Monday, December 16

Providence and Pickup Trucks

That's Joe! 

I could see the pickup truck driving through the church parking lot getting ready to turn west onto KY 15 in Bowen.  Even in the dark I was pretty sure it was Joe Bowen's pickup.  I hoped he saw my lights and his curiosity would keep him stopped.  I stood up on the pedals and willed him to see me.

My ride began three hours earlier last Friday afternoon.  I'd intended to ride up into the Red River Gorge, camp overnight, and then return early in the morning.  Due to volunteered obligations to friends it ended up being best for me not to stay out overnight, but I still went out for the ride portion of my scheme.  

I saddled up the Cannonball with a Klean Kanteen full of freshly brewed coffee, cold weather gear, lights, and I headed east around 3pm.  I was happy to finally be taking the X out on a long ride.  It had been quite awhile.  I've favored the sporty-sport bike and the mountain bike since we've been back to the Bluegrass state.  

"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.  It is a journey we can make only by the acceptance of mystery and of mystification-by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there." ~ Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness

The temperature was hovering around 45ºF as I pedaled more slowly than usual toward Rosslyn.  I cut over to North Fork and escaped the Friday afternoon school traffic shuttling between Bowen Elementary and Stanton.  North Fork is one of my favorite roads to ride and it delivered on its perpetual promise of low traffic once again.

They are

I rode up North Fork, which I've driven and ridden more times than I could ever count, but something about the last ride was different.  I've been rereading The Unforeseen Wilderness by Wendell Berry.  The Crash Test Librarian and I had a good conversation about Berry and Edward Abbey not too long ago, and we talked about Berry's book which was written to save the Red from innundation.  It succeeded, or at least there was success, but Wendell's book often receives considerable credit for that salvation.

My intent, altered when I made the decision to unpack the camping gear from my mule-bike, was to ride the entire Gorge loop, up Sky Bridge Hill, over Pine Ridge and return to Stanton via KY 15.  From home that was a 50+ mile ride; one that I've done a few times, but never in the cold and darkness on a cargo bike.  That just added to my sense of adventure.

"Our senses, after all, were developed to function at foot speeds; and the transition from foot travel to motor travel, in terms of evolutionary time, has been abrupt."  ~ W. Berry

As I passed below Long Wall on the gravel section of the north river road between Indian Creek and the Iron Bridge I thought back to an adventure in my youthful past.  One time I had my parents drop me off at the Long Wall trailhead with my bike and climbing gear and I rope soloed Big Country before riding back (on the pre-Xtracycle Cannonball) to my apartment in Slade under the light of a full moon.

Lately I've been thinking about riding from home on the X with my gear and climbing Big Country again.  It's been too long.  I checked the mileage when I stopped to look up at the Shield from the road.  18 miles.

I continued on toward the intersection where I'd pick up the Gorge loop.  I decided I would decide there where the ride would go from that point.  I could turn south and truncate the ride by climbing up through Nada tunnel and heading home or I could continue east deeper into the Gorge.  It was the difference of about 25 miles on my ride.

Either way I would be finishing my ride in the dark.  I was cold, and had decided the next time I stopped I would put on my long sleeved jersey, balaclava, and glove liners.

"I have departed from my life as I am used to living it, and have come into the wilderness." ~ W. Berry

When I could see the bridge an idea struck me: I would ride on up to the trail where I had intended to camp and scout out for when my next bikepacking opportunity arises.  I blew through the North Fork/KY 77 intersection headed into the Gorge as 5:00pm passed.  The air was distinctly colder as I turned up KY 77.  Along the way I noticed more and more snow down at the bottom of Dunkan Branch, and there were more and bigger icicles along the cliffs by the road.

Twenty minutes later I was at the top of Tarr Ridge hill, the top of the climb out of the Gorge on KY 77, at the unofficial trailhead on the right.  It was technically sunset as I turned the X onto the unofficial trail that goes out the ridge between Dunkan Branch and Wolfpen Creek.  I've always called it Dunkan Ridge and have for a long time believed it would make a great mountain biking/bikepacking destination.

I rode out the trail as far as I could as the light bled from the sky.  Finally there was a recent blow down that I couldn't drag out of the trail so I turned back.  Once back at the trailhead I got out my Klean Kanteen full of coffee and warm clothing accessories.  Darkness had officially fallen and I was halfway home.

"I am alive in the world, this moment, without the help of the interference of any machine." ~ W. Berry

With a little food and warm drink in me I was ready to head back.  I stowed my things and snugged my balaclava over my face.  I knew the descent back into the Gorge was going to be cold and it was.  How could it not be cold when there were large icicles hanging from the road cuts and overhanging cliffs in Dunkan Branch?

By the time I was climbing toward Nada Tunnel (I had decided to take the short way back home) my fingers and toes were freezer-burnt.  I hoped the climb would get my blood flowing enough to warm them back up.  With the sun totally absent from the sky until the morning the light of the waxing moon through its veil of clouds shone on the landscape; reflecting on the remains of our last snow.  I settled into an easy cadence, no KOM attempt for sure, as I slowly worked my way to the tunnel.

Night time passages through the old train tunnel are hardly novel since you're already riding with a light.  On the south side I pulled over and checked the time.  I saw a text from Mandy:

I need to talk to you ASAP.

I had service so I called her.  She told me two strange men had showed up at the house.  One was high as a kite and looking for one of my uncles and the other claimed my cousin had some "park tools" that he was going to try to sell me and used my name, but that didn't make sense in context.  

She sounded a little shaken up, and rightfully so, the Chainring uncles run with some rough folks at times.  

"Hurry home!" she implored.  I told her I would, but that it would probably be an hour.  I was at least 15 miles from home on the cargo bike with frozen toes.  The climb had warmed my core and fingers, but there was little hope for my piggies.

I'm not one to overreact to anything.  But when my wife is stressed out about something, or there is even the remotest possibility that my family is threatened, I will pull out all the stops.  I slammed down on my pedals and made the descent down Moreland Branch and out to KY 15 in record time.  I turned west toward Stanton and went into cargo bike time trial mode.  By the time I reached Bowen I was lagging.  That bike—with MTB tires—just isn't built for speed.  And it does a lot to sap energy from you when you try to push it up to Warp 9.  I was still cranking hard but feeling the bottom of the barrel when I saw Joe's truck rolling out of his driveway toward the main road.

Now I know Joe.  He'll stop for any cyclist he sees on the road.  He's stopped for me before.  He's slowed and spoken to me.  I knew if he saw my lights that he would wait to satisfy his curiosity.  And he did.  As I rolled up to the drivers' side window of his truck he called out: "Hey man!"

"You're hardcore," he added said as I unclipped and leaned toward his door.

"Nah, I got good lights," I replied.

I explained what was going on with my family.

"Get in, I'll take you home," he said.  So I loaded up the bike in the back of his truck and climbed in the cab for a white knuckle ride with a 70 year old local cycling legend all the way back home.

I thanked Joe and pushed my bike up to the porch.  Back inside the warmth and safety of home I was thankful for providence and friends with pickup trucks.  It took awhile for my feet to thaw out, but otherwise I was in pretty good shape as Mandy told me about her adventures.  

This morning (I'm writing this on Saturday) I sit watching a cold rain fall out the front window.  The oddball visitors never showed back up, but we were all less antsy with me in the house last night.  And I knew if I had camped that I'd be returning home in that cold rain.  The forecast had been for 100% precipitation.  I knew all my camping gear would have been wet.  I was okay with that, but sitting here soaking up the warmth of a cup of coffee with my family safe and sound I find it hard to regret I didn't end up camping.

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