A friend routinely volunteers as a groomer for local singletrack bike trails. It costs him time and money, but he and several other “trail angels” in the Palmer area —often associated with the Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers — regularly load up their snowmachines, drive to the trailhead and set off for hours of grooming the trails. This makes the snowpack on the trails even and compact for biking.
It takes some doing. Before the trail sets, grooming can easily be undone by walkers punching holes through the snow with every step or cyclists biking the trails before they’re ready. In soft snow, tires get stuck and create grooves as cyclists try to pedal out, and footprints deeply dent the snow as they walk their bikes. When the trail eventually hardens, what’s left are ruts and bumps.
There are signs at the beginning of the trail encouraging people not to ride or bike on the soft snow. But people are out there enjoying the trails in all sorts of ways — on skis, on foot, on bikes, with dogs and with friends.
Inevitably, something undoes the work of the groomers. Sometimes it’s warmer weather; many times it’s people not paying attention or not caring.
I’d heard last week that my friend had just finished a three-lap groom to really even out the snow over the course of several hours, and by the time he was heading back to the car, there were fresh posthole tracks on the trail. In some ways, grooming trails is a Hail Mary and an exercise in futility. But still, by way of commiseration, when I next saw my friend I said, “I heard that you’d just wrapped up grooming and someone had already destroyed the track — that’s a bummer!”
To my surprise, he shrugged.
“You know what,” he said, “there’s so much that gets me down about the world these days, this is just not something I want to feel irritated over. Who knows what they were doing. Probably just not paying attention. The trail is overall in good shape, we’ve had a great winter, and I get to be outside. I’m glad people are getting out."
Fireworks went off in my brain.
You get to decide how to feel, I thought.
The interesting thing about this to me is that it takes a lot of emotional intelligence to “decide” how to feel, because the truth is, no one gets to decide. Not even my friend. Feelings are these spontaneous, sometimes cumbersome lenses on our view of the world that have nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with that processing machine located behind our eyes. Our unique experiences and our shared primal instincts shape how each of us reacts to events in our lives. Even with shared events, people react in entirely different ways.
The trick is understanding that a feeling is just that: a feeling. When you can identify it, it’s kind of a mental way of tacking it up on a corkboard to isolate and examine. Where is the feeling coming from? Why? What kinds of stories am I telling myself that lead to the feeling? What are some alternatives to that story?
In my friend’s case, one story he could have told himself — and perhaps did, briefly — is that “these jerks are out on the trails purposefully screwing up my hard work. They don’t care about their community and clearly they hate fun.”
Instead he chose to tell himself a story about a bigger picture: That this winter has been cold enough to hold the conditions out on the single tracks much longer than previous winters. That he’s out there doing something he loves and giving back to the community. And, generously, that when we’re in oblivion it’s easy to overlook something like the care that goes into trail maintenance.
Lucky us. In Alaska we have so much abundance and access to beauty that it’s a shared sense of purpose to be outside. There is no shortage of places to go.
This feeling overrides the posthole footsteps that are a fraction of a percent of the miles of otherwise intact groomed trail. We can choose to focus on the dents. But in a world where so much of our attention and care is consumed by tending to what feels like a planet literally on fire, why not spend those limited outdoor hours feeling good? If we can choose it, we owe it to ourselves.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.