Gravel grinding freedom
Its early morning, 4th of July, the rooster is crowing and the few clouds in the pale blue sky are streaked with pastel reds and oranges. A light breeze is causing the leaves to bob slightly and the word “freedom” whispers in the wind. I’m up early and excited because last night we decided to do an adventure today. We are going to get on our bikes and take a road trip, see what we can see and appreciate what freedom in the White Mountains means. The dogs feel that something is happening when we start to pack up what we need for the day: water, hydration mix, snacks (trail cookies, cheese, jerky, nuts, gummy worms and granola bars), rain jackets and helmets, but their ears droop as soon as they see what bikes come clicking out of their storage stands. They know, these trail-loving dogs, that a gravel bike means no-go for them. The mountain bikes are what they love, but today is about traveling far, traveling fast, traveling light and traveling free on some of our many hundreds of miles of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest dirt roads.
Door locked, dogs reluctantly put in the yard, and we are off, tires crunching in the gravel, soft breeze in our faces and nothing but time out on the bikes on our agenda. Freedom. Gravel biking has a different feel than mountain biking: you are light, the bike feels as if it wants to take control and fly and you develop a cadence, or rhythm as you pedal, almost hypnotic, giving your mind time to wander freely as you move. We pick up a couple of friends at a designated meeting spot and continue up the road, pavement changing to gravel surface changing to packed mud and back to gravel, but the rhythm of the peddling says the same. The sounds of the crunch of the tires and regular breathing stays the same. Freedom
The road begins to rise before us, leading into the forest, tall pines on both sides, we shift gears to keep the peddling cadence and heart rate relatively the same, shift again, shift again and are almost imperceptibly rising in elevation, pinion-juniper giving way to oak and ponderosa, grass greening up, still rising in elevation. We pass thinning projects, old and new and discuss forest management, we discuss family, life and goals. We pedal, cadence stays the same, breathing controlled, floating, freedom. We pass an old lumber mill and talk about how it must have been, how it was for homesteading pioneers, how it must have been for native inhabitants when the climate was wetter, how it might be in the future. We pass a spring and talk about how the water from that spring follows a drainage that leads nearly to our start point. Distances that feel long become short, time condenses, and we pedal on, one stroke after another. Freedom
Ponderosa begins to give way to mixed conifer and aspen, we continue to rise in elevation and grasses are taller and greener, ferns abound, and we see a herd of deer watching carefully from a hillside. We stop for a snack and feel overwhelmingly grateful that we live in this glorious part of the world and that we are free to come out and experience the day. Freedom. Peddling, breathing, hearts beating, almost as one organism, we rise some more and the explosion of green plant growth seems nearly unreal. Ferns, locust bushes, Arizona rose, thistles, wildflowers of a myriad of types and green moss covering wet logs and roadcuts. The air is fresh and cool and the cloud cover makes it feel like a magical forest. Freedom.
We reach a high point and beyond is an old fire scar. Live trees replaced by blackened trunks, smooth road surface replaced by eroded road and exposed rocks. We talk about the fire, and about the succession that is taking place before our eyes. Locusts and grasses have covered over blackened ground and fallen logs and new young trees are beginning to show up in open ground. The rough road heading downhill diverts our attention and we are totally focused on the riding ahead. We are not peddling any more, we are coasting and steering, braking and cornering, avoiding exposed rocks and loose material. Conversation stops and concentration is key. No time to think about anything but the present. Freedom
We reach the end of the fire scar and descend back into the green. Those clouds that have kept us so cool all morning are now gathering and starting to look a little threatening. There is thunder beginning to roll in the background and although we are prepared for rain, with rolled up rain jackets in our packs, the idea of getting caught out in a thunderstorm with lightning flashing over the tall old-growth trees and rain and hail soaking us completely, is just not inspiring, so we head for home, luckily mostly downhill and mostly on smooth-riding roads. Our speed increases with a sense of urgency and a boost of adrenalin, resulting in a higher cadence tempo and breathing rate. We know we can make a strong push home since we are finishing the ride. The exhilaration of speed pushes us faster, conversation stops and concentration focuses. The road surface, the speed, the peddles moving one after the other, the focused breathing, hearts beating and hypnotic rhythm of the sounds of the road and effort take over, and the mind clears. Raindrops begin to fall, large drops, separate drops, cooling drops. We are one, with one goal and move as one unit. We give each other energy and we draw each other on.
Freedom, this is the gift we give ourselves.