Sewanee Dawn Patrol

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

The phrase “dawn patrol” was probably first used by the military, but these days it’s most commonly connected with surfing. Land and water temperatures, winds, tides, and lack of other people make first light a preferred time to be on the water. Backcountry skiers have adopted the concept as well: the sun hasn’t had a chance to mess with the snowpack yet, and again, it’s less crowded.

As a confirmed morning person, I like doing things before the rest of the house is up, and having some fun that’s not at the expense of some other obligation. Dawn patrol also gives me a glimpse of the world in a different mode, as it comes to life for another day’s routine.

First light recently found me pedaling my mountain bike up University Avenue, heading toward Breakfield Road. A small group of construction guys stood around pickup trucks in front of Fulford Hall.

Just up the hill, I interrupted a deer family crossing the street. Three of them made it, but one of the spotted, hound-sized fawns was stranded to my right. We looked at each other and I made soothing noises as I pedaled by.

A sharp left and a fun downhill took me behind the Fowler Center and onto the walkway toward B. O. McGee Field. Darkness lingered in Abbo’s Alley as I peered down at the trails and streams below the bridge.

Several minutes later I was in the open space of Breakfield. A purply-blue layer of clouds lay parallel with the horizon; bright white cumulus occasionally poked above, like Himalayan peaks in the distance.

The stables of the Equestrian Center to my right were quiet as I hit the gravel at speed, and the rattle of rocks under my tires and the wind through my helmet blotted out all other sounds. Around a curve and up a rise, my pace slowed enough for me to hear peepers and morning birds in the woods.

The trees were giving up the last bit of gloom as I reached my turnaround point and headed back out. A black leaf defied gravity and floated up between my pedals – a butterfly, startled up from the trail. Nearing the Equestrian Center, another deer family leapt across my vision; I made loud noises, not wanting to have my own version of a Youtube-famous encounter between a mountain-biker and a hartebeest in Africa (just Google ‘antelope cyclist’).

Back on pavement, I sat up and had a drink. I swore at the crows who were harassing my friend Mark’s apple trees, then waved to the guy in camo who was feeding the University Farm’s pigs.

University Avenue, meanwhile, had come to life. The construction crew had gained a concrete-mixer truck, and was pouring a concrete apron for the entrance to Rebel’s Rest. Runners, pedestrians, and dog-walkers were out and about.

As I rolled into my driveway, it occurred to me that all the grief I get from friends about my usual 9 PM bedtime is totally worth it. It’s much less likely that a day will go badly when it starts with a dawn patrol…take my word for it.