Between the cake and candles

The author, left, and friend Barbara Metz
Let them eat cake: The author, left, and friend Barbara Metz celebrate in style in the Shining Rock Wilderness, 2005.

This is the week of the birthday ride.

Each year I give myself an adventure in the woods, whether it’s an all-day hike or a mountain-bike trek. Although doing this nurtures both the soul and the body, I feel that this annual commemoration allows me to honor my physical self, which is, after all, what we are celebrating on this day. Who knows how long this soul of mine has been floating around, planting itself into various spiders, dogs or plant life?

In a way it is a test of endurance, a chance to see how much, if any, I’ve slipped or progressed physically. I become aware of my mortality, cherishing my body as it is in this moment, in unison with my mind. Another part is just being with the trees, breathing their rich oxygen into my lungs as I sprint up a hill, blood pumping vigorously through my legs. I enjoy the primal ability to focus on myself as a functioning organism and an ingredient of the woods around me. I am reminded that my responsibilities as a human are well beyond paying taxes, voting, getting new struts on the truck or returning every phone call. I am responsible for living and being, and doing so in the present.

This birthday ritual began in 1997 with a mountain-bike ride in New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest. I was new to New Mexico and new to mountain biking, so my riding friends did not know me well enough to know it was my birthday. In fact, this was the first time in my life that nobody really knew, and I was enjoying the secret, allowing the day to unfold in its perfect way, rather than being forced fun for the sake of an event.

We met at the trailhead at 8 a.m., which was when the snow began to float down around us. Our tires crunched across the frozen ground as we skirted icy puddles. The brisk air quickly quenched our lungs as our natural-heating systems kicked in and propelled us on. I watched, through a veil of fluffy flakes, the line of riders ahead of me snake between rock crevices and undulate across smooth red mounds. Although we were in the woods for most of the day, we did not stop long for fear of cooling down. It was back at the truck, as we poured from a leftover keg of Fat Tire Ale, that I finally admitted it was my birthday. We all toasted our frosty brews to my beautiful day and a new tradition.

My first birthday in Asheville was spent on the Heartbreaker in Black Mountain — a 25-mile trail with a 10-mile climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway scattered with baby-head-sized rocks, followed by a technical, rock-jumping descent that twists through rhododendron. There’s something about pushing my body to vomit-levels and scaring myself with speed that makes me feel alive.

Another year was the epic 25-mile hike in Jackson County with my personal backwoods guide, Steve Harpe, who can find his way through any rhododendron thicket west of Asheville and east of the Mississippi. After hours of trails, we took a “shortcut,” which meant bushwhacking in a way that I usually would have considered lost, only to pop out into a subdivision 20 miles from the van near Waterrock Knob. I could feel every stone beneath the thin soles of my old brogans, and my lower back was screaming from carrying my 50-pound, 12-year-old dog for the last two hours. When a kayaker in a VW pulled over to check on us, Ginger climbed into his car voluntarily, looking at me with pleading eyes. I climbed in after her and gave the driver the same look until he started driving.

This year I’ll mark another year by going to the Fish Hatchery in Brevard. The number of technical trails there is dizzying, allowing one to link miles and miles of fun together, with views from Pilot Mountain and crazy, fast descents that intertwine with Daniels Ridge and Long Branch. The best bit is the final two miles to the parking lot, bouncing down water-bars and sailing over root gardens, racing through Cat Gap.

I wonder which trail I’ll take when I’m 90?

[Bettina Freese is a self-proclaimed “birthday brat.” She is also a massage therapist and can be reached at befree01@charter.net.]

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