"You'll not find much there!"
I am intensely focused on picking and consuming blackberries at the edge of the woods and the elderly voice behind my shoulder startles me. The man, in his 80s, leans on a walking stick and shakes his head sadly.
"Two ladies just come through with big buckets you see. Took every last one so they did."
The blackberries had indeed been suspiciously sparse that evening. But I could still find those juicy few that evaded the buckets, some high up, others hidden deep in the hedge. Quickly I grab a couple and reach my hand out to the man - nearly tripping over my bike in the process, which I forget I am still straddling. He shuffles toward me and critically inspects, then accepts my offering.
In the lingering twilight, we now stand side by side facing the hedge. I scan the vines for remaining berries, then point to them so that he can pluck them himself. He is smiling now, satisfied, although still shaking his head and muttering "buckets" under his breath, in disbelief over the ladies' behaviour.
"You get all sorts coming through here."
You do get all sorts coming through here - most recently, me. There is a forest and a series of smaller wooded clusters that start down the road, stretching along the side of the mountain. What started out as a shortcut home soon turned into dedicated rides with deliberate detours. And so within a week's time I went from "not needing" a mountain bike, to suddenly being unable to imagine myself without one.
The local forest is like an amusement park, where you get to select your desired level of difficulty or excitement. There are tame trails, with only some mud and loose gravel to challenge you. There are steep up and down stretches with tight turns, the surface all slippery rock with sleek autumn leaves strewn on top for good measure. There are marshy parts. There are flights of uneven stone steps carved into cliffs god knows how long ago and now crumpling. There are lakeside singletrack loops requiring precise control and a bit of luck to not end up in the water. Choose your adventure.
In many ways, I feel like I'm back to where I started when I was first writing this blog: out of my element, hardly knowing how to ride the bike I am on, and understanding very little about it. Once again, my cycling style is a two-wheel equivalent of a stroll. "Shredding" I am not. But oh my god, I can ride through a proper forest, and it is gorgeous here, and I feel like an explorer in a new land on an indestructible all-terrain monster of a vehicle that is also silent and pleasant and moves at just the right speed, and I'm so happy to be on it. Am I "mountain biking" or just riding through the woods? Honestly, it doesn't matter.