A Hiker, Some Bikers, and a Mountain

A couple of weeks ago I was in Los Alamos visiting my sister’s family. It was a gorgeous Saturday in the Jemez mountains, so we planned to attend Summerfest at the local ski hill. The ski lift was taking people up  Pajarito Mountain and we intended to catch the lift, hike the ridge to the crest, then either hike down or take the lift back to the lodge.

Before we arrived at Pajarito, I didn’t have a clear idea of what Summerfest was really about, and I can’t say I did by the time we left. However, by that time I understood it had something to do with mountain biking and craft beers. My first real sense that the bikers were out in force was the line at the chair lift.

Waiting for the chair lift at Pajarito Mountain, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I had never experienced mountain biking in person – really, I’d only ever seen snippets on television on the X-Games. I was fascinated by the sport as I observed it that day at Pajarito, which was no surprise, really, as I find myself increasingly interested in biking-related events these days. I was momentarily transported to my childhood living room, sitting in front of the television during the Olympics, imagining myself an athlete who possessed both the talent and daring necessary to compete in gymnastics, diving, or speed skating (which I loved long before Apollo Ohno, though even more after). I wished I had a bike and the right garb to fit in with the rest of the crowd. As a result, I watched the bikers carefully, noting their activities whenever I saw them or our paths crossed on the mountain. It turns out, mountain biking, and the riders, had several important lessons to communicate that day – at least, they seemed like lessons applicable to my life. I thought I’d share, in the event they have any usefulness for you as well!

Lessons This Hiker Learned from Those Bikers on Pajarito Mountain:

#1. Why struggle uphill the hard way, when an easy way is readily available.

I didn’t see any mountain bikers attempting to ride UP the mountain. They were all in line for the ski lift. Which isn’t to say that there is never a value in the uphill struggle. There can be. But all too often, in daily life, we make things needlessly harder for ourselves. For example, I briefly considered climbing up on foot, out of fear of heights on the lift. My sister, Chris, who rode with me can attest that I wasn’t comfortable with the ride, however, taking the easy way up preserved my energy for the demanding trip down!

#2. Others can help, but you are ultimately responsible for your own stuff.

A worker loads a bike on the chair lift.

Most of the bikers were right there, checking that their bikes were properly loaded on the lift before allowing them to be sent up. Riders then rode behind the bikes, keeping an eye on them on the way up. If a bike had fallen, the lift operator would probably have felt bad about it – but the owner would have been truly bummed. I, for one, am guilty of trusting that people who know more than me have watched out for my safety, my technology, my health and not doing my own due diligence. Chair lifts, for example, are basically safe – barring an “act of God”, unforeseen mechanical failure, AND as long as you don’t screw around too much. Even though it was humbling, I had never been on a lift before so we asked the operator at the top to stop it while I got off – which they gladly did. I figured falling on my a$# would have been more humiliating! Its a good rule of thumb to keep in mind that strangers, no matter their experience or knowledge or basic good will, won’t be the ones experiencing the consequences if things aren’t done correctly.

#3. Make sure you’ve got the right safety gear.


My photo doesn’t do justice to the sheer amount of protective gear being worn by these mountain bikers. Most had the basics (long sleeves, helmet, shin and knee guards) but many were wearing what appeared to be a form of full-body armor. How often in life do we find out the hard way that we didn’t think to gather the right safety gear? My friend, Colette, can attest to the fact that even a quick bike ride without a helmet may not be a good idea. When I was contemplating resigning from my job without another lined up, I did my best to enumerate the financial and personal commitments that would require advance planning and to line up appropriate solutions and supports for these. Time will tell whether I was thorough. But knowing that I’ve arranged for continuing health coverage, for example, allows for some peace of mind as I, like these mountain bikers, approach the jumps and stunts just ahead.

#4. Make some noise.

The mountain is multi-use, meaning the bikers don’t own the paths despite the creation of jumps and hazards meant to increase their enjoyment of the ride back down Pajarito. They made noise to catch the attention of hikers who might be on the path ahead. They also let loose with whoops of enjoyment. I, for one, appreciated both kinds of noise. I am learning that giving others an idea of what you are doing, where you are heading, is the best way to garner both emotional support and concrete offers of assistance (as well as receive responses which help you round out your plans or find glaring ommissions!). Keeping my hopes, dreams, plans, goals to myself is a self-protective reflex which keeps me from feeling vulnerable or judged if I should fall short. But making some noise and sharing what I’m doing has so many more tangible benefits – not the least of which is that others can walk beside me while I struggle to create something new in my life. Finally, there is no substitute for a well-placed celebratory “Woo-Hoo” if you’re enjoying the ride!

#5. The most direct route isn’t always the best one.

Riders tack back and forth on the steepest part of the run.

My nephew, Tim, who grew up skiing on Pajarito, was my companion on the hike back down. The path we followed was actually a ski run. It was quite steep, and at the steepest portion very rocky. We were concentrating on the placement of each step, when Tim (who was taking it slow on my account) looked up and saw a bunch of bikers below us on the run. The two riders in the foreground of the photo, above, look like they are just riding sideways across the path. In fact, they are following the path established by other cyclists before them as a means of safely traversing the slope. Tacking may seem like a waste of time and energy, but it keeps their speed manageable until the pitch lessens (and you can see riders heading forward at the top of the picture, as the path diverges into the woods). In elementary school I learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I have kept this one math rule in my head all my life, and often allowed it to inform my life. Just ask anyone who has driven with me – I’m all about the shortest distance between two points! The problem is, life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, even though we may not know why, we take a circuitous route, or find ourselves backtracking. AND THAT’S OK! This summer, I am taking the extra time to tack a bit myself. After leaving my job, I took time for a long visit with my family, and in July I am taking a week to do RAGBRAI (in between, taking the time to ride in preparation). I feel the decompression – and once I arrive in Minneapolis the acclimation – time is necessary after the emotional and spiritual energy expenditures of leaving my job and home. We all have times when the acceleration of heading straight down a steep path is too much, and a little meandering is called for.

#6. If you insist on being unique, be prepared for some extra sweat.

A unicyclist mountain biker!

If you are observant, you may note that the orange-shirted unicyclist can be seen in both the picture above and also in the preceding one (tacking across the ski run). We saw him throughout our hike, sometimes far ahead of us on the path and at other times behind or immediately in front of us. The truth is, he had a rough time on the rocky terrain of Pajarito Mountain. I have several photos of him attempting to traverse a particularly stony portion of the path – he fell off the unicycle about every third revolution of his pedals. What impressed me the most, watching him, was that he didn’t just pick up the unicycle and walk to a less rocky part of the path. He got back on and rode for three more revolutions. Paths are the way most of us make our way through life – we follow the track someone else has made. That’s fine. But if we choose to be a pathbreaker, or (like the unicyclist above) to take a unique approach to the path, we need to be prepared for it to be harder work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

#7. It isn’t always about racing to the finish.

I figured these mountain bikers would be all about racing each other down the mountain. And while that was likely true for some, there was a lot of other stuff going on. First, there was a lot of learning happening, as each person made their way through the forest, ski runs, and the many “enhancements” to the hiking trail meant to test the cyclists’ skills. There was also a lot of teaching/coaching happening, as more experienced riders took the time to explain their approach to the less-experienced. And there was plenty of sharing of stories, designed both to relive the excitement of the individuals’ experience but also to create a shared lore of the day. Part of me has been anxious to get going on settling in and finding a job in Minneapolis, while the rest of me is trying to take the time-out I knew I needed. My friends keep admonishing me to “enjoy this time”, “don’t be in such a rush”, “just let yourself relax”. And their advice is absolutely right. Our lives are rushed enough, without turning every day into a race to see how much we can accomplish – then comparing it with how much others managed to do. Sometimes, the thrill of a beautiful day on a mountain, testing my own skills or strength, learning from someone else’ story – any or all of these – are enough. And we need to understand the necessity of slowing it down. Warp speed is no way to live this one life we’ve been given.

#8. Always take time to celebrate your hard work and achievements.


For many, the day of derring-do ended with great bluegrass music and some mighty fine craft beers. Not a bad way to end a day of hard recreation! The atmosphere reminded me of the final town each night of the week-long RAGBRAI ride – people relaxing, telling their stories, pausing from their exertions to whoop it up a bit.  Which leads me to my unofficial lesson #9: Bike riders have more fun! In all seriousness, though, I’m learning that the celebration afterwards is one of the most important parts of life. Being with others in a moment of easy camaraderie, sharing our stories and our laughter (sometimes healing tears, too), allowing ourselves that very precious present – that’s what makes the effort of our exertions worth it!

2 thoughts on “A Hiker, Some Bikers, and a Mountain

  1. Yeah Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC). Rich and I did an assessment there in January. The Jemez Mts. are incredible and the chair lift cool. The ride down on a bike….Yikes!

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