Ortega agony

Post San Juan Trail rideThere’s a trail less than fifteen miles east of Interstate 5 that I consider epic. Just down Highway 74, it’s twenty miles of out-and-back (or rather, up and down) that commands stamina, concentration, split second reaction time, and plenty of guts. The summer months bring temperatures well into the hundreds that have baked my brain more than once in even the earliest morning hours. The switchbacks are razor sharp, the single track rutted, the uphills gnarly and the downhills worse. Scrub brush and sage press in from all sides, tunneling vision and choking lungs. This trail is a man killer. It washes out front tires and catapults bodies down shale valleys. It scratches, tears, punctures, bloodies, smashes, and mashes flesh, bone, and steel.

It’s the San Juan Trail on Ortega Mountain, and today it kicked my ass.

I’ve been trying to ride more lately. Inspired by a great ride out at Calavera Lake last week with my buddy Justin, I sold him my Specialized S-Works M4 and promptly returned to my roots on a fully rigid frame. It was awesome. We felt good, and even talked about riding Ortega some weekend before my departure to Iraq in late March. I never expected it to be this weekend but hey, shit happens.

Justin and I aren’t in the riding shape we used to be. Deployments and injuries have taken their tolls. I was admittedly nervous during the forty-five minute drive to the trail head. Justin shared the same concerns. The San Juan Trail is unforgiving. We’d learned as much from rides done almost five years ago, before MSG, when a miscalculation left our water bottles dry with over seven miles to the next source. Seven miles is a long way, uphill. We eventually made the top, dehydrated as we were, refilled and headed back down. But the delay has cost us dearly. We were forced to cover the last three miles, all extremely technical switchbacks, in the dark. The moon cast perception altering shadows across the trail as Justin and I picked our way carefully downward, back and forth, back and forth. Despite our caution, fatigue and eye strain cost us dearly. Wrecks were many. Our traditional, post ride meal at Denny’s was eaten in reflective silence, knowing full well we were lucky to have made it out in the conditions we did.

We had our doubts about this ride. It was early afternoon, less than three hours of daylight left, and I knew from the moment we pedaled off we couldn’t make the time line. Our ride went as follows:

  • mile 0.6 – Justin falls off the trail, to the downhill side, for the first time. I chuckle at his ineptitude, pull him from the shrubs, and we press on.
  • mile 0.8 – We come across a man whose dog has passed out from exhaustion. The full impact of what we’re getting ourselves into hasn’t sunk in yet.
  • mile 1.2 – Another man, dressed in blue coveralls and a cycling cap, loses control as he passes me and pitches headfirst off the trail and down the hill. Minutes after his recovery, Justin follows suit and falls off the trail again. My sides ache from laughter.
  • mile 1.7 – I bonk. Bile rises in my throat as I realize, to my utter horror, I have no granola bars and have only eaten cereal for the day. My stomach hurts not from laughter, but from vomit. I express my condition, Justin returns laughter, and we press on.
  • mile 2.1 – Justin eats shit on a nasty switchback, bloodying his forearm and left leg. The trail ahead looks worse than I’ve ever seen. I gag and express more concern for our well being. We agree to ride only thirty minutes more to avoid returning in the dark.
  • mile 2.2 – We turn back, citing hunger, trail conditions, malnutrition, and lack of necessary fitness levels as reasons. The downhill run begins.


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  • mile ? – After a hard crank arm to rock impact, its my turn to go face first into the shrubbery. Justin comes to my aid, photographs the event, pulls the chain ring from my ankle and bike from my body, and we press on. I’m less enthused about the ride than ever before.
  • mile ?? – Justin wrecks a couple more times, I think. We’re both worn down in so many different ways that laughter has ceased. Considerations for serious medical attention are taken. Thoughts of never seeing home again surface. We feel like cans of smashed assholes.
  • mile 4.5 – Back at the cars. Feeling no better. Bikes are put up in relative silence. A big meal at Denny’s is all we talk about. Departure.

The mountain won the battle today, but Justin and I are still winning the war. With a bit more training and a bit more daylight, I know we’re gonna make Ortega Mountain our bitch. Because that’s how we roll.

I’m tired. It’s late. And I’ve got duty in the morning. I’m not thinking straight. I’m sure the story will get better with time.

Out.

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The author.Born in the year of the Dragon, the author grudgingly accepts the fact he has too many interests and not enough time. A cyclist as long as he can remember, an avid yet inconsistent writer since age eleven, and a U.S. Marine since age twenty-one, the author also adds peak bagging, diving, snowboarding, and computers to his list of interests. Incidentally, he is aware of his inability to make a living from any but the Corps. The author accepts this as fact and remains optimistic. Feel free to drop him a line.

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