Mountain Biking Through the Rocky Trail of Grief

A brother turns to mountain biking to cope with loss.
Photos: Scott Jensen

My mind raced as I loaded my mountain bike onto my car rack, anticipating the next two weeks with my sister, Jacque, who had cancer and was at an alternative treatment center in Scottsdale, Arizona. She had been there two weeks with my wife and Mom, and my sister was starting to show signs of recovery. I planned to take the next two weeks to cook for her and drive her to the clinic.

We’re separated by two years, but so close, we were often mistaken as twins. We started elementary school together and even attended the same college. We both loved sports, and she was a favorite aunt to my three kids.

Returning to Scottsdale was bittersweet. I live in Idaho now, but Scottsdale was where I first learned to mountain bike. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve system of trails were my favorite, and they hold a special place in my heart because they are my old home trails, full of familiarity and fond memories. I planned to ride them every morning and then pick up my sister from the clinic in the late afternoon.

The drive from Boise was long, but the upcoming two weeks stuck in my mind as INXS blared from the stereo. While on the road, my wife called and told me the doctor recommended my sister go to the hospital for observation, but everyone was still hopeful. The next day, my wife called again as I passed through Salt Lake City and said the doctor wanted to include me in a conference call.

My sister was in far worse shape than we imagined. Cancer filled her lungs, and the doctor recommended hospice. We were in shock. I drove as quickly as possible to see Jacque, and face the circumstances. I threw my bike in the kitchen of the rental condo and quickly headed to the hospice facility. For the next two days, I watched my sister slip in and out of consciousness before she quietly passed away. It happened too quickly. So many thoughts ran through my mind as I tried to comprehend my younger sister dying.

The counselor at hospice asked if I needed to talk to someone. I declined. In truth, I’m not a big talker, and my “therapy” has always been riding my mountain bike, and a couple hours on trails usually helped clear my head.

After putting my mother and wife on a plane back home, I headed back to the condo and wondered how to deal with the loss. I walked in, saw my bike and thought a ride might help. The trails that I once rode frequently were my only shot at consolation for the moment.

I hadn’t ridden these trails in 17 years. The names had changed, but the cactus and the caliche made up the same familiar ribbons of trails I had ridden hundreds of times before. In the quietness of the trails, I kept asking “why?”

“Why did she get cancer?”

“Why was she taken so young?”

As I pumped up the steep trail, the emptiness of the desert met my own void. There were no easy answers, nor could I sort out my grief. But the physical exertion was a form of release.

After returning to Boise, I kept riding trails to work through my thoughts and emotions. I often rode on barely used BLM doubletrack for quiet, solitude, and a chance to process what happened.

I still don’t have the answers, but support from my family and friends, along with time spent with God in wide-open spaces helps to cope.

As I ride, I think how life is a lot like a trail. Some parts are rocky, rough, and hard to navigate. There are uphill battles, followed by fun, smooth downhills that make it all worthwhile.

I’m still navigating the rough patch, but as I think about my sister and all of our happy memories together, I know there is a smooth downhill ahead, and I know it will take me to a place where everything is okay.