30 January 2012

I take myself way too seriously

While other folks like him and him were out having one sort of fun this weekend ... I was sort of doing the opposite.

Not that my weekend wasn't fun. But I long ago decided that I take myself way too seriously to ever seriously consider heading to Fontana in January. Seriously. My idea of fun is just ... more serious, I guess.

So instead, I spent all day Saturday at REI, at an excellent presentation by the head honcho of this outfit, learning about trails. I've been through a few other trail seminars put on by these folks and others, but if you've ever met Woody, then you know Saturday's presentation was, well, different. In a most excellent way. Woody literally invented some of the trail features we take for granted, here in the mountains and even around the world, and it's not like him to pull punches when he has an opinion. It was a great refresher, a whole lot of photographs, and a serious helping of trail theory. If you're going to skip riding on a 50-degree day in January, you might as well make it worthwhile ...

Sunday was a bit more serious. It's been a long time since I got out for a long ride, what with travel, exploding derailleurs, and family commitments, so Sunday I skipped the trail work day and headed up instead. I felt a little guilty, but I also know I'll have my fair share of turning dirt this year ... besides, a guy's got to ride sometime, right?

I took my time on the Legends Loop -- not that I was lollygagging, but with soft-ish conditions up high and a distinct lack of motivation whenever the gravel turned up, I wasn't rushing things either. It was fun -- I took the Siren out long for the first time in a while, and was pretty psyched to enjoy a newfound confidence in the technical sections despite the noted lack of squish. In fact, I rather enjoyed it -- the shorter wheelbase and tighter pivot of the Siren made some of the switchbacks on Pilot more navigable than what I've gotten used to on the Spearfish.

It was good to get the volume, I wasn't totally smashed, and by the end of Laurel Creek I was enjoying myself a lot more than I had at the beginning of 1206. My head still isn't quite in the game, and returning home to an incredible battle of wills was kind of tough -- I need to train to race, but it's getting less and less fair to Kim as she deals with the increasing willpower and assertion that comes with a 3-year-old. Thankfully both kids were down and out by 7, and we're starting to see hope for sleeping through the night. That said, waking at 5:30 this morning to two screaming Mimis was a bit of overkill ...


20 January 2012

This one's for Dicky

Godspeed, my friend. Not many folks can lay claim to 14 years (and 3 weeks) as a messenger. Hell, Kevin Bacon only lasted a couple of months.

By the way, pants are overrated.

17 January 2012

Best-kept "secrets"

When I first started riding, I remember hearing about Tsali, the trail system outside of Bryson City, North Carolina, nestled just this side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the shores of Fontana Lake. "For a hot minute," as they say around here, Tsali (and with a bit of a stretch, Asheville and the Pisgah National Forest) was mentioned in the same breath as Moab, Big Bear/Canaan and Whistler as must-do mountain bike destinations.

But then something happened. Or rather, multiple somethings. This was a bit more than a decade ago, and while places like Moab and Whistler, along with upstarts like Park City and Tahoe, heavily invested in their summertime "active tourism" infrastructure to bolster their struggling economies, Western North Carolina lagged behind. To be fair, as much as I like Tsali, it's fairly limited in its trail geography. And downtown Bryson City is no Moab. But with not so much imagination, the French Broad River basin, including Asheville, Hendersonville, Brevard and even extended to include Tsali and Boone, sure could have done more with itself, rivaling a place like Whistler as a "I-must-go-there-before-I-die" Mecca for mountain biking.

Instead, the area has languished in relative obscurity. It became a "secret" destination. Now, those "in the know," know what's what. Some of the best riders in the country -- and the world -- sing this area's praises. The Pisgah Ranger District is one of the most visited Districts in the U.S. Forest Service system. The DuPont tract was recently named North Carolina's first-ever State Recreation Forest. Heck, I even remember the first time I heard of Pisgah, following along on Ronsta's blog as he posted a photo of himself, chest-deep with his bike held above his head, fording South Mills River in what I now know is Turkeypen.

But locals here are funny. Mountain folk aren't given to easily part with their secret stash of singletrack. City and county governments have been slow to embrace the lifestyle. It's been less than a decade since the factories closed, and it's taken this long for them to realize the economic potential of active tourism -- and even slower to embrace each other for truly regional planning. (In fact, I would argue they're still behind the 8-ball in a lot of ways -- if you're Asheville and Buncombe County, it's too easy to rest on the influx of blue-hair tourism dollars that accompany being the location of the most massive private home in the country.) The riding is not always visitor-friendly, and can be pretty "epic" in the overused form of the word. And long-time locals here, not of the mountain biking variety, can be loathe to hoards of stinky, baggy-clad, sometimes bearded nature-lovers taking up space in "their" towns.

Thankfully, things are changing. While the name Transylvania County may conjure up images of caped, fang-tooth monsters lurking in every wooded cove, it is instead home to literally hundreds of waterfalls and the charming city of Brevard, gateway to the Pisgah National Forest. The powers-that-be saw fit to do an economic impact study a short while back, and what they found was pretty incredible: Active tourism far exceeded their expectations, and was a key driver in their economy. This built on and gave urgency to a number of projects that were already underway, and moved City and County leaders to focus their energies on attracting even more dollars, with advertisements in mountain-bike-focused magazines like BIKE.

In fact, BIKE chose to base their 2012 "Bible of Bike Tests" in and around Brevard. Over the course of two packed-agenda weeks last autumn, a crew of wreckers hit the trails at DuPont, Pisgah and Beech Mountain (Boone), riding this year's whips in back-to-back runs on some of the most fun trails we have. Admittedly, even Ridgeline will get "boring" after the 15th time in a row, so they also headed deep into the Forest for a session on Farlow Gap; which, afterward, one of the testers said to me that night at dinner with a reverent tone, "is really world-class, mate."

That issue has now hit the newstands, and last Friday the County held a "coming out" party of sorts. By all accounts, mountain biking was represented -- but mountain bikers weren't the only ones excited by the exposure. The very next day, this past Saturday, was also the first volunteer day on the Bracken Mountain Trail -- which, when completed, will literally link downtown Brevard with "Big Pisgah" on a ribbon of widetrack that will be anything but a "paved" multi-use path. I was there on the work crew, with its diversity of volunteers (mountain bikers, hikers, others), and am more excited than ever to do a big loop, now that I've seen the views and what an awesome trail layout it's going to be.

In fact, after the work day, I headed over to the Fish Hatchery to ride the other side of the mountain, and discovered another "secret" gem: Forest Road 475C, which will link the City with the Forest, was one of the most breathtaking rides I've done in a long, long time. At one point, just 15 minutes up from the Hatchery, you hit a bend that offers an incredible view of John Rock on one side and Looking Glass Rock on the other, with the Forest spread out around you, rising to the peak at Pilot Rock above Farlow. Forty or so minutes later, I topped out in an almost Alpine setting, alone for all the world just below Catpen Gap, in a clearing with an old fire pit and a goat-trail connection to the Art Loeb. The ride was double-track, but was double-track a la Pisgah ... which, if you know what I mean, is worth every ounce of sweat you've got.

I'm proud to call this area my home. I'm excited that the Southeast arm of IMBA, known as SORBA, is working hard in the region to push forward a pro-mountain biking agenda with local and national land managers. I'm doing my part on behalf of Cane Creek, SORBA and myself to work with local politicians and business owners to realize the potential of the resources we have at hand. I'm psyched that our little part of the Appalachians is once again being recognized for what it is: One of the best places in the world to ride a mountain bike. We have our challenges ahead of us, to be sure, and opportunities will be hard to come by in some respects. But we also have a new/old group of leaders putting in the work and rebuilding bridges that have been burned, a renewed sense of purpose, and momentum. It's no secret anymore, we've paddled out and grabbed the wave, and now it's time to stand up and start ripping.

It's gonna' be an awesome ride.

09 January 2012

Happy birthday Tinkerbell!

Dear Kate:

Today is a special day. Today is one of those days that you want to remember forever. Today is one of those days that fill your heart with so much love, you feel like you're going to burst. Today is one of those days that makes being a parent the single best thing in the whole wide world.

See, today is Tinkerbell's birthday.

Now, I know that in about 10 or 11 years, you'll probably be a little embarrassed by this. I hope that 15 or 20 years after that, though, you'll instead appreciate it, and maybe pass along an experience like this to your children. My Grandpa and my Dad did for me once -- Santa left ashy footprints through the living room on Christmas morning, a single moment that will live with me for the rest of my life.

And today -- TODAY! -- is another one of those moments.

It all started a little more than a week ago, right after we got back from the holidays. You've been on quite the "Peter Pan" kick lately -- I'm not a bit surprised, considering that we started reading you Peter and Wendy before you were even born. Somehow, though, your love of all things Peter and Wendy and John and Michael became a fascination with Tinkerbell's birthday, which you insisted was 10 days away. We were getting you ready for bed, and we pulled out the calendar to make sure we knew exactly when it was, setting the date in our minds. We even checked it a few more times, as 10 days became 8, then one week, then just 5 days away.

In the meantime, your brother started day care with you, you prepared to move up to the next class, and we shared the difficult anniversary of your Nana's passing. I kind of forgot about Tink's birthday, but thankfully, your Mom came to the rescue!

While I tackled plumbing projects and nipped out for a quick hike with Mr. Stephen, you and your Mom pulled out an aging gluten-free cookie dough mix and started baking. Only instead of making cookies according to the recipe (your Mom's "following" of recipes is, of course, legendary in the family), Mom pulled out the big, heart-shaped pan that I think was a wedding gift from your Aunt Kari and turned the delicious batter into a massive cookie cake fit for a Fairy. I was lucky enough to get to taste-test a bit before you baked it, and got to see you with batter all over your face from licking off the mixers.

By the time I got home from my hike, the cake was out of the oven and ready for decoration. And you and Mom went all out! You put on every funny candle we have from various birthday cakes, hearts and chickens and tractors and soccer balls, and Mom even spelled out "Happy Birthday Tink!" in green frosting!

We got ready for your dinner -- yummy leftover pizza -- and made sure you ate your pizza and at least a few green beans. We talked about how Tinkerbell is really small, no bigger than your fist, but sometimes -- like in the play we saw -- she becomes big so we can see her. And then we lit the candles!

We dimmed the lights, and it was time to sing! Brother, who was in the bouncy chair behind you, even joined in!

Even better, since we knew Tinkerbell wouldn't get to eat her cake until we were all fast asleep, we got to eat a little bit ourselves. Your green soul patch was pretty cute, and it was a lot of fun to teach you about how chocolate chip cookies go so well with a little milk ...

Once we were done, we cut a little piece to leave for Tink. She's afraid of "big people," of course, and we talked about how she would fly all the way to the house and would be so excited to eat her cake. You insisted -- insisted! -- that we use the Ronald McDonald "Happy Birthday" plate, and your Mom even had to get up from the table to hand wash it. Then we got it all ready, we talked about how Tinkerbell's bed is in her room in Peter's house in Neverland, and it was time for us all to go to sleep.

And then, sometime in the night, Tinkerbell arrived and enjoyed her delicious cake! We were all a little sleepy on this Monday morning, but I was sure not to go into the dining room too early, and saved the big surprise for you. Finally it was time for breakfast, and we turned on the lights and Wow! Tink had been here!

Your face lit up, your eyes sparkled and you smiled a big, beautiful smile. You did that funny thing you do when you get over-excited, where you tense up and kind of shake a little, and talk in this funny deep voice you have in the back of your throat, and you ran from the table to the kitchen and back telling us all that Tinkerbell had been there. Then I drew you in for an even closer look, and we checked out my place mat and the tablecloth, and the few crumbs left on the plate, and what's this? Is this snow all the way from Neverland? No? Why, it's Pixie dust! Tinkerbell left behind a trail of Pixie dust!

And that's the story of Tinkerbell's birthday. We cleaned up the table, ate our breakfast, and you went off to your first day in your new day care class. I think we even marked the day in the calendar so we'd remember it next year. It was a wonderful afternoon and evening leading to a dramatic morning, and your Mom pulled out all the stops to make it happen. And like I said, I know some day this story may be a little embarrassing to you, but I also hope someday you realize that moments like this are special forever, because they are so fleeting, like a trail of powdered-sugar Pixie dust left in the night by a Fairy enjoying her birthday cake.



06 January 2012


Hi Mom --

Wow. It's kind of hard to believe. Tomorrow will be a year. This week has been kind of tough -- Monday was our first day back at work, which coincided with the same date a year ago -- the day I flew back to Chicago. These past few days have been pretty busy with work and other stuff, which has been good; I haven't dwelt too much on what happened last year. Except at night, when it's kind of hard not to.

Daniel started day care yesterday -- I wish you could have seen him. All dressed up in a shirt and a tiny vest that was a gift from Kevin and Jennifer, he looked every bit the little man. He's a happy kid, all smiles and gurgles now. You'd really like him -- he doesn't cry much, only when he's hungry, and spends most of his time smiling, hanging out, or his favorite: snuggling. There's a picture of you holding Kate from the first time you saw her, and I just see you in my mind's eye in the same way with Daniel on your shoulder.

And Kate! Oh my goodness. She is quite the little lady (or "big girl" if you ask her). She was so excited for Daniel to go with her to day care, and next week she starts a new class with her favorite teacher. She definitely has her moments, but she's a great kid, and is so much fun to be around. She smart -- we're going to have our hands full with her. And oh my gosh does she look just like you.

She's fascinated with Peter Pan, and keeps asking me to go to Neverland with her. She's frightened of Captain Hook, but she loves Peter, Wendy, John and Michael, and we listen to the Disney soundtrack every chance we get. It's so cute, when she asks me to hear "Lost Boys jumping on the bed" -- her code for "You Can Fly!" since she saw Wendy, John and Michael jump on the bed in pictures in her book. Or "Awagonza," which is the Indian song. And it was such a relief to me the other day when she announced that "Wendy, John and Michael have a Nana, and I have a Nana too!" I had been sort of afraid she'd somehow associate her Nana with the dog in the story!

We talk about you quite a bit, you know. Sometimes Kate isn't quite sure what to make of it when we talk about Nana in heaven, but other times she asks questions and we have a good conversation about you. For a long while she was really interested in where certain things around the house came from -- who gave us what sort of thing. You came up a lot then -- the easel from last Christmas is a big part of Kate's life, and Kim and I are kind of surprised at some of the other toys that have had staying power. You always did know how to pick 'em.

Kim and I are doing well, and Kim started back at work yesterday. You'd be so proud of her -- she handled a bunch of transition at work this year very well, and isn't it crazy that she's sort of following in your career footsteps? That's one thing that's been quite a void for us both professionally -- we miss being able to pick up the phone and call you when personnel things get difficult. I know I could use the help from time to time.

We've settled in pretty well here in North Carolina, and it was good to see everyone for Christmas this year. It still bothers me that you weren't able to visit us in our new house -- I know you'd really like it. I guess I just want you to have seen for yourself how much it suits us. Waking up in the morning with the sun breaking over the mountains, or watching the sunset on the ridgeline, or exploring through our backyard forest -- it's really where we want to be, and the kids are going to love it growing up. I wish you could have seen for yourself, Kate's golden hair flying out behind her as she glides through the air on her swing that takes her "higher!" It's one of those moments you capture in your head, forever.

I have a feeling tonight will be difficult -- I remember picking Kim and Kate up from the airport a year ago today, going to get dinner, talking on the phone to Amy for a bit, then as we ate dinner the nurse who came rushing in. Dad and everyone had gone home for a shower and change of clothes, and it was just Kim and me. For all the world, I thought the nurse was coming in for the other family that was there with us in the waiting room; I'm not sure I'll ever get over hearing her say "Strout family. I need the Strout family." in that urgent-but-not-shouting voice that nurses somehow master. It was right about 9 o'clock, and when she told me what was going on, I knew. I just knew. I'm thankful everyone was able to make it back to the hospital quickly and we were together in the following difficult hours, but I also believe it happened that way for a reason, and it was meant to be me there for you, like you had been for me so many times before. I'm thankful for that too.

Well, in case I haven't said it, you know how much we miss you. Your presence is with us always, we know that, but I know I would love just one more chance to see you smile, pick on Dad for something or other, or hear you say, "Well, Miss Kate!" in that way you always did. I've been writing on my blog a fair bit about you, and the stuff I've been going through -- I hope it brings some measure of comfort not only to everyone who knew you, but to other friends who are going through loss themselves. I know you always wanted us to help others, and I hope I'm doing so. Thanks for always providing such a good example of that.

Miss you.