Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mount Misery Misery

20 January 2008

At 8:30 am the winds are gusting at 23 miles per hour and the air is a balmy 22 degrees. I'm in the Mercer County Park boathouse parking lot with Johanne and John D., about to head down to the Pinelands for some what-are-you-doing-going-out-on-a-day-like-this mountain biking.

John shows us his right eye socket, lined with red on his cheekbone. Yesterday he sustained his worst ever mountain biking injury without even leaving his garage. He was taking his bike off its hanger when it caught on something else; the pedal smacked him in the eye.

I toss Grover into Johanne's Jeep, on top of her $15 police auction mountain bike. This is her first day out with us, so I give her a run-down of how cool everyone is. I'm not really paying attention as John snakes through back roads to get us onto Route 206 south. We're catching up on each other's lives after a gap of at least five years. I'm drinking my coffee before it goes cold.

We're meeting Chris at the Wawa where Routes 70 and 72 come together. This is my grad school stomping ground, the less thought- about the better. We road biked through here a few times over the years; the first time we passed the field station I started in on some bad energy and fell way behind. Chris makes sure to bring it up every time we get near here.

We follow John and Chris to Mount Misery, an old Methodist retreat still used for conferences and camping. As we unpack and bundle up, we notice that Johanne doesn't have a mojo. But she does have a rubber Stitch stuffed onto the end of her antenna. I pull it off, dig for a miniature bungee cord in my backpack (you never know when these things'll come in handy), and rig Stitch to her handlebars.

Our goal today is to get to Five Points. I remember it vaguely from my grad school days. We always found it by accident, having pointed the run-down field station Jeep north from the McDonald's Branch gaging station and driven randomly up the dirt roads. At the intersection of five of these roads is a cement plaque. All I can recall is a name and a picture of some sort of animal chasing another. None of us knew what it was about, and nobody tried to find out either.

Johanne and I stuff hand-warmers in our gloves and toe-warmers in our shoes. Here in the woods it doesn't feel cold. Recent rains and freezing air have turned the soft sand hard. The going is pretty easy. A series of quick bumps, like ski moguls, toss off Johanne's chain a few times. Of eighteen possible gears, she has about four that work. Unlike the rest of us, she doesn't have clip-ins. Yet she's keeping up and doing better than any of us would have on our first time out.

My feet get cold, so I shove my hand warmers into the toes of my shoes. It works.

We pass a group of people gathered around a dozen sled dogs who are yapping away, raring to go. Back when I did my field sampling out here I used to hear barking in the distance. I'd always assumed I was listening to hunting dogs; maybe I was. But now people are training their huskies to pull sleds through Lebanon State Forest.

It's not called Lebanon State Forest anymore, but I can't seem to make the switch to Brendan Byrne. Neither can John.

He points out a solar-powered outhouse next to the dogs. Then we round a corner. John says, "Look familiar, Laura?" We were here two years ago. I was here longer ago than that, every week for the better part of three years. I scream, low and loud. "Flashbacks! Aaaaaagh!"

But we stop our bikes anyway and I show them the swamp deep in the forest on the south side of the road. I'd taken everyone in two years ago. Chris still remembers the entrance between the thick trees. I'm impressed. It always took me some double-checking.

I don't remember how we found it the first time. I think I was with Angie and we were exploring. We must have seen the gap in the trees and followed it in. I remember that the first thing I said when I saw the swamp was, "It looks like we should see Kermit the Frog here, singing 'The Rainbow Connection.'" We named it Kermit's Swamp, and from then on, everyone at the field station called it that, too. This Muppet thing runs pretty deep with me.

The swamp is in a clearing where it looks like trees had been cut down on purpose. We later learned that they were, in order to let some rare orchids bloom. We found one once: a dragon's mouth orchid among the sundews, Sphagnum moss, and endangered curly-grass fern.

Today the swamp looks dry enough to follow a path beyond it and deeper into the woods. I'd never gone in that far, and today I won't either.

Back on the road, I look north to where my field site was. What had been a nearly impenetrable swamp of Atlantic white cedar is now a blow-down, as if a giant hand had come in from above and swiped at the trees right where I'd spent all that time collecting minuscule amounts of water from deep within the peat. I marvel at it. Johanne, Chris, and John humor me. But it's cold just standing here, so we get going again.

John decides to take us through an overgrown firebreak, and this is where things start to go wrong. We're riding in a deep ditch lined with all of those understory bushes whose identities I could never keep straight even when I thought I knew them. Ericacious shrubs. Let's leave it at that.

We swerve and dive, and John gets far ahead. I try to get over or past a log, something, and swerve into a bush that throws me onto the sand. As I stand I realize that I have no blood sugar left and the caffeine is making me jangly. I'm stop-starting with Chris and Johanne behind me. I can't seem to get my balance back. This happens a lot after I fall. I come unglued for a while.

We let Chris go past us. The unruly path doesn't let up, and we find ourselves getting farther and farther behind. With Johanne out of sight behind me, I decide to wait and grab a protein bar. Up ahead I think I hear Chris shout. We must be near the end of this mess.

Johanne catches up and we half walk, half pedal towards Chris and John. They're stopped not at a road, but in the woods. I ask, "We're getting near a road, aren't we? Johanne and I have just about had it."

"We pretty much have to be," Chris says. "Look at my bike."

It takes me half a minute before I notice that his rear derailleur is gone. Just gone, stolen by a greedy huckleberry bush. A curious blueberry branch has stolen his rear brake.

The edge of the road is just ahead, so we stop to watch Chris open his chain to shorten it. He's cursing worse than a particularly irritated sailor, but he gets the links off all the same. We start off again, on the road, into the wind, aiming for our cars. Then Chris and Johanne disappear behind us. John and I double back. Chris has stopped again. The chain is still too long.

Out in the open here, my hands are starting to get cold. The wind is picking up. I pull my hand-warmers out of my shoes and curl my hands around the warmers inside the gloves. We decide that the best thing to do is to leave Chris here with Johanne's cell phone and come fetch him. We're not that far from our cars, but the fastest way back is on the dirt road, straight into the wind.

I'm riding with my hands balled up in my gloves, my head down. Now we can feel the 24-degree air, the 23-mph wind gusts, the wind chill that makes the air feel like one degree Farenheit. We pass McDonald's Branch again. This time I don't even care. My memory creeps back and I have an inkling of the best way to get to Mount Misery. John has GPS anyway, so we don't need to rely on my hazy recollections.

Johanne and I practically dive into her Jeep and crank the heat. John drives back down the road to get Chris. He's not long in returning. Chris had managed to shorten the chain some more and was on his way back.

So we never did get to Five Points. Maybe next time.

We stop for lunch at the Apanay Cafe, formerly Apana's, formerly the Ong's Hat diner, an old, wooden lodge where Jean and I would sometimes go for lunch.

I'm so cold I order eggplant parmesan. It's the only other vegetarian option on the menu besides onion rings and spinach salad. And I don't even like eggplant. There's little on the menu that isn't fried or breaded, but that's part of the charm of the place. Which is crowded, I should add. It's the only restaurant for miles.

Above our heads is a branch nailed to the wall. On the branch is a bowler hat. "It's Ong's Hat," John says. He tells the story of a Mr. Ong, a ladies' man, who, after an evening of drinking stepped outside and tossed his hat into the air. The hat snagged in a tree, and there you have it: Ong's Hat. But one never knows when John is bluffing.

This leads, of course, to the four of us trying to figure out if we know where every place in the "Garden State Stomp" is. We've done Ong's Hat and Mount Misery today. We figure out maybe three quarters of the rest of them, but it's time to go home.

On the way back to Merer County Park, I tell Johanne some tales from last summer, about High Point, the reservoirs, and about how the Hill Slugs are good sports. It's 3:30 by the time we get home.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Backstory

Welcome to the Hill Slug Chronicles blog.

After collecting stories about our 2007 biking season and adding as many photos of our trips as I could find, I sent the Hill Slug Chronicles to a bunch of friends. A few of them thought I should start a blog so that they wouldn't have to wait a year for the next installment.

Well, let's see how long I can keep this up.

Meanwhile, if you're new to the world of the Hill Slugs and want to slog through 117 pages, here's the original Hill Slug Chronicles.