Mountain Biking Writing

What the Desert Taught Me

I pull my bike out of the back of my dad’s Subaru, mulling over the fact I should really buy a bike rack for Arizona. The dusty tire marks are all over the back of the car: the windows and the side walls. Not much to be done for that when you’re in the desert.

Leaning the bike against the car, I decide on the final route I’ll ride this evening while I start my Apple Watch exercise tracker as well as Strava. Did you even ride if you didn’t track it? I tuck my phone away in my hip pack.

I’m vaguely aware of the cars on the highway immediately behind me, and I’m continually scanning the new arrivals at the lot. It’s not lost on me that this sport is primarily dominated by men. I have a knife in my hip pack just in case. I’ve never felt unsafe while riding alone except for that one time I got catcalled while heading into the trails, but I am always aware. Just in case. I pull my knee pads up, lock the car, another quick check that my hip bag is zipped, and that I’ve got both bottles of water.

I pedal through the opening in the metal barrier and head down to the trail entrance. The sand here is deep and not ideal but it also hasn’t rained in ages so conditions all around aren’t ideal. I get to the trail entrance, which has a metal rollover gate. I come to a stop and walk my bike over the rollover gate. I still can’t get my head around riding over this rollover gate. The big gaps in the metal freak me out, just like wood features. One day. Not today.

And then I’m off, through another deep sandy wash, then two little dips that I forcefully ride into so I pop up on the other side. And then it’s quickly down a ravine where I pick up speed and adjust my gears to climb the short and steep section on the other side. I make it without losing momentum and grin as I pop out on the trail and lean into a berm. I don’t know how to explain it, but the more you ride, how to hit certain turns and berms suddenly start to make sense.

And then it’s downhill for a little over 2 miles. The desert is active today: lizards scurrying everywhere, out of my way. A hawk or falcon with beautiful brown feathers soars in front of me and I get distracted and momentarily ride into a bush.


It’s not the time to get distracted. Snakes are active now and they blend in with the landscape. I’ve not spotted one yet, and while I kind of want to, riding over one in a bush probably isn’t the proper way to see one.

I get back on course and let the bike work for me as I roll over rocks and bumpy sections. Through the twists and turns, I try to loosen up and go with the flow. Hmm yes, now there’s a lesson my tarot cards keep trying to drill into me: go with the flow. I pick up speed and cruise along, hitting a section with some of that small pea-sized gravel and I can feel the back of my bike start to slide out one way. My stomach drops as I lean to counter it and get upright again. Still good. Still upright.

Something moves out of the corner of my eye and I don’t see what it is, nor do I have the time to but I suddenly hesitate and slow down. Was it a snake? The fear creeps in. Fear is the mind killer. I’ve sat back down for the moment, suddenly slowing…I can feel the hesitation affect how I ride. And then I shake it off, speed up and carry on to the end of this trail and into the next one.

This one is still new and some of the dips make me question my suspension settings. I ride slower on this trail. I’ve suddenly started to ponder my anxieties and fears around my relationships. The “what-if”s start to creep in. I’m not focused on the trail. No no, we can’t have that.

I pedal faster, still a bit off though, and come to the end of the second trail and go to stand in the shade for a moment. It’s hot for my little Pacific Northwest self. I check my phone. I acknowledge my anxieties and tell them they’re not welcome here. Not right now. They’ll creep back later. They always do. They will until certain things happen. But right now, no. Be gone.

I head up the next trail. A short climb over some rocks brings me to a view of Red Mountain, the Salt River and Phoenix’s skyline, a faint group of shapes in the distance, and then it’s down the other side, over more rock instead of dirt and then up another incline before heading back down again. The shifting of gears is quick and if I’m not quick enough, I stall and have to walk but that’s okay. It happens.

I continue on through a series of ups and downs. I’ve gotten braver and pedal into those downs with a grin on my face as I come up the other side. I come down one section with a series of rocks toward the bottom and while I slow down, I don’t get off the bike. I trust it to carry me through my line as I’ve done times before. And up the other side I go.

I used to stop and walk through those rocks. Until one day I got so frustrated I stopped and repeatedly tried to go through it until I did. I make it through that feature now without getting off my bike. Occasionally a seed of doubt gets planted and I slam on my brakes, questioning my judgement despite having completed this section numerous times and I’ll have to walk it. Fear is the mind killer.

It’s hot. I struggle on a few uphills before getting to the end of the trail and pausing to debate my next route. I decide to go downhill and hit the start of another trail for my 2.5 miles climb back up to the car. I like this trail more than the other one for climbing back. There’s a good mix of up and downhill instead of just…all uphill. Half a mile in, I reach the section I have trouble climbing.

I lean forward and can hear my Pure Barre instructor, Lizelle, saying “The burn is where your muscles are getting stronger” and I climb. “Huh,” I think to myself, “Turns out you CAN climb this, you were just being a wussy before.” And I was. I’m leaned so far forward on this steep-ish, gravel climb. My thighs burn but its my core that’s working quite hard. I didn’t initially realize how much core work was involved with biking. I get to the top and rest. I just need a moment and some water before I shoot off again, occasionally stopping for photos.

I can never take too many photos of the desert. I take a longer rest, and gingerly make my way off the trail, looking for snakes. I take in the landscape. The geology. The cacti. Breathing hard, I smell dust and sweat. I am soaked but I can feel the change in myself compared to 5 months ago. I can feel the change in endurance. How little of a stop I need before I’m able to carry on down (or up) the trail.

I start the final section that’s just a climb, and I take a turn that I couldn’t take without falling 5 months ago. I can feel my core stabilize me and I glide through it. Not even remotely close to falling off. I climb and climb.

I don’t mind the climbing anymore actually. It requires as much if not more focus to navigate obstacles on the way up. So I focus, and decide to take the right trail fork up to the jumps instead of the left to the car. The sun hasn’t set yet. I veer left down another ravine and up the other side and pause. I can see the valley in front of me, and I just sit and pause to listen to the stillness.

The stillness is brief though and I hear men’s voices coming down the trail. Three come rushing by, one stops to nod at me before they head down another jumpline. They look as if they’re in their 50s and hitting it hard still. Respect.

Two more are lagging behind and don’t see where their friends went, and as I’m taking a sip out of my water bottle, one of them barks at me, “which way did they go?” And I point, water still in my mouth and I roll my eyes. A few more moments to myself before I flip my bike around to head the way I just came and I choose a line that goes down 8 or 10 feet of a near vertical rock face. I don’t remember it being that steep and I know my eyes are wide but I’ve already committed as I come over the edge. Hands off the brakes as I fly down it and up the other side.

I am grinning.

I take the trail back down, past the group of men from earlier and then stop on the side of the trail. The light is perfect. It’s cooled down a bit.

The group whizzes past me again and I sit, soaking it all in.

Riding in the desert has given me much these past 7 months. It’s shown me what I’m capable of doing physically. It’s shown me what growing confidence feels like. What growing strength feels like. I’ve seen wild horses and lizards up close. Still no snakes. The desert has shown me that we stumble and have to walk sometimes and that’s okay. That it’s okay to stop and pause (especially on the verge of heat stroke).

I take a photo and text it with the caption, “it was perfect tonight” before I pedal on back to the car. Down another steep incline that I used to hesitate at…now I pedal into it to pick up speed.

To the metal rollover gate. Not today.

And back to the car.

More dust as I lift it into the back of the car before slamming the trunk and taking another pause to look down the road. It’s quiet again.

I get into the car and check my phone. I won’t get a text response until later. It’s 3 AM where that text was sent.

I fumble with the bluetooth to listen to music and put on a song called “Everything We Need” by A Day To Remember, and I drive off. Alone. Biking in the desert has taught me how to be alone and rely on myself…but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s more fun with someone else to join you.

“Soon,” I think, glancing at my phone.

And that’s the other thing: patience. The desert has taught me patience. You can’t rush an uphill climb. Slow down. Be steady.

You’ll get there soon enough.

Stay steady.

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