On October 10, 2012, I went for a bike ride. Nothing in that is unusual. Most days of each week I go for a bike ride. This particular ride wouldn’t really be worth noting at all were it not for the memorable feeling I had as I dropped down the south face of the Santa Monica Mountains. I felt the greatest sense of my and my bike’s limits, though that’s not what I was thinking about as I dove past some friends and held my braking fingers at bay.
The populace usually refer to the practitioners of any sport where agility—that curious combination of physical skill and crystalline judgment—is all that prevents raw velocity from ending in a sudden, careening explosion—think windmill in a tornado—adrenaline junkies. I can say from considerable experience that phrase is only half wrong, but the half that is wrong misses like getting on the Chicago train when your destination is New Orleans. I’ve had something of an addiction to dropping down mountains as if I was water in a river rushing out of the mountains. Nothing else in my life matches that sense of grace that washes over me, and that has to do with how the “adrenaline” part of adrenaline junkie is so wrong.
Adrenaline isn’t something you want to feel.
That’s the fight or flight response. It’s the taste of a 9-volt battery in your mouth, a sensation that every time encountered has been accompanied by fear. It is absolutely the physical presence of fear itself. Only a masochist would go in search of it.
What was washing over me as swung through turns tight enough to slow a good-sized sedan to idle was a soup of neurochemicals that kill pain, convince us we’re in love and turn the world brighter and more beautiful for as long as we concentrate. That sense of joy tempered by calm, a place for which I can conjure no image to remind us.
And then, in a turn in which I thought I would deliver the correct answer finally—for the first time ever—a place where my knowledge of the road, my control and the limits of the tires’ adhesion came together in what was to be a flourish at the end of a signature, well …
I rolled over some paint and my rear tire did a little mambo.
I have, on some occasions, permitted myself to play back the way things went wrong at that moment, how I steered into the turn and regained control of the bike to keep it upright but misjudged my ability to go off-road at that speed and thus flyswattered my face into loose dirt and gravel. On a very few occasions I’ve allowed myself to try to play out how things might have gone had I taken any action other than what I did. Of course, it’s all guesswork; cyclists fall and break shoulders when they figure it could have been a collarbone, they pick up a couple of gashes and no road rash in a slide, or as I did, tenderize and remove my chin when I thought I’d send a bowling ball through a styrofoam cooler. Still, in my imagination, all the other options, all the other ways I imagine that event could have played out end with me either spinning or sliding on the asphalt at 30 mph. My gut says I got off easy.
By easy, I mean that to everyone who isn’t me, all that was required to set me right was the skill (and thread) of one very artful plastic surgeon, a guy better known for making lips bigger not smaller, as he did in my case.
I’d trade one good Harrison Ford-like scar if he could have repaired the stuff on the inside as well.
Weeks later, my stepfather, Bryon, died. My mom had been married to him for 23 years, but my relationship to him stretched back more than 30 years, to when I was 14. Now, I should add here that my father is still alive and he and I have a great relationship. Losing my stepfather was not a matter of losing the only paternal figure in my life. And it’s not like my father was a felon and incapable of providing a healthy model for what an adult male might aspire to be. I’ve got a great dad, period. Losing Byron still represented a huge loss because of his unique qualities.
Byron was a passionate supporter of mine. He wanted to see me happy and successful. Fulfilled. Yet he never provided any input about courses of action except when morality or ethical considerations were at stake. Despite caring deeply for me, he was cautiously detached from the outcomes of my actions. He allowed me the freedom to do what I chose, and yet would talk to me at every turn, less guiding me than helping me to see what I might achieve on my own abilities.
I wasn’t supposed to reveal this, but he was so impressed by my standing up for Charles Pelkey and taking on what was a monumental expense for this blog—just because I thought it was the right thing to do—that he talked with my mom and offered me the money to bring John Wilcockson on board. You might say the first five months of John’s work here was an advance on my inheritance. Byron saw it as just giving me wood to fuel a fire I’d done a nice job of lighting. My job was to secure enough advertising in that period to afford John’s work going forward. And while we got through the summer and early fall well enough, advertiser drop-off in the winter (and getting stiffed by a few advertisers) put him back out of reach. I’m still paying him for last fall’s work.
I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both my parents. From sharing the latest photos to commiserating over the challenges of the American health care system, we enjoy being in touch, and I’m grateful that I can still turn to them with whatever financial hurdles I face—in only with the intent of asking for advice. But talking with Byron was different. His detachment meant that his guidance was couched as if through my own eyes, given with an understanding of what I wanted for myself. The loss of that voice in my life is something I haven’t adjusted to.
Seeing what his absence has done to my mother’s world has made me ache for all that we have the potential to offer each other. His was an example that showed how being mindful of our actions and moving gently, with kindness, can profoundly alter the quality of another person’s life. I don’t think I’m a bad guy, but I’m aware that if I could achieve what he did, my wife and children would have better lives than they already do.
In those weeks I spent in Memphis, just trying to be present with my mother as she grieved, I rode hundreds of miles, and none of it at a pace that would impress anyone. Byron was with me on those rides, his example ringing in my ears, his voice no closer than that last, saved, voicemail.
When we found out that the Deuce had an abnormality during what was to be a final, routine, visit to the OB/GYN, I knew I needed to call my parents to tell them. I did my best to reassure them that this would be a minor issue and we’d be sending baby photos and telling stories any day. How wrong I was. Because of the need I felt to set my parents at ease, the person I really wanted to talk to, the person to whom I felt I could have been 100 percent honest about my concerns was Byron. What would he have said to me?
It’s been a long time since I felt like I lived in the shadow cast by my parents, that I needed to distinguish myself as a person. It’s been even longer since I was naive enough to believe that their counsel was as outdated as a Corvair. I now understand that this phase of adulthood is one where we learn to live without the voices of our parents. It’s an absence distinct from the loss of them physically, it’s that ability to reach out to the people in whom you entrust those most important decisions, asking for the feedback that can only be given by someone who knows you as well as you do.
One morning, as I pedaled through the hills of Palos Verdes and wondering how to confront the issue of surgery for the Deuce, I caused myself to chuckle when I came up with the acronym WWBS—what would Byron say? I realized he’d tell me I was doing all right. He’d probably ask me if I was still riding. Even though he wasn’t a cyclist himself, he understood its more medicinal quality in my life. And he’d ask if Shana and I were talking. Then he’d ask me what my gut told me and what my fears were. Once I’d poured everything out to him, he’d invariably mirror back to me all that he’d heard, but in an especially concise reduction sauce. I can imagine he would have said something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the surgery one damn bit, but that you trust the doctors and you don’t see any way around it. I’d be scared, too.”
I miss that voice.
I can’t shake the feeling that my family has experienced a zero-sum event, that in losing Byron and gaining Matthew, we have reluctantly struck a new equilibrium where the burden of wisdom has shifted from Tennessee to California. I try to convince myself that the physical manifestation of that sense is what I felt when I first climbed on a full-suspension 29er. It felt big, really big while the suspension punished sloppy actions and rewarded grace, but it was still a bike, so on that first big descent, all I needed to do was convince myself I knew what to do.
Over the last six months, there have been little glimmers of my old self on the bike, but far more episodes where one sketchy moment shows me just how gun-shy I still am. Not just of crashing, but of anything that induces stress. Rather than being a way to discharge, cycling has mostly only been a way to recharge, to help sustain me through today’s crisis, or maybe whatever comes next.
The reason I’ve stuck with cycling no matter whatever else has been going on in my life has been that the sport has been a way to ask questions, a way to answer them and even a way to answer bigger questions, ones where the only wheels are metaphoric.
Of this much I’m certain: I’ve got two healthy, growing sons and bikes in the garage. Like knowing what was around that turn, the rest, I accept, is up for grabs.