I am forty-four years old, and I have just purchased my first mountain bike — a black and white Fire Mountain Kona with front Rock Shoks and disc brakes. It is the single most expensive thing I have ever bought on my own, unless you count the purebred puppy I got a few years back.
“Have you heard about Mom’s new mountain bike?” my college age son texted his sister when he heard the news. “She is soon going to out-badass us.”
“She’s been out-badassing us since the 80’s,” my daughter told him.
It is hard to say why I chose this point in my life, a life otherwise unmarred by broken bones or slipped discs or head injuries, a life spent strolling along paved roads or jogging down well-maintained trails, to go careening down Appalachian mountainsides over limbs and rocks, through branches and thickets and around hair-pin turns. For most of my life, I have been a cautious person, a trait I picked up from my father.
When I was a kid, the very thought of a lit match or a sharp object or anything that could induce choking, say a Fireball or a peppermint, would send my dad into First Responder Mode. I would pop a peppermint into my mouth and sputter slightly, and my dad would catapult across the room.
“Can you breathe? Can you breathe?” he would ask, shaking my shoulders.
And as much as my father loved the outdoors, he taught my brother and me a healthy respect for the dangers of the wilderness.
“Get your hands out of your pockets!” he would holler when we were out hiking. “You might trip over a root and not be able to catch yourself.”
So with that sort of upbringing I never really expected to be in the market for a mountain bike. Perhaps my new obsession was due to the fact that my doctor kept me jacked up on a steady supply of testosterone cream. Or perhaps it was because my knees and ankles were rickety from years of walking and running.
“Of course, you have knee trouble,” my twenty-three-year-old daughter said to me. “You have been exercising regularly for years.”
Years. Eons. Like since silent movies and penny candy and ten cent Cokes. Actually, I believe the real reason I thought I could do a sport best suited for college kids was that I had been taking spin at the Y, and if you have ever done spin, then you know exactly what I mean when I say that doing spin makes you believe you can do anything. It’s like cocaine. One line, and you are Lance Armstrong.
Gabrielle had just graduated from college the previous spring. She had arrived home the day after graduation, on Mother’s Day, fresh with what we would come to call a “break-up piercing” in her nose, her hair loose and tangled, her eyes almost swollen shut. She handed me a creamy vase she had bought from one of her friends, a ceramics major.
“Happy Mothers’ Day,” she said. And then, “This is the worst thing that has happened to me since Papaw died.”
“Graduating?” I said. “Graduating is the second worse thing that has ever happened to you?”
“Yes,” she said, starting to cry.
“Jesus,” I said.
My daughter was living at home, working part-time for the Y, trying to figure out what to do next. I was an adjunct English instructor, and I was off for a few months, waiting for the next batch of college freshman to come in. Gabrielle and I had tons of free time, and for months, we did everything together. We had coffee with raw cream and Greek key lime yogurt for breakfast each morning. We walked our dogs in the forest, sometimes twice a day. We watched the entire Casey Anthony trial. We ate sushi. We did yoga. We went to art galleries and to a coon dog festival. And we went to the Y.
“Come on,” she said one afternoon. “Why don’t you just try spin? We can do that Italy class. It’ll be fun!”
While I knew that “fun” was relative, it was January by then, and I was willing to do most anything to fight off the sense of desolation that settled over my entire being each winter, and so I agreed. The Italy class was a virtual ride, where the instructor projected images of the Italian Alps on the wall and played music designed to sync with the course; it was scheduled to begin at dusk to minimize the sun’s interference with the video.
Gabrielle and I got there early and threw our sweat towels over two bikes on the front row. I was on the end, next to a row of windows overlooking the upscale shopping area outside. In front of us was a blank wall. By the time the class started, the room was packed. The instructor turned off the lights, and an image appeared on the wall in front of us — two cyclists cruising through a village.
“Prepare your body!” Henry called. We began pedaling.
Henry was in his mid-thirties, with massive calves and biceps and a relentless sense of optimism. We meandered gently behind the two projected cyclists past a river and a rock wall. Then the two lead cyclists on the screen started climbing, and, per Henry’s instructions, we turned our bikes up a half turn, to add resistance. Then another half turn. Then another. We twisted up the mountainside while the Jive Ass Sleepers played “Getting’ Down to Business.” Every few minutes, Henry hopped off his bike and circled the room.
“Are you doin’ okay? You doin’ okay?” he asked each rider.
“Sure,” I said when he got to me. “Just a little dizzy sometimes.”
“Good,” he said, patting my hand.
And then it was time to sprint. The lead cyclists took off down the mountainside, and I had to look down to keep from falling off my bike.
“Push your body! Push your body!” Henry screamed.
We cranked our bikes up as far as they would go and pulled ahead in front of the virtual cyclists, their bikes a blur on the right of the screen as we took the lead.
“Whoa!” a guy behind me yelled.
The room was steamy. Sweat rolled into my eyes and ears. As I toweled off my face, Henry turned on the overhead fans, and Vivaldi came over the speakers. A few minutes later, the virtual riders passed us again.
“Oh!” the guy behind me screamed. “We got dropped!”
“This is it! Give it all you got! Let it go! Just let it go!” Henry screamed.
I looked over at Gabrielle. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore bike shorts and my old work-out top. Sweat was pouring down her arms and legs, and her face was a color somewhere between rhubarb and eggplant. We pedaled furiously past the virtual onlookers and headed toward the virtual finish line, and at the end, we threw our arms up in the air.
“Great ride!” Henry said. “Give your neighbor a fist pop.”
Behind me, a row of grown men extended their fists and knocked them together. I fist popped my daughter on one side, the air on the other side. We had done it. I was exhilarated, intoxicated, nauseated.
After that one night, we were addicted, and my daughter and I went to spin class two or three times a week. After class, we often went next door to the Mosaic CafÃ© for turkey and smoked gouda paninis or to the River District for fried shrimp tacos with ginger sauce. But one day, after a particularly rigorous workout, we showered, then headed straight for the lunch buffet at Mela, the Indian place downtown that offered two kinds of soup, two kinds of rice, four entrees, Naan and Papdum, and two desserts. We shoved down paneer and chicken korma and curried lentils until we were dizzy. And then we washed it all down with two tall glasses of ginger tea with honey.
It was anesthetizing and energizing all at the same time, the sweat and the curry and the music and the spinning and the fist popping, and even though I knew it was only temporary, there were times when I believed it would last forever, that my daughter and I would just continue hanging out together, playing with our dogs, working out, sipping Trader Joe’s fair trade coffee and eating Indian food. And then Gabrielle got accepted to grad school. In March, after being home for almost a year, she moved to Chicago to begin classes at a school I had never even seen in a city I had never even visited.
Early on a rainy, foggy morning, I drove her to the Asheville airport and hugged her goodbye. She was wearing jeans and Frey boots and a North Face jacket, and her hair was in loose curls around her face. As soon as it was time for her to go through security, she started to cry.
“You’re going to love it,” I whispered into her hair as I hugged her.
She nodded, and I kissed her wet cheek.
“Go on,” she said, waving me away. “Go ahead and leave.”
Almost five years before, I had dropped off my daughter at a small Quaker college in North Carolina. After I told her goodbye, I made it exactly one mile, to the interstate, and then began sobbing. I cried the entire three hours home, and no one else in the car–neither my husband nor my two sons–said a word the entire way. When we got home, I stood in my daughter’s empty room and cried. My older son, then a ninth grader, heard and came to hug me.
“I feel like she’s dead!” I cried into his shoulder.
“Well, Mom, she’s not dead,” he said, patting my shoulder and wiping his own shoulder.
“I would never have had children if I had known you were going to have to leave!” I said.
“Mom,” my son said.
Now, instead of leaving an eighteen-year-old kid, I was leaving a grown woman, a capable woman. Still, it wasn’t much easier. In the parking lot, I cried so hard that the attendant at the gate just stared at the dollar bill in my outstretched hand. Finally, he took the money and raised the gate, and I went home to pick up twenty packages of clothes to ship to Chicago. A few weeks later, I took up mountain biking.
My friend Meg had always been athletic. She had played soccer and basketball, and she had been biking and running for years, so she agreed to be my guide on my first ride outside. I didn’t yet have my bike, so Meg brought bikes for each of us, two water bottles, two helmets, a D-tour bar for us to share. Starting at a gravel parking area at Bent Creek, I followed her up the dirt road to Lake Powatan. We circled the lake and turned up Hard Times trail, which was steep but wide and gravely.
“How do you feel so far?” Meg asked.
“Good,” I said.
“Do you want to try a trail now?”
“Sure,” I said.
I followed Meg as she turned down a steep bank.
“Stay low!” she called to me. “And sit back in the saddle!”
I gripped my handlebars and followed. We wound down the trail and came out on another gravel road. I gave a whoop, something that I thought might approximate what the guys in spin did after a good burst of speed.
“Do you want to do more?” Meg asked. “Something harder?”
“Sure,” I said.
And so we started winding and climbing. The dogwoods were in bloom, and, from our vantage point, the petals looked like snow. When I got to the top, Meg was waiting for me. I was gasping and wheezing. My calves burned, and my hands were so sweaty they were slipping on the handlebars.
“Try to control your breathing,” Meg said.
“I… am… trying,” I said.
She pulled the D-Tour bar out of her pocket, broke it, and handed half to me. I gulped it down in one bite and threw back the last of my water.
“I call this Big Caterpillar,” she said, gesturing to the trailhead in front of us. “I don’t know what the real name is. Now when you approach the moguls, don’t slow down, or you’ll fall over backwards.”
The trail was straight down. All I could see was the first rise of red dirt. I could just hear my father. Choose a long stick to roast your marshmallow. Don’t run with that knife. Bite the peppermint in half. Keep your hands out of your pockets.
“Yeah,” she said. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t stop.”
She took off ahead of me and scaled the first mogul in one lithe jump. I crouched low and pedaled hard. Gritting my teeth, I took a deep breath and, at the peak of the mogul, I rose from the saddle and rolled down the other side. I scooted back in the saddle and prepared for the next one. Whoosh. And again. There were at least five, and I did have time to wonder if I had taken my calcium pill that morning, but if I had had time to think of anything else, like I did later, I would have thought that it was like being seven again, learning to ride for the very first time.
My father taught me to ride. It is hard to imagine now, remembering his tendency to envision the absolutely worst possible scenario at any moment, but he must have thought that by teaching me to ride, he was saving me from the perils of learning on my own. One night when I was in second grade, he took the training wheels off my bike and loaded it into his Cherokee. Then we drove to a field near our house. My brother, who was eleven, met us at the field with his bike, and my dad positioned me at the far end of the field.
“Now you just look straight ahead and keep pedaling, and I’m going to hold the back of your bike,” Dad said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes, you can,” he said.
Dad wore neon orange running shorts and a ball cap that covered his nearly bare head. While he gave instructions, my brother rode around me in increasingly smaller concentric circles. He grinned and swept past me, coming within inches of my bike.
“I’m going to hit you,” he said.
“No!” I screamed.
“Go over there!” my father snapped at my brother. “He’s not going to hit you,” he said to me. “Plus, you’re not going to get hurt if you fall. This is just grass.”
Finally, I summoned the courage to pedal, and my dad ran behind me holding the back of my pink, banana shaped seat.
“Good!” my dad said after I made it across the field without falling. “Now do it by yourself.”
Across the field, my brother sat motionless on his bike, his toes touching the grass. He was watching me, and I knew that the minute I started moving, he would start moving too. But the sun was starting to set, and I knew that if I wanted to ride solo tonight, this was my last chance. I lifted my foot from the ground and began to pedal, tentatively at first, then stronger, and then stronger. A flock of Canada geese flew overhead, and I distinctly remember hearing them squawk just before my brother glided to a stop a few feet in front of me.
“Move!” I screamed.
Then I crashed to the ground.
Now, ahead of me, Meg passed under a canopy of twisted mountain laurel. She was smooth and graceful, and if I hadn’t looked at the ground, I might have believed she were flying through the trees, like a hawk. Or a flock of geese. We came out on a dirt road, and I pulled up alongside her.
“That was awesome!” I said.
“Cool,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
We wound down the mountain back to our car, and then we headed to a nearby Mexican restaurant where we ordered Dos Equis and ate chips with spicy warm bean dip and soft tacos with avocados. My left arm was completely numb from gripping the handlebars, so I balanced my chips and beer in my right hand and performed a single handed drink-swivel-dip-crunch motion. On my way home, I called my daughter who was on her way to class on the sixteenth floor of a building downtown.
“Meg and I have been out bike riding,” I said.
My legs were throbbing, my face smeared with dirt, my left arm stinging where I had grazed a tree.
“Oh, yeah?” she said.
She was walking down the street, and I could hear car horns in the background and the wind coursing past.
“Yeah,” I said. “I jumped some mongrels.”
“I believe you mean moguls,” she said.
“Whatever. So how’s it going with you?”
“Good,” she said. “I’m at the station now. I started early tonight. In case I get lost again.”
Lost. That was not a word I wanted to hear. In theory, this Chicago move had seemed like a good idea. But the reality wasn’t so easy. Gabrielle’s rent was outrageous, and she had already gone through the stipend the university had allotted for the semester. She had not yet found a job, and thus far, she had made exactly one new friend–well, two, if you counted the clerk she sometimes chatted with at the market. And she had been to the zoo approximately seven times in the three weeks she had been there.
“If you go to the zoo again, I’m coming up to get you,” I told her after her last excursion. “It’s just not normal to hang out at the zoo.”
“But it’s free,” she had said.
In many ways, I was my father’s daughter, and I worried about my daughter constantly. I worried there would be a fire in her classroom building and she wouldn’t be able to get down sixteen flights of stairs before the entire structure burned to the ground. I worried she would get stuck in the elevator, that one of the men in her class would be a serial killer, that there would be a terrorist attack on the subway on her way home, that, in the extremely unlikely event that she returned to her apartment unscathed, she would be cold. Or hungry. Or lonely. And I worried that I would never get used to her being gone.
Now, in the background, I heard the train roll into the station, followed by the squealing of brakes and the squeaking of doors.
“My train’s here,” my daughter said. “I’ve got to go.”
Double-check the route, I wanted to say. Hold onto your purse. Grab that bar in the middle when you go around curves. Keep your hands out of your pockets when you’re getting on and off.
But instead I said to her, “You’ll be fine. You can do it.”
“I know, Mom,” she said.
Then, just before the line went dead, I heard her suck in her breath, a sort of hissing gasp, the kind of slow, deep sound a woman might make if she were readying herself to scale the Alps. And for just a moment, I was back in that darkened room at the Y, my daughter and I pedaling powerfully side by side, our thighs burning, our breaths short, our tops drenched in acrid sweat, a glorious symphony of violins propelling us on.