This One Time I Was Stranded in the Shenandoah Mountains
Since this week is Christmas, I thought I’d spin a yarn about generosity and compassion.
We are pretty exposed out there. Vulnerable. Maybe not every lunch ride is this way, and usually cell service, GPS devices, and other technologies keep us from straying too far, but sometimes, when you get way out there, there’s a fine line between adventure and survival.
About 15 years ago, I had an experience in Virginia’s Shenandoah mountains that emphasized just how risky things can be if you hit the wrong rock, or push the limits a bit too far. But it also showed me how most people have the basic compassion and generosity to rise to the occasion. I considered writing something more gear- or gift-centric for the holidays, but upon reflection, I decided we didn’t need more of those stories. (Anyway, I was too disorganized to put that together in time.)
So, here’s the story of how a stranger’s kindness saved me from a very long walk, a missed flight home, and perhaps even worse.
My first job out of college was pretty awesome. At the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), I started out in the membership department and soon got promoted to run the Trail Care Crew. At 22 years of age, I was working in the bike industry with a fun, tight-knit group of people, setting up trailbuilding schools. Best of all, I got to travel to awesome mountain bike destinations for work — Whistler, Bend, Moab, Park City, and more. And one of those summers, I went out to Stokesville, Virginia for a mountain bike festival in the Shenandoah Mountains.
The host and local mountain bike ringleader, Chris Scott, of Shenandoah Mountain Touring, sourced me a bike so I didn’t even have to pack mine and fly with it. Let me tell you, in the days before well-designed cases like those made by Evoc or Thule, this was a sweet perk. He picked me up at the tiny Harrisonburg airport and set me up with a Trek Fuel EX.
This was around 2008, so we’re talking about a 26”-wheeled bike with quick releases, short reach, steep angles, no dropper post … oh, and flimsy tubed tires. [Ed: This is called foreshadowing.]
Over the weekend, we rode some of the best trails the area had to offer, such as Reddish Knob, Wild Oak, and Lookout Mountain Loop. Okay, honestly that’s just a guess, based on my foggy memory and a little help from MTB Project. This was pre-Strava. But I clearly remember how raw and rocky these trails were. I loved it. I still want to go back there and race the Shenandoah 100, one of the original endurance MTB events and surely one of the hardest.
It was a dark ribbon of dirt through lush Eastern forest with plenty of tangled roots and toothy rock gardens to make line choices very thought-provoking.
The only problem with a mountain bike festival like this is that you end up riding in pretty big groups of mixed ability levels. I have some strong opinions about the ideal size and composition of a mountain bike group, but I’ll leave that for another day. Suffice to say, I wanted to empty the tank before I returned to Colorado. Fortunately, I had plenty of time on Monday for a solo ride.
My plan was to ride the Southern Traverse, one of the IMBA Epic rides. It seems like the IMBA Epic designation isn’t as well-known as it once was, and I think they’ve also evolved the criteria. For the uninitiated: IMBA selected about 50 ride routes, naming a few every year as “Epics” — long, hard routes with lots of singletrack. So I figured I’d ride this one for, you know, professional development. According to MTB Project, this route is about 34 miles, but the loop starts pretty far away from the Stokesville campground where I was staying. I can’t remember what my precise route plan or distance was, but it was ambitious, especially considering I was still trying to make a late-afternoon flight.
Off I went on a perfectly clear, warm Monday morning with the trails to myself, now that the hundreds of festival attendees had left for home. The loop’s main section of singletrack, the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, lived up to my expectations. It was a dark ribbon of dirt through lush Eastern forest with plenty of tangled roots and toothy rock gardens to make line choices very thought-provoking. [Ed: Foreshadowing continues.]
I felt good and was riding well. As one does, when things start to click, I started braking a little less, carrying a bit more speed, and approaching technical sections with more aggression. Around a blind corner, I packed the bike into a particularly jagged collection of rocks and immediately felt the tire rim-out. As one does, I rode a little further hoping it was okay. It wasn’t. The rear tire was losing air fast. No problem. I stopped and fixed the flat with practiced efficiency that comes from cross-country racing in that era. I’ll spare you the “back in my day” rant …
Oh, what’s this? I hopped on the bike to carry on, and quickly felt an awful, squirming sensation in the front end. I had double-flatted, and I only had one tube.
While I did not have a GPS or a smartphone, I did have a map. Based on some rough estimations, I could see that a Forest Service road crossed the trail in a few miles (or maybe five — I was guessing). So, I removed my one good tube from the rear and put it in the front tire. That way, I could have some semblance of control over the bike. For the rear, I did the old trick of stuffing leaves in the tire to pad it against the rim. Have you ever wondered if this trick actually works? Well it doesn’t really.
At this rate, I figured it was impossible to make my flight. Honestly, I wasn’t completely sure if I’d get out of this dark forest before nightfall. Maybe I told someone about my ride route, but it wasn’t a given that rescue would be on its way anytime soon.
I limped my beleaguered Fuel EX along the trail, which did not relent in its rockiness or endlessly twisting ups and downs. This was a very bad place to ride with a flat tire. I can’t be sure how long it took me to get to the road, but it was a while. Still, it was quicker than walking and a relief to be just a little closer to civilization.
For the rear, I did the old trick of stuffing leaves in the tire to pad it against the rim. Have you ever wondered if this trick actually works? Well it doesn’t really.
Even though this National Forest is in the Eastern U.S., it is about as remote and wild as most places you’d find on the other side of the country. Ending up at a dusty, unmaintained Forest Service road is no guarantee that you’ll find someone else on a weekday, let alone someone who will be helpful. But against all odds, it was only a matter of minutes before I heard the engine of an approaching vehicle, and a pick-up truck came into view.
Now, in addition to the vulnerability that comes from riding a small, human-powered machine into the wild with minimal clothing, gear, and supplies, there’s another dimension to it. When other people enter the scene, things get unpredictable. Alone, you have a measure of control. What about when a pick-up truck comes around the bend?
Who knows, maybe they have long forgotten this day, or they could have told it to everyone in their family about 20 times.
I waved down the truck, knowing it was my best shot at getting out of there, for I only had a rough idea of where I was and how I’d get back to the campground. Although I often have reservations about encounters with strangers while out on the bike, they typically restore a bit of my faith in humanity, and prove that most people have the capacity for compassion, even if they are utterly shocked to find you out in the middle of nowhere on a bike. That was the case with this family in the truck. It took a bit of explaining to get them to understand what in the actual hell I was doing out there. But they quickly realized I was in need, and didn’t hesitate to help. I ended up in the back of their pick-up with a hound dog that was nonplussed by my situation.
In fact, they were so generous that they took me directly to the campground, actually making my outing far shorter than if I had ridden the entire route without incident. Maybe I got their names, but I can’t remember now. They were happy to help, but didn’t make a big deal out of it. Who knows, maybe they have long forgotten this day, or they could have told it to everyone in their family about 20 times. It’s odd how the paths of our lives can cross only for a moment, and yet that one day can be meaningful and memorable.
I ended up in the back of their pick-up with a hound dog that was nonplussed by my situation.
Now, I’m not a very religious person, but I think people often overlook some very fundamental messages that are part of Christianity, and probably other faiths. As far as I’m concerned, that day, that family embodied the compassion and generosity that sometimes gets lost when people get too zealous about religion or too commercialized and materialistic about a holiday like Christmas.
We are all out there together, in one way or another. We should just try our best to help each other when we see the need that arises from vulnerability. I try to do this whenever I can, and I believed that is perhaps one of the best gifts you can give to others and yourself.
Merry Christmas. Or whatever else you choose to believe, I wish you well.
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