By Jon Marsden
The rain had flashed on and off like a yellow amber in a midnight town since about two-thirty that afternoon and the subject matter in my middle school science classroom was a perfect match for the melancholy weather. This had been a day filled with bloodletting and bone saws and I often found myself staring at the stack of student mountain bikes in the back of my classroom as I anticipated the end of seventh period. Soon I would be surrounded by kids, bikes, and a small loop of trails where we coaches helped children get hooked on a sport that had already made junkies out of us.
The rain was falling lightly again as we gathered the team under the pavilion in the small park where we began our rides. We spoke about safety, bikes, gear, and body positioning, hoping that the mist-like rain would dissipate while we ranted. Students were eyeing the head coach and listening with an unscholastic intensity when we heard the shot.
It was deeper than a firecracker and more instant than thunder – most certainly a gunshot. Some of the kids looked at each other. One young man with short blond hair turned around slightly and said flatly, “What was that?” But as any mountain biker in the south knows, gunshots and trails go together like Moonpies and RC Cola.
The sky had stopped crying. “We’re going to head out to the trail we rode yesterday,” said Coach Bell. “Greenelsh and I will take it backwards and meet you in the middle, Marsden and Jackson will stay with the group. Let’s ride!”
We headed out in a different fashion than we had on past rides, as we usually placed a coach in front and instructed students to follow, but today students were out front and I was in the middle. We hadn’t really planned it that way, but their eagerness to pedal birthed the new formation. The leaves of the trees hung a bit lower than usual from the weight of the day’s raindrops and the air smelled cool and moist. We spooled down the root drop and into the woods, where the trail had that fresh-packed no-bake cookie feel – not too wet, not too dry, just chocolate goodness. It was a good day to be a mountain bike coach.
“Mr. Marsden, there’s a dead guy!” Hank’s voice sounded frantic, but he was a pretty good faker in class. “Oh my gosh! Mr. Marsden, there’s a dead guy back here!” His face was white.
“Seriously? You’re not just messing with me, right?”
“No, there is seriously a dead guy back there… oh my gosh.”
“Everyone get out of the woods!” I motioned the students back and out a subsidiary trail that led to a grassy area.
My mind went blank. My chest pulled tight. I had to confirm what he had seen but didn’t want to see it myself. I rode forward and motioned for Jackson to go with the kids. My heart started pounding. I imagined the guy wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, lying on the ground with his boots facing up, brown and worn. In my mind, he looked something like a hunter, or just an average guy except his head was probably…
“Hey.” It was Bell and Greenelsh. They had ridden from the opposite direction.
“Is it for real?”
“Yeah.” Bell looked stunned but stoic. “You don’t want to go back there.”
He was right. The last thing I wanted to see was a dead man on a mountain bike trail. Greenelsh had seen it too.
“Have you called 911?,” I asked Bell.
“Yeah… hey, I think I need to go back there and wait for the police to arrive. You guys go ahead and call parents to come pick up the kids.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
Most of the students were already huddled together under the pavilion. Phones were pressed against ears, hands were grasping shoulders, and arms were resting around necks. Thankfully, only a handful had seen the view from the trail. Some parents were already beginning to arrive.
I walked over to Hank. “I am going to call your dad. How much did you see?”
“Oh man…” he stammered. “I saw the guy on the ground… there was blood everywhere…”
“Did you see his face?”
“I saw it all… there was blood in the water… Oh my gosh… I’m scarred. I am seriously scarred!”
I hugged him. “I’m so sorry man,” was all I could say. I had him call his dad so that I could relay what I knew and have him picked up.
“How much did he see?” Hank’s dad was very concerned.
“He says he saw it all.”
“Damn. I am already on my way. I should be there soon.”
“I am so sorry this happened,” I said.
I stayed with Hank until his dad arrived and then took a few parents with me back to the field where some of the students had left their bikes. By this time the police had arrived and Bell had returned from the woods with a very large officer.
“This is the third one this week.” the policeman said shaking his head as he handed Bell and me papers to write what we had seen.
We met the next day just to recap, reflect and respond. Everyone was handling it differently. Greenelsh had made personal notes for each student and coach to encourage and bring positive focus. Bell assured the team that this would make us stronger and closer as a team, and I just made sure everyone seemed okay. It was the buzz around the whole school, but most people didn’t ask too many questions. We didn’t really have any answers anyway.
The whole experience got me thinking. Outdoor movies, books and magazines often award spiritualism and zen to communion with trees, trails, rocks and rivers. Their words make mountain bike rides seem like saviors that can heal the broken and bring hope to the uprooted soul. But if this was true, why did a hopeless man die in the woods? Why couldn’t the trees, the rain, and the smell of dirt and water revive him and help him transcend his circumstances before he removed the life from his body?
I think it has something to do with our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We look for significance and happiness inside of a larger story. Maybe we find it in our family, a job, or an outdoor activity. Maybe we find it in the junk we buy or the people we influence, but what do we do when the story leaves us behind? What do we do when family rejects us, spouses leave us, and bodies fail us? What do we do when we suddenly find ourselves living life as a character that no longer has a story? The problem of living in a story that is contained in the personalities, situations, and experiences is that when all the significant people and things are gone, so is our purpose. Suddenly the story stops, and hope disappears.
I did not know the man in the woods. Apparently, he lived in the neighborhood near the trail and was going through a rough spell. He had become a character without a story.
I think about that day often, especially when I ride in the woods on wet days. Our understanding of significance and existence is bigger than a great ride, larger than a new experience and more powerful than being in love. It’s the bigger story. In the pages of this story we live and play our significant roles, finding joy as our personalities are revealed to us, and our relationships carve us.
We ride to make the rest of the story better. We ride because our time in the woods sews smiles that spread upward from the chest. We ride because of the way we treat our families when we have had time in the dirt. We ride because that is how this chapter of our story has been written. We ride because this is the page where we can be found rolling down mountains in the woods and because right now, this is our part in the bigger story.