My right leg is a mess. Shin scraped raw. Knee swollen purple and scabby.
My instinct is to hide the mess. It’s what I do with all the messes in my life. Throw a cloth over it and call it good. But we’re in the grip of a fierce Indian summer; there’s no hiding the legs in shorts and skirt weather. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been showing off my wounds.
I earned these abrasions on an amazing ride. Geographically, it was seven difficult miles. Metaphorically, it was a personal journey of a million light years.
Yeah, I’m still the same old me on the outside, prone to injury and scar-covered to prove it. But under those scabs are the seeds of enlightenment. Seeds so small you’d need a microscope. Nonetheless, they’re there.
This pain is the fruit of a standing date I have with a good friend. We meet on Tuesdays. We do something outside: walk, ride bikes, ice skate. Whatever. I suggested bike riding on this last Tuesday. She named a park — one I’d never visited before — and I agreed. Little did I know what sort of trails awaited at this park.
Within moments of entering the densely wooded single-track, I encountered sandy hills, hairpin turns, exposed tree roots, low-hanging branches, large rocks, wooden bridges spanning water and mud, and gravel, lots of gravel. The first five minutes nearly killed me. I was in the wrong gear and couldn’t gain enough speed to shift. Eventually I got off the bike and began pushing it. Then I stopped.
As I scanned the dense woods for a sign of my friend, I thought about my yard sale hybrid bike, which has never felt sturdy in the grip of my hands. I thought about the bike shop guy (who calls me “ma’am”) telling me to keep this bike off trails with bumps and holes. I thought about how little I knew about real mountain biking and how the last time I really rode like this I was a child, testing my mettle at a customized bike lot in my Detroit neighborhood. I remember the humiliating trek home, dragging my little blue bike in three pieces after it broke apart going over a gnarled tree root. I remember the punishment that followed the discovery of the bike in ruins. My head buzzed like a jar of angry bees.
I was slipping into a hole of despair, one I’d been working on all my life, digging with a small spoon. I lost track of time and place. My friend, no doubt blissfully navigating the bends and twists far ahead, was out of sight. It was just me, the woods, and my mind.
My fucking mind.
It’s killing me.
You can’t do this, said the mean girl in my head. You are a lazy, gutless poser. I felt tears building in the corners of each eye. I felt the smack of shame on each cheek. The logical, bespectacled part of my brain piped in: Excuse me, but this is a one-way, narrow, seven-mile trail, it said. You’d best stop this nonsense and get moving. Another part, probably the loving, grandmotherly part of my brain, nudged its way to the front: Hey, hey! it shouted in a motivational way. Look around you, embrace this gift of a day, go find your friend, you have two legs that work and a healthy heart and lungs. So maybe you aren’t rippling with muscle tone. So what? So what if you are behind? So what if those guys on their fancy bikes with their fancy gear sneered a little as they passed you on the trail? So what if your daddy hated you so much he gave you a junkyard bike? All of these things are excuses for quitting. You are not a quitter or have you forgotten?
Shameless whiner? Yes. Quitter? No. I clamped an open palm on the yapping mouths chattering in my head, jumped on the bike and tried to distance myself from his awful thing that had me in its grip. Something happened. I lost awareness of my feet, pedaling and pumping until my quads erupted in flames. But even that pain felt distant. I lost focus of my hands, which somehow steered the bike around hazards and shifted for the trail ahead. For a few beautiful minutes, I was a multi-colored spirit gliding through shapes, shadows and dimensions.
Then I crashed. Hard. Both front and back reflectors snapped off my bike. My water bottle toppled into the underbrush. As I lay in the pebbled dirt, panting, feeling the sweat drip from under my helmet, I felt the abdominal contractions of a laugh. I lifted the bike, stood, inspected it for the expected (but nonexistent) damages, looked at my shredded leggings and at the dots of blood oozing from open skin. My eyes leaked. My nose ran. My body rippled with joyous laughter.
My friend found me. Are you OK? she asked. Never better, I said, alternately laughing and panting, swiping my runny nose on my sleeve as I gathered the scattered plastic and brushed bits of rock and dirt out of my open wounds.
My friend offered to trade bikes. Even in the swap she disappeared quickly on the trail as I wobbled around the curves. That’s when I missed a tree and ran into myself. Clarity flowed into that jar in my head, displacing the buzzing bees.
It’s not the bike. It’s not the trail. It’s not my shitty childhood.
It is me.
As if life itself grabbed me by the collar and pushed me face-first toward a pool of still water, forcing me to look into the mirror of my truth, I choked on the clarity. I carry a backpack stuffed with convenient excuses for every obstacle. Every bike I ride has a flaw. Every trail is designed with failure in mind. Facing the mirror of truth, I instinctively look away. Instead, I search for the familiar, distorted sketches in my mind. The box is empty.
What if I dropped the load? What if I let go of myself long enough to ride the current? What if every day could be as exhilarating as this one?
Since that ride, I attempted another trail with little success. My still-throbbing knee sent a message to my brain that said: Soon, but not today. This week, I bought a better bike.
My leg is healing. My head is somewhat clearer. What will the next ride deliver?