I have never in my entire life been someone who exercises regularly. In fact, I could probably been counted among the "proudly out of shape" who got winded going up a couple of flights of stairs and then made a joke about it. But for some reason a few months ago, part vanity, part something else, I started running a couple of miles in the morning and then, when things warmed up, I started biking the 11-mile trail around the town of Decorah.
If you're going to attempt this, you should know that yes, it is incredibly beautiful. The trail winds by the Upper Iowa River, making it's way through woods, cornfields, pastures, across bridges and then generously funneling you out adjacent to the parking lot of the Whippy Dip. One of the other things you should know about the trail is that it is NOT ENTIRELY FLAT - there are ways around that, but the first time I rode I literally sat spread-eagled by the side of a cornfield for 15 minutes staring at the sky and wheezing.
I have kept at it though, and the other night I decided to get a little closer to my end-of-summer goal of Riding The Trail Twice. One way to practice is by finishing the trail and then riding the fairly level 5-mile stretch to the fish hatchery and back, which is what I opted for. I was actually surprised by how hard it wasn't, if that makes sense. I made it all the way to the hatchery and then realized that dusk was quickly turning to dark and I should really get a move on - so I turned around and started riding back, feeling so incredibly warmed up and limber after 16 or 17 miles of riding. I was amazed at how much energy I had, and was also aware that it was getting very dark and that there were copious amounts of gnats, fireflies and mosquitos now clouding the humid air.
All of this inspired me to pedal more quickly. I was zipping along a long, straight stretch, singing loudly, lost in thought when I looked down and saw - it seemed involuntary - my left hand squeezing the front brake lever. I can't explain this - I'm right handed, I've been doing a lot of bike riding and I'm very familiar with the danger of applying the front brakes alone. I’m not sure what happened, but it happened very, very quickly - suddenly I was hurtling over the tangled sideways mess of my bicycle, both hearing and feeling the skin on my left arm and shoulder scraping the asphalt. Nanoseconds later my knee, the palm of my hand, my left cheekbone hitting that same asphalt, bouncing off. The confusion of it all, a woman pulling over to see if I was OK, me feeling my face for blood and not finding any but still feeling incredibly banged up. I said I thought I was OK, not so much because I thought I actually was but more because the taboo against inconveniencing other people is so deeply ingrained in me. I walked my bike for a few hundred feet and then gingerly climbed back on, feeling a strange mix of shock, bewilderment, something like sadness.
I started riding the last few miles of the trail, pitch dark by now except for the small light on my handlebars which were now skewed oddly to the right. I reached around to make sure that my red clip-on light was still blinking, the light I’ve had for nearly 10 years, the one I brought from Arizona to Iowa. The same light I wore when I went biking in 2008 after summer monsoons and drank black tea in a coffee shop while reading books and trying to forget that I was deep in the throes of horrible, incurable anxiety. I reached around to make sure this light was on, and that’s when I realized that it was gone, had fallen off in the impact. It was miles behind me and this more than anything was what made me start crying - there was no way I could go back for it, couldn’t imagine turning around and then turning around again. And so I kept riding, my legs slowly pumping up and down, tears dripping sideways down my wind-blown face, mourning the loss of this small, sentimental thing and maybe too mourning the loss of bigger things, safety, control, protection, security, stability. Things that I sometimes feel have stalked as much as eluded me for most of my life.
I came home to the realization that I was actually lucky in that I miraculously hadn’t broken anything, was just badly scraped up and nursing some large and tender bruises. New ones would show up the next day and the next, on my thigh, my stomach, below my rib cage, each one part of a mysterious story making me wonder, what happened? What did it look like, how did I fall, what hit where, what made this mark.
Tonight I had plans to get back on the bike trail - as I type this it’s started raining steadily outside and I realize I am reconsidering. If it stops, maybe, I could think about it - but there’s a part of my brain that now thinks about the slickness of wet pavement in a way that I didn’t a few days ago, a part that knows how tenuous my connection to the ground is and how quickly it can give way.
I will get back on the trail today or tomorrow or someday soon, and I will probably be a little more careful, reminded by the ache of a shoulder or the sting of still-healing wounds that my body is a tender, vulnerable and fragile vessel. The hurt will remind me of the injury, until it doesn’t, until it begins to heal and a new memory forms, a memory of a span of time without hurt, without trauma, without a jarring, violent interruption. This will feel like a beginning, and it will feel like forgetting; it will also feel inevitable as much as it will feel familiar. My mind has a thousand ideas and variations on the what and the when and the why of this life, but the body knows only one thing, one beautiful, redundant and singular idea:
Stay until we can’t.