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Acquainting With Ash: Riding the Remains of Wildfire

R-Dog, Owen Marks and Isaac Wallen come to terms with a newly charred forest.

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Everything is grey. The dirt, colorless and ashen underfoot, puffs gently into the air with each step. The trees, statuesque in their stillness, silence and stony livery, give away the only hints of color, but just where their bark has been so thoroughly charred that the heart of the tree seems to explode outwards in deep, almost wine-colored hues. It’s a world unlike anything we’ve ever seen; the destruction of a wildfire viewed in such proximity that it’s rendered a second home as something utterly foreign.

There were trails here, before, beautifully sculpted downhill lines that snaked besides moss-blanketed boulders and beneath rich, regal old redwoods. It was a haven for those who wanted big, rowdy descents far above the crowds in the beach cities below, and a refuge when spot after spot fell to the long arm of private and state landowners. Riders—from near and soon far—honed their craft besides the delicate ferns that danced whenever wheels whirred by.

But then, in August, the lightning came. And with it, wildfire.

remnants of wildfire

When we drove up the mostly monochrome hillside a few months later, shocked as the road passed blackened car chassis and fireplaces standing alone like single trees in empty clearings, we found a different world. As sobering as it was, there was also something undeniably captivating and magnetic in the forest as it now stood. Maybe it was the history, or the unknown, or bearing such witness to nature’s supremacy, but we couldn’t turn away. And so we—Ryan Howard, Owen Marks, Isaac Wallen and myself—hoisted boots and bikes out of truck beds and stepped into the ashes.

Perhaps this was the end, the last session—but nothing truly dies. The forest will grow back stronger, we hope, even if not in our lifetimes. Memories will linger in the minds of those who cherished this spot and built it into the sanctuary of shred that it was. The bonds, photographs, skills, scars and stories will remain.

Or perhaps there will be trails again. Maybe berms will be carved out and lips will be raised from the healing ground, but it may never be the same. The trails, as they were, are just a memory now, and once you’ve seen wildfire, the world is different. It’s impossible to forget the raw power of nature and its ability to reshape lives far beyond the contours of any singletrack. But also, it’s hard to avoid appreciating every old corner, every untouched trail, and every normal day spent under a leafy canopy. Any new turn here will be a gift, and a rebirth. If fate has settled on the return of riders to this zone, it will be hard to ignore the metaphor; the phoenix and her trails, literally riding from the ashes.

This zone was perfection. Nestled away above the busy beach town, far into the mountains, a hidden network of some of the best trails my tires have ever touched. Lush redwoods towered above the perfect soil scattered with ferns and leaves, bordered by mini van-sized boulders covered in a neon green moss. It looked like a Dr. Seuss page. It was too good to be true. - Isaac Wallen

It’s insane how we don’t really realize how essential these mountains and ecosystems are to our lives as mountain bikers. Trails and forests are something that seem so permanent, yet you blink and the whole canvas is torched to oblivion. - IW

It’s like if your sister shaved her head. Same person, totally different image. - IW

After memorizing every branch, root, leaf and rock for the last decade it was unbelievable to ride the same line without nearly any of the same variables. The dirt remains, but that shrub you used to buzz your knuckles on is vaporized. It’s the exact same, yet completely the opposite. - IW

The thought of open flames ripping through the forest and how powerful fire can be is a scary thought. On the other hand, the fire clearing an insane amount of brush and poison oak has opened up a ton of potential. - Ryan Howard

When you know the trail so well, it’s a serious mind tease to have the line of sight opened up so far. - RH

It sort of feels like what’s done is done, and may it rest in peace. But whether it's that zone or not, we will never stop fighting the battle of keeping the scene alive. For a handful of us here, its worth every penny, shovel load, and drop of sweat. Something about this place, keeps us here. - IW