When my bag of jelly beans drops onto the pavement of Dogwood Lane, I almost don’t turn around. We have just a while ago come off Coon Hollow, which is a road we would ride for the name alone but as a bonus happens to be smooth dirt packed as hard as any pavement, with such little canopy that the country sky sometimes curves blue and near-feeling from one of earth’s edges to the other, and with a ramshackle mansion of a barn that provokes sadness and wonder each time I pass—though I have been doing so for more than a decade.
Dogwood becomes one of those climbs that at first is barely so then can take your knees off here and there over a couple miles. But that is only after you disappear into its deep shadowed woods. Its bright opening slope sustains the reverie Coon Hollow began, with sunny farmed fields to either side, and split-rail fences gone gray from weather and time, and a rural community ballpark where a great home-run ball could be lost forever in the soy. This is where I am when my jelly beans fall.
I have been dawdling, letting the group get a little ahead of me so I can chase, so I can romp into then among them up where the road is just as beautiful but in a wholly different manner. The lane will narrow and curve as it climbs for real, and shadows stippling the pavement shift under your wheels when a wind riffles the leaves overhead. Go hard in some stretches and off to the side at eye level you will see the tops of trees that cast you in those shadows just a few moments earlier. Once, a few years ago, I stayed out of the saddle the whole way up, insensate to the outer world at the top but pulsing inside from all I’d felt during the ascension. Another ride, after the crest I limped all the way to the general store at Wassergas without waiting for anyone, and already had an icy Coke bought and open and missing a few sips as the last of us had straggled in, and it was their exhaustion rather than the sugar that put a sweetness into my own fatigue that made it bearable. This year, though, I am slower. I will need the impetus of catching then being in the group to go fast—I know this about myself—and if I turn around for my jelly beans, the gap will grow so much I might never catch anyone.
I have been thinking about my jelly beans for an hour, though. And this road is all around me and the day is one of those when we are the only cyclists who know just how this feels, who ever have, and all over the world, we know, other riders ache to feel the way we do but cannot and never have. Only we have this ride, only now.
Though there will be no traffic, I look over my left shoulder. At the same time, I intuit my bike toward the right so that when I pitch it over with my hips I will have the entire width of the road, from right edge to left, to complete an arc that will require neither slowing nor pedaling. These actions are all something deeper, after so many seasons gone by on a bike, than habit. But today as I am turning around like this I am aware of the absolute and simple grace of turning around like this, of the purity of it, and it feels part of what makes this day this day, as if one of the high-soaring hawks might look down and witness my turn and mark it if at all only as something as natural as the running water in the creek.
I brake and unclip a foot and reach down and snick the bag of jelly beans with one hand. Before that hand even reaches the handlebar I have kicked off against the road with my free foot while at the same time pushing down on the pedal with my other and am in motion. I initiate a turn as I am clicking fully in and also as I palm the top of the bar with both hands, the jelly-bean bag pinched between the fingers of one. And still as I am turning, I also lift my hand and with my teeth grasp the perforated strip I had partly ripped free before I dropped the bag. I see my friends now staggered ahead of me and already above me, the ones highest and farthest away bending into the slope, and those in the middle assuming postures of ease or contortion and many degrees between depending on their ambition or desperation, and at the back two of them are sitting upright and having a chat. The bag opens and the smell of jelly beans whelms my nose.
It is a smell to lose yourself in, and for an instant I do, but I am a cyclist, after all, so even in such a sensory conflagration I automatically reach back and tuck the loose strip of the bag into a jersey pocket. In this same manner of instinctual ministration, my brain has already assessed who I might be able to catch and how far into the pack I might climb if I have a go, if I toss the whole bag into my mouth at once and hope not to throw up and attack with everything I possess and am. I have all the time I’d need to pull off such a caper. But if I keep riding along like this, on this road on this day, I’ll have all the time in the world, and I decide right then to take every bit of it.
XIX Besotted XXI Remember the Time
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, June 2013