Pedaling up and out of the Murdock Canal Trail tunnel, a woman catches my approach in her peripheral vision. She screams in alarm, lunging away from me and clutching her walking partner for protection, nearly tripping him. “Sorry,” I say.
I am a masked bandit—my every inch barricaded against the wind chill; I ride so fast. Really, I am just a desert tortoise unused to temperatures below fifty—though I grew up here. I’m out of my element, unable to wait for a flawless forecast, instead braving the sharp air because I must. But all these seemingly indigenous people on the path with me today think it the height of spring, evidenced by their lack of clothing. It’s deep winter to me, working at cycle therapy.
On April Fool’s Day, we swapped our Mojave Desert home for Grandpa’s place in Utah Valley—my daughter and I. My job title: chaperone, bodyguard, and valet. During spring break track practice, she broke her neck. Guardian angels held up her head in the hours before she made her way to the emergency room, was immobilized and sequestered in Las Vegas’ Sunrise Hospital Intensive Care Trauma Unit for four days. We’ve come at the mercy of a highly esteemed neurosurgeon promising to have her pole vaulting again in four months. Though this is hyperbole, his optimism is good medicine, as is my pedaling—my other job: to stay sane.
People wave. I don’t know them; they don’t know me. I am perplexed at their familiarity. I ignore them, simply making sure I don’t run into them. “On your left!” I shout as I approach from behind. Most move right, some dart, while others drift. At my signpost, parents grab their children and pull or navigate their strollers to the side. Some thank me. Often my warning falls on ears stuffed with noise of their own making. These people are even more insulated than I—oblivious.
I suppose people wave to be noticed and feel benevolent acknowledging me. There is an expectation of reciprocation. At first I feel annoyed by this burden, but then experiment:
I squint my eyes into a smile beneath my balaclava, sunglasses, and helmet. Is that enough? I wonder, unsatisfied with my paltry gift.
Then, I lift the fingers of my gloved hand, thumb still glued to my hoods, in a nonchalant pseudo-wave simultaneously launching a huge, invisible grin—emitting my goodwill like gamma radiation from beneath my headgear with a cursory nod. I imagine a glint of approval from their eyes.
Finally, I hurl a genuine wave, arm extended, vivacious smile vibrating in ripples like a skipped stone around my camouflage— the full monty! If they initiate the wave and I respond, I feel relief in meeting my moral obligation. If, however, I go whole hog and they ignore me, I feel an avalanche of dejection. “Outrageous!” I think. “How could they snub me?” Pedaling on, I muse on my own irony, ignoring who I like and waving at who I like—a capricious monarch caught up in my own ridiculousness.
There’s a guy who throws his whole arm out every time I pass him, coming and going day after day. He trundles down the path, out for exercise I guess, but is probably just waiting to see ME. As I approach, out goes his arm—the one closest to me. I think he’s going to smack me. It’s almost involuntary, like a guard gate arm triggered by infrared.
We each begin and end as individuals. But the in-between years we spend in pursuit of affinity, belonging, community, and companionship. Therefore we wave at strangers; therefore we ride and walk with strangers; therefore we write for strangers and read what strangers have written. We fling ourselves toward one another pitching tokens of conviviality seeking communion. Solitary confinement is a form of punishment and torture capable of inciting mental ruination. The most ghastly specter haunting the human psyche is not disease, famine, or death: it is aloneness.
Five abreast they push, pull, and prod—five mothers, five strollers (a couple double-wides), two Big Wheels, one trike, and twelve children all under six—a parade on wheels or a legion advancing to battle along Murdock Canal Trail. It is an imposing roadblock. “On your left … on your right … or down the middle,” I equivocate. Chaos breaks loose as my herald disrupts the forward momentum of the group. I slow, careful to downshift and unclip one foot, ready to navigate the unpredictable, moving obstacle course. A cacophony of squeals, moans, giggles, screams, cajoling and pacifying emanates from the brigade as in a C-grade horror film. It’s a daunting scene and I am relieved to make it through alive. I say a silent prayer for those mothers.
Further down the trail, I spot a black and white cat. It sits on the chilled pavement, looking up and away from the path, twitching its tail left and right. It is thinking. Like me, it may be ruminating on its next meal.
During my childhood, Murdock Canal delivered irrigation to farmers along Utah’s Wasatch Front. Backyards bordered it. I was often warned to stay away from it, for fear of drowning. After seventeen years of planning, the canal was finally buried. Below ground, 126-inch steel pipes invisibly deliver water to the valley. Up top, in May of 2013, the 17-mile trail from Provo Canyon to Thanksgiving Point was celebrated, today linking with other trails to create an impressive cycling network. Nearly two million people, and some cats, enjoy it annually.
The cat is a stray, I guess, as it has no collar and is about three miles north from where I saw it yesterday. Today it saunters along fences, purring loudly and rubbing its back on the wooden slats. It stops, staring upward as before, ignoring the path and its patrons. Does this cat have a destination in mind? What would mark the end of its journey? A good meal? Warmth? Belonging? Where on the path will I see it tomorrow? Maybe, like me, aimlessly roaming is its objective.
Pedaling fifteen miles from home leaves me, uh, fifteen miles from home. Committed. It’s another fifteen miles back home, usually uphill. I can’t change my mind mid-ride. I first check the weather forecast— hour by hour. Precipitation? Wind speed? “Wind is the perfect training partner” echoes my better-self.
My favorite routes are downhill—all the way. This is unrealistic. If it weren’t, I’d be unfit for practically any ride, since they all entail some challenge: elevation, distance, terrain, traffic, or weather. If I only rode my bike in my house, clamped into my personal Rock and Roll trainer like so many gym-rat spinners, I’d never get up the next hill or know how to navigate a double-left turn at a traffic intersection in the real world. Plus, I’d never have a story.
Hills are food for thought. Pedaling up a steep hill at perhaps six mph yields lots of think-time—talk-time, too. I once began and cemented a friendship during the hour it took to climb from the Colorado River overlook in El Dorado Canyon to Nelson’s Landing, Nevada, past the old mines and ghost town, all the while breathlessly getting acquainted and then bearing our souls, discovering we were indeed kindred spirits.
Once the summit is reached, it’s a quick trip back down at break-neck speeds, doubled over to maximize aerodynamics while focusing on the line the wheel will take dodging debris and potholes. We climb the hill just so we can go down it—or maybe not. Maybe it’s the climb, not the descent, that actually accounts for the exhilaration. Einstein reported that he formulated his best ideas while riding his bike. I bet he was pedaling uphill.
While my daughter recovered, flat on her back with neck braced, my first ride-for-sanity was of the Murdock Canal Trail, suggesting an imminent efflorescence of color in every direction. All around were lilac and flowering pear, cherry, apple, and plum trees festooned with tight-lipped buds. Along the path the verdant ground abounded with early wildflowers and, in adjacent yards, canary-yellow daffodils were in full tilt. Pastel tulips, looking like Easter eggs, bordered walks and drives poised to unfurl. The snowcapped Wasatch Mountains, shrouded with cloud-shadows, made a dramatic backdrop. I saw nothing but promise in every direction.
One large-bloomed tree caught my eye and I saw several stunning specimens of it along the trail. It looked like a magnolia, but my experience argued that magnolias grow in southern, humid climates. Day after day, I gawked at this tree, watching as it reached its height of grandeur, boasting blooms of pale-to-bright pink the size of my face! Finally I stopped and asked passers-by its name, thinking a local would know it. One, two … six people were clueless. I was stunned by their apathy and ignorance. Were they blind? I took a picture of it with my phone. I rode to my dad’s house and showed it to him. He quickly identified the tree by name: Ann (such a common name for an uncommon tree). Indeed it was a magnolia, but a hybrid of M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ and M. stellata ‘Rosea,’ part of the Little Girl group including ‘Ann,’ ‘Betty,’ ‘Jane,’ and ‘Judy,’ developed in the mid-1950’s at the National Arboretum and recently introduced to northern Utah. Dad said he planted four in his yard over the past few years but they’ve all winter-killed.
It rained yesterday and the day before. Earthworms usurped the usual trail traffic during the downpour and today lay convulsing and stranded in the sun. I carefully navigate around them, some ten inches long and fat as fingers. Before mounting my bike, I picked them up off the driveway and with gloved hands flung them back into the grass, feeling generous. But there are so many on the trail and I’m not that generous. “Come here, Robin!” I call aloud. It’s getting tedious dodging worms, so I turn traitor and decide to dissect them instead. I sight them in on approach but can’t see them as my wheel rolls over each worm. I feel mean and rather sick. What does a worm think, feel? Is a worm hungry, cold, lonely? They are much less readable than even a cat.
Ahead on the trail is a tightly knit crowd of men in yellow slickers and flashing red lights amid the beep beep beep of a backhoe. I slow down, seeing another rider walking a bike around the fray. I, too, stop and dismount. I smell tar and see the rain-induced sinkhole they’re repairing. “It’ll be done today!” the men cheerily offer as an apology for the interruption. I’ve been dodging the sagging anomaly in the trail for weeks. Someone outlined the dent with red spray paint as a warning. I’m relieved I didn’t ride over it at the moment it collapsed! I was saved by all these people, I conclude—thirteen armed men to my rescue. “Thank you!” I salute.
My daughter’s surgery is a success and her doctor gives the OK for us to go home. We’ve both done our work well; living is indeed the real job. It’s hot at home in the desert, while flawless forecasts are becoming the norm here. I’ll be riding before dawn and wishing I were back on the Murdock Canal Trail with the cat, earthworms, and anonymous waving people. But I’ll remember the daffodils and tulips hidden underground, preparing to pounce in spring. I’ll remember Murdock Canal and it’s life-giving waters coursing under my medicinal trail.