The Atalaya Witch
from the Diary of a Mad Mountain Biker

by Jeff Della Penna

This afternoon I was about three-quarters of the way up to the top of Atalaya ridge when nature called. I pulled off the trail and from the bushes I soon heard what sounded like a mountain biker riding hard down the trail right past me. I stuck my head out through the bushes to see. But there was no one. I thought it seemed a little strange. And then, from down the trail, I heard what sounded like a laugh, a woman's laugh... a teasing, you-can't-catch-me sort of laugh. It was eerie.

I was just stepping out of the bushes when, from above me, I heard and then saw The Dorfmiester. Gus Dorf, a local off-road hothead, was pedaling like a madman down the trail. He was slamming into every little bump or rock in his way, uncharacteristically out of control. His eyes were bugging out of their sockets, his mouth hanging wide open for maximum air intake. He was in the redline zone. And, he was going way too fast for the turn that he was heading into. If he missed that turn it was at least a 200 foot drop-off down the side of the ridge.

There really wasn't anything I could do. I yelled "Watch it!" while Dorf pin-balled off two big rocks right in front of me, rode a nose-wheel for a split second, pogoed on his shocks, and finally endoed. His bike 360'd through the air into a pine tree with a thud. Unfortunately for Dorf, he missed the tree. He had so much momentum he just kept tumbling, ass-over-tea-kettle, right off the cliff. He had 200 feet to scream and he stretched it out for the full distance, letting the rocks below pound the emphasis on the last syllable of whatever it was he was trying to say.

I didn't want to look over the edge. I didn't want to see his body. I knew that I'd have nightmares about it. I wouldn't be able to close my eyes to sleep without seeing his bloody tangled mass, sprawled across the rocks below. Probably blood and spittle trickling from the corner of his mouth. I knew if I looked, it would have such a terrible effect on me that I'd probably have to drink myself to sleep. And some gawd-awful night, in a stupor, I'd hock my bike for another bottle of Mad Dog 20-20. No thanks. It just wasn't worth it to look.

I turned away from the cliff and stood facing the ex-Dorf's bike. It was a pretty nice unit. The front wheel was pretzelled but the rest of it looked okay and he had some nice parts. Really nice parts. Parts that I could probably use on my bike. I mean... if they were available. You know... up for grabs. Geez. I said to myself, "When did Dorf get a titanium frame?" It was a Merlin. "How the heck could Dorf afford a Merlin?" I asked myself. That's what was going through my mind. And, I'll admit that I was sort of thinking, like, "Who's going to get that frame now that Dorf is gone?" It was a little small, but if I got a different stem and raised the seat all the way up it might work.

Man. The seat and hand-grips were still warm, and there I was already moving in on Dorf's most prized possession. But if I didn't take it, somebody else would. Somebody who didn't even know Dorf. I mean, what are friends for? I'd want my friends to have my bike if I just dove off a cliff and left it behind. Wouldn't you?

As I started to pick his bike up I heard a fit of coughing that scared the geebers out of me. I rushed back over to the edge and looked down. There he was, a bloody tangled mass, clawing his way back up the cliff, blood and spittle trickling from the corner of his mouth. But he was alive.

"Dorfmiester!" I yelled. "Man am I glad to see you're alive." And then like a jerk I said, "Wow... I didn't know you had a Merlin."

He looked up at me, kind of suspiciously. Finally, when he got back up onto the trail, he mumbled, "Do you have any water?"

I grabbed one of the bottles from my bike and handed it to him.

He plopped down cross-legged, next to the Merlin that was almost mine, sucking on the bottle like a baby. He paused only long enough to squirt some water on his face, and winced as the cool water hit the burns and gashes. When he'd finished the bottle he said, "I almost had her."

"Who?" I asked.

"The Witch," he said. "Didn't you see her?"

"I didn't see anything," I answered. I noticed we were both looking off down the hill, in the direction that I had heard the woman's laugh.

Dorf broke the silence again. "I can't believe you didn't see her."

"Do you want me to walk you down?" I asked, to change the subject.

After a little while, Dorf picked his bike up and dragged it down the trail toward St. John's. I continued up the trail to the top of the ridge. When I got there I sat on the rock ledge, looking down at the city below. The only way to get a better view of Santa Fe is to go up in a helicopter. The wind had picked up and it was blowing strangely all around me. I was thinking about poor Dorf and the Witch. Was that laughing I had heard or had it been the wind? Had Dorf really seen her or was he on 'shrooms?

I knew the story about the Atalaya Witch. Was there a witch on this ridge or was it just a story made up by a few smoked-up mountain bikers? Mountain bike folklore. They say that she is beautiful, a dark-haired woman who rides the Atalaya trails like a demon on what looks like a Cunningham with drop bars, enticing young bucks to chase her to their death -- or in Dorf's case, near-death.

I heard a noise from behind me, a rider on a bike. I hadn't seen anyone come up the trail from below me. There was no way that anyone could have come up the front side of Atalaya without me seeing them. They could have come up through the Water Shed, but that would have been a long and dusty hike. If whoever it was behind me had come that way, I would have hard their chain squeaking like a mouse, even with the wind blowing. No. I knew who it was. I didn't have to turn around. Actually, I was afraid to turn around and look at her.

She stayed there behind me, waiting. Both of us waited for the other to make a move. Finally I called over my shoulder, without looking back, "You're wasting your time. I have no desire to catch you."

She laughed and the wind picked up her voice and her voice sounded like the wind and it swirled all around me and through me. Then she turned herself into a big shiny black crow, and as she leaped over me she sliced my shoulder with her talons, drawing a thin line of blood. I still have the scar, right here.

The crow laughed again as she dropped down off the cliff, gliding toward the lower ridges and Santa Fe. Her laugh echoed in my ears and then through the center of every bone in my body. I watched her until she disappeared into the trees far below.

© Jeff Della Penna
Dirt Rag, October 1995

Jeff is a lost author who's been found.

other stories by J Della Penna