My Downieville Downfall

Who among us doesn’t have a story, about ourselves or a friend—that badass guy or gal who flings themselves over gap jumps, nose wheelies this or that, then breaks their femur tripping on their PJ’s falling down the stairs? Fractures their foot taking out the recycling? Well I don’t gap jump, and most wouldn’t label …

Spring has sprung in the Sierras! Photo by Peter Repetti.

Who among us doesn’t have a story, about ourselves or a friend—that badass guy or gal who flings themselves over gap jumps, nose wheelies this or that, then breaks their femur tripping on their PJ’s falling down the stairs? Fractures their foot taking out the recycling? Well I don’t gap jump, and most wouldn’t label me a badass, but this is essentially one of those stories. I hurt myself on Third Divide Trail in the California Sierras. The flowy, sweet, buff, no-rock-in-sight part of Third Divide Trail. I’ve ridden the Downieville Classic race course a gazillion times, raced it five times, and even won the Downhill (sport category) in 2009—the last year one could race only the DH and not be conscripted into the Cross Country AND Downhill that are now inextricably paired in the All Mountain category (I don’t climb so good. At the end of this story you’ll think I don’t descend so good either).

A group of friends had rented a house for a long weekend. While most trails were open and running like a dream, snow kept Big Boulder and some of the higher elevation trails locked in her cold white grasp. The boyfriend (Ron) and I did an early Friday shuttle of Butcher, Pauley Creek, Third and First Divide trails to whet our appetites. These abruptly reminded us that we weren’t in Marin anymore, where the most technical sections we ride last approximately 104 feet. We tested the swimming holes that were full of high, fast water that had been snow just a few hours earlier.

Photo: Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship

A larger group of 14 of us shuttled at 7:30 the next morning, aiming to beat both the heat and the crowds. The Sierra Buttes were in their full glory and I was awash in a strange mix of serenity and adrenaline on the hour-ish ride up to the saddle. The van spat us out into the sparkling morning and we set forth on our plan: Butcher Ranch, Pauley Creek, a hint of Third Divide, then a right-hander onto Big Boulder until it turned back by snow, Big Boulder down, Third, then First Divide into town, lunch, swim, shuttle, repeat at 3pm. Some of this happened, some of it didn’t.

After the Big Boulder out-and-back, we set off down Third Divide. What a gas. This trail is magic. Ron stormed off ahead of the crew, desiring that sweetheart of a trail all to himself. The balance of the sprightly crew sans myself and two ladies brought up the rear. I’d had nagging but not unusual scenes playing in my head, foreboding and dark snippets of imagined conversations “…and then Mo got hurt and Ron had to go into town and come back for her…” To stave off this negative thinking and to prevent such things from coming to fruition, a more conscious part of my brain usually inserts itself into the conversation at this point, cutting off such prognostications with a simple, slightly incredulous “No, she didn’t get hurt—that’s stupid.” Maybe I forgot the rebuttal this time?

The author whilst still upright in the Butcher/Pauly Creek region. Photo by Peter Repetti.

It was a beautiful right-hand sweeper. I came into it with some speed, but nothing nutty. My front wheel went wonky for reasons unknown (operator error, no doubt) and down I went, auguring the right side of my face into that hallowed Downieville ground. My glasses broke, lacerating my cheek bone and eyelid. Had my eye been spared?  It was unclear. My world was unclear. Coming rather sharply into focus now, however, was my left ankle, howling out an ugly tune I’d not heard before. How did I smash the right side of my face and hurt my left ankle?

I unveiled the right eye I’d been clutching and to my relief, neither Anne nor Tammy turned green, blanched, or said “oh, shit,” so my eyeball was probably not dangling halfway down my face, as in some bad horror flick. One of them had an ace bandage at the ready and they wrapped up the ankle that was swelling grotesquely, the flesh quickly pooling over the edges of my bright blue shoe. The ladies carefully placed me on my bike, seat fully lowered, and I coasted the coastable bits, hobbled with the bike or a friend as a crutch on the unridable parts. Now here came my posse. Word had spread down the trail and up they marched, my little rolling band of salvation.

“We sent Ron to get the car, but there’s a minor flaw in the plan” said Peter, looking sheepish. “His car is blocked in by four other cars at the house and there is zero cell reception.”

At about this time, we came to a minor uplift in the trail, something I could not coast over. Tammy had been bringing up the rear and warning the (surprisingly few) riders coming down about the human trail boulder just ahead. Everyone was as nice and helpful as you would expect from this great community—one guy seemed so sad that he couldn’t help, he insisted on providing me with snacks. Cheesy something-or-other’s. They were really quite good.

My personal Medi-Vac. Photo by Alex K.

Then there was the Brat Brogade. Most of my posse was behind me, ready to piggy-bag or shoulder-crutch me through the hard parts. A group of five or six young men were comin’ in hot. Tammy warned them regarding the obstacle.

“Yeah, you know, this ain’t really a great place to be chillin’ guys…”

“Uh, yeah, like I said, we have an injured rider.”

“Well, I mean, can we help? Cause if not…” Get her the hell out of our way.

At this point I found it necessary to interject.

“Very sorry my broken ankle is causing this delay…” The “WTF?” was implied, but not spoken.

The Brat Brogade were let to pass, their KOM dreams smashed and dangling like a broken bone. I was deposited at the bottom of Third Divide to await whatever vehicle support might be heading my way. Within minutes of plunging my foot into the freezing cold waters of Lavezzola Creek, Peter was hollering “We got a ride!” He came to share a few words with me before ushering me to the awaiting car.

“Okay, so, there’s these two…ummm, local guys, who can take you down cause we don’t know how long Ron will be. There’s a lot of Budweiser going on, but I’m pretty sure it’s cool?”

The notion of it not being a good idea to get into the car of two drunk hippie/redneck miners from Downieville never even occurred to me. However, while I was busy not thinking twice, Peter and crew were snapping photos of the license plate of the car into which they had just stowed their broken friend. At least someone was thinking.

The driver had a friendly, warm face ensconced in white hair. His passenger, a stone mason, was also of a happy countenance. Or maybe it was just the Bud. “You want one sweetheart? Nice and cold. Good for your leg!”

We talked about the town, how long they’d been there, what kept their lights on. In addition to the occasional stone work, they were also miners and their intermittent luck augmented their respective incomes. Halfway down the hill, here came a clapped-out old beater pickup truck shrouded in dust. With Ron at the wheel. This is not Ron’s vehicle. My first thought, as I choked up just a little, was “Awww. Honey stole a truck for me!”

He and my driver discussed the situation and I stayed on with the hippie/rednecks. The truck, it turns out, had been borrowed from Greg Long at Downieville Outfitters—our shuttle source for the weekend (Thanks Greg!). And it was way past empty. So now my guardian hippie/rednecks were shepherding me and Ron down the mountain. A half-mile later, we pulled over to the side of the dirt road.

“Pardon the brief interruption ma’am!” The driver got out, the passenger got out. Ron pulled up to get the 411, but by the time he’d rolled his window down, both gentlemen were unzipped and letting fly a long, steady stream.

“Well, there goes ONE beer!” the driver roared, head back, zipping up his fly and returning to the truck.

They delivered me to the (closed) Downieville Medical Clinic (hours of operation are Monday-Thursday, otherwise use the “After Hours Phone”) and then headed over to the Sheriff’s office to call the EMTs.

The EMTs at Downieville Fire are tops. They wrapped up my ankle and leg with a Franken-splint, but with pink wrapping to keep it upbeat and girly (I wasn’t about to complain about “shrink and pink” in this setting). They said broken, I thought “I doubt that.” They said surgery, I thought “a wee bit melodramatic.” They offered an ambulance for the ride to the nearest medical center as they were unable to X-ray, but Ron extracted his car from the car pile and off we went to Kaiser in San Rafael. In the end, yes, it was broken. And after my surgery I am the proud owner of two screws in my ankle.

I told you it was a pink Frankensplint. Photo by Anne Spalding.

Having become morose after discovering the difficulties of crutches (and this was day two of a six-week sentence), I enlisted a 20-year-old desk chair and quickly returned to a life on wheels. Opportunities and constraints on the route between bed-bath-TV and kitchen are now mapped into my brain, much like a favorite mountain bike trail. Clear the tricky rug edge then grab the door jamb, yank-and-pivot for a sweet slingshot down the hall, but remember you can *enter* the kitchen at speed, but not *exit*. Enter, not exit.

After seven housebound days rolling, crutching, and hopping, I ventured out. I saw a lady wearing pretty sandals and walking across the grass at a 4th of July BBQ. Like it was nothing. “What a showboat,” I thought, dripping with jealousy at this formerly mundane act. Imagine my incredulity, my green envy, when I saw someone RIDING A BICYCLE.

Many summer plans have been modified, some cancelled. But I know it could have been worse. Most people—myself included—tend to take their health and able-bodied-ness for granted. I’m gaining a whole new respect for my moving parts. And besides, now I’ll get to read more

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