Today I biked in the Fremont Older Open Space Preserve, one of the parks in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. It was only about eight miles, but a huge amount of it was spent getting really familiar with the lowest gears on the bike.

The view from Hunters Point
my trusty bike on Hunters Point, via flickr

I’d never been to this park before, but that’s not a surprise: the Midpeninsula District, like the Unseen University library, seems to stretch out into an alternate universe, and contain an infinite number of parks, open spaces, hiking trails, etc.. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when you’re tired of hiking this, you’re tired of life.

I parked at the Prospect Road lot, which surprisingly was not overflowing, maybe because it’s beside a golf course and there are warnings about flying balls.

Park at your own risk!
danger: flying golf balls, park at your own risk, via flickr

From here, I rode up to Hunters Point. The good news is that you get the hard stuff out of the way first (the Cora Older Trail in particular is a challenge); the bad news is that it’s more or less straight uphill to Hunters Point, with a few brief level patches or downhills. But the view is terrific.

Cora Older Trail
Cora Older trail, via flickr

After that, I followed the Woodhills Trail for a bit, then doubled back and picked up the Hayfield Trail, and headed for Maisie’s Peak. It turned out that Hunters Point was just the warm-up. Both in terms of difficulty and reward, Maisie’s Peak was the real prize.

Maisie's Peak
Maisie’s Peak, via flickr

Once I got to the top of Maisie’s, I stopped for lunch, wrote a bit, and then headed down. I briefly considered doubling back, but decided to continue south to the Toyon Trail, which I knew would loop pack to the road to my car.

Toyon Trail
Coyote Ridge Trail, via flickr

One of the things that I consider most fortunate in my life is that when I travel, I manage to go to places that allow you to just wander, and reward your faith that something interesting is just around the next corner. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in London or Budapest or Singapore, decided to just go a little further or see what was around the next corner or down that side street, and come upon something really incredible.

Seven Spring Trail
Seven Springs Trail, via flickr

This kind of biking offers the same sort of experience. I know that I can bike on a path I’ve never been before, and no matter what, I can get back to the car– it might end up taking hours longer than I expect, but I’ll make it. Toyon Trail turned out to be really fun: a single-lane path, winding through oak and eucalyptus, and mainly downhill. It dumped me out on Hayfield, and from there it was a short ride to the Seven Springs Trail, which I’d meant to ride before.

Toyon Trail
Seven Springs Trail, via flickr

The trail follows the Seven Springs Canyon, through some great wildflowers, trees, and eventually down into (and out of) the canyon.

Seven Springs Trail
Seven Springs Trail, via flickr

It’s not a trail I can take the kids on any time soon, though parts of it would be okay for hiking, so long as we took our time. And it’s not for someone who likes remote hikes where you’re not going to see another soul for hours: you can almost always see someone else on the trail. However, if you like a challenge it’s definitely a terrific ride, and I know that there’s a lot of the park that I still have yet to explore.

This was the first real off-road bike ride I’ve done in years. I’ve been sticking to paved roads and things that are kid-friendly, and not doing more technically challenging stuff. It’s past time to change that. (On my way home, I stopped at a sporting goods store and bought more cycling shorts– that padding is a life saver, or at least it saves certain parts of your life– and a Camelbak, which basically is a two-liter bottle with shoulder straps and a zippered pocket for your keys. I have a headache now that I’m pretty sure is dehydration-caused, and this summer I’m going to be doing plenty more rides like this, so I expect the investment will pay off. I know a couple people who have them, and swear by them.)

However, I don’t want to give the impression that the kids have done nothing but keep me from my natural place on the road. To the contrary: recently their example has revealed a part of me that I hadn’t really thought much about.

I never thought of myself as an athlete, or as someone who had athletic ability. Sure, when I was at Berkeley I biked to Tilden Park a lot, and that was a pretty strenuous ride, but somehow that didn’t count. I played soccer in high school, but as anyone who grew up in Virginia can tell you, that does not count. I did intramural sports in college, but those don’t really count, either. The problem is, before high school I was a pretty fat little kid, one of those doughy kids who was unlikely to be picked for teams. Further, I associated “athlete” with sports, which I don’t follow, and in high school I thought of athletes as jocks– which I very definitely was not. Stir in years of academic socialization that encouraged a mild (or not so mild) contempt for the body, and it was easy to think of myself as not interested in athletics– and more fundamentally, just not athletic.

But my kids swim three or four days a week, and love sports. They’re pretty indiscriminate about what they do, and their interests tend to jump around a bit (from swimming to soccer to basketball to baseball to fencing), but still they’re pretty consistently enthusiastic about sports in general. My father was (so I’m told) a black belt in judo, and a pretty ferocious skier in his youth. He’s 72 now, and still swims a couple miles a week– and he lives in Colorado, about 7,500 feet above sea level.

When you see your parents and your kids both exhibiting the same abilities, it helps you see them in yourself. So after 25 years of repeating it to myself, the line “I’m not an athlete” is not true at all. All these years I’ve told myself that, I’ve been wrong.

Maybe it’s a function of my getting older, but I find that I have more energy when I’m better shape, I work better, and of course I feel a lot better about myself. I’m still not quite where I want to be physically, but I’m moving in the right direction. And just as important, the fact that I’ve been able to drop 50+ pounds and am remaking my body through several hours a week at the gym (and a hundred sit-ups every morning, while the kids hold down the sofa), is a constant tangible reminder that I can change things for the better.

This spring I’m working to finish up some old projects, and start some new things (more on all this later). The pace of change is only going to accelerate. At times like these, being able to look in the mirror (especially a full-length one) and see that I can make changes, or to see a hill in front of me and know that I am able to climb it, is very valuable.