Friday, December 31, 2010

And Then ...

It’s December 31, 2010. The last day of the year in which I turned 30 years old and spent my summer cycling across North America.

A lot of my friends have lamented turning 30. And it had me wondering: when did getting another year of life become a bad thing? Even if it's the aging process that we specifically dread, I could bet that anyone who dies young would gladly trade wrinkles and grey hairs for extra years.

There’s a feeling I had on the roads between Astoria, Oregon, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was a sensation in which the days were undefined, separate, distinct. I didn’t think in weeks or months, but solely in “new days”. Our routes took us out of blurred hotel parking lots and into unfamiliar territory. There was no doubling back to a point of origin. Every length of road and approaching bend was a blank canvas, drawing itself ahead of us in rays of color and light.

That was exciting.

There was no empty feeling that sometimes lingers on Sunday evenings as another weekend winds down. It was not a cycle of inconsequential, sluggish Monday mornings, followed by a week mirrored in monotonous routines. There was no TGIF.

That was refreshing.

Time had no symmetry on the road.

That was nice.

How do I get that feeling back?

That's the million-dollar question.

I received an email from my friend Monique recently. It read: "Do you still enjoy your days instead of rushing through them? I know that was an important key on your cycling tour."

"I'm trying," I wrote back, to which she responded with a sad emoticon.

"That's life," I replied. I paused and stared at my fingers resting on the keypad and then I typed: "It's hard to hold onto."

Some of my fellow cyclists from the America By Bicycle "Across America North" tour mentioned gloomy notions of returning to our separate realities. But while our extended vacation from the normal day-to-day was a fully-supported cycling utopia of sorts, I try not to let myself view the experience entirely euphorically. The elements were not always pleasant. My body developed a variety of chronic ailments. The hotel beds were not always comfortable, and since I was sharing triple-room accommodations with two other cyclists, I was on a creaky rollaway every third night. It was the hardest, most physically demanding and muscularly excruciating thing I’ve ever done in my life.

And it was the best.

Now that it’s over, I feel myself lingering on good memories, like watching soft breezes roll fields of wheat in glistening waves or listening to a lone hawk cry majestically as I reached a mountain summit. But I have to purposely recall the difficult moments, like the sudden hailstorm in Rapid City or the sweltering heat on the day we rode into Sioux Falls or the torrential downpours the morning we cycled into Minnesota. Or the way my leg muscles burned on mountain ascents in Oregon, Wyoming, South Dakota, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. I don’t want to unrealistically romanticize the overall experience because the beautiful moments strengthened me spiritually and the hard times strengthened me mentally. Both have equal value.

And since it’s been over, it has been a whirlwind trying to re-settle into my "real life." I returned to New York City in the best physical shape of my life, yet the emotional disorientation left me feeling unsure of myself. We had been prepped by the ABB staff to anticipate some mild depression associated with the readjustment of endorphins when we suddenly stopped cycling 60-100 miles a day. However, I was caught off guard by the amount of anxiety I felt in returning home. It was even slightly overwhelming to look into a closet and have to think about what to wear instead of just throwing on padded lycra shorts and a jersey.

I’ve been at work for several months now, and it has been harder to transition back into a role as a proficient executive assistant than it was it become a capable cyclist. Returning to the office, I was rusty. And it showed. Lots of little mistakes and more than just a few big ones. It's not that I could no longer see the value in my role at the company, I just see so much more beyond that now.

When I arrived 20 minutes late to the office one morning, rushing along the congested streets and into one of Manhattan's high rises, I glanced nervously at my watch. It was 9:20am. I suddenly felt a lump rising in my throat and felt my eyes misting over.

On the road, 9:20 meant that I had been cycling for three hours, watching a golden sunrise paint the horizon in dramatic layers of yellow and orange. Sunrises lasted longer on the road.

Here, in the “real world,” 9:20am meant that I had raced out of my apartment without eating breakfast, scrambled with a disgruntled mass of commuters through the subway tunnels and city streets like a ping pong ball, and was feverishly checking voicemail and skimming emails for anything that might have required attention 20 minutes ago. There was no sunrise.

Yet my cycling tour had been a “real world”, too. A very real one that was beginning to feel more and more like a fantasy every day. Returning to my New Yorker life, I felt buried in a mass of metal and concrete in my beloved city. While standing at the copier machine, I often glanced out of our office’s sprawling windows and looked for flags lining the Hudson River so that I could gauge the wind direction and speed. I snuck peeks at my fellow cyclists' tour blogs and online photo albums in between assignments, reminiscing about the summer in between phone calls and emails. Whenever I was a passenger in a car, it took awhile to stop staring at the edge of the road, assessing how I would navigate the potholes and debris on the shoulder if I were on a bicycle. I yearned for the click of cranksets and the hum of spinning tires. I missed the unfamiliar road. I missed the thrill of the unknown. I missed my roadmates. And sometimes I wondered, “Did I really do it?”


I still look at Maddy, idling in the hallway closet for the winter, and it's incredible to realize that I crossed North America on those two wheels. When I first got home, the achievement seemed to cast a lackluster across the other areas of my life that had previously held more significance.

New Jersey Mark alleviated some of the commuter stress in a place where I had once delighted in the New Yorker cliché of pounding the pavement in stilettos, dark glasses shading my eyes from the sunrays bouncing off the steel towers of Midtown, a Starbucks latte in one hand and a designer handbag slung over my shoulder. He drove into the city one day and brought me a used cruiser. An old, rusty, clanking bicycle that I absolutely adore. Within 24 hours of receiving it, I was cycling over the Brooklyn Bridge and into the streets of Manhattan, transforming my morning and evening commutes into my favorite parts of the day.

I could have created an entire blog featuring cycling commuters. There were men in three-piece suits, women in wool skirts and knee-high boots. Baskets, baby seats, brief cases, messenger bags and bells. I even saw a man in a pinstripe ensemble, toting a woman in a blazer and pencil skirt. She was standing behind him on rear axle pegs with her Louis Vuitton purse hanging across her back. The novelty of my transformed commute lasted until mid-November when the winter temperatures made it inconvenient and uncomfortable to cycle 4.5 miles in office attire.

However, my love affair with the city was firmly rekindled as the winter months approached - thanks largely in part to the cruiser from New Jersey Mark. That and the fact that simply living here increases the likelihood that old friends will be in the city at some point - and often sooner rather than later - just because it’s New York. In the last three months alone, in addition to New Jersey Mark, I've seen Toronto Mark, Joe, Canada Jeff, Andrew, Sandy, Leo, Margot and Gary - some of them more than once. And not all of them live in the northeast - or in the country for that matter.

For all the things I love about New York - all the things that brought me here on a whim and that I hope will keep me here for many years to come - there is one aspect of the energetic, fast-paced city that drove me to find an adventure like cycling across North America. Or - really - it was the final straw in a driving force that was propelled by the passage of 30 years that have gone by in a wink.

Time.

I don’t want it all to be over so quickly. I don't want it to pass insignificantly.

And time is not more fleeting anywhere else than in the hustle and bustle of New York. The day after I dipped Maddy's front wheel into the Atlantic, I could feel the seconds hasten as soon as I caught my first glimpse of the city skyline. I hadn't seen its bold, jagged outline in nearly eight weeks, and I'm hesitant to admit that I was slightly intimidated by the sights and sounds that had only ever electrified and comforted me. I knew I would not - and could not - retain my renaissance of routine life here, but there is one thing I won't do ...

I will never again grumble about long days as if having a long day is a bad thing. Hard days, sure. Those are inevitable and shamelessly “admit-able”. But I'll never respond to inquiries on my emotional state with: "I had a long day."

Similarly to lamenting birthdays and aging, when have we ever really yearned for short days that fast-forward the moments of our lives in a blurred, speeding reel? Especially for those in nations of privilege - where so many illusions of entitlement exist - time is entitled to no one. To not take advantage of the opportunity to simply enjoy the time we have is the biggest waste of all, particularly if we are blessed enough to live relatively comfortable lives. Whether we recognize that fact or not, boredom is a choice. We - especially Americans - essentially must choose to be bored. And I choose not to be.

In high school, I spent a semester volunteering in a nursing home in Weaverville, North Carolina. I have a vivid memory of an old woman laying in her bed, staring at the ceiling, laboring to breathe. As vivid as the image is, it had been nearly forgotten until I was cycling alone and letting my mind wander on a road in Wyoming over a decade later. And suddenly, I imagined myself in her place, a prisoner in my aging body, perhaps recalling a lazy afternoon 40 or 50 years earlier in my life. And I swear that I nearly felt myself yearning for some generic, lazy, boring day as if I could no longer experience the comfort of it.

It was an epiphany.

I don't actually know if that old woman in my memory was harboring such regrets, but I know that I don't want to near the end of my life and realize that I did it all wrong. Some of it - sure. But not all of it.

Before I chose the manner in which I would honor my 30th birthday - and long before that Wyoming ephiphany - I only knew I wanted to start filling my life with things I wouldn’t normally do. Things that are a little nuts – like skydive or swim with sharks or move to New York City without an apartment or a job or, say, try to cross North America as a novice cyclist with minimal training.

Even then, I prepared as much as I could in the year leading up to my 2010 transcontinental journey (as I had also done in the year leading up to my 2006 move to New York) because I choose to seek thrills as often - and as responsibly - as possible. Monique calls me a calculated risk taker. Let's face it, I'm not going to "live everyday as if it were my last".

But my desire for thrills was most clearly defined on day 23 of the tour when I was browsing a rack of greeting cards at the famous Wall Drug in South Dakota. From that day forward, the words of Neale Donald Walsch etched themselves into the fabric of my journey and the very essence of my existence: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

That sentence essentially summed up exactly what I had gone out there to do. Thrills - even the relatively responsible ones - don’t frequently reside where it’s comfortable.

The conclusion of my cycling journey - and even the self-reflection and personal insight I discovered along the way - did not bring all trials and suffering to a final resolution. There are still anxieties. Discomforts. Cranky mornings. Rough days. Sleepless nights. Worries. Dilemmas. Obstacles. Heartache.

The pattern of my life will not likely circle back in agreeable symmetry the way it often does in movies and novels. Unlike a great story, it's not the ending that is the most important in a great life, but rather it's the fact that we existed at all.

This isn’t “Eat Pray Love”. I didn’t sail off into an Indonesian sunset with Terrence in a happily-ever-after moment - though he did propose along a rocky shoreline in Portsmouth about five hours later (I said yes). SPOILER ALERT: It didn't work out.

And at the end of my cross-country cycling tour, America By Bicycle's mantra proved right. The worst day on my bicycle was better than my best day in the office. It made me more aware of what's valuable and what is not.

At the risk of sounding like a self-help guide to finding inspiration and motivation: seek pleasure when appropriate, relax and reflect when you can, try not to fear failure, recognize mistakes as soon as possible, and appreciate the days you are granted regardless of circumstance. Ninety-nine percent of the time, bad times could always be worse.

Find something that lengthens your days. That makes you savor time. That lets you feel moments. Even if it's something small and only lasts for a moment. Take that moment to recognize that you exist - even when battling frigid winds on Eleventh Avenue during the weekday commute to the recesses of Chelsea or facing a barrage of unending emails in a sterile cubicle.

And sometimes when I’m in the crowded subway, trying to turn my face as far from a stranger’s armpit as possible, or I’m arguing with Terrence about trivial couple’s woes, or I’m tackling a mountain of paperwork on my desk or standing on a 60-person checkout line at Trader Joe’s, an image from my cross-country journey or a funny moment with my roadmates will sometimes emerge in the chaos. And I smile.

14 comments:

jhansen said...

Congratulations on your engagement! I followed you all summer and waited to hear how you transitioned back to your NY life. I am glad to hear after a slightly rough return things have evened out. This was a well written entry and your words touched me. I think sometimes we get caught up in our lives that we forget to see beyond it. You have seen beyond it and continue to. I hope you continue to write because your blog is one of the best I've read! Thanks for touching me with your words.

Monique said...

I hope that you re-read this blog from time-to-time... like if you ever feel like "life" is causing you to lament the long days again. This was very well written (as usual) & is such a motivation :)TGIT!!

bamacyclist said...

Katie, your reflections of your ride were well expressed. It's hard to know how some people will react to the rigors of the road, but you get it. You were definitely out of your comfort zone when you showed up at Astoria, but from what I gather from your blog, you felt it was well worth the time and effort and you had a positive experience. I'm proud to know you and proud to have been a part of your amazing journey. I sincerely hope to see you on the road again someday if you can tear yourself away from all the responsibilites you have now that you've returned to "real life." Take care and stay safe my friend...thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Montu said...

Hi! I'm new one on your blog! Rare things are which touch your heart and brings some memories!!
Thanks !!

Roger@Bike Racks said...

Hey congratulations for your engagement. Nice group photo.

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