I started mountain biking in middle school, on my Bridgestone MB5. My friend Adam and I would ride out to Hueston Woods, the only large natural area nearby, and ride on the mountain bike trails that were only then being built. Melding the innate curiosity of childhood with the maturing freedom of parental trust, and legs that could pedal all day, we soon grew tired of the few designated trails and went exploring. I can’t recall the first time I circumnavigated Acton Lake, but I know it was on a bike, and I know that it was the first of many such trips, both on bike and on foot.
The above map is current, as far as my years out of date experience goes. The west shore trail, the many hiking trails up near the marina, an the loops north of the lodge have existed for decades. The mountain bike trails expanded in the late 90s, filling a small space with an impressive density of switchbacks and loops in that quintessentially midwestern fashion. You can go, ride 15 miles, go through every intersection six times without riding any trail more than once in any given direction, and become quite tired and thoroughly lost.
The horse trails have also expanded, and I especially rue the construction of the blue trail on the map above. That stretch from the dam to the lodge was for a long time the most remote part of the park, trodden only by the very occasional birder or morel hunter. And of course a large proportion of the parks whitetails, who made great trails which were very rideable when not muddy, and hid easily from the many visitors only 1/3 of a mile from the road. In high school, years before that trail was built, I brought several fellow cross country runners along. We started from the marina and went counterclockwise. One, with whom I already visited the lake occasionally to kayak in the dark and smoke mushrooms, loved the remote deer trails of the southeast stretch. Another, who went on to Princeton and was already an aggro enough field hockey player that I was scared out of having a crush on her, predictably loved shortcutting the northeastern bay by wading directly across the mudflats (Acton is a reservoir, and was very low that spring). The last, whom I did have a crush on, was thoroughly mortified by being soaked in mud and having her clothes shredded with thorns, and didn’t seem interested in associating with us again. Sorry about that K. I really thought the loop would take 90 minutes, not three hours.
When I was much younger, perhaps 9 or 10, another friend and I undertook an epic journey down the creek behind my house. We stuffed granola bars and 4 oz nalgenes of water into LL Bean fanny packs and followed the drainage miles downstream to a big park we knew well from winter sledding, on the other end of town. Those three or four miles took longer than I could have imagined, and we walked the sidewalk back triumphant. It was my first independent experience with how miles magically stretch in the mind to encompass endless details, yards and minutes writ fine in a script too narrow to read through the blinkered eyelids of daily routine. My the time I started mountain biking several years later, the capacity of my mind and legs had expanded enough to demand larger venues for consciousness expansion, something which continues to this day.
All of which is why I’ve been particularly enthralled with the fatbike. I can have after-work sized adventures a convenient distance from home, bringing together the daily practice of minute joy, in a manner thoroughly in the mold of middle childhood, with adult-sized physical challenge and an eye towards further adventures more closely in the actual mold of Lewis and Clark than any of the apparent mimicries I’ve practiced throughout my life. There is a reason our stereotype of the full bloom of childhood has to do with riding a bike, and my recent fatbiking, more than any of the five star singletrack I’ve ridden in the last decade, brings that copernican revolution rushing back. After work yesterday, needing exercise and seeking release, I found the proper trails of a local area still compacted with ice and slush, and took to the deer paths. Slowly dodging deadfall, stump holes, and picking lines through small woods slashed over with human presence (logging, in this case) and just out of sight of a small paved road, I felt the unity of my life in a way which as I age is increasingly hard to grasp. All thanks to that magical double diamond.