Mrs. V. and I were over in the Catskills for a family gathering with my father, quite sick with cancer since April, and my step-mom. Dad’s not doing great. I won’t waste words trying to describe how hard it is to see my vibrant Old Man failing and suffering and scared. Suffice it to say,I would run through brick walls if I thought it would lighten his load even a little. The hardest part is, there’s nothing I can do on that front. Chemotherapy is a cure that’s almost as bad as the disease. There were lots of strange vibes in the air this weekend, lots of spoken and unspoken changes in the family dynamic, but overall, a very positive visit. We're growing closer and deeper as a family, and for that, I am very grateful.
I awoke quite out of it Monday morning, sporting something like an emotional hangover, or maybe more like a hairball. Intestines acting weird, head heavy, mood sludgy. The day was gray, sticky, and still. I spent the morning at sixes and sevens, drifting uneasily from one thing to the next.
Finally, despite threatening clouds, I did what you’re thinking I did, what I know how to do. I kitted up and steered my beloved Vaya out toward some local flowy trails about five miles from our door.
A steady rain started on my way to the trailhead. It felt so much like an extension of my mood, I almost didn’t notice it at first. I considered turning around, but instantly rejected the idea. I needed to ride, period. I emptied my mind as best I could and pressed on toward the trailhead, hoping things would work themselves out once I got into the woods. They often do.
I’ve spent most of the last few weeks on the road bike, so when I first reached the dirt, I was all over the place. After a while, the rain abated a bit, I could see the trail a little better, and I picked up a little speed. I poked around, discovering a lovely loop: Good-sized, flat-to-rolling, with just a few steep ramps of loose soil and roots which I could enjoy powering up, and enough washed-out, rooty sections to get the adrenal glands firing over something more substantial than the feverish thoughts haunting me of late.
Riding mountain bike trails with 35 millimeter tires, a rigid road frame, and traditional touring gearing does more than just soak up your power like a loamy sponge; it demands a lot of desperate maneuvering and bucking-bronco-style handling skills. The first time I rode real single-track (a test ride of the Vaya this spring) I had the simultaneous experience of being a rank beginner, and yet falling in love and picking up skills surprisingly smoothly. I still feel that way. Half the tricky sections I clear are due to pure luck or sheer momentum. I have more narrow misses than I care to think about. But when they come, I often stop, turn around, and study the root or rock that nearly threw me, and get clear on what happened. Frequently, I’ll ride that section again, and even again, until I have a better feel for the dynamic. That part reminds me of my days as a guitarist, going over and over a lick on a recording by some hotshot gunslinger. That moment when I got it cold – when I couldn’t tell the difference between his guitar line and mine – gave up a feeling quite similar to nailing a patch of trail I could only skitter through before. That sensation is quite a useful antidepressant; it’s called agency in the psychotherapy world.
I stopped for a while beside a pond to nibble at a Clif bar and watch puffs of dense mist being blown across the surface of the water. It wasn’t a Zen moment. The rain didn’t come down like a blessing, didn't wash away my cares and leave me reborn. My father was still deadly ill, I still needed a better job, on and on; all the stressors were still stubbornly tangible. But for the moment, they were surrounded by damp forest smells and total isolation and flowy, earthy trails, and new-found agency pulsing through me with each heartbeat. The mean and the grand, the fun and the dreadful; in the wet woods, there was room for everything to rest side by side in a grudging truce, which might last only until I pulled, soaking wet, into my garage, but it was enough. There was a balance. My sixes were sevened, and my sevens sixed.
I wiped the rain-sweat from my face and time-trialed home.