The rocks had gotten bigger, I decided. That was right before I crashed.
It was the afternoon of my 31st birthday, and I was out chasing two fast girls on fast bikes off the backside of Le Tour ski resort in France, into Trient, Switzerland. I had done that descent a couple of times, but I felt off today. There seemed to be more loose rocks than I remembered. As I felt my legs shaking a bit, I regretted not having eaten anything but a couple of eggs that morning. I usually eat religiously, but had been in a rush to leave the house.
I saw that I was heading towards a large rock garden, so I hit the brakes and slowed to a standing near-stop to to assess things for a second.
It had rained for the over a week, and this was one of several segments that were very slick or soft. The rain must have caused some erosion, and the rocks have gotten bigger, I thought, though l’m sure it only looked that way from my window seat on the Bullet Train to Bonktown. I spotted my line, let go of the brakes, prepared to roll.
In a split second, everything went pear-shaped. I don’t think I had enough speed, or maybe I just hit a big rock the wrong way, but whatever it was, suddenly my front tire was not pointing down the trail anymore, it was skewed off to the right, and I put a foot down but the trail was too steep, and my back wheel was off the ground above me, and I was careening face first towards a rock, and I couldn’t find my hands, and all my recurring nightmares were finally coming true and I was going to smash all my teeth out. Even in that instant I had time to think ironically, “Now I know why they wear full face helmets”.
I had never heard myself scream like that before.
I hit the deck chin and chest first, knocking the wind out of me. When I looked down, bright red blood was dripping generously down my jersey, down my chest, and onto the wet dirt. I touched the burning part of my face, and my white gloves were stained red. Oh man, I thought glumly. I really did it this time.
I am not a stranger to the sight of my own blood. Once, when I was learning how to mountain bike three years ago I had ridden off the side of a trail, impaling myself in the shin with a small stick. When I pulled it out of my leg, a crimson river came spilling forth from under my knee so fast that I was more impressed than scared at first, until the nausea took over and I had to sit down.
A few years ago on my birthday, I was birthday snowboarding in New Zealand. I slid off a large rail and hit my chin against the metal edge, splitting it open in almost the exact same place as I did a couple of weeks ago.
Through the years, I’ve accumulated battle wounds, dabs and slashes of dark collagen on my legs that are each tied to a different disaster, some that I can’t remember or identify anymore. I think they’ve reached a critical mass this year, as I’ve gotten a lot of comments about them lately. “Your legs are gnarly.” “You’re like a human scar.”
I ended up needing stitches for my chin. Immediately after, I met my friend Jo for a burger and a much-needed beer. When he saw me, he shook his head. “You like f—ing yourself up”.
The next day, I literally took a long hard look in the mirror at the newest pieces in my collection: a large, weeping red rash that ran from my collarbone to the top of my right breast, and a stitched-up chin that looked like a wonky purple goatee. The scars were starting to make their way up above my legs. I wondered if he was right.
Really, I don’t enjoy getting hurt or being uncomfortable. I’d been on the last day of a four-day mountain bike tour a few weeks ago when I’d had to bail from the top of a pass to the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, France. Riding through frigid, pouring rain, I was soaked within minutes of leaving the refuge, shaking, hands going numb on the brakes. Every 10 or 15 minutes, I pulled over to try to let my body catch up.
That 20km descent seemed to last forever. Teeth clenched, I wondered if I regretted being out there. But I had seen things on that bike ride. Views that made me think that maybe people used the word “desolate” to describe wilderness that big, because they knew they might never see anything that beautiful again so it made them feel both bleak and overjoyed at the same time.
When I’d called and told Steve the story, he’d asked, “Are you a masochist?”
“I’m not a masochist,” I said, exasperated. “I just wanted to get to Bourg-Saint-Maurice.”
I’m not out for pain and suffering. But on the way to those kinds of places, sometimes, it just happens.
Growing up, I was pretty sure I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body. I played basketball for 12 years, and remained staunchly mediocre the whole time. That was about the extent of my experience with sports as a youth.
In college, I joined a sorority and participated in endurance drinking events. We went to nightclubs. We wore short skirts and batted our eyes at bouncers so we wouldn’t have to wait in line in the cold, and at strangers in the bar so we wouldn’t have to buy our own drinks.
One weekend, when I was 24, some friends decided it might be funny to try and teach me how to snowboard.
Much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I picked it up quickly. “We were all really afraid you were going to hate it and cry,” my friend Renee had confessed to me afterwards. It was the opposite. I was hooked.
Everything channged. Snowboarding was the gateway to the outdoors. I started running, road biking, mountain biking, then skiing. I pursued each obsessively, singlemindedly, as if trying to make up for lost time. And as you do when you’re pushing your limits, I crashed a lot.
“You move too fast,” my mom always said to me when I was young, admonishing the frenetic ball of energy that was her older daughter, who’d just knocked over another a glass of water or ran into the sharp corner of a table.
I could go a lot slower on the bike or on skis, I guess, and I wouldn’t crash so much. But it was also always on the edge of that ability that everything else fell away. I was only aware of my bike rattling down the perfect loamy ribbon of singletrack, or the soft shhh of powder under my board, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. If in the pursuit of this elusive, transformative state I accidentally tripped up and beat the crap out of myself from time to time, my ledger still felt net positive.
I was president of a sorority in college. My girlfriends are all gorgeous. I always felt plain compared to them. I spent much of college and my 20s trying to be a pretty girl. I’ve owned jackets that cost more than a bike. Paid $250 to have my hair done. But I never felt beautiful until I swapped out the stiletto heels for well-worn hiking boots, the low-cut halter tops for smelly bike jerseys. It didn’t have anything to do with what I was wearing, actually. I had just stopped trying to be something I wasn’t.
The day after my crash, Jo and I went to the lake. The sun was out, and I wore a bikini. We set up a slackline between two trees, and I tried it for the first time. Balancing precariously, mostly holding onto the branch above me, I told him that maybe this crash is a wake-up call, that I’ve been considering whether I should finally feel self-conscious about my scars, maybe be more careful.
He raised his eyebrows. “You don’t seem very self-conscious. You’re wearing a bikini the day after.”
I marveled at the irony for a moment. It was true. I felt more beautiful today at 31, half-naked with all my bruises, tan lines, and scars on full display, than I ever did in my early 20s, when my skin was still unscathed, not yet fully lived in.
It took me about 10 more days to go for a real mountain bike ride again. I was in Morzine, France this weekend, riding trails yet unknown to me, happy to brush the cobwebs off in solitude. The first singletrack descent was peppered with some loose rocks and big boulders, and some areas were muddy from the past several days of rain. I felt shaky for a moment—it all looked a lot like that trail into Trient.
But then I just went a little slower. When I felt more confident, I let myself ride through the slippery, muddy sections. I passed a few people. I hiked my bike a bit. I got lost a few times and did a little extra climbing. I stopped to take a lot of pictures.
The stitches had come out two days prior, and the scabs had gradually flaked off, too, leaving a pale, shiny patch under my clavicle. My hand was still a bit sore, but I could ride a real trail without wincing in pain. I was glad to be back on the bike, rolling along an deserted strip of dirt cut into the side of a mountain, under vast blue skies and over brilliant green hillside. I was glad to be a little smarter for the knocks I’d taken.
And I was glad to be in my skin, as imperfect as it was. Skin that bleeds when it’s cut, turns brown when it heals, will wrinkle and turn soft and then papery one day, if I am fortunate enough to grow old in it. Skin I can shine through. My skin, that keeps changing as I change.