Early in May we reached two dates that had been circled on the calendar for months.
First, Hank completed his agonizing heartworm treatment. And second, my first out-of-town visitors drove and flew to Arkansas for an epic mixed-surface bike race in the Ozarks.
Hank endured nearly three months of intense medicine and no elevated heartrate, a combination which forced us to bide our time until we could return to living once more. As if you could kill time without injuring eternity. I hate circling dates on the calendar, because it always creates a disproportionate sense of the value of a given day. We spent a lot of time this spring injuring eternity, driving around with the windows down, with no particular place to go and a twelve-dollar marrow bone the only item on the grocery list because I just wanted Hank to be happy.
The first day of freedom came unceremoniously. The vet said, “Four to six weeks,” and refused to elaborate further, so I nervously settled on five. I couldn’t wait another second, but was also afraid it was too soon.
It was still spring. Monsoons were still terrorizing the Ozarks with absurd rainfall, teases of sunshine, and then more rain. A glimpse of sunshine appeared that Friday afternoon, and we headed to our favorite mountain bike trail. We rode two sloppy miles, both of us huffin’ and puffin’ as killing time had killed us a bit each day. We went home and spent as much time getting clean as we had getting dirty, but we were very much back.
Putting our six muddy paws in the shower and rinsing the Arkansas dirt off made time cease to matter, made my creaky bones stop aching, made life make sense. There is nothing that I need more than to laugh with my dog, to get sweaty and dirty and then to get clean and lie down in bed, exhausted; to trace circles on the ceiling with my eyeballs, falling asleep alternating between the poesy of isolation and the peace of solitude. I want to drift off unconscious and wake up shocked by the alarm clock, to always feel I could sleep more or that I could just start my day, and to wonder where the thin line between post-concussion and post-trauma actually is, and then to live with such alacrity that it ceases to matter.
Even if the reality is usually something more like: being too tired to actually get out of bed and start making the coffee I desperately need to get out of bed, a slight spinning sensation as my brain struggles with the act of being conscious, and an overwhelming sense of both possibility and a lack of purpose.
* * *
That brings us to the second date. I was excited to host an old college buddy and some Austin cycling friends and to tackle an obnoxiously daunting task with them—a 120-mile bike “race” here in the Ozarks, from tire-slashing gravel in Missouri to leg-melting paved climbs in Eureka Springs. None of the four of us were exactly prepared for the challenge ahead, which made it even better. The pieces fell into place the night before as everyone arrived later than most other teams had likely gone to bed. While the weeks leading up to the race had dragged on with cruel persistence, those precious few hours of preparation and sleep passed far too quickly.
And when the day came, it was a mad scramble to load the car, drive to Bentonville, and reach the starting line mere seconds before our timeslot. Just like that, we were launched headfirst into a day of both begging the hours to pass faster and wishing they would never end.
This is what I trade comfort and guarantees for. This is why I spend days in the woods and nights alone, and why I write about absurd topics for any and every paying client. For moments of razor-sharp clarity in a muddled world, for situations where small talk is not small, but a survival mechanism. For the gift of concentrated and communal striving, wherein the why may differ but the what is shared. For times when you are not injuring eternity at all, but rather investing in it.
* * *
Somewhere around mile 80 of 120, my friend said, “I always ask myself why I do stuff like this. Why do we do stuff like this?”
I was concussed, on powerful antibiotics for a sinus infection, and hurting from the long day on the bike. Somehow, I have managed to put nearly a lifetime of hurt on my body in about a third of an average lifetime, but it keeps coming back for more. I was not sure if the question was rhetorical or not, and typical of my awkward, literal self, I answered it.
I do this stuff because we don’t have to. You sign up for something completely elective, that is absurdly hard, that you know you are not prepared for but swear you will finish. There is a lot of unknown, and because it is an official event, you are even less likely to quit when the going gets tough. And mostly because I will remember today much more vividly than I’ll ever remember yesterday, or tomorrow for that matter.
I may have said it for him, or perhaps to remind myself of things I’d forgotten. Cycling very nearly cost me my life a couple of years ago, and yet last Saturday it gave me the most life I’ve had in almost two years. I live for those steep hills many hours into the day, where your cardiovascular system and your soul both conspire to propel you forward—this is where we are made whole, teetering on the brink of aimlessness and singularity.
Humans are masters of creating workarounds and improving upon existing technologies, all in an effort to make life more comfortable and easier than ever before. Our cars have air-conditioned seats, our telephones have more computing power than last decade’s office-grade desktops, our medicine is so good that anyone not living well into their eighties is “gone too soon.” The fly rod I ordered just before writing this sentence “casts 20% further than the previous model.”
We are utterly cocooned and paying dearly for it.
* * *
A lot of people are terrified of hearing themselves think. There is always a song or a podcast or some nervous chatter fighting back against the rich inner dialog of the mind. A gravitation towards activities which entertain and engage more than they challenge or deprive. That is part of why there is such cultural virtue in the traditional path—it offers an ever-dangling carrot, first one then the next, until we finally reach the last one and then get to sit and wonder if it was all worth it. Of course, by the time this happens, it is far too late to do much about it.
But at least you didn’t have to spend silent nights contemplating the different squeaks the cold and hot faucets make, at least you did not have to sit and remember something embarrassing or off-color you said a decade prior. To say nothing of the emotional roller coaster invoked by your phone buzzing for the first time in hours, or was it days?
It is common knowledge that we fall to pieces in the absence of community or purpose, but is this fall not a nervous reflex more than an absolute fixity? Can we not wax and wane like the moon and the tides, and provide some space to know ourselves better before getting to know a new set of people and places?
We get such a high during long races or creative frenzies, a higher high upon completion, and a crushing low once we realize it is over. A scatterbrained joy at hosting friends, a sigh of relief when the weekend is over and they head home, and a poignant emptiness in the guest bedroom a few days later. We are biologically programmed to strive, but how many of us deny ourselves the chance to realize that or harness it meaningfully? Because striving after a promotion and striving after catching a fully wild smallmouth bass in a nameless Ozark stream are two very different things. And who’s to say which has more merit?
The point is not the thing––it is how we enjoy it. The point is that you do not sacrifice what is true inside of you for what people told you is true about the outside world. Because the outside world shoots you dead in a high school art class, it pounces on you like a cougar on a backcountry mountain bike trail, it ends with a feeble last breath surrounded by loved ones, it votes you into the Hall of Fame, it forgets all about you.
But we can live vigorously, experience fully, and remember every time we are tempted to forget. When I watch a wooly bugger hit the water, I always believe there is a chance that this cast may be the one that finally results in one of the famed “slab-sided” smallmouth bass I am looking for, even though usually it results in nothing at all. When I go out for a bike ride, I always expect it to be miserably hard and also deliriously enjoyable. When I notice a woman around my age, my eyes dart first towards her ring finger in a way that can only be explained by biology society; there is either hope yet or none at all. When I pick up my guitar, I know that I will be reminded of how much better I was when I was 18, and that I will make music for no reason at all. Animals do not need art to survive. And I do not make a living off art, especially the musical variety. But what would be the point of making a living if I weren’t actually living all the while?