Monday, May 15, 2017

Skin of the Buck

I grabbed two handfuls of brake.  The bike slowed; its rear end wobbling around under me as the tire finally--incontrovertibly--went flat for what I knew was the last time.  I stepped off, let the bike over into the thick undergrowth, and ground my face into my shoulder to try to soak up the sweat in my eyes.  I failed in that my shirt was already sopping wet with three and a half miles of mountain biking grime.  Despite the flat I was grinning like an idiot.  Despite the heat and humidity I was stoked. 

My presence at the intersection of the Buckskin and Cave Run Trails on the Daniel Boone National Forest at Cave Run Lake way back in 1997 was proof of my induction into the mountain biking community.  I had ventured out the Buckskin Trail on the recommendation of Dave Lutes.  Dave and I were long time climbing partners and Red River Gorge acolytes.  It just tore him up that I didn't take my 1994 Cannondale M300 out on trails.  I mostly rode it on the road when my ailing car left me stranded.  So after a long conversation about the merits of mountain biking I decided I needed to try it out and at Dave's behest drove over to Zilpo with my bike.

Along Buckskin sometime in the late 1990s

I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I struck out west from the trailhead dressed in surplus BDU pants, a black Metallica tee-shirt, and a small day pack with a Nalgene bottle full of water and a bike pump.  I pedaled into the sweltering forest above the shore of the lake on flat pedals wearing hiking boots.  The trail was narrow, precariously snaking along a contour on a steep side slope looking down on the earthy green water, and I was hooked.

Buckskin was hard.  It was hard then, and it's hard now.  I walked a lot that day nearly twenty years ago.  But I was a different mountain biker then than I am now. 


In the twentysome odd years since I rode out Buckskin with no clue what I was doing I've ridden all over on so many different types of trails and in different conditions. 

I've climbed mountains in Colorado on my bike, cranking above treeline and sucking the high, thin air.  I've carved through prairies, dodging plague infested prairie dog towns.  I've raced on muddy Ohio trails, plowed through snow, explored neglected backcountry sections of the Sheltowee, and I've ridden numerous urban and suburban trails.  Buckskin was the experience that kicked me off down this path.

That day on Buckskin was a learning experience for me.  My tube had split and no matter how hard I pumped it wouldn't hold air.  On my very first singletrack ride I learned to always carry an extra inner tube.

More importantly I learned that while a mountain bike provides easy access to the backcountry it can also leave you S.O.L. if you're not skilled at trailside bike repair and being self-reliant.  In many of my long distance adventures I've been cognizant of how vulnerable to a broken derailer hanger or catastrophic flat I was.  That awareness was rooted in my experience on Buckskin.


I feel like the Red River Gorge is cursed.  At least in regards to mountain biking development.  The lone legal trail in the RRG system has been plagued since the '90s with neglect and poor design.  Modern efforts to build trails have run aground numerous times for various reasons.  I have been tilting at this windmill for the past three years doggedly to refute the notion that there is no mountain biking in the Red.  There's no good reason for there not to be.  I want to succeed where previous efforts have failed.
Just as I felt like momentum was growing and I had finally gotten frustrated activists on board to finish up the project...the Forest Service put an ACE crew out on Buckskin, Cave Run Trail and Crossover to clear and do some light maintenance.  They were out there for two weeks and got a lot done.  They opened those trails up.  And so…I lost my main partner in crime—Dave—to the promise of a Buckskin revival.  I get it: Buckskin—like many of those old classics at Cave Run—have suffered neglect as well; years of neglect through a crisis of poor land management and contentious user conflicts.  It doesn't help that Buckskin is remote.  It's almost as long a drive to the Zilpo side of the lake from Morehead as it is for me from the Gorge area.

I texted my Winchester posse toward the end of the week and asked who was down for riding at Bald Rock on Saturday morning hoping I could ride and also give the tour to the two who are less familiar and whip up more interest in the project.  Dave texted back:

Well, you’re probably going to shoot me, but I’m probably riding at Buckskin…

Rob was out due to family commitments; that left Josh.  My hopeful reply:
My man Josh won’t let me down.

Dave shot back:
Uh, well, he had talked earlier in the week about Buckskin.

Damn Buckskin fever!

It took me a day or so, but I finally conceded defeat.  While I could have gone solo down into Bald Rock I decided I really needed some group ride therapy and clunking around the west side of the Giant Canada Goose Pond (no lie) was just the ticket.  No progress, but mental health benefits galore!  By the time I was driving over through Menifee County early Saturday morning I was absolutely stoked; probably more stoked than I had been out on the trail twenty years earlier when I was grinning ear to ear and in danger of not only being stranded in the backcountry but having my dang-fool head fall off!

Josh and I met early and struck out from the eastern trailhead near Zilpo Campground.  Dave was coming in later from the eastern end at FR 1225.  If we timed it right Josh and I would be getting there about the same time as Dave.

I have a strange talent for remembering topography and terrain.  While twenty years have come and gone it felt like I had been on Buckskin just yesterday.  I remembered the lay of the land.  I took in everything in a nostalgic wave.  Now, to be straight with you, Dave and Dirty Harry and I made a foray a little ways out Buckskin last Fourth of July checking out the conditions, but we walked as much as we rode, and we turned back about a mile and a half in because the corridor was just too thick with blowdowns. 

Josh blowing one of the old school creek crossing turns
(in his defense so did I)
As Josh and I pushed deeper into the backcountry I forgot about Bald Rock.  I forgot about work.  I forgot about stress, and time, and the past week’s bad weather (oddly, as the forest was still soaked with recent rains), and I landed myself in the moment squarely where I have wanted to be for weeks now.  Like so many rides in the recent past I found myself astraddle memory and moment.  Sections of trail felt like old friends.  Maybe there was a shred of regret that I didn’t visit Buckskin more in the intervening years.  But for a few hours on Saturday it was really as if there had been no passage of time.  It was almost as if I had regained those years and just for the morning I could enjoy the day with no regrets.  In some ways the experience was like a long, lucid dream with real life forgotten until I drove back to civilization and wokenness. 

There were amazing stretches of trail—as good as anything I’ve ridden anywhere else—and I felt myself being sucked in.  I wanted to come back the next opportunity I could steal away.  I looked at drainage problems and sections that needed slight benchcutting, or better blazes, or a little more clearing and I ran through solutions in my head.  I couldn’t help myself.  That’s who I am now.  I am activist and advocate.  At heart I’m as much a trail builder as a trail rider now. 

We climbed out of the valley on the Cave Run Trail. Its old school like Buckskin: narrow, steep side slopes, switchbacks as sharp as safety pins, and nice and rocky.  My engine ran hot, but I was surprised that despite my lack of cardiovascular fitness I kept climbing.  Near the top I came up on Josh.  He had stopped to retry a cluster of rocks and roots, so I took the opportunity to drag out the camera and get some actions shots.  The upper section of Cave Run was amazing with some steep and slick rock ledges.  Of course we did a little hike-a-bike.  We didn’t mind as there was so much good riding between the sections where we had to get off the bikes.

Dave rolled into 1225 about ten minutes after we got there, and the three of us continued around the lollipop and Dave was along for the ride back to Buckskin trailhead.  The descent down Cave Run Trail kept us on our toes.  Josh pulled away and Dave and I made our way steadily down Big Cave Run Branch riding along the creek swollen by recent rains.  It felt like we were in some faraway mountain biking destination.  There were huge trees, gravelly stream crossings, and singletrack winding through May ferns.  Could this be Kentucky? I kept asking myself.  Believe it or not, I didn’t lose the moment.  I wasn’t anxious for the progression of time.  I didn’t feel the pull of the world dragging me out of the backcountry.  It was a nice long ride through the primeval forest.

Riding Buckskin back with Dave was interesting.  He and I had talked about that trail so many times over the years, but we’ve never ridden it together except the short scouting ride with Harry last summer.  And while I had fussed at him for being so stoked about Buckskin while I struggle to keep anyone interested in Bald Rock I had to admit I understood why.  The west side of Cave Run Lake is a special place for mountain biking.  It’s Kentucky mountain biking history.  This is how it started.  And somewhere along the way we lost the character of those trails.  Modern mountain bikers expect flowy trails.  We expect to be able to ride and not have to get off our bikes ever.  Buckskin represents the adventurous spirit that drew a lot of us into the woods and eventually into mountain biking in the first place.  Once you resolve yourself to give in to the experience the short hike-a-bike sections are just as fun as railing berms.  Once you reprogram yourself to enjoy the old school trails a slower speed and having to dab a foot from time to time does not detract from the experience. 

I say give in to the Buck.  Give it a try.  If you don’t fall in love with the experience then I can’t help you.  I may not speak your language.  Or maybe you need to give it a second go.  Even if that’s twenty years later…or if you haven’t been on Buckskin in twenty years maybe it’s time to go back.  I can say for certain that this network of trails will be getting the love and attention it’s needed for a long time.  I can guarantee that over the next year Buckskin and Cave Run and Crossover and Hog Pen Trails are all going to start looking better.  You’re going to see more folks out on those trails.  I can say with certainty that eventually, when our race has finished on September 30 I’ll be looking at doing more riding out there.  I know for sure Dave and our other partners in crime will be out and about making right what time has thrown to chaos. 

The revival of Buckskin Trail has begun.

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