I really mean it. No sarcasm here.
If it weren’t for my painful, incessant, sometimes debilitating, treatment resistant, Sciatica condition, I would have completely missed out on one of the most beautiful and poignant moments of the season.
It didn’t come to me while confined to the backyard, perched on an ice pack in the only bearable chair I own, glaring at the garden trying to discover “beauty” in the intertwined dance of towering invasive weeds. Okay yes, that there is sarcasm.
Ironically, this experience bubbled it’s way out through a morning of exertion and sweat, a racing heart, grinding teeth, burning thighs, raging thirst and a sudden switch of gears – figuratively and literally.
We often try to set aside a weekend to carry out a self-imposed “Mountain Bike Personal Challenge”, heading for some of the grueling trails offered in Allegheny State Park, NY.
Actually, the hardcore enthusiasts in the area pooh-pooh these trails because they’re not single-track and apparently lack ample bone splintering threats. So this year, out of either curiosity or insecurity, we made an initial stop at their favoured WNYMBA rated trails near Holiday Valley.
Right off the mark these trails feature great technicals enshrouded in dense forest, but we weren’t a mile in before realizing we were a bit out of our league. Our bikes are pretty good, but would be in grim shape at the end of the ride. One of us might be sporting a cast for the rest of the summer. When you’re self-employed you process such visions before taking on any physically questionable feat.
Speculation hits me on the Allegheny trails too but there, I feel more in control. I will maybe see that bear ahead of time, and I can shred a gear without flying over a boulder into a rocky creek. Stuff like that gives me comfort. We loaded back up, satisfied to merely kiss the track and headed towards Salamanca and the State Park.
Allegheny inclines can be super-tough and painful in their own right, depending on the trail level selected. As for the descents, I feel there are more than enough rocks and tree roots to negotiate while barreling down at 30-mph chanting my mantra of “oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap….” I’m good with that level of challenge, thanks.
Lately, my pain has really flared up. On this day, it took very little for one trigger to suddenly tweak master control in my brain sending off an alarm to the ego shouting, “don’t be an idiot, you have an injury! And you’re self-employed.” I crumbled and humbled myself, chose a lower gear and resigned to peddling very slowly. I’d never done that before.
Yet, something began to happen.
I was very familiar with this hill. We’d tackled it many times and well knew its trademark ruts and roots. Usually, we’d commit to “own this damn trail” and earn that beer at the end. I’d be facing off with the incline like a real enemy, grunting and straining every muscle to fight back, push myself up. Sometimes I’d even consider vomiting all over its face. Not a pretty scene.
But suddenly, my sense of self, time and place felt entirely different. Creeping up the hill, in my lowest gear, I now had time to look up and around with eyes that opened just a little wider than usual. The self-shame of slowing right down gave way to absolute awe of the acres and acres of untouched forest stuffed all around us.
Now here’s something I would never ever have done before. I heard something that forced me off my bike. I came to a dead stop and bounced off. Not only that, I waited patiently until I heard it again and then I actually prowled around the trail trying to find its source.
I’m a novice birder and this bird song was so melodic and beautiful, it made something rise up inside me. I was as intrigued to find the bird, as I was to drink in that song, so in the course of the morning ride, I was off my bike more than once.
I never did spy it. But the song captivated Pete too, who pulled out his iPhone and recorded it. It may have well been the most common bird of these parts but it had the spellbinding power to pull me off my seat and forget any agenda I’d arrived with.
Pete is such a good guy and although he didn’t have to, he decided to dial it back on this ride too. I think we both finally became so intensely aware of how truly alone we were with the forest life. Before long we heard what must have been one very large tree end it’s life as it crashed to the forest floor. More than once, we noticed deer spying on us from the fringes of the trail. Sad to think how oblivious we had been on all those earlier rides.
None of this means we’re planning to leave the bikes on the rack. We still had an incredible workout and the sweat to prove it. But I came away from that ride more satisfied than ever before. Both spirit and soul were pierced and I believe gone forever is that gut-renching “gotta prove I can still do this” attitude that used to validate a successful ride. What the heck is the point in seeking out more stress on a supposed getaway from stress?
So, thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sciatica condition.
Oh, and my deepest gratitude for not showing up the next morning.
The closest my bird sounds app reveals is this may have been a Hermit Thrush. Have a listen. If you’re a birder let me know what you think it is. Also, have you had a significant “what have I been missing” experience like this one? Share so we can all begin to live more in the moment.