I ride along a narrow trail, racing the dark, following the river. I’m not sure where I am and I’m not sure it matters. The only reality is the trail in front of me, the heavy grey of the rocks and the stern permanence of the trees. All day I hear the sound of the river.
We’d awakened to clear, crisp air, and towering trees. Mist hung on the nearby mountain peaks and frost crunched in the grass under our feet. Last night’s ghosts dissolved in the bright morning sun and we joked and bantered as we headed to the trailhead. We’d rolled out in the bright morning, sun beams filtering through the forest, bikes gleaming clean, smiles wide. But that was a long time ago now.
There’s a place you go in your head when you’ve been on the bike for a while and you know you still have hours, maybe many hours, left to go. The movements become automatic. Push the left pedal, then the right. Lift the bike over an obstacle. Walk up the steep climb. The trick is just to keep moving forward. You can’t stop, not out here in the middle of the forest, a long way from anywhere.
I’m following a trail carved high into the steep canyon above the river. The earth falls away inches from my feet. The sound of the water echoes off the canyon walls and hangs suspended in the air, infinite. I watch the water dance through the rocks and throw itself headlong over the rapids, frothing white with the sheer exuberance of living.
I come from drought country where water is scarce. Like ribbons cut too short, the rivers rarely reach the sea. We dam our rivers, their waters captured and held for the inevitable day when the rain no longer comes. The reservoirs evaporate inexorably under the sun’s scorching heat and we build the docks longer each season. I’ve mostly forgotten what it sounds like, the rain falling on the roof at night. It feels so strange and beautiful and right to see a river running wild, reckless in the sun.
My mind wanders as the hours stretch out. The energy bars in my bag aren’t especially interesting now and I crave unattainable foods, pizza and burritos, my two favorite food groups. I stare at the bright blue of my shoes. Maybe I’ve taken this whole blue thing a little too far. The solid weight of the bike anchors me. The aluminum feels cold in my hands and as I walk up yet another steep climb, the pedal hits the back of my calf with a blunt force. It’s reassuring in its materiality, that pedal, but I’ll have bruises tomorrow.
The rocks slice through the ground at sharp angles, like a painting born in Picasso’s febrile mind. I wonder what the rocks are and where they came from, but I’d studied the history of people and their wars, not the metamorphosis of the rocks. Unmoored from their meanings, the words drift through my tired mind – igneous, Eocene, batholith – a history written in a language I don’t understand.
I keep riding, still wondering about the rocks, still marveling at the sound of the water. The light’s gone now, the sun’s glow a faint memory on a faraway horizon. The terrain opens into a clearing and a man sits alone, a dark silhouette, strumming a guitar. The sound hovers in the air in a gentle counterpoint to the roar of the water. They kept riding, the man tells me, so I do too.
The ground rises up uneven under my feet. The trail’s too steep to ride here and I walk steadily on, tripping occasionally over nothing. I feel the forest pressing inward on me, the trees, the water’s sound, the darkness. It isn’t so much frightening, this dark walk alone, as claustrophobic. I feel the trees bending toward me, as if captured in a wide angle lens that warps and curves lines meant to be straight. I feel trapped in a world without a sky.
The trail reaches the road and ends. I’m not sure where to go from here, but when I look left, I see an uphill grind to an unknown destination. I decide to turn right and roll downhill slowly, looking for a place to camp. I’m ready to stop moving now and be still. Food and a warm bed, they call to me with a siren’s song.
Thin points of light flash in the distance and after the dark of the forest, I’m drawn toward light. There are cars parked along the road and it’s strange to realize that I hadn’t been as far away from the world as I’d imagined. I hear the familiar sound of my friends’ voices echoing through the darkness. I ride faster toward their welcome. My odyssey over, I’m home at last.
We gather close, sipping soup, our companionship providing warmth against the darkness. The river’s damp chill hangs heavy in the air. Raccoons perch in the trees above us, watching, curious. We talk of everything and nothing, fatigue from the day cutting sentences short and leaving thoughts half-formed. We try to stay awake a while, but eventually, we concede to sleep and wander, one by one, off to our beds.
I zip up the tent flap, the nylon a paper thin barrier to the outside world and nestle down deep. The river’s roar surrounds me. And all night long, I dream of water.