Spend enough time in the forest and you're bound to see a few things that you'll have trouble explaining. And no, I'm not talking about bikes with batteries on them or certain people insisting that trails be clear of any and all rocks and roots. I'm talking about the really strange things that make you want to ring up Mulder and Scully; the stuff that makes you not want to ride alone, or at least has you questioning what the hell you're doing out there sometimes.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have ridden in some pretty interesting locations all around the world, but one of the weirder rides took place just outside of a private rocket testing facility, one of the few such establishments of its kind on our planet. The nearby trails are not off-limits - I've ridden there many times over the years, as have the locals - but there is certainly a peculiar aura that is unlike any other trail I've ever been on. On one occasion, we shuttled the old road up to where the descent began and dropped in as per usual, only to see a blacked-out and unmarked helicopter come over the ridge and hover curiously close for ten minutes as we made our way down the treeless and wide open cliffside trail. We thought it was a bit odd at the time, but we were also more concerned with the rowdy trail in front of us rather than what we assumed was some sort of aviation tour.
That is until we met up with the driver of the shuttle truck that had been parked near the trail's exit. ''A black suburban with darkly tinted windows pulled up directly behind me after I parked,'' he explained quietly, with it sitting on the side of what was an otherwise completely empty desert road until just before we arrived.
Only recently, a decade after that Men in Black moment in the desert, did I pick up Sonic Wind, a book about the legendary John Paul Stapp and his many rocket sled and ejection seat experiments that took place more than forty years ago inside the fenced off mountain top that the helicopter and suburban were protecting. It's highly likely that they were running security for the supposedly shut down rocket testing site, but it's far more interesting to entertain thoughts of UFOs, government secrets, and agents with neuralizer devices.
I want to believe. Illustration by Mike Hughes
While unmarked helicopters are probably an uncommon sight during a mountain bike ride, most of us have probably had some sort of encounter with wildlife, and it's a special moment when you get to see a bear or a few deer nearby. I remember once, many years ago, I was coasting down a trail when, out of nowhere, a deer popped out of the bush and ran only a few feet in front of me and at the same speed. He was probably scared as hell and thinking that I was a strange, noisy animal that wanted to eat him, but it was a pretty special twenty seconds for me that I'll never forget.
There was also this one time that I'm sure something was trying to eat me.
It was about fifteen years ago, and I had driven my poor, old Ford Ranger up to the top of our shuttle road, fully expecting one of my passengers to drive me back up to retrieve it; you know, like how shuttle runs work. I guess the other people didn't know, however, because none of them thought to mention to me that they didn't want to drive their own trucks up this fairly tame 4x4 road in return, so I was left to jog up the last few kilometers when it came time to get my truck later that day.
Now, like most of you, I'm comfortable in the bush, and it didn't even enter my mind that I should be nervous as I shuffled up to my truck in the dusk. This was my 'home mountain' after all. But it was something else's home, too. The first noise sounded like a gorilla running through the bush while having a temper tantrum, and I'd be lying if I said that a small bit of poo didn't squeak out of my ass at that exact moment. I instantly stopped in my tracks and turned around slowly, expecting to be mauled by something hairy and angry and full of teeth. But there was nothing there. It was quiet, too quiet. I slowly walked twenty more feet up the abandoned, nearly grown in logging road and turned around again, just as whatever was in hidden in the trees and darkness decided to make a move. It was quieter this time, but it was also obvious that whatever I heard was now closer than it had been.
I'm not a runner - never have been and never will be - but at that moment, I was more Ben Johnson than Mike Levy. It was at least a five-minute sprint to get to my truck, and I remember stopping briefly to reach down and pick up a pointy rock in a what would have likely been a futile attempt at fighting back. No word of a lie, I heard whatever beast that was following me crash through the bush all the way up until a hundred feet or so from my truck. I had never been so happy to see that beat up Ranger; cue flailing with keys and full-on panic as I jumped into the cab as if the beast was inches away from grabbing my foot. It wasn't - there was nothing to see - but that didn't keep me from holding the horn down for a good thirty seconds.
There is no shame here - I literally thought that I was going to be killed and eaten.
In hindsight, it was probably a scared deer that just happened to be running in the same direction as me. Anything that would truly want to make me dinner would have likely been much quieter... unless it was Bigfoot. It was definitely Bigfoot. Being the stubborn idiot that I am, I made myself walk up the same abandoned logging road in similar darkness only a few days later, just to prove to myself that I could do it. I never said that I'm smart. Illustration by Mike Hughes
I have to laugh at myself when I remember how panicked I was at the time, but I've also seen some sad things while out on my mountain bike.
A group of us were shuttling on the same mountain, about a year after that Bigfoot incident, and while driving up the steep logging road another truck came down at the kind of speed that immediately had us thinking that it was stolen, or that there was an emergency of some sort. Unfortunately, it was the latter. They stopped us and, with eyes as wide as dinner plates, explained how they had been doing some 4x4'ing and that their friend had driven off the side of the road, rolling his truck down the embankment. There was definitely booze in the air while they told us this, and they weren't clear about what kind of shape their friend was in, only that he was still up there and that they were going down to get help.
It took about twenty minutes for us to find him, about fifty feet down the embankment, and we only managed to because his upside down truck was still running and the stereo was blasting out music. I'll never hear any Bruce Springsteen song again without picturing that poor guy with his neck trapped under the roll bar, something that had surely killed him near instantly. There was nothing to do but turn his vehicle off.
I think there were six of us out that day; we didn't stop once, and not a single word was spoken during the thirty-minute ride back down to the bottom of the mountain.
I had my own Final Destination moment not that long ago, one that ranks at the top of my 'What the f*ck?' list and still gives me goosebumps to this day. It happened on the same mountain as the other two incidents, which might be a sign that I'll probably continue to ignore. I was out with my dog, a Shiba Inu who takes the prize for the laziest, most indifferent animal that's ever lived, a canine that does everything in her power to not move any quicker than an unenthusiastic walking pace. We were making our way down one of my favorite trails when I heard what could only be described as the world coming to an end behind me. I actually thought that I was about to be swallowed by a massive landslide and that no one would ever find my body. I was so petrified that I completely tensed up and coasted right off the trail and through the underbrush at a fast enough speed that I don't know how I didn't tomahawk through the trees, but I assumed that my life might come to an abrupt end if I didn't get away from the freight trail-like noise coming up behind me.
But the noise stopped as quickly as it came, lasting maybe ten seconds but feeling like ten minutes at the time. I was alive and not buried, but my dog, who a bit behind me when it all started, was nowhere to be seen for another thirty seconds or so, until she bolted past me at a speed that I have never seen her moving at before or since. It was like she was a greyhound in the body of a slightly pudgy, twenty-five pound Shiba Inu who was covered in dirt and leaves and running for her life. That's because she was. She trucked past me and ran out of sight like I didn't exist, but I walked back up the trail tentatively, still expecting to see a slide or... I don't know, Bigfoot?
What I saw was a tree, maybe eighty-feet tall, laying across the singletrack at a ninety-degree angle. It was easily large enough to have killed me, although it was obviously much closer to killing my dog, and it had fallen onto the trail mere seconds after I passed by. If I had started my ride five seconds later or had been just a bit slower at any point, I have no doubt that tree would have squashed me like a bug. To this day, people roll their eyes when I tell them how close it was, and I don't blame them - it sounds stranger than fiction.
Have you ever had your own X-Files moment while mountain biking?Illustrations by Mike Hughes / www.m-hughes.com / www.instagram.com/badnewsmikehughes