By Luca Williams
It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help. ~ Epicurus
It’s been many years since I have mountain biked with my friend Mark Belles. But what he doesn’t know is that he always rides with me, especially on the long, grinding uphills. When I feel daunted, I imagine that Mark is in front of me, steady and smooth. He’s inspired me over the years to keep pedaling, even though he isn’t physically with me.
Before I started riding with Mark, an X-ray technician at PeachHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, he had already spent many years mountain biking.
Over 100 years after the U.S. Army began off road biking in 1886, Mark and his wife Missy rented a couple of mountain bikes during a summer vacation to Winthrop in 1989. They had so much fun riding around the Sun Mountain cross country ski trails that when they arrived home to Bellingham, Mark bought Missy her first mountain bike. He promptly began “borrowing” her bike while she was at work to ride Galbraith Mountain — back when there were only about eight bootleg trails.
When Missy finally put her foot down and told Mark to “quit sneaking her bike and buy his own,” he bought a used mountain bike from a guy much taller than him. The frame was so large that he kept shopping, searching for the perfect mountain bike. Although he’s found many favorite mountain bikes since, he’s still shopping.
This love of mountain biking turned into another hobby: Trail building. Joining Whatcom Independent Mountain Bikers People and Yo-Yos — WIMPY for short — long before Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition existed, he helped build and maintain Galbraith Mountain trails. Even when he was off work for an injury, he found himself shoveling and carrying buckets of dirt with only one arm for his friend, Devon, for the Dog Patch trail, which led to another hobby.
Like all of us who rode Galbraith in the early years, Mark thought it would be helpful if Dog Patch was signed. As a visual person, rather than marking the trails with numbers, he imagined it would be fun to have unique signs, ones he would remember, ones that matched the trail names. It sparked an idea to use the welding skills that he had learned back in high school farm class to design metal signs.
As a senior in high school, he had fabricated a stock trailer for his parents out of sheets of metal. Creating artistic metal signs had to be easier than building a trailer. Using a cutting torch, he cut out a dog paw and the letters for “Dog Patch,” out of a metal sheet. Then he welded the letters onto a piece of metal. It was the first of many functional art signs to entertain and orient mountain bikers and hikers accessing the Galbraith Mountain trails.
A few years later, he became inspired again to design a sign for the Pump Track. This time, he wanted to branch out from metal work and learn how to make mosaics, so he talked to some mountain bike buddies who owned a tile shop. They gave him a basic class on working with tile, and Mark was off and running. For Kung Fu Theater trail, he combined a tile mosaic and cut metal into the Chinese characters for “Kung Fu.” Since then, he’s created 3D dragons chained to stumps for the kids area, a metal wanted poster for Pony Express, metal pigs for Three Pigs, many more signs and four memorial benches.
Mark’s not sure where his inspiration for sign creating comes from, but it often comes in bursts. Recently, he decided that Bob’s Trail needed a new sign. Remembering that his friend Bob had an old mini bike frame sitting in his flower bed, Mark snagged the bike and welded the bike frame to a metal post and cut the letters out to look like a Hot Wheels logo. Listening to him, I noticed most of his bursts of creativity were motivated by the idea of friends having fun. Just like Mark inspires me to bike up a steep hill, with more grace than I would on my own, he is inspired to build a trail or create a sign when he’s hanging out with buddies. It goes to show that true friends help us dig deep and encourage the qualities that we want to find in ourselves, whether it be perseverance, creativity or motivation.
If you are out riding or walking in Galbraith at twilight or dawn, you may notice a guy — with a brand new mountain bike — stealthily, by headlamp, installing a sign. It’s probably Mark, having fun, sharing his functional art with his community. x
Luca Williams is a certified rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts get aligned and free of pain.