Monday, May 09, 2005

When deer are the biggest things on the road: a night ride

2 AM. A spring breeze spills in the window. I'm stuck at the office grading student projects. I still don't have my helmet back, and the prospect of a night ride is a little daunting. The prospect of not getting out into that night air, though, is unbearable. I'm off.

I roll quietly across campus, greeting a few late night studiers and a few early celebrators. I feel stiff from the sitting and am winded by the short climb up the river bridge. A light breeze whips up at me from the river, bringing with it that moist smell that says "river" in every language.

I zip smoothly down the other side, starting to get my wind and legs, until a traffic light with a bad sense of humor changes to red. I stop right on the sensor, wait a full cycle as a couple of cars straggle through from other directions, and then motor on through the red light. The city paid a ridiculous amount for these new buried detector loops that were supposed to pickup bicycles, but many of them still can't detect a Harley. What are the odds of getting 7 odd pounds of alloyed steel noticed?

I head north under the expressway and decide to take it easy up the hill. I notice that, out of habit, I'm hugging the guard rail, even cringing a little as I anticipate a downshifting car to roar past. I laugh at myself, let my shoulders relax, and edge out into the lane.

By the end of the half mile climb, I'm riding mid-lane. Freed from car detection duty, my senses start to focus on the night. The air is still and heavy, not the oppressive weight of a humid summer night, but the comforting heft of a blossoming spring. Even as I speed down the backside of the hill, the air only whispers past. I can hear the low hum of the tires, the steady throb of the chain, and not much else.

The moon lights my way, augmented poorly by a small LED headlamp. I switch the lamp off. This road is one of my favorite night rides, and I've already hit every bump and crack without incident on rides past.

I stop pedaling and let the bike roll as I near the bottom. Just for fun, I stay off the pedals and let the silence close in around me as the bike coasts to a stop. I dismount and marvel at the quiet. If there's a positive to the noise of our modern lives, surely it's our fascination with silence.

Back on the bike, I glide up the long, gradual climb to Strawberry Ridge. Climbing is easier at night. It's harder to judge grades and impossible to see anything imposing up ahead. I think I'd be a better climber if I wore a blindfold. Well, straight climbs, anyway.

I approach a farm that moonlights as a white-tail deer feed lot. Sure enough, a soft clatter of hooves around the corner alerts me to the herd, the most hazardous thing on the road tonight. The deer up here are still wild, farm fed or not, and they will bolt at a dog bark or a person on foot. At my bike, though, they only show an annoyed sort of curiosity. Do they think I'm a deer? Some other odd animal? A harmless fool riding his bicycle in the middle of the night? I often get the feeling it's the latter, and I never abuse the trust. I weave carefully through the snorts and glancing eyes. Incredible, what gifts are held for cyclers!

I climb out of the herd, and they continue feasting on the roadside grasses. Dessert at the farm tonight, I guess. An owl has taken up residence on a higher part of the hill, and he (or she?) almost always seems to detect my presence. I like to think I'm being hooted a hello, anyway.

The night sky opens up to the east, now, and moon and stars are abundant enough to drown out scattered porch lights. To the west, Waterworks hill blocks out the main city, only the soft glow of lights over the ridge reminds of Missoula. Straight ahead used to be nothing. Well, nothing bothersome, just the peaks of the Rattlesnake Wilderness rising up in the dark. Now, seven years since my first ride up here, a few houses have cut their foundations into the hillside. I don't mind them awfully, but I wish they'd not flood their yards with light all night. Off to the right and well below, Rattlesnake Creek is audible. It won't be in a couple of months, once spring run off has ebbed. Hearing a creek I know is always comforting somehow, even when it's hundreds of feet below.

I dismount at the top of the hill and roll the bike through the public access gate. I hike another 200 feet or so up the hill, lie the bike carefully on its side and stretch out in the tall grass to watch the stars a while.

The creeping chill of the air off the ridge behind me finally spurs me to action. I roll the bike back down the hill, through the gate, and remount on the road. I slow down for the deer, but they seem to have moved on toward the farm and the creek, leaving the road entirely to me. I ride the middle of the lane again down the long descent, up the short hill and then down the steep, short hill that spits me out into town again.

Take a late night ride down a familiar road sometime. Especially if life's been hectic, or traffic's been heavy. Take away the noise, and the cars, and all of the smells of a city. I'm not saying they're always bad. But, I will say that the opposite is always good.



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1:36 PM  

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