Into the Fire

Five years ago — by which I mean “between three and seven years ago” — Utah was in the middle of a serious water shortage. This crisis deeply affected me in several ways, including (but not limited to):

  • I watered my lawn only once per day, instead of the normal twice.
  • I stopped going to Lake Powell, because it had dried up completely. Just kidding; it was easily still 15-20 feet deep in some places.
  • My favorite mountain bike trails became incredibly loose and dusty.

These problems, however, suddenly seemed trivial when my favorite bike trail in the world — Frank — got caught up in the path of a fire that chewed up and spat out mountain after mountain near my home.


Just so you understand how important Frank (yes, everyone I rode with spoke of this trail as if it were a person named “Frank”) was to me, I should also point out that this same fire also threatened my house. But while I was concerned about my potential property loss, my indignation — my hate-filled rage — was reserved for the likelihood that I was about to lose my trail.

And then the day came: Fire trucks and firefighters were stationed at the trailhead. Helicopters were slurry-bombing burning trees just a few hundred yards away from the ride I had done hundreds (no exaggeration, for once) of times.

There was no question about it. Frank would burn.

I Was a Bland Youth

I’m now going to shift focus, both for a break in the story’s incredible dramatic tension and to give you a little bit of my personal backstory.

I think we can agree that most teenagers express their individuation via some sort of rebellion. Here are the things I did to rebel:

  • I grew my hair so far down it very nearly touched my collar.
  • I listened to Oingo-Boingo and DEVO, occasionally at volumes of which my father did not approve. I also wore out (literally) a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

I bring this list up by way of demonstrating that in general, I am a law-abiding type, one who does not cause waves.

Doing What Must Be Done

Knowing that Frank would never be the same, and knowing that access was both blocked and forbidden, I did the obvious thing: I got on my bike and got on the trail anyway, using a lesser-known trailhead that had three essential benefits:

  1. It was not blocked by firefighters.
  2. It was not on fire.
  3. It was easily accessible, if you happen to know the trail so well that you can close your eyes and imagine the whole thing in perfect detail.

I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was breaking the law or putting myself in danger or about anything else, really; I just wanted to ride my favorite trail one more time before the fire took it.

The Ride

I expected the smoke to be a problem, but it wasn’t. In fact, Frank seemed perfectly normal during the climb. Two switchbacks, both of which I had mastered. A hard scrabble up a loose, rocky section: I cleaned this maybe half the time (I can’t remember whether I cleaned it this day). Then, a nice, steady singletrack climb through scrub oak. Then I got to the top of Frank, a rock cairn where the fastest guy gets to sit and wait for everyone else to regroup. As such, it’s more of a throne than a simple pile of rocks.

This time, though, I was riding alone, so didn’t care about the rocks. Also, I didn’t care about the rocks because there was a fire coming down the mountain, about 300 yards (I’m guessing so wildly that I may as well be picking a number at random here) away. I couldn’t see beyond the fire to what it had done, because the smoke was so thick.

Better keep going.

Before the fire, the first part of the descent down Frank was a group favorite. How could it not be? You’re blasting through a tunnel of brambly trees. The trail, which had been nothing more than a deer track before we started riding it, was smooth and fast. There were embedded boulders and trees to dodge, but you could really open it up and fly.

And that is the real reason why this last pre-fire Frank ride is one of my favorite memories. Because after the fire, the tunnel would be gone. And then, a little while later, several days of rain would come, and without the thick brush and grass on the mountain to slow it down, the water would briefly form a running stream along this part of the trail, turning it from a hang-on-let’s-fly section of downhill to a rocky riverbed: a bumpy, rattle-your-teeth-out section. It’s still good trail, but it’s totally different.

For some reason, I get tremendous satisfaction that I was the last person to ride this trail as it was, before it got turned to a charred, stark, naked-looking thing that smelled of smoke for years afterward.

Finishing my ride, I dropped off the trail near the water tower. There were several firefighters and vehicles there, getting ready. I didn’t look at them, employing the “I don’t acknowledge you, therefore I don’t exist” technique. Amazingly, it worked. I just rode by them.

There were a couple kids straddling bikes on the side of the road, looking at me as I came off the trail. “Are you that guy?” one of them yelled at me as I approached.

“What guy?”

“The firefighters were talking on the radio a little while about some stupid mountain biker, riding up into the fire, about half an hour ago. Dude, they said you’re an idiot.”

A fair point.

And yet, this stands out as maybe the only very stupid thing I have ever done that I do not regret at all.

PS: You have one week left to enter the raffle to fight cancer and win a Superfly SingleSpeed. Click here for details on how!

PPS: My sister Jodi at Pistols and Popcorn and I are both finalists for the 2009 Bloggies awards. She’s in the “Best-Kept Secret” category; I’m in the “Sports” category. Click here to go vote for us.

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