Two Years and Two Days

Two years and two days ago, a dumb maneuver on my mountain bike left me with a torn ACL. I had no idea how that moment would ripple through my life.

Forget cycling – Immediately, I was out of my job as a carpenter. I couldn’t walk, never mind climb ladders. It was a month before I was able to hobble around the jobsite. That said, I did enjoy sitting on my porch and reading for a couple of weeks. Not being able to afford food was troubling though…

Diligence with PT had me walking well and working by August, but I couldn’t see how I’d ever get back to normal without surgery. That was planned for September, and then pushed back to October by the insurance company (I’m still not sure why – Perhaps they hoped I might die in the interim and save them the money?) I knew the surgery would have me on my ass for a month, and I needed a revenue stream. A chance encounter with an old colleague led me into a pile of writing work for This Old House’s website. I reached out to Fine Homebuilding and landed even more writing work.

The surgery went well, and the PT went even better. It wasn’t long before the therapists recognized me as a patient they could challenge, and I actually came to enjoy the sessions.

I was healing, and being a professional writer would have made my mother proud. But the money from writing didn’t wholly replace what I’d been making as a carpenter. By January I’d been out of work for two months. I was able to go back, but the company I’d been with didn’t seem to need me.

Wondering what my next move was, I asked an old friend who had a remodeling business if knew of anyone looking for a lead carpenter. It turned out that he was, but that the better solution was to become partners.

And here we are. Two years and two days later, I’m almost back to my pre-ACL-tear mountain biking abilities. The remaining disability is in my head, not my knee. I’m delighted with my working situation. And I’m still writing for Fine Homebuilding (I’m a contributing editor there now – an honorarium mainly).

Tearing my ACL led to a series of events that improved my life.

Who knew?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Riding Alone

I’ve been mostly riding alone lately. That used to seem unwise, but then Chris said, “You’re no more likely to get hurt alone. And if you do, someone will be along soon anyway.”

Those liberating words stuck with me.

Yesterday I rode with a group for the first time in a month, three guys I know and like. My fitness and abilities are nearly back to where they had been two years ago, and I could keep up.


Bridges and boardwalks still skeeve me out. After tearing my ACL coming off a skinny, approaching anything that adds an element of elevation to the equation gives me pause. Rockhouse, where we rode, is loaded with bridges. I don’t have a big problem with the ones that are 2 ft. wide or more, but anything narrower scares the shit out of me, especially if the approach isn’t smooth as a baby’s ass.

So, I walked a lot of bridges yesterday.

And the group ended up waiting for me a lot, something I don’t like inflicting on others.

I’m thinking I need to get to Rockhouse alone and face my fears.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I Rode it Out

My youth imprinted upon me that I was not an athlete. Until the last year or two of high school I was the fat kid who was last to be picked for teams. The after-school sports I did try were embarrassing miseries. That changed somewhat around my junior year when a growth spurt combined with a summer of physical labor to thin me out and make me stronger. In gym class, being tall let me spike a volleyball, and in the spring I found that I could tear the leather off a softball. The first time I sent one over the left-fielder’s head both the opposing team and I stood dumbfounded while my teammates yelled, “Run!”

Crossing the plate once my legs did move was my favorite moment in four years at Belvidere High School. I had stolen the jock’s lightning and it felt good. Forty two years later, thinking about it still feels good.

Yesterday I mountain-biked. There’s a rock on a climb on the Blue Trail I’ve never cleaned in 5 years of mountain biking (4 years if you discount the year lost to a torn ACL). The previous time on that trail, I saw the line I’d always missed. Yesterday I rode that line and it was easy.

After that I bobbled a rock garden I’ve cleaned many times.

You just don’t know on an mtb.

Then came the stream crossing before the meadow. You’re riding through a hemlock wood along an old farm road when you come to it. The stream itself is nothing – Shallow and maybe 6 ft. wide. But before the stream is a 3 ft. drop. The climb out isn’t as steep, but it’s rooty and steep enough. Like the rock on Blue, I’d never cleaned it. I’d always taken the safer-looking, more gradual line and my wet tire always spun out on the roots. Yesterday, I hit if fast and I hit the steep part of the drop.

After the splash, I barely had to turn my cranks before passing the crux of the move, whooping with joy.

After 5 years of failure, success was easy.

There were little moments, too. On several rocky climbs I let the front wheel get too light and ended up in the weeds. My reptile brain said, “Put a foot down,” but the mammal brain more loudly said, “Pedal!”

I pedaled.

I rode out.

I grunted out, “Yeah!”

And that’s why I do it. That’s why I ride hard places. That’s why I push to overcome the fear that remains from tearing my ACL.

It’s like hitting that softball. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does there’s no greater feeling.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not About Cycling

I have worked on and off as an editor at Fine Homebuilding magazine for many years, and was a reader from the first issue back in 1981. I still contribute to the magazine regularly and I’m ineffably grateful for the opportunity. It changed the course of my life, from where I live to the work I do to the friends I’ve made. When I was a young man struggling to learn the trade, and then to build a home for my family, I found a brotherhood of craft in the pages of the magazine that didn’t exist on the tract-home sites where I worked. As I became a part of Fine Homebuilding and met its editors and writers, it became clear that that community was real.

The magazine has evolved, of course, and I was a part of that. The early issues’ zeitgeist has changed over time. In the day, the stories in the magazine elevated the romantic side of building. There was a sense that building one’s own home, not just by writing checks, but by grit, by sweating, bleeding, and dripping snot, was a high-level expression of being human.

That sense seems largely gone from the magazine, for reasons good and bad. Mainly, I think that the world has moved on from those back-to-the-land hippy days when Fine Homebuilding occasionally published essays about the struggles involved in making your own shelter. To survive, the magazine had to change, to focus on high-end construction, cutting-edge design, and green building.

The early zeitgeist still exists within a certain community, however, if less so in the magazine. I miss that, but again, the world has changed. Home building was simpler In the early 1980s than it is today. A talented, enthusiastic layman could buy a piece of land then and craft a house.

I grew up among people like that. More than a few of us built our own homes. That drive seems rare today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


In an email exchange with some friends, I mentioned that I’d taken my first swim of the season in the Shepaug. There’s a little hole at a bend in the river. The water is slow and deep and all you see is river, trees, or sky. All you smell is that wonderful river smell. All you hear is the water and the wind and the birds. You feel more though – The coarse sand, the give of tree roots serving as ladder rungs down the eroded bank, the hard slipperiness of algae-covered round rocks, and then the cool of the water enveloping your body. The existence of a path tells that others have gone there, but I’ve never seen anyone else. I won’t say where it is because I like that it’s just me and ghosts.

My friend Strother responded with a link to an article from The Atlantic on wild swimming.

I didn’t know wild swimming was a thing. I grew up doing it. In the small pond in my backyard where we also caught frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. In the big pond up the road with its big bass. In Beaver Brook, the Pequest River, and the Delaware. Van Campen’s Glen, Sunfish Pond, the Muskonetcong River. Later on, in our late teens and early 20s, we made my buddy’s farm pond into a private resort. We bought a truckload of beach sand. We built stairs to the water. We floated a raft. All so we could skinny-dip.

Sure, I also swam at the town pool where I had official swimming lessons. And in the lake up the road where there were two sandy beaches and lifeguards and in my neighbor’s pool once they built it. But none of those places ever were the fun of swimming in a wild place. From when I was about ten years old, on summer days we’d bum a ride upstream and put our truck-tire inner-tubes into the water and float down Beaver Brook to the Pequest. We’d pass through forests and farm fields, lulled by the sun and hum of Farmalls. Long strands of green eel grass waved in the water below ancient eel weirs. Crawdads skedaddled. We scraped our shins bouncing off rocks, rode through riffles, got sunburnt, and rubbed our skin raw where the bottoms of our arms bore on the inner tubes as we paddled. We’d pull out at the small dam where the Brothers of the Sacred Heart monastery had a mini-hydro station. The dam stood maybe 5 feet high, and the algae-covered spillway was a terrific sliding board. Once out, we’d carry our tubes like bandoliers a couple of miles up the road to my friend’s house, feet squishing the water from our Keds.

You just don’t get those moments accompanied by the smell of chlorine.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Longest Ride of the Year, So Far

We rode some dirt last week. Joe and I don’t set out to tear each other’s legs off, but by the end of our rides we’ve usually accomplished that goal.

The evening was perfect with some high clouds and blue skies and daylight for the entire 32 miles. There’s a spot under the power lines at Steep Rock where we nearly always stop for a breather. In the summer when it’s humid you can hear the electricity crackling. Last winter, we stopped there in the dark to look at the stars and realized there wasn’t a house-light in sight. Last week it was cool and green and perfect. It’s at the top of a snaky bit of singletrack I’ve written about before. I cleaned it, grunting it out one gear too high. Joe cleaned it, and raved about how his new bike actually let him stay on the line he’d picked.

Near the end of the ride is Old Roxbury Road. It’s one of two usual ways from the center of town back to my house. Both ways involve getting up one short but gnarly hill. One is paved. Old Roxbury is dirt and harder. I nearly always choose Old Roxbury even though by the time we hit its climb our legs are done. Going up Old Roxbury just hurts, but you just keep turning the pedals because it’s only going to stop hurting when you get to the top. You can get off and walk, but that hurts in other ways. There’s a payoff on the backside, though, a twisty, turny, ¾ mile long downhill with one short, steep climb near the end. If you ride a big gear, hammer the pedals, and cut corners, you can hit that climb fast enough that you literally roar with both pain and exhilaration as you crest.

It’s a moment that encapsulates what gravel rides are about.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Did a standard hour’s loop at Waldo last night. As it happened to be a Monday, somewhere north of a dozen CCAP kids were there for a practice ride too. I’d guess their ages ranged from 10 to 17. Hearing them whooping and hollering as they rode the trails was pretty cool!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


At the end of the ride, I blew into the parking lot and got a little air off the pile of gravel left by the snowplow. A woman I got chatting with told me I looked exuberant.

There was a reason for that.

I rode Proud Mary for the first time yesterday. I wanted a real test so I chose the hardest trails within 10 minutes of home because, first, they really are hard, and second, they’ve become an obsession with me this spring. The Orbea was un-named before yesterday’s ride. Near the end of the ride, heart jamming and my soul happy among the leafing-out trees, I named her Proud Mary because she just kept rollin’ through the rock gardens. Credence started running through my head and she was christened just like that. Mary’s big wheels – 29 inchers – rear suspension, and wonderfully slack fork angle get her over rocks like no bike I’ve ever ridden. My average speed at River Road has been trending up, and even with the learning curve of a new bike and sessioning a couple of spots until I got them, yesterday jumped that average from 6.2 mph to 6.4.

Proud Mary is far more capable than her engine.

Climbing? Mary has a dinner-plate on the cassette that gives her low-end gearing like a Cat 955. Three hills in the preserve have pitches that push a 40% grade. I never got up them until yesterday. One I had to attempt twice because muscle memory stopped me the first time at the point where I’d never before been able to get my pedal stroke past TDC. On one memorable ride last year, I hit that point and had trouble unclipping. The bike started rolling backwards, spinning my legs in reverse. That was unsettling. The second time yesterday, I just determined to keep my chest low and my feet spinning and Mary torqued right on up. That’s when I realized that if I can give her the RPMs and the weight distribution, she’ll climb anything. I did need to stop at the top for a minute because, you know, tunnel vision and nausea. Next time though… On the way back I bobbled one hill by being in too low a gear and spinning one foot off its pedal, but that’s just a familiarity thing.

Before the hay field, there’s a stream crossing where the water pools in the bottom of a gully. You’re riding along a grassy old farm road and the ground disappears in front of you, dropping you 3 feet down to splash through 5 feet of 6-inch deep water. On the other side is a steep, rooty bank. I’ve never gotten all the way up that bank, either dead-ending a front wheel on a big root or spinning out a wet back tire. Yesterday I came closer than ever and I know with just a little more speed going in I’ll clean it.

For all of that cross-country capability I expected to sacrifice some nimbleness. Nope. The bike handles with the confidence of Prince’s backup dancers on a rainy Superbowl halftime stage. I think that’s a combination of the full suspension keeping the brandy-new tires firmly grounded. The bike just goes where I look, something I need to brand into my brain.

I feel inspired to ride harder, to work on technique, to get better. Maybe I should have named her Louie instead, because I think this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Great Gravel

Cross Brook Road does go through if you have the gumption to try.

Joe and I rode 26 miles last night. It was mostly gravel roads and, with 2500 feet of climbing, mostly up. It was the first full short-sleeve, two-bottle ride of the year. The weather was perfect and the company great.

To continue my last post on thresholds, I’m definitely past one. Bear Burrow, Booth Road, and West Church are all killer climbs. Each I’m sure pushes a 30% grade in places. With other bikes, it’s been hard to keep the front wheel on the ground. A month ago, each of them had me wanting to puke. Last night, there was no nausea. Last night, there was power to spare. I had the oats to push the pedals harder, to see how fast I could ride the hill instead of just seeing if I could climb the hill.

Climbing West Church in particular was fun. Steepest at the bottom, I geared up after the big turn and rode hard. Breathing heavily, quads burning, I was doing 15 mph uphill near the top.

Yeah, my legs feel like lead this morning, but cycling is fun again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I rode the Pond yesterday, the third or fourth time in as many weeks. Yesterday was with two younger and fitter guys. Strangers I was showing the trails, they kicked my ass in a gentlemanly way. Even though I pushed hard, I’m not in my 30s anymore.

It was good though. I only felt like puking once or twice, and I made it up one pitch for the first time since my surgery. I hit two technical sections that I’d just begun to clean last week as if they were easy. The ride left me hungry for the rest of the day but my legs didn’t feel burnt.

This morning I woke up feeling that feeling that only cycling has ever given me. It comes every so often when I’ve picked up my riding pace. Nothing hurt. The normal aches of middle age weren’t there. I felt lean and strong, aware of the steady beat of my heart.

It’s as if I’m at a threshold. I’m not in my best shape yet, but my body is ready to be pushed. My mind pictures the joyful pain of rising from the saddle to punch out a climb like I couldn’t have done a month ago. It’s a moment I chase, and one to be relished.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment