Though my days of active hiking and biking over trails are behind me, I still find that I enjoy vicarious trail-bashing – looking over trails on a map and reading accounts of routes covered on foot or on bike by active sloggers. When my collection of topographic maps gets a little stale I turn to any one of the countless mountain biking websites containing various lists of superlatives such as “most scenic bike trail”, “longest bike trail” and my favorite – “most dangerous bike trail” all of which are much easier to navigate via lap-top than in the saddle. As I surf the ‘net more and more it looks like Colorado’s Barr trail has a lock on the bike-specific dangerous paths. It climbs 7500 feet over 13 miles of widely diverse terrain and riders are warned to prepare for more than one weather state during their sojourn. The view – and the ride back down – is supposed to be second to none, but as I read the description I have to shake my head in sympathy for the ignorant.
This trail has nothing on the Turnagain Terror Trail.
Turnagain is a neighborhood on the west side of Anchorage (Alaska) and was the city’s most upscale residential area until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake when it suffered some of the quake’s worst damage. The neighborhood’s location on bluffs overlooking Knik arm was a major factor in the destruction of 75 homes , so many damaged beyond repair that local banks let owners walk away from mortgages as they left the state to start over in the lower 48. Eventually the destroyed area was converted into a recreation area appropriately dubbed Earthquake Park.
My best buddy Zsa-Zsa’s family was in that situation, though their house was located away from the major damage area and wasn’t totally demolished. (Lacking even a drop of Hungarian blood, my friend’s nickname “Zsa-Zsa” came from my youngest sister’s garbled attempts to properly pronounce his name ‘David Bradshaw’) The house was habitable – but it did have this totally b*tchin’ crack running lengthwise down one wall of the basement which Zsa-Zsa used to base his claim that he came from a “broken home”
We didn’t spend much time inside though; their lot was on the east side of Turnagain where the bluffs made a more gentle slope down to an undeveloped area made up of the forest, ravines, and wetlands alongside a broad railroad right-of-way. Any period of warm weather was spent outside whittling, exploring, making forts, biking, catching stickleback fish in the creek – everything except traversing The Trail.
The Trail lay just outside our regular wooded stomping grounds with the trailhead proper located a hundred yards or so up the street from Zsa-Zsa’s house. From there it curved slightly to the south as it ran downhill in a southeasterly direction, ending at the creek at the bottom of the Bradshaw family’s yard. As it started out the path was fairly level, snaking through fairly open woodland with the greatest perils consisting of small trees fallen over the trail, roots growing across it or chuck-holes gouged below its surface. It was only when the trail hit the edge of the bluff that its character changed.
At that point it began to twist and turn as it cut diagonally across the face of a rather steep slope. At one place there was an abrupt drop where the trail crossed a gully cut into the face of the hill; at another the brush line on the left side of path briefly disappeared leaving a fifty-foot drop-off that ended in a pool of water which held mangled bike frame partially submerged at one end. Next came a second gully, another drop-off to the left (this one with a rope swing) and a third less extreme gully just before the trail started to level out and coast into the level area alongside the creek.
Word in the neighborhood was that two kids had gone down the trail the summer before and one of them had ended up in the hospital after falling into the pool. We held a conference and after much deliberation determined that we wouldn’t get hurt like those kids: we’d found a weathered table of contents page from a Playboy magazine along with a smashed Shasta root beer can when we first started down the trail and according to grade-school logic all this was evidence that those guys were “hoods” and ineligible for the cosmic protection we would be entitled to.
However, as we gathered at the top of the trail the next afternoon we weren’t quite so confident. Why?
- It was one thing to talk about doing something scary but quite another to actually do it.
- Zsa-Zsa and I were saddled with a strap-hanger, a smarmy rich kid who lived across the street and owned a three-speed “English Racer” – the closest thing anyone had to a mountain bike or ten-speed at the time. He’d scoped out what we were doing and threatened to rat us out to Zsa-Zsa’s mom out if we didn’t let him tag along.
- I was riding the GGM that day
The GGM, or Gold and Green Monster was a bike, a recent gift that came with very mixed emotions. It was always a good thing to get a present but I had been quite happy using my mom’s otherwise unused white Schwinn. Unfortunately the one time in my life dad actually listened to anything I said just happened to be the time I was moping about other guys teasing me about using a girl’s bike…hence the GGM.
The GGM had seen better days….a lot of better days because it was clearly an old bike from the fifties with most (but not all) of the rust and dents removed. It was as a heavy as a half-track with Edsel-esque fins, countless reflectors and a massive boy-bike crossbar on the frame that looked like a motorcycle gas tank. Somewhere along the line it had acquired a horrible two-tone paint job in green and gold applied with spray cans on their last two cubic centimeters of propellant…and did I say it was heavy? It was heavy. How heavy? Going uphill was a wish rather than a likelihood and required hopping back and forth on alternate pedals with both feet. It did have one redeeming quality; with all that mass it would coast down a hill faster than a Stuka taking out a Belgian bridge.
That dive speed wasn’t the most comforting though as we kicked off down the trail, Zsa-Zsa leading with his lightweight bike, me in the middle and the straphanger trailing behind us. At the time I wasn’t sure what bothered me most – the trail ahead or the androgynous reddish-pink color of the strap-hanger’s bike. However, my anxiety very quickly faded as I realized the GGM’s massive weight was smashing through the branches and chuckholes rather than bouncing over them resulting in a fairly smooth ride.
Then we hit the edge of the bluff. Literally. I had been so focused on the smooth ride that I forgot about crossing that first gully and I got the wind knocked out of me when I impacted rather than landed on the other side. Momentarily unable to catch my breath I struggled to control the GGM as I passed the first drop off – the one with the derelict bike in the pool of water. No matter how hard I tried to steer away from that precipice I kept getting closer and closer, as if my wheels were caught in a rut. To this day I have no idea how I avoided adding a second derelict bike to the pool because I am sure I went over the edge but somehow Coyote & Roadrunner physics intervened and I was able to regain the trail.
I hit another gulley.
I had the wind knocked out of me again.
I caught up to Zsa-Zsa just as he passed the second drop-off with the rope swing. To this day he maintains that he grabbed the rope, swung around the tree and landed back onto the trail all while riding his bike but his derring-do was more like him waving to the rope as he passed by. Trailing him closely I cleared the last gulley and settled down to that final long coast down the creek-side…only to find that my front wheel had slipped down into a real rut this time, one aimed directly at a BIG tree alongside the trail
Suddenly everything went black…
…then immediately got light again as opened my eyes after barely missing that massive trunk. I ground to a halt, dismounted and walked my bike the rest of the way down the trail to the creek, where Zsa-Zsa was already vocalizing a theory that stickleback were in fact baby Alaskan piranhas. I waited for the smarmy rich kid to cut into Zsa-Zsa’s comments then realized with a start that the strap-hanger was nowhere in sight. For that matter I hadn’t heard his porcine squeals at all after the first gully so I assumed he’d chickened out early on and went home.
They say that you can’t go back home again, and the same can be said about the Turnagain terror trail. I had a couple hours free while I was in Anchorage to pick up horse feed and decided to revisit my old haunts. I had been by our old home in deepest, darkest Spenard plenty of times over the years so I gave the old neighborhood a pass – then the thought came to me that I hadn’t been to Turnagain since the Bradshaw family moved away early in 1965 so I turned west on Northern Lights Boulevard and drove further out .
The new owners of the Bradshaw’s home weren’t home which ruled out any backyard exploration so I walked up the street to The Trail. When I got there I was saddened to see the trailhead even more littered that it had been on the day of our descent; more torn-out pages too decomposed to read, more smashed soda cans (one of them Shasta Draft Orange Soda, mute testimony to one of the odder marketing ploys of the late sixties) and what I hoped wasn’t a used condom.
I started down the path and as I walked along I was immediately struck by how smooth and level the trail was. At first I dismissed the change as the effects of erosion over the years but as I got to the edge of the bluff it became evident that it was my frame of reference rather than the terrain that had changed. Mud from a decent rain meant risking a fall by walking the whole trail but as I got to the drop-off over the pool of water I realized it was a moot point. I could see the end of the trail from there and it was much shorter and much less steep than it had seemed all those years ago.
Looking over the edge into the pool was even more disappointing. It was at most a ten foot drop and most of the metallic debris consisted of old Olympia beer cans and a rusted piece of a shopping cart. I shook my head in disgust. William Shatner wearing a toupee, the Monkees not playing their instruments – none of those disappointments could rival the buzz-kill of knowing that our death-defying ride had not really been that death-defying at all.
I hiked back up the hill, scowling as I tried to make sense of it all. Suddenly it hit me: the strap-hanging rich kid with the English racer! He never met up with us at the bottom of the hill – and for that matter I didn’t see him around Zsa-Zsa’s neighborhood again after that day. Had we just scared him off or did something happen to him on the ride down? Hmmmm. Just moments ago when I was looking at the pool of water there had been the slightest glint of pinkish-red between the shopping cart and beer.
I started to turn back to check the pool one more time….then stopped, smiled and walked back up to the car. Let the legend of the Trail live on!