Dean of Students Simon McFall approached me somewhat hesitantly this summer and asked if I would be willing to give up my annual Dublin School orientation trip to Mt. Lafayette this year to instead lead a trip to the Kingdom mountain—biking trails in East Burke, Vermont. While I loved summiting Mt. Lafayette with students new to hiking over the last few years I was pretty amped (sorry, had to use some mountain biking language) to accept the opportunity to join nine motivated student riders and one talented Mr. Phinney on a trip to the beautiful trails of the Northeast Kingdom.
I spend every July with my family in Crested Butte, Colorado where I have some family roots and a love of the Rocky Mountains. Crested Buttians have a bit of an attitude about the whole mountain bike thing and we like to believe that the sport was invented on the trails surrounding the town where the Buttians rode their modified “townie” bikes over rocks and stumps. I had heard that the Kingdom Trails were among the best in the east and after a few hours of riding I am now a big fan!
The best part of the trip was that we had three students fairly new to mountain biking and I sense that they anticipated a “rail—trail” type adventure with the group. Their eyes lit up with fear when we discussed the possibility of daily 15-20 mile rides on intermediate and advanced trails. They were also on bikes meant more for rail tails than the epic gnarliness that can be found on the Kingdom Trails.
Our beginning of school camping trips are designed to connect students with nature, slow them down from their fast paced lives of instant communication and information, introduce them to nine other students from different grades in the school, build relationships with faculty, learn how to overcome the fear of the new by working carefully with others, develop teamwork and planning skills by cooking meals over a camping stove—often in the rain, and just have a blast hanging out and singing songs around a campfire. Every year as we are loading up two hundred people to venture off on fifteen different trips I think we are all a little crazy. When I return to campus at the end of the week and see the students from different trips greeting one another and sharing tall tales, fish stories, and epic moments I am reminded of the power of these trips and how they build community and friendship. It doesn’t hurt that anyone returning from one of these trips is so happy to see a real bed that any remnants of homesickness have faded from their minds.
Our three newbies struggled at first climbing the big hills, riding through tightly bermed turns, and keeping their balance on stunning quarter mile long wood bridges through the forest. Mr. Phinney and I traded back and forth with this group and enjoyed seeing them overcome their fears, support one another, and build real resilience on their bikes. One girls, Ella, had amazing grit and would not give up on a tough trail even when I offered her an easier way out. Yifu, from China, had never been on a mountain bike but took to it like fluff to peanut butter (his new favorite meal) and showed he had developed some amazing balance biking to summer classes in Beijing. After a slow start, ninth grader Deven wanted to ride more and more black diamond trails and was riding expertly by day three.
The other six riders had insatiable appetites for big drops, “flowy" trails and endless quantities of lunch meat and hamburger. AJ indicated early on he wanted to “maximize his descents.” He did not always understand why we had to climb so much in order to maximize descents but I thought his mindset for the day was wonderful—especially for a backcountry skier like me who is continually counting ascents rather than descents. AJ was always at the front of our carefully organized “trail descent pecking order.” Chris is possibly the most enthusiastic rider I have ever been with and just made riding plain fun. His backpack was filled with gadgets and spare parts that could fix anything, anywhere except for the one cable that snapped on him. Lilly, the original Dublin female mountain biker, had us in stitches most of the time, especially around the campfire where she had us all singing an inspired rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. Andrew was the glue of our group, keeping the front runners connected to the people trailing behind, and had the best little smile whenever we hit something just the right level of rad. If I were ever trying to explain to someone the beauty of gravity at work I would show them a slow motion film of Emil on his bike. Emil seems to live for that incredible feeling of freedom one gets when their bike or snowboard hits that moment of weightlessness that I can only imagine astronauts must experience when they reach space. Lastly, our resident mountain goat award goes to Jared who is to ascents what AJ is to descents. Hills, hills and more hills—Jared chewed them up and spit them out, dragging us along with him whenever we could hide in his draft. Not only was he barely out of breath at each summit, but he had an ear to ear grin watching us crawl up the hills to meet him.
By the last day, no amount of meat, rain or riding mileage could slow these young ones down so I brought in an old friend of mine named Lindley who lives with her family in Burke Hollow and teachers at Burke Mountain Academy. Lindley took us up a major one hour climb (I had to remind AJ that this is how one maximizes descents) on our bikes before we descended some of the most interesting and laugh out loud fun trails I have ever ridden on before. The group was duly impressed as they tried to keep up with Lindley on both the climbs and downhills. It was a great ending to a perfect trip. Or maybe the food truck selling burritos and the shower in the parking lot provided the perfect ending.
Thank you to my co-leader Mr. Phinney who was great to have along and didn’t miss a beat on his bike, in his singing or his literary discussions around the fire. Maybe if I behave this year Mr. McFall will send me back.
NB: This blog post is much longer and more food oriented than usual because I am stuck on a long flight to Las Vegas where I am giving a speech with Jill Hutchins and Lise Leidy at an admission conference. While everyone will be at the casinos at night you can bet that I will be biking through Red Rocks State Park outside of town…