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  • Writer's pictureMike Walters

A Smokey Dimension

Within minutes of starting another recent mountain bike ride, I felt a sense of foreboding. Smoke filled the air all around with visibility of less than one-hundred feet. The glow from the sun, trying to penetrate the dense forest-fire filled air from the burning Pacific Northwest, was an eerie and burning orange. Everything looked different on a trail I’ve ridden over four dozen times in the last several years. There were more squirrels and chipmunks, birds, normally quiet and distant, chirped with what seemed like a warning. Dozens of new trees seemed to have recently fallen and littered the floor of the outdoors; normal in the heavy-snow winters, but not for late summer. Trees that had fallen long ago seemed to be in unorthodox new positions, as if something picked the entire forest up and shook it about like an Etch-a-Sketch.

Moving up the latest rise of the trail, I downshifted as I crested the path. Something flashed to my right — I couldn’t help but take notice. Looking back, there were only twigs, plants, and a hard-packed trail. Thankful I remembered to put my knife into my right pant pocket, I wondered if I were being shadowed by a Mountain Lion — an exhilarating occurrence that happened before. I, in less than twenty cranks of my pedals, determined this not to be the issue today, though — the feeling wasn’t right.

Zipping along in the cadence and rhythm of another heart-pounding free-flowing ride, I pedaled on—my eyes focused on the trail lined with lava fields on both sides.

Moving eastward, I glanced left, disappointed over not being able to see Mt. McLoughlin hidden in dense smoke. Continuing to feel peculiar about the ride, contemplating turning around and heading back to the parked SUV, I pressed on, wondering about the universe and the greater presence of the world surrounding me. The world seemed to envelop me as if it wanted to transport me somewhere else. The feeling was strange and overpowering without being frightening.

Descending fast, with a well-known switchback on the trail ahead, I pulsed the brakes and slowed, moved through the corner with ease, and then pressed hard on the pedals, accelerating to my desired speed again.

My body felt weightless, the pedal strokes effortless. Mentally hovering between reality and

another dimension, I felt as though I could easily be somewhere other than our known dimension. I noticed more trees out of place. My mind spoke to me, telling me I might ride into an unfamiliar experience, free of the restraints of any anxiety or stress, if I continued to ride forward. To where, though? Who am I? What am I doing? Am I alone? Questions, with no

answers, raced through my mind quicker than my legs, forcing my feet against the pedals.

The bike glided through the forest, and I lifted my ass and pulled upward on the handlebars as the tires left the earth. In less than a second, my ass back in the saddle, my mind commanded my legs to pump harder; I sped up. The granite trail, still bordered with waist-deep lava, turned into clay packed dirt littered with pine needles and random pinecones. Squirrels disappeared because of the jagged lava. I heard birds but couldn’t see them. The forest light—a unique and new experience. I kept thinking the same questioning thoughts over and over. Repetition of the inquisitive, unknown searching for answers and truth.

Reaching my ride’s normal turning point, I stopped and put a foot on a stump, steadying myself on the bike. I slid my waist pouch around to the front of my body and unzipped it to access my phone. Starting the camera app, I took a photo of an orange smoke-filled trail. Returning the phone to my jersey pocket, I took several long pulls of water from the hydration pack strapped to my back over shoulder straps. The pack restrained any air flow, creating a sweat-drenched back. I contemplated removing sunglasses that were not needed from the lack of normal intense rays choked off from the smoke. Not wanting to get a bug in the eye, I left the glasses alone and pushed downward on the pedals to expedite my return. Contemplating if my locked SUV would be where I parked it when I got back because I indeed rode into another time and space, I put more focus than normal on speed. The strangeness of the day would not let me put aside doubts of uneasiness.

Pushing hard, continuing at a worry-driven frantic pace, I powered the bike back in the lava fields within minutes. Cresting an abrupt rise to the trail’s plateau, I watched as a piece of lava the size of a microwave somehow appeared in the middle of the trail. The heavy ash-gray object moved. As if caught unexpectedly in the middle of the trail, it morphed or reappeared at the side of the trail, where my mind said it should be. I slowed my pace. Afraid to stop, I checked the width of the trail, and then peered over my left shoulder, staring at the rock; I, of course, questioned what I saw. Rocks don’t move without help. Did it move? Am I losing my grip on reality?

Today, inside a forest filled with smoke, the universe seemed upside down. Alone on the trail, reality all but evasive, I slogged on, wondering what would be next.

The familiar noise of crushed granite beneath the tires soothed my mind—at last something normal today. I pushed the pedals and stood off the saddle as I cornered my way through Douglas fir and pine trees lining the trails. The lava fields behind me for today’s ride, I approached one of my favorite corners on the trail. A slight downward speed-gathering slope at least a hundred feet long. An s-shaped pattern lined with massif fir trees that beckoned precision at the pace I always tried to carry. Today was no different despite the poor visibility. The trick, slowing right before exiting the s-curve. Carry too much speed between two enormous fir trees and I wouldn’t give myself enough room to brake and make the required turn to the left without plowing into a smaller pine tree that sat at the edge of the trail waiting to trick inexperienced trail virgins. Feathering the front brake lever, I leaned the bike left; I felt my shoulder breeze by the unwavering fir on the left, my handlebar, and head within inches of the bark. The momentum of the bike coming out of the corner carried her upright as my fingers released the brake lever and focused on gaining speed as I flew by the sneaky little pine. Ahead, on the trail, a smokey image appeared, watching me. The apparition seemed to be intent on my progress and station. Then, wishing I had left my glasses off, it disappeared faster than my eyes could blink. I shook my head to clear my mind’s fog.

With less than two and a half miles back to the car and the silliness of a moving rock several miles behind me, and a ghost-image already dozens of feet behind, I feathered the brakes through another corner. Trying to relax into the ride, despite the lingering smoke, I cannot shake the feeling of being stuck somewhere between this world, and, well, somewhere else. A normal day’s ride eluded me. Not until I sat behind the wheel of my vehicle and turned the sound system on to the soothing sounds of my favorites did my conscience return to any sense of normalcy. As I listened to the meaningless lyrics of one song after another, regret wanted to creep into my mind? Did I just destroy an opportunity to ride into the vortex? Easing the bike off the dirt-packed trail, relief washed over me at the site of my vehicle parked on the side of the road. It waited to take me back to my safe and comfortable, familiar complacency.

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