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Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Donut Ride

"I got nothing to do but today...."
Steven Stills

Two days off work,  though it will really only count as one extra day as I have to work Sunday for the Foster Parent Appreciation event.  My daughter and I were supposed to go the water park, but the distance combined with the prediction for thunderstorms caused us to  reschedule.  I have an entire day to myself a day, an unplanned day with no expectations or obligations.  "Why," I ask myself, "are these so rare." And so, as I debate what I should do with an entire unplanned day, I decide to ride to Salem for a donut and let the day unfold from there.  I love donuts, and a fifty mile ride will certainly give me the justification to eat one, if I even need a justification.  

The weather is a bit cooler than it has been, though it is still humid.  No jacket or vest is necessary. Shorts and a light jersey.  Everything is green.  I pass fields of corn and soybeans, hay and wheat, before getting to Eden Road and the forest.  I am thankful for those people that still work the land, mostly male in this area. 

I think about retirement.  I don't want to wait until I retire to think about retirement and the life I want to have. I have gradually been trying to decide what type of things I want to do with my time, and I decide that during nine months of the year, this might become a once weekly activity.  Fifty miles is enough to stretch the legs and to make you feel as if you have exercised, without leaving you with the residual tiredness that sometimes comes with longer distances. I know I will want to ride with one of the bicycle clubs at least a few days weekly, but I also know my proclivity toward solitude, quiet time with just me and my bike and the road.  The thought of a new beginning, a new life, excites me, and I wonder how and if I will change.  Oh, I know my basic personality is not going to change, but interests and activities do change.  I think how disappointed I was looking into adult education to see that this has been ended at  our local university.  Going back to school, but without the tests and tensions, was alluring to me.  I keep a list of things that I might want to do, and despite the fact the non-stressful option is gone, school remains on the list as a possibility.

I am startled from my thoughts by a deer as startled by me as I am by her, powerful haunches moving her deeply into the woods and into safety.  I notice a multitude of road kill, and it saddens me.  I think of something my husband said about aging and how he grew to feel more empathy for others, including animals, as he aged.  So much wisdom he passed along. I think about how I miss my husband, and as I pass the sweet clover think as I often do of how after a ride I would tell him what bee pasture was in bloom.  I don't talk about him much to others anymore, people are uncomfortable with it, the depth of my emotions even after all this time, and I no longer grieve him so, but I suppose I will always miss him.

 I miss the whisper of his hands as they caressed me, as light as butterfly wings,  and I think of how before we moved and our work schedules changed, he would kneel beside the bed and gently kiss me before leaving for work each day, even if he thought I was sleeping.  I miss being cared for.  I came to treasure him more and more because he treasured me.  Love is different as the years pass: deeper, more accepting.  I would not give up the passion of those early days for anything, but what came afterward was something I did not even know could exist, and I am glad our love had time to mature.  Would that we could have grown even older together, but twas not to be.  And yet again I am thankful that he gave me a bicycle and encouraged my riding, as if he knew the solace and happiness I would find here.

I see three dogs laying in the road ahead, stretched out, enjoying the summer weather, and I sing to warn them of my approach. They jump up barking. They are the most aggressive of all the dogs I see today, but never really a threat.  I dismount and walk a short space keeping my bike between me and them. One dog, solid black, obviously with lab in him,  has ticks hanging all over him,bulging tan with blood there are two right near his eye.  He obviously has been hit or had some problem, one hind leg is held up to avoid touch with the ground.  Another has some eye problem, the whites of his eyes are blood red and make me hurt to look at them.  The third only appears a bit malnourished.  As I often do, I ask myself why people get animals if they are not going to take care of them.  It does not surprise me.  I work with children who people have but don't always treasure, but it still saddens me.  Retirement again comes to mind and how happy I will be to leave that behind me.  I will miss the children, but I will not miss how their eyes sometimes haunt me, and I will not miss my inability to make things better.  Sometimes things are broken that can't be fixed, merely mended, and sometimes they are broken even past mending.

I reach the donut shop and buy a donut and some cookies to take to a friend and a drink, and I sit on the store step of the closed store next door and enjoy every bite of my favorite carmel iced roll.  I decide to take another route home.  I pass Amish wagon after Amish wagon on that route, many with young couples or a woman with children, and of course green manure scatters the road, its scent filtering in the morning breeze and reminding me of my days working in the stables.  I laugh as I wonder if there is any other animal whose excrement I would think of as smelling good.  If I were wealthy, this would be one thing I would like to have in retirement, a horse of my own, but I fear it is way beyond my means. I wish these young families all the best and hope they appreciate what a special time it is when families are young. There is a comfort when your children grow and you reach the point where you know they will miss you if something happens to you but that they will be fine, that they can care for themselves.  Still, there is a closeness when they are little that recedes so gradually that it is as you wake up from a dream and it is gone.  Can you treasure something you are not even aware that you have?

I ride to Sharon's house and knock, but there is nobody home.  I leave the cookies on a bag on her front porch chair and leave a voice mail for her that she has a present when she gets home.  And then I ride the few miles home.  I have decided the rest of the day, other than mowing the lawn and weed-eating, will be devoted to reading and perhaps a movie.  As Steve Stills says, "I've got nothing to do but today." 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Bonk

"We don't have a choice in how or when
our bad days will blindside us.  But what we
do choose is how we allow them to leave us 
once they're gone.  You can use those moments
as a catalyst to spur you on to greater things
or you can let it be the event that breaks you and 
leaves you shattered and forever lost in darkness."
Sherrilyn Kenyon

The day promises to be hot, but there is no foreshadowing that it will be a "bad," or at least a "hard" day on the bike.  True it is supposed to be unseasonably hot and I slept restlessly the night before, but when I left for the ride there was no indication that I would have the dreaded "bonk."  Sometimes on the bike, things just happen.

The century is a tad over one hundred miles, and while we have not ridden it for a few years, I do remember that it has often left me worn out.  This, combined with the weather, should have made me more cautious, but instead I start out like I am ten years younger, legs pumping, heart racing.  True, I do tell the group I am with I am going to drop back, but then everyone dropped back, and while the pace slowed for a bit, I should have known it was too fast for my condition combined with the weather conditions and the course.  Rookie mistakes.  I still make so many mistakes, but I have learned to forgive myself and hopefully use those mistakes for growth rather then letting them stunt me or curb my ambitions.

Salt River Century, a route designed by Dave Runge, no longer a club member.  And there are some beautiful roads on this route, isolated, scenic.  The problem is that I am pressing myself too hard to enjoy them except for occasionally when something striking catches my eye:  the silhouette of the trees against a blue sky, a flower, a heron gracefully winging his way to the next body of water.  Even the river crossing, normally a time for laughter, is hurried.  Interestingly, while I wait to cross, carefully putting on hospital socks left from my husband so as not to slip,  a stream of antique cars ford the stream.  And I do enjoy the companionship. 

 The difference in age and gender is beginning to become more evident, but I still enjoy being with Dave and with Steve.  I think of Bill and how I miss his company on the bike.  The three of us have so many shared memories and experiences from hours and hours spent together upon the bike.  And I love them.  But where before our paces were similar, mine is beginning to lag, and keeping up means I press myself more than I used to have to do.   I can see myself riding centuries for many, many more years, but I also see my riding more and more by myself or with different companions.  Still, the ride today will make me stronger and will help me adapt to the growing heat that is summer.   The hard rides are what give you growth to make other hard rides seem easier.  And the hard rides are normally the scenic rides.  Hills are much less tameable or cultivatable than flat lands.  

It does not help that once again, I am not able to easily or reliably shift into the big ring.  Having had a new shifter installed and having been to the shop two times for adjustment, I figure it must be the derailleur.  For now, it will have to wait and I will make do with the gears I have with my middle chain ring, for I try only to use the triple on rare occasions, and today is not one of those.  Then my neck and back begin to ache until at one point I am almost crying, partially because I am afraid this will begin to haunt all my rides as it did last summer.  The heat begins to play with me, sweat seeming not to evaporate and to sit on my skin.  

At the third store stop, I tell everyone I am heading out alone as my legs are toast.  Nancy kindly reminds me that it is okay.  I grin as I tell her it has to be okay because it is how things are.  I have no doubt that I will make it back to the start, but I also know it will be slower than the group is wanting to go.  Could I press myself and keep up?  I really don't know.  I have before,  What I do know is that I don't want to.  My body will strengthen from what I have done without having to totally deplete it.  

On my way in, I realize that I have finally ridden long enough to know that a bonk does not mean I am totally hopeless as a cyclist.  It is just something that happens sometimes regardless of conditions.  It is not a nice feeling, that feeling that every pedal stroke is a painful act of will, but it just is.  There will be good days on the bike, and this is just part of it.  And still I sing.  

At the end Dave is waiting and his arms enfold me into a great big hug.  Once again I realize how blessed I am with the friends that I have and with bicycles.  Ride on.  And don't let a bonk get you down.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

To Jiggs: A Tribute to What Was and What Is

"You shall not go down twice to the same river,
nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it
was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that
acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, 
wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of
eternity, and your relationship to the river and the river's 
relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once
more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of 
identity.  You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory
asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place you
have never been."
Ursula Le Guin

Finally, a week-end where I have a day to ride by myself.  The weather is predicted to be hot and quite windy, but I have an entire day and plenty of time as we approach the summer solstice.  It seems as if it has been forever since I was able to jump on my bike and have a day to go where I will.  Yes, I have been riding, and I have been enjoying the company and the different routes, but with work there are only two week-end days, and while I could still ride both, age and the additional responsibilities that widowhood has laid upon my doorstep seem to corral that desire.  Too much riding alone eventually becomes burdensome, my mind aches to share the thoughts that randomly tumble through it with someone whose company I enjoy or I miss teasing a friend or the quiet companionship I have with a few special friends, but group riding also can become burdensome.  A mix, that is the ticket.   Unlike riding with others, when you are alone there are really no expectations.  You can ride quickly, you can ride slowly.  You can walk a hill or climb a hill or attack a hill. You can take an alternative route to avoid a hill, though experience has taught me that normally this backfires.  You can stop and take photos or sit on the road and eat a cracker and feel the cool sweetness of water easing the thirst that arises on a long ride.  You can talk with a stranger along the route.  All this without the worry that you are inconveniencing someone or making them wonder if admission to bedlam is appropriate or worry that you are boring them to death.  
I decide to ride to Norman to see if Jiggs, a restaurant in the middle of nowhere,  has ever re-opened.  The last time I passed that way, the owner had suffered some health issues and the restaurant was being run by someone else, but on a changed and limited schedule, allegedly until his return.  No , I was not close the the owner, but I know the restaurant was named for his deceased father, that he did not want to serve large crowds but enjoyed the occasional cyclist or two.  I know that cooking was a hobby that he had that he wanted to share, but that he also wanted a place where people could gather in a town that no longer had even a grocery store or gas station. I know he had a nice smile and a rather high pitched laugh, that his writing was cramped and difficult to read.  And I know that I will miss seeing him occasionally and the brief respite that his restaurant provided along my path.

The cool air wraps itself around me as I head out and momentarily I wonder if I made a mistake in not bringing light arm warmers or a jacket, but the constant activity required for bicycling soon warms me up.  It is early so there is little wind yet, and I make it to the first store with a 16 mph average.  I smile to myself thinking how things change, that once I would have been a bit disappointed with this average, but now felt quite proud of myself.  I think of a friend who recently told me this is why she is not riding anymore, because the decline in her abilities was becoming troublesome to her, and I hope that I don't follow her down that road despite the fact I admire her commitment to finding new activities and trying adventures she has not experienced before, for I love my bicycle.  I love almost everything about it, the freedom it brings, the sounds of the wheels and the gears, the sight of bright multi-colored jerseys, the feel of the wind on my face, the sound of rain on my helmet. I even love the way I hate it at times despite knowing those difficult rides are what make days like today possible where you can ride and ride and feel as if you will never get tired and will never quite have enough. Different, I remind myself, is not synonymous with bad:  it is merely different. So far, everything is comfortingly familiar, until I enter the store.  Shelves have been moved and there is obviously some type of remodeling effort going on.  

I purchase a V-8 and down it, plus some crackers for my bag in case Jiggs is closed, then head back down the road.  The route thus far has been essentially flat, but I know that when I make the turn at the old Brick Factory, that will change.  It never becomes monstrously hilly, like the group century was last week-end, but there are climbs, and the first is after the factory.  I am completely taken aback when I see that they are using the brick factory for storage and they have cut down the brush and growth and the old buildings are now quite visible.  I stop to take photographs and think of when I first came across the old factory and how I started to explore but was afraid I might fall down a well or something and only be found years later.  I think about how this was supposed to have been one of the largest brick factories in the United States, and I wonder what made it fail.  Poor management?  Location? Lack of workers?  There is a beauty in the old buildings, not yet fallen down but decaying. 

I don't know what the metal tubes are, but Steve Rice later sees the picture and tells me they are for electric.

Next to the old brick factory, is the saw mill, wood neatly stacked.   Now I know that
logging is necessary, but I absolutely hate what it does to the land I ride through, but there is beauty in the arrangement as there is the field nearby, hay neatly rolled to prepare for the winter. 

As I begin my climb, I begin to notice the growing heat of the day.  Despite the climb being shaded, the additional energy leaves my skin shiny and damp.  It feels good to sweat.  It feels good to climb.  And rides like last week make the climb relatively easy since I am not in a hurry.  My breath quickens, but it is not the deep, rasping breathing of a steep climb or a climb that you make when you are pressing the pace and in a hurry.  Because of this and the lack of company, I notice the scenery more, the fading of the daisies, the beginning of the sweet clover bloom, the glory of the orange day lilies, closed this morning but now opening their beauty as they shameless flirt with the sun,  the greenness of the trees as innocent of their fate as a small child.  I find myself gently humming to myself.  I come across a turtle, dismount, and gently move him from the road.  I grow protective toward the world. 

I am looking forward to the bridge on Jason McKreig Road despite the effort involved in lifting my bike over the barriers and climbing them myself.  I am taken back with what I find.  The bridge, the beautiful bridge, is gone, replaced by a bridge that has no beauty, no poetry.  Functional, yes, but so very plebeian.  (Photos of the old and new.  What do YOU think?)  I think of how there is beauty in the old, beauty that we carelessly throw away in our quest for the new or for convenience.  The line from a country song I used to like comes to mind, "But someday I'm sure you're going to know the cost, 'cause for everything you win there's something lost."  (Dan Seals)

The road after the bridge is fresh black top, not the bumpy, pot hold ridden mess that everyone complained about despite the shortness of the stretch.  Interesting, as I ride along, I first see the paw prints of what might be a cat or a fox or a coyote, then some type of bird, then a man's boot print, then a deer. 

Shortly up the road, I come across a deer placidly walking across the road.  She or he notices me and melts into the woods.  And then the same with a coyote, brushy tan fur, he sees me and begins his graceful lope across the field.  I grin as I see him turning his head to look at me to see if I am giving chase, knowing that if I was the lope would become a flat out run.  This makes me remember the ride this way with a group when Cafe 58 was open. We must have seen ten or twenty deer that day, but when we got to the cafe, filled with deer hunters, none of them had gotten one to fill their freezer.

All too soon I arrive at Jiggs which is obviously closed.  With the heat, I hopefully climb the porch to the pop machine, but it is dead.  A man wearing a ripped tee shirt, belly hanging over his jeans, blackened teeth, rides by on his lawn mower and stops for a chat.  He said he is not really sure what happened, whether health or the lack of customers caused the closure.  He tells me how in his youth, the building was a store and how the one side of the building was added on, how the owner died in 1990 and the store closed and no business has made it yet.  I ask about the other restaurant in Kurtz, Cafe 58, and if it has perchance re-opened, but he tells me it is now a gun store.  He said there are no stores anywhere nearby and I assure him I will be fine and can make it to Brownstown.  He rides off on his lawn tractor and I ride off on my bicycle thinking how I will miss this place.  (Old picture of when Jiggs was open and I took a group there)
I head toward Brownstown still loving the scenery and glad I have some crackers and enough water. 

The rest of the way home I think about changes and how life seems determined that I shall accept that facet of her personality before I depart.  So many changes in recent years.  You would think with age that change would slow, not accelerate.  I will still ride this route, but how I ride this route will change.  Store opportunities will be further apart.  No longer Medora, Norman, and Brownstown, but Leesville and Brownstown, not a big deal when the weather is nice, but a big deal when it is exceedingly hot.  In a way, I suppose, change blesses us in that we knew what was and get to know what is. I am so glad that I got to know this route the way it was, already twice changed with store closures, something there will undoubtedly be more and more of in these little country villages.  And I hope I will continue to get to know the route the way it is, or will have the time to make some more changes, that will then change again.  Each time you ride a route, even the same route,  it just is different and you make new memories and relive old memories.  As Ursula Le Guin noted, you can go home again so long as you know it will be different than before.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A New Century Route

"The right to play is one of the divine rights
of men and women, of boys and girls, and is just
as essential to the peace, happiness, and prosperity 
of the world as is the right to pray.  Never be afraid
or ashamed, my young friends, of honest, vigorous,
healthy play." 
Silas Floyd

A new century route.  I have ridden it, I have even shared it with a few friends shortly after its creation, but it has not yet been a club ride.  It has been a rough week, and I need to play.  I feel it in the core of my being, in the tears that have seeped out despite my best intentions, and I look forward to the release that a long bicycle ride can bring.  And it is almost always nice to share a route, to show people roads that they have not seen before. 

The idea for the route came from Steve Montgomery a few years ago; however, he never put it together.  Because I admire Steve and I like the idea he had of bringing lunch business to a small county store, I breath life into it.  And now he is going to co-captain the ride with me.  I hope I can let go of the sadness and anger of the past few days and play, truly play, for play is so restorative.

With it being a holiday week-end and with a popular paid ride, I am unsure how large the crowd will be, and I am a bit taken back as car after car pulls into the start until we have over thirty riders.  I am delighted to see a few people I have not seen in awhile.  Just the sight of their faces curves my lips in a smile and lifts my heart skyward. Earlier in the week, the day looked to be filled with thunderstorms, but gradually the forecast has mellowed until there is less of a chance, at least until after 4:00.  It is humid, but the cloud cover is a blessing and remains with us much of the day.

As we ride, there are wild daisies everywhere, splotches of white and yellow amidst the dark greenness that announces early summer rather than the tentative, light greenness of the first of spring.  I thought there would be orange day lilies starting, but it is still too early.  Another week or two and they will be here, lining the roads, their bright, cheerful faces greedily tilted toward the sun. There are the starts of gardens, mostly well tended this time of year.  Experience has taught me that some will remain this way while others become a festival of weeds.  A few fields of wheat are beginning to ripen, yellow streaking the green.

The ride quickly separates into groups, some faster and some slower, multi-colored jerseys blanketing the grayness of the sky and the road with color and life.  Chatter, teasing, giggles, and some talk tinged with seriousness seeps through the air and into my ears, a tonic. Today I am at the back, part of ride captain responsibilities, and I do not mind.  I will miss chatting with some of the friends I normally ride and chat with, but I will enjoy chatting with those I don't know as well and just enjoying the day and the slow pace.

At the first store stop, a group we thought was in front arrives having missed a turn.  One thing I have learned through designing multiple routes is that no matter how carefully you prepare a cue sheet, it is almost inevitable that someone will get lost.  With myself, I find it happens most often during conversations with friends, but whatever the reason, it seems to happen on almost every ride.  It is, however, more of a concern on a century ride than on a shorter ride, because the distance is already a challenge.

The major climb is after the lunch stop.  I think that perhaps for once I am taking Paul Battle on a road he has not ridden, but I later find that while he has not ridden it for years, he has ridden it before.  The majority have never done this climb out of Bethlehem.  And what a climb it is.  It is beautiful, forested on both sides, and shady, but it is steep and rather long. Two in the group we are shepherding come off of their bikes. Steve and I dig in and climb.  He reaches the top and waits for me and we both wait for the others.

This is the point where two of the riders begin to really struggle, one cramping and the other just worn out.  Even minor hills have become a challenge.  My heart goes out to them, but there is nothing I can do to help them.  If you don't ride distance rides regularly, you can just expect it to hurt, even at a slow pace, particularly if you are older.  I think of a few of the times I have bonked on a ride, either from lack of preparation, weight gain, or just being the weakest in a group, and I remember how miserable it can be.  Steve tells me that one of the struggling riders did not eat at lunch, and I remember learning that lesson both through my own experiences and through listening the others who were more experienced and taking their advice to heart. And the rest of the route, while it has only one more significant climb, has lots of rollers, many of them steep despite their shortness: leg testers. It is on the last of the significant climbs that the rain begins, threatening worse than it becomes.  A brief patch, a few booms of thunder, and it is over.  By the time we reach the third store, we are mostly dry.

And we manage to bring them in.  Near to the end, Jeff White has ridden back to join us.  Hopefully everyone, even those struggling, feel a sense of accomplishment.  I feel certain it was not a play day for them, but one of those rides that are more like death marches, but those are the miles that make play on a long ride possible.  I think of brevets, of that inevitable time when you ask yourself why you are doing something that is painful, that most people consider insane, and yet, there is the je ne sais quoi factor, that indescribable something, that not only makes you finish but makes you eager to come back for more.  Play, my friends, play on your bicycles, it is important.  Play in your bedrooms, in the workplace, in your day to day interactions with people. Play may, in the end, be what it is all about.  Never forget how to play. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bike to Work Day 2017

"Forget yesterday for it has already forgotten you. 
Don't sweat tomorrow - you haven't even met.
Instead, open your eyes and your heart to a 
truly precious gift - today."
Steve Maraboli

It is bike to work day Friday, but I know that I need my car to work that day, so I look at my calendar and decide upon an alternative:  Wednesday.  The night before I plug in the battery for my light, the one I use on short rides.  I pack my back pack with the work clothing I will need that day, check my tires and tail lights, then head to bed a bit earlier than normal and set my alarm a little earlier than normal.  
I wake at 5:00, right before the alarm goes off,  knowing I need to leave by 6:00 to make it and have a bit of a cushion to ensure I get there on time.  Rain is not predicted, but it is abnormally warm and stuffy.  As I slip out the door, I miss the coolness that would normally greet me this time of morning, but it is nice not to have to wear a jacket.  I always think of him when I leave, of how if he were awake he would urge me to be careful, the concern in his voice wrapping itself around me, the brief shelter of his arms.  He didn't hate my cycling like my mother did, but he did worry.  I miss that.  I miss the touch of him, the smell of him, the sound of him, the love of him.  But I have learned to survive and even to thrive. Life is not the same, it is different, but it is still precious. 

The first couple of miles, normally mellow and relaxing, are tense.  Due to the state road closure, the cars that normally would not dream of coming this way are coming in what seem to be droves and the roads are narrow.  I can tell I am quite visible though as I see them slow, almost seeming to pause, in my rear view mirror.  I think about how circumstances change things when I find myself glad to reach the wide shouldered road I normally ride in on because it is quicker than the back roads I love so.  I will ride the back roads home, but I am not willing to take the extra time on the way, at least not today.

I notice daisies and honeysuckle and the first of the sweet clover as dawn pushes herself into the world.  The moon hangs off to the left, pale and solemn, not quite ready to yield.  Though I am heading west and not east, clouds tinge briefly with pinkness as dawn insists on having her turn.  I think of how I missed the night riding this year with not doing the brevets.  

I climb the hill thinking of how Tiffany and I came  here to gather rocks for landscaping her new home.  We ate Mexican that day and were approached by a geologist who mistakenly thought we were there looking for a certain type of stone.  I think of how I worry about her and her brother sometimes and decide that is just part of motherhood:  even if I live to 90 I assume I will always worry about them.  I think of how I miss my mother, not as she was at the end, but as she was when she was still healthy and had her memory.  I wonder if I will lose my memory.  It seems almost as if that is the same as losing yourself. After she lost her memory, my mother always enjoyed it when I regurgitated the stories she had told me about herself, and I wonder if my children will tell me my stories if I forget them.  

And in the midst of my reverie, I find I have arrived.  I bring my bicycle inside the building, change clothes, and begin to deal with those issues that need to be dealt with, that I am paid to deal with.  And I anticipate the ride home.  Today is, indeed, a gift I gave myself, enriched by a ride to work. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

One More Year of the Pam

"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily.
To not dare is to lose oneself."
Soren Kierkegaard 

Quite honestly, I don't want to ride today.  I remember all too well how cold it can be when it is in the low 40's and raining and I am on a bicycle. I remember how fingers stiffen, as if the cold freezes the joints, and toes ache until the only thing you can think of is a bath tub full of steaming, hot water.  Cheeks redden and noses run.  Rides starting with some laughter and jokes become death marches, quiet with one goal in mind, the only background noise the steady thrumming of the rain.  Rain mixed with road grit splashes from the road into your mouth, into your eyes or onto your glasses, onto your water bottle. But somehow I get myself out the door.  I unpack the wool clothing I thought I would not use till next year, my bar mitts, my rain cap, my rain jacket, and I go.  For I know how wimpy I am becoming, and how weak.  I had to turn down a ride I would have loved to have ridden because of it, and I know the only way I will gain strength is to go and hurt a bit.  For it is not just the unseasonable cold and the weather prediction, but the course.  I know all too well I am going to hurt before the day is through.  But I need to do this.  I am losing myself, and I am not ready to do that.

I don't know what I expect, but when I get there it is only Steve, the ride captain, Jason, and Matt.  Jason really surprises me because of the longest time he would not ride when it was at all cold.  It tickles me to see him and lifts my spirits as I see someone make their way over to the dark side of distance riding. It helps that it is not yet raining.  I remind Jason that he has not yet sent me a link to donate to the MS ride.  I have two friends who have spouses with MS and I try to donate something.  More than many people, I know what it is to love someone who is ill and has no way of getting better.  Later in the ride, when we talk about some political issues, I wonder how Jason feels about the new health bill for certainly MS would be a pre-existing condition.  I may or may not be the only Democrat on this ride, but I can't believe he would favor a bill that penalizes people for their misfortunes, even if the misfortune is not of their making.  I wonder if the others think of this as we talk.  I wonder if Jason thinks of it.  Briefly I think how most people become more conservative as they age and I wonder what it was that made me become more liberal. I think that I am glad we can have these discussions and still be friends.

The rain begins shortly after we leave the parking lot and continues until after lunch.  I chill at the first store stop and I am glad the stop is brief.  Matt drinks coffee to warm himself.  I stick to V-8 and a banana. I know I must make myself drink for I will not want to drink on the ride as I am cold.  I am surprised that Jason and Matt are still with us.  Steve undoubtedly feels obligated to stay with me, no matter my pace, since he is ride captain, but they are not obligated.

This ride is a beautiful ride, and in places the creek bordering the road practically screams with water from all the rain.  I like the sound of the water as it rushes toward the river, carving rocks and taking dirt and smaller things along with hit. I think of how as children we would float leaves and sticks in the creeks, or how we would block the gutters at the end of the street and cause ponding until we got caught. The trees are green and lush in a way that they only are when they first burst forth in the spring. In places there are wild flowers.  The only thing I miss that I normally notice on this ride is honeysuckle.  And then, right before Hanly Hill, as we cross a stream of water and mud running across the road, Jason's rear wheel slips and slides out from under him, dumping him unceremoniously on the ground.  Luckily, while he tears his rain jacket and loses some skin to the road, he is not seriously hurt.  Shortly afterward, on my climb up Hanly, a climb I made but was unsure that I was strong enough to make this year, I almost join him as I stand and my rear wheel spins out.  Steve later says he has the same issue.  I celebrate internally at the top of the steep climb.  I don't mind walking a hill, but I don't like walking a hill because I am too weak to climb it.  And I hurt.  My thighs threaten cramping that never quite materializes but hides in the background. 

After lunch it seems to be even colder as it always does on this type of ride, but at least the rain has stopped and, while steady, it was never a downpour, just a gentle drip.  I know we have the short, steep climb after the park.  Steve's wheel slips on the climb and he is off, but at least he does not fall.  It serves as a reminder to remain seated.  People climb hills in different ways.  Some rarely stand.  Some stand the majority of the time.  And some, like me, do both.  Today, however, until the rain dries, on steep hills there does not appear to be a choice. 

Soon afterward, Jason and Matt do decide to ride ahead, and Steve, being ride captain, stays back with me.  I get to hear about some of his interesting projects.  He reminds me of Lloyd in that way:  he always is into something new.  I briefly think that he would probably enjoy beekeeping if he ever tried it because the bees always outsmart you.  You can try to keep them from swarming, to reduce swarming, but you will rarely succeed, and if you do will not the next time you try the exact same thing.  In other words, you just never can really quite figure them out.  But it is not his thing.  It was my husband's thing.  The trait of liking to figure things out is probably one of the few personality traits that they share. 

Near the end of the ride, I realize that I am warm, even a bit too warm.  I also realize that I have made most of the hills albeit at a slow pace.  Next ride, perhaps, I will be a bit stronger.  I am not yet ready to lose this piece of myself.  Thanks, guys, for making it a doable day.  Tomorrow my bike will need a scrubbing, but tomorrow the sun is supposed to shine. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

HIking the Knobstone Trail

"You must accept that you might fail; then, 
if you do your best and still don't win, at least
you can be satisfied that you have tried. If you
don't accept failure as a possibility, you don't set
high enough goals, you don't branch out, you
don't try, you don't take the risk."
Rosalyn Carter

As I near retirement, I have started listing things that I hope to do after I retire.  You see, while I long for  freedom after my years of servitude, I also am wary.  Luckily for me, many of the people I know who have retired are active and have busy lives with numerous hobbies and can serve as role models and advisors, but then there are those who seem to wilt once the harness comes off, robbed of the purpose given by employment and unable to establish purpose on their own.  Seldom do those people seem to live long enough to enjoy the retirement they earned.   In other words, retirement tells us something about ourselves and our personalities. I also suspect that it will be harder to have a fruitful fulfilling retirement as a single person than it would have been if my husband were still alive because sharing experiences with someone enhances those experiences. 

On my list of things I hope to do, see, experience, etc. is to hike the entire Knobstone trail.  I don't know much about the trail other than it is close by and that it is said to be good preparation for hiking the Appalachian Trail. I mention this to my friend, Diana Cozart, who surprises me by saying she would like to hike the trail as well.  And it is thus that plans begin being madeAnd while I am not yet retired, it will give me a taste of if I like it.  Originally, my plan was to camp while on the trail, but Diana would rather not and it is not that important to me at this point.  Frankly, I feel certain this adventure would not have gotten off of the ground, at least until after I do retire, if it were not for Diana.  I mentioned it and the next thing I knew she had a map and was doing the planning.  Mainly, I followed in her wake.  I also mentioned what we were doing  to Mark, the Director at the office where I work, who says I need to take his phone number in case I need to be rescued.  He talks about how difficult he has heard the trail is and how he has rescued others that have attempted it and decided to quit.  The worry in his face touches me as does his offer of assistance if we should need it. 

Last fall, in preparation, we began  a series of few short hikes doing certain sections of the trail.  Jim, Diana's husband, would drop us off at one trail head and pick us up at another.  During these three or four excursions, we experiment with what works for us and what does not.  One  lesson is painful, rocks and acorns underfoot on the trail cause my foot to slip and my ankle to turn.  I hobble out without Diana realizing just how badly I am hurt, but I learn a valuable lesson.  Every hike from there on out, I have hiking sticks and boots, not running shoes with no pole to balance.  We learn about what we can expect our pace to be, how much water we  need, etc.  I begin carrying an ankle bandage with my other supplies. While I think we can do it, still in my mind there is a speck of doubt.  Some of the climbs are remarkably steep and the descents likewise.  I can ride a long way on a bicycle, but walking is different.  Since my car accident last year, I have occasional back and neck issues that I did not have previously.  Doing twelve miles on foot is quite different than doing over fifty.  "What is the worst that could happen," I ask myself?  Anything new holds the risk of failure. Possible failure is the spice in the stew.

I take a week off in April, and so our adventure begins.  Diana and Jim  pick me  up in the morning at 8:00 and Jim  takes us to Deam Lake and drops us off.  We have successfully hiked a few sections of the trail during our preparation days, but because of the distance to the start, this is not one of them. 

I awaken to the sound of thunder booming loudly, the kind that makes the air feel alive and the house seem to tremble.  And there is rain.  What was a twenty percent chance of rain has become eighty percent.  I am fine with going or waiting a day.  Again, I leave it up to Diana.  We decide to move forward.  By the time we start, the rain is nothing but a gentle misting, quite pleasant actually .  It is warm enough that it is not uncomfortable with a light jacket, and the rain seems to make everything more vivid.

We had intended to do this  hike before earth yawned, stretched her arms, and awakened, but it has been unseasonably warm or our planning was off or a combination of the two.  Regardless, we trade the possibility of snakes and tick bites for a growing sea of greenness, for Red Bud trees, and for wildflowers.  Gone is the monochrome of previous hikes. We see several snakes throughout our four day adventure, but the one on the first day is on the path.  He is small and totally brown, no stripes, and does not seem to have any desire to  yield the path, tongue flickering in and out, so we yield to him and walk on.  This is his home:  we are only guests.  Two others are larger, one at least four feet in length.   I "think" it is a black snake, the kind my brothers used to catch and play with.  The last, the one that slithers into a pile of brush, us smaller and is tan with brown with stripes. Suddenly I am thinking of the movie "Riki Tiki Tavi" from the children's youth.  There is a scene with a snake and the snake tells the boy, "If you move, I strike.  And if you don't move, I strike."  Later that night, I review on line what to do when bitten by a snake.  But it really seems things are rather hopeless if one happens to be bitten by a poisonous snake so deep in the woods.

Reeling in my imagination, we move on.  Our paces are similar and it is nice to have company.  Sometimes we chat and sometimes it is just the affable sound of our footsteps and hiking sticks and breathing.  Birds chatter in the background.  At one point, we see a beautiful bird I am unable to identify, but who sadly appears unable to fly. In my mind I thank him for sharing his beauty with us before continuing his journey on the other side, for to be a bird and unable to fly is, I feel sure, certain death.

At the crest of a climb, we decide to have lunch and we come upon two buzzards, each sitting on the remnants of a tree that was topped by a passing storm at one point.  In fact, in that area, all the trees have been topped.  The buzzards take wing at our approach, but they  settle nearby, this time huddled together, companions and friends. I think how they are useful birds, and there is beauty in their cuddling.  I find that I appreciate things differently now that I am older, that I have come to a realization that there is a beauty in purpose and how the pieces of the world fit together.  A piece may be beautiful is only because of its usefulness to the whole, but it is still beautiful.  I try to get a picture, but as I suspected, the telescoping lens on my camera is not sufficient.

As we eat our sandwiches,  the rain picks up in intensity.  Slightly chilled, we both put back on the jackets we had shed earlier.  Then we move forward.  Diana remarks on how well the path is marked because in this section we are walking sideways around the top of a hill.  Unless you would like to take  a nosedive down a sharp incline and possibly kill yourself, there is no other place to go.  For some reason, this strikes me as particularly amusing and I giggle about this the entire hike, particularly as we reach a few places where the trail is not so clear and yet there is no guiding mark.I briefly wonder about the people who designed and maintain these trails, and I hope they know how much it is appreciated. 

At one point, I slip twisting my bum ankle a bit.  I stop, wrap it, and move on quickly realizing that it is not nearly as bad as the last time I twisted it.  It will swell a bit, but it will not be exceedingly painful.  This is good because the last time I could barely walk the next day and this is not a practice session but the real thing.  Shortly afterward,  Diana also falls, hitting her knees.  But she says she is okay and seems to be. It is hard to decide whether the climbing or the descents are tougher. Climbing challenges the lungs and stamina, but descending challenges the balance and toes. When we reach the end of day one, Jim is waiting and has brought each of us a bottle of water and a granola bar.  I think how nice it is and how thoughtful. I am glad that Diana has someone to do these things for her.  Relationships are a blessing to be treasured.

The second day is quieter as we walk along in silent companionship.  Interestingly, there seem to be fewer bird sounds than yesterday.  Rain or terrain? Blisters and foot issues have started, but not so significantly that they will stop us.  I tell her how friends told me about using duct tape on blisters and areas that are rubbing.  I keep looking for places that I might stop if I decide to do this trip on my own in the future and to camp along the way rather than going home each night to a shower and my own bed.  During the hike, we come across two tents.  One we saw on an earlier hike and has obviously been abandoned for some reason.  I keep teasing Diana that we had better not look under it as there are probably dead bodies.  The other is well maintained though nobody is there. Cooking utensils are hung from trees.  The tent is erect and the entire area, while human-less, appears tended to, almost as if someone is staying there regularly rather than just for a night along the trail.  There is even a stack of magazines. All these things fuel my imagination taking me further along the trail.

Somewhere along the way Diana spots a mushroom and I get to hear her story of how they would look for them as children along with her father when he was still living.  I think of how are lives are enriched by others, the experiences we have of spending time with them, and I realize  yet again how lucky I am to have a reliable companion on this part of my journey.  I think how much we miss those that were part of the fabric of our lives: parents, siblings, spouses, children.  If you live long enough, it seems most of these are taken from you.  It is easy to feel sad and despondent, but I try to be grateful for the rich colors they have added to my journey.  Briefly I wonder if Diana and I will still be friends 10 years from now, 20 years from now?  I think of something Paul said on a recent ride, something that struck me because I heard the same thing from my mother:  "All my friends I grew up with are gone."  Is, I wonder, survival, being the last one standing, a blessing or a curse?  But I am not wise enough to have the answer if there is one.

As we walk, I think about our ancestors that settled this land, and how strong they must have been.  It  is hard enough with a path and without trying to carry seed corn and those things needed to start a homestead.  I think about how lucky we are that they preserved some of the forests for the enjoyment of future generations, but I also mourn the lack of old growth forests and wish that some of this had been preserved for us. What will we leave behind for those that come after us?  We pass through large areas that have been touched by tornado damage or by logging.  At one point, we reach a turn with absolutely no marker.  We pull out the map and Diana uses the compass on her phone to determine our course.  Soon we reach a white mark that assures us the turn was correct.  I also occasionally ask myself why I am doing this, particularly as the heat grows stronger.  Really?  Who expects an eighty degree day in April.

The last day is also traversing areas we have not hiked before so we do not know what to expect.  I ride my bike in that area, but the road is in valley.  Not so the trail.  At one point, we are on a thin, sliver of path that cants down into what would be a terrible if not fatal fall.  I struggle with my fear of heights and remind myself to concentrate on the path and nothing else.   It is not helped by the fact that I am having what I now call "a bad eye day."  Ever since my viscera detached, I have the occasional day when my one eye seems to be covered with a thin veil.  No amount of blinking, looking down, or the other suggestions given by the doctor help. Today not only is there the veil, but there is a line like a hair across my eye, something the brain normally screens out.  It is not painful, but it is annoying and definitely affects my vision.

 There is also a long detour on this section and we find ourselves on a gravel road that seems to last forever. I wonder how long the actual trail will be closed.  As we take the detour, there is a family on a porch who tells us it is not much further.  And it is not.  Again and again on the trail I think about trees and what wonders they are.  The roots often serve as steps or keep the dirt on the hillside from eroding.  We use them to climb out of creek beds that are nearly as deep as we are tall, and to keep from falling downward into them as we descend. The colors of the Dog Wood and Red Bud are stunning against the sea of encroaching greenness.  All shades of green.  There are area where it seems you are on top of the world and can see forever.  And always there is our progress forward toward our goal: completion. 

Each mile marker becomes a source of celebration as we draw nearer and nearer to our goal.  Sore feet and tired bodies yearn for warm, soapy water, filling food, and a soft bed.  For a few days, at least, such things will be more appreciated than they normally are.  And for a few days there will be the satisfaction that comes with something difficult being successfully navigated and completed. Finally I hear Diana say, "There's our truck."  And there Jim is, patiently waiting for us, and it is done.  I know that tomorrow a part of me will be glad of rest, but that a part of me will wish I was heading back out on the trail, the rhythm of our feet and breathing in harmony with the land, the land we came from and will return to.  As the Florida Georgia Line song says, "You know you came from it, someday you'll return to it."  Until then, may there be more adventures and new ventures, and may there always be the risk of failure because without the risk of failure, success would not be so very sweet. In the words of Diana, "We did it!!! Knobstone Trail. 4 days; 27 hours; 55.9 miles; 558 floors; 132,497 steps. We started at Dean lake and went to Delaney Park."