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Joel and I went down to Arkansas this past weekend. He was racing in the Ouachita Challenge, and I was just up for a trip out of town, a little camping, a little trail, and a bit of exploration.

We left town Friday night; I rode my little green singlespeed over to the shop, and we loaded up and headed out. One or two wrong turns got us a couple of hours out of our way, and we had to stop for the night about two hours out, as it was past midnight and we were getting way goofy. Saturday morning, we cruised the rest of the way in, watching the rain cycle through, and hoping weather and conditions would be favorable on Sunday. It seemed like the people riding the Tour on Saturday were probably having a pretty miserable, muddy time of it, though by the time we got there, found the Badger headquarters, and unwould a bit, it was sunny and 70, and everything was draining and evaporating beautifully. While waiting for Rob, et al to get back from their ride, we moseyed off to ride a strip of the Womble trail.

I'd like to digress a moment to talk about the bike I rode on this particular occasion. I got to ride a demo Gary Fisher HiFi WSD. This was my first time ever on a full-suspension bike (actually a bike with any suspension whatsoever), and it helped me solidify my conclusion that I'm not interested in suspension, fork or otherwise. I need to feel the trail to know what I am doing. I felt like I was flirting with a wreck continually, because I didn't really feel connected…it felt kind of like that slightly floaty feel I generally experience just as I am losing my shit. Moreover, the front end of the bike felt like it wasn't solidly planted on the ground. Unlike my beleaguered Trek 800, the rear end was stable, so it was much nicer on a steep climb, but I found that when I encountered rocks or roots while ascending, it felt like a good pull on the bars would have sent me over backwards. A sweet balance between the front-end stability of my old Trek and the rear-end stability of this Fisher would be my dream. I only managed to lose rear traction once, and I was definitely flogging it up a hill. And those sections of road and gravel we rode were a 1st class nuisance on a bouncy bike. Even with the fork locked out, it was sluggish & heavy. It probably clocks in 2-3lb lighter than my old 800, but since that little piggie is 33lbs of steel and malevolence, that's not saying a whole darn stinkin' lot.

The whole suspension thing really isn't me, though. I spend a lot of time out of the saddle…that's just how I ride trails. I climb standing, I descend with my bum off the back, and I generally kind of crouch and “float” over stones, ruts, and washboard. About the only time my butt is on the seat is fairly flat sections of flowy/curvy singletrack. I am very particular about picking a line, too, so the ability to “bomb” through a very technical section isn't a big draw for me. I can make it through and around a lot of pretty gnarly stuff, and if I don't feel like I can navigate it safely, it doesn't hurt my pride to hop off my bike and hike a little. I really enjoy using my body, my elbows and wrists, knees and angles, as natural shocks, I love the sense of triumph I get out of counter-matching the bumps and dips of the terrain. That's what mountain biking is all about for me.

I'd really wished that there had been a Fisher Rig in my size to test-ride, as that seems more my style…no gears to mess with my short attention span, and I've been itchin' to try out a singlespeed 29er. Joel's plotting to build one for me; it seems like it would be well in line with my riding style, but I'd be happy to go monkeying around on one before then, just to make sure.

Anyway, bike-review digression aside, the strip of Womble that we rode was gorgeous. I wish we'd had time to make a little longer out-and-back of it, but really any opportunity to ride is good for me. My thing with the trails is that I don't get to get out on dirt so very often…I'm always riding back and forth to work, or around town on errands, and it's been so darn wet that our local trails have been way too muddy to ride, so it takes me a while to get warmed up. For the first mile or two I'm feeling like I'll almost certainly tank into a tree or fall completely over. It takes me a while to get loosened up, to get the feel and flow, and because we were just out for maybe 4-5 miles, I'd just started to get comfortable and happy and “whoops,” we're back on the road.

Short ride and unfamiliar bike notwithstanding, I can't complain; it was beautiful out there. Perfect weather, gorgeous countryside, and a lot of darn nice folks circulating around. I got to meet a few people whose names I knew but faces I didn't. The talented Rob Pennell of Badger Bicycles and many of his racing cohorts. A fellow by the name of Squirrel whom Sarah Gibson from ACME had told me about, Scott Capstack & Craig Stoltzeig (I hope I spelled that right), who are a couple of Joel's Woodchuk buddies.

The photo-ops down there were unreal. I got a simply obscene number of pictures of great bikes and lovely scenery. (It started at our campsite, before dawn, with the fog rolling along the Ouachita River. I took some foggy, tree-ey, reflecty photos, then did a little video so you can see the fog drifting along with the river current. You can hear birdies going nuts in the trees above, too. Then I took a few more pictures while waiting for the coffee-water to boil. I think I did a couple more after we ate, when I took the cookpot down to the water to rinse out. The sunrise was happening, so I got a couple of shots of the colors reflecting on the river. I didn't dawdle real long, though, because we needed to get scootin' toward the start/finish for the race.

Everyone around seemed to be having a darn good time, and were in tip-top spirits. Didn't see too many people with grim “game faces” on. After the race on Sunday took offI cruised the parking lot on a self-imposed photography project, to document the ways in which cyclists decorate their non-pedal vehicles.

After I finished cruising the parking lot I split in the other direction, to explore the countryside with my camera in my pocket, handy for any pleasant vistas I might encounter. I got a mile or two out of town, when I saw a side road labeled “Serendipity Trail,” and thought, “humm…sounds like a place I ought to go,” so I did. I got some great pictures up and down the gravel path, had fun slooshing through the puddles which broached the path in any hollow, and amazed myself with how well my little green singlespeed acquitted itself on the dirt roads. It was a world of difference from riding dirt roads on my old Huffy 10-speed, and it's been since the Huffy era that I'd spent much of any time on a dirt road. I toodled around Serendipity Ln. and and offshoot called River Dr. until I had explored each to its conclusion. By this time I'd run out of water and was feeling munchy, so I headed back into Oden to break into the cooler for some tabouli, cheese, and an apple, and re-fill my Camelbak.

After lunch, I decided to head out of town a different direction. The route I took shortly lead to a public access path to the river for canoe and kayakers, and for people like me, who just wanted to get close to the water to take pictures and chuck rocks in. The Ouachita river is clear and swift moving. Unlike the shallow, quiet, leisurely Niobrara I grew up playing in, the Ouachita is in a hurry, and doesn't smell of cattle and murk. I was surprised at the lack of what I think of as a river smell. Even in the little side-pool where I saw fingertip-long silver minnows, the water was clear as glass. I carried my bike out on a fallen log and a couple of good-sized rocks to a rocky sandbar/peninsula thingy to have a look around. One side of the sandbar-thing contained a barely-moving shallow full of baby minnows. The other side of the sandbar rose slightly out of the sloshing, rippling river water. Fallen logs or larger rocks made the water divert and splash in places in bright ripples or white, bubbling waves. The sound of the river, and the vivaciousness of its flow impelled me to take a few pictures, then switch my camera over to video for some action shots. After satisfying my newfound obsession with river footage, I moseyed back to my bike. I noticed a scattering of very large freshwater clamshells on the ground. I'd grown up seeing tiny ones in the Niobrara…shells the size of my pinkie fingernail or smaller, but these guys were honest to goodness eatin'-sized clams, though I don't know if these are a sort that people would eat. The largest shell I collected was about as broad as the palm of my hand. I took a few of them away with me; two large ones with considerable luminous mother-of-pearl, and four small ones which I intend to drill and use for jewelry.

I headed back to town a second time, to stash my shells in the truck, as I figured it wouldn't be very good for them to travel in my pants-pockets for hours on end. After stowing the shells in the cupholder, I set back out, taking care to make sure I wouldn't be returning on the same road as the racers, should I return to town at the same time they started heading back in. This third trip out of town wasn't nearly as scenic as the first two, so I didn't take any more pictures, but it was a darn nice ride nonetheless. The road was smooth, with a nicely paved shoulder, the sun felt good, and my bike and I were a felicitous team. I guess I rode out for about an hour, then decided I ought to turn back and find myself a good vantage point in Oden to cheer the racers on as they finished.

The hillside in front of Oden school was dotted with cyclists' friends, family members, and genial local wellwishers. I found myself a great spot, about 20' away from the finish line, and laid my bike down on the grass, so I could sit beside it and ring the dingie-bells as riders finished the race. Another couple sitting beside me brought cowbells, as one does to a cyclocross race, and so we merrily rang and cheered as riders finished. Cameron Chambers, a young singlespeed rampager from Iowa took the win for the singlespeed class, and finished well ahead of a substantial proportion of the geared riders, too. Dudefella is simply amazing, and that's all there is to it. I saw lots of faces and bikes I recognised roll in, and hooted and rang vehemently for each. I was keeping an eye out for a pair of hot-pink socks–one of Joel's racing trademarks. However, it was his expansive sprinting style that tipped me off to his presence long before I could recognise the socks, his bike, or even his face. Standing up, levering the bike back and forth with long, sinewy arms (with pointy, angular elbows) his was a silhouette like none other I've ever seen. As he closed in, of course, his features, his socks, and the distinctive Trek Store jersey completed the identification. Drenched in sweat, crusted in mud, and exhausted, he represented himself damn nicely, with 4th place for the men's singlespeed class and more importantly, he accomplished his self-imposed goal of finishing in under six hours, with a squeaky-clean 5:53 time.

While Joel grabbed a shower, I unpacked the picnic supplies. He said that for the last couple of hours of the race, all he could think about was how good some tabouli, cheese, and a beer was going to taste. We sat down on the lawn in front of the school, near the finish, to visit with other friends and associates, and re-fuel. After a good meal and a good sitdown, we said our goodbyes and got on the road; there's quite a bit of asphalt between Kansas City, MO, and Oden AR, you know, and we weren't looking to roll into town at 1:30 a.m. again. Good, bouncy music (B52s, Arctic Monkeys, Weezer, and some ska mixtape) got us back into Kansas City in good humor, where we promptly parked, unloaded, showered, and zonked the heck out. We packed a lot of action into a regular two-day weekend.

When I showed Joel my Ouachita photo-set on Flickr he remarked on what a different Sunday we each had, but I think we each had as good of a time, in our own specific peculiar ways.

I hope you enjoyed my rambling write-up. Feel free to see the rest of my videos over at YouTube.

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