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Mountain Biking & Trail Building Through Grief

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I dedicated my first trail build in Bellingham to my late wife, Susan, who battled late-stage breast cancer for 19 years. Mountain biking and trail building have helped me deal with the grief of this loss.

I am a mountain biker and trail builder. In June of 2016, I lost my best friend and wife, Susan, after a 19 year battle with late-stage breast cancer. My story is an evolving one that I want to share with the mountain biking community. Since her passing, mountain biking and the mountain bike community have helped me get through this tragedy, deal with my grief, and move along with life. 

Grief is a harsh reminder that I had someone special in my life who I loved so profoundly that I’m brought to tears in a moment of remembrance. A particular song, a visit from a random hummingbird, viewing photos of her; any of these can trigger a flood of tears. This grief was compounded by the loss of my parents in the winter of 2018. Now bear with me; it’s not all doom and gloom. I am a very positive and outgoing person, and I live a happy life. I’m not a structured “support group” kind of person and am more of a “get out and think through the thoughts and feelings” person. The mountain biking community is my support group. Processing the pain, for me, has been managed chiefly through mountain biking and trail work.

I’m fortunate to have mountain biking and the mountain bike community to turn to when I need it. Since Susan’s passing, I have leaned heavily on the idea of getting out on my bike and riding for hours. I do this because not only do I love mountain biking, but it is also a great way to deal with the grief that I have experienced by losing my wife. I have also immersed myself in the local trail-building community. There’s nothing like getting out for some trail work to clear your head, and in turn, give back to the community.

Anyone reading this who has lost someone special probably understands this about grief: It will hit you suddenly as you try to get on with your life. It comes and goes, and it shows up in all shapes and sizes. You deal with those feelings and then move on with whatever you were doing. However, the grief never goes away; it just comes back when you least expect it as you become involved in new things. The last year has been filled with big adventure rides, new friends, and trail building. As a mountain biker, what more could you ask for? After losing my wife, starting life over has landed me in beautiful Bellingham, Washington. As you all are aware, there are plenty of riding opportunities available here. With that said, those trails don’t fix or build themselves.I’m no stranger to trail work, as I helped build and maintain a growing number of trails in southern New Jersey before moving west in 2018. After getting to know the trail network here on Galbraith a little better, I reached out to my friend Eric Brown to get plugged in with WMBC trail work. Eric, also known as “EB,” is the executive director of the WMBC (Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition).

A year ago, I noticed a hill on Galbraith that we would ride around on a gravel road, up and down, to get to a fun black diamond trail named Space Wolf. I asked EB why there wasn’t a trail on this hill that leads down to Space Wolf. I was then asked to put in a proposal. Fast forward a couple of months, and I was out flagging a route. I would quickly figure out why no one had built a trail on this hill and subsequent slope. The zone was covered in slash piles from a thinning operation a few years prior. The evergreens growing in this zone were on the young side, so sighting lines were inadequate as low branches obscured the views.

I had a lot of work ahead of me, but I was ready to take on the project. Getting the opportunity to build my first trail here wasn’t something I thought would ever happen. The trail builders here are some of the best in the world. Also, the opportunities are limited, so I jumped on the chance. Up to this point, I had already helped with some brushing work and trail reroutes in the area.

This particular zone required many hours of chainsaw work just to get down the slope, where I could scope things out. After that, it took me about a month to clear the dead trees and trim dead branches along my planned trail corridor. Due to COVID-19, I couldn’t have a whole crew or publicly announced trail day for this build. However, I could enlist help from a few people who really made a dent in the work. I received support from James, Ash, and Susan at different times to trim tree branches. Later in the build, Susan came out to help with benching on the climbing trail.

I dedicated my first trail build here in Bellingham to my late wife, Susan. Her nickname was “Swirlz.” That nickname developed after one of her first chemo treatments. The doctors told us that her straight hair could grow back in curly, and sure enough, it did.

The trail that I built in her name flows and swirls through the forest. It gives you speed and takes it away for a moment until you pump through a turn, over a roller, and then the flow returns. It’s not a long trail, but more of a “get from point a to point b in the most fun way” trail. The trail doesn’t solely bear her nickname for the route it takes. It’s about the uphill battle she endured and dealing with the adversity cancer treatment presented. This trail required a lot of work just to get to the digging portion of the project. This project was just what I needed, a challenge. I often thought of her struggles as each workday ended. It only made sense to honor her in naming this trail.

Generally speaking, nobody knows how to deal with your grief unless they, too, have dealt with a significant loss. You’ll hear a wide range of comments regarding moving on after the loss of a loved one. I don’t think there is a cure or a specific fix. Everyone is different. Anyone that has lost someone deals with the loss and grief differently. There really is no “moving on.” You just carry on with life without that person physically with you. Their spirit lives on in your memories. Dealing with grief after losing Susan has gotten more manageable with these new surroundings. Becoming more involved in the mountain biking community through the WMBC has undoubtedly helped me deal with my grief. It is also highly gratifying to give back to these local trails.

If you find yourself in a similar position, get out for regular rides. Not only will the physical activity help you, but you’ll also clear your mind.

Photos: Eric Mickelson @_ericmickelson

I'm a widower, mountain biker, and amateur chef. I've been riding a bike since I was a little kid. Back then, I could barely touch the pedals, and my marbles took a beating from time to time, but I loved the freedom that a bicycle gave me.

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