by Slo Mo
Time to stop whatever you're doing and congratulate me: I am the proud owner of a shiny new high-tech mountain bike. Gears galore, extra shocks, split-pad gel seat, Road Toad strobes--
But wait! What's that I hear? Could it be... Snickering? Could that annoying, mosquito-like drone actually be the sound of a thousand snooty little Northern voices saying, "Who the heck needs a mountain bike in Florida?"
Yeah, that's what I said, too. Read on, swamp virgins...
Like most horrible learning experiences, this particularly horrible learning experience began with a clear, sunny morning and the best of intentions. The sort of morning where you're swinging in the hammock with a glass of fresh-squeezed o.j., watching the pelicans cruise the tidal flats, enjoying a few hours of privacy while Dog is at day camp, and you think to yourself, "Okay, this is too perfect. What can I do to fuck it up?" Then the phone rings, and it's your neighbor (the nice one), wondering if you'd care to join her on a relaxing little ride through the park. And of course you say, "Yup, that'll do!"
So my neighbor, Joolz**, showed up five minutes later with a pair of bikes from her fiancee's rental shop and we drove to the nearest recreation area.
(**Her parents were gemologists. Oy.)
My first comment was, "Jeez, Joolz, aren't these bikes kinda heavy duty for such easy, flat terrain?" But I don't think she heard me, because she was already astride and popping a wheelie. Nor did Joolz seem to hear my next question, which was, "Where are you going? The pavement is over here!"
Silly me. We weren't riding a paved path. Oh, no! We were riding the newly designed, professionally groomed, NORBA approved, 16 mile Kamikaze Trail Of Death. Which is all fine and dandy if you happen to be a crazy european dude who's come down here to practice for his next extreme sports championship. But which is NOT so fine and dandy if you happen to be a relatively sane, hammock-loving non-athlete who cherishes her life and who can barely chew gum and pedal at the same time.
The trailhead marked "Novice" was blocked by a fallen tree and about three feet of water. I now understand that tree was cut down and dragged to this location by a rogue band of frat boys, the same guys who drank a few gallons of Gatoraid just so they could piss a river. Why? So I'd look at the relatively dry, tree-free trailhead marked "Caution - Stunt Cyclists Only" and say, "Hell, that looks easy! Let's give it a whirl."
So I did.
To Joolz's credit, she stayed with me the whole way, which was a very good thing when I consider how many serious calamities I would have had without her expert guidance. But I still harbored the urge to punch her lights out. Especially when she used such a chipper tone to say things like, "Watch out for that gator back!"
Turns out a "gator back" is a partially exposed palmetto root, so-called because it looks sort of like an alligator floating in the water and can be equally hard to spot, although I'm not sure an alligator would cause as much tire damage as those saw-edged roots will. Your only recourse is to do a quick Ninja-on-wheels manoeuver and avoid it. Except I'm not a Ninja, let alone a Ninja-on-wheels, so that's when I went over the bars and got my first taste of dirt. Yum.
My second taste - more like a mouthful - occurred when I came face-to-face with a 10 foot rise, which may not sound like much until you consider that it was completely vertical, and it was made of sand. LOOSE sand. Once again, Joolz chimed in with that perky voice. "Use the cheat chute!"
At first I thought she meant the bike was equipped with an emergency parachute (which, come to think of it, would have been an excellent idea), but then I saw she was pointing at a narrow, rut-like path curving off to the side of the vertical. Sweet! Unfortunately, all it spared me was a sandy disaster on the ascent, because then it scooped back around and connected with the other side, which was 30 feet of sandy disaster sloping down in the opposite direction. This time, I went over the bars AND completed a mid-air triple lutz before sampling some prime Florida dredge. Double yum.
But did I give up? Did I turn back in defeat? Did I clutch my cracked ribs and demand a Med-Evac? Certainly not! I got right back in the saddle and followed Joolz into the dark green twilight of an ancient cypress stand. This part of the trail had mercifully few tight switchbacks or boggy bits or low-hanging branches just waiting to clobber me in the head. The ground was fairly even, and the air was significantly cooler, and I was just beginning to relax and enjoy myself when I felt a sudden, severe dip and Joolz called to me in a jubilant sing-song, "Here comes the whoop trace!"
Never heard of a whoop trace? Me neither. Apparently, it's local slang for a long series of varied dips, sort of like the washboard effect you get on old dirt roads, except this is constructed on purpose and the dips are staggered in depth and width so you can "work your agility". Screw agility! I took a narrow section too slowly, my front tire snagged, and... You guessed it. I went over the bars for my third and final dirt salad of the day.
If it hadn't been for a park ranger, I'm pretty sure I'd still be out on that damn trail, swallowing soil and cursing Joolz to high heaven. As it happened, there was some sort of natural emergency with the endangered tortoise population (I swear to god) and so the next part of the trail was temporarily closed, pending tortoise rehabilitation efforts, or something like that. Joolz and I were routed onto a small dirt lane which led out to - JOY!!! - the paved path. Apparently, throughout my entire dirt-eating ordeal, that paved path had never been more than a hundred feet away.
So there you have it - my induction into the Dirt Eaters Hall of Fame. Needless to say, Joolz's fiancee took one look at the condition of my rental bike and declared, "You bruise it, you buy it." Fair enough. I have a feeling I'll be needing it if I decide to stay in Florida. Cracked ribs aside, this is a helluva place to blaze a trail.
Now, what were you saying about mountain bikes in Florida?