I rode up Snowbowl road last week twice. It was the first time I’d done that in years. What’s the occasion?
The Gnome informed me there may be a chance I can race at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, and I thought it wise to not repeat last year’s performance, in which I crashed and burned after only two laps. Body shut down. Legs checked out. Mind was somewhere else. I was teaching at the time, and I just didn’t have the time to train. I want to do better this year, even though I feel like my racing days are generally behind me…the Gnome threw down at Pines to the Mines a few weeks ago, though, and I just kept thinking, why am I not doing that?
I’m going to train. I AM training. Jesus. It feels weird to say that. I may not even do the race for all I know, but I’m training.
Here’s a little something for you if you want to keep reading. It’s a story I wrote and submitted for some lit contest at some bike magazine that did not choose me as their winner. No shock, no foul, just life. I think it’s pretty good, so I’ll post it here. It’s a semi-true story. We’re all looking for something we lost a long time ago, after all. Sometimes we find a little piece of it.
It’s long, I warn you…but maybe worth it.
What To Do When It Stinks
With about three miles left to go, I cramp up so hard I almost throw up. Both thighs go at once. Desert sand, almost four hours in the saddle, temperature barely cracking forty-two degrees. Somewhere in the darkest recesses of my subconscious, I wonder what it might be like to be an actuary or a paper salesman. They never get leg cramps.
This has been my stress-free ride, my all-day Zen experience, the key to ‘letting go’ of all that ails me.
I dry-heave as I attempt to dismount my singlespeed, and my left thigh does the same.
Clarity often comes when we least need it, and on cold days in the Arizona desert, one can see for miles. In the heat of a school day—after ten years, standing in front of the room instead of sitting in the back—those Arizona vistas come in handy. On my bike, clarity is hardly necessary. I need nothing.
I take that back. Some Gatorade would do nicely.
My muscle is in the throes of dramatic spasms now, my left leg shuddering and leaping like some lost fish in an aquarium lobby. Clarity has come to me.
I can clearly see the next three miles are going to be a long fucking walk.
Two days ago, one of my female students pushed one of my male students into a table. She pushed him again. And again. He fell over the table, knocking over chairs in the process. When he stood up, the girl clawed at his face, so he reared back and punched her in the cheek. This all happened in my classroom. Right in front of me. First period hadn’t even started yet. And I don’t drink coffee, so no joke to be made there.
Kids hurt each other all the time. They don’t know what else to do. It’s like brushing your teeth or drinking a glass of water to them. This is the motion: rear back, punch. Lick the blood, move on.
As I stand up and brush off the desert sand, my other thigh pulses, then tightens suddenly, sending me back to the ground. It’s my right leg’s dramatic death scene now.
The girl didn’t even seem thrown by the punch. She just punched back. Her face had already swollen, but she kept throwing those punches Tyson-style until the boy finally got his footing and thrust her against the wall. She bounced. I’ll never forget that.
In the desert, everything looks tired and suspicious. A cactus sits where it has always sat. It doesn’t look at me. It has no eyes to see me, so why should it be bothered to even consider my existence? There is cold and sun and predators to worry about. A rock doesn’t care about me. The sand sticks to everything, not just me. My thigh stops pulsing, and it’s then I notice I have been clenching my teeth.
Paperwork comes next, of course. She is suspended, he is not. I’m not sure why. I don’t ask questions like that anymore. Clarity is not something I seek at school anymore. The questions are too many, and my capacity to answer them is slim at best. And the students will ask. And ask. And ask. What do you tell them when they ask if the future will be better? Do you tell them about your barely-livable wage, the long drive home during which you either scream, punch the door, or brood in silence until finally the verbal fights taking place in your head culminate with you losing?
You tell them clarity happens when you least need it.
In the desert.
With cramped legs and three miles to go.
Two days later, the boy who had thrown that punch in self-defense comes into my classroom. “It stinks in here,” he says. I know this is true because another student, a gangly seventeen year-old who wears the same clothes every day, does not bathe. He has no running water where he lives. Or electricity. He stinks up my classroom every morning. “I’ll spray something,” I tell the boy.
He looks at me and snickers. “You can’t Febreze booty,” he says, then walks away.
It’s true. You can’t Febreze booty.
It’s the closest I’ve come to clarity in all the time I’ve been teaching.
In the desert, I have managed to get back on my bike and have even successfully executed four pedal strokes. I can feel my thighs waiting for their moment to spring on me, to jump me and take me down again. It feels good in a weird way, even though it hurts like hell and a few minutes ago I almost vomited from it. If I had actually done it, I would have told my friends about it because they wouldn’t have believed me that I actually puked from pain. If someone had been there to see it, I wouldn’t have told the story to anyone else. Witnesses make things like this kind of sad. Satire is best served solo, I suppose.
I make it almost all the way over the next rise before I have to stop again. The sand is too deep and I just don’t have the legs anymore. The walk doesn’t bother me, though, since this is my day. My Zen. My blah blah blah. I have nowhere else to be for a change. No one has asked me why cramps happen, or what you can do to avoid them, or what happens if they never go away. These would be easy questions. I would take these gladly.
The total breaking point came three days ago. Parent-teacher conferences are three hours of sandpaper on the eyeballs, a drill in the ear. It’s not that I don’t like the parents. I just don’t like them all at once. And they never like me. On the edge of the reservation, many of the parents have to travel for an hour or more to get to the school. Most don’t come at all, but tonight there’s been a good showing. It’s the last set of parents of the night, a Navajo couple—grandparents, actually, because mom is in jail and dad is dead. The grandmother has a pleasant face, glasses, a genuine blue-hair. The grandfather looks young—maybe forty- five, smooth skinned, though he’s probably closer to seventy, a baseball cap hiding his short-cropped hair. I tell them their granddaughter is failing my class, and they expect this. And yet something happens to them, both of them at the same time. The grandmother’s face twists into a polite smile, and the grandfather does the opposite.
He looks tired. Worn out. Been hiding from the sun too long maybe. Or the predators. Or the sand storms and the desert winter cold. He could be a cactus.
“We just don’t know what to do anymore,” he says, and I can’t stand looking at him anymore. His glasses are so thick that I can’t see his eyes, and I’m glad for that. He’s so tired. He ages twenty years right then and there, and I can’t stand it. I want to grab the years before they hit his face, but I’m too late.
“She moved out last week,” the grandmother says, looking at the grandfather and not at me. “She loves us, and we love her. But she left and we wanted her to go.”
“We just didn’t know what to do,” the grandfather says again.
I give them the normal bit. Talk to a counselor. I’m no professional. Talk to her. She won’t talk to you? Maybe the counselor…
Walking has freed up my muscles a bit, which is unusual. Walking usually makes things worse, makes me walk like I’ve gotten my knees fused. At the top of the hill, I get back on the bike and roll down hill, not thinking of much but rubber tires slipping through sand that can’t decide on what shape it should be. No, I’m not even thinking about that. I’m thinking about wind on my face, my arm warmers soaked with sweat.
I’m not thinking about that.
I’m thinking about chain lube. About hot mountain biker chicks. About freeride. About roadies. I’m thinking about a post-ride beer and free schwag and Interbike.
I’m thinking of the tired grandfather.
The guy has been following me all day.
He’s a fast sonofabitch, but he was nice enough to slow down when my legs cramped. He’s still here.
I have no answers for him. Not that night, not now on my ride. In the desert, clarity comes easily and I think of a thousand things I could say to him that would sound great and solve nothing, but I would feel better about myself professionally. I don’t need to say them, not now, not in the desert. Like I said, clarity has come, and with it has come the reality that nothing I say can change the fact that you can’t Febreze booty. You can’t turn on the kid’s water and electricity. You can’t make a teenage girl talk to her grandparents. You can’t stop the cramps in your thighs and sometimes you can’t keep yourself from puking on the trail. These things happen, and there you are to witness it. There’s your philosophy, your elusive poetry that’s just like every high school hallway: a collection of clichés.
By the time I finally roll down the dirt road that leads to the highway—which I must cross in the most harrowing moments of any mountain biker’s journey—my legs are loose again and the ghost aches in my thighs float through my body, reminding me they had control and were now only lending me this temporary respite. Get there quick, they warn. We’ll come back if you don’t. I do exactly that.
In the car, I’m alone with the tired grandfather. “We just don’t know what to do anymore,” he says as I pull out of the parking lot and into the right lane of the highway. “We just don’t know,” he says.
“I’m tired, too,” I say. “I am. Please believe me.”
“She loves us,” he says. “But we wanted her to leave.”
“I know,” I say.
“She loves us.”
“She does,” I say.
“What do we do if the cramp never goes away?” He asks me.
The sun is starting to dip below the horizon now. It does not look beautiful to me. It looks sad. Worn out. Is winter over yet? It asks.
“What do we do?” The tired grandfather asks again. “If the cramp doesn’t go away?”
“I don’t know,” I say, my voice tired like his now. “Keep riding, I guess.”
He shakes his head, over and over again until he is gone. The answer is not good enough, I know that. It’s a baby’s breath against a tornado. But I’m not in the desert anymore, and clarity is gone. That answer is the only one I’ve got. The flick of a switch, the turn of a dial. The spray of an air freshener and the turn of the crank arms. Simple as that.
Keep riding, I guess.by