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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflowered in the Forest

                  Deflowered in the Forest

The pros, Vicki and Donna

Virgin no more. To the sport of mountain biking (abbreviated as MTB), that is. How did I make it 44 years without ever trying MTB? Because it seemed counterintuitive to bring a bicycle into the forest and ride through tight spaces, mud, roots and trees. Because I like cycling flat roads along the beach on my gear-free lavender Schwinn. Because I like knowing I won’t plunge off a cliff (unless I attempt something supremely stupid such as texting while riding, which I’ve seen other cyclists do).

I shelved my fears to mountain bike with two of my Jogger mates, Donna and Vicki. Both are experienced riders who offered to show me the ropes and not leave me, bruised and bloodied, on the forest floor.

We drove about an hour south, to Rotorua, which is the ‘spiritual home of mountain biking in New Zealand,’ according to http://www.riderotorua.com/.  The 130-kilometer Whakarewarewa and Redwoods Forest network is one of the oldest trail systems in New Zealand.  Dirt, mud and bark-covered paths wind through Larch, Douglas Fir and California Redwood trees.  

A Little History...

http://redwoods.co.nz/ says the forest opened to the public in 1970 and was sold to Fletcher Challenge (a now-defunct multinational construction, forestry, building and energy company, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletcher_Challenge) in 1996. Forest assets were split and sold again in 2003. Mountain bike trail access and building were regulated the following year, with the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club serving key roles in trail maintenance and development. The Rotorua District Council overtook forest management in 2006. Forest land was returned to Maori in 2009. Today, the Redwoods is maintained by the District Council and the Whakarewarewa Forest continues to be managed by Kaingaroa Timberlands. http://redwoods.co.nz/about/

The upshot of all this back-and-forth is  MTB trails are free to the public, but some areas close intermittently for logging.

There’s an information center, toilets and pay showers at the trail head. More importantly, there’s coffee.

Learn and Make Tracks

I borrowed one of Vicki’s old bikes, a sturdy bulldozer with knobby tires and gears that changed with a finger flick. Getting the gears right was tricky, at first. I couldn’t remember up and down. Several tries, and I (mostly) got there. You know you’re in the wrong gear when you’re grinding uphill and suddenly can’t budge. 

We started on the Creek Track, rated easy.  I hopped off the bike a couple times ahead of steep chutes, including two that crossed the creek. The riderotorua site says even “skilled riders have come to grief on these technical sections.” Sheesh. No wonder. Easy?

The first half hour required tremendous concentration. For those of us with spinning monkey brains (a.k.a. mothers) this is disconcerting. There was no thinking about what to cook for dinner or which emails needed returning, only a steady pulse of thoughts like, ‘Watch the tree on your left; there’s a mud patch ahead; oh, shit, that drop is steep. Brake, brake, BRAKE!’

“You’re really quiet back there,” says Donna. “It’s kind of eerie.”

I’m concentrating. It’s MTB Zen. Until I fly over the handlebars. I’m determined to keep the bike under me, rather than behind me, at least during this first attempt.

Dips and drops ebb, giving way to a flat zig-zag of single track covered in rich red mulch. Just before we reach the end of this track, two skinny Asian tourists, one with a large camera around her neck, appear.

Donna tells them, “It’s not safe to walk on the bicycle path. You could get hurt. Best sticking to the road.”

They look surprised and ask for further directions before we pedal away.

We grind up a wide gravel road and enter a stump and matchstick patch of cleared forest. Gray stumps and logs litter the ground, detritus divided by dirt bike tracks. No longer under the tree canopy, I survey the scene, trying to determine which route might be easiest and safest.

Channeling my Inner Eight-Year-Old

“Let’s try this,” says Vicki. She’s chosen one of the Challenge tracks, a grade three (out of five) trail that runs nearly a kilometer through stump land. We won’t attempt Down the Guts (grade four, advanced) or Boulderdash (grade five, expert). Not today, anyway.

“We’ll see you at the bottom,” says Donna. “Remember, it’s not a race.”

Deep breaths. I shove off, flinging myself and the bike down a dirt path that looks more motocross trail than mountain bike track. I ease off the brakes. You need enough speed to mount hills before hitting the table top plateaus. At the crest, you drop again, gaining speed. My eight-year-old, Finley, would love this. 

I love this - wide open spaces and the feeling of flying. It reminds me of skiing. Mountain biking combines the adrenaline rush of the slopes and exhilaration of navigating twists and turns – minus cold and snow. And trails have cool names.

We tackle two Challenge tracks – the second is nearly half a kilometer longer and just as fun. Donna and Vicki wait for me at the end. My mouth widens into a Joker smile the whole way down. Even though I’m not nearly as fast as my friends, I enjoy the circus of gravity and the sense of adventure that comes from trying a new sport.

We return on a track called Dipper (grade two, easy), where I can nearly relax and enjoy scenery beyond what's two feet in front of me. I later read it’s an iconic trail, flat, fast and wide, suited for families and beginners. It meanders through forest and finally, Redwood trees. I lose the track twice, bouncing over small logs marking trail boundaries.

“You trying to escape on us, Dawn? Going back to the car park?” jokes Vicki.

Don’t be silly. Because I don’t know where the car park might be from here.

Donna suggests I pick a line and stick with it. “What you look at is where you’ll go,” she says.  She’s right. That, and the advice to build a stable platform on the downhills by holding my feet evenly on the pedals, helps.

I survive two hours of climbing and whizzing, arms shuddering, thighs contracting, before we reach the end.

I’m pleased. Nothing's broken; I kept the bike under me and had a hell of a time.

MTB virgin no more. I’ll be back.

Me and Donna at the end

Cyclist Selfie

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Queen for a Day

                             Queen for a Day

It’s September 5th in New Zealand (still the 4th in the States). My birthday. I thought I might brush this one off. I’ve been grumpy. It’s been six weeks since the Husband got laid off. Neither of us knows what’s next, so we’re living in limbo with my knee-jerk panic and sense of frustration we haven’t figured this out – yesterday.

Earlier this week, I told Facebook: forget my birthday. Changed the setting so no one can attach September 5th to me. Except my family and close friends, including my running mates, who know this day is mine. But why should legions of people online, many of whom I don’t know personally, know it’s my birthday? Who needs well wishes from around the world?  Apparently, me.

I had a change of heart last night and whispered to Fb: “Go ahead, tell my friends about the birthday. Google was going to let the cat out of the bag, anyway.”

I set my alarm for 5:30 this morning. I hit snooze once, popping up at 5:40. I check my phone and see an email alert from my friend, Leanne, whose birthday is close to mine (tomorrow? Gosh, I’m horrible remembering birthdays!). My fellow Virgo is one of the most thoughtful people I know (she’s also a talented TV reporter in LA: http://abc7.com/about/newsteam/leanne-suter/ )

My day’s already off to a good start, since I’m thinking of Suter (we all called each other by surnames at the TV station where we met in Grand Rapids, Michigan). I check her anonymous Facebook profile to see if I can suss out her birthday. The only picture she’s tagged in shows a Superman doll sitting in Sean’s hospital room, plus pictures of Fiona and Finley I’d taped to the wall. Leanne and her then-husband had sent Superman to help Sean heal.

I slip into the next room – a spare bedroom/office, where I press my phone’s meditation app, which is set to chime after seven minutes. It’s about all my monkey mind can handle. During these seven minutes, I listen to the ocean outside the windows, think about what I want my birthday to mean and say nice things to myself. I’m a slightly-less-geeky version of the SNL character Stuart Smalley, who says, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Unlike Stuart, I do not practice before a mirror.

Gray wisps of cotton wool feather the skies over the Mount beach as I pound the sand for a five- kilometre run. My left knee’s still a grumpy old man – he feels about 84-years-old, while the rest of me feels 24. I’d be in better shape now – at 44 – than I was twenty years ago, if it weren’t for the achy, possibly torn bits of tendon scratching about the inside of my knee. No sunrise run up the Mount this year.

There’s no sun, anyway. Day breaks without the orange fire ball rising from the Pacific. Seagulls skitter at the shoreline and squawk overhead. None of them bombard my head. This is a good sign. I pass a man walking two German shorthair pointers. Another sign. They remind me of my dogs, Greta and Baron, growing up. One dog ran away and the other was hit by a car.

After the run, I’m clambering up the narrow wooden spiral staircase from the garage when the kids yell, “Don’t come up! Close your eyes!”

I drop the empty recycling bin and do as instructed. “Here, put this in front of your face,” says Fiona, holding a newspaper. She walks me to the dining room table and says, “Okay, open your eyes.”

“Surprise!” shouts Finley, Fiona and Pete. The kids motion to the table, while my husband places strips of uncooked bacon into a large pan with surgical precision.

Cards, flowers, a bottle of bubbly, two small boxes of chocolates and a bag with Fiona’s writing sit atop the dining table. My eyes well. Such care and planning to have it all here at seven a.m. I take turns giving my family sweaty hugs. I open the card from Pete first. Inside is a voucher for a white water rafting trip. He listened when I told him, “No electronics. Nothing useful.” Just an experience with him.

Finley’s card includes a coupon for laundry soap, candy, four dollars in change and a 20-dollar bill, which I return to him.

Fiona’s present is a red plush doll made of felt whose stitching is starting to unravel between the legs. “I made it in my spare time,” she says. “I even brought it to school.”

I shower and get dressed while listening to my favorite radio show, "This American Life." The episode called “Back to School” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/474/back-to-school talks about how children learn. And how they don’t learn if they grow up with chaos and stress at home. I think about my kids’ early years and develop a new theory: maybe the kids have attached so well to Pete (despite what Fiona says, she adores him) because they felt so much love from Sean. Their father gave them security from birth. Their stepfather will provide stability throughout their lives.

Pete serves me a microwaved egg on toast with coffee and bacon. It tastes like a weekend morning. Like love.

After breakfast, the kids decorate cupcakes for a school celebration. Apparently, today is also the birthday of their mascot, Mountie. Fiona and Finley spread the cupcakes with green icing which they layer with sprinkles, M&M’s and lollipops. I drive them to school. The last glimpse of my small fries is Fiona ahead, Finley walking behind, carrying an ice cream container of cupcakes, wearing a black cowboy hat. They fought about who would wear the black hat.

What else do I want to do on my day? Write. This blog is an indulgence, one I don’t allow myself as much as I’d like. I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast called, “Our Friend David,” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/472/our-friend-david 
which I pause. It’s impossible to concentrate on my own pithy prose while listening to a genius like (the late) David Rakoff who wrote about chicken poop as “olfactory insult.” I’m sad he died of cancer in 2012 at age 47. Just as I was sad to learn Joan Rivers died today at age 81.

Rakoff and Rivers endure not in heartbeats and breaths but in words. Which is part of this birthday writing exercise. Long after my ashes have blown off the Mount, disappeared over Spokane Falls or dissipated into Lake Erie, my words will remain – for everyone who chooses to read or ignore them. Happy birthday to me – cheers to what we keep: love of words. Words. And love.

 *Note: I downloaded the This American Life app from iTunes for $2.99 and got the whole podcast library.