How an eerie moonlit ride helped me overcome my profound fear of technical biking.
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I skirt through the automated gates of Jonathan Dickinson Park with just minutes to spare before closing. I pull through the ranger booth with windows rolled down.
A burly woman wearing an olive uniform smiled at me from inside. “Here for the Moonlight Ride?”
I smiled back, and held out my park pass. “Yep!”
She waved me through. “Have fun. Be safe.”
I keep the windows down. Humid July air fills the cab, carrying the scent of barbecue, charcoal, and campfire smoke. The sun sits low in the sky, casting an orange glow across the dunes and sparse jungle. The scrub jays flock back to their nesting places for the night.
A long cargo train fills the flat horizon, rattling across the CSX line through the palm scrubs1. The last one for the day.
I pull into one of the few remaining spots in a packed dirt lot of Camp Murphy. In the 1940’s, this top-secret radar facility was a veritable town of its own during operation, with more than a thousand buildings, home to thousands more officers.
In present day, the overgrown ruins are home to a network of mountain2 biking trails, maintained and funded by a passionate group of riders.
It’s this group of riders I’m joining up with for an incredible tradition: the Moonlight Ride.
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Waiting out the Sun
The bulk of the crowd huddles around the barbecue pit, clutching burgers and hot dogs. The fire crackles, filling the air with sweet smoke.
A bike leans against virtually every tree, fencepost and bumper — all in various states of maintenance. Some look as though they’ve been collecting dust in the garage for years. Some are spotless. Others are caked in mud from the trail.
As the sun sets, organizers begin sorting us into groups based on pace, with the fastest riders beginning first, intermediate second, and so on.
We all head to the staging area, fixing our head lamps and safety lights.
I join the “casual” speed group for reasons I’ll get to in just a moment.
A few moments after the “intermediates” depart, we get the all clear, and I pedal onto the trail.
The first stretch is simple enough. I chase the red taillight of the biker ahead of me over a few ramps, and rollers. Palm fronds bat at my limbs.
We round a corner, and begin a steep, straight climb that has me leaning forward over the handle bars. I fight the bike for control as my tires jostle over a patchwork of roots.
The silhouette of a dead tree frames the top of the hill against the backdrop of a violet, dusty sky. Hanging from the lone remaining bough is a beat-up cowbell.
The rider ahead of me crests, stands on his pedals, and smacks the living hell out of it. In response, someone out of view lets out a whooping cheer.
Soon it’s my turn to emulate this performance. I decide to attempt it with the same gusto, but misjudge just how far I had to reach for the bell. My fingertips barely graze it, and in my surprise, I allow the bike to swerve wildly, nearly sending myself flying into the bushes.
Off to a great start.
A Long Line of Lights
I join the rest of the group, congregating by a weathered picnic table, and turn back to the trail behind us.
A glowing snake made from LED safety lights slithers its way through the brush, around the dunes, and up the hill to meet us. The site is eerie, allowing me to see for the first time the true twists and turns the trail holds.
I look back to the picnic area where we’ve stopped. Ahead is a tangled intersection — and the reason I ranked myself in the “easy” group.
We’re at the end of the “Tortoise” trail. To the left, there’s a shortcut to “Hare,” the fastest way back to the park exit. These are the parks only beginner trails. To the right is “Ranger,” one of the park’s many intermediate routes, and the gateway to the true bulk of the trail complex.
Up until this point, I’d never gone beyond the beginner loop. I still wasn’t comfortable with some of the obstacles, and doubted I was ready to delve deeper into the park.
Now here I am, about to do it all by the dim light of a headlamp.
I take a deep breath, point my tires down the dark, sandy path, and shove off.
Diving into the Dark
My stomach drops as the trail plunges downward. Before I have time to rethink my decision, The path swells into a banked turn.
I jostle over unseen rocks, logs, and chunks of concrete, until one impact bounces my feet off the pedals, leaving me awkwardly perched on a runaway bike. One of the pedals spins around and whacks my shin.
“Sand!” Some one shouts in the distance.
“Sand!” The warning is passed back through the line.
“Sand!” The man ahead of me echoes.
“Uh—Sand!” I hastily yell.
Then I hit it.
My bike sinks, speed slows. But the biggest impact is to my level of control. I’d liken the sensation to driving down a steep, snowy hill with bald tires: your steering comes as more of a general suggestion.
“Lose the death-grip!” The rider behind me calls out. “You won’t make it, white knuckling the handlebars the whole time!”
I relax my fingers a little, and allow the bike to flow downhill in an easier, more gradual line.
“Thanks!” I call back.
“Rider down!” Someone hollers from further up in the pack.
Breaks scrape and squeal against each other. Every rider in the succession comes to a halt. The enormous snake of taillights leading down the hill before me is still.
Cicadas buzz, as if to fill the silence.
Finally: “I’m okay! All good, just go right!”
The rest of the group lets out a supportive cheer. One at a time, the lights begin moving again, until the whole collective organism is crawling along the sand.
I skirt passed a good Samaritan, holding a flashlight for the downed rider. His bike is upside down on the ground, and he’s trying to wrap a sand-caked chain back around his rear derailleur3.
“You’ll want to pour on the speed here,” the helpful man from behind me says.
The path slopes upward. I lean forward, and pedal hard. My bike drops over a tiny ledge, onto a wooden boardwalk. The thick slats thunder beneath my tires as I throw all of my strength into the climb.
Gravity begins to pull me down, toward my back tire. I drop a gear and push harder.
When my bike almost comes to a stop, I stand on my pedals with my full body weight.
Somehow, I manage to crest the top, and roll out onto the open clearing where the other group members are waiting.
I dismount my bike, sucking down huge gulps of air. I take a long drink of water, then take inventory.
Sand clings to the mixture of sweat and blood on my legs, turning the white powder an odd pinkish color. The cut on my shin from the pedals doesn’t look serious. I pour some water on it and slap on a bandage from my tiny first aid kit.
Good as new.
A minute or two later, the downed rider walks up the wooden ramp, wheeling his bike before him.
“There he is!” Someone yells.
Another reaches out to pat his shoulder. “Glad you’re okay, bud.”
Making Friends in the Snake Pit
I’d later learn that run is called “Snake Pit.” When I returned a week later and saw it for the first time in the daylight, I was incredulous. I don’t think I ever would have tried it if I could’ve seen what I was getting into.
Now, it remains one of my favorite trails.
I re-rode the same tiny loop for almost two months because I was afraid. I could’ve started fully enjoying the sport a lot sooner had I not let that fear get the better of me.
Sometimes you have to throw yourself headfirst into the unknown to truly start living.
By the way: I owe a lot of my good experience that night to an incredibly friendly and welcoming group of people. Most of us were complete strangers. But we still cheered on, encouraged, and helped each other like old friends.
If you live in South Florida, Club Scrub is a fantastic organization that does a great job maintaining the trails and fostering a fun community.
If you’re never been, it’s a bit of an odd biome. Imagine a tropical beach with big ferns and palms was fighting a deep north-western pine barren for control of some sand dunes.
Yes, even in the flatlands of Florida, there is a robust mountain climbing community. There may not be high altitude climbs or huge descents, but the dunes of the palm scrubs provide plenty of ups and downs, while impressive trail features and enormous roots offer a good technical challenge.
The thing that shifts gears for you on a bike.