I’ve written a lot about trail conflicts. I’ve been annoyed at most user groups and I’ve also been a member of most user groups. This year I experienced what it’s like to be a vulnerable trail user.
I’ve been mostly a walker since having spine surgery. Even after being cleared to ride a bike, I just haven’t felt like it. Walking has been nice and since Geardog’s relative age and mine are now essentially the same, we are completely simpatico just hiking and walking. It’s been enjoyable, but what hasn’t been enjoyable is having to face the stark reality of what life is like down at the bottom of the food chain.
Walking was by far the number one activity recommended to me by my surgeon and physical therapist. It’s gentle, it’s good for you, and it has lots of positive benefits. So there I was, in the dead of winter, walking the trails I usually roll over on my fat-tire bike. It was a low snow winter which in Southcentral Alaska means ice, lots of ice. It’s not that fun to walk on, but hit the trails I did.
I stuck to the wide ones as I didn’t want to slip or stumble on the singletracks. What I experienced wasn’t all that great. Sad to say, most of the negative encounters were with cyclists. They’d whiz past me from behind, and if they’d yell they’d only say “COMING UP ON YOU FROM THE BACK!!!” expecting me to leap out of the way. They’d pass without a single word or greeting.
The runners aren’t any better, just slower.
In response I’ve become a master at deliberate reaction. Balancing a 9lb weight on top of a recently repaired vertebrae requires sedate movement. I don’t leap out of the way. I might step to my side of the trail if I’m taking up a lot of room (which I usually don’t, but occasionally drift to the center which warrants correcting), but I don’t scramble to avoid someone who can easily just use his brakes, slow down, and pass politely. Some of my companions are wont to step into the brush to allow a Stravaing cyclist or unruly herd of middle school runners to soak up the entire width of the trails, but I’m not. These are my trails, too. I’ll walk down them at my speed and the Strava crowd can just deal with it.
Even when I do ride my bike these days I take my sweet freaking time. I prefer to enjoy the outdoors without redlining my heart rate at every second, these days. I’ve shaken the addiction to endorphins and I’m not interested in going back down that path. I was charmed by mountain biking when it was a quiet endeavor; just me, my dog, and the beautiful outdoors. Those were the days I was most in love with mountain biking. Somehow I got pulled a ways into the dark side of self-involved over-exercising, but luckily not so far that I lost sight of my own outdoor roots. The sweating, gasping, groaning masses of compression-clad, limping exertionists hold no appeal to me these days. When one of them lurches past me in a hydration vest, ludicrous footwear and jacked-up posture I mostly just feel sorry for them. Lycra-wearing cyclists clearly entertaining Leadville fantasies just annoy me. Those Olympic doubtfuls are the most dangerous; they’re going the fastest with the least skill and control.
It’s sad because most of the cyclist offenders are people whom I’m at least peers with, cycling skill-wise. If I were on my bike I’d probably be faster than their middle-aged dadbods and they’d enjoy riding with me. Don’t get me wrong from my affection for strolling; I can still rip when the mood strikes me, it just doesn’t too often. But the cyclists and runners for whom their own workout trumps all other considerations seem to treat people like me as a speed bump rather than a human. It’s gross, offensive, and has completely turned me off to all of the outdoor hype even more than I was before.
When you’re delicate and you need a little extra consideration and the North Face-inspired racer types are determined to continue shouldering past, hogging trails, focusing only on their earbuds and heart rate monitors, you can’t help but notice that the outdoors have changed. No longer are our compatriots nature appreciators; they’re competitors in a pointless race to obscurity and chronic overuse injury. I doubt many of them even register where they are or what they’re doing.
Most importantly, though, that behavior is rude and dangerous to other trail users.
Remember this guy? I haven’t seen him in a few months. But the last time I did, I, as always, slowed down to stroll, stand, and chat with him, and watch our dogs be silly. And the last time I saw him, he watched a cyclist power past us without speaking, and commented, “These young people, they just don’t bother to say hello any more.”