“Oh, when I look back now, that summer seemed to last forever. And if I had the choice. Ya- I’d always wanna be there. Those were the best days of my life.”
The middle of winter in northern Minnesota: short days, long nights, and sub-zero temperatures. During this time of the year I find myself missing Colorado, where I used to live, the most. I sit huddled in my room shivering under my many blankets, and as I watch the wind hurl snow past my window, I think back to a different time. A warmer time. A happier time—the best summer of my life.
It was the summer before ninth grade, a summer of change. I was thirteen years old, officially a teenager, and I prepared to embark on my next great adventure: high school. However, one week of that summer presented a greater challenge than my entire freshman year. That summer I participated in High School Adventure Week at Sonlight Christian Camp. I had attended Sonlight every summer since fifth grade, participating in both Resident Camp and Wilderness Week alike. However, the agenda for this particular summer turned out to be something exclusively unique. The plan was to mountain bike from Pagosa Springs, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico in one week. It was not until later that I discovered the trip consisted of a ninety-one mile trek over four mountain passes.
On Sunday morning I arrived at the local park around ten. As I climbed out of the car I assessed my surroundings. There was a truck that would accompany us on our excursion, a bus, four teenagers, and two adults. Katie, the only other girl, had attended Sonlight with me in the past, but we had never been close. I already knew one of the guys, Jackson, from school, but I had never even seen the two other guys. Travis was slight—both short and skinny—and he struck me as somewhat awkward and uncomfortable. Devon showed up in a dinosaur shirt, cowboy hat, and spoke with a Texan drawl. I did not know what to think at first. He ended up being a really funny guy, but he took some getting used to. The adults turned out to be our counselors for the week. Tim and Heather were everything anyone could ever want in counselors. Not only did they act as our watchers, but they became our friends, displaying kindness and affection in all their actions. They truly completed the trip.
After we introduced ourselves, packed our gear in the truck, and said many heartfelt goodbyes to our parents, we headed on our way. We rode the bus from the park to the top of Wolf Creek Pass, approximately twenty miles away and twelve-thousand feet in elevation. Then the real journey began.
The bus dropped us off in a “parking lot” on the side of the road—used mostly for people planning to hike the Continental Divide trail. We mounted our bikes and tore off down a trail between the trees. The sky had been filled with brilliant sunshine earlier in the day, but soon transformed into an overcast and dreary blanket. The path wound before us, and through the gloom I saw the forest in an entirely new light. It turned magical with the deep green of the pine trees intensifying as the clouds continued to roll in from the horizon. The normally present wildlife fell silent in a calming, peaceful manner. However, the thrill of riding soon overcame all other senses.
We continued for a couple miles, twisting and turning through an evermore stunning surrounding. We finally stopped in the middle of a clearing. Nearly circular in shape, it was the ideal camping spot. We set up our tents quickly, and rapidly built up a roaring campfire. That first night we started playing campfire games, such as two-truths-and-a-lie, that we continued for the rest of the week. It felt nice to sit around the warm campfire, surrounded by new friends, as the night grew ever colder. I fell asleep immediately that night, excited for what the next morning would bring.
The sun crept over the mountain summits early the next morning. Without the thick walls and curtained windows of a house to block light and sound, we woke a little after dawn. After a breakfast of hot oatmeal and Tang, we loaded our gear back into the truck. Then, we headed out on the most physically demanding experience of my short life.
Unlike the previous night, where the path was fairly level, today’s journey proved purely up hill. We headed up the first mountain pass on a dirt logging road. The endless switchbacks terrified me: a sheer drop-off to my right and logging trucks passing on my left. Despite my intense fear of getting run over or falling to my death, I made it safe and sound to lunch. We pulled off onto a flat plain about halfway up the mountain. We ate our peanut butter sandwiches, Pringles, and oatmeal cream pies, feeling the pattern of our days fall into place; we would continue in this way for the remainder of our journey.
We would rise at dawn and bike up a beautifully treacherous mountain. We would eat the same lunch every day before continuing on our way. We would set up camp midway through the afternoon and spend the rest of the day talking, reading, and playing Frisbee. At night, we sat around the campfire telling our life stories and playing games before heading off to our tents for the remainder of the night. The next day would follow the same pattern, except we would fly downhill and across level plains and valleys to reach the next mountain pass.
Some days I remember more clearly than others, and even then it is only flashes. Like the way the hot noon sun glanced off the shear red mountain peaks. Or the way the timeless deserted mining town seemed just as natural in the landscape as the wildflowers and flowing streams. We saw the most beautiful lake nestled off the base of a mountain. It glistened steely-blue, its surface alive with diamonds reflecting the mid-morning sun. Surrounded on three sides by the forest, it was a solitary oasis in the midst of the mountains.
Then I remember the feelings. I can still feel the wind rushing past my body as I flew down the highway, nearly passing the cars. When I think back to those excruciating uphill climbs, I remember the burn in my legs and lungs as I continued to fight. I remember another type of burn as well: hail falling on sunburned thighs as we raced against a storm to arrive at our campsite.
Various other memories will stick with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget the little café we stopped at one afternoon. I did not even know that any towns existed in that part of the wilderness, but they do. We spent a lot of time in that café—a good couple of hours. We ate more than we had all week and staged bar fights with the pool cues. It was not the most mature way to act, but we sure had fun. A couple of days later we stopped at the top of the last pass we would have to endure. Ranchers use that particular stretch of land as pasture for their free-range cattle, and we just happened to set up camp in the middle of where the cattle wanted to roam. When the herd emerged from between the trees, Katie and I were outside, but all of the guys were in their tent. One of the cows got a little curious and decided to see what they were doing. Instead of just sniffing the outside of the tent, this particular cow went as far as sticking its head into the front overhang before Devon let out a high-pitched scream. These little moments, memories, and feelings may fade over time, but will never completely be forgotten.
On the last full day of camp, we started off early as usual. But the atmosphere was slightly different. After the last few days of rain, hail, and the like, it was a pleasant surprise waking to full sunlight. Everyone was excited to ride the last twenty miles of our trip—downhill on the highway. I happened to be terrified. Unlike my friends, who apparently lacked a desire for self-preservation, I kept imagining getting run over. So, I was very apprehensive as we rounded the last bend in the logging road and the gray expanse of asphalt loomed ahead. I just kept telling myself that Sonlight would never allow this if any real danger was involved. So, with a prayer in my heart and panic in every other part of my body, I let loose down the highway. I was flying! The wind rushed past me in exhilarating streams, and my inhibition left faster than I was traveling. Twenty miles would have taken us two full days before. Today the road was not nearly long enough. All too soon we were stopping at the New Mexico border to take pictures. It was at this time that I learned why I had been so slow at going uphill, but downhill was a breeze. When we all lifted our bikes for the group photo, I could barely lift mine to my shoulders, while everyone else proudly raised their bikes above their heads. As it turns out, every other person on the trip had a nice, light, aluminum bike. Mine was one-hundred percent, solid, heavy steel. Oh well, that explained a lot.
We continued on, nearly passing the cars as we rolled into Chama. Instead of sleeping in the wild outdoors that night, we set up camp at an in-town camp ground. We wasted time until dinner by playing Frisbee and practicing our gymnastic abilities. Then as our last day came to a close, we ate at Dairy Queen and reveled in the abundance of fried fast food and ice cream.
It is still winter in Minnesota. I sit in my room, and in between shivers I remember the summer that all began with a bike—my summer of change four years ago. I remember the summer before ninth grade as the best of my life. But now I am at another turning point. I will head off to college in the fall, and during the summer I plan on working at Sonlight as a counselor. So I guess that I have come full circle, in more ways than one. I continue to look back on that seemingly endless summer as the best days of my life. However, I do not always want to be there. I want to move forward and embrace my next summer of change. For if my bike trip taught me anything, it is that challenges make life worth living, and overcoming challenges makes one stronger than ever imagined.