Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Fine Day for a Bike-and-Hike


There are times when I feel an incredible pull for the forest. It is more than a desire for a stroll through the woods; it's an almost a physical longing - like a craving for a special kind of comfort food. On hot days and on days with stormy weather alike, the forest offers shelter. On days when I'm not feeling great, or can't focus, it promises quiet, a place to gather my thoughts. All I need do is grab my bike and I'll be transported there.

The bike-and-hike is a pretty low-key, low-commitment activity. It requires little special equipment or preparation. A bicycle lock, something to drink, and perhaps a change of footwear is really all that I bring. For walks up rocky, twisty mountain trails I take hiking boots. For meanders through boggy ground I prefer wellies. On a utility bike, I throw this into a pannier or basket. If riding a roadbike with clipless pedals, I tie my walking boots to the saddle rails. It does not need to be any more complicated than that.


The forest, for me, is a place of great medicinal value. It isn't just that the peace and quite help me relax. The effect is physical, visceral, and seems to be most connected to smell.


It is as if whatever unique combination of herbs, mosses and resins that resides in these particular woods, releases some chemical into the air that possesses healing properties.


If I have a headache, it is often cured if I plop myself on a bed of moss and inhale. Mysterious body aches and muscle fatigue are reduced as I grab handfuls of ferns, wading through mud.


In the forest I like to climb trees. Not the tall, branchy ones, but the ones with dramatically bent and twisted trunks that grow almost parallel to the ground. I climb onto them and then crawl along, stopping now and again to simply lie there, face down against the bark, limbs dangling, thinking of nothing, breathing. Sometimes I take a book along and lounge right there in the tree, reading.


In the parts of the forest I love there are not really paths as such. But I know my way through it by feel. I navigate through tangles of thorns and nettles, cross streams, duck my head below low-hanging branches. On occasion, I trip on a twisted root that decides to grab hold of my ankle and fall to the spongy forest floor, so soft it is like a foam safety mat at a children's playground.


I don't transverse this thicket by bike not only because it is dense. A good mountain biker could probably zip through even some of the more tangled parts of it. But to my ear, the forest calls for slower movement. It begs for direct contact: for contact between feet and earth, between hands and branches, between face and moss. The bicycle, while so right in most places, feels like a distracting presence in here.


But the bicycle understands. And it waits outside, tactfully - prepared to take me home once I emerge, rejuvinated and ready for the miles of open road between forest and home.


34 comments:

  1. A lovely musing about a treasured and restorative interlude. Thank you for sharing it.

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  2. Not to be confused with the hike-a-bike. It's what happened to me last weekend when I got 2 flats in a row (and only had one spare tube)!

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    1. Oh yes. It's also what happens to me when parts of the route are too steep to climb or descent : )

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    2. Too steep to descend? It's usually a lot easier to descend in the saddle. Certainly when wearing bike shoes - or any kind of shoe that's not a lug sole boot - tires get better grip. Often enough tires get better grip than lugged hiking boots.

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    3. I am much better at descending than I used to be. But there are a couple of stretches here on a dirt trail I like to visit where the gradient is so steep, the road so twisty, AND the whole thing on a cliff edge, that I'm just too scaredy-cat to do it.

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    4. If you are on a cliff edge at all you are not a scaredy-cat. Be safe.

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  3. It actually hadn't occurred to me to lock my bike up when I go out to play in the forests! My bike always comes along for the hike portion of the adventure. Being walked along beside me, dragged through underbrush, hauled over downed trees and wheeled through creeks and streams. I've not yet tried to drag it up a tree with me though. 😉

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    1. Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I don't have a lock and hide my bike in the hedges. It's pretty safe here though.

      On the other hand, I *have* tried to drag a bike up a tree. A crazy dog was after me, and a tree was conveniently there. It took me a few seconds to realise the bicycle didn't need to climb with me.

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  4. Beautiful pictures, beautiful prose.

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  5. As I live 25 miles from the nearest forest or hiking trail, I have yet to attempt the bike and hike. But I do ride to the beach, 2 miles each way, to take long walks there.

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    1. My dream is to bike to the beach with my dog, but I have yet to figure out dog transport. He won't sit in a basket, so I am thinking trailer?

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    2. I often see pets transported by trailer, and it seems like the safest method - although if your dog feels nervous and won't sit still I'm not sure what effect that will have on handling!

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    3. How far is the beach? I use a "Walkie Dog" attachment if I'm taking my dog only a few miles. She loves it. Sometimes I take the trailer too if I think she will get tired. Once she's tired out she is happy to sit still in the trailer.

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    4. !! Wow. I have seen that in use a few times and assumed it was a dangerous DIY rig, not a commercially available product. I guess I underestimate how well behaved dogs must be.

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    5. It took a few rides for us to both get the hang of it, but with her not being attached to the steering end, even if she gets excited and wants to pull after something, she doesn't shift my course more than 6" or so, and I can easily stop the bike even if she's pulling strongly. This is a ~65 lb / 4.5 st / 30 kg lab mix. I do have to be careful that we both go on the same side of signposts and mailboxes.

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  6. Beautiful photos, enchanting forest indeed - I also love walking through our forests but my bike always comes with me - the river trails are so pretty, such fun to ride through on a mountain bike but also there are times when it is just nice to walk; there is something quite healing in these natural environments.
    That is the reason I love mountain bike riding, (apart from the fun of tearing along single track), access to remote, pure areas, no cars, no people, just nature.

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    1. My MTB comfort zone ends at fire roads and fairly tame trails. Which is okay, because there are lots of those near where I live too.

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    2. I think you live in a particularly beautiful area - the forests there have a magical quality.

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  7. My two favorite activities. And for what it's worth, you are not that far off from bike camping, which does not need to be complicated either.

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    1. If you're talking pitching tents, starting campfires, and cooking meals, in fairness I think it *is* a little more complicated! A lovely thing to do though that I'm sure I will try some day. For now my preference would be to stay in one of the little camping huts that are all over Ireland, and we might try that this summer. There is an open hearth and either a stone ledge or a wooden platform to put bedding on. Will still need to carry (and first acquire) a sleeping bag. But it's probably time I had one of those anyway.

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    2. During summer I will see tents in camping areas as I pass by on my way into the State Forest, I have never been tempted - it appears singularly uncomfortable and inconvenient - a cabin with certain basic amenities would be different altogether.

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  8. Yes, yes, yes! Rocks and trees and water. It's magic.

    A former yoga instructor used to encourage us to relax and picture our happy place, and then prattled on about warm sand and sunshine. No disrespect to Maui (love it there), but when I need to summon some inner peace (or strength, or solace), I don't need sand and sunscreen. I need mountains and trees. Real trees, btw. Not those palm tree posers :-)

    Sadly, I live in a prairie city, surrounded by grain and grass and not much in the way of rocks or trees or water. Well, we have a river bank, and cultivated green spaces, so better than nothing, but I do envy you ready access to such lushness as in these photos.

    On the upside, it isn't too onerous to fly to the Oregon coast, and I am just one province away from the Rockies—rocks and trees and water in spades! I can't get there as often enough as I would like, but that feeling of being sheltered and healed comes home with me, and *almost* lasts until I can get back again.

    PS: We are deliberating coming for a cycling vacation in Europe next summer. More and more likely with every picture you post! Lovely.

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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    1. I couldn't imagine not living next to water and forests - even riding to town I can see the beautiful river and all my free riding is along the river, on single track - the joy of listening to water running over rocks never abates - and the scent of eucalyptus is heaven.

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    2. When I lived in England in my 20s, I was surrounded by miles of beautiful, but homogenous and open meadows in all directions. Walking through them gave me a strange feeling, like I could not tell which way was right/left/up/down anymore; it messed with my mind.

      I have an old post here about reacting to this type of landscape, which also mentions the essay The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich - have a look.

      Hope your European cycling vacation happens and that you enjoy it very much.

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    3. Thanks for the link, V. That was a lovely article.

      It's wonderful how different spaces touch different people. My neighbour, coming west from Ontario, took years to get over feeling uncomfortable and exposed in the prairie landscape. And there are people who feel claustrophobic in the mountains (or in a skyscraper-rich environment).

      We left Vancouver in '93, and I still miss it. (That was 20 years before I rediscovered my bike, so the only cycling I have ever done there was once round the sea wall while at a conference a couple of years ago.) Living on the coast made me realize that it isn't that the wide open spaces are somehow lesser, but that when I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, I want there to be hills. Ideally, craggy ones with pine, and snow above the tree line. The prairies and the big sky are beautiful in their way and teach you so much about nuance and patience, and I do appreciate the abundant sunshine (though it is snowing right now), and the summer drama of a proper thunderstorm. Yet, it's the rocks and trees and water of a mountain/ forest landscape that nourish my soul, if that makes sense, and I'm happiest if I get a regular fix.

      As for the biking-Euro trip — there's a future topic for you, if you feel inclined. What advice would you give wanna-be travellers? Do we rent (or buy) bikes when we get there? Do we try to travel w our own bikes? (Can't talk my husband into matching Bromptons, though I pine for one for myself.) I'm just getting to the thinking-about-planning stage and it's daunting. Since you have wise and practical advice about so many things, I would be interested in your insights here. Don't feel compelled at all, but if the writing bug hits and you need a topic....

      Best,
      Lil Bruin

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    4. Speaking generally I would not recommend renting if you plan to travel long distances and/or are an experienced cyclist who is accustomed to quality, well-maintained, well-adjusted bicycles. There are exceptions of course, so your destination matters - as in some areas there are specific rental places that are quite good. Still, I'd say if you can find a way to travel with your own bicycles, do. Even if you don't get Bromptons, and assuming that you don't have bicycles with couplers, there are several bike cases on the market that will hold a full-sized bike, partially disassembled, and still fit within TSA's parameters for non-oversized luggage. One of these is the Pika travel case which I use myself (this is them here) and they even make a 2-bike version of this case, so you can shove 2 bikes into 1 piece of luggage.

      Hope this helps. It's difficult to offer general advice about traveling to Europe for the purpose of cycling, because so much depends on where you want to go and what kind of cycling you want to do. I have experience in some aspects, but not others, and wouldn't really be equipped to write a comprehensive post on the topic.

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    5. See? Wise and practical.

      Thanks for this. It rather confirms what we were thinking, re the challenges of renting. It's not that I am used to a quality bike, necessarily, but I am used to what I am used to. I can/ do get blisters from new socks, let alone shoes (shades of the princess and the pea, my husband says), so the idea of spending an entire vacation on an unfamiliar bike doesn't appeal. It might work out just fine, but ....

      Last Oct, we were in Heidelberg for a few days and took a half-day bike tour. There were seven of us, and I was polite and let others choose first, so I ended up on a mountain bike w front suspension—handy for the cobblestones (cobblestones!!!), but a bit of a nuisance on country roads and wasted on pavement. Don't even let me get started on what was passing for grips! Even if we end up renting again, I will at a minimum be taking my own saddle (first-ever Brooks 17S is winging its way to me right now).

      Will look into the pika bags. That might be the way to go.

      Best,
      Lil Bruin

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  9. Cycling through pine-scented woods is one of life's great pleasures. So is kneeling down on spongy moss-covered forest duff and plucking huckleberries from knee-high bushes. When the hucks are on, usually during two glorious weeks in late July and early August, you can't keep my wife out of the woods.

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    1. > huckleberries

      want!

      Around here it's blackberries that grow rampant. Just pick and eat to your heart's content.

      And outside Boston, I still remember cycling with Pamela Blalock one day and both of us suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of wild Concord grapes. We stopped, sniffed till we found them, gorged, and cycled on.

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  10. Have you ever met one of those people who seem to have either just stepped out of some centuries old folk tale or are gradually creating one around themselves? You know the type, the whiskery man of indeterminate age with the sack over his shoulder who you only see on foggy mornings as you ride to work, the one who whistles that barely audible tune that stays in your head all morning. Or the dark eyed woman who sells the absolute best Goat Cheese and eggs ever from the porch of her shabby old house, who always has an enormous Hen or a baby Dwarf Goat on her lap and half a dozen fantastic gold rings on her fingers that YOU JUST KNOW came from some dragons hoard.

    Are you one of those folks?

    Because sometimes when I read the stuff you write I smell things that don't grow around here and hear thunder quietly grumbling way off and the breeze picking up and hissing in the trees. If a person saw you reading from some dog-eared old book in a mossy tree in the dimmest corner of the woods, they could be forgiven if when they told the story later, they remembered a melancholy accordion soundtrack and wandering lost for hours till suddenly finding themselves on the doorstep at home, missing their hat but with an old silver coin the size of a walnut in the palm of their hand.

    I don't really care if this turns into a blog about Knitting or Masonic Conspiracies or Sheepdog Trials, as long as you keep writing stuff that makes me believe I might meet a Wood Nymph or Talking Badger on my next ride I'll keep coming back to see what you're up to...

    Don't stop.

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    1. I believe this photo of my neighbour illustrates what you are talking about? : )

      [And thank you for the reminder that I need a good melancholy accordion soundtrack. It's on my list.]

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  11. The smell of the forest is very important for me too. There are obvious forestry smells such as pine sap and less obvious ones such as moss, grass, insects. Some pleasant, some less so, but even the "bad" smells are good to sense. The sense of smell, in fact, is underrated, perhaps because modern life masks so many scents with deodorant, air freshener (yuk!) and the like, as well as backgrounds like traffic fumes and furniture.

    I don't feel entirely the same way about riding in the forest though. Yes, on foot you can get closer, linger and sense everything more clearly, but sometimes it's very pleasant to ride along forest tracks. Not in a mountain biker's thrill seeking way, but a leisurely, observant way. Or just to get to somewhere on the other side!

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  12. We northern germanic tribes are forest people. It feels like home.

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