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A Close Brush with Death

Mountain Biking in Buena Vista CO
Owen Hill poses with his bike on Whipple Trail in Buena Vista, October 2021. Photo by Blake Hill.

THE WIND BLOWS IN MY FACE; I feel the tires crunch below me, the brakes and shifters in my hands like cubes of ice. At this point I know that this bike is an extension of my body, the plastic pedals mixing with my fleshy legs and the finger grips molding to my hands. I know I have complete control over the metal and plastic beast while mountain biking. From the extensive planning — that lasted five minutes — I know that we are going up the North Trail, stopping at County Road 304 and then going down the Whipple Trail — all blue squares, perfect for my skill level. As my dad and I begin to make our way out of the cabin, the wind shifts itself into gear and drives into our faces. 

As I make my way down to the Arkansas River with the Midland Hill shadowing it, I think to myself, “Can I do this?” But in reality I know I can. As I approach the bridge to cross the rushing waters that curl white and green beneath me, I say, “You go up front,” to my dad, who is riding behind me up until this point. 

The wood clunks and creaks beneath us. The bridge is moaning like my dad trying to rest on the couch after a long day of work. The concrete ramp looks daunting but I know the trail ahead is harder, so I shift to my highest gear and begin to inch up it, the resistance killing my legs. The concrete turns to dirt so suddenly I barely notice. The big boulder in front of me is moving like a slug, closer and closer as the trail rolls under my tires. When the boulder finally reaches me, I’m too focused on the pain and don’t notice the gargantuan rock covers half the trail. I almost scrape my pedals; it bumps my handle bars and easily twists them to the right, setting me off track to go plummeting into the river below.

I slam both brakes, front and back, jerking forward and tipping over the edge of the cliff, but I lean just in time before I fall into the rushing water below. My handlebar slams the ground and leaves a cloud of dust floating in the air behind me like a giant swarm of bees. After my close brush with death, I pick up the heavy bike and continue down the trail to catch up with my dad, the burn catching my legs once more as I get closer to a steep incline lined with wooden steps, adding a new challenge. I think, “OK, I’ll try to shift to a good gear for this incline,” but my front tire bumps the first step and stops so suddenly that I have to jump off my bike. I decide to just hike my bike up this small black-diamond section of trail, as I read the sign next to the fork.

I lift the front tire of my bike over the log, then the back, and I continue this until I get to the top of the hill. I continue down the trail into sandy valleys, rocky flats and bendy parts where I have to lean subtley to stay on the trail. The dirt path has thickened, and the land has widened so there is not a sheer cliff below me but the inclines are not any easier. Now the path rolls under me much faster and the trees begin running toward me and passing with a whoosh. 

The trees are giant and their roots erupt from the trail forming what looks like stitching going out of the dirt and back in again, like a giant has been sewing the ground. Then, the trees stop and the boulders start.

AS MY DAD AND I MAKE THE FINAL STRETCH to County Road 304, we have some fun racing in front of each other, but as we reach the steep incline, it gets hard. I’m in front, slowing my dad as I inch up the hill, my gears popping and cracking all the way from the stress. 

But I finally reach the top and begin to ride on the deserted gravel road. I shift down with my gears clicking happily because of the relief from incline-induced stress. My dad and I continue racing and merrymaking down the dirt road toward an old railroad trestle, where we will take a break and catch our breath, so I shift to my lowest gears and jet past him. As the dusty wind blows in my face I think, “This is so fun!” And I continue on the pebbly ground. I look to the side and see the green roof of one of the giant stores outside of town, small like a Lego house and cars like bees buzzing down below me on their way in or out of the Buena Vista hive to other parts of the state. And before I know it, a hill rises before my vision, blocking my view of the road below.

As I divert my ricochet gaze to the front, I see that I’m beginning to get close to the broken concrete-and-rebar supports in a deep gulch with a stream that once held a bridge where Midland Railroad trains once crossed. As I approach, I press my sometimes faulty brakes to stop before I fall off the edge, and I’m glad they work. My dad catches up just seconds later and I am already off my bike and on a nearby boulder, resting and breathing heavily. I look up and see a golden rectangle glinting from a boulder above me, so I climb up. I see an engraved bronze plaque. I try to read the words, but the Colorado sun glints in my eyes, so I decide to climb back down before I fall. When my feet clump on the dirt, they make a cloud of sand that follows me to my crimson bike. I hop on and begin down the road again, leaving the dusty shadow behind me.

As my wheels turn, carrying me down the gravel road, I see where we need to go next, and I shear to the right, making it to the fork of the Whipple Trail. We head down the smooth steep hill. But not long after I start down, a couple of sharp rocks appear, then small patches of them. Before I know it, the entire trail is covered in sharp rocks, flat rocks and slidey rocks, all tossing and throwing me like a salad in every direction, my brakes do nothing to stop me from flying in the air. My tires are slivering on loose rocks, the flat ones roll me into a bed of sharp ones with the loose ones in between the sharp ones. My turns are now jerky, no longer smooth. But … as suddenly as it starts, this treacherous stretch of trail ends, and my tires are rolling on smooth ground again.

The trek is coming to an end with the Bridge-to-Bridge Trail below me. I decide to brave the steps and go down the bumpy surface. As I descend, my bell clinks and clanks through the first switchback. As I start my second switchback, where the step depths vary, I decide to walk down. But for the final one I decide to ride it; as I bump and clank, the top of my bell flies off from the repeated impacts. It hits the ground and dings after a short flight. I make it down the final log and press my brakes very hard to stop in time. I retrieve the bell, which is sitting to the side of the trail, luckily nowhere near the cliff. We get over the bridge and onto pavement again, and I think, “That was awesome — let’s go on the Camp Elevation Trail next time!”

Owen Hill is a 6th-grader at Polaris Expeditionary Learning school. He was born in Salida and dreams of the day he can finish his book and do black diamond trails with his new bike.