Biking the Wall of Death

I'm unloading my bike at the Bozeman Creek Trailhead and already MP is giving me grief.

"Where's your spare tire? Don't you have a pump? What if you get a flat?" That sort of thing.

It's not mean-spirited, though, more like she's concerned. As the mother of three active kids, sometimes it's hard to put Mom on hold. While MP's been ragging on me, Sawyer and Ruby, fourteen and twelve, have been lifting their bicycles down from the minivan, and MP's neighbor, Jeff, has been seeing to his daughter, Katie, Ruby's friend.

MP goes off to check on the kids, but when I look up from lubing the chain, she's heading back in my direction. I figure she's going to lecture me on bug spray or sun screen, but this time she's laughing. After all her filling of water bottles, packing of snacks, and organizing of kids, she's forgotten her shoes. MP's going to have to ride in Crocs. Big honking orange Crocs that a person might wear instead of an orange vest during hunting season.

The ride goes well, with the July sun printing evergreen shadows across the gently climbing trail and everyone keeping up, until we reach the five-mile bridge. Ruby and Katie decide to ride back to town, to do something else with their afternoon. As the girls pedal off and the creek burbles in the background, MP turns to me and says, "We're going to ride the Wall of Death, why don't you take the road and meet us at Mystic Lake."

It's like a verbal kick in the groin. Sure, I'm 62 years old, but look at these superheroes who are proposing to leave me behind. Sawyer is a skinny kid who used to drool on my shirt, Jeff is fit but no Lance Armstrong, and MP is wearing orange Crocs.

"No way," I counter, "I'm going." I have no idea what the Wall of Death is, but I've been biking hard since early spring and I'm not going to be left behind like some awkward kid on training wheels.

MP gives me a long look, Jeff examines his handlebars with the concentration of a metallurgist, and Sawyer smiles a cryptic kid's smile. It might mean, "Right on, Uncle Bill." It might mean, "I wish I'd taken that CPR course Mom suggested."

Pretty quickly, the broad and tranquil Bozeman Trail becomes an idyllic memory as I chase the others along a narrow single track that slopes radically up. Within the first eighth of a mile, I'm falling behind, and in a frantic effort to close the gap, I push too hard, round a bend too fast and ride clean off the trail. I tumble 20 feet down a steep hillside. Unfortunately, MP has stopped to wait for me and sees me crash. I'm still tangled in my bike and the brush when she pedals up. As soon as we've established that nothing is broken, MP encourages me to ride back down, and even offers to ride along.

While some mature but distant part of me recognizes the kindness and practicality of her suggestion, the demented two-year-old digs in his heels. Maybe it's just not a good time, what with me ripping my bike from the brush and wrestling it up the hillside, but there's no freaking way I'm going back now. Not after I've bent my shifter and skinned my elbow, knees, and pride. This is a death match. I'm going to ride the Wall of Death if it kills me.

And to a large extent I do. Occasionally I have to push my bike up a hill when I haven't shifted quickly enough. And I definitely walk it across the steep rock slab that gives the trail its name. But as the track climbs higher and higher and Bozeman Creek falls further and further into the ravine, I make a nervous peace with the hundreds of timber-and boulder-strewn feet that I might tumble if I ride off the wrong side of the trail.

Eventually I'm doing so well that MP no longer hangs back, checking to see if I'm cartwheeling like Wile E. Coyote down the mountainside. That's when I go over the handlebars. It happens so fast that I'm not sure if I crash into a rock or slam on my brakes too hard to avoid a rock.

Fortunately, I land on the trail. In my battered and deranged state I discover a grim satisfaction at landing on the opposite side of my body. Why I derive so much pleasure from symmetrical bleeding is a mystery only the demented two-year-old might explain.

When I finally reach the spillway at Mystic Lake, I get a round of enthusiastic high fives from the crew, and my happiness at having survived the Wall of Death is compounded by Sawyer's congratulations. Fourteen years ago I was pushing him around in a stroller and here he is waiting at the top. Perhaps the torch is being passed and I can retire to a rocking chair on the porch. Before that thought is fully formed, the demented two-year-old is already digging in his heels.