Road Trip

When I was about eight or so, my mom finally decided I should learn to ride a bicycle – probably to avoid another “Scarred For Life” incident. I guess she knew my stubbornly independent streak would lead me to do something equally stupid sooner or later, and she figured it was better to force the bud to bloom rather than trying to nip it anymore. After all: I was determined to ride one of those two-wheel contraptions, and my determination showed, because she had me up and going in a single afternoon.

I remember her pushing me down the dirt driveway again and again, holding onto the seat and then letting go, yelling, “Pedal, Mike, pedal!”. And off I’d go a few yards or so, wobbling like a topsy turnip, only to crash on my side. The pain didn’t bother me one bit; I was a sturdy kid, plus my stubbornness kept me at it. I think she was as determined as I was, if for no other reason than she could see I was determined. She wouldn’t quit until I did, and I didn’t know how to “quit”. It simply wasn’t in my vocabulary.

Eventually I got the hang of that rickety old thing – for it was old, and it was my brother’s. Rattling chain, chipped red and white paint, no hand guards or streamers, rusty spokes – it didn’t matter to me. I was proud as could be as I finally mastered the art of pedaling down the driveway, slowing into a wide, wide turn across the lumpy yard with its patches of grass and sand, coming back to the carport – and wobbling back around, doing it again.

The very next day I concluded I had this machine mastered. I remember going into the house and telling my mom, “I’m going to ride my bike.” (Conveniently ignoring the fact that it was my brother’s.) Mom, busy with something or other in the kitchen, her back to me, simply nodded and muttered something that I took as “okay”, and I skedaddled my butt outta there. After all, we weren’t supposed to be in the house during the day, not unless you were bleeding to death or dying – or wanted to end up that way.

So off I go – pushing the bicycle off the carport, unsteadily mounting the thing, and down the driveway I went. The sandy ditch lay ahead; no problem, just pedal harder. I managed to get through the soft wide dip, took a left, and headed down the hill, ready to start my long adventure, free at last on two wheels, albeit under leg power.

I went to the corner – the sand road, a huge horseshoe, had two bends: one at the top of the hill (far too hard for me to pedal) – and one at the bottom, both ends leading to a paved country road miles away (or at least miles in my young mind. In actuality, they were each only about a half mile or so.) For me the paved road was an impossible distance away, and I anticipated a nice long ride.

Now along this leg of the horseshoe bend the ditches got deeper – no longer the shallow dips lining the road in the neighborhood, these dropped off two or three feet deep, dug into the red clay and filled with soft sand, lined on the back with weeds, and the front with the gravel strewn edge of the road. The road seemed much narrower here without those broad shoulders. On one side – to my left – was Farmer Brown’s forbidden field surrounded by two strands of rusted barbed wire, with it’s infamous haunted house hidden in a cove of trees. On the other side of the road – to my right – was Farmer Brown’s place – another forbidden zone, a few more small fields (not his), then the chicken farmer and his wife’s place – a gray plank structure surrounded by ramshackle chicken coops and rambling gardens. Here and there was the occasional driveway leading to an old house or two, almost hidden by the towering weeds. Rusting mailboxes, leaning this way and that, dotted the roadside like country drunks trying to find their way home.

Now I was fine with this bicycle, but there was one small problem. I hadn’t figured out how to put on the brakes. Mastering the art of ‘pedaling backwards’ just seemed beyond my ability, but I didn’t let that trouble me. I had come up with an inelegant solution, but one that worked.

Whenever I felt the need to stop, I’d simply hurl myself off the bike, pushing it one way while I went another, and we’d both go crashing along the sides the road. Every time a car would come, I would throw myself off the seat, landing on my side, and rolling pell-mell through the dust while the bicycle crashed on the other side. Getting back up and dusting myself off, I would wait until the car had passed, then quite calmly go and rescue my bike from the bushes or ditch or wherever it had landed, get back on it, and continue my journey into the unknown. As I disappeared down that long country road, the ditches got deeper, the falls got harder – and Lord only knows what the drivers thought, seeing this little kid go flying from his bike to disappear into a ditch, the bicycle wobbling on alone and with no pilot. The poor bike – and several mailboxes – suffered the consequences – but for me it was the height of adventure, and I didn’t care.

My mom finally caught up with me a few hours later as I, battered, dirty, dusty and bruised, came back to that bend in the corner. I barely remember the scolding, her making me push the bike back up the hill to the house, for my mind was full of adventure – the gravel road under the summer sun, the scent of dust in my nose and wind in my hair. I had almost made the paved highway before I’d turned around, and I was exceedingly proud of myself. We arrived at the house, where she got the garden hose and washed me down (typical pre-house entry behavior) – and I could feel the scabs on my knees and elbows burning under that cold water – but I was all beams and smiles. I had made it. I had had a grand adventure, all by myself. I felt like I was finally a free man – or at least a child with an open road before him. My soul had grown wings, or at least it felt like they were sprouting.

My mom likes to tell the tale of how she tracked me – going down the road, asking neighbors. And one would say, “Yeah, I saw a kid. He wrecked my mailbox, went rolling in the ditch.” Or “Yeah, that crazy kid of yours! Almost ran him over! Came flying down the road – he went one way, the bike went the other – I thought he was trying to kill himself!” Apparently you could track my route by the path of destruction (and bewildered grownups) I left in my wake.

She started the lessons the very next day. Only now, instead of “how to go”, they were “how to stop”. That I’ve found is an equally important (and symbolic) skill in life.

Otherwise, you just might find yourself crashing in the ditch with a face full of weeds and a handful of dust.