Eating Spiders and Other Things They Don’t Tell You About Mountain Biking
This is an example of a descriptive essay
My first bike was a metallic orange Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat. I loved that bike. It wasn’t fancy—one speed and coaster brakes. But, I could pedal like the devil and soon learned that the faster I went over the former cornrows that made up our grassy yard, the less I felt them. In mountain biking, it’s called floating. It’s how riders get over baby’s heads without falling over (baby’s heads are rocks about the size of a…baby’s head.) It was the best bike, ever.
I’ve owned lots of bikes, and my current bike is the same age as me—a 1967 Schwinn Typhoon that I have modified with some modern parts like a new crank, pedals, and a two-speed rear hub. Over the years, I have owned three Gary Fisher hardtails—two Supercalibres and a Wahoo, two Trek full suspension bikes—one Liquid 10 and an LX 10, a Rhodes car-bike, a Columbia Skyrider, and my current Schwinn Typhoon. Currently, I want an Elgin bike from the 1950s whose design is inspired by the spaceship era.
I love mountain biking, and I wish I could still do it—arthritis is the cruel reality of getting older. However, I learned a lot on the back of that mountain bike. A lot of things about myself and about physics like floating. I’ve ridden down flights of concrete stairs, climbed near-vertical moraines, dropped down into kettles full of thorns and poison ivy, squeezed through narrow openings barely wider than my handlebars, and climbed rock steps worn by rain and covered by root. When I lived in Madison, I road right in with traffic, traveling 30 to 40 miles per hour drafting too close. I rode my bike across a frozen but clear Lake Monona from the end of Lakeside Street to the frontage road on its Westside. However, there are things I had to learn about mountain biking that no one ever told me, but I wish I knew.
No matter how hard you try, you’re going to fall. In fact, it got to the point where if I didn’t fall, I was disappointed because it meant that I wasn’t pushing myself. Once, I almost fell twenty feet off of a ledge but had managed to bear hug a tree while my bike dangled beneath me still clipped to my feet. The bark had pulled up my shirt and ground a good deal of skin off: also known as road rash. When it happened, it didn’t hurt because I was too focused on not falling 20 feet, but once I heaved the bike back onto the trail and got my balance, sweat started to drip down, and it stung like well salt in an open wound because it was salt in an open wound.
My worst fall was five feet down into a thorn bush, actually, it was a thorn tree: Crataegus mollis to be precise. Its more common name is the Downy hawthorn. As a tree, it can get quite large up to 72 feet tall; however, this one was small because it was growing in a highly shaded area: a drainage culvert in the middle of the woods. It grows what look to be small red crab apples, and its bark is deep dark brown and flaky. The thorns are actually branches that have evolved into a point. So, its thorns are long and spikey but not as dense as other thorn bushes.
I ended up with about 20 to 30 thorns in my back, side, and arms. The back and side happened with the initial hit, but the arms were much worse. They happened as I cautiously tried to squirm off of the bush. It was like getting stabbed with a dull sowing needle. Luckily, the thorns couldn’t go through my biking gloves. The ones on my side penetrated about an inch in and then broke off. The ones on my back didn’t go in quite as deep and once I was off the tree, I was able to pull a few out that were partially stuck in both my back and my shirt by taking it off. The initial hit was quick like tearing off a band-aid, but painful because thorns have jagged surfaces, designed by evolution to maximize pain so that animals remember to stay away. However, once through the skin, it didn’t matter how deep they went, the pain was the same. Once home, my wife was able to get about ten out, but the rest eventually worked their way out over the next couple of weeks. They would literally have to fester their way out through swelling, inflammation, and fluid.
I used to ride year-round in Wisconsin. The cold is invasive, especially in sub-zero temperatures. It causes the eyes to water and freeze, closing your eyes melts the ice, but the massive temperature change feels like burning. Wet hair freezes. Your lungs, if unprotected, become inflamed by the sudden chill, and your cough is now a hacking honk. The problem with covering your mouth is that the steam from your breath flies into your glasses, if you have them, thus obscuring your view.
The coldest part of the body is your feet. They end up numb no matter how many wool neoprene socks or combination of socks you put on. You would think that your feet being numb would mean that you don’t feel anything, but that’s not how it works. Because your foot isn’t actually numb, you’ve simply decreased the activity of the nerves in your foot. The cold is harmful, so your body still tells you that something is wrong with nagging aching cold. It’s very much like arthritis pain in its insidiousness. I remember sliding down an ice hill in the Kettle Moraine, covered in mud, freezing cold, and numb: feet, butt, stomach, arms, and in a moment of clarity wondered what the hell I was doing. I picked up my bike and then crawled, slid, and hobbled my way out. But the cold isn’t the worst of it.
The worst of it is spiders. Eating spiders to be more precise. Imagine this, you’re riding your bike through the woods, minding your own business when all of a sudden, a spider’s web is in your face. Because you’re startled, you breathe in suddenly. And the next thing you feel on the back of your throat is the wriggling body of a spider: a common black spider. That’s right you can feel its tiny hairy legs kicking. An impression that will never leave your memories. You cough. Spit. Cough some more. Gag. Try to hack it up. Try to stick your finger down your throat and scrape it out, hoping to even puke it out. Nothing. So, you do what must be done. You take a giant swig of water and, yes, wash it down. Now repeat that ten more times. The only difference between the first time and the last time is how quickly you’ve learned to just drink it down. And it’s not just spiders that I’ve had to drink down. I’ve had to drink down several flies and a couple of dozen gnats. But nothing embeds itself into your memories quite like a spider.
Mountain biking was great fun. But there were some things that just weren’t. Eventually, I learned to avoid the cold, the spiders, but never the falling. Falling is a part of life; it’s best to learn how to get back up quickly than to pretend that you’ll never fall.