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A Rough Introduction to Trail Riding; Or, How I Gave New Meaning to the Term "Tree Hugger"

This weekend I did something pretty far outside of my comfort zone--well two things, really: camping, and trail riding. I accompanied my friend Cameron to the SWAMP Alafia Fat Tire Festival at Alafia River State Park. Here's how it went down:

The Night Ride
  • Friday evening after work, I drove out to the park, farther away from society than I've been in Florida. Part of Cameron's directions to me read as follows: "Stay on CO672 for a long time. Like 10 -15 miles. Enjoy the amazing scenery, like the landfill and Bob's Dirt Pile. Road deadends at a hole in the wall gas station. Turn left. You'll see Alafia State Park on your right." 
  • We immediately prepped for night ride, which would be my introduction to trail riding. My lighting was not exactly sufficient--I had a front light and tail light, but no headlamp, so I had to make sure to sandwich myself between well-lit riders. I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there would be a trail cut in a forest, but I didn't know what sort of ground to expect; i.e., I didn't know how large and many the roots would be, or how low the drops and how high the climbs would be, or how winding (and close to trees) the trail would be. But I learned all of this, immediately--and I immediately wanted to back out. But there was no going back.
  • My friend Cameron, along with the experienced rider behind me, who provided light for me, kept giving me instructions, such as "level out your pedals," "look several feet in front of you--don't look immediately down in front of you," "lean back [on the drops]," "gear down [for the climbs]," "loosen up on your grip," "don't hug your brakes." All of this was wonderful--if untimely--advice. However, all my mind could process--in the dark, with fear and adrenaline rushing, and in constant movement (i.e., no stopping to actually take these instructions in)--was breathe. And even that escaped me during most of the ride.
  • I should mention that the bike I was riding was a "beater bike" that Cameron let me borrow--at one time a good bike, but now older and many times repaired. I wasn't familiar with the gearing system on this mountain bike (I barely knew the gears on my road bike, which operated differently than this one). And while Cameron gave a quick review of gearing (after I asked, "why are there gears on both sides?"), I didn't retain the information enough to put into use during the ride, so I just ignored those instructions and stayed in a higher gear, making my ride more difficult than it needed to be.
  • Luckily, we were among a smaller group of slower riders who weren't seeking the thrill of fast and unpredictable nighttime riding, so a couple of times we were able to pull over and let the faster riders pass. I don't know how far we rode--maybe 3 miles, although it felt like many more--until Cameron and I "bailed on the double-track" (part of the new trail-riding language I learned).
  • Once on flat ground again, I could breathe easier and take in all that had just happened. It had been an exciting but fearful ride.
  • After arriving back at our campsite, we settled into the tent and ate some York Peppermint Patties (one of the essential items on the grocery list Cameron provided me with). Although still rather early--9:30pm or so--I was ready for bed. Bed consisted of a borrowed sleeping bag, one that looked like a caterpillar suit, very different from the Hugga Bunch sleeping bag I owned as a child, atop a yoga mat and and an inflatable mat to provide a bit more cushion and separation from the cold ground beneath me. I also had two blankets on top of my sleeping bag, and I wore two layers of warm clothes. It's safe to say that I underestimated how cold it would actually be--the temps were probably in the mid-40s. But the sleeping bag worked wonders--once I started breathing into it, I created a little furnace inside. But sleep was still difficult--I probably slept on an hour, off an hour all night. I remember thinking that I couldn't wait for the sun to come up. And as soon as I saw some lightness, I got up and headed to the showers. Yes, I showered on a one-night camping trip; don't judge.
  • After feeling a little bit human again, I went back to get Cameron from the tent so we could head to breakfast, which was provided with festival registration. We got in line around 7:30am and chose from an assortment of bagels, fresh fruit, oatmeal, and some pretty awful coffee. (Luckily, among the other essential items on the grocery list was a pack of bottled Starbucks Frappucinos). We sat at a picnic table and met a couple other festival goers. Cameron and the others exchanged disaster stories of past years, making me all the more anxious about our morning ride.
The Fall
  • To our benefit, most of the campers were going to ride the trails at Boyette, an adjoining trail system, leaving the Alafia trails largely open to us. This time we didn't join a group ride, which made me feel more at ease, absent the pressure of more experienced riders wanting to ride faster and harder. Cameron was my guide, and she took us on intermediate trails, which I would see for the first time in daylight. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage: I was advantaged in that I could actually see where I was going and determine the danger level, but I was disadvantaged in that I could take a lot of time analyzing the potential dangers, thus heightening my fear. The night before, all I could do was follow the light several feet in front of me and hope that my bike remained underneath me.
  • On the first trail, there was (what I would call) a fairly significant drop-in; it was steeper than I was comfortable with, and it was also hugged pretty tightly by trees. In my effort to avoid hitting one particular tree, I did what I was not supposed to do and looked immediately in front of me, which caused me to lose control of my bike and veer into the tree (also not what I was supposed to do). I felt the crash happening, and I pretty much accepted that it was happening and just hoped for minimal damage. I know by the scrapes on my arm and the soreness in my shoulder that I grazed the tree with my right side, and I either fell onto my right ribcage, or the bike's handlebar went into my ribcage, because I have significant soreness today in that area. Cameron asked if I was okay, and after I replied wearily that I was, she asked, "Do you know what you did?" My initial thought was, yes, I crashed into a f***ing tree. But I knew that she was asking if I knew what I did wrong, and after I collected my thoughts, I realized I wasn't looking where I should have been looking. And really only then did I realize why they kept telling me to look ahead: the bike will go where you're looking; so if you're looking at the tree, even if to avoid it, you're pretty much guaranteed to ride into it. Lesson learned.
  • We managed to complete several more miles of trails with minimal damage and lots of fun (and some more trepidation on my end). Cameron did have one run-in with a root and a hill, though. After one fairly steep drop (6 feet or so?), and an equally steep climb, Cameron's foot got caught on a broken root that was sticking out of the ground, just before the top of the climb. I saw her topple over, and beneath her was a leaf-covered hill that went straight down to an algae-covered stream. I thought she would certainly fall into it. But she didn't, amazingly. She caught herself, and her bike, and got right back up--warning me, of course, not to take the drop (that one was a no-brainer). We were almost out of the woods (ha) at that point, and upon exiting the trail, Cameron casually said, "I think I broke my thumb." As a former high-level gymnast, she was accustomed to hurting things and continuing on. But it turns out it wasn't actually broken, thankfully. I did manage to break one of the pedals--and this is why they kept telling me to keep my pedals level, because otherwise they will scrape the roots and rocks and break, like so (another lesson learned):

The Hike
  • After the ride, we came back to camp, and it was just about time for lunch, also provided. We ate our vegetarian sandwiches and then came back to the campsite to relax, with some more peppermint patties and Frappuccinos, of course. We had decided not to go on an afternoon ride, as my exposure to trail riding seemed quite sufficient by then. We instead opted to go for a "hike." There was one trail we saw that was specifically designated for hiking, i.e., no bikes--or horses--were allowed on it. 
  • The trail was mostly flat land, with exposed roots, of course, and a bunch of trees around us. 
  • Cameron was lamenting the fact that she's not one of those people who can spontaneously spot animals in the wilderness (earlier on a ride, she was telling me about the many deer that lived in the woods, when a family of four appeared before us, yet she hadn't noticed). Then she spotted a well-camouflaged cricket of some sort, and a little further along, she spotted this:
  • It was a baby gator, but a gator nonetheless. After we stood observing it for a couple of minutes, I wondered out loud whether we should try to walk past it. Cameron, in her scout-like manner, was telling me that, based on her experience, the gator was likely to just go back into the water--when, at that moment, the gator skittered into the water and Cameron, who was standing behind me, grabbed onto my shoulders with her fingers, which felt like hooks, scaring me half to death. So much for my brave scout.
  • On our way out of danger from the baby gator that ran away from us, we again encountered the cricket-like creature, with a mate this time, doing what animal mates do:
  • The female seemed a little less than willing and the scene turned a bit aggressive. I suddenly felt intrusive, so we left them to their animal ways and came back to camp.
The End
  • The festival actually went on for another night and morning, but I had some things to get back to, and Cameron decided she'd prefer to go back home a bit early, too. So we packed up our things and broke down the tent, packing it with less care than Cameron's husband would probably prefer. I cleaned up a little bit before watching the "Crazy Crit" bike race, an event in which people bring out all kinds of crazy bikes--a miniature bike that looked small enough for my one-year-old niece, a shopping cart bike, a two-size tire bike (think of a clown at a circus), and several others--and race on them on pavement. It was rather entertaining.
  • Dinner was again provided, and pretty good, actually. I had Caesar salad, broccoli, salmon, and bread. We sat with another participant whom we'd met at breakfast and exchanged stories of our adventures over dinner. It was a very nice closing to an exciting experience. Cameron and I left after dinner, going our separate ways back home.
  • I felt very fortunate to have a friend who could push me in just the right way into an experience that I otherwise wouldn't have done on my own. Cameron was an excellent guide, and I learned so much about her during the trip. She's not very forthcoming about her experiences, but it turns out she'd been doing this trail-riding thing for five or six years, and she pretty much knew each segment of each trail we rode on. She also seems to have been everywhere in the world and gone on every kind of adventure trip you can imagine. I grew envious of her experiences from just listening to her exchange stories with others, and my apetite for adventure grew. 


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