I stare up at the hillside. It’s a blank page, lined, my heart a promissory note, written in red ink. But I have nowhere to be and nothing but time. There’s a boulder I’ve been eyeing and avoiding. Like any sweet looking line in New England, there’s no rollout, nowhere to go once the heroic work’s been done.
The sun is up, just, and heat rises off my shoulders in milky steam. My breath gusts. Why do I go so hard when I’m alone?
I turn off my headlight, hit my bottle not yet frozen, let my heartrate settle. A pair of older women tromp past with little, yappy dogs, lost in conversation. I smile a hello and bask in the quiet once they’re gone. The trees rustle as if to say, “Get moving buddy.” Maybe they’ll bask in the quiet once I’m gone, too.
I start up the meandering switchbacks, measuring effort. The crux is in the middle, where the trail dips hard and then shoots upward over some roots and into a little rock garden that wouldn’t be a challenge if it wasn’t canted at an angle as it is. After that it’s a matter of getting the wind back in your sails to navigate the last few turns, all the while the top of the hill looming and looming and somehow not coming closer, until you pop out into a small clearing, and if you went hard enough, it’s a good spot to lurch over your handlebars and consider your mortality.
I’m there, drooling and spitting and wondering why I’m not in better shape when another dog walker appears and makes me self-conscious. I straighten up and take a long pull on my bottle, try to look casual. What price vanity?
If the switchbacks are the lines across the hillside’s page, a pair of zoomy, steep trails mark its margins. This time of year choosing the margins means choosing to skitter through loose rock and leaves, a forearm straining, rocket ride that thrills as much as it threatens. I opt for the return flight down the switchbacks.
I imagine, if this trail were out West, someone would have banked the turns properly and removed the rocks the Earth heaves up through the soil winter after winter. But it’s not and they don’t, and I think I probably like it that way.
I set myself up for that boulder I’ve been eyeing and roll into it finally, stall momentarily at the top, and then roll out again without injury. No friends are around to be unimpressed, so I just keep going.
I didn’t need to go up to come down, but some mornings the trail just draws you in, pulls you along, cajoles and begs, until you’re riding on legs you don’t have. At the bottom of the hill again, I face the reality that I’ve overdrawn my account, and the way home is going to feel longer than it ought, even the bits on the road seeming to tip backward, and all I can think about is the bite of the hot water in the shower, the first mouthful of coffee kicking of a neurochemical reaction in my brain, the closest I get to high.