ome 19 years ago, in between jobs, I took a midweek camping trip to Big Basin State Park in late October. I was the only one in the campground that night and the only person on the long trail down to Berry Falls the next morning.
It was a glorious autumn day in the mixed hardwood and conifer forest, with the leaves of the big-leaf maples turning yellow, Townsend’s warblers foraging in the trees, winter wrens appearing along the creek, and no other sounds but those of the trees, the birds, and the flowing water. But as I started back mid-afternoon, my idyll was broken by the sound of loud male voices coming from up the trail.
The voices got closer and closer, and louder and louder, and were soon accompanied by the high-pitched squeals of hastily applied brakes. Minutes later, four guys on mountain bikes came busting down the single track, exulting—I supposed—in their speed and physical prowess. Of course I was ticked off. My delightful day of communing peacefully with the sights and sounds of nature had been disrupted. These guys weren’t reveling in the big-leaf maples or Townsend’s warblers. For them, this forested slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains offered little more than an awesome slalom course.
As I continued up the trail, I noted the two-foot-long skid marks in the soft duff. At the trailhead, I checked the signs, and sure enough, they were clearly marked no bikes, except that the red slash across the bicycle had been partially scraped off. The only (and best) way to vent my anger was to write an article excoriating the whole sport and its spandex-clad practitioners.
Now, I was and am a bicycle rider. I’ve ridden a road bike to work for 35 years. And I’ve done my fair share of mountain biking as well: I enjoy the physical exertion and mastery required to power up and down dirt roads over beautiful terrain. And I do believe that there’s no one “right” way to experience open space. But, as I asked myself that day 19 years ago, is there a hierarchy of experience here? Putting aside the illegality and hubris of those guys biking where it was prohibited, was I just expressing a personal bias for my contemplative, nature-focused way of experiencing the park?
This question comes back to me as we publish an article on mountain biking in the East Bay Regional Parks. On the one hand, the parks are there to be enjoyed by everyone. And mountain biking is one of the fastest-growing recreational uses of the parks, especially among youth. Better for them to be biking on the trails than playing video games, right? But at the same time, there’s a voice inside me that says parks like Big Basin aren’t playgrounds for humans. They’ve been created for recreation, yes, but they’re also places of refuge for many of the animal and plant species we’ve elbowed out of more developed areas. And places to observe those species and gain insight into a world not totally dominated by humans. So I guess I remain biased toward quiet observation.
But there’s room for all, as long as we can have a culture of cycling that respects the rights of others on the trails —both human and non—and respects the work it takes to create and maintain the trails themselves. I’m happy to say that I’ve had few similar encounters in the years since, and while conflicts between trail users persist, the work of groups such as the International Mountain Biking Association in support of responsible cycling has helped shift the debate (mostly) from shouting to discussion. If you’d like to continue that discussion, please add a comment of your own below.