There are days when nothing seems to feel real, where the unfolding moments of the day seem to happen as passively as if on-screen. You may be surrounded by the best people or bear witness to the worst tragedy, and it all slides by in the time-space event horizon, slipping along like billowy clouds coasting through the sky on some invisible high-altitude breeze. The love of a good woman or an overdue hospital bill both hit the veneered dining table with the same slightly hollow “thud”—it looks nice, but somewhere in the core of the table, or maybe it’s the legs, a sound betrays the fact that it is not as solid as it looks. In these times, I don’t quite know what can break through the thick layer of ice that forms over the still, deep waters of the mind.
The disconnect from reality is not pleasant, it is no benzo or klonapin muting the inputs until nothing hurts. It is violent and jarring. You can feel synapses reaching for one another, their hands just slipping, a half inch too far apart, and the feelings go plummeting into the void despite their best efforts to hold on. So there is a constant smack, each time a feeling or thought slips and falls and hits the bottom, and it aches dully and renders consciousness a battle between experience and perception. You notice everything, hoping something might stick. You write a dozen lines in your mind and none are left by the time you swing open the front door and wake up the laptop.
And you might share that you don’t feel anything, or that you don’t feel ‘good’ in any sense of the word. They will counter by telling you that you are good and that they wish they understood, that you should maybe just lighten up and everything will be ok. And maybe it will, and usually this is the exact sort of thing that I might say, except for when it all feels so fake that there is nothing to say at all.
These are the scenes that unfold like fleeting vignettes in a sea of blank, heavy darkness. A moment of utter silence when a stiff bicycle acts as an extension of your body, when you are warm enough to feel good and not yet tired enough to count down. The tires make a particular sound as they whoosh along the chipseal. A man down an empty gravel road, approaching with warm greeting after you stop to pet a friendly road dog, informing you it belongs to his brother in law, and noting in a syrupy country accent after some dutiful weather talk, “It really is just one of those sultry autumn days.” An Arkansas State Highway Patrolman, hitting his lights when you already realize your mistake, pulling over before he even has a chance to chase you. He doesn’t even take your license, he simply says, “Of course, this is a 60 zone and you were doing ‘round about 78.” Hank regards him with a friendly point. “You and your partner there be sure to have a good day.” No ticket is issued, and for a handful of minutes, you believe in good luck. As soon as the rising waters of the White River pour over the tops of your waders, that belief dissipates as quickly as the frigid water fills every fiber of denim on your pants.
Somewhere deep in the Ozark National Forest, where nobody has been and nobody will ever go, a logger regards a group of cyclists with a raucous skepticism. He knows every road we have ridden and every road we plan to ride, and he notes, “That ain’t flat,” about one and then the next. We are conquering something useless, taking the path of most resistance for our own intangible benefit. For a few minutes, it feels as purposeful as a person could ever hope. He shares a photo of a timber rattlesnake, easily six feet long, that “Got runneth over,” while sunning on a lone stretch of pavement in a county full of gravel roads.
Two weeks later, a gravel bike ride in Osage County, Oklahoma. A well-worn Nissan Xterra pulling a rattle-canned camo Jon Boat passes a group of cyclists. And then as we crest a steep hill, the truck and trailer are jackknifing and see-sawing all over the road. My mind races backwards to the last time I saw a car behave this erratically around bikes, and I feel that searing, bright, ringing sensation of metal and plastic and skin and concrete, all smashing into each other as chaos replaces a false sense of order. Only this time, he is not trying to hit me. He is trying to run over a rattlesnake sunning itself on the road, seemingly forgetting the physics of backing up with a trailer as his bloodthirst clouds his mathematical mind. “I was just trying to kill him for y’all,” the driver says out his rolled-down window.
The band of strangers rolls up and a wealthy middle-aged man from Tulsa says, “Yeah, way to go!” I stop and let the group drop me. I feign photographing the rattler, trying to convince a man bedecked in camouflage and a beard far gnarlier than mine that the snake is rare and not going to hurt us. It is slithering in a panic, having been hit once by the trailer wheel, but still somewhat alive. I stall, praying that it can just reach the knee-high brush and the stand of red oaks to the side of the road.
The hunter leaves his car and I ask him about duck season, knowing vaguely that it doesn’t start for a while yet. He is actually just crossing the lake to go deer hunting in a harder-to-access area. It doesn’t matter. The snake is struggling, and I hope it escapes. Then I cannot look at the man anymore, and I know I cannot ride with those people. I take off, and the man stands watching the snake. I wait to hear a gunshot that never comes, and I hope he was not armed with a shovel. I catch and pass the cyclists and I never see them again.
My mind flashes back to the ride in the Ozarks, when fast-driving cars plowed through fluttering butterflies, when I stopped to revere a butterfly that was in a tailspin inches off the ground, exhausted and coming to terms with the fact that his left wing was irreparably broken, even though the rest of his body was quite intact. I wonder what goes through its mind, coming to terms with its gradual and impending doom. He keeps testing it, hoping that it might provide lift, but the crease only worsens. I wonder if its true that one can put an animal out of its misery. I am not an arbiter of suffering, nor a killer of anything. So I just watch. I bear witness, and my heart pounds as I contemplate how strong he is and how cowardly I am. A fellow cyclist, who has just taken a large hit from a covert marijuana pipe, pedals over to where I am regarding the ground with grim attention. “Ohhh nooo,” he utters in a catatonic stoned haze. I still wonder exactly what process finally killed that butterfly.
We pedal onward and my mind reels backwards again, to a walk with Hank a few weeks prior. The horrible shriek of a cicada being attacked by a cicada-killer wasp. Sphecius speciosis. These wasps sting cicadas with a non-lethal, paralyzing venom, then drag them into their underground nests, where they lay an egg on top of a paralyzed cicada. The egg and cicada lay and wait, and when the larva hatches, it eats the living cicada as its first meal in the waking world. At some point during its consumption, the cicada dies. I regard this attack with a numbness. I have not had enough coffee, and even though a single boot stomp could kill both creatures, it is far too late for the cicada, and what good would killing do. Hank is frightened by the sound and he regards the duo with cautious distance. Without chemical assistance, I am not sure if my brain would ever work again.