Message in a Bottle

By Beacon Staff

I’ve just discovered the Tally Lake Ranger District and I’ve been going on long (for me) solo mountain bike rides in recent weekends. The rides provide me the mental clarity of a visit to the psychiatrist, gym and church in one outing. But an element of preparation for these rides unnerves me.

A headlamp, whistle, cell phone, some food, a pump, spare tire tube, windbreaker, and a Ziploc bag with a map and guidebook: These are the items I stuff into the small backpack that holds my water bladder. A bag under my bike saddle carries additional tools.

And then, once packed and caffeinated, I sit down at my desk and pen a short note. It describes who I am, the route I plan to travel, emergency phone numbers, and the date by which, if a person is reading the note, they should contact the authorities to come looking for me. When I finish writing, I place the note into an envelope to slide under my truck’s windshield wiper before heading up the trail.

Writing these notes is like putting a message in a bottle and chucking it into the sea: I don’t know who will read it but hope they can help me if necessary. And I hope I don’t. But it gives me that disconcerting twinge of danger in my stomach. I can’t help but imagine a ranger or road worker finding the note a day or two after I wrote it, with me somewhere 12 miles into the forest wrapped around a pine.

The fears evaporate the farther I get into the forest, and I ride the downhills cautiously, rarely opening up and bombing anything. It would be a different story if I was with a friend or knew the trails better. But the payoffs of a solo ride are substantial: to take a break when I want, to ride at my own pace, to think about work and then, blissfully, not think about work.

The rides wouldn’t be possible without the excellent guidebook written by Michael Meador and Lee Stanley sold at Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish. Consulting the book and map frequently, I’ve been able to enjoy some of the most spectacular loops I’ve ever ridden.

Last week, descending Ashley Mountain, I heard a hawk screech close by and I stopped, waiting. At eye level, it perched on a branch 30 feet away, down the slope. It called once more before launching out beneath me with the valley floor far below. It swooped straight up, then tucked its wings and dove like a stone out of sight.

Shortly after witnessing nature’s majesty, while traversing a slope I tipped off the trail and fell on my ass, sprawled in the dirt and tangled in the bike, with one of my cleats refusing to disengage from the pedal.

But by the time I arrived back at the truck the fall was forgotten and the hawk was not. The last thing I did before driving home was to pull the envelope out from under the wiper and throw it on the passenger side floor mat, unread.

I’ll write it again this weekend.

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