When I was a kid, my favorite toys were cars. The single most recurring feature in photos of me from when I was single digits were four-wheeled amusements that bore names like Tonka, Matchbox and Hot Wheels. With them, I explored the surfaces of every environment I encountered: sidewalks, tree roots and furniture. In retrospect, I can see now that those toys were the lens through which I interacted with the world around me.
When I began riding bicycles a few years later, I largely stuck to sidewalks, so the shift taught me less about my environment than it did physics. But when I began skateboarding as I entered my teens, surfing concrete waves became a novel way to marry physics with an idealized world, embracing man’s taming of the world around him, right down to beating gravity at its own game.
When I graduated to road bikes in my early 20s, they became my lens for convention. We’d tamed the landscape to a degree by paving it, but largely left the contours dictated by nature. I could ride anywhere asphalt ran, unlike with skateboarding, which kept me to the confines of man-made pools, bowls and pipes.
Using a bike to scale nearby hills gave me a perspective on elevation and grade that hiking could not distill. Hiking, for me, was like navigating by microscope, apprehending too little of the land at any one time to build a larger picture. But laboring up a mountain road and soaring down its grades 15 minutes or even an hour later allowed me to picture even the grandest of peaks.
These days, I’m still viewing my world through a lens. Sometimes on a road bike, frequently on a gravel bike and increasingly on a mountain bike. It’s this last conveyance that has taught me something about how I’ve changed in 50-0dd years. As a kid, there was a piece of me that needed those idealized shapes of the skatepark, a sanitized version of nature in which my path was less about what I saw in the lens than what I could project through it.
Singletrack is not unlike road. Its difference is only matter of degrees. It is, however, different in that it is the least adulterated version of nature. What that trail does, whether it winds between trees, loops the contours of a hillside or dances at the edge of a cliff, that I’m given as pure a sense of my surroundings as I’m ever to encounter.
Mountain biking has brought me closer to the land, closer to nature, and reflects my evolution from someone who needed the world to change so I could find peace to someone who is able to find peace in the world as it is. In that I see growth, a centering of spirit, which dovetails with my experience in wild spaces. For it is those times when I emerge from some ribbon of dirt stitched through a forest and can see the environment around me that I feel most serene, most confident that when I return to the artifice of bills, gerunds and addresses I can navigate those forms and not forget who I am.