Some folks ride mountain bikes for fitness, or to keep up with their friends. Some do it for competition. Still others are looking for scenery and solitude, or altitude and adrenaline. It’s the perfect cure for so many personal ills, and honestly, I couldn’t imagine my life without it. Yet lately, after all these years, I’ve found that my riding has moved into a different place, a more soulful place.
Let me explain.
Mountain biking has been entwined in my personal DNA since that first GT Timberline in 1989. In part, it makes me who I am. Somewhere between the professor and the mad scientist, there’s a muddy mountain biker, with blood on his elbows, a scabby chainring bite on one calf, and a grin you couldn’t remove with a crowbar. It’s in my soul, as it is for so many of my fat-tire brothers and sisters. And it tells you some things about us: we don’t mind working hard to reach our goals; we don’t mind taking risks; we know how to live in the moment; and we accept that pain is part of life. That’s who I am–a mountain biker–and one day my kids will ride up and scatter my ashes at the Tsali overlook and along Trace Ridge.
I’ve come to recognize that riding in the woods feeds my soul in a way that few other moments can match. It lets me face the world with a gleam in my eye and a smile on my face, with visions of rhododendron tunnels dancing in my head. Every day is better if it includes a ride. It’s the fix I need. Better than any therapy, any prescription, any bottle or movie binge or other diversion. Apparently, there’s some weird, knobby-shaped hole in my psyche, and mountain biking fills it perfectly. It grants me perspective in a larger, harder world, but at the same time, it allows me to appreciate all the joy packed into a single moment. Riding feeds me and helps heal me. And it always reminds me how blessed I am to be alive.
But then a few years back, whilst riding by myself in Western North Carolina, something changed, something new happened. I was jumping and swooping down the back side of Upper Long Branch trail, completely filled with joy, devoid of any other thoughts or emotions. And I had sort of a transcendent experience, a disassociation from the physical world, like you might find deep in meditation. The conscious Me was drifting along four or five feet above the trail, drinking in the scenery and adrenaline. All those pesky details about steering, changing gears, body English, and braking – they were all being handled by some subconscious subroutine that my brain stem had squirreled away. I was no more thinking about riding than a bird thinks about flying. And it was glorious!
The feeling quit as soon as I hit the climb up the powerline. But it came back for a bit while descending the sketchy part of Lower Long Branch, and rode with me over every jump and berm back down the Yellow trail to the bottom. I was so deep in the groove, so blissed out, that I forgot I was even on a bike. I was no longer gauging speed and angles on jumps, or mentally lining up moves to get through some nasty root patch. I wasn’t thinking or planning, but just flying along like I was carried by the joy in my soul.
It doesn’t happen all the time. But more and more often, particularly if I’m out riding alone, I find myself drifting into this different place, this “Soul Riding,” as I like to call it. Apparently, these old bones don’t need me to tell them what to do anymore. So I just get to be an excitable passenger, grinning as the world flies by. No inner turmoil, no worrying of any kind, no dark clouds, no sadness or regrets. Just Soul Riding through the trees, humming a tune to myself, splashing drops of sweat and joy as I go.
I used to have this whole mental dialogue going on whenever I’d roll up on a tricky spot: “Ok, jag left. Cut back right; don’t hit the boulder. Stay light through the chicken heads. Loft the wheel, avoid the mud… Go!”
But now it’s more like: “Yeah, rock garden!” Boing! “Oh, that was a cool jump!” Splash! “Whoa, look out Mr. Turtle!”
By the time I finish the ride and return home, I feel cleansed, with my mind running at twice normal speed. I’m brimming with ideas, batteries fully charged, ready to take on anything. I want to recount the best jumps and the sweetest berms to my patient wife. I want to make everyone in my house watch the GoPro video I made. Most of all, I want to share with each of them some of the immense joy that I get when I’m Soul Riding. Because everyone should get to feel this good!
I used to worry about how aging would affect my biking. You start to heal really slowly once 50 passes. I wondered at what point I’d have to give it up, or at least back off. But now, that worry is no longer one I carry around. Because I’m no longer pedaling a bike, you see. These days, more likely, I’m just out Soul Riding.