Bikes

Elena has started to notice and talk about bikes. The girl next door has a purple bike that they keep next to their front staircase, and when we walk by Elena likes to give their scarecrow a hug and try to get on the bike. At a large consignment sale last weekend, Elena and I looked at the toys while Jenny browsed the racks of clothes. There was a bike that was too large, but Elena climbed up on it and had me roll her around.

I’ve been enjoying my bike by riding to and from work about twice per week. The first time I made the trip, I had a flat tire misadventure, but since then it’s been smooth sailing. A good fraction of my route is along a paved bike trail that used to be a rail line, so it’s mostly flat. In addition, I don’t have to worry about traffic and it’s a beautiful place to ride. The first part of my ride is on a lightly-travelled country road, while the last segment does follow a busier road, but it has a wide shoulder and there are signs posted that warn the drivers to watch for bikes. Even though the ride takes about twice as much time as my drive, I enjoy it immensely more. I hope I can maintain my resolve when the weather turns colder.

Whether driving or riding, the moment I arrive home is a highlight of my day. When it’s warm enough, Jenny leaves the front door open, although the storm door is still closed. I think she tells Elena to go look for me, because she’s frequently standing at the door looking for me, and her face lights up when she sees me.

Seeing Elena smile sometimes causes me to think about how my life is different now than it used to be. Along with the time of year and bike riding, it brought to mind a story that I want to put in writing. Maybe someday Elena will learn from this–it’s probably on the list of the top five stupid and dangerous things I’ve done.

Halloween 2003 was unseasonably warm in western Massachusetts. It was a Friday, and I knew that it would be a great day to go for a ride on my new bike. I was working at an elementary school, and decided that I could leave right at 3:30, head straight home, and get right on the bike for a 50 mile loop up through Bennington, Vermont.

I don’t remember what happened, but I stayed late work, then it took extra time to get home and get all ready for the ride. I’m sure it was at least 5:30 or 5:45 by the time I clipped into the pedals, and the light was already fading. I must have recognized this to some extent, because I brought along my camping headlamp, but I didn’t let it deter me. I pedaled into Vermont with the twilight.

Although I had looked at my route, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find my way once night fell. I was lucky that there weren’t many places to turn–whenever I reached an intersection, I turned left. Before long it was pitch black. My headlamp didn’t have a range to match the speed of the bike. The starlight was enough to make the white stripe on the border of the road barely visible, so I had something to follow. Rarely cars came by in the other direction; I averted my eyes from the headlights so I wouldn’t lose my night vision adaptation.

I don’t think Google maps existed back then. Whatever I had used instead didn’t show the terrain. I should have known, but didn’t think that I would first have to climb a mountain, then descend into the valley below. The slow climb was manageable, but the lengthy descent frightened me. I usually enjoy the effortless speed of going downhill, a reward for the effort of the climb, but it wasn’t nearly as fun without the benefit of sight.

At long last houses, street lamps, and other marks of civilization began to appear. As I drew closer to town, I saw people in Halloween costumes: kids trick-or-treating and teenagers and college students going to or coming from parties. It occurred to me that even on this night of oddities I was still probably a strange sight to behold.

I decided to end my ride in Bennington. It was already late, and as I later learned, the road I would have taken home has no shoulder and probably would have been incredibly dangerous. However I didn’t have a cell phone; I didn’t even have a quarter to make a phone call. I stopped at the first open gas station I could find, borrowed a quarter from the clerk, and tried calling everyone I knew. It seemed like nobody was home, but I finally got in touch with Jim Law. I have many reasons to be forever grateful to him, but this one will always stand out. He rescued me, and I resolved never again to go for a night ride like that one.

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