A Melodramatic Descent into Misery amid the Hills of Berkeley
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 2
Timeline: December 1997, Berkeley, California
Sure, I can laugh about it now. But on that gray December afternoon, it seemed the world was conspiring to keep me from ever getting home again.
Allow me to explain. Four years after I bought the book, I still hadn’t made my way through the list. East Bay Bike Trails, by Conrad J. Boisvert, had temptingly described 33 different two-wheeled adventures that I was determined to try—everything from Livermore vineyard tours and suburban creekside paths to regional park trail rides and 50-mile circuits around Mount Diablo. At this point, I’d tackled 25 of them. I was now down to the ones I’d been avoiding.
While the majority of the rides in the book followed paved roads, a handful of them took to the dirt. In December of 1997, I embarked on one of the latter—a two-hour double loop through Berkeley’s Tilden Park and Wildcat Canyon. On paper, it didn’t sound like too much to worry about—so I didn’t. After all, Conrad hadn’t let me down yet.
In fact, his book did an excellent job describing these rides, letting the reader know what to expect beforehand with parameters such as trip distance, elevation gain, riding time, and calories burned– all laid out in a simple chart. He also included a map, a graphic profile of the hills, and a detailed itinerary of landmarks with precise mileage. It was all there: everything you’d need to keep yourself on course. Before each new ride, I made a miniature photocopy of the information and Velcro’d it to my handlebars like a tiny low-tech GPS unit.
But there’s only so much you can ascertain from a book or a map. Ink on paper, no matter how detailed, can never fully prepare you for the realities of the road. So it’s not unusual to find a few surprises that force you to improvise. This ride, I’d discover, would offer a great many surprises and consequently– a great deal of improvising. I had no idea it would become the most miserable bike ride of my life.
But hold on. In case you’re thinking that misery and disaster habitually follow me around like a hungry vulture, don’t worry. If this ride had turned out anything like the other 3,000-plus bike rides I’ve taken in my life, I wouldn’t have wasted your time or mine writing about it. As I’ve come to learn, the worst experiences often make the best stories. They also make you appreciate all those days when things go perfectly well.
The problem wasn’t the itinerary. It was the timing—both the time of year and the time of day. But I didn’t fully grasp that. When I started out at 2:30 on that December afternoon, I was confident. First, I had nearly three hours of daylight to accomplish this two hour ride. Second, I was in good physical shape, and third– though the skies were cloudy and gray, they certainly weren’t threatening. The optimism, however, ended there.
The first section of the ride, a four-mile loop through sparsely-wooded hilly terrain, brought the initial round of surprises. Before I even got in the saddle, I had trouble finding the right trailhead. Only after backtracking several times did I eventually get where I needed to be. Then two minutes into the ride, at the base of the first hill, those non-threatening gray clouds decided to change their tune—and it started to rain. Luckily, I was prepared. I threw on my brightly-colored (but non-breathable) rain gear and began again.
Just as I was down-shifting to prepare for the hill, the chain slipped off the front sprocket. This wasn’t a big deal, but I didn’t like the direction things were heading: an elusive trailhead, unexpected rain and now a bike malfunction all within the first five minutes of the ride. I really should’ve stopped and turned around right there, but how can you possibly know what’s in store for you? If you did, you’d probably never want to get out of bed in the morning. After fixing my chain and wiping the grease off my hands I was back on the trail in a few minutes.
Climbing a hill this steep wouldn’t have been a problem if it were paved (hills, just to be clear, have always been my absolute favorite part of biking.) But after standing up on the pedals to get better leverage, I couldn’t keep the wheels from spinning in the mud—regardless of which gear I was in. Within twenty yards I hopped off and resorted to pushing my bike the rest of the way to the top.
I have to admit I’ve never been a big fan of off-road biking; I like to have reliable pavement beneath my wheels. But I was determined to get through that entire list of 33 rides in Conrad’s book. And that meant doing a few like this one. Today’s ride wasn’t going to be fun; it just needed to be doable.
Ten minutes later I stood at the top of the hill, out of breath and soaked with sweat. When I looked for the next landmark I realized that I wasn’t even on the right trail. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. Quiet muttered obscenities followed. I skidded back down the hill to start over again.
After re-consulting the map I found the right trail and started up another hill that was just as steep and slippery as the last. More bike pushing ensued; I seemed to be spending as much time on my feet as in the saddle.
Within twenty minutes the rain turned to hail. Little windblown ice balls were now pelting me in the face. What the hell’s going on? I thought. Why am I putting myself through this? Perhaps this was the wrong day to be communing with Nature. I imagined anybody with any sense was home watching videos on their couch with a mug of hot chocolate.
I did have another option. It was possible to cut the ride short– bail out once I got back to my truck at the end of the first loop—and tackle the second one on a drier day. I was torn. The lure of that hot chocolate was certainly a strong one, but maybe things would improve. Let’s just see how it goes…
The hail storm, like most in the Bay Area, lasted only a few minutes. The end of it coincided neatly with my arrival at the top of the highest hill in the park, 1,600 feet above the bay. My feet were drenched and cold but the view helped me to forget my petty gripes. The wind sliced open the clouds just enough to create a vivid double rainbow that arced over San Pablo Reservoir below me to the east. Ten minutes earlier I was miserable. I now had this incredible view to myself. For the first time I found myself genuinely glad to be on this ride.
After that it was easy enough to follow the trail down along the ridge as I made my way back through the eucalyptus groves to the starting point where my truck stood waiting.
That was the end of the short loop. It was now time to make a decision about the longer one—this time thirteen miles instead of four.
I took a quick inventory. Physically, I was feeling good; not tired or sore; a bit wet but not cold. As for the world, there was ample daylight left to work with, and the weather had improved just enough to boost my confidence and coax me onward.
Looking back, I realize that fleeting moment of contentment became the pivotal point of my entire day. Had I been in the same whiny mood I was in thirty minutes earlier, I would’ve thrown my bike in the back of my truck right then and gone home. I also wouldn’t be telling this story.
Instead I decided to keep riding and go for the second loop, covering another thirteen miles of hilly trail that would take me down into Wildcat Canyon. This was a mistake that I’d discover only after it was too late to do anything about it—because like any clever trap, things continued to look pretty inviting for a while; it was easy to get sucked in.
The next section of the trail was a boulevard by comparison. Wide, flat and paved, it stretched for miles along the west flank of a prominent ridge and boasted commanding vistas of the northern Bay Area. Although I’d never been here before, I’d heard a lot about this popular walking trail that was busy nearly every day of the year. Even today I had plenty of company—hikers, skaters, joggers– quite a community. By now I’d already forgotten about my muddy hailstorm fiasco.
The break in the weather continued and I was treated to a dramatic sky filled with windblown clouds. Around every curve lay another vista of green rolling hills overlooking the North Bay. This had finally become the ride I’d been looking forward to—challenging, yet rewarding. I felt hopeful that said challenges were safely behind me. Ahead perhaps lay only the rewards. What I failed to take into account was that it had been raining off and on for the past several weeks. Even without today’s little showers, the parkland was already saturated. I’d soon discover the full ramifications of this.
After a few miles I came to an iron cattle gate delineating the boundary between the two parks. This was also where the paved section of the trail ended. The remainder of the ride, I would eventually learn, would consist of mud, rock, a bit of grass—and a lot more mud.
Most of the people I’d been seeing for the past hour had turned back to the parking lot by this time. Even the hardiest of hikers had packed it in for the day. They too, apparently, had heard the Call of the Hot Chocolate. But I chose to ignore this rather obvious omen. Slipping through the gate and closing it behind me with a metallic clang, I headed toward the beckoning expanse of green grassy hills. I wouldn’t see another member of my species till this ride was nearly over.
The next hill wasn’t as steep as the last one, but was much more slippery. The three-foot wide trail that cut through the grassy slope left a barren pathway of steep slick mud. There was simply no traction to be had, forcing the decision of whether to pedal or push. I hopped off and pushed.
So once again, here I was walking my bike instead of riding it. (I suppose at some point a “ride” becomes a “hike.”) As if in response to my predicament, the clouds that were so scenic for the past half hour huddled together and let loose with another rain shower. Still I wasn’t concerned. I gotten wet before on this ride; I could get wet again. Besides, I had plenty of time to make it back to my truck before dark. So ignoring the rain, I kept pushing on up the hill.
But my shoes weren’t helping. They weren’t even biking shoes, really; merely a pair of old sneakers. Worn smooth from far too many years of service, they offered pitifully little traction. Come to think of it, they were probably better suited for dancing. So instead of making healthy progress up the slope, I burned a lot of energy slipping in the mud and struggling to stay on my feet. (Ultimately this would become the signature activity of this ride.) Yet as bad as it was, this particular mud would prove to be utterly benign compared to the stuff that awaited me a few miles ahead. That’s when the real dancing would begin.
When I eventually managed to reach the top I looked down the other side and discovered a muddy rutted slope even steeper than the one I’d just ascended. It looked like a beast, but I figured I could survive it so I climbed back in the saddle to prepare for the ride down. Clamping down on both brake levers, I inched my way over the edge. Immediately I started sliding. I eased up on the brakes to regain traction, but it was pointless. There wasn’t even the illusion of control. At the full mercy of the hill, I skidded and fish-tailed down the slope like a sack of waterlogged cargo.
A quarter of the way down, I got a break. The slope slacked off just enough to allow me to slow down and stop. Seizing the opportunity I jumped off, hoping to walk my bike the rest of the way down. But this wasn’t any safer or easier. The sliding continued as I struggled to keep both myself and my bike from tumbling on our asses. It wasn’t pretty.
Fifty swerving yards later I found myself at the bottom of the hill, somehow having managed to avoid disaster. But I felt no pride at all in this accomplishment; it was mere luck that had gotten me through it. Sadly, my struggles had been as effective as the impotent flailing of a man plummeting off a cliff.
Yet there was something about this ride. Every time I got to the point where I couldn’t take any more and was ready to quit, the situation magically improved. It was as if the universe was testing me: a little challenge, then a little reward. True enough, the next section of the ride was mercifully flat, with several paved stretches that brought welcome respite from the mud. Optimistic once again, I continued on down the trail, hoping conditions would remain as pleasant as this for a while longer.
But now it was getting late. The window of time that had sounded perfectly adequate earlier in the day was now waning. Quietly, the December sun had snuck close to the horizon; a much more ominous indicator than the hands of a wristwatch that dealt only in human time. Worse, the darkening storm clouds blocked much of what little daylight remained.
This would’ve been manageable if I’d been on a familiar trail; if I knew where I was going. But this was all new territory for me. From the moment I’d left my truck I’d been navigating by map, dependent on that feeble slip of paper attached to my handlebars. And now it was starting to get dark. If I stayed out here much longer, it would be hard to read the tiny printing on that map. I really didn’t think it would come to that, but I still had seven slow miles of unknown trail ahead of me.
Part 2 of 2
From here things only got worse. The rain continued to fall, soon permeating my every crack and crevice. My head and feet were drenched and cold, and I was equally wet from sweating under my cheap rain gear. Waterlogged socks squished in sodden shoes; mesh-gloved hands turned white and pruned. Poetic sounding perhaps, but there was more to worry about than physical discomfort.
The mud, previously a mere annoyance, was becoming an issue. By now the ground was so rain-saturated and slippery I could no longer get traction, even where the trail was flat. Pedaling was impossible; my wheels spun underneath me with each stroke. With no other option I jumped off once again, worried that I’d probably have to push my bike the rest of the way out of the canyon. This piddly 17-mile ride, which had already dragged on longer than I’d anticipated, would now take even longer to get through. It would definitely be dark before I got myself out of here.
Just as I was coming to accept this depressing inevitability, a new problem arose. The mud had now begun to cling to the knobby tires of my bike, caking itself into an ever-thickening layer of muck. It wasn’t long until a fist-sized ball of mud became lodged in each of my wheel forks, wedging tightly against my tires like a pair of chocks. This stuff was tenacious– like slimy modeling clay with an attitude. It felt like some unseen asshole was jamming down on my brakes with both hands. With the wheels locked up, my tires clutched at the muddy trail, dragging like the dead weight of a temperamental two-year old. Christ. First, I couldn’t pedal; now my bike didn’t even want to roll anymore.
I stopped and looked around. I needed something I could use to clean out my wheel forks or I’d never get this thing moving again. The soggy stick I found on the ground snapped clean in half. So did the next two. Eventually I found one strong enough for the job and managed to carve away enough of the obstruction to make the bike usable again. But less than a minute after I resumed pushing, the forks became just as encumbered as before.
This brown scourge was relentless; inescapable— having almost a life of its own: a bizarre combination of quicksand and Swamp Monster. And it was draining me of the very energy I needed to extricate myself from it. Who could’ve imagined that pushing a bike on a flat trail could be so exhausting? But it was true. I was now stopping every hundred feet to catch my breath.
The worst part was that I burned most of that energy simply trying to keep myself upright. My worn-out shoes were almost useless. The death-grip that the mud had on my bike tires was far greater than any friction between the mud and the soles of those shoes, so my feet were constantly slipping out from under me. It was crazy. This was supposed to be a bike ride; instead, I was trying to push an overloaded bookcase across the floor in my stocking feet.
I don’t think I was moving even one mile per hour at this point. The sun was traveling faster than I was. Desperate for a solution, I was actually starting to think about abandoning my bike. Sure, I was only half-serious, but I was almost to that point; ready to simply leave it in the mud and hike out of the canyon on foot.
The hills came and went but the mud stayed with me like a curse. Every inch of it was a struggle; sometimes less so, sometimes more, but it was never easy. Whenever I reached a flat section of trail I’d make another short but valiant attempt to pedal, hoping to make some headway. But the mud made sure that the next problem—the next obstacle– was never far away.
At one point the hub of the rear wheel became so caked with mud that the gears started to slip. Whenever I’d push down on the pedal the chain immediately slipped down to the last sprocket, forcing me into the higher gears. The derailleur mechanism was now completely useless. I couldn’t stay in any of the gears that I wanted– and in my condition I needed them to be as low as possible. With mounting frustration I jumped off; resorting to pushing my bike once again as the gray cloud-laden sky continued to darken.
It didn’t look like I’d be able to get back on my bike for the remainder of the ride. I’d have to push it the rest of the way—or just abandon it. Actually, it wasn’t even a bike any more—it was a $300 chrome and steel boat anchor; more of a burden than anything else. One thing was clear though: I was going to be stuck out here for a very long time, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Periodically I’d been checking my digital odometer to see how many miles I still had ahead of me, but now, it too was starting to malfunction. The mud that covered the front wheel was interfering with the sensor and was causing the thing to freak out. It was now giving off wildly inaccurate readings, seemingly at random. So now I no longer had a way of knowing what my location was. I couldn’t believe it. Everything that could go wrong….
By now almost no daylight remained. The canyon had disappeared into the gloom. Scraggly trees, barren and lifeless from the coming winter, blended into the murky brown hills. I squinted at the tiny printing on my direction sheet, angry at myself for reducing it to such a small size. Without a flashlight my only hope was to memorize all of the remaining turnoffs on the trail while I could still read. Several times I tried to repeat the directions out loud but found it impossible to keep all the details straight in my head. Apparently my drained body was now feeding off my brain.
I was in a downward spiral; options evaporating along with rationality. Yet I hadn’t given up hope. I knew I’d get out of this canyon eventually. I just didn’t know how or when.
That’s what bothered me. I had no way to know how much I still had to endure, so it was hard to budget what little energy I had left. If it got much darker, I wouldn’t even be able to see the trail. I’d be groping around blind, falling into ditches; tripping over every rock and tree root.
What if I simply stopped? No, that wouldn’t work; I had to keep moving. Spending the night here was not an option– huddled under some barren tree, drenched and without any shelter. I had to find my way back tonight or I wouldn’t survive in this cold. There was simply no choice but to keep moving.
I kept thinking if I could just get away from the mud, I’d be all right. If I could just find some pavement– something solid to push against– I’d be able to make some actual progress. But the mud was everywhere; there seemed no end to the Swamp Monster’s grasp.
At this point I was probably only a mile or two from the cozy living rooms of the affluent hillside homes on the periphery of the park. Those families were probably eating dinner now or watching TV; kids playing with the dog in front of the fireplace. But for me those homes and their reassuring warmth were a world away. I looked around; during the spring and summer months, this park is a bucolic refuge from the city– a green, floral playground for picnics, pony rides, and swimming. Today, it was nothing but grays and browns– damp, dark, and deserted. Not only was I in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was stuck here in slow motion; and getting slower by the minute.
I’d already learned my lesson– that much I knew. I wouldn’t be making this kind of mistake again. No more solo trail rides in December with only a couple hours of daylight left. OK, I’d paid my dues; I’d suffered enough. What I needed now was salvation—a way out of here. Out of frustration I began grumbling out loud; finally reaching the point of yelling and cursing at anyone who’d listen: the trees, the darkened sky, even God. I kept asking why all this was happening, as if I had anyone but myself to blame for my poor planning. I was running low on everything—energy, time, ideas, hope. This little two-hour ride had dragged on for almost four hours now, and I wasn’t anywhere near the end.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, I remembered that the profile diagram on the map (that I could no longer read) showed the last two miles being among the steepest of the ride. The drawing made it look like the trail shot straight up. That part of the trail also ran through dense forest. I’d been fortunate these last few hours to be out in the open, following wide trails through the canyon. Yet with the trees closed in around me, I’d be in a cave. How it was even possible to negotiate that kind of terrain in my condition was difficult to imagine. The combination of steep slope, mud, and darkness seemed almost suicidal. But I couldn’t worry about that until I got there. I had to finish this part of the nightmare first.
Half an hour later, as the remaining light slipped away through the cracks in the blackened clouds, I arrived at the final turnoff. Ahead of me now lay the trail that snaked its way up that steep forested hill. This was it. In the dim light I came upon a sign at the trail junction. I had to practically touch it to read it: “Trail Closed During Inclement Weather.”
Holy crap. You’ve got to be kidding! Unless I wanted to turn around and backtrack in the darkness through the ten miles of mud I’d just endured, this trail was the only way out of here. And it was closed! Unbelievable. Tempted to ignore the warning, I stood at the trailhead weighing the relative risks of my two equally horrendous options.
Then, a light through the trees caught my attention. I moved toward it—curious and somewhat confused. Following the source of the illumination like a beacon across a moonless sea, I soon found myself at a small paved trailhead parking lot.
The sight of this unexpected “civilization” gave me a jolt; I was closer to my destination than I realized. Sure, this spot wasn’t the official end of the ride, but this newfound asphalt pathway could certainly lead me to freedom if I chose to take it.
Without a speck of ego or pride left to restrain me, I wasn’t about to pass up this opportunity. Besides, nobody would even know that I’d bailed out early; nobody would know what a dork I’d been (well, not until twenty years later of course, when I decided to publish this story on a website!) Like I said, it’s easy to laugh about it now.
I looked around. Two or three parked cars were all that remained this late in the day. Then I noticed an elderly woman dressed in hiking gear making her way toward one of them. She was the first person I’d seen in what felt like days. This was my chance. I needed to talk to her before she disappeared.
The woman saw me approach her from out of the darkness, and hurried to her car. I was worried about freaking her out so I stopped at a prudent distance and asked her for directions out of the park. She obliged and then continued on her way. Apparently the main road was just up the hill.
Yet for some reason I wasn’t sure that I believed her. I would’ve thought to go the other direction. Hmmm…maybe she didn’t want me following her home, and had given me false information. Then I caught myself. The exhaustion had obviously taken a toll. Why the hell should I doubt this woman when she was trying to help me? So I followed her directions and headed out of the parking lot almost giddy with excitement.
The road to freedom may have been paved, but that freedom required climbing yet another steep hill. I didn’t have enough energy left to pedal so I continued to push. Grateful to be away from the tenacious clutches of the mud, I didn’t mind; I was back on pavement again; making progress that may have been slow but was at least measurable.
The darkened road wound up through the tall eucalyptus forest that covers much of the hills of the East Bay parks, so there was scarcely enough light to see the ground at my feet. I didn’t mind. The darkness was almost soothing at this point. I think I might even have closed my eyes for a bit while I walked.
As I pushed my bike up the hill, I kept hoping the woman was right. I was tired—tired of wrong turns, miserable weather, muddy body parts and malfunctioning bike parts. Clearly I didn’t need any more problems or disappointments; I just needed salvation.
Up ahead, I caught sight of a lighted roadway intersection. From a hundred feet away I strained to read the street sign; hoping to identify it. I needed that hope; a clue that I was on the right track. I didn’t want to be going up this hill for nothing.
When I reached the top of the hill I found myself on a ridge lined with houses. Drenched with rain, sweat and mud, I was overjoyed when I recognized Grizzly Peak Boulevard, the popular scenic artery that snakes through some of the nicest neighborhoods in the East Bay. I was back on familiar ground; no longer lost. I was saved.
By now the rain had washed just enough of the mud off my bike to render it functional again. Climbing back on, I mechanically pedaled the remaining two miles in the dark back to my truck on a blessedly flat stretch of pavement. When I arrived, it was probably only 6:30. Yet it felt like midnight. I threw my bike in the back, cranked up the heater and headed down the road to where my cozy little apartment lay waiting. I’d sleep well that night.
One thing was certain. I wouldn’t be repeating this ride any time soon. But I will go back someday so I can finish East Bay Bike Trails Ride #10 properly. If I can get there during the dry season and avoid the Mud from Hell, maybe I’ll experience this ride the same way Conrad had– amid the sounds of warbling songbirds, playing children and well-fed picnickers. But for all his years of cycling, I’m sure he’ll never have a memory of Wildcat Canyon to match mine. Once again, the worst experiences often make the best stories. Good thing I didn’t heed the Call of the Hot Chocolate!
Copyright © 2017 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.