The sun escaped behind the mountains. They roll along like bandits in the night, calculated and precise. The hollowness of tires paired with chain clatter ricochets off the trees. There isn’t any leaf crunching, just the smooth sound of tires zipping across East Burke’s sandy loam. The people that inhabit this town are good riders, maybe because some can hit large features or navigate technical rock gardens, but what they share is their ability to turn on the night vision, and ride during the dwindling hours of the day before or after work.
With only a few restaurants in East Burke, most people’s livelihoods are determined by the work hours between 7 and 6. This makes the day’s shoulders the most popular time to ride, which usually means beginning or ending in the dark. No one complains, it is just the way it works out and often adds another element to the ride. Sense of sight is exchanged for feel as they ride the nine o’clock braille trail.
The dissolving light is like sand vanishing through the cracks between your fingers. It doesn’t care. They are out there, and they know they’ll make it back. Everything leads to town, so adding another trail to the end of a ride occurs often, even when the line between daylight and darkness is dangerously close. “C’mon, just one more” they say, “it’s only another four minutes.” Even though the sun was long gone, they were always convinced, and proceed to ignite the trail with laughter using root and rock to guide them to town.
Everyone is callused, carpenters, computer code designers, dentists, masons, mechanics, and operation managers. What remains sharp and sensitive is the connection between tires and brain. With precision and patience, riding the trail happens like one would read brail. One false interpretation of a raised dot could be the difference between understanding or not understanding a sentence. The false representation of that root lying perpendicular to the trail wouldn’t be hard to understand, you’d just be peeling yourself from a tree.
The evening shuttles are guaranteed to end in the dark. The first one is always a race just to ensure you can squeeze one more in before the toll road’s gates close. The second lap’s goal is to cover the most amount of trail possible before the day is gone. They descend from the summit, dancing over rocks as the light flickers through the trees like a strobe light at a middle school dance. Their speed mimics the sun’s, the lower they get the faster they travel before the fiery ball is engulfed by the horizon.
When it is gone the excitement increases along with the ability to use every sense but your eyes. Speed is regulated by the rush of air across your face and the sound of fellow rider’s hoots. “Waaahooo” is usually a sign that a big corner or air will take your tires. It is hard not to be tense, and you know you are riding the brail trail when you aren’t. Everything begins to happen on its own and a twitch of the bars is recalculated so you float over the next obstacle.
Recently, although not in Burke, I was reminded of this sensation. After snaking our way down to the parking lot in Montana during the shriveling hours of the day, we noticed my friends dog hadn’t followed. Hollering Eli’s name, he didn’t show and the clock had snuck past nine o’clock. I wasn’t excited, but also knew I wasn’t going to leave him there. Throwing my helmet back on I disappeared from the parking lot into the dark.
As I climbed out of the valley obstacles gained more definition with the last sips of daylight. I called for Eli knowing he wouldn’t show. As I warmed up from standing in the parking lot, so did my rusty ability to ride the trail by feel not sight. I called one last time as I slogged up the rough trail and a white flash came barreling around the corner. “Eli sit,” I said rambling off a few things that he probably didn’t care about. Reorienting myself down the trail, I told him to go and chased after him.
In a different place like Montana, it’s easy to lose track of how you arrived there. Diving left when Eli did and feeling the dry dirt shuffle under my tires brought back the echoes from rides past at Burke. Three turns later, my movements had gone from a rigid 2 x 4 to a fresh birch sapling, adapting to contours and the tricks of the trail. I dug for the skills learned from fellow Northeast Kingdom friends. My tires rolled more freely as I navigated loose corners and poppy water bars with sensation, not sight. The dry sweetness of trailside sage was a reminder that there are other areas, adorned with beauty, that will teach a different style of riding and livelihood.