I hesitated to write this story out of embarrassment, but I think there are mistakes I made that maybe others can learn from.
My girlfriend and I weren’t able to ride much this past summer. I’m working banker hours, Monday through Friday, with weekends off. She has weekdays off and is working in the service industry and on photo shoots during the weekend. It’s one of the first periods we’ve struggled to get into the outdoors together, and that’s important for us because it’s when we’re the happiest.
I picked Hannah up after work on a Sunday afternoon with both bikes, ready to go. It was about an hour drive from Golden, Colorado to Nederland and we could get up there, ride for two hours, and get back to the car right as the last bit of light disappeared to the west, ending our week on a good note.
Just in case though, I brought a light for the bike if we needed a bit more illumination for the last few minutes of the ride. We would’ve brought two lights, but I couldn’t find the second one before the ride.
We threw our helmets and packs on and pedaled up to the Magic School Bus trail at 6:15p, on a decent pace, but stopped to take a few photos along the way.
It had rained off and on throughout the weekend around Colorado. The dirt was soft and impressionable, the clouds opened up a bit and let the sun shine, and the grass and wildflowers were saturated with water and color.
Coarse, grainy dirt clumped around the bottom of our shoes and the knobs of our tires. We pedaled on and kept our pace. In about a mile, we would hit the Magic School Bus trail at around 8:00p. The sun would set 25 minutes later and then we’d lose all light around 8:45. That left plenty of time for the six-mile descent back to the car.
Before the turnaround, a steep hike-a-bike section turned into an open meadow. I pushed my bike up, looking down at the ground in front of my tire. When the slope flattened out, I looked up and saw a family of elk, with two massive bucks staring at me as the calves ate dinner.
“Check it out,” I told Hannah, and pointed toward them.
I pulled out an energy bar and started munching down as the bucks ran off behind a wall of trees.
“We should hit the turn off right up here,” I said. “Almost time to start going down.”
The doubletrack in the meadow that we ascended goes straight and then down and to the right, but the Magic School Bus trail breaks off to the left, without a trail sign, and is only recognizable by a few fallen trees that have been cut open to make way for the trail. You have to be looking to see it.
I had been checking the map and knew where to expect it. Hannah was simply following me and so she decided to leave her phone in the car.
When the trail breaks off to the left, it ascends 50-feet or so and starts to descend on the other side, so I stopped before going over, so we could stay close. I’m not much more than a minute ahead of her, but five minutes go by and I start to wonder where she is.
“What the hell?” I say out loud.
I pedal back to the Y-intersection where we came from. No sign of her. I pedal back to the doubletrack and meadow. Nothing. Back to the Y-intersection, she’s still not there.
I dropped my bike and started walking around, squinting my eyes and looking for her. It was getting dark.
“Hannah!” I yelled, with my hands cupped around my mouth like a loud speaker.
It echoed through the mountains and I only hear my own voice in response. Then I realize this is my greatest fear. We haven’t seen anyone else since we started the ride. It’s Sunday night, no one is out, the sun is setting, and we’re six miles into this trail and now separated from each other by who knows how much. I’m the only one with a light and a phone, and we only carried enough water and food for a two-hour ride.
I start jogging down the doubletrack and leave my bike at the Y. It might be a sign for her to wait there if she happened to go the other way and backtracks looking for me.
What am I gonna do? What is she gonna do? If I don’t find her, then I’ll ride back to the car as fast as possible. Maybe she’ll meet me there? If not, I’ll drive to the closest fire department and go from there. I’ll have to phone my boss and tell him I can’t work on Monday because I’m looking for my girlfriend who’s in the wilderness somewhere. I’ll also have to tell her dad that I lost his daughter on one of our rides and he’ll probably shoot me in the face. He’s mentioned it for much less worse offenses.
After about a quarter-mile of jogging, I realize that she isn’t anywhere close. I start to run back toward my bike and see a fresh skid and imprint in the damp trail. I stopped and kneeled down to take a look. The imprint was from a Maxxis Minion SS, her rear tire.
“Shit, she went that way,” I said to myself.
I pulled the backpack off of my shoulders and fished out my light, strapped it to my handlebars and cranked on the pedals. It was 8:20p, five minutes until sunset.
Even with the light, it was hard to see. Damp dirt is coming off of my front tire and hitting my face and I have to squint and swing my head side to side to look for signs of her.
I see another tire imprint and stop. It’s the same one. I pedal even faster.
Two small neon strips reflect my light at shoulder height off the side of the trail.
“I’m right here!” she yelled back at me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Her voice shook.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. I wanted to blame her, but it was true. It wasn’t her fault. I should have stopped before the trail broke off, not when I was already on the trail.
At this point, we’d already lost a good 500 feet of elevation. We didn’t have enough water, food, or time to go back up and find the right trail. On GPS, it looked like we were only about a quarter-mile from the Magic School Bus trail. This gave us two options: bushwhack over to the trail, and take it back to the car, or follow the doubletrack, to forest service roads, to paved roads, and climb the pavement about five miles back to the car.
“Let’s try to cut back to the trail,” I said. I really was on a roll of stupid decisions.
“It doesn’t look far, and I think it would save us a lot of time and energy if we can get back on it.”
“Okay, we can do that,” she said.
There was a foot trail that led toward Magic School Bus. We hiked that, and then started to cut off, pushing our bikes through bushes and over logs. After 20-minutes of pushing and lifting our bikes over logs and bushes, making “yelp” sounds and other noises to scare off wildlife, we hit a little clump of trees that had been rubbed raw.
“This looks weird,” I thought. A diamond-shaped sign was nailed to one of them. It read ‘bear area.’
“Can we just go back to the road?” Hannah asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry, that was stupid.”
After another 20-minutes, we made it back to the dirt road and started to coast. After a mile or two, we rolled past some houses with lights on and a pent-up breath escaped my lungs. Hannah went in front of me on the shoulder of the road, and I pedaled behind her with the light shining for both of us.
It was 10PM when we made it back to the car. It started to rain twenty minutes before and we were both soaked. We loaded the bikes onto the rack, got in the car and left the trailhead.
There are certain things I take for granted now that I’ve been mountain biking for a while. Most of my rides take place a few miles away from my house. When I started riding, every outing was an adventure. Now, most of them are just a way to de-stress after work, or to catch up with friends on the weekend. That Sunday night was a reminder that things can go wrong very quickly, even if you think you’re prepared. Without fresh rain, I wouldn’t have realized which way she had gone, and our night would’ve been even worse.
We both got lucky. Maybe that’s why they call it hero dirt.