This Christmas was the first time in ages that all our family has been together to observe the holiday. The weather continued to be amazingly mild and my sister snapped this pic of the sunset through the trees on one such mellow evening.
After moving away from KS and settling it the West, I am struck by how the landscape of my youth seems to shrink while the trees get bigger. According to findings by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the volume of forest growth is 380% greater than it had been in 1920. Much of this is credited to conservation measures and and the re-planting of forest plantations. Urbanization seems like an odd factor to consider in Southeast Kansas, but a scenic loop on the Sunday drive shows more and more small farms falling into disrepair as the generation of my grandparents begins to die off and their children and grandchildren leave the family farm behind for brighter prospects in town. Pastures and fields are being taken over by scraggly sprouts of Osage Orange and the borders between fencerow and field begin to blur as shrubs begin to creep into the fields and the hardwood forests of the bottomlands reclaim their stake on the rich, fertile soil surrounding them.
Our family is facing a similar crux, for even the best managed cattle operation my grandparents 300+ acres would barely be enough to break even on the costs of land ownership. In contemplating these thoughts, I revisited some of my first mountain bike trails. Like many early mountain bike trails, they are simply the old cow paths that wind around the edges of hills and along fencerows. Cows, those lumbering beast with mucusy running noses, shit-splattered backsides and dinner plate hooves are some of the best trail constructors one could ask for. They generally follow moderate contour lines and stay on their designated trails better than most user groups. Those dinner plate hooves hammer the terra firma into firmly packed singletrack worthy of any mountain bikers dream. Certainly cow trails are not always the smoothest – the wet soils of winter are easily pockmarked by their heavy hooves. But as soon as things dry out, those same hooves crush their pockmarks into smooth singletrack. Following my old routes, I was surprised to realize I had underestimated the potential for some sweet xc loops of the cross-stuntry variety – some pedaling, some pumping, a few small old-school North Shore style stunts. As I was walking among the boulders and oak trees, I kept thinking of the trail Bone Collector, one of my favorites I was introduced to in the Black Hills this summer. The cedar trees have grown up since I last explored these sandstone and shale hills and as a result the understory is starting to open up, making scouting and clearing routes much easier. I still wouldn’t give up the high deserts of Colorado, but it is comforting and in a way, my world seems a little larger for learning to appreciate the beauty Kansas has to offer.