How To Ride Otis

(Rosey was nice enough to write up my latest trip, so that freed me up from my intense e-commitments to write a less "this is what I did on Sunday" kind of entry.)

It's March again! That magical time where I stop training for ski races, but manage to hang onto ski fitness for another few weeks of mediocre 50k racing. This freedom from ski training (I was actually ski training at one point, despite what my results may indicate) mean it's time to make a trip to Otis AFB every chance I can get. I wrote about Otis last year, which has led people to think that I am some kind of Otis authority.

While I enjoy the perception that I have some kind of jedi-like knowledge of Otis, I'd like to dispell the myth that you need to be a jedi -- or know a jedi -- to ride there. After all, how hard could it be if the trail map looks like this:

Just commit that to memory and you're good to go!

Ok, so it looks pretty daunting. Otis is a small and confusing place to ride, sure, but at least it's not large and confusing, where getting lost would actually be a problem. When you ride Otis, you are always lost, but never really lost. It's a zen thing.

While I enjoy getting "be my Otis guide" requests, I only have so much free time (ok, a lot, but still), so I'm going to take the teach-a-man-to-fish route and teach you to be your own Otis guide, so you can go have sweet MTB rides even if you just lurk on this blog and have never met me in real life. Let's do it.

I made a map you can take with you, check it out:

You'll notice the map has no trails. Go look at the first picture again if you're trying to figure out why I didn't draw all the trails. There are so many trails at Otis, in various states of wear, that it is completely unfeasible to track where you are by looking at the map at each intersection. So take my "map," print it out, and stick it deep in your pack, where you won't be tempted to look at it unless you're taking a real break.

Here's what you do need to know -- the boundaries. They're labeled on the map and pretty straightforward. West edge is route 28, and there's a trail that runs the entire length of Otis right along the road. If you need to get home, head for the sound of traffic until you're at Rt 28, then take that trail south. The only trick is that "head west" can be pretty tough when the trails are that twisty. So it can take a while, but if you're diligent about heading toward the setting sun/sound of traffic, you can always get un-lost in, at most, half an hour.

The south boundary is a railroad track and Rt 151, pretty simple. The east boundary is the only tricky one -- it's the ill-defined edge of Otis Air Force Base, and the Massachusetts Veteran's Cemetery. Unlike the other boundaries, you do not want to actually run into this one, since bikers have been occasionally escorted off the base, and riding through a cemetery is just not cool. So if you find yourself thinking, "what is that large clearing with flowers in it?" or "what is that collection of buildings in the woods?" you'll know you're at the east edge.

Otis is deceptively small. The boundaries are pretty solid. Trust me, you can ride there without knowing where you are, and it will work out fine.

Once you know the boundaries, there's not much to do but just ride. You will hit a lot of intersections. DO NOT STOP. Have faith that all trails lead to awesome singletrack. Which way is the right way? ALL OF THEM.

It won't take long for you to have your first "have I been here before?" moment. Embrace it. Everything at Otis looks the same. I wracked my brain to try to come up with some landmarks, and I could barely think of six. One of them is a friggin' shirt on a tree. If you get to the top of a hill -- or a shirt on a tree -- grab my map and you should be able to locate yourself. This is potentially useful if you're trying to head into a given part of the trail system (or back to the car).

In general, though, you don't need to worry about where you are. You can try to skirt the edge (I strongly recommend the trail between the powerlines and Rt 28 at the north end, and the trail between the base and blue line south of Deer Horn Hill), or you can just loop around the middle. Riding the same trail more than once isn't a problem, because it's totally wicked mountain biking and you're having fun.

When it's thirty minutes before you want to be done, head south and/or west. Conveniently, this is the direction the sun sets in, but if you're really serious I guess you could bring a compass.

One final protip for maximizing your Otis ride -- in addition to the miles of singletrack, there's a lot of double-track ATV trail in there. It is straight, sandy, and boring. You'll end up on this stuff periodically, you can tell when you are because your endorphins will be at normal levels for the first time since you started riding. Don't fret! There's a million trails here. Keep your eyes peeled left and right and you can generally find a singletrack trail heading into the woods soon, or sometimes you can even spot one that's just a short walk through the woods away.

Important Legality Notice: Much of the woods covered by the Otis trails is part of Otis Air Force Base. From what I've heard, it's technically illegal to ride there. This is one of the many awesome effects of the Patriot Act, or so I've heard. Anyway -- you might be trespassing. Some of the time. Common sense suggests that riding around the woods isn't a big deal, regardless of which government (federal or state) owns it, which is probably why no one gets too worked up about it. But just so you know.