The Devil’s Kitchen | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

The Devil’s Kitchen



Story & Photos by William Thomas



I'm alright. Really. Just sore muscles and a touch of PTSD. Lying back in my hideout’s outdoor tub I never dared imagine seeing again, the hot blue dome overhead looks further away than it was an hour ago. When we were so much closer...


Closing my eyes, I do not see an afterimage of faded-denim sky. I see fist-size rocks filling a narrow, steeply descending, serpentine single-track winding through dense first and second-growth. I see roots exposed by three-months of torrential winter rains and nearly a half-century's bicycle tracks waiting in ambush at the tightest turnings. Some are as thick as my arm. And sometimes the pairs of trees they booby-trap are barely wider than my handlebars. Snag a pedal on one, or scrape an inconveniently placed boulder, and the swerving bike will stop instantly. But not the person perched on top.


The warmly enveloping bathwater fails to soothe as this violent purgatory unscrolls like an endless film loop behind my eyes, the surrounding wooded slopes and deep flanking canyon offering no hint of salvation, no hope this ride will somehow end well. Or soon.


The beefy fatbike judders and slams, two-hundred-plus pounds of machine, rider and lithium battery whipped by the wonders of gravity down a rock-filled gulley like a projectile hurled from a catapult. The big Kenda tires slip and skid, fighting for traction on alternating patches of loose dirt and bone-jarring stones that clatter and shift like ball-bearings under the 20-by-four-inch wheels as I squeeze the disc brakes, release, then brake hard again.


When the unrelenting drop steepens into haywire hallucination, I lock up both knobbies and let the bike slide as if on cleated skis – until the next turn, when I have to get off the binders, trading renewed acceleration for the illusion of control.


I'm starting to seriously tire. Even worse, I'm getting spooked. This is the easy part? For most of the past hour my body's been shouting, “Stop! Let me off! You go ahead if you want to. I'm not that crazy.”


There's no going back up the way we came. That's for sure. And no time for clever comebacks, no chance for conscious thought at all. I am completely focused on placing that hopping, skidding, self-castering front wheel precisely on the best next patch of twisting terrain. If I bounce it straight over several roots, diabolically positioned like crooked railway ties across the next sharp bend, can I make the turn? Should I try to skirt that next cunningly-angled root – knowing that a glancing blow to that big rubber balloon up forward could slingshot me into the closest tree?




Something already has, jabbing the brakes and jerking the ‘bars before my overtaxed brain can issue a single command. I'm amazed my body can do this. “I” sure can't.     


When roots, rocks and turns come in such rapid-fire succession I'm challenged to the brink of calamity, I dismount and walk the bike. At least, I try. Alarmingly and alas, shod in my smooth-soled, deck-friendly Topsiders (what was I thinking?) I can't keep my feet on the vertiginous grade. The third time I abandon the bike to save myself, it wedges so firmly against a tree I flail like a cartoon character scrambling to find enough uphill purchase to pull it free.


Panting with exertion while hammering the sheepskin-covered seat back into alignment with my fist, I realize that my “goatbike” is more sure-footed than I am on this wild mountain track. It's better to hop back on and ride.


But my exhausted higher-self takes another long look down and insists, NO WAY.


“Time for a snack break,” I announce.


Cleverly clad in hiking boots, King has waited with patience and growing concern for me to extricate my heavy machine from that cedar's embrace. Hearing me sucking breath like an over-pressurized steam boiler isn’t calming his nerves.


This is more of a workout than I’d anticipated. With the big Sony DSLR, deeply dented thermos, first-aid kit, tire patches, tools and snacks secured inside and atop the blue Cardura bag swaying like a captive hula girl on the bike's rear rack, each battery-boosted ride weighs something north of 60 pounds. In mountain-biking lore, this is insane inertia.





Look, I'm not pointing fingers – after all, I agreed to be here. But hey, this was his idea.


And he’d known how to hook me.


“Want to have an adventure?” invited the voice on my phone.


“What kind of adventure?” I warily replied, already guessing it would involve our identical Mariner Voltbikes.


“I want to do the Summit trail.”


That made me pause. I’d already examined my own trail map for fun solo fatbike trips and discarded that squiggly, elevation-slicing line as much too arduous. Not to mention, completely nuts.


But the familiar deep voice resonated with the surety conferred by a jagged, four-dimensional route reduced to a flat sheet of paper. (Trekking alone in the Rockies, I'd learned that in the mountains the fourth dimension – time – can become even more critical than the up and down bits.)


“We can take Northwind to Cold Deck, then get onto Slalom,” King had continued. (I pictured him tracing those green 'Beginner's' lines on his own bike shop map.) “Slalom goes to Cliff Trail, which connects with… Summit.”


Easy peasy. Of course, he added brightly, we'll want to stay out of the Devil's Kitchen.


“You got that right,” I told him. Dropping “steeply” for much of its thousand-plus-foot descent – and ominously labelled “Advanced” – the brochure's tersely terrifying caption seemed to flash neon red: STAY AWAY! AVOID!


P.S. Whatever you duffers and doofuses might think you want to do, fuggitabout riding Test Tube, Purgatory and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.


“And 4 Dead Aliens,” I added firmly to our verboten list. I had the same trail map. And vivid memories of turning back from the Aliens' intimidating bottom section aboard my suddenly shy electric-recumbent, a year or so before I totalled it on pavement and discovered the true dimensions of pain.


“You sure you want to do this? Sounds pretty radical.”


“We'll take it easy,” he assured me. “There's only one 'Intermediate' connector from Cliff to the Summit. Then it looks like an easy ride back down.”


'Intermediate’, I thought. You bet. For testosterone-propelled, 18-year-old, mountain bike fanatics.


“That means 'Advanced',” I said out loud. For us.


Face it. (Or maybe not.) Just because we both often thought of ourselves as 25 or so didn't mean our bodies agreed. At 75, with just 150 road klicks on his Voltbike, plus a pair of introductory rides up and down Coltsfoot and the even gentler Beulah Creek trails, I wasn’t sure my pal was ready to tackle our local version of the Baja 500.


Thank the mountain gods I wasn't as ancient as King. I was only 68. Or was it '9? I keep losing track. But what else is new?


My own “goatbike” boasts 1,400 km on its odometer – at least a third of that off-road. Except for that scabby red solar-radiation burn on my forearm from eight-years’ sailing around the Pacific, a pound or two surplus ballast, and my tremulous ticker, I felt game for what Pooh used to call in my unsuspecting youth, an “expotition”.


Not that age matters. You're only as old as you think, right?


And King was correct. Except for some rocky sections and a few shallow ravines cut into that old logging road from this year’s torrential winter rains, the familiar approach up Northwind is a lark. 


Doubling back to find the narrow entrance guarding the mountain’s upper reaches, we find ourselves in a moderately-steep climb, followed by a fast, downhill dip winding between trees as closely-spaced as those advertised slalom gates. Though not as bendy.


This would have been a fun ride. Except for the rocks and massive tree roots that keep knocking us off-stride, forcing the lead bike to slow until I have to hop off and walk it over the bumpier bits. Which come often.  


Breaking out onto a broad bench at the top of Slalom’s final uphill grunt, we’re rewarded with a staggering vista. King’s momentary delay is explained when he hands me my bonus-dinged thermos, which had fled its bungee cords.


“Thanks,” I say, unscrewing the cap and saluting him before pouring a welcome cup of well water.


It’s a fine place for a toast. A thousand feet below, the rooftops of island homesteads make a jigsaw tapestry of forest and fields woven into the sparkling blue Salish Sea. Close beyond floats our thickly-forested sister island, framed by the snowcapped peaks of the Vancouver Island range piercing the cloudless summer sky beyond.      


Breaking out snacks and cameras, I manage to persuade my riding partner to wheel his bike next to mine on the downward-slanted edge of a sheer drop. A big nearby warning sign superfluously extolls its dangers in lip-smacking detail.


“There’s no parking brake,” King complains, while I wedge bark and branches under all four wheels. Unfortunately for him, he’s with a professional photographer, whose relentless credo insists: “Anything for the shot.” 


We are now on the Cliff Trail, a route I travelled on foot a hundred years ago. None of it is familiar. When we saddle up and continue on, the very first turning brings us up short beneath a signpost showing the way to “Devil’s Kitchen”.


Declining the temptation, we continue on – and immediately come to a fork. Descending out of sight, the path to the right seductively displays smooth, hard-packed dirt. Captain Cautious stops to explore on foot.


I am glad I did.


“I’m not doing it,” I tell King on my return. “It drops straight off a cliff!” 


That trail must switchback hard left out of view. But I want nothing to do with the canyon beyond. Even if we somehow got down, we’d have to get up the other side.


“I’ll take your word for it,” King says. He also takes the lead down the left fork onto the Summit Trail.


It ought to be wonder-filled, wending our way through what his highness cheerfully calls, “the deep dark woods.” Except whether the path wanders steeply up or down, our ride is interrupted by more thick, exposed roots coiling like snakes in the turns.


Slowing down to ease our heavy fatbikes over them, and those big tires rebound to a stop, forcing us to bail out to steady our teetering machines. Taking those twisted roots at speed, however, risks “washing out” the front wheel, wrenching it sideways into a likely injurious trajectory.   


My choice of footwear is not helping. Pushing my pony up the steepest, Sperry-scrabbling sections would be flat-out impossible without the Mariner's power-assisted “walk” mode. King is both thrilled and relieved when I shout up to him to hold down the minus key on the control pad and let his fatbike pull itself uphill. (“I didn't know it could do that,” he will later confide.)


Scaling each fresh incline finds me breathing deeply. And often. No biggie, of course. “As long as you can still talk and sing, you’re good to go,” the doctor had said.


I don’t feel like singing.


Over the whirr of his own self-walking bike, King can hear me gasping for breath behind him. This is making his brain frown.


Joy of joys! An unexpected glimpse of what look like prayer flags waving ahead brings a fresh jolt of energy. The summit is in sight!


All we have to do to get there is walk our fatbikes along a smooth connecting path just wide enough to accommodate our feet walking alongside those big tires. Though it must be an illusion, the mountain on my left keeps nudging me towards the edge of a drop-off that plunges straight down to the wooded canyon floor far below. How far? I refuse to look at anything but my two unhappy feet and both obedient and oblivious tires.


This is rideable, I realize. Easily, the best surface we’ve seen so far. Did I just laugh out loud?


And then it’s all good. Parking both bikes beside a big rock cairn, we gaze down into the canyon across the tops of old “grandfathers” hundreds of feet tall. Heavily forested distant slopes block all views of the sea, making this a private spot. It’s the string of Lung ta prayer flags that turn it into a sanctuary.


After preparing for an almost-trip to Tibet, I know something about these “wind horses”. Inscribed with auspicious symbols, each colourful square emblem of spiritual practice is said to confer long life, happiness and prosperity to all sentient beings in the vicinity – while carrying “beneficent vibrations” abroad on the wind.


I welcome those blessings now. Placing two small stones on the cairn, I bow deeply and clap my hands twice.


Then it’s time for the traditional Everest summit pictures. I hastily unpack the trusty camera that has provided me with a dream income selling landscape prints to the delighted stampeding tourists who descend each summer on “the Florida of Canada” from all parts of the globe.


But even placed reverently on a soft first-aid kit in the bag on the bike’s rear rack, the venerable Sony has not enjoyed being “shaken, not stirred” since the last lookout. When activated, the display stays dark, while the camera frantically grinds away as if trying to autofocus on my t-shirt.


But the lens is not moving.


“Sounds like it’s taking continuous pictures,” King says from some distance away. When I turn the camera off, the grinding noise continues!


Say what? Removing the battery and rebooting the camera several times finally activates the screen. But when I frame King in the shot and press the shutter… nada, zip, zilch.


While I stare nonplussed at this useless chunk of expensive circuitry and glass, “Voltman” springs into action. Somehow, my alter ego cajoles the picture machine into useful work. Sort of. Intermittently. Changing angles and elevation, directing my compadre in and out of the frame, I manage to squeeze off a dozen or so shots. The difference between an amateur and pro photographer, a National Geo photog once told me, is the amount of film they shoot.


It’s all – or mostly all – downhill from here. The thick squiggle on our laminated map promises a fanfare and cheering crowds. If only in my mind.


More fake news.


The summit’s constricted, loose-surfaced exit plunges nearly vertically into even deeper, darker woods. Too late, I examine the map’s tonality.


“See this dark green at the top?” I show King the legend disguised in similar colours near the bottom of a trail guide that in the extensive network shown resembles an LA interchange. “That’s the steepest elevation.”


Neither of us needs an arrow labelled, “You are here.”


Like the time I led a recalcitrant pony up Huahine’s crumbling cliffs in the Marquesas, our mechanical steeds smell home. As soon as we gingerly start off, they bolt for the barn.


Good luck with that. Almost immediately, our way down is blocked by a tree that in some recent prodigious westerly decided to lay down for an immovable nap. There’s no way around it. And turning to look nearly straight up behind us, no way back.




Isn’t this why we paired up?


Though neither shell-shocked brain sees that the tallest guy should stand downslope, we hoist each aluminum animal in turn over an obstacle I would not have been able to surmount on my own. My helmet comes in handy when both flying handlebars playfully smack my head. 


Short of paragliding, riding down does not seem an option. But the shorty surfboards I’m wearing like walking down the flank of this mountain even less.


So we ride. When we can. When we dare. Back in the death-defying lead, I only have to wait for King to catch up once. As the minutes tick by, I’m debating whether to head back and look for him when he rides up – I mean down – intact.


I hadn’t seen his crash. After coming to an unplanned stop, he quietly relates, the resulting "slow-motion" capsize had pitched him wide-eyed into – of all things in this unyielding topography – "a soft bush."


No purple heart for him. The bruise on the back of his right leg is hardly visible. (During a subsequent visit while I’m writing this story, I tell King, “I’m really impressed by how well you did for an old fart, he grins and says modestly, “It’s all thanks to modern medicine, LSD and yoga.”)  


Back on the mountain, while I’ve been marveling on how well my buddy is doing, he’s been thinking: I hope Will is all right.


Though already a distant three Decembers ago, my morning phone call for a ride to the clinic – and the helicopter medivac that followed – was tattooed on his genes. Attacked by an invisible boa constrictor while helming my electric outrigged canoe the previous afternoon, I’d staggered home, gulped two aspirin and gone to bed to shake off “the flu”.


Wrong move, dude! Turning from the beeping heart-attack-diagnostic machine, Doctor Chapman had allowed that taking those aspirin probably saved my life.


So that was good. And having two anxious former lovers show up at the airstrip blew the minds of both EMTs on that chopper. Now, King’s worries aren’t exactly lessened by my frequent calls for time-outs on this descent.


After disentangling my fallen fatbike from that cedar I mentioned, I gaze around this natural ampitheatre and call for a lunch break.


It’s a lovely spot: quiet, lushly green, unthreatened by any possibility of rush hour traffic. From the slope rising massively behind and beside us, our eyes travel left to right in a naturally flowing feng shui, down, down and yes, even further down toward the hint of a valley peeking through distant trees… then across to that mysterious verdant canyon I’d never suspected existed – though I’ve lived and photographed here for going on two decades.


But when I dismount and rummage for some goodies, my arms and hands are shaking so badly I have to anchor those appendages in my lap until muscles and nerves quiet enough to perform ordered tasks. Like stuffing salty rice chips into my mouth. Instead of, say, my nose.


King looks across from his own mossy seat and sees his punch-drunk bro looking like he's gone a dozen too many rounds in a bout with no scheduled final bell. “I hope you can make it,” he says in a tone that screams, I HOPE YOU DON'T CROAK RIGHT HERE!


“Hope is not a plan,” I gravely inform him.




I hold out the open bag to King and accept his offering of almonds. Unlike my amygdala of the same size, his aren’t roasted.


THERE IS NO WAY, that tiny fear gland informs me as I switch to a juicy red apple untainted by pesticides or growth hormones, I AM GETTING BACK ON THAT BIKE.


Fine, I radio back from Action Cortex Central. Just how do you intend on getting home?


WALK! comes the instant reply. That's when I know I have to get back aboard and ride. Before I'm indelibly intimidated from peddling another foot.





Reaching up out of my reverie, I turn the tap without looking. The water gushing from the cut-off hose into the tub is scalding – but not nearly the temperature of the hot water we’d found ourselves in on that mountain.


Somehow, we manage to get most of the way down without terminal injury. “I love you Beulah!” King hears me yelling as I bounce over another root-clogged rise. “I miss you so much!”


At the confluence of 4 Dead Aliens and another sign strangely insisting “Summit”, the goat-track we’ve been following abruptly levels out. Dazed and amazed, we stop without speaking. Taking a long slooow breath, I once again ask myself, “Why am I?” 


Two tall, lanky guys on immaculate black mountain bikes suddenly whisk into view, blasting up ‘Aliens without breaking a sweat. Knowing where we’ve come from – even if we don’t – they’re surprised to see us. But keeping to an unspoken code, everyone acts nonchalant.


They’re definitely someone to look up to. When they stop beside me, their newfangled 29-inch tires loom as high as wagon wheels. King can’t his eyes off those big front shocks. 


He knows Dean. I’m delighted to hear that the way we’ve chosen to proceed has only one difficult section. But did he mean “difficult” for us mere mortals? Or them?


We split tacks, the lanky Olympians turning right, uphill, while we head left and down. I notice that the pedal pushers are still hugging those dead aliens – shunning the way we’ve come.


The way ahead is, indeed, “not too bad” as the Canadian expression goes. The trail winds up and back down. It’s still bumpy, but after that harrowing descent, a definitely mellower rhythm. Dean must have been referring to a short, steep root-ribbed climb, complete with the usual sharp entry turn that prevents a decent run at it.


We get off and power the bikes up – by now, a familiar routine. But on the succeeding level stretch, King continues walking his bike.


My matching reluctance to ride is so strong, I have to force myself back into the saddle. “Beep beep!” I call ahead. “Coming through!”


The next rise is a straight shot, quite steep. I gear down, dig hard, and jam the thumb throttle wide open. The bike scrambles to the top without demur.


The next section is flat and clean. “It feels like a free lunch!” I call back to King, who is also pedaling easy. The respite lasts for maybe 200-feet, before another bumpy bend forces us off our mounts.


So it goes. And goes. Every time we get going on the smooth sections, bumpy uphill turns force us off our stride. Still in the lead, my flagging spirit switches from a whimper to a whoop of delight.


Two track!


How quickly torment turns to triumph. Like parolees released on a day pass, we bomb down the abandoned logging road with the panache of Porsches on a freeway. I don’t even care if I’m mixing metaphors.


Goat Ideogram CU

“Mountain Goat"

Almost home! We know where we are now, having walked up this road together. Just as I’m preparing to break out the champagne, our heavenly highway decants onto a narrow, rocky riverbed – I wouldn’t deign to call it a path.


Crash bang, crash bang. Grabbing handfuls of brake, wrenching the handlebars from lock-to-lock,

I spot a deep gully filled with jagged rocks ahead. If I crash down into it, I won’t be coming out.


My overtaxed brain shrieks, “GO LEFT!” onto smoother, higher ground. And I want to, I really do. But as we swoop out of the turn, an unglimpsed bump shoves me off my line.


The bike leans to the right, giving me a horrified preview of my brief, imminent future. To have come so far through so much, only to wipe out now!


One moment we’re aimed right at that ditch. The next, we’re sailing past on the crown of the road, those big blessed fat tires clinging to its crumbling edge. Thrown to the right, leaning right, seemingly locked onto a right-hand heading, my hands have twitched a hair to the left – and the bike has somehow responded.


Don’t ask me how. The only possible explanation lies closer to sorcery than physics. As we flash past that terrible trap, all I know is that if my Mariner could cook, I’d propose matrimony.


And that’s it. The end. Finis. Tossing both bikes over one more fallen tree, we squeeze past a yellow metal post tilted drunkenly across a final rise and walk out onto the lower road where this whole thing started.


Yes! Slamming down our kickstands in unison, I turn to King with a raised gloved palm. Every raven in that woods must’ve registered our high-five.  


“We’re going to lose our geezer cards, for sure,” I tell King as a covered silver pickup pulls up. The driver looks like he’s seeing ghosts. Maybe he is.


“Are you guys all right?” he asks. Which seems odd, since all of our limbs are still attached and we’re not streaming blood. Perhaps he’s referring to our judgement.


King gestures back up the mountain. “We were up there,” he says in the same tone he’d tell his spouse, Cindy, “We’ve just come from the mall.”


The valley resident shrinks back in his seat, his eyes going wide as an aperture racked to F 1.2.


“You came down on those things?” He must be referring to our two-wheeled jeeps. 


Our laughter is simultaneous. And loud. “Yes,” King says.


There’s nothing more to say.



Mariner Folded Table GRAIN 11x14



Next morning, the phone rings while I'm stirring milk and honey into my mug of Earl Grey.


“Your highness,” I say, picking up.


“Have you recovered yet?”


“I'm still traumatized,” I tell King. “And a little stiff.”


He laughs. “I know what you mean. When I got home and had my shower and laid down for a nap, all I could see was rocks flashing past. Like you say, that ride is seared into my DNA.”


(long pause…)


“I'd never really considered the force of gravity,” he eventually adds. “Until now.”   


“How did we miss the Summit Trail down?” I ask. “I still can’t figure it out. There was no other trail down from the summit.”


“I think it was when we didn’t take that first fork to the right. The one you said went off a cliff.”


“But that connects to the Outer Ridge trail,” I argue. “We would have missed the summit.”


“Yeah, that’s right,” he says. Then he asks if I remember the maps we’d picked up from that park display at the head of Beulah Creek.


“Sure,” I tell him. I hadn’t even looked at the freebie, putting my trust instead in the store-bought map I’d paid the big bucks for.


“It shows more detail than the one we were using,” King continues. “Including several trails converging “near where we were on the summit. Which is why we came down the Devil’s Kitchen.”




“Look for yourself,” he suggests. He means, take a gander at the white map that was on your bike the whole time.


The stunned silence that follows is the sound of me praying.


And that’s the story of two unlikely summiteers. Looking back in the hindsight provided by three days of recovery, what else can I say?


The devil made us do it.


See Synopsis here: 

See also: SNOW BIKE!



 发件人     William Thomas 2019