Quicksand

Last Monday, my course veered undetectably by me. Until the moment my body slammed to the ground–rudely snapped against a boardwalk much like a rag doll without consideration of human bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, and blood–I thought I was simply out riding my bike.

A simple swerve to the right–or was it to the left?–over mist-covered algae growing on a wood boardwalk changed the course of my wheels, my day, and perhaps even my life. The loss of traction was immediate. There was no skid, no slow motion fall, no time to realize I was under attack by the forces of physics that remain as undeniable as death and taxes. I found myself on the ground, shocked.

A tiny version of myself stepped outside my body and tried to make a video of all it could see, but my tiny self’s view was obstructed by the giant helmet on my banged-up head, the bars and shafts that made up my bicycle, my Gulliver-sized legs, and the shadows cast by all. Yet my tiny self was amazed to watch my big self rise up to a seated position and do its best to be sociable with a woman who had stopped to help.

Smiling, making a joke even, denying any serious injury. Above all else, protecting self by refusing to admit any vulnerability to a stranger–even a lone mother walking her infant in a stroller.

All pain was pushed aside. The knot of confusion was barely hinted at in the statement, “I hit my head.” I stood. I walked. She rolled my bike along. I sat on a bench, she parked my bike next to me, assured me she would be back shortly to check on me and disappeared both visually and in my memory until hours later when I suspected I’d dreamt her. Then, later still, the video my tiny self made was unlocked from some deep archive and returned to my big self for viewing.

Yet, I remembered I had a phone. I remembered where it was. I remembered the password to unlock it. I remembered how to call my husband. I asked him to come and get me. My tiny self was fully back onboard with my big self at this point–there was no video for me to return to later.

I still cannot recall the conversation with my husband. Nor can I recall the quarter-mile walk I undertook to meet him at the nearest street–I had fallen on a pedestrian-only portion of the Tennessee Riverwalk.

What I do recall is a moment of utter panic. Of being uncertain that I was going in the right direction, uncertain of where I was, uncertain as to what was happening. I choked down an urge to sob. I gave up crying long ago, after my mother’s funeral. My mother was the only person I ever knew with a healthy respect for a stranger’s tears–the only person I knew who was comfortable to just allow them. For everyone else, they are at least a source of discomfort if not disgust.

I keep mine close. Occasionally, I allow moisture in deep empathy for someone else’s pain. But if you see a tear for my own pain, it’s either a once in a decade occurrence or you’re someone I trust with my life.

To be standing on a street corner lost and confused and blubbering would be the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my life. Standing on a street corner lost and confused was close enough. I swallowed hard, choked once, blinked away any tear that had dared to form, and recalled my phone.

I scoured my muddled mind for a memory of having spoken to my husband recently. A vague impression of having had a conversation formed much like a shape bubbling up briefly from under quicksand, then sinking and disappearing again. I wanted to reach for the memory, but feared grabbing it would mire me in muck so deep I might not surface again. I let it go.

I dialed my husband again. The words that came were, “Are you coming to get me? I’m so confused.” And I choked back a sob for a second time.

He talked to me from that moment until he arrived to pick me up. His voice my lifeline through the quicksand of my mind. Then, he scooped me safely into our van where a wet muzzle reached from behind my seat to check on me, reminding me my boys will protect me and care for me when I will let them. It’s the letting them that’s always the hardest part.

In the ER, I learned I had a concussion. Nothing dangerous or permanent, just scary. I was sent home to heal with instructions not to watch TV, use any electronic devices with a screen, or read any non-fiction. Thankfully, I was allowed to sleep.

I thought I would be fine in 2 days. I was not. The more I learn, the more I realize this isn’t something you recover from at the same rate as the 24-hour flu.

I’ve also learned that bike helmets don’t offer much protection against concussions. I’ve found one that promises a novel design technology called MIPS that’s supposed to have slightly better protection than traditional bike helmets against concussions. At $219, it seems pricey. When I get the ER bill, it will seem like a bargain if it works.

I will heal and I will ride again. But the experience of temporary dementia haunts me. I find myself wondering if more than my tires veered.

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Dams and Damns

Rainy weather has kept me off my bike since our return from Germany. But today, the weather is decent and I’m home alone so I can ride wherever and however I want. I am determined to get back on my bike after so many weeks off. As soon as I can pull myself away from work, I get my bike out and go.

I tell myself just to go slow and relax since I haven’t ridden in so long, but I can’t seem to stop from pushing myself. It feels good to crank up a hill. I remind myself again that it’s been a while since I’ve ridden and that I’m planning a bigger ride in the morning and don’t want to be too tired or sore. But, I push a little harder going up a hill anyway. I’m like a little kid who doesn’t know how to pace herself.

I settle down a bit as I get into slippery boardwalks with blind curves and pedestrians. Even so, I almost collide head on with another cyclist when we both take a blind turn wide at the same time going in opposite directions. We both jump, brake, and move back to our respective sides. I feel my mouth formed in a perfect “O”, still stuck in my surprise.

I continue on my way even more cautious of the blind turns. But, I have no more close calls as I go past the various landmarks that mark progress along the trail. I pass the riverside restaurant that I want to stop at “some time.” I get to the boat house for the local rowing club that I keep meaning to visit “when I have time.” I continue past the practice football field that I can’t figure out which team uses. I make it into the gate that marks the part of the trail that is supposed to be 3-5 MPH. I glide slowly around the pedestrians in this area, trying not to draw attention to the fact that I’m going more like 10 MPH. I brake to a crawl every time I approach someone walking and call out politely (I hope), “I’m on your left,” and say “Thank you!” if they step right to make room for me. I am a regular ambassador of cyclist, pedestrian relations.

Eventually, I make it to the Chickamauga Dam. Today, the water is calmer than last time. Less churn seems to correlate with fewer blue heron. A fisherman hunkers down on the rocks in a shape identical to a giant great blue heron. I wonder if assuming the shape allows him to also assume the patience–they are the most patient birds I’ve ever watched. Then, I wonder how many of the men fishing in these toxic waters are fishing to feed their families. The sign warning fishermen about eating more than 1 fish a month from these waters still looms large on the shore. I wonder, given the choice, how many people would choose starvation over toxic fish?

I ride out to the overlook of the dam. But I am not interested in the dam so much as counting heron. The collection on the shore blends into the rocks in a way that defies the size of a great blue heron. Were it not for the low sun casting long shadows, my eye would skip right over them. As it is, I am left to guess how many I don’t see. The men and heron scattered over the rocks create an image of survival. I feel certain that there is deeper meaning in this tableau, but I am at a loss to articulate it.

I make my way back towards home, riding at a quicker pace now that the pedestrians are mostly gone and my rear end is reminding me why cyclists should wear padded biking shorts. Fortunately, the ride seems shorter on the way back and I am soon approaching the last hill up to the Bluffview Art District.

As I exit the switchback from the pedestrian/bike bridge, I encounter a bit of a traffic jam. A wedding party seems to be having a rehearsal in the sculpture garden. Two cars are headed towards me, the first confused when faced with the cul-de-sac. The bridge I have just come across dumps me into this same cul-de-sac and I must cross it to continue on my way while the car must perform a U-turn. The second vehicle is a large SUV and the woman driving has stopped so that she is blocking the entire road exiting the cul-de-sac. Plus, she is looking at the wedding party instead of the road, oblivious to my presence. I hesitate, balancing on my pedals hoping she will move on before I have to stop. I have not snapped in my left foot just in case she doesn’t move. Unfortunately, even after 44 years of intimate knowledge of my ability to hurt myself, I have failed to predict that this time I will fall to the right. I cannot get my right foot unsnapped fast enough and I fall to the ground with a thud as a loud, “God Dammit!” escapes unedited.

To add insult to injury, both drivers, still completely unaware that they have each contributed to the circumstances that led to my fall, pull up and ask through their windows if I’m OK as I struggle to free my foot so I can stand. Then, as I regain my feet, a man suddenly appears at my side out of breath and apparently ready to perform triage, “Are you OK?” he asks anxiously. This strikes me as being ridiculous to the point of offensiveness. I try to be polite, but I really just want everyone to pretend like they didn’t see a thing and let me sulk in my embarrassment. As a result, my answers are short and tight, communicating my desire to be left alone a little too plainly. When the man walks away, he’s clearly the one offended.

In the category of “could this situation get any worse,” when I try to ride away, my rear wheel won’t roll. Now, I have a lot of experience troubleshooting software over the years, so you’d think I’d check the simplest possible problem first. But, no. I get out my allen wrenches and start trying to adjust my rear disk brake, assuming that’s the culprit. After my adjustments make no immediate difference (possibly because I actually have no idea how to adjust my disk brakes), I decide to take another look. I realize the problem is much simpler: the seatpost has a rack attached to it for my saddlebags. The seatpost turned in the fall and now the rack is pressing against the rear tire.

All I need to do is open the seatpost clamp, twist the seat back to straight, and close the clamp again. Unfortunately, I can’t get a good grip on the clamp release and it’s tight. I swing the bike around for a better angle and end up with the bike across the sidewalk, the lever in my right hand, and my right foot against the frame of the bike for leverage. As I struggle with the clamp, I suddenly realize that the entire wedding party is now flowing down the sidewalk towards me. In my peripheral vision, I can see that they are gathering just short of my bike and coming to a stop. I’m too irritable at this point to be social, so I keep working without looking up, but I expect someone to offer help at any moment.

Instead, when I sneak a quick sideways glance, I realize they are confounded by the obstacle. They just want to leave, but I am blocking their path. This irritates me further. Did they not see me on the sidewalk when they headed this direction? Were they too fearful of using the street that has 2 cars an hour on it and those 2 cars drove off after they ensured my fall? Someone in the group finds a space between a road sign and the curb and the group narrows and starts flowing past me, single file. It’s my first experience as a dam.

Then, the concerned man approaches. If I had any doubt that I offended him earlier, it was removed as he walked by me briskly without so much as a sideways glance even though I’m clearly struggling with the bike. I feel remorse, but it only intensifies my desire to leave. Fortunately, the clamp releases and I’m able to make the adjustment and get on with my life.

I crank up the hill through the district harder than I thought was possible. As I pass the remaining wedding party members getting into their cars or lingering on the sidewalks, all I can think is, “Damn it! Get me out of here!” I am sending all my angst to my pedals. I can only hope that none of these people will recognize me if they ever see me again.

Unfortunately, I have to get off the bike and walk across the glass bridge only 100 yards or so later with plenty of angst still throbbing in my temples. But I take a deep breath and re-group mentally before I mount up and ride across the Walnut St bridge. It’s a Friday night and the bridge is full of tourists with small children. If I fall again, I will likely throw my bike off the bridge, and the last thing I need is to run over a small child. I relax and take it slow as I maneuver through the crowd.

I am relieved to make it home safely–that is, I am safe and so is the public. I check my bike out to make sure it will be in shape to ride tomorrow and then I put it away and focus on making a good recovery dinner. Who says you can’t have adventure close to home?