We call this ride “the Pond”, but the town’s disused pond has nothing to do with the ride. It’s just the reason for the parking lot. The pond itself is an old sand pit that sits at the edge of a big chunk of wooded land trust property which is woven with trails. A few of the trails were built by mountain bikers, but not many. The others range from hiking trails to an abandoned rail bed to carriage roads climbing the side of a mountain that have suffered from 200 years of erosion.
The guys I ride with who’ve been riding since Gary Fisher first built mountain bikes tell me this is old-school New England mountain biking. Not many people ride here. There isn’t much “Weee!” It’s not flowy. There are no berms, no tables, no jumps. There are roots though. And rocks. Hills and valleys. Tight spots between trees. Stream crossings with bottoms that manage to be both rocky and muddy. It’s icy in the winter. In the summer, it’s so humid that the rocks are often slick even if it hasn’t rained. Stopping to wipe away sweat brings clouds of gnats that would inspire Steven King.
It’s also beautiful. The Shepaug River threads through its middle. Hardwood and hemlock forests dominate. There are laurel thickets that coat the trails with flower petals in the spring and hay fields that smell just like summer. There are eagles and owls and bear and bobcats. If you know where to look, you can find charcoal mounds from when colliers burned cordwood to make charcoal for the iron furnaces a century and a half ago
On weekends, it’s one of the most popular hiking spots in a town known for its hiking. But apart from the easy bits near the trail heads, most people don’t penetrate to the remote areas our bikes take us to. You see more tire tracks than boot prints, and I doubt more than two dozen people ride here regularly.
You ride a dirt road for a quarter mile from the parking lot to the trail. The entrance is swoopy with a fun little descent. At the bottom, you turn ninety degrees left into a rock garden that’s only not muddy in dead summer. Another descent takes you to the bottom of one of the folds in the land where you bump over rocks and hemlock roots before the first lung-burning climb. There is a reward – a fast downhill that doesn’t provide quite enough time to catch your breath before the next lung-burner.
I never ride the Pond expecting to clean everything. All I hope for is to do a little better than before, to get up one or two of the stupidly steep hills, make it up the bank on the far side of the deep stream crossing, or maybe, finally, pop both my wheels over the big rock on the climb through the laurels.
I know I’ll do something dumb almost every time. Yesterday, after cleaning the rocks on a gnarly little hill, a pedal strike on the easy section at the top directed my bike’s front tire into a tree and stopped me dead.
You have to laugh at this stuff.
There’s always just a tinge of dread in my soul when I start a ride at the Pond. I know the next hour and a half will sear my lungs and make my heart beat so hard I’ll feel like puking. I know my legs will hurt and there will be scrapes and bruises.
At the end though, as we ride the dirt road back to the parking lot, it feels like we did something worthwhile. We’ll put our bikes on our vehicles, maybe change into dry or warm clothes, and set up camp chairs. We’ll crack a beer or two and talk about the ride, the land, other riders’ feats on these trails. We’ll talk about John closing the shop and all the New Yorkers that Covid has brought to our hills.
Sometimes we’ll even talk about our lives, a topic whose significance isn’t lost on those of us who are old enough to realize we’re closer to the ends of those lives than to their beginnings. And that, maybe, is a key to the Pond. Like Norman MacClean makes clear in the ending paragraphs of A River Runs Through It, ease is not life affirming. The perfect ride is not achievable. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the effort, something the Pond demands.