That’s the first and last thing my friend, Dustin, said to me before disappearing between the junipers down a mountain biking trail in Moab, Utah. I looked down at my feet, wiggling my toes inside brightly colored wool socks tucked beneath Chaco sandals. Atop my head, a rounded blue rock climbing helmet.
Before I had even stepped my feet to the pedals of my borrowed bike, it was devastatingly apparent to any and all passers-by that I had never done this before.
The initial drive to start mountain biking came about the way most any of my ideas come about. It was just one more way to try and tire out those two crazy dogs of mine. And it was just one more way to move through the landscapes that had moved me so deeply. So, when our friend – a Moab resident and skilled mountain biker himself – offered to round up a couple bikes for us one afternoon, I leapt at the chance.
We drove up through the sandstone pillars and winding desert washes to a trailhead north of town. I nervously rode in circles in the parking lot as my dogs whined in anticipation. They’d never been mountain biking before either, but they know a trailhead when they see one.
Dustin doled out his single sentence of instruction and sped off with my husband and the dogs close behind. I hung back, nervously shifting my weight from side to side before lifting my feet to the pedals.
The initial few hundred feet was a smooth and flowing red-dirt singletrack. I couldn’t tell you much about the rest of the surroundings as my eyes remained deadlocked on the ground in front of me. I was shocked at how efficiently my bike cruised over small rocks and roots, and how the slightest movement from my body could be felt in every turn that I made.
The first uphill section was a stiff reminder that shifting gears was something I probably should have mastered way back in the parking lot. My bike shuttered violently, chain cranking and straining against my inexperience. But after a lot of huffing and puffing and – let’s be honest – walking, I finally reached the top. In the mid-morning sun, I could see my friends weaving and winding their way through the rolling hills ahead and my dogs’ little white tail tips bouncing along behind them.
For the rest of that first ride, I gripped my handlebars until my knuckles were white, weaving through a rollercoaster of sagebrush and sandstone. I thought of nothing but the obstacles in front of me and the present moment I was moving through. But perhaps what was most profound about that first ride was for much of the time, I was alone.
For the last decade, much of my outdoor experience had been in partner-based sports. Rock climbing and canyoneering require someone on the other end of the rope. There is always someone to catch your fall. In whitewater kayaking, there’s always someone paddling behind you and balancing your strokes.
Mountain biking was different. Only my movements affected my ride. Only my decision making steered those wheels. Only my feet pushed those pedals. I realized somewhere beneath the beating sun of that first ride that mountain biking was to become a necessary departure from the comfort of what I had known. The comfort of what I had often hid behind.
Within a few months, I had bought a used bike, acquired a real bike helmet, got some closed-toed shoes and hit the trails with nothing but my dogs. I rode when I wanted and stopped when I wanted. I celebrated moving through the sections that made me a little nervous and walked the sections that made me a little too nervous.
The first time I got a flat and busted a chain, I was alone with no cell service to phone a friend or google a tutorial. I was left to squat down in the dust and study the intricate details of the bike, tracing my fingers over her moving parts, matching up tools to bolts, following paths of metal and tubes to find the origin of my trailside troubles.
The first time I fell, I was alone. Flipping over backward on an uphill I didn’t have enough speed on, I landed on my back with the weight of my bike on top of my stomach. I winced and crawled my way up out of the dirt as my dogs circled nervously.
The second time I fell, I was alone. I launched over the handlebars, ripped a chunk from my elbow, and scraped the life out of each forearm. That one hurt. But as tears welled in my eyes, there wasn’t anyone to complain to or tend my wounds and my bruised ego. There was only me and the choice to stop or to keep going.
I always kept going.
For the first time, I was the only one who was going to get myself out of these situations and the pride in that fact alone was usually what did. Mountain biking became, a symbol of my own independence.
Though my attire and my bike have since improved dramatically, there are still days where I like to picture myself as that girl wearing sandals on that first mountain bike ride in Moab; a girl who set out to do something on her own simply for the sake of doing something on her own.