The best empty nester passions recall our youth. For Mike Johnson that means two-wheeled exploration.

This is the second in a series on passionate Empty Nesters living their dreams.

Mark gets to the top.
Mark gets to the top.

Everyone loves the idea of nature.  A hike in the Rockies, a helicopter tour over Hawaii or a small-surf lesson at the coast and we come back from summer vacation babbling like latter-day versions of Lewis and Clark.  To my knowledge, however, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark did not take their rest in a well-appointed condo with exceptionally high thread counts. The truth is, for most of us (and certainly for me), our nature encounters fall into the “highly controlled” category. If you met Mark Johnson on a normal day in or around Plano, Texas, you would assume the same of him. Mark runs Big Spark Media, a digital marketing company with a penchant for helping charitable organizations tell their story. A business lunch with Mark reveals him as one of those blessed people who are right-brain/left-brain balanced; he can speak to spreadsheets or memorable logos with equal facility. Soft spoken and pleasant, you might guess that Mark gets his physical fitness from swimming or the treadmill; certainly nothing more crazy than yoga.

You would be wrong. Very, very wrong. Mark turns out to be a crazy man, in the best sense of the word. The shins and elbows are tell-tale signs of Mark’s nature encounters. Flying down a steep incline on a mountain bike subjects anyone in shorts to a constant whipping from the brush below. When things do not go exactly as planned, elbows are often a rider’s first point of contact with the earth. And that is how Mark Johnson, mild-mannered media consultant on most days, came to own some of the ugliest shins and elbows in Dallas. Mark is a mountain biker.

Mark in his grown up clothes.
Mark in his grown up clothes.

The more sedate among us get our impression of mountain bikers from X-game competitions; young kids launching themselves impossibly high in the air where they stay connected to their bike by only the handle bars. In the meantime, the teeny-boppers do back flips while taking a swig of Red Bull or Mountain Dew, depending on sponsorship. Those high-flying theatrics depend on velocity gained from a relatively smooth drop to start the run; the made for TV version is far removed from the grittier pursuit in which Mark and millions of other Americans engage.  “Real mountain biking” involves just as much uphill as downhill, besting Issac Newton through sheer will power. When it does come time to descend, riders work the brakes just as ferociously. Hit a tree root, a small rock or even a slippery spot in the path and a face plant is in your future, so the workout is just as much mental as it is physical.

Mark started young; his prize possession growing up in 1970’s Dallas was a purple Schwinn Sting Ray. You know the type. High-rise handlebars, banana seat and the big, slick back tire. Or to borrow a phrase, “chrome wheel, fuel injected and steppin’ out over the line” for the pre-driver’s license set. But Mark is not a form over substance sort of guy. Soon the handlebars were motocross style and the tires were knobby. The bike doubled as paper boy transportation and creek bottom explorer.

You never forget your first.
You never forget your first.

Real life came next. Married to Susan with three great daughters, the family and a career took up more than enough time. By his late 40’s, however, Mark was ready to get his Schwinn on again. A local off-road trail in Plano hooked him and soon you could find him most weekends and many evenings at Erwin Park in McKinney or North Shore at Lake Grapevine. Susan and all the girls are Baylor Bears, so when they drag Longhorn Mark to Waco he takes advantage of the great trails in Cameron Park. Shredding it, I believe the youngsters call it.

Mark recently went next level with his biking, doing a week-long solo trek through the Oregon Cascades mountain range. In seven days he covered 255 miles on two wheels through some of the most rugged and isolated territory our nation has to offer. The trip featured record heat for the Northwest, testing to the limit Mark’s 6-month conditioning program. He tangled with a decent-sized forest fire and the horror of being out of cell phone range for days at a time. Most impressively, though, his journey was exclusively a one-man show. No sag wagon to pick him up if his legs gave out; no guide who knew the country like the back of his hand and definitely no five-star campground gourmet cooking ready for him at the end of each day.

Instead, Mark humped 35 pounds of gear and supplies on his back. Imagine riding a bike with two bowling balls in a backpack. Nighttime found him at campgrounds sleeping under the stars in a hammock. He learned to value his bandanna, which had a variety of uses. Meals were mostly (you guessed it) trail mix, although he did scarf down three giant breakfast tacos some fellow campers left for him when they realized how hard he had been working. This was physically demanding, mentally challenging eco-tourism of the highest order. The sort of days when you ride miles down into a ravine intending to cross a river only to find it cannot be done; the return trip up the ravine just to get you back to your starting place is discouraging to say the least. The sort of days when the baking heat induces you to empty your stomach as soon as you finish. The sort of days when you miss your wife and three daughters enough to really want to talk to them, but you have to settle for asking a fellow traveler to send a text whenever he gets back to civilization.

The bed.
The bed.

Which all sounds pretty distasteful. But like Meriwether and William, they were also the days when you saw things no other human has ever seen. The days when God spoke to you as clearly as the water flowing underneath your feet, showing off what a beautiful home he built for us. The days when you met other folks who were dear friends for thirty minutes, although you will never see each other again. And maybe most of all, they were days that ended with a wonderful soreness from the effort to be alive and at this particular place in the world, a soreness that says the reward was more than worth the risk.  Shredding it, I think the kids call it.

Payoff at the end of the day.
Payoff at the end of the day.

Sweat leads to smiles.
Sweat leads to smiles.

To read more about Mark’s adventures, read his blog–here.

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