How Biking Opened My Heart


[T]he world will come at you with knives anyway. You do not need to beat them to it. – Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

I became a bike commuter in 2008, when I moved to a place where the roads were wide and shouldered. It felt like I could see forever, because the horizon met cornfields, and because the hills were long and gentle. Before that, when I biked, I worried about being flattened by a semi, or pushed off the road by a driver who didn’t know how to share the streets, or hit by someone who came around a bend and never had time to stop.

In choosing to move through the world primarily by bike, I put myself back in contact with the world in a way I’d never really been. That first year, the land was plagued. There was the plague of locusts so dense that I watched foliage disappear before my eyes. That was followed by a plague of frogs; so many that when I biked, I most definitely ran over some and when I walked my dog, they leapt a path in front of us. In the spring, it rained and millions of earthworms came up to die. And after that thousands upon thousands of baby spiders kited, and after that there were soybean aphids so thick that in areas they looked like pale green balloons.

A part of me wondered what corner of hell I’d moved to.

Another part of me marveled. There was so much fecundity. There were such extremes.

In the three years I lived in that state, I biked thousands of miles. I biked so many of them around an old quarry turned lake. I biked to nearby towns, and marked my progress by water towers and silos. I wandered through an old one-room school house and into antique stores and lay on town squares. I watched pheasants fly from dried fields and moved hatchling turtles from the middle of roads. I learned to watch for the horizon being too blue, which was the promise of a thunderstorm, and in the long shadows of dawn or dusk, thought about Children of the Corn.

When I moved there, I was in the habit of building walls. I prickled and bristled and didn’t want to trust anyone. Biking was part of this. It was a way to set myself apart, but also away to depart. Over the three years I lived there, various people disarmed me with their laughter and kindness, with their compassion and curiosity, with their quiet explorations of the world and themselves.

That was the first place that felt like home.

When I moved, I didn’t move to the city that would have been an easy choice, a city that held people I loved. I moved to a smaller town, halfway across the country where I knew no one. I moved there because I knew moving to that city with people I loved was the wrong choice.

The small town was in a mountain valley, west of the Sierra Nevadas, whose peaks still had snow on them in August. The town smelled of blackberry and sage and in the first months I was there, I don’t think it ever rained, or even got especially cloudy. I biked to work, to the grocery store, to the larger town to the north, past llamas and herds of goats. I biked through pear orchards and vineyards and past this one falling down house with a Home Comfort oven and a claw foot bathtub.

The world felt so proximate.

The town was a gentle place to live, and so was most of my time there, though of course not all of it. That’s not how life works, and for a while after the rough time, I felt like a fool for letting my walls down. I told myself that if only I’d stayed more alert, things would have worked out differently. And very probably, they would have.

But if those walls had stayed up, there are so many other things I’d have missed out on.

I left that town for another place, and left that place for another one, and then I started to wonder if I know how to belong to anywhere. I’ve lived in my current place for almost three years. I’ve watched the river I bike along swell because of floods, and dry to little more than an algae-slick trickle. I’ve seen the banks of the river calving and watched snow advance and retreat on the mountains that make up the horizon. I’ve learned the names of some of the wildflowers and that no matter how promising spring seems in March, I shouldn’t plant my garden until after Mother’s Day. I’ve started to build community here.

Sometimes I wonder if these things are part of what it means to belong to a place.

I wonder what it means to stay still for a while.

There’s so much of my adult life that has been marked by being on a bike, by watching the miles slip by as I pedal along. There are times when being able to get on my bike and ride is what kept me alive. In those miles, I rode past an abandoned horse stable that seemed like the perfect setting for a ghost story and along bike paths chorused by coyotes. In those miles, I’ve biked with bruises. I’ve biked in winter and let tears freeze to my face. I’ve biked to get lost. I’ve biked along a Bear Creek in two different states, and along the Skunk, the Missouri, the Klamath, the Snake, the Platte.All rivers eventually run to the ocean.

In those times, I’ve found solace in the way my body hurts if I ride long enough. In watching the way the light changes, the way the shadows lengthen or grow short. In seeing a sunrise or a sunset or biking through the snow. These things force me to be present.

Of course, there have also been so many good times on my bike. There have been so many opportunities bike somewhere or nowhere and connect with myself again in some positive way, to connect with the world.

It’s in these moments that I remember that our world is finite. That we are finite. That each of us has only so many days. That there are only so many sunrises and sunsets. There are only so many more rainy days, which means only so many more times of smelling petrichor. There are an unknown, limited number of times we’ll hear a red-tail call (and maybe we’ve already heard it for the last time). There are an unknown, limited number of times we’ll see a meteor flash across the sky, so why not make a wish?There are only so many more times we’ll walk past roses, and so why not always stop to smell them? There are only so many more times we’ll see a dandelion pushing its way through the sidewalk, so why not marvel at this small act of resistance and resilience?

There is this breath.

There are only so many more chances to tell someone we care about that we care about them.

And here’s the thing: the world comes at each of us with knives. We all carry the scars. We are all wounded. We do the work to move past our bullshit, or not. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.

But if we want to better this world, then we must do this work. We must practice kindness and gratitude, and extend this to people who seem most in need of kindness and gratitude. We must see the value in our fellow humans, and in the rest of the planet. We need to curb our fears, of say, gorillas. We should talk to our neighbors. We must make choices that are gentle, especially with ourselves. We cannot expect to be truly gentle with others if we are not gentle with ourselves. Sometimes this is a hard thing to remember.

But.

We can make choices that open us more to the world.

For me, this is, in part biking. Being a cyclist didn’t just keep me alive in one of my once upon a times. It reminds me, all the time, of the humanity I share with other people, because I am not shutting myself away from others by sitting in a box on wheels. I am seeing people. I am making a choice about interacting with them, or not.

It is a way to to center myself in myself. It is a way to open my heart outward again.

And it reminds me to actually experience the world — whether it’s sun or the smell of wild roses, or the sharp bite of winter winds, or the way different types of rain feel on my skin.

Yet, I might not know how to belong to a place, how to be still, how to call a place home.

Maybe home is made-up.

Maybe this is why so many of us are so sad, or if not sad, then lonely, and if not lonely, then restless: we are seeking a myth.

And maybe that’s okay.

Because the thing is, we can still be humble, live gentle lives, and hold in our hearts the stuff of legends.

We are always telling our own story, in which we are the protagonist, and so often, also and simultaneously the antagonist.

We are all made of water and stardust.

There is magic to be found in this, if we let ourselves.

When I am here, I miss large lakes and broad slow rivers. I miss the sound of waves on a rocky shore, the gentle sway of green anemones in tide pools, the sleeking of a small eel among the eel grass, the skitter of crabs across rocks. I miss fog and drizzle.

This is why I bike along the river whenever I can. To be near the water. To be centered. To remind myself not to stagnate.

This is why I wonder if it matters how many roots I put down here, if my heart will always long for some place else.

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