Reader Story: Mountain Biking & Trail Building Through Grief

Oct 19, 2020 at 16:05
by Gerry Creighton  


I am a mountain biker and trail builder. I lost my best friend and wife, Susan, four years ago, after a 19 year battle with late-stage breast cancer. My story is an evolving one that I want to share with the mountain biking community. Since her passing, mountain biking and the mountain bike community have helped me get through this tragedy, deal with my grief, and move along with life.

Susan during one of her good periods. We really tried to get the most out of the good times.

Grief is a harsh reminder that I had someone special in my life who I loved so profoundly that I'm brought to tears in a moment of remembrance. A particular song, a visit from a random hummingbird, viewing photos of her; any of these can trigger a flood for me. This grief was compounded by the loss of my parents over a year ago. Now bear with me; it's not all doom and gloom. I am a very positive and outgoing person, and I live a happy life.

I'm not a structured "support group" kind of person and am instead more of a "get out and think through the thoughts and feelings" kind of person. The mountain biking community is my support group. Processing the pain, for me, has been managed mostly through mountain biking and trail work.

I'm fortunate to have mountain biking and the mountain bike community to turn to when I need it. For the last four years, I have leaned heavily on the idea of getting out on my bike and riding for hours. I do this because not only do I love mountain biking, but it is also a great way to deal with the grief that I have experienced by losing my wife. I have also immersed myself in the local trail building community. There's nothing like getting out for some trail work to clear your head, and in turn, give back to the community.

My tape dispensing method has worked for years.
Flagging the route.

For anyone reading this who has lost someone special, you probably understand this about grief: It will hit you suddenly as you try to get on with your life. It comes and goes, and it shows up in all shapes and sizes. You deal with those feelings and then move on with whatever you were doing. However, the grief never goes away; it just comes back when you least expect it as you become involved in new things.

Hiking up the lone slab on this portion of Swirlz.
The best tool for the job is hard work.
Scoping things out.

The last year for me has been filled with big adventure rides, new friends, and trail building. As a mountain biker, what more could you ask for? After losing my wife, starting life over has landed me in beautiful Bellingham, Washington. As you all are aware, there are plenty of riding opportunities available here. With that said, those trails don't fix or build themselves.

I'm no stranger to trail work, as I helped build and maintain a growing number of trails in southern New Jersey before I moved west in 2018. After getting to know the trail network here on Galbraith a little better, I reached out to my friend Eric Brown to get plugged in with what was going on with trail work. Eric, also known as "EB," is the executive director of the WMBC (Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition).

Clearing slash for the trail build.
Pointing over the slash to where the trail is coming from.
This is what the workday looked like for the first few months working on this trail.

A year ago, I noticed a hill here on Galbraith that we would ride around on a gravel road, up and then down, to get to a fun black diamond trail named Space Wolf. I asked EB why there wasn't a trail on this hill that leads down to Space Wolf. I was then asked to put in a proposal. Fast forward a couple of months, and I was out flagging a route. I would quickly figure out why no one had built a trail on this hill and subsequent slope. The zone was covered in slash piles from a thinning operation a few years prior. The evergreens growing in this zone were on the young side, so sighting lines were inadequate as low branches obscured the views.

Part of the way through clearing the trail corridor. This shot was after some of the slash had been cleared already.
This is just one section of this zone that was covered in slash.

I had a lot of work ahead of me, but I was ready to take on the project. Getting the opportunity to build my first trail here wasn't something I thought would ever happen. The trail builders here are some of the best in the world. Also, the opportunities are limited, so I jumped on the chance. Up to this point, I had already helped with some brushing work and trail reroutes in the area.

This particular zone required many hours of chainsaw work, just to get down along the slope, where I could then scope things out. After that, it took me about a month to clear the dead trees and trim dead branches along my planned trail corridor. Due to COVID-19, I wasn't allowed to have a full crew or publicly announced trail day for this build. However, I could enlist help from a few people who really made a dent in the work. I received support from James, Ash, and Susan at different times to trim tree branches. Later in the build, Susan came out to help with benching on the climbing trail.

The trail sign with colors that have significance to who the trail was named after.
The Swirlz trail sign.
The Swirlz trail sign, which I made, uses the black and orange colors of Susan's favorite hockey team, the NHL Philadelphia Flyers.

I dedicated my first trail build, here in Bellingham, to my late-wife, Susan. Her nickname was "Swirlz." That nickname developed after one of her first chemo treatments. The doctors told us that her straight hair could come back in curly, and sure enough, it did.

Climbing Swirlz.
The forest critters are all around us.
Swirlz starts with a climbing portion that meanders through some of the most beautiful forest found in Bellingham.

The trail that I built in her name flows and swirls through the forest. It gives you speed and takes it away for a moment until you pump through a turn, over a roller, and then the flow returns. It's not a long trail, but more of a "get from point a to point b in the most fun way" trail. The trail doesn't solely bear her nickname for the route it takes. It's about the uphill battle she endured and dealing with the adversity cancer treatment presented. This trail required a lot of work just to get to the digging portion of the project. This project was just what I needed, a challenge. I often thought of her struggles as each workday ended. It only made sense to honor her in naming this trail.

Let s just pop over those wet roots.

Generally speaking, nobody knows how to deal with your grief unless they, too, have dealt with a significant loss. You'll hear a wide range of comments regarding moving on after the loss of a loved one. I don't think there is a cure or a specific fix. Everyone is different.

The first stump drop on the way down.

Anyone that has lost someone deals with the loss and grief differently. There really is no "moving on." You just carry on with life without that person physically with you. Their spirit lives on in your memories. Dealing with grief after losing Susan has gotten more manageable with these new surroundings. Becoming more involved in the mountain biking community through the WMBC has undoubtedly helped me deal with my grief. It is also extremely gratifying to give back to these local trails.

The second stump drop on the way down.
The second stump drop on the way down.
I was pleasantly surprised to find this tree that is shaped like an "S" (left photo, rider's right) at the bottom of this section.

Pumping through the forest.

The last little stump option.

If you find yourself in a similar position, get out for regular rides. Not only will the physical activity help you, but you'll also clear your mind.




Photos: Eric Mickelson // Instagram: @_ericmickelson
Words: Gerry Creighton // Instagram: @gerry_creighton


74 Comments

  • 79 0
 Thank you for sharing.
  • 50 1
 I lost my wife and true love of 45 years three weeks ago. Suzy fought a three year battle with ALS with inspiring courage and faith. I don’t know what the future will bring but I know mountain biking will play a huge part. Thank you for your article Gerry. It is reassuring to know others who are on this long journey.
  • 6 0
 Sorry for your loss sir
  • 46 0
 Told my wife how much I love her, and gave her a hug, in your honor. So sorry for your loss. Thank you for your story.
  • 33 1
 Great story and I Props to you Gerry for taking on the challenge of building a trail. So few know the challenges and pleasure trail building can bring.
  • 8 0
 Thanks man!
  • 2 0
 @gerrycreighton: Thanks for the inspiring story. Can you guys recommend some good links on trail building info?
  • 2 0
 @heckler999: I haven't checked it out yet, (doing my permitted trail building in the forest, not online), but you could start here:

imbacanada.com/imba-programs/online-workshop-program

The filters at the top are pretty good to sort their articles.
imbacanada.com/resources?id=index-12456&ucat=122


And the Resources tab. The best place is to get involved with your local mtb group. CMBA?

www.cmbalink.com

PS, I wonder who's got the coveted heckler username?
  • 1 0
 @heckler999: You could grab a copy of the IMBA Trail Solutions book. That has some standard practices for trail building. And @heckler73 has provided some other info.
  • 1 0
 @gerrycreighton: Thanks to you both for the tips I will check them out. Also found this link: www.fs.fed.us/t-d/pubs/htmlpubs/htm07232806/page02.htm heckler73: not sure but I suspect he's old haha
  • 25 0
 Lost my mum in May. Went out the day after and cleared a singletrack down an old logging trail. It rained lightly all day and washed my tears away. Had a beautiful close encounter with a momma bear a her one cub too. The trail rode great until the loggers came back! I'll forever cherish that day,
  • 25 0
 I think this story has touched an lot of us out here. I hope you find true peace when you ride this trail.
  • 25 0
 That was well written. Thank you for that
  • 13 0
 The orange and black nation stands behind you and Susan. While gutted for your heavy loss we are proud of our new trail on the other coast. I hope I get to see it in person some day.
  • 9 0
 This is so true and my best to Gerry. I'm not sure who said it, but I will always remember the quote, bike when your happy, sad, mad, or tired, long distance or short, you'll be better afterwards. I guess there's a lot that can be said about the physical and mental gains of riding.
  • 11 0
 Oh and somebody please send this guy and orange and black bike. Looking at you Scott
  • 3 0
 Specialized Stumpjumper would fit perfectly.
  • 12 0
 I just lot my mom to cancer last month, thanks for sharing your story.
  • 7 0
 lost my sister in 2008 due to a drug overdose - i know EXACTLY what you mean. similarly, dwelling in Nature helped me to negotiate that first wave of intense grief & loss. it literally saved my ass from becoming physically ill with sadness. great tribute to build & name the trail after her...thx for sharing
  • 7 0
 Remembering the good times always helps me with grief. As said before, they will pop into your head and that wave of sadness will come crashing down. Over time those waves get smaller, with conscious effort the waves of memory bring joy and happy reminders of the good times. I've spent the grief process remembering the good times. I'll never stop grieving but day to day when I do think of my lost loves ones, it brings a moment of quiet happiness when I remember now. We all grieve in different ways, sharing what worked for you could help someone else in the depths. Great article, beautiful trail. Thanks for sharing.
  • 8 0
 Hi. Thanks for sharing. I lost my son early this year after 10 years since first diagnisus of the brain tumor. We rode together many MTB trails. Now I keep sane talking to him when I ride alone.
  • 5 0
 Thanks for sharing that Gerry. i went through a similar story, and the building helped me process the loss and even years later, the trail would invoke deep memories. I don't live near it now, and your story has brought it back. Thanks. I hope you and your friends enjoy every ride down that trail.
  • 4 0
 True feelings, and a great way to escape for a few moments losing your mind in nature. I appreciate you sharing, and the entire MTB world thanks you for helping create a new path for us. I am in the Vancouver area, and as soon as the borders open, I can't wait to get back to Galbraith and ride your new trail. I will toast you at the bottom with one of Bellingham's craft beers (hauling the empty out with me of course). Cheers!
  • 4 0
 Waytoogo Gerry!.... as a fellow trail builder a passion seeker for creative ways to express, give, share too balance with nature..... in service for adventure with our the mtb community.... l share a little now to part of my grieving journey involvement... this has been building "Crackers" a trail in ever progression.... grooming, trail maintenance, as a shared caretaker in honour for dear Claire.
Yeeewww!
  • 4 0
 Gerry, thank you for sharing your very personal experience with your wife and your grieving process. The timing is particularly poignant for me - I lost my father to cancer one year ago this weekend, and long rides both alone and with friends have been a critical part of my healing process. I've found strength reflecting on his hardships as well. An unplanned stop to hand saw downed trees or digging deep on a steep climb pale in comparison to the battles our loved ones go through every day. You have made a fitting tribute, and we all owe you a debt of gratitude for taking the time to share it with the community.
  • 4 0
 Almost lost a brother to a helicopter crash that left him with a 90% burn. 13 months in the ICU and so many times he almost didn't make it left me a stressed out wreck. Swinging tools on a new trail in the Ellensburg, WA area helped level out the PTSD and provided a great outlet for all those unwanted stress hormones. Yet another way MTB keeps me alive. Great post! Come on over to the dry side of the state sometime!
  • 4 0
 Thank you for sharing. I lost my Dad almost a year ago to a long battle with depression. I really identify with what you said about grief. It’s not something to move on from, but something that becomes apart of us. It’s apart of my story now and it gives me a perspective I’ve never had before when I meet others who are struggling. I began mountain biking more this year than I ever have. It offers be an escape from the world that moves so fast and allows me to reflect on good memories and process through the difficult ones. My dad loved spending time in the woods and I feel closer to him than ever when I go riding. I miss him so much. I’m deeply sorry for your loss and look forward to driving up to Bellingham to ride Swirlz.
  • 6 0
 Next time I'm able to make it down to Bellingham, I'd love to ride this trail. Sounds like a labour of love. Thank you.
  • 3 0
 Such a positive post, you sir are a freaking legend. The ethos and thoughtfulness of this makes me really really want to go and roll through that beautiful forest taking in the trail and the magic it is built upon. Thanks for bringing a bit of beauty to a crazy world and stay awesome!
  • 2 0
 Thanks for this story of grief and a way of constructively dealing with it. I've built several trails local to Seattle at a dark time in my life: dealing with marriage and family issues. While not on the same level of losing a friend and spouse, without this outlet and a way to get myself grounded things would have gone very differently for me. There's a story(ies) behind many of the trails we ride, and to those that build them a bit of catharsis in their creation. Thanks for sharing yours openly.
  • 3 0
 First and foremost, I am sorry for your loss. Kudos to you... you dealt with your grief in a positive productive fashion. If I am ever fortunate enough to get to B-ham, I will be honored to roll my rubber on Swirlz.
  • 3 0
 Great story. As a teen, I lost my father. I saw my mom lose her best friend, I can't imagine doing the same. Building a trail seems like an amazing way to deal with grief and celebrate her life. Thank you.
  • 2 0
 Gerry thanks for sharing your experience and your love for the sport, and your wife. I'm glad to have met you that afternoon at Zane's grabbing a burger with my son after a ride. We've yet to ride together, but I look forward to it. Cheers!
  • 2 0
 Super fun trail, I always wondered what was above Space Wolf before you built this route..Now it makes sense to climb up Swirlz and drop to the bottom of the gulley. Well worth the work and thanks for the story, I will think of what the trail means every time I ride it.
  • 5 0
 Great story, very sorry for your loss.
  • 5 0
 Well done, thanks for sharing.
  • 4 0
 Thank you for sharing this. We truly do have an incredible community here in Bham.
  • 4 0
 Well written Gerry, keep doing what you're doing, it's inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
  • 3 0
 Thank you and it sure is a healing process what you do there with this.You re right there s no moving on and everyone is different.
  • 3 0
 Thank you for sharing. Thank you for building. The woods are so good for the soul. Trail looks amazing. Looking forward to riding it!
  • 5 0
 Just lost my brother two weeks ago. Thank you for sharing your story.
  • 3 0
 This made me tear up, we've all lost so much especially this year and all know how healing a mountain bike ride can be at times.
  • 2 0
 So humbling from all aspects. Sorry for your loss Gerry, but also glad you found an outlet. And really great inspiration in this time of worldly troubles. Thank you for sharing your story.
  • 3 0
 A real inspiration. Not only on the passion for bikes but the celebration of true love. I salute you Gerry, may peace be with you.
  • 4 0
 This is outstanding. Gerry is a standup guy and mountain biking is lucky to have you - keep on keepin on Gerry!!!!
  • 2 0
 Thanks Fraser! Can't wait for the Snik to make it to market!
  • 3 0
 Trail work is great for decompressing. Hours in the forest with nothing but a task and your thoughts. Thanks for sharing. @mikelevy more trail stewardship articles please.
  • 4 0
 Can't think of a better legacy to leave. It'll undoubtedly bring countless hours of joy.
  • 2 0
 Thank for sharing your story, Ger, and so glad you ended up here in town. Having lost my pops in December, this really resonated with me. Just rode Swirlz again on Sunday....can't wait for it to go further down the hill!
  • 2 0
 Our family is right now dealing with my nephew on life support, which is to be turned off soon. I have shared your story with them, we all deal with our grief our way, hope your story helps my family.
  • 4 0
 Thank you for sharing your story it was truly inspiring to read.
  • 4 0
 Well done Gerry. This is an important story. All my best.
  • 4 0
 Thank you.This is the best thing I've read today.
  • 4 0
 Beautiful tribute....Thank you....
  • 3 0
 Thanks for making our little hill that much more of a special place, Gerry! ???? ♥️ ????
  • 3 0
 Thanks for sharing that Gerry. One day I hope to ride your trail. When I do I'll be thinking of both of you.
  • 4 0
 I challenge anyone to build a trail and not come away feeling hopeful.
  • 4 0
 Where’s the like button?
  • 3 0
 Amazing and brave article. Doing the things you love is a great way to tribute those who have passed. Best to you.
  • 3 0
 what an amazing tribute to the memory of your wife, thank you for sharing your story and the trail build.
  • 3 0
 Thanks for sharing, Gerry. Super cool article and cool to see you're doing good.
  • 3 0
 What a fantastic outlet to rekindle and share her spirit with others. Thank you!
  • 3 0
 Well done! Fantastic work.
  • 3 0
 Beautifully written and captured! Salute
  • 3 0
 A beautiful tribute and a great lesson on grieving, thanks
  • 3 0
 Your trail is an awesome tribute to your wife. thanks
  • 3 0
 Brave of you to say this, and you said it well. A worthy tribute.
  • 3 0
 thank you for sharing, sorry for your loss
  • 3 0
 Thank you for sharing! Looking forward to riding her trail!
  • 3 0
 So awesome, thank you for sharing!
  • 2 0
 I've been wondering how this trail name came about. So cool. Thanks for the great trail!
  • 2 0
 Huge hugs from the Beast Cost
  • 3 0
 Top Guy! Smile
  • 1 0
 Excellent ????????

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