Herded Away: The Story of a Missed Descent

An unexpected trail obstacle presents a challenge for a solo mountain biker.
Photo: Poliana DeVane

I saw them from a distance, a few hundred yards ahead of me on the mountainside, their bodies a stark contrast to the vibrant green pastureland. They glowed a luminescent white, about a hundred of them spotting the landscape. I have been battling these phantoms since I arrived here a year and a half ago. 

At first, I was naïve. Sure, they looked menacing, but I reminded myself that they were only cows. I know all about cows. When I was younger, my dad rented a house on a farm and they had a cow named Snowflake and we used to pet it like a dog. I’m practically an expert. Of course all the locals cautioned me about them, they told me they were territorial and called them bois. They were beef cattle, descendants from India and were not to be confused with dairy cows. I nodded respectively, but thought, “yeah, ok.”

I was still unaware of their bellicose ways. I was also unaware that by the simple act of me hoping aboard my mountain bike and taking off into the Brazilian countryside, I was choosing sides in a territory war. 

My first few encounters with them were peaceful. I would step off my bike and slowly weave my way in and out of their scattered masses. They showed me mercy, like a squirrel who meandered unknowingly onto the infield at Yankee Stadium. After a few rides and a few passes, the energy turned. I was no longer an innocent. They started to get aggressive and after some close calls, I realized I was taking my chances running the gauntlet. It would only be a matter of time until one of them pounced me. From that moment on, if the trail was being blocked by the herd, I would swear, not so under my breath, turn around and retrace my course, sent off to reluctantly find another trail to ride. I knew I was no match for this army and, as the saying goes, I’d live to fight another day. There were times when I would think about how these Brazilian natives have never heard the English language before and now they were getting an earful of New Jersey’s best expletives.

I continued to grind up the mountain, hoping to go unnoticed until I reached the top where a long flowing downhill waited. If these ghostlike guardians remained in place the trail would bring me safely past them on their left flank. I struggled on. 

I saw some movement in the distance; there was unrest in the front lines and their point men began to move forward. They were still a good distance away, but their scouts were now doing recon. I continued. Something inside me told me to fight this day, to pedal as hard as I could, till my legs and lungs could no longer take it. This would be a race to the peak.  

Instinctively, the cows felt my urgency and they too put in a stronger effort, now not only the bold, but the entire herd moved, trying to cut me off. I was almost to the top when the first few arrived, soon followed by reinforcements, like a standoff from an old Western movie. Their intentions were obvious. They were there to stop me from advancing, to protect their territory, drawing a line in the sand.   

I now stood 15 feet from the herd, who were all staring at me, daring me to make a move. The rules were simple: if I didn’t advance there would be no problems, but if I did, they would be aggressive. I was scared. I scanned my brain for references on how to handle this situation, looking for any help I could muster. I parted my lips and fired my vocal cords. A loud and stern “yah!” flew from my mouth. The instant my ears heard what my mouth produced I began to laugh out loud, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in a foreign land. Not only was what I yelled ridiculous, it was the wrong ridiculous. I embarrassed myself, in front of myself. Really, the only thing I could think to do was to yell what I’d heard cowboys in movies say when they wanted their horses to move?

Needless to say, I lost the clash on the mountaintop, and I turned away defeated. I did not get to ride the beautiful downhill that day, but I left content in the experience. I was reminded again how it really isn’t about the destination but the journey.