I wake up and, before opening my eyes, know I’m lying in dirt and leaves, a trail by the feel of it. I’m trying to get up but things aren’t working. I’m writhing. My breath won’t budge, in or out. Panic constricts my diaphragm. I don’t understand why I’m panicked and that makes it even worse. I cannot relax enough to pinch even a little breath. This is all happening in mere moments, flashes really.
Eyes still shut, I manage the smallest of gasps, then another. A sudden intake of air pops my eyes open. Then comes the pain and I know why I can’t get up. Something inside of me is messed up. It sounds like somebody is stepping on Christmas ornaments every time I take a breath. My eyes adjust. I’m on a trail that traverses a ridge in a woods. Something about this place seems familiar.
Opened this past June, Big Kame (pronounced simply as “came”) is the second loop in the in the DTE Energy Foundation Trail System. It is a five-year project with a new loop being opened each year for a total of 5 new loops and 20+ miles of new trail when completed. DTE Energy has funded half of the $500K project with the rest coming from private donations and fundraising.
I try to wince myself into a sitting position. It doesn’t work. Why am I wearing my biking shorts? I don’t realize yet that I’m wearing a helmet. It has only been moments since I woke up. Woke up? Woke up from what? I work to steady my breath. That’s step one. After that, I’ll figure this out.
“You okay down there?” a voice calls. I look up the trail and there are several mountain bikers perched at the top of the hill, waiting. Mountain bikers. Everything suddenly comes rushing back. I’m mountain biking on Big Kame a few miles north of Chelsea. Did I fall? I don’t remember. “I think so,” I called back to the bikers. They don’t buy it.
Constructing the trail system is spearheaded by The Potowatomi Mountain Biking Association (Poto MBA) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. With an army of volunteers doing much of the work, these trails are designed by engineers specifically for mountain biking and it shows. Just ask any mountain biker, these trails are Pure Michigan mountain biking heaven.
Suddenly there are bikers all around me all asking me questions at once. Of course the big one was “What happened?” I wish I knew. The last thing I remember was really cookin’ it downhill and taking a jump so small it could barely be called a jump, more like a bump. I’d been sloppy though. I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t dial in my line so I BS’d an answer that I hoped didn’t sound as stupid as I felt.
Trail building these days is different from a decade ago. Old school approach was to simply blaze a trail where you wanted to go with no thought for erosive environmental issues. As a result, the trails simply wouldn’t hold up well over time under the effects of rain and use.
The Poto MBA is the local chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) who is at the forefront of constructing “sustainable” trails which have grading that can sheet off water while keeping the soil intact. As the DTE Energy Foundation Trail website explains, “These modern, sustainable and environmentally friendly techniques will be utilized in building the Waterloo Trails.”
Four guys with accents are standing in front me saying encouraging stuff like, “Just take it easy,” “No rush,” and the worst “Everybody falls.” They have an accent and I saw an opportunity to stop all the questions by asking a question myself, “Where are you guys from?” I didn’t care. I was stalling for time until I could figure out what to do.
“Venezuela” one of them replied. I said something. They said something more. They were nice. I apologized for interrupting their ride and told them they should get going. There were plenty of people here now. They refused. Another group, 3 guys and 1 girl, had a phone out. The woman had some first aid training which was a relief because yet another biker thought my shoulder had been dislocated and they should pull on it until it popped back in.
The 5.2 mile Green Lake Loop opened last year and is properly described as a “flow” trail. A lack of climbs and technical features allows you to put all your energy into speed along its undulating course. I tell folks in the bike shop that riding it is like being carried along a fast-moving river in a raft but without the rapids. It is smooth and rhythmic, a balm for the open wounds of life.
With each breath and any other little movement, broken bones grind around inside me like a turkey carcass being rendered into leftovers. Nobody was pulling on that mess to try to pop a shoulder, that isn’t out, back in. I gave the guy who suggested it a look that said as much. A few bikers took notice and stepped in around me like musk ox in case the guy tried to rush in and pull my arm anyway. I couldn’t help it. I loved these people I didn’t even know.
The woman began asking me diagnostic questions. I’m certified in Wilderness First Aid myself and anticipated each inquiry. My quick answers made me sound better than I was. I was trying to keep up an “I’ve-got-it-together” exterior to my audience, but inside I was as jumpy as a shaved monkey. How did this happen and what was I going to do to get out of it?
If Green Lake is a balm, the 4.5 mile Big Kame is Red Bull. It also has flow but also climbs and descents as it careens around the huge, hilly glacial deposit or “kame” at the northern tip of Green Lake in Waterloo Rec Area. Man-made features include the “Rock Gardens” which are huge rock jumps, countless dirt jumps, and other smaller rock features to test your problem solving skills. It can be intimidating, but you don’t have to be a top stud, or act like one, to have a blast.
The guy with the phone asks if he could call someone. I said something like, “Dear God. Don’t call my wife or she’ll never let me come biking again.” Everybody laughs knowing non-biker spouses just don’t get it. Its part of that instant trail camaraderie that is both wonderful and powerful.
I know a lot of bikers and figure it’s only a matter of time before one of them happens along. I’m mortified by this idea and it increases my panic.I gotta get out of here. “I want to try to walk out,” I say. Bikers are suddenly all around me holding my good arm and steadying my back. I get up but a sharp pain blows the air out of me like a shredded tube. “Down” I croak. They put me down as gently as a sleeping newborn.
“Trail Magic” is the tradition of charity shown to hikers on the Appalachian Trail by non-hikers. It could be sharing food, giving a ride into town, or helping with any other of the plethora of needs a hiker may have. More generally, it is any moment of shared kindness and camaraderie by complete strangers out in the wilderness. It can be a very powerful experience as I wrote about in Magic On Isle Royale.
Big Kame is rockin’ on Saturday mornings with lots of traffic. A biker was up the trail telling people to get off their bikes and walk them through where I was laying. They did except for one wobbly jack-hole who just had to ride past inches from my head. Concerned faces checked in on me as they passed by. Still others were setting their bikes down asking what they could do to help. Again, I was overwhelmed. Why should these people even care?
The guy with the phone called 911. I gave him a number and he called my wife. “For the love of God, tell her I am just fine,” I pleaded. Like she would believe it anyway coming from a stranger. Tracy already frets over my mountain biking and backpacking. A couple of bikers leave to meet the EMT’s at the trailhead and guide them in. One of the Venezuelans took my bike to walk it out to my car.. The gal with the first aid training fashioned a sling out of a spare tube. Everybody offered me a drink.
“Trail Magic” is a big part of the allure of wilderness activities. Bring it up in conversation and everybody has stories. Strangers crossing paths in the wild randomly, or maybe not randomly, are immediate family. It’s a phenomenon that is in stark contrast to how media portrays people. It encourages me. The reality of Trail Magic has warmed and reassured me more than TV’s virtual and manufactured discord between people can disillusion me.
Seventeen minutes after receiving the call two EMTs, Brian and Dan, from Huron Valley Ambulance and a firefighter, Chris, from Chelsea Fire Department with their ATV are here. That’s taking the call, hooking up the trailer with the ATV, peeling out of Chelsea, unloading the ATV, and bumping and twisting down the mile of trail on Big Kame to where I am. I don’t even know how to describe this because we use words like “awesome” to describe pizza and selfies. There are no words.
I’m loaded onto a board. Suddenly bikers all around hoist me onto the ATV. I feel absolutely ridiculous. All I did was fall off my bike. How did it come to this? Bikers leave their bikes behind and walk along with the ATV as it hauls me out. I’m loaded into the ambulance and all these bikers who I don’t even know parade by to wish me the best. These people.
And this is what it is: When stripped away of all our layers, people are good. At the core of our naked soul we are selfless, compassionate, kind, forgiving and generous. It’s just that in all the white noise, sometimes we get confused.
EMT Dan is driving. EMT Brian is riding with me in back. He somehow is able to keep his balance in the swaying truck as he rechecks my vitals and tends to me. Out of the crowd, no longer needing the bravado, my façade drops and EMT Brian becomes Father Brian. “I’m so embarrassed,” I confess.
And this is the real torment of my fall – self doubt – that others actually see me in the same way that I feel about myself – I’m not that good of a rider, I’m too old, too fat, and too clumsy. In one way or another … less.
With the intuition and efficiency of a true care-giver, Brian responds, “We’ve already taken ten riders out of Big Kame this summer.” There’s no judgment in his tone. No sarcasm or belittling. Just concern. I feel a little better. Maybe Big Kame actually is hard and I’m not so inept after all. I hope those other ten are doing well.
I think of all the people who just interrupted their morning to help me, including these two EMTs. “People are good,” I say and it feels good to say that. Brian agrees. I continue, “I know it’s your job and all, but I hope there’s a reward for you that matches the help and comfort you give people.”
“I like to help people,” he says.
Later when I told Tracy, a non-biker, that I was going to write an article about this experience, she thought it was a good idea because then maybe they would “make the trail safer.”
“Noooo-no-no-no-no-no-noooo,” I kawasakied right back at her. “Nobody touches the trail.” I butcher a Jon Krakauer quote trying to explain why. “Mountain biking is a thrilling and fulfilling sport not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them,” I said. “‘Safer’ isn’t more rewarding. Rising up to it is.”
I get processed in a flurry of activity at the University of Michigan Hospital ER. I am again grateful for the skill of these people and their daily selflessness in caring for people in all kinds of predicaments. I get settled into a room. I’ve been given pain meds. I’m fairly comfortable. Nurses are buzzing in and out along with various medical staff. Brian finds me and checks on me one more time before leaving. I thank him, but it seems weak.
I’ve got four broken ribs, a broken scapula (shoulder blade), bruised lungs, and a sprained collar bone. “High impact” is the descriptor explaining my injuries. I spend four days in the hospital receiving yet more care-giving from the wonderful nursing staff that do this day in and day out.
The raw drive for adventure, that need to face the perilous, to match our skill and wits against something bigger than ourselves is what draws us out of our sanitized and comfortable lives where the main concerns so often are what to buy next and how many self-awarded participation medals are on our Facebook page. Deep down, we don’t want a safe life. We know significance comes only through risk. The wilderness is unpredictable and even dangerous. Everything is a wilderness and to rise up to it is the real Call of the Wild.
We long to take on the real, the atavistic and dangerous – to pierce through the veneer of selfishness into selflessness – things bigger than ourselves. In doing so, we transform. And in becoming more fully human, the world is a little better. Setting aside yourself for the sake of someone else is also risky and that’s why we are so often called to do so.
So thank you to all of you good people who, in spite of all the reasons not to, set aside your anger, hatred, past mistakes, self-loathing, regrets and pursuit of self, to create a little Trail Magic when you have the chance.
In small ways that go unnoticed and unheralded, you do what you do because it is who you are. It is the realm of the heroic and meaningful. This is the spark of hope which. if given the chance. can be fanned into a big flame if we throw ’em all together. Such acts are radical and counter to our culture, which is what truly good people are.
You can read more by Doug at intothewilderness.net
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org