I’d been riding the Rocky Mountains for weeks, long enough to have acclimated to riding at 7000 feet. Despite the late June date, the mornings were cool as falling leaves and visible breath. I often stayed in my bag until the sun was too high to back out of the deal. Camp struck, I’d roll, often straight through lunch and well into that witching hour of the mountains—mid afternoon—when the thunderstorms strike.
There came a day in Wyoming, my big day to explore Grand Teton National Park, and it rained off and on for the sun’s entire sweep across the ski. Downpours followed by broken clouds followed by easy showers. Conditions varied like the desire of a cat at the door.
Somewhere north of Jackson, my mind turned to ELO—yes, Electric Light Orchestra—the Beatley brainchild of Jeff Lynne that traded on Sci-Fi album art and orchestrations that evoked George Martin. The chorus of Mr. Blue Sky came lilting back. Of course, the song’s circumstance begins with the rain’s departure, just the event for which I prayed.
Mr. Blue Sky
Please tell us why
You had to hide away
For so long
Where did we go wrong?
With nothing else to do I attempted to reconstruct the entire song in my head, from each verse to the vocoder solo and bridge. I couldn’t do it. Something in my memory shorted and I kept looping back from the chorus to the second verse. Even though I could recall the sections, they were impossible to connect, a chain with broken links. The rain moved in again and I had nothing else to focus on save another attempt to get the song right by starting at the beginning.
Morning, today’s forecast calls for blue skies …
And again I got it wrong. It wasn’t until dinnertime when I realized I’d be playing my mistaken chorus/verse over and over in my head that I realized I had an unsolvable earworm. And it threatened to weigh anchor with my sanity. Wrapped in sleep that night, the coda came ringing back. All I could do was wad up my pillow of a shirt and roll over.
The solitude of cycling allows our minds to do more than wander. They can ramble down overgrown trails of thought and memory, bushwhacking into an undergrowth of past that conjures sound as a way to drown out the noise of the wind. Whether it’s the smile-inducing opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” or the cringe-making guitar and organ riff that underpins (undermines?) Iron Butterfly’s “Ina-Gadda-Da-Vida,” there are those scraps that come back, incomplete as scratched vinyl, repeating until you wish you wish you’d never heard the album. And that’s the tragedy. Sure, it’s torture to have a scrap of the Spice Girls that you heard on a TV ad suddenly waft through your grey matter, but the real lament begins when you’re no longer wrestling to remember the rest of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” but rather to forget it.
Is it helpful that some earworms aren’t music, but rather just words or phrases? Both yes and no. I spent more than 100 kilometers in the Berkshire Mountains one July day working Ayrton Senna’s name around my tongue and teeth. It happened again last year in Palos Verdes, and despite the obvious difference of geography, it made the rides eerily similar.
How is it possible to carve a turn at more than 30 mph while your tongue catalogs the sounds: Ai-yare-tahn? It’s proof that if we aren’t sufficiently occupied, we’ll go looking for adventure and surely a Brazilian name is an adventure for an English-speaking mouth.
When I was in high school, very nearly the coolest job you could have was to work in a video arcade. One Friday night, friends and I picked up a buddy from the arcade once his shift ended. When he got in the car he asked us to turn up the stereo. We were high school boys, so we were happy to oblige, but just before the driver’s hand reached the knob, our friend said something that made me rethink my infatuation with pixelated heaven.
“If I hear that Centipede music again, I’ll scream.”
As a 17-year-old boy, I was still relatively unfamiliar with too much of any good thing. This was a dormer window. I knew there was something on the other side, but I couldn’t quite see what was there. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was right to be scared; my son’s Super Mario World music has burned its way into synapses that I hope are the next to get fried by a glass of wine.
More than 20 years have elapsed since that day of riding in Wyoming. I don’t recall the earworm that replaced Mr. Blue Sky, but I suspect that wasn’t the last day that song looped through my hard drive. And as fate would have it, another ELO song has come to visit me on a succession of rides over the last few months. “Shangri-La” has had a similarly contradictory hold on my journeys.
My Shangri-La has gone away
Faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude
She seemed to drift out on the rain
That came in somewhere softly from the blue
That tension between his paradise lost and my paradise found comes into focus when Lynne sings, “I’m getting out of love.”
Our minds need to wander, compare notes, discard and return. A rubbing stone for the soul. Waking dreams that allow us to put the worrier on hold.