Northern Michigan Biking Reflections

While out for a Northern Michigan bike ride Kandace Chapple reflects on the trail ahead of her in her essay about life, loss and taking hard falls. Find the original essay in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine


Summer was winding down, and the wind had turned cold, a side wind that blew my bike out from under me. I bent my head down and tried to maintain my speed; there would be no sprints today. My sprint would be inside the wind, my speed the same, my effort more so. The wind let go for a moment and then regrouped and slammed into me, this time bearing rain.

I took off down the dirt road that would take me to the trails. I wanted out of the wind, but the rain would follow me through the trees. My hands felt the cold, then my toes left the grid, turning white and cold in my wet shoes. I did not care. This was cold, but an empty, quiet house was colder.

I pressed down harder on the pedals, my shoes clipped in, pulling up too. The trail held small puddles here and there; I sliced around them with a careful tread, pleased to have something to navigate. The trail was riddled with washouts from the previous day’s storm, sodden in some places, uneven in most, a bumpy ride the entire length.

Still, I rode. It felt good to push against the terrain, my muscles, the gray day. It would be a day of routine and dull light, laundry and dishes and work waiting for me. A day when I missed my children, away at school for the day, a day when I was handed the loss of my mother in full, my days with her now gone.

The bike ride was a break, a stepping out of life and focusing on nothing more than moving forward. I didn’t spend the time thinking or planning. Instead, I spent it feeling my muscles, my breath, my backache, the way rain tasted when it dripped off my helmet and mixed with sweat. I was off the clock for an hour, maybe two.

And out in the wild I was away from everyone and everything. I was among the trees, which, unlike life, did not change except in expected ways.

Here I could come and see the trees standing together, day after day. I had memorized dozens of trees, some with faces of knots, most without. But I knew where I was on the trail by the bend of a birch tree or the split trunk of an old pine. I appreciated their sturdiness, their reliability. I would go after a storm with anticipation, to see what nature could dole out, what changes I could find.

And today I was on that mission. Two days of heavy rains and storms had left their mark. The riverbank was rifled, huge veins of sand carried to the river. North of the lake, straight-line winds had bent over an entire grove of poplars. The entire army lay as one on its side.

I found clumps of oak leaves thrashed onto the ground and the trail covered in acorns where before it was not. I rode over deep washouts and through wide mud holes when I had no choice. But through it all, I felt safe. As always, the trail guided me.

Early in the ride, I fell while rounding a black, muddy corner on a two-track. It was a shock. I hadn’t fallen the entire season, nor last season, that I could remember. But just like that, I was down, skinned up, scrambling to right myself on the wet, slick mud. I got up and took off, laughing.

But on the second fall, I stopped to contemplate my decisions.

Here I was in the middle of a state forest, hurt, under my bike, half worried I was dead, half wishing I was. No one knew where I was, and worse, I couldn’t tell anyone how to find me. I had been picking my way through the trees by instinct, keeping the lake on my left and heading west. I was stitching together 15 miles from Fisher Road to the far side of Mud Lake, trying to take only new trails, turning right where I knew to turn left.

When I fell the first time, I laughed it off. But the second time, I considered what had brought me here to the middle of nowhere, alone, in the rain, with mud now embedded down my leg, the cut of the gear ring up my calf, my bike on its side at my feet.

I left my bike and sat, pulled up my knees and rested my arms on them. I felt the pad in my bike shorts sink into the moss at the base of the tree, and I waited for and felt the wet seep into my skin. I pulled my bottle from the rack and drank from it, letting it swing from my fingers, between my knees.

How, exactly, had life brought me to this moment? It was a quiet moment, wet, uncomfortable, irritating (how had I fallen again?!) and still, it was affirming. I was doing something right if I could find myself out in the woods on a dark day, situated under a tree, catching my breath, nursing a wound and pushing the adrenaline down out of my arms and legs. Lost, by myself, and, when I least expected it, content.

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