and other supernatural beings wander the woods of Maine. My straining human brain is damned to fill in the blanks of the situation as it sees fit. In situations like this my primal brain immediately retreats to fight or flight reactions borne through thousands of ears of evolution where humans were pursued and eaten by giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, eagles, snakes, other primates, wolves, saber-toothed cats, false saber-toothed cats and who knows what else?

Of course in the modern world this gift of our evolution provides us with a certain level of anxiety whenever we are confronted by a threat, whether perceived or real. This gift revealed itself to me as I stood astride my bike in the rain trying to figure out what the eyes were attached to. I suddenly felt a little vulnerable to say the least. What the hell was out there?

Peering deeper into the night, for the briefest moment I thought I made out the shape of the head of the form to which the eyes were attached. It was hard to tell, but the hair rose on the back of my neck as I filled in the missing dots of information with a feline form. Holy crap! It’s a mountain lion! I’m going to be eaten!

The brief moment passed and the form turned sideways before bounding off like a deer (which it was). Feeling a bit silly I admonished myself.

“It’s a deer and not a cat, you idiot.” Large cats are as common as ghosts in the woods of Maine. Well, a least in my part of the state (maybe not in Stephen King’s).

I turned and pedaled along the trail while my steaming form headed for the treetops and wandered into night.

 

 

 

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Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Golden hour on the final day of September in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, northern Maine

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay”

Robert Frost

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Separation of Light From Darkness

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“Color is everything, black and white is more.” – Dominic Rouse

“We live in a world where strangers will pick each other up off the streets. We live in a world where people will bring other people into their homes, feed them, and drive them up and down a snowy mountain in the depths of a winter’s night. We live in a world where people will hand strangers they’ve only just met one hundred euros with nothing but the implicit request of please don’t screw me on this. 

Yes, there’s a darker side to this world. Yes, we also live in a world where people shoot at other people for no reason. We live in a world where people sometimes can’t agree, and where people sometimes do terrible things to those they can’t agree with. We live in a world with a whole lot of human suffering, most of it caused by the way humans treat other humans.

Mostly, we live in a world where how you live is dictated largely by how you trust. If you do not trust others, if you believe human nature to be something dark and rotten, you close yourself off to a whole lot. If you do not open the shutters, all you get is darkness, no matter what’s outside. True, you may get darkness even if the shutters are open. Darkness or something worse: a rock hurled through your window, a tree branch kicked up by violent winds. But there’s no way to let the light in unless you open your shutters to the wider world.

And sometimes, that light can be pretty blinding.” – Jay Austin (touring cyclist attacked and killed in Tajikistan 7/29/18)

 

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The Sun Also Sets

“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.” 

– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Jet lag my old friend, how the hell are ya? It had been a while since I’d run the Ritchey Breakaway bike though the airline baggage fee gauntlet so the the shock of hailing a cab at the Barcelona airport for my journey downtown was even more severe than it should have been.  Sitting curbside in the taxi line with a foggy brain I silently mouthed how I was going to relay where I was going without looking like a total moron.

C’mon brain, it’s only an address you need to recite. You can speak enough Spanish to relay numbers and a street name. You’ve got this.

With that mission accomplished, twenty minutes later I was lugging my belongings into a tiny hotel room that would soon serve as an assembly room for my bolted-together escape vehicle/bike. But first, a quick bite to eat with the wife who had taken time from her business (the real reason to go to Barcelona in the first place) to see that I had arrived in one piece. After a quick hello and lunch break I had the remainder of the day to myself for exploration.

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“Have you seen the light, my son?” Yes, and it burns a little Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada

Honestly, I wasn’t that thrilled about going to Spain at first. In retrospect I’m so glad that i relented. I had visited years before and while I had enjoyed my time I wanted to go somewhere new. However, the issue of syncing up spousal schedules reared it’s ugly head and a compromise was reached: I’d have 2 whole days pretty much to myself to explore Barcelona on my bike.

Well 2 whole days if I hit the ground running that is, which is exactly what I did as soon as I returned to my hotel room following lunch. Less than an hour later I was following a Starva currated ride on my GPS as I dodged taxis and scooters on my way out of the city.

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The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, located on a mountain overlooking Barcelona. If church is not your thing there’s an amusement park here too

Barcelona is a very bike friendly city so unlike a place like, for instance Rome, a dousing of holy water was unnecessary to protect life and limb. In retrospect, after some close calls the second day while reentering the city on a Friday afternoon that might have been a good idea. Running with the scooters is almost as unpredictable as running with bulls.

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Mmmmm unprocessed jamon in Parc de Collserola outside Barcelona

Still, if you’re ever in Barcelona bring a bike (or rent one) and point it toward the hills. Jet lag be damned! Catalonia is beautiful, the people are friendly and there are miles of quality riding nearby in the hills above town (and beyond).

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Catalonian Curve. To quote Black Flag “Rise above, we’re gonna rise above”

Listen to your inner Hemingway and run with the taxis and scooters! Climb the hills, ride the curves with the deathwish motos! Drink black coffee until you twitch. While it can be hard to comprehend on a seemingly endless jet lagged day, some day the sun will cease to rise no matter how careful you may be.

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride” – Anthony Bourdain

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Sunrise in Sevilla, across from the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla

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Catedral de Sevilla. You have to get up early to have it all to yourself like this

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A little bit of this will help get you there bright and early

 

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The strong coffee comes in handy to keep you awake and on the lookout for situations like this in the streets of Sevilla…

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which reduces the possibility of ending up like this (your typical Spanish butcher shop, this one in Barcelona)

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Torre del Oro (“Tower of Gold”) bathed in golden light on the Sevilla waterfront

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Bike commuter in Sevilla

 

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More from the Old Town Sevilla maze

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Had trouble getting my bike into the frame on this one, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede in Sevilla

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And since we’re in Andalusia let’s not forget the Moors at the Alhambra, Granada

 

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The Ghost of Ski Areas Past

“It was a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions” – Charles Dickens

I first spied the line while on a fat bike ride earlier this winter. OK, there’s not much elevation change anywhere near Portland, Maine so calling it a “line” is a little optimistic. But seeing as how I’ve been earning my turns for the past 10 years or so any bit of nearby skiable vertical is a good thing, especially if I don’t have to drive an hour (or more) to reach it.

The snow was crusty and old (much like myself) as we hadn’t had any fresh for a few weeks and the midwinter thaw was in full force. As I rode I noticed that off to the side of the trail was an undeniable clearing in the woods. It led directly off the ridgeline and out of view.  I walked over to the edge of the incline and immediately saw it: a fall line with just enough space to link some turns. I made a mental note to return when (if) the snow did.

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The one, the only – Poplar Ridge

In the meantime I did a little research. Amazingly enough, there had once been a ski area on this hill! The topo map of the area still shows the liftline of the defunct Hurricane Ski Slope .  From 1946-1973 it had operated on this pleasant little slope, with a larger open area of private property still remaining as a pasture to this day. It just goes to show that skiers know a line when they see one, even if it’s only 200 or so vertical feet. I can almost hear the schralpf of ski edges and the cries of kids learning to ski in Winter’s past.

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Entering the danger zone (downhill haha) on my ancient Kazama’s

A week later I finally got my chance to ski it.  After a massive almost 70 degree warm spell had decimated the remaining snowpack we were gifted with a surprise foot of fresh. I headed up to the ridge on my ancient Kazama Mountain High metal edged touring skis, found the clearing and pointed them downhill – a direction they remained headed despite my best efforts to turn them until a tree loomed in my field of view. I’d forgotten how fun it is to coax skinny 210cm double cambered touring skis to turn in fresh snow. I kick turned down the rest of the massive vertical face. Errrrr well it felt intimidating on the skinny skis at least.

As unenlightened it may have been, the proof of concept was sound. There was a hill nearby that offered an opportunity for some sorely lacking verticality in my life! I dug out my rusty-edged-almost-as ancient-as-the-Kazama’s K2 Piste Stinx tele skis and ordered up some 3-pin bindings for some control with my touring boots. After another excruciating week of ridiculous up and down February temperature swings (60deg to zero and the almost back to 50! No one ever said living on the coastal plain in Maine is conducive to great snow conditions!) and a visit from mail order Santa, I was ready for the next storm cycle.

The buds of the beeches may have been fooled but the calendar still read “winter” as a few coastal storms soon churned up the Eastern seaboard. Three feet of fresh fell within a week – winter was back!  With my grungy 90’s era skis humming Nirvana I hit that slope after every storm blanketed it with fresh snow.  The Atlantic Ocean can be a great snow gun under the right conditions.

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“Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”

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Trees tend to grow arms in the wind and grab skis around here

Some days the powder was knee deep, on others it was crud.  Though the runs may have been short the lift lines were even shorter, not to mention the price was right. I’m not a total cheapskate but $100 plus lift tickets are not my thing anymore. As long as I have enough base to clear most of the fallen tree branches that litter the floor of my little glade the price is right.

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Glades are fun, even if they’only provide 200ft of vertical

Of course now the calendar has been flipped from Winter to Spring. The snows are melting as the sun intensifies with each passing day.  Soon I’ll be mountain biking these very hills as some of the best trails in the area wind to the top of this tiny ridge. It’s my hidden gem, my escape from the everyday.  Regardless of season, it’s a chance to recapture the past and feed that inner child on the slopes of Poplar Ridge.

Oh and Powder Magazine, if you’re listening – feel free to drop by anytime for a tour.

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Then There was Color

My previous black and white post was from within the depths of a winter day earlier this year. Yesterday I went back to the scene of the crime (the Carrabassett Valley) for what will probably be my last extended snow ride of the season. It turned out to be one of the best of the season.

Winter is dead. Long live winter!

Of course, winter isn’t quite done yet in these parts. Overnight it had returned under cover of darkness with a fresh glaze of snow over the roads making my trek from Portland out to Western Maine a hellaciously slippery affair. This time of year Maine DOT prefers to let sunshine clear its roads so the predawn drive was a skating rink. Luckily the sun chose to make an entrance and melt the roads a bit before I got checked into the boards (snowbanks) at high speed or wrapped myself around a tree.
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Then there was light

In spring you’re always just around the corner to the light of day.

If you’re up early in the morning and outside this time of year you know that there is change right around the corner. The earth exudes it. The birds are singing with a purpose other than just to stay warm.  The trees no longer shiver rigidly in the wind, they sway to the pulse of sap rising through their limbs. Heck, even the squirrels are all smiles as they hop around uncovering long forgotten treats hidden beneath the receding snowpack. Although I think the moose remain rather nonplussed by the whole deal, there is no denying that spring is not just a season, it’s a feeling.

Meanwhile in the Carrabasset Valley, the perfect crust conditions had the fat bikers rejoicing as well as they pedaled up the Narrow Gauge trail – well at least one of them was. He had his camera with him. He leaned his bike against things. He had the trail to himself. I’m pretty sure he was smiling as he spun through the greeting card diorama.
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Riding up the Carrabassett River on the Narrow Gauge Trail

With temperatures in the 20’s combined with a little fresh snow over the hardpacked groomed trails it was fat biking at its finest. I can say this with all honesty as when I first started fat biking (if you’re following along at home this is the “back in my day” part of the story) pushing your bike was an accepted part of the game. We trained for it. Unless you were riding snowmobile trails you either packed your own trails or forged ahead by pushing your steed at times. It was fun, or so we told ourselves.

Side note: my first snow bike race (the Togwotee Classic in Wyoming) I pushed my “fat” tired (I was running 2.4’s that day!) Karate Monkey almost 25 miles through unconsolidated snow. Most “fun” I’ve ever had. While the course was a loop, I’m pretty sure it was uphill all the time too. So much fun.

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Riverside machine-packed wholesome goodness

Luckily, there are now wonderfully groomed trail systems like in the Carrabassett Valley of Maine where a coalition of organizations have seen the light and maintain a system of groomed trails for human powered recreation. The Carrabassett Region NEMBA and the Maine Huts and Trails provide ample opportunity to get people out and enjoying the trails in winter. I’ve dreamed about it for years but still haven’t strung together a multiday ride on the entire system but nest year for sure!

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On the climb up to Stratton Brook hut

So not only can one climb up to Stratton Brook Hut on the aptly named “Newton’s Revenge”, but after gaining your gravity points you can point the fat bike downhill for a fun blast before hooking up with the machine-packed singletrack that winds its way along the Carrabassett River. If you want you can continue further afield and stay at a hut overnight. Seriously, this stuff is top notch especially on a perfect late-winter (yes, I know the calendar says “spring”) day like this past Sunday.

While I explored I took a few pics then gave in to the allure of just ripping this luge run of a trail, clipping trees with abandon as I sought gold and Bode Millered my way along the rolling terrain of the riverbed. The tighter turns were bermed with the occasional jump to add to the pure enjoyment. I’ve ridden these trails in the summer and enjoyed them immensely, but there is something so paper-boy fun as weaving through the trees on a balloon tired bike. Everyone I encountered, whether skier, fat biker or hiker (and their happy dogs) was just stoked to be out enjoying this incredible day.

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Fat bike nirvana

So I guess there is something to this newfangled fat bike phenomenon. Almost makes you want to put your skis away and just ride your bike all the time in winter doesn’t it? Who needs ski areas anyway?

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Snowy Loops Trail with Sugarloaf in the distance

Of course I’m kidding. There’s still plenty of opportunity to pack both into one season and the Carrabassett Valley is the perfect place to do so. Maybe all I need to do is move to the area so I can do it all the time. Anyone hiring in the Valley?

Long live the fat bike!