Navigating Life’s Single-track

My usual rides take me down paved streets or paths or the occasional gravel road. Last night, however, I veered far from my usual comfort zone. As a soft rain fell and the sun left the sky, I went down in to the ravine. Instead of choosing one of my usual paved trails, I chose a narrow dirt path that travels along the opposite side of the river from one of my usual routes.

To get there I had to walk my bike down a steep clay hill in my cycling shoes. I had two choices: try to go slowly and carefully and slide down, risking my feet sliding from under me and my bike landing on top of me. The alternative was to go down the hill quickly which also felt uncomfortable. In the end, however, that was the correct choice. I got to the bottom quickly and with my head above my feet. Success!

I get back on my bike and navigate through the narrow path. The leaves of wet trees and small plants reach out to grab my leg as I pass them. It’s dark and I’m not all that familiar with this path having only been here 2-3 times for daytime trail runs. And so, I slowly pedal along the path, barely faster than a walk. And then, going so slow, I hit a small bump in the path. My front tire isn’t going quickly enough to clear it and so instead of feeling a small bump and moving on, the bike stops instantly. Even at that slow speed that’s enough to pull me forward off the seat. My feet are clipped in to the pedals and I scramble to unclip one shoe before I fall to one side into the bushes. This experience sets the tone for my thoughts on this ride.

The path leads me under a railroad bridge. The hard packed clay gives way to a rickety bridge made of wooden slats. On one side is the bridge, on the other a fall of maybe eight feet to the shore of the river.

Though I’m sure many mountain bikers do this all the time I’m not up for the risk and walk across, feeling happy when I reach the relative safety of the dirt track above.

Rocks like this one can require a bit of attention to avoid

The path follows the river toward Lake Ontario. As I ride I notice something I didn’t notice when running here: the path is very close to the riverbank. On a normal street or path ride I can devote some attention to the road, and take the occasional look off to one side, the other or even over my shoulder behind me. There is no possibility for that here. I have to keep myself focused. The alternative is a long, uncomfortable fall.

I stop and turn off my headlight to see just how dark it is. Once my eyes adjust I can see a fair bit. On the opposite shore you can even see the lights of the nearby highway.

I turn the light back on and start off again. I notice that to feel fully safe I have to maintain a reasonably quick pace. Too fast and I risk a fall or crash. But if I go too slow, it is difficult to maintain a straight line forward and as I learned earlier in the ride, if I am going too slowly, even simple obstacles become a bigger problem.

I come around a corner and see a young raccoon step out from the left side of the path. He takes one look at me and picks up his pace before heading in to the darkness on the other side of the path.

There hasn’t been development allowed in this valley since the 1950’s when a hurricane destroyed many of the buildings that were here. And so, the ride is mostly quiet and dark. My watch chirps as I go under a big bridge covered in traffic, its purpose to me that if I’m on the bridge I should try to beat my speed record crossing it. But today I’m over 100 feet below it on a path that will barely let me go faster than a jog let alone the 40 km/hour record pace I have above.

Onward I go riding the edge of the riverbank, feeling the rain land softly on my face. I can hear the sounds of traffic from the highway, insects from the forest and now, what’s this? The crashing sounds of something big in the bushes, twigs snapping and leaves rustling. There’s no opportunity to look over my shoulder to see what it is. There really aren’t any wild animals to worry about here – bears live outside the city but here they are rarely if ever seen. There are coyotes but they tend to not bother people. Likely it’s a deer. But it’s still a little creepy to realize that if it is something scary I can’t rely on my usual reassurance on the bigger paved paths: “Oh, I can just outrun it.” If I try to outrun something here I’ll end up in the river.

The darkness is broken by the occasional light – an electrical substation comes out of the darkness and then goes back in. On the other side of the railroad tracks I see the sewage treatment plant and am surprised that there’s not any smell at all. And then I’m back in the dark again. And then, on the other side of the railroad tracks, with two fences between me I see three bright lights like my own. I’m not the only cyclist out for an evening ride in the woods.

A rabbit darts out in to the path in front of me running in my headlights for several seconds before realizing that if it wants to get away from me it needs to leave the path and heads off in the same direction as it’s friend the raccoon.

I’ve been on the road for a while now and though I’m admittedly going slow I’m beginning to wonder if there’s an outlet somewhere or if I’m going to have to turn back and ride all the way home on the narrow trail. Then I see something unusual:

It takes a minute for me to realize what it is: A series of jumps for bicycles. I explore the area nearby and see that it’s a set of really cool paths for riding mountain and BMX bikes with more jumps and big banked corners. My touring bike isn’t made for any of this so I just walk through the track. About half way through the track I come to a small building:

I’m not sure what it’s designed for but the liquor bottles on the bottom tell me what it’s used for. I’ve seen too many scary movies to want to look inside, though, and so I get back on the path and continue south. The rain gets more intense but it’s still warm so I can’t complain.

Finally, I come to a dirt road crossing my path. One direction goes uphill, the other down. Taking the lazy way out, I turn left and go down. and come to a bridge across the river. I know that the main, paved path is on the other side so I cross, planning to head home.

And then, for the first time since I crossed under the railroad bridge at the beginning of the ride, I’m back on pavement. The heat of the pavement has created a mist that looks like something from a scary movie.

And then, I find the road leading out of the ravine and after pedaling up a big hill I find myself back on a busy city street and soon I am traveling 30 km/hour over the bridge I slowly rode under just 30 minutes before.

It may have looked like a bike ride, but I think it was also a series of small life lessons:

Those noises in the bushes? The worries about what might be out in the night or even in that creepy shed? All imaginary. Caution is necessary but fear is not.

Perhaps the most important lesson, though, is this: even when you’re unsure of yourself, proceed forward with strength and confidence. Don’t go so fast that you go flying off into the river, but stride forward like you’ve done it before. If you are hesitant your path forward will be unsure and unsteady. If you encounter an obstacle when you’re doing something new and you’re too hesitant and unsure you are likely to come to a complete halt and perhaps fall and injure yourself.

So it’s true. Life is like riding down single track in the dark. It’s beautiful and mysterious and interesting. There are some things you might think are scary out of sight but they just as easily could be good. And always keep moving forward because when you stop, you will fall over.

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