Someone asked me how I thought our lives would be different if we had been on another Bike & Build route.
It is weird seeing pictures of friends back home doing normal people things- cookouts, music shows, snaps of their random, day-to-day habits. But even stranger is seeing pictures from other Bike & Build trips doing exciting activities, or maybe even the same activities, and feeling a divide. They do not carry the weight of loss like we do. I say this not in resentment but rather in acknowledgement, because for some reason I don’t wish to be anyone different than the person who is here- with this team, learning to overcome.
Tragedy is like poetry- everything pauses to breathe and the specifics, the still, quiet notes, become clear and rhythmic. Like a beat we remember- the single muddy puddle with twenty frogs off the side of Route 66, the feeling like we traveled back in time, so much so that a passing Fed Ex truck is startlingly out of place, the way the back of your left leg taps your bike lock, coiled beneath your seat, with every down pedal stroke.
Everything now has been divided into before and after.
How do we resume our trip? Even though we put on a brave face, we are all a little scared. I don’t know how many of us are actually afraid of being hit, so much as afraid to acknowledge the hurt, to feel the vacancy.
We are more than mourning a single moment in time. This is now the lense through which we experience our world.
Our first bike ride was into the Vally of Fires in Socorro, New Mexico. There was something epic and necessary for the return to be through this desert stone. The black rock of a long dormant volcano is beautiful in it’s scarcity.
The preceding night, beneath the naked Milky Way in a humble church, we went around the table to tell the host about what we had learned on the trip. It was the first time we presented since the accident. Everyone chose their words very carefully, as if trying to tell each other and ourselves our gathered wisdoms more than the host. I realized that this ritual would never be the same to us.
“You can choose your family,” Abby said looking across the table, past the little yellow church, over the empty thin streets.
I have been thinking a lot about spirituality. I didn’t grow up with a strong religious upbringing or education. In fact, I had a pretty confusing spiritual background, having briefly attended a Catholic school, while simultaneously attending the Jewish community center for after school programs. Staying in churches for seven weeks prickled my curiosity, but in lieu of recent events, the theme has become a constant itch, a blossomed contemplation.
That day of the accident was like a chess game, every detail leading to a factor. What if we had left earlier, or later? What if Brenna’s ride group was not at the restaraunt when the man came in who heard the news? What if Roger and Cathy had not been behind the driver that hit our friends- would Bridget have made it? How would we be if the accident had happened three weeks earlier- would we resume?
The climb into Pietown, New Mexico just had that feeling of… connectedness. It could not have come sooner and could not have come later. Timing this trip has a consistent sense of irony. The cliffs were sharp, red, plateoing. Some distant mountains almost looked like clouds. Climate literally changed beneath our tires. We biked through miles of yellow daisy feilds. We watched six enormous satellites approach, and as we passed they turned to face us. We later learned their purpose was to find life on other planets.
As the air cooled, the vegetation grew, and we closed the distance between us and the sky, we crossed the continental divide. Elk crossing signs punctuated the curving, climbing road. The rivers changed directions, and in many ways, so did we.
The red barked trees lining the way are called the Ponderosa Pines. Andy says they smell like vanilla. Their trunks are fat, tall, strong and red. Their presence is a shock and comfort after biking through the Valley of Fires. Just the pine smell reminds me of home, and some how their strength makes me feel brave to face the climb.
Strong. I have been thinking about the word “strong.” It has been tossed around a lot through recent events, a word I fumbled with myself when lending a shoulder to friends. Lately I don’t feel strong. How does existing through this make you strong? I feel more like a passenger in the back seat of a bus, or like a log carried by the floods we experienced in Missouri. This is just how it is, and here I am.
They call Pietown the land of entrapment, but Nita, our bubbling host, insisted it is the land of enchantment. We were welcomed with pie and brought to the toaster house.
Nita bought the house after being bewitched by Pietown. One day a hiker came by asking for water and she discovered her home was on the path of the continental divide. From thst day on she became a hostel and a celebrated stop for those passing through the little town. Over two hundred travelers walking or biking across the country have come together at the toaster house this season alone
. The fence that borders the remarkable place is littered with toasters. At a strange moment the foreign site triggered a memory.
My father has been gone a long time now. But when I look back on him, I see him in the garage. His work table is messy with screw drivers, saws, scattered nails, but most noticeably covered in broken toasters. It was something that drove my mom crazy, and later in life, when she was especially cross with me, she would say “just like your father- you can never follow through.” I didn’t see it that way though; to me, the determination to fix a thing, and the loyalty to the object was charming.
Nita explained that her toaster broke one day, and, not wanting to throw it out, she stuck it on the fence. From there on out, people started giving her their own toasters, some even mailing them. She said she didn’t know where half of them came from- they just showed up. It felt like a sign, too much a reflection of a memory she knew nothing of.
Nita raised her family in the little home. She said “I didn’t teach my children not to speak to strangers. You can find a friend in everyone- sometimes you are glad to see them go, but you are still able to take away a lesson.”
Pietown, despite it’s small size and remote area, actually reminded us of the vastness of the world but the scope to which we can effect people. The interconnectedness of lives sometimes feels too perfect to be random.
Emotions are as thin as wax paper. Our first town hall meeting was tough. The circle we sat in was noticeably smaller. Usually we talk about our highs and lows for the week; we chose to leave out our lows since the low was obvious. Then we move on to what you are grateful for and I just felt like I had so much to say. I thanked Ben for sitting with me while I cried on the stoop, and Andy for his patience when I wanted to give up biking. I wanted to say more, perhaps I wanted to spend the whole evening thanking people, thanking Abby for collecting my emotions, to Jamie for being a rock, to Claire for flying out to support us. It was as if I had only that moment to thank everyone and suddenly I had so much to say. The sensation was overwhelming, choking.
In reflection I realize that I was responding to my regret for not expressing my gratitude to Patrick- for every day he worked to lead us, went out of his way to teach me a lesson, or even just for his way of being completely and honestly himself. More than that, I regret that I did not feel more appreciation for the “pre-accident” days, when my lessons were simpler ones to conquer.
The funny (not haha funny) thing is that we all came on this trip to overcome something, or, some would argue, to run from something. Yes, we care about the affordable housing cause, but we could have confronted it countless other ways. There was something in each of ourselves that we sought to better. The sadness of this trip is just a larger challenge to overcome.
Our hearts are all letters
Our wisdoms a song
Our feet are on a train