Back on the bike for a big day of riding today, the first in too long a time, under a sky so blue it hurt to look at it. This was the kind of sunny, windy April day that has you taking your fleece jacket off, then putting it on again, over and over. On old Betsy, the 1995 Giant Iguana mountain bike, I headed out a favorite fitness-testing route, a varied but really pretty easy 13 miles: if I can make it all the way up the big undulating hill where the muddy horse pasture is now growing back in dandelions (past the wild asparagus patch in the ditch on the left and the cornfield on the right out of which once trotted a red fox, right across my path) without stopping or breathing too hard, I am not irreparably slothful and out of it. Not yet.
On up the hill and onto the rising and falling gravel hills, past the grove of aspens and down the long hill where the wild red and yellow columbines spring out of the rock every summer. Across the wooden bridge with its wide nails polished to a dull gleam by years and years of tires, where I saw a wood-duck family on my first ride and once dropped a helmet in the creek and waded in to get it (the man riding with me stood on the bridge and laughed, then came down the bank and waded in too), where water grasses stream like hair in the rain-fed current. Sometimes there are eagles; today there are deer, blown like moving darker shadows across the lighter-shadowed ripple of hill in its thickening veil of green. A gurgle of runoff water cuts its own path through the grass.
Turn right onto pavement again, hit gears and pedals to speed up just a bit past the old fat Labrador who wheezes out a bark as I pass (although he’s settled more and more deeply in his spot by the house door with every season), and suddenly there’s a clonk and a whapwhapwhap and I look down and see no chain. Stop the bike and push it across the road to safety and look back: there’s my broken chain, curled like a road-killed snake on the shoulder. The link is snapped, the ends bent straight out. Almost seven miles from my house. Could be worse. But I can’t get back on this bike anytime real soon.
So I call a friend with a car on my old cheapskate Tracfone (how closely I came to forgetting it, today!) and start walking. Very quickly I realize it might not be the worst thing if I did walk all the way back to town. I’m enjoying the sudden rustle of grass snake in the ditch, the midafternoon churr of frogs in the river bottoms to my left before the thick glossy braid of current itself appears, bowing closer and then farther away, the little striped chipmunks and the tiny white flowers under the trees. Asphalt under my feet. I’ve never walked this place in this road before, ever. Maybe no one has. Biking immerses you in the world; that’s one of the reasons I love it. But I see even more this way. Briefly I flash on the book I was obsessed with as a fifth-grader, “A Walk Across America,” describing just what it says: a couple camps and hikes, hikes and camps, until they finally set foot in the Pacific Ocean. Imagine what it would be like to do that. To experience that kind of magnified, slowed-down time, and world. Suddenly, a flash of longing. It doesn’t seem so impossible. I’ve just read and loved Cheryl Strayed’s WILD. Surely I could do that too. Starting this afternoon.
In the ditch, three feet from each other, are a flattened cardboard 24-pack of Natural Light Ice and a wrapper for one of those giant multipacks of full-sized Baby Ruth candy bars. Must have been some serious indigestion for somebody the next morning. I remember afternoons of picking up trash from our farm’s roadside frontage in Alabama: when the convenience store a little ways up the road was still open, you could gauge the hunger or thirst of the drivers by how thickly the trash lay in our grass, how quickly people had walked to their trucks already eating, had gobbled or swigged the last slurp or bite and tossed the bottle or wrapper away. Just get it out of here. Won’t it, like, rot away or something, anyway?
About this time I realize that of the slight but steady stream of what as a cyclist who sees a lot of them I can only call fatass American cars (it’s true, seen at eye level by cyclists, American cars DO have fat asses) and trucks that are passing me, no one is making eye contact with me. No one is even slowing down. Of course, I understand the hitchhiker fear that might make you avoid a six-foot-tall woman pushing a bike in her right hand and swinging a broken chain in her left. But all but two of these drivers are women, too. I am obviously on foot, obviously with a disabled bike. Maybe they assume I have a cell phone and have called for help, which of course I have. But they cannot know that. I am struck with a sudden, chilly conviction, somewhere below the level of words: behind the wheels of their cars, these people don’t see me at all. Just as they don’t see those wrappers or those cigarette butts the second their hands have retreated back through the window and the window’s rolled up and they’re speeding on. It’s more than fear. It’s blindness. And they don’t even really see that blindness exists. Silly, I say to myself. But the feeling persists.
I remember waking up this morning, after a great past few days of time with friends and fellow writers, with the resolve to keep bending closer toward the middle of the circle of my life as it turns and turns, to keep it leaning closer to biking and writing and all other good things. And keep my eyes open, keep myself honest. I have let my health slide too low on the list of things to be done. A second novel is starting to stir and peep inside me like the birds in their little nests all over spring backyards everywhere – I am listening. Not to scare it away. But to listen. And if I stay close – walk rather than speed through my own life, show up and pay attention – I can be active in every moment, shaping, being grateful for the osprey poised above a stream (almost invisible in the growing rain, clicking against my bike helmet), for the tiny poppy seedlings, a gift from a friend, coming up now in my own black dirt. The way light through old window glass runs like water across a written page.
A couple of weeks ago, hustling out to the compost pile with a load of citrus scraps (the worms don’t like them) before another evening of Work, Etc., I almost stepped on a tiny white wild-bird’s eggshell in the grass, only twenty feet from my back door. Two-thirds whole, it’s still delicately veined on the inside from where it was connected to the life it had held. Where that nest of baby birds is, I don’t know. It’s not the finch nest currently under construction in my honeysuckle, just outside the kitchen window; maybe it’s in the big fir trees next door. But it’s not the first little shell like this I’ve found, dropped mysteriously in the center of the lawn. How has it come to me? How has whatever dropped it there known what I needed to be reminded of? I don’t know. But it has. And I am grateful.