The road is not an allegory. It is Vera Cruz Road, and it is right here under my wheels. It starts rising almost dead north to south from the only four-way stop in the little town it is named after, from an elevation of 556 feet at the smoke-smelling fieldstone establishment that a few years ago had to paint over a boast on the wall about being “probably the oldest tavern in the Lehigh Valley.” It climbs, this road, until it clears the Pennsylvania Turnpike then dips for a distance just slightly too long to make a full coast feel right before it rises to its peak of 773 feet, all in just a little more than a mile. It passes by on the east a farm where you can purchase brown eggs anytime or vegetables in season by putting a few dollars in an honor box, either this ride or the next time you come by if you happen to be tapped out, and it passes a church with a pastor confident enough or lazy enough to allow vines to maraud the walls every few springs, also on the east, and on the west, by the turnpike, it passes a dismal home where for years and years when the siding and windows were bright, and the grass as well, two German shepherds used to bound out and bark with happy menace at anyone who ever rode by. It has its ups and downs, this road, and its mysteries, and challenges and rewards, and a past that is in ways as unknowable as the future, just as my life has, but it is not like my life.
It is my life—or, at least, some part of my life so entwined with who I am that it can no longer be separated if it ever could: this road, and all the others, and everything that happens when I ride them.
Off Vera Cruz and through Powder Valley then past whatever the cleft beyond that is called, I take a turn new to me and ride into a hollow where the land lies in great greening billows to either side, and the yellow of the sun as it falls in widening beams seems distinct against the blue of the open sky. Up ahead on a beaten bridge connecting a gravel lane to the pavement stands a farmer in once-black wellies and overalls faded as natural a blue as the sky. A dusty school bus that has all this time been rumbling out of the far distance in the opposite lane brakes in front of him, flings out its protective arm and flicks on its red lights then retracts all the actions almost before a girl steps out, the whole procedure so perfunctory I know this road must be empty every afternoon and would be today except for me. The girl goes to the father and stops, and the bus has pulled away already and passes me, and as I ride by, the father puts his arm over his daughter’s shoulders and leans in and touches his forehead to the side of her head, and they say something to each other, shift around, and start walking the lane to their home. His arm is still across her shoulders as they walk, then he reaches and takes her backpack off her and transfers it to his other hand and drapes his arm back over her, and they amble off crunching gravel, and something high and deep in my chest moves, swells, pulses, settles.
In a few miles, I turn in a direction that I think will be toward home, and after a while I pass a tiny shop and see a sidewalk vending box for a newspaper I don’t know. This has not happened to me for a long time.
When I am not riding much I get fatter or, at a minimum, slacker, and my belly button fills with lint in a way it does not when the road leans me out. When I’m riding a lot, I get a callus on the top of each of my hands, in the web of skin between forefinger and thumb, a little hard button where my hands rest against the hoods for so many hours. I used to think the callus meant I was more of a cyclist and the lint less, but any such effort to quantify the extent to which I am a cyclist is meaningless. We are or we are not. We miss those damn sheps. We are put to an awe of what it is to be human, by a father and a daughter walking a gravel lane. We pedal to places we do not know and to which we will never return. We find our way home. For some of us on such rides, it all becomes us. And once it does, that is that.
After awhile, I see a ridge I recognize so I ride toward it, then I climb it. For 5 miles I snake my way up the mountain, rising and falling but mostly rising until I am at one of the local descents I most love. Just before the drop, at the worst trailer of a four-trailer blight, an old man with no shirt and a charred-looking and loose and twisted belly that once must have been obese is spreading a steaming, shoulder-high pile of stinking manure with a rake over a yard that is most of all bare dirt. He looks at me the way people look at cyclists at the top of big hills. I don’t want to, but I’m pretty sure I look at him the way most people have looked at him for some long part of his life now.
The whole descent, I wish I could turn around and ride back up until I saw him and tell him I could no more do what he was doing than he could get up Long Lane in the 17. The climbing, I could accomplish. I am a cyclist. The telling, it is, I think, beyond me.
XXI Remember the Time
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, August 2013