When I woke up one morning and saw that registration had opened for 2022, I sat down at my laptop and shrugged as I clicked to confirm my entry. Solo category. Hopefully I could make it. If not, then I'd be making a charitable contribution to what I hoped was a new grassroots race amid an overblown circus of shit.
Was it? I'm undecided.
|More on that later.|
photo: Thomas Adams
The stretch between Natchez Trace and Little Rock doesn't hold much in the way of riding or detours. Not that I've discovered yet, anyway. Due north, you have Land Between the Lakes with the Canal Trail and miles of gravel roads, and while I had every intention of riding there on this trip, I was keeping it in my pocket for the return. I'm sure there are trails to ride around Memphis, but you don't hear much about them, do you? And I'd ridden in Little Rock once before and been both frustrated and desperately underwhelmed. I imagine there are some great gravel roads and routes to be found along the stretch, but that's a trickier animal, requiring more planning and intel than simply parking at a trailhead and going. Plus, I was trying to make at least some semblance of haste. Possibly even arrive in Bentonville in time for the first official "shake down" ride on Friday. So I pushed forward and tossed a coin between riding the Northwoods Trails in Hot Springs, AR and the Monument Trails at Mount Nebo. Both total unknowns.
Mount Nebo won.
There's a lovely kind of anxiousness to solo riding a trail system you've never been to before. Where do you park? Which way do you ride? Which trails do you ignore or prioritize? And in what order? It's a good exercise in "letting go," because as much as you want to do it "right," there often is no "wrong." God, even as I write that, I realize how completely false and stupid a statement it is. There is the potential for all kinds of wrong. Hence the anxiousness. I suppose what I mean is... riding at all is often better than not, so even if you're stopping at every trail intersection to check the map or pushing your bike up the downhill you were supposed to have ridden instead... it's something. Something different. And I like that a lot more than I like knowing every rock and root and subtle bend in a trail I've been riding for twenty years longer than I intended.
Mount Nebo was good. My van wasn't a huge fan of the very steep but short climb to the top, and I kept a wary eye on the thermostat, but I liked what I found up there. A lot of work and money had clearly gone into it. Likely the same money getting pumped into Bentonville. Rock chutes and plating along sweeping berms and bench cuts. A few cruxes that had me walking on my singlespeed, but nothing that left me frustrated or injured. I rode everything it had to offer, some trails twice, and sipped a clandestine beer in the van as I considered my next move. Bentonville was less than three hours away. I could be there in time for dinner and probably weasel my way into the group campsite a night early. Or I could relax and enjoy one last sunset before the clouds moved in... and never went away. I opted to stay, and lucked into an unoccupied campsite.
I admit, riding down the trail to Sunset Point, that it felt the slightest bit stout for singletrack. And it obviously was. But I didn't want to think any more about it. That had been my brief concession to caring. I'd have all day Saturday to ponder it.
I pulled up to the Meteor around 11:30 on Friday, only the slightest bit self-conscious as I circled it three times looking for a place to park; the noisy crackle of the van's overworked CV joints painfully loud. "Oh that?" I silently yelled out the window. "That's just how the van sounds. It's fine. We're fine... we're all fine here now, thank you. How... are you?"
In the spirit of not trying, I opted not to hustle trying to make the group ride, and instead ordered a beer and walked around to see who I could find. Immediately I found Matt Moosepacks, who used to come in and drink PBRs at the shop and who is both hustling and killing it with the bag game these days. I sat for a little while underneath his tent and stared blindly at the crowded parking lot.
Once upon a time, my legitimate super power was recognizing faces. Familiar or not. All faces. Someone would pass me on the street and I'd muse, "I know them from somewhere." And after a moment it would come to me... They'd stood in line near me at the grocery store once. Or sat a few tables away at a restaurant. Been on the same bus once. In a crowd at some event I'd attended. We'd rolled around naked together one night...Or something similarly mundane.
But lately, I just struggle to tell anyone apart. Some form of face-blindness that seems to be exacerbated by crowds. Looking straight through familiar faces less than ten feet in front of me. Maybe it's some psychological effect from the pandemic and isolation. Maybe it's just some form of senility that will only get worse. But honestly? I swear to fucking god, everyone just looks like Peter Stetina to me these days. Literally everyone.
Or else Peter Stetina just looks like everyone. It's one of those.
|Is that you, Peter?|
But somehow in the crowd, I recognized Jack. His shock of bleached blonde hair and heavy black framed glasses standing out. Possibly because I'd just seen him at PMBAR, both of us standing on our own meaningless podiums for whatever category it was that we'd raced. So in the spirit of familiar faces in faraway places, I went up and said hi.
Which is how I met Katie and Katie (and not pictured Hannah) and how we all ended up hanging out throughout the weekend.
At some point, I hopped on my bike and rode off to fulfill at least one of my Bentonville rituals: Curry Fries at the Pedaler's Pub, which I sadly remembered being better. And after a few more drinks with KKJ&H at a boojie Mexican restaurant nearby, rode my bike to 8th Street Market and Bike Rack Brewing to meet up with Thomas and Gabbi Adams and some of their friends from Oklahoma. Over Rule of Three IPA's divvied out by instagram friend now met, RayRayRay, we talked about kids and travel and where we all end up. And whether the grass is always greener. And I told them a story about pretty Becky, who, as we sat griping one day long ago about place and circumstance, about our exes and Greensboro, had tried to put it in some perspective. "It could be worse, man" she said, tossing her blonde hair from one side of her head to the other. "My ex? He lives in the Seventh fucking Sphere of Hell these days."