Hard-Earned Alone Time

“Just get off the bike and walk.”
“No. I want to ride the whole thing.”
“C’mon, nobody’s watching. You’re tired. This is stupid. Just get off for a little bit and rest your legs.”

Some of my most meaningful conversations—such as this one—happen when I’m alone in the backcountry. Free of distraction, outside observation, and interruption, I’m free to be myself and find myself. It can be scary, as you never know if you’re going to like who you find.

Meditation, moment of zen, prayer—call it what you want, I found it at last year’s CircumBurke. All some people need to find it is a yoga mat. For me, it took a bit more: 24 miles. Three thousand feet of climbing. Bridge-less stream crossings. A soul-crushing 1,200 foot, three-and-a-half mile climb right out of the starting gate. Speeds approaching 30 miles per hour down a glorified streambed covered with leaves. And let’s not forget the half-dozen or so mud pits big enough to make your redneck friends build a bonfire, buy a case of beer, and make a mess of their favorite truck.

The CircumBurke ride and trail run commemorates the life of Dave Blumenthal, an endurance rider from Vermont who was killed competing in the Continental Tour Divide race. It takes place at Burke Mountain each year in October (the 27th this year). Last year was my first entry, and I was joined by my friends Gered, Brad, and Justin.

I should have been nervous about what was facing me given that I had been training in the flatlands of Massachusetts, but buoyed by my Strava results I was foolishly overconfident that I could easily finish one lap and maybe even try for two.

Ten minutes into the first climb, somewhere on Camptown singletrack, the mountain dispossessed me of any ridiculous notion that I was going to ever see the lead group again. I was just another body suffering through the torture of a 30-minute climb. Brad and Gered had leaped out ahead of the main field, while Justin was somewhere just behind me. To be honest they all could have been riding right next to me, but I was shut in the pain room focused on keeping my legs spinning and trying to get enough oxygen to calm my burning chest.

After rolling past the mid-Burke lodge and up Camptown trail, I settled into the last part of the climb up the CCC Road to the southern shoulder of Burke Mountain. Despite all the suffering, the mood among the riders around me was downright festive. We joked about the climb and encouraged each other onward.

A painful half-hour of climbing behind me, I crested the top of the ridge and started my descent into the wilds of Victory. Loose rock waited stealthily under leafy camouflage as I blasted down the trail using all of the travel on my full suspension bike. My tired legs were replaced with aching arms as I struggled to keep the front wheel moving in a straight line.

Somewhere near the bottom, I gambled on the wrong line in a washout and a hidden rock bucked me into the air and over my handlebars. Miraculously I hopped right back on my bike, laughing in relief and amazement with a couple fellow riders.

A maze of freshly cut twisty singletrack skirted the side of Umpire mountain, and although seemingly brand new, the trail rode extremely well. The complex turns, short climbs, and dips had me wrestling the bike and begging for mercy. The singletrack finally emerged from the woods to a large aid station where I begged for anything salty. I scarfed down a few handfuls of Goldfish and a pickle and I was back on my bike headed into the woods.

“The Gold Trail,” really a logging road interrupted with stream crossings and bridges in various states of disrepair, was next. Burned into my memory was a section which began with a cockeyed bridge, continued into a deep mud pit, and climbed over an impossibly steep hill. By this time, it was all I could do to creep up the hill.

It was also at this part of the ride that I found myself completely alone. On the far side of the mountain I waged a solitary battle with my body: trying to coax it into continuing as I climbed upward on the rutty logging road. Unfortunately, in my “modern” life those quiet moments are few and far between. I was alone with myself with no distractions: no television, no computer, no blogs, no work, no music, no company. It was a perfect moment of pure thought and action. I willed my legs to keep churning as I continued to roll along.

Eventually, I found myself in McGill Field and within view of my final destination across the valley: Burke Mountain. I bombed down the smooth singletrack which dumped me out onto a dirt road. After a short paved road section I was back to the Burke Mountain parking lot.

I cruised across the finish line at just over three hours, placing me solidly in the middle of the pack. More importantly, I had found a solitary moment in the backcountry, and it turns out, I enjoyed the company.

Andy Howard

Andy Howard grew up in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom and learned at an early age that skiing and biking in the trees is fun. After living in North Carolina and Georgia, he eventually found his way back to New England and now lives in the Boston area where he balances a legal career with his love for exploration and adventure.