Not all great adventures conclude on a mountaintop or in the forest primeval. This month, The Explorers learn that a little yoga at the end of the trail makes a bike trek through nature’s fall colors even more awe-inspiring.
The cold fire of a New England autumn had burned the edges of the trees — amber, crimson, sienna and brilliant yellow. I hadn’t seen my old buddy and rugby teammate, “Surfer” John Hearin, since last January’s subzero pond hockey game in North Conway. Catching up on the news, we rode our mountain bikes ahead of the others, climbing the steep gravel pitch of Swayze Lane.
We were in Bethlehem for “Yogapalooza,” comprising a 12-mile mountain bike ride followed by restorative yoga at the Balance Bethlehem studio on Main Street. Surfer’s lovely wife, Stephanie, was leading a four-day retreat consisting of 11 students from Infinity, her yoga studio in Cocoa Beach, Florida. In addition to providing comic relief, Surfer and I had been tasked with finding the trailhead, pedaling madly away from the group like deranged frontier scouts.
According to Dave Harkless of Littleton Bike & Fitness, the loop we’d chosen was varied enough to accommodate the flatlanders from Florida while providing some challenges for my New Hampshire pals, who bike on gnarly trails quite often.
But leaf-peeping traffic had created a choke point in Franconia Notch, delaying the arrival of Chris Pierce and his family, photographer Joe Klementovich, and the latest addition to our crew, Bridget Grandmaison Freudenberger, a triathlete and banker from Colebrook.
One hallmark of our group, carved onto a stone tablet handed down from the icy summit of Mount Washington, is the 11th Commandment – Thou shall wait for Piercey, who hath been late and shall be late again. But with a passel of downward-facing-dog pilgrims a half-mile behind us, Surfer and I wouldn’t be able to wait for Piercey very long.
Surfer and Piercey have been participants in nearly all my most unforgettable exploits — from biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park and sketchy open-water swimming in the Gulf of Mexico to frigid winter paddles down the Merrimack River and snowy treks through the White Mountains. Riding alongside Surfer as we reached the top of the hill, I wondered aloud where Piercey was.
Surfer twisted his mouth like a gangster. “Nearby, I hope,” he said.
Just as we arrived at the trailhead, a trio of SUVs topped the crest of Swazey Lane, billowing dust and scattering pebbles. Like Henry David Thoreau, who noted that he had been “born in the nick of time,” Piercey made a dramatic entrance, bounding from his truck before the cab lurched backward onto the chassis.
Piercey’s intrepid, athletic parents, Bob and Pat, were visiting from Maryland for their granddaughter Kaya’s 14th birthday, and agreed to take part in Yogapalooza. Soon, Kaya had emerged from the truck and stood a short distance away.
Straddling my bike, I grinned at Kaya. She laughed, and I gestured to her for a hug.
“It’s my birthday,” said Kaya, looking skeptical. “I’m 14. I’m too old to hug.”
I pointed to her dad, who was embracing Surfer, Stephanie and whoever else rolled up. “Your dad’s older than 14, and he hugs everybody.”
With an embarrassed smile, Kaya leaned in to hug me.
Joe Klementovich and Bridget climbed out of their vehicles, all smiles, and in short order they were leading us down the steep rocky trail that would take us to the loop.
Kaya Pierce rides a specially designed recumbent bicycle. Wearing a sporty-looking helmet and fresh off her success at the DIY Backcountry Triathlon in Rumney, she went bombing down the tricky slope with an alarming ferocity. I was nursing banged up ribs, injured in a nasty crash earlier in the week, and was lifting my bike over a sharply angled boulder when I glanced back to check on Kaya’s progress.
While going at a fast clip, Kaya’s tires struck a rock and she went careening off the trail. With Piercey alongside and her grandparents right behind her, they were able to right Kaya’s bike immediately, reassure her, and set her back onto the narrow single track.
“Ouch,” said Surfer, looking back.
I rumbled over a dozen boulders and roots. “They don’t baby her, that’s for sure,” I said.
At the bottom of the rocky portion was a grassy double track that branched left, right, and straight ahead. A few yoga pilgrims had turned back at the dead-end, reducing our group to a dozen or so.
Choosing the right-hand track, I followed Surfer up a long, steep hill, until I was on the easiest gear, huffing and puffing. My lungs expanded and contracted rapidly, pushing at my battered ribs and throwing a rattle into my breathing. But catching up to Surfer, an ex-Marine, was part of my mission. I finally reached his back tire when we topped a grassy plateau at height of land.
There was a large, rolling woodland dotted with vibrant color on all sides, with only the whisking sound of a nearby river and a few bird calls disturbing the silence. The sky was a dark blue overhead, the air brisk as we caught our breath, drinking from our hydration packs.
“You went uphill like you were dragging a piano,” Surfer said.
I clipped the hydration line onto my pack. “I’m gonna sing an aria on my way down,” I said, gasping for breath.
Then we set off again. The trail wound through a birch, maple and spruce forest, a dark green patchwork quilt spattered with dots of crimson and gold. Down, and down we went, tires whirring, the track doglegging left, our speed blurring the trees on either side.
Surging ahead, I began to laugh like a madman, in concert with the wheezing woodwind of my lungs and the jazzy tinkling of an imaginary piano.
Surfer came alongside at the bottom of the hill. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
Surfer and I have been close friends since we played on a championship rugby team at the University of Florida. He’s acquainted with a few of my childhood pals and once shared a Gainesville apartment with me and Rick Angus, a former college baseball player and my best friend growing up.
One night when Rick and I were Kaya’s age, we were riding 10-speed bikes through our darkened neighborhood. Atop the hill beyond the First Church Congregational was a steep one-way street that passed a Tudor-style hunting lodge and then crossed Route 28, a bustling thoroughfare connecting Methuen, Massachusetts, with the shopping district in Salem, New Hampshire.
As we buzzed downhill, gaining enough speed to tear the breath from our mouths, Rick gestured ahead to the brightly lit intersection and, in the voice of an English schoolmaster, yelled, “Chance it?”
It was the pivotal moment in my adolescence, where I’d either reject or embrace being a risk-taker. I nodded, and we bore down on the intersection.
We probably reached 30 mph, darting across the asphalt strip of 28, with the nearest cars 25 yards away and closing. We’d hit it just right, and burst into shouts and laughter. Rick and I zipped safely into Gaunt Square, which was deserted at that hour, and the course of my life was set.
Surfer laughed at the story. “That’s Rick, all the way,” he said.
At the conclusion of the mile-long slope, we ran into Joe Klementovich. I’d spoken with Joe briefly at the trailhead, but everyone was in a rush to get started and we hadn’t spotted him in over an hour.
“Hey,” said Joe, pulling up on his bike.
I was glad to see him. “What are you doing?” I asked.
Joe looked around at the trees. “Photojournalist stuff,” he said, with a shrug.
Stephanie arrived with her friend, Courtenay Porter, a tall, athletic brunette who’s also a yoga instructor. Then we started off again, reaching another three-way trail junction. There was an inviting track off to the right, a straight-up, Robert Frost, grassy-way-wanting-wear that veered away into the sun-dappled woods.
I turned my front wheel in that direction and went cranking along the trail. A minute later, Courtenay’s front tire appeared in my lower left field of vision.
Earlier, Courtenay told me that she’d grown up all over the country, playing lacrosse in one place, learning to ski in another, enjoying every sport that was in season. I’d grown up in Methuen, doing the same thing.
Now, with a big smile on her face, Courtenay glanced around, saying, “Where we going?”
“I want to go places I’ve never seen,” I said, waving my arm at the trail. “I’ve never seen any of this.”
Hemmed in by the responsibility of managing the yoga folks, Surfer remained at the trailhead, arms folded across his chest.
“Hey, we have yoga at 4:45,” he yelled. “We have to get going.”
Courtenay and I pedaled on for a short distance, and then braked to a stop. She looked at me, her palm uplifted in a “Whattaya gonna do?” gesture. So we lifted the frames of our bikes, turning back the way we came.
“Surfer!” I hollered. “Too many rules.”
“That’s his line,” I said. “Along with ‘never trust a guy in a kayak’ and ‘piss when you can, not when you have to’.”
Going up the rocky single track was easier on my bruised ribs than coming down. At the apex of the hill, we reached Swazey Lane, and Surfer and I went tearing downhill, reaching speeds that peeled my eyelids back.
“Chance it?” asked Surfer, laughing.
An hour later, we convened for yoga at Balance Bethlehem on Main Street. Last January, Stephanie and Surfer stayed over in Bethlehem and found the yoga studio, where they met Iyengar yoga instructor Rose Goldblatt. A peaceful young brunette who studied in India, Rose has been teaching Iyengar yoga for more than half her lifetime.
Finding her in the White Mountains seemed unlikely, but everything happens for a reason, and Stephanie’s friendship with the soft-spoken Rose had led us here, to the edge of a glowing forest.
I’m a yoga enthusiast, frequently taking an hour-long class with an experienced teacher. And with my rib injury and other orthopedic insults, I’m looking forward to my realignment — much like taking a 1982 Monte Carlo in for regular maintenance.
With three other instructors taking the class, including Stephanie and Courtenay, Rose soon proved that she could teach to any level. Our group included several first-timers, a couple in their 70s, and one gung-ho participant intent on impressing his fiancé.
Balance Bethlehem is a study in blond wood, vaguely Scandinavian, the glass wall overlooking an unbroken skein of frost-painted woodland. As Rose, a willowy brunette with the agility of a ballerina, walked among her charges, she advised me to bring the focus to my breath — making it “soft, slow, and fine.”
Sitting on a pair of yoga blocks, my carriage upright and eyes closed, I listened to Rose’s soothing tone, intent on the finely modulated breathing she’d mentioned earlier. In the quiet of the studio, the endorphins from the bike ride rippling through my blood, I felt in tune with something. It was hard to describe — an experience that was both “out there” and within, a feeling of stillness, a gentle and peaceful interiority.
After a few moments, Rose told us to open our eyes. Outside the giant window were flaming maples and oaks, beginning 20 feet away and marching toward Canada, waving and rolling and rushing softly together, roiled by a steady wind. And in that moment, I realized that the trees were thrashing about in time with my breathing.
Somehow, even with my eyes closed, I’d synchronized my breath with the swaying leaves and branches. I felt my experience in the studio integrated with the biking, and I could feel an invisible tether connecting my breath and that of my fellow explorers — Piercey and his parents and Kaya, Stephanie and Joe and Surfer and Bridget, all our past and future exploits braided into one adventure by a single breath.
“The seat of intelligence isn’t the brain,” Rose said. “It’s the heart.”
Following yoga class, it was time for a beer and some laughs. We headed to Rek’-lis Brewing Company, a funky-cool tavern that shares a parking lot with the studio. Rek’-lis sits on a little rise overlooking Main Street, encircled by a rail fence, and strung with white lights. It looks like a frontier trading post straight out of John Ford’s 1956 film, “The Searchers.”
It was dark when we arrived, with a long wait for one of the tables inside. But there was a roaring fire in the yard, and several electric heaters arching over the tables like stainless steel umbrellas.
Kaya was shivering in the cold, and although several folks occupied the outdoor fireplace, they welcomed the blond-haired teen to the hearth. I sat on a tree stump nearby, keeping an eye on Kaya and scribbling in my notebook.
“What are you writing?” asked a pleasant young woman.
I looked around, moving my shoulders a little. “Journalist stuff,” I said.
Most of the yoga participants had wandered off, looking for someplace else to eat, and after 90 minutes outside, we got called indoors. The décor was rough-hewn wood, long tables, a tall bar, and a rousing, rollicking collection of locals and tourists jammed together. There was a Mexican theme to the proceedings, and a quick-fingered Latino guitarist was perched nearby, crooning a string of melodic tunes in Spanish.
Surfer noted that one of the tunes was borrowed for an X-rated rugby song we used to perform at the University of Florida. He began declaiming the racy lyrics, and Stephanie gave him a side-eyeball and he left off, shrugging his shoulders.
Soon our table was filled with platters of enchiladas and burritos and glasses of beer brewed on the premises. The Iry Pale Ale I’d selected had a light, smooth finish, and I took a long drink, then winked at Surfer, saying “Namaste, (expletive).”
My notebook was on the table, and Bridget kept spiriting it away, giggling as she used my pencil to write something in it. Joe reached over, took the notebook, and began leafing through. “What the hell is he writing in here?” Joe asked.
I grabbed the notebook away from them. “I wonder what philosophical insight Bridget has contributed to my efforts,” I said.
At the bottom of the page, in tiny, slanted script, the willowy triathlete had written, “Hi, Jay!” next to a smiley face.
“That addition to going to take this story a long way,” I said, and Bridget laughed.
The next morning broke drizzly and raw, and we headed across town for another yoga class with Rose. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for a more challenging session. Padding around the room in bare feet, Rose told us that proper alignment was just as important as breathing.
Flowing into each new pose meant changing your alignment, and as Rose came among us, she pressed gently on the space between my shoulder blades to open up my chest.
“Perfect,” she said, once I’d moved forward half an inch.
Late in the class, Rose asked if anyone would like to try a handstand. Recently, I’d learned how to do a headstand, but with gymnastics being a sport I had no experience with, I’d never attempted a handstand.
In less than a minute, Rose showed me how to place my blocks on edge against the wall, palms facing outward with the heel of each hand resting on the top edge of the corresponding block. Then I walked my feet toward my hands, tenting my spine until I formed a narrow, inverted V.
Rose told me to kick up, pushing off with my left foot and throwing the right foot up first. I tried, but didn’t have enough momentum and my feet dropped back to the floor. Off to my right, someone thudded against the wall, his feet banging loudly. That ain’t it, I figured.
Just as I pushed off the second time, Rose used the index finger of her right hand on my right big toe, giving me a tiny assist. One leg rose, then the other, and I was in a wall-assisted handstand.
“How’s that?” Rose asked.
“Pretty cool,” I said.
After yoga, we returned to the modest A-frame where we were staying. I had brought along an extra wetsuit, and the plan was for Surfer and I to go open water swimming at the Moore Reservoir in Littleton.
But the Florida contingent had decided to visit Loon Mountain, and Surfer had to drive the van. So I grabbed my bag and cruised up Route 93 toward Moore Dam.
Coming off the highway, the ramp curved past a thrilling and foreboding sight, the great bulwark of the dam holding back that massive wall of water. Just glancing at it, I imagined the biblical damage to the little villages below if Moore Dam should ever give way.
Approximately 250 yards from the dam, a line of giant buoys was strung across the reservoir beneath an iron gray sky, warning swimmers and boaters to keep away.
On excursions like this, I’d rather have Surfer along. He’s unflappable, capable and reliable, so tuned in we can usually anticipate what the other guy is going to do. But like Thoreau said, a man must find his occasions in himself.
As I came down to the water’s edge, the gigantic reservoir stretched for a mile to the other shore. The surface resembled a corrugated sheet of metal, the water ruffled by a steady breeze. My toes went numb as soon as I waded into the cold water, swinging my arms and rolling out my neck. Then I said a prayer and made the Sign of the Cross.
As I lowered my goggles and plunged in, bringing my arm over for the first stroke, I flashed on Rose at the yoga studio, encouraging us in her musical voice. It seemed obvious to me now that the seat of intelligence is the heart. Then I ducked my head, and began swimming across the reservoir toward the darkened trees.