Few of the Expert Crew

Year after year, despite my begging summer to stay, fall rolls right in. Aspens torch bittersweet against sapphire skies. The brush becomes a mottled hide of reds and oranges. The purple of an incongruous aster beckons to your eye. A cool tinge rides the air, and there’s that distinct old-bones rattle of the leaves when breezes braid through them. One moment you inhale the scent of decaying leaves, the next, baked dirt. Elk bugle—an oxymoron of a term, “bugle”—because their sounds are high thin threads, like whale sounds through air. Along the trails, bears gorge on berries, leaving destroyed bushes and piles of yellow-seed droppings.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered at the Vail Recreation District’s final kids’ mountain bike race of the 2017 season. It was held on the Minturn Mini-Mile, a new trail that I’d helped build one evening, and I was excited to see those little suckers use it. As I rode out to my assigned spot as marshall (a stone bridge perhaps three feet wide with a five-foot drop on either side), I came upon a fresh pile of bear scat literally as wide as the trail and as high as my shin. For the youngest competitors, this pile would rise knee-high. Even for the bigger kids … well, I’ll leave it to your imagination. I dismounted, glancing around; that much scat must have come from one hell of a big bear. The announcer’s distant amplified voice declared the start was two minutes hence. Nothing for it, grimacing, working not to gag, I took a great swipe at that pile with the side of my shoe.

Bear poo, it turns out, at least in fall, is the opposite of what you’d expect. It’s dry and granular and falls away easily. In three swipes and one scrape of the dirt, it was mostly gone. Just like that. I climbed back on my bike as the announcer started counting backwards from ten. Cheers rose. The first wave of kids was off.

Race Beaver Creek 2017

My daughter raced in this series every year from when she became old enough. For many years, she won her youth divisions, even beating the boys. At nine, she was the series poster child. I had been one proud momma. This last season, eighteen and newly-graduated from high school, Syd decided she wanted to bump above her 18-And-Under-Sport division to compete with the adults in the Expert division, though she knew she would not win. It meant we raced together, her with the twenty-somethings, me with the fossils. For years she’d been faster than me, faster than most gals, but this summer, though she rode well, she didn’t race well. I, on the other hand, had a stellar season. Every race, Syd would start faster than me, but about halfway through, I’d come up on her. I’d hang with her, urge her on. She’d get annoyed—really, who wants your mother cajoling you in a race?—so I’d ride on ahead. Each time, it felt upside-down. Like fate playing an ironic game. Syd handled it with a grace I wasn’t sure I could have mustered, were I her.

At the stone bridge, Sullivan Middaugh rocketed across first, another boy in hot pursuit.

Kids Race 2017

Sullivan’s father competes in triathlons. Competes very well. In fact, Josiah was the Xterra World Champion in 2015 and has finished near that more years than I can count on my fingers. As I watched Sullivan zoom on down the trail, I recalled that in July he’d beaten 122 adult men to win this year’s Amateur Sprint division of the Xterra race in Beaver Creek. Josiah, who won the pro division, must have been so proud. I then recalled a snowshoe national championship at Beaver Creek years ago, before Sullivan was even born. After we’d raced, Josiah had borrowed my cell phone (a new thing not everyone carried back then) to call his parents, to share his joy at winning. It was Josiah’s first such victory in a storied career. He’d stepped a few feet away to make that call, but I’d glanced over to see him, and I could still picture his grin as he paused speaking and heard his parents’ reaction.

I turned to urge the next racers to hold their line across the narrow red bridge. In the distance hunkered Battle Mountain Pass with its chalk-colored cliffs, steadfast in the soft evening light. How many years until Josiah and Sullivan raced in the same division? Six-year-old Calen White rolled across the bridge, game face on, the stone’s uneven texture bouncing him precariously near its edges. His father Stephen is another remarkable athlete; how long for them?

2017 Fall Racing

Kid after determined kid rolled across that bridge. Many whose parents I knew. How long until they all raced against their parents? How many fathers would be faster than their sons? How many mothers faster than their daughters? If this happened, would those parents’ worlds also seem inverted? And in the midst of this, would they, too, feel like the last patch of green leaves on a mountainside of golden aspens? Or an incongruous blooming aster, the last bit of color in a fading world where elk issue whale songs in opposite elevations.