It is wet. Not the soft dampness of morning dew, or the refreshing sprinkling of spring showers, but soaking wet - a "check the roof for leaks 'cause the gutters are overflowing" kind of wet. And we have a mountain bike ride planned.
In the early morning of a record-breaking rainy summer day in New England, the phone rings right on cue. It's Jim Black, a good friend and diehard cycling buddy, confirming our ride. I worked the night before, but couldn't sleep late due to the pounding of rain on our rooftop and the torrent of water running from the gutter alongside our bedroom window.
"We're still on, right?" says Jim with so much enthusiasm that I'm convinced he'd be furiously wagging his tail if he had one.
The ride, as originally planned, is part of a Saturday tradition I keep with a large group of cycling friends. Get up and out at the crack of dawn, enjoy a good spin through the curvy singletrack of the local forests and get home before noon to spend some quality time with the family or on household chores. The rain is another matter altogether. My wife automatically thinks "rainy day projects." And like any inept home handyman, my first reflex is to start worrying about the basement flooding and whether the sump pump will hold up for another day. I didn't need to add drowning to my list of concerns. But Jim is persistent.
"This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime rides that you'll be talking about for years," he says. "There is just something about a warm tropical downpour that you can never appreciate unless you immerse yourself in it, like going for a walk in a blizzard."
Of course. I take this comment with a Buick-size grain of salt. Jim is the same guy who somehow convinced me to do a 24-hour mountain race, an undertaking I spent weeks recovering from. But if Jim knows anything, it's how to squeeze life out of every minute. His motto is simple: "If you want to play outside, you can't let the weather stop you." The rain, he reckons, is simply an invitation to adventure.
On this particular Saturday, four of us had agreed to meet. Two, including me, are squarely on the fence about the idea of slogging through heavy rains and heavy mud. I call Fred, and we make a pact - if the fourth member of our entourage, Al, signs on, we all stick together. Jim rings back to say that Al is itching to go.
"OK, OK, I'm in," I reply, certain that my fate awaiting on the trails is surely better than being branded a coward..
After a quick sweep of the gutters, I don my foul-weather cycling gear, topped off with my brand new "waterproof" jacket. My wife stands in the stairwell, shaking her head. Our toddler daughter, nestled in her arms, gives me a quizzical look. "You're not really going out there, are you?" my wife says. I admit my folly, but my word is my bond.
With my wife waving at the front door, obviously questioning if this is the same guy she married four years ago, I pedal over to Fred's. Within minutes I'm drenched. So much for "waterproof." Rivulets of water stream down the front of my helmet and my back as I aim the front tire through the small explosions of raindrops. Fred and I put on our best machismo fronts - we're not about to let Jim and Al show us up. We head off amid nervous laughter, dubbing our adventure "Noah's Ride." Jim says something about the "first 100 yards are most difficult." I reserve judgment.
These are trails I know, or thought I knew. That's the funny thing about torrential downpours - everything changes. More than 80 percent of the ride is under water, several inches in some places, more than a foot in others. Not just puddles, but flowing streams. Every water barrier is a leap of faith. Each time we experience that edge-of-your-seat feeling, wondering how deep it is and what is lying underneath - a hole to drop into, a mud pit that grabs a wheel, a rock, or the fearsome off-angle root - all of which can send us swimming. We hope and pray that our wheels find a safe path.
Though Al and Jim are the strongest riders in our group, today the four of us are constantly jostling for position. Instead of looking to lead, we intentionally try to push someone else out front, like a hapless mind-sweeper. We follow their line until they hit a submerged root or rock and spill, alerting us to find a secondary route. As we scoot by, our fallen comrade is showered with verbal jabs. In the rain, there are no Good Samaritans.
There's also no recourse. One of our band had the bright idea of smearing Rain-X on his glasses, but the heavy drops just washed the stuff off down his cheeks, into his mouth and onto his tongue, leaving it numb for days. The rest of us blink away the water in our eyes, and dodge the water-weary ferns and trees branches like two-wheel versions of the Keystone Cops.
Yet during the course of the ride, I sense a subtle shift. I begin to trust my instincts, my "feel" for the terrain. I ride boldly through the middle of the water-logged gullies with a newfound finesse, almost by Braille. The warm rain does little to slow us. This four-man train starts to weave as one along the undulating terrain.
Suddenly, I'm struck by another unmistakable subtlety of the woods during heavy rains - the solitude. There's little, if any, chance that we'll cross paths with anyone else. Wildlife, on the other hand, is plentiful. We see deer and fox, unable to hear us through the drone of the deluge, meandering along the trail. Often we get within a few yards before we're detected, and they scamper off.
The last leg home brings a sense of accomplishment that ordinary rides never match. We braved the elements, danced with Mother Nature in all her windswept, rain-soaked glory. Ultimately, we all fair much better than our bikes - within days, the chains and the cable housing for the brakes and the gears rust solid and our hubs need to be repacked. But, just as Jim promised, we have the memories of a lifetime.