While I may have reached the end off winter 1999-2000 already, let's take a moment to backtrack before continuing on our way.
In the fall of my junior year, my aging bike became what we affectionately called The Village Bicycle. I now had three roommates and couldn’t store it in my dorm room, so I locked it up outside. Then my roomies wanted to borrow it, so I stopped bothering with the lock. It had a brief but healthy life in the courtyard, its condition slowly worsening as weather and rider abuse took their tolls.
Worse, though, was that it would occasionally go missing -- taken by some stray traveler looking for a quick way home. I would find it mysteriously parked elsewhere, like in front of a building across campus, then find it even more mysteriously perched somewhere else, like atop a hedge.
This was not the nadir of my transportational life. Having made several friends while at school, I was now able to borrow the cars of a few of them. My bike was in bad condition and only getting worse: I hadn't brought it to a bike shop and didn't know how to properly maintain its moving parts. It was, day by day, week by week, month by month, grinding to a dirt-crusting-grease-borne halt. I would not mourn its passing, though, as it was old enough to seem more like a bone-weary geriatric than a youth struck down in its prime.
There was nothing left that the bike needed to give me, so I didn’t demand much of it.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try riding it. I would still sometimes hop on for the adventure to the airport. Trip times stayed pretty consistent because even though I was stronger than I had been two years earlier, the massive and daily-increasing drag on every bike component made up for those gains. This Mercurial resonance between companions carried me through the start of junior year until winter shrouded us once again.
To be young again and be able to tolerate such poor equipment! I have since tasted the sweet scent of a high-end bike’s elegant touch, savored her silent beauty, and I don’t think I could handle the rusty corpse of the Village Bicycle anymore. I mean, unless really pressed, in which case I’d spend the $200 it would take to just fix the damn thing. (But hey, that was 2 hours of instructed flight!)
In January, I went to Japan for a class. Or whatever J-Term is for.
Every day, I explored a novel neighborhood, taking new turns and getting thoroughly lost. In Tokyo, it would occasionally rain, and I would delight in the feeling like being at home. When we went to Kyoto, I ran through slush, my shoes thoroughly soaked by a trek up to one of the temples and across the old Edo palace. In Karuizawa, I nearly lost my toes after taking a wrong turn and spending an hour in 25-degree conditions wearing wet cotton socks; I stopped and spent a few thousand yen on some warm socks that I have to this day.
Japan was lovely, from bustling throngs of people clinging to a very personal half square meter of sidewalk to dark alleys where the middle class stumbled from geisha houses to intensely kind and giving families who lived like early-20th century city dwellers but used the most modern conveniences possible outside the home. It was a shocking revelation to my 20-year old character, thrust into an intense immersion among people whose culture was so foreign but whose generosity so upper-Midwest familiar.
As the trip would down, I was running longer distances by virtue of having forgotten about the time: in Tokyo, our group hardly measured time before 9:30 a.m. -- except the day we went to the Tskuji fish market. And by 9:30 I would have been up for several hours, usually splitting those between pounding pavement and stuffing myself with a wholesome breakfast.
The brutal winds of Minnesota brought me back to reality, but I took more late-night runs and enjoyed the eerie calm of Tuesdays at 1 a.m. An hour running no longer seemed particularly difficult (as long as I was appropriately dressed), and I was readily lost in thought after 20 minutes to the extent that 20 more minutes would simply disappear.
My relationship with the Village Bicycle was also not to last into the spring. Before winter was over, that once-blazing saddle had been outright thieved. I’m not sure who would steal such a lowly machine, nor sure why someone would bother: the outdated, rusty components couldn’t have brought more than a few bucks on the secondary market, and eBay was in its infancy. (I’m proud to be such an early user of that service that I possess a 4-letter name; I joined Twitter so late that I had to settle for 5 letters, none of which is a vowel except in Welsh.) Nevertheless, one day the bicycle I had bought those many years before disappeared into the Minnesota mists, and not even a search of the local shrubbery revealed its whereabouts.
The quest for a new steed took very little time as one of my roommates, who hadn’t ridden in years, offered his 4-year old, exceedingly light mountain bike with clipless pedals. I had never and have never been a particularly strong mountain rider, more of a casual trail rider who had some positive and negative experiences trying to go fast down hills. But that bike changed my riding habits, and it lasted another 6 years. (Flash forward those 6 years: I thoroughly destroyed the bottom bracket, derailleur, and front chainring one riding season, kept it as a single speed for a couple seasons, and on my way out of town gave all the pieces to a friend; that friend stayed one more year, but he abandoned the bike in storage in Ithaca, only to return 8 years later to find it still locked in the basement. He decided to give it a proper burial, cutting the lock, bringing it to a lake near Boston, and giving it a final ride before pushing it in.)
Whatever its ultimate fate would be, I suddenly had a bike worth using for fun. When another roommate, Tyson, brought back his two-wheeler from home, we decided to ride around the area and explore, something I hadn’t really done. To that point, I had only ever run about 8 miles at a time, and my rides were almost exclusively utilitarian. Sure, I’d done loops on my own a couple times, but typically these were short, like an hour or less, and focused on the town. I didn’t stress myself on them because I wasn’t working out so much as getting out.
With a riding buddy and an improved vehicle, I had reason to strap on my old film camera, and we’d ride out of town or to abandoned lots. We rode through the floods that spring, where I got a beautiful photo of a horse standing forlornly outside its barn, an island spared by the rising waters. I took pictures of Tyson riding and crashing, images of the bike parts in various settings, and stills of flat farmlands as far as the eye could see. It was all quite satisfying.
But it wasn’t satisfying for the rides -- those were tangential to the experience. I was satisfied by the exit, the feeling of going somewhere and doing something, the idea that I was embracing freedom. Riding was a means to that freedom, but it didn’t represent freedom by any stretch of the imagination. For the most part, I was growing up and making my own decisions; riding and running were expressions of the firm positive slope of the advancing age of a 20-something.
Spring burst from the trees and fields around me, and I became more obsessed with running and biking and volleyball. If the sun was out, I tried to be as well. I was vernal.
Alas, such days came and went quickly, the brilliant sunshine and upper-70s supplanted by hotter times, rolling thunderstorms, then exams and graduation. I could feel my time at school winnowing, a watch unwound deforming all sense of time.
When I went back to Port Angeles, I doubt I registered the finality of that move. It did not occur to me then but in retrospect bears a hint of melancholy that this would be my last time spending a summer there. Done now with cooking, I worked on one of the ferries across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, riding downtown to the docks about 3 blocks from the old newspaper office and the restaurant. The hours passed like hiccups: bursts of activity connected by anticipation.
Our job was simple. In the morning, one of us would go to the grocery story to get lunch while the others scrubbed the saltwater from the vessel's hull and windows. We would load carts of luggage, take on passengers, then push away from the docks. For an hour, the deep blue waters of the Pacific Northwest surrounded us. We would slide peacefully into Victoria's harbor, swiftly tie off, send the passengers on their way, and take on the return voyagers. Back and forth, three times a day, the only real gap near noon when we cooked lunch in the galley and made up for missing maintenance time.
Each day, 12 hours end-to-end, I became more accustomed to this transitional water-and-land post. And each evening when I finished the ride back up, my legs were worn out from all-day use, but I would will myself to run a 4-mile loop that combined my two old loops and added a half mile or so. I always ran with my stick, and the locals all recognized me.
I did that the three or four days a week I was working, taking the other days to run slightly longer distances and play lacrosse with whoever happened to be around. I turned 21, celebrated with a single beer at a local bar (Full Sail IPA, for the curious) with a coworker, and kept up the wholly unregimented but active lifestyle I had established.
I met the owner of the Victoria Shamrocks and flew up to watch a game. That test of my instrument rating was both frightening and exhilarating (at least for me -- my passengers might just go with frightening). After an uneventful flight over and an exciting game featuring both Gait brothers, we made our way back to the airport north of town and took off into the night. I flew high above the Strait, worried at an engine failure, and saw the bank of clouds that moved in from the coast to obscure Port Angeles.
We joined the approach path normally and descended, but my palms were sweaty; this was my first real approach with an indefinite cloud height. The backup plan would be to fly one or two towns over and wait, probably until morning, though I didn't know how that might play out.
Pillowy whiteness became a hard steely gray of impending rain as we pressed onward and downward. At 200 feet, I caught only the runway lights making a faint “U” at the edge of my vision; 30 feet lower, the apparition of “08” was floating through the fog. We touched down without a problem, and, adrenaline-soaked, I initially forgot to taxi over to the customs office. The guy we were slated to meet was surprisingly fine with this little oversight.
All-in-all, it was a great summer, even more because I would never again be a local. A native perhaps, but this was the last time I would live or be employed in the town where I grew up. (At least, up to now. I mean, really, what can any of us say about the future? And have you seen Back to the Future II? There might be dozens of futures where I live in PA. Scary.)
But it too would come to an end. I went back to college one last time.
Next up: Graduation!
Mash out. Spin on.