Nothing taps into my sense of freedom like book-ending a day on a bicycle. Golden hour peeking through trees, flickering into my eyes. Birds diving about for an evening dinner. Clouds forming into shapes with bright colors outlining cotton candy. Feeling the breeze tug on my arm hair as the wind whispers a steady tone of nonsense. These are a few of my favorite things.
“Bruenings came peddling out of the uterus on bicycles” my friend Mary says with sarcasm. I laugh, imagining babies riding tiny bicycles like cub bears rolling out from the curtain of a circus ring. Only, they are peddling out of a vulva and into the distance of shadowing trees and hills like in a Dr. Seuss book. One, Two, There, Four… Eleven, Twelve. I have eleven siblings. We were all homeschooled. Being homeschooled and living on a private road surrounded by woods and ravines resulted in loads of outdoor play. My sisters and I would ride in the woods building trails and forts out of pine and branches, tying rope to our handlebars so we could ride bikes like we were racing horses. As kids we rode miles on blacktop into town, lingering at the library or local pool. As a family, we did things like bring bicycles on month-long family vacations and ride across the state of Iowa with our parents. I’ve recently embarked on some city riding, but much prefer to be out in the country. Rolling hills.
I inherited my first road bike in my late teens – my mother’s 90’s Raleigh which I clung to for several years until she finally gave out last spring. I currently ride a Scattante whose frame is too small for me. I’m like a Goldilocks and the Three Bicycles. The Raleigh was too big, the Scattante is too small, and here is to hoping my new bike will be just right. I am waiting for the completion of a custom bike that has been in the making for several years (yes, several years was not a typo). It is a fancy Italian Dedacciai tubing with Campagnolo gears, a Brooks saddle, and clipless pedals. It has a mustache handlebar with gear end shifters meant to be used primarily as a touring bicycle. My brother went through a phase of building fancy bikes. This one was supposed to be a collaboration which we would have built together. But, after I moved away to New England, he ended up building it as a surprise for a graduation gift. I graduated in 2015 and am currently waiting on tires so we can get her up and running. I call her Vixen because my metalsmithing sister made a cute little fox and mounted it to the frame.
When I was in my early twenties, I had an incident that left me feeling physically paralyzed. It turned out I have a degenerative disc in my spine. After therapeutic treatment, I started bike riding to strengthen the muscles in my back. I was riding as frequently as I could at any hour of the day and sometimes night. I have ridden bikes since I learned to ride, but this was a particular time I realized how much I love being on the road. I could be feeling any level of stress or sadness, but as soon as I’m in the saddle sweeping alongside a white line on the edge of a paved road, my worries melt away as I enter into a meditative state of freedom.
Next week I will be embarking on my first solo tour, riding from Vermont to Maine. This is a big deal because, as a woman, I exist with a heightened awareness of my barrenness to safety. Touring on my own establishes an invitation to trust myself differently. I can be alone with myself for several days, but to stay in unknown places feels a bit scary. “You won’t be alone!” my friend Jim fumbles between laughter and articulation, “You will have your dog.” It’s hardly true. My dog will be in a bag of ashes, unable to thwart unwanted interactions or warn me of wild animals. My New England trip is part of a ritual to process the death of my dog and leave her on a mountain where I recall her at her happiest (running up and down tiny boulders in a state of pure puppy joy). I had been meaning to take her ashes there for the past two years, but the pandemic extended those plans. I was also avoiding returning to New England in part because of my own grief around my divorce. The last time I was in New Hampshire was Thanksgiving before I moved out of the home my ex-husband and I shared. At the time, my husband had just fired our third marriage counselor. I told myself that if he wasn’t committed to the process of therapy and working toward real change, then I would be pursuing individual therapy to explore what I can do on my end to get to an emotionally safe space. His volatility toward me was starting to increase with him throwing things in anger and making statements like, “maybe I should beat you.” I lived in constant terror, isolation, and desperation the entire year leading up to that New England holiday. The morning we left for New Hampshire he called me a “bitch” and threatened that if I asked him when we were leaving, he was not going to come with me. I was holding out to keep the peace, which I had learned from my childhood and practiced in the 14 years of being with this person. Specific events lead me to accept the fact my husband didn’t take any accountability for the issues we were having, or even admit that he was being abusive. When we went to New Hampshire that holiday, I knew I would be moving out soon. He assumed we were getting along, while I was internalizing every moment as being the last ones we would share together. I knew this person well enough to know that if I did something as drastic as move out, our relationship would be over (assuming this would be his response to my attempt at boundaries). Which is exactly what happened. I remember a wintering walk in Acworth with my friend Rachelle, telling her what he had said to me the morning we left Ohio. Tears rolling down my face as icicles tugged the edge of my nostrils. I was sinking into validation she offered, as I sank into a numbness – needing to tap out of my heart and into my head in order to move toward healthy. It was easily the hardest and most painful decision I’ve had to make in my entire life. A decision made without a speck of lightness.
My ex-husband and I had moved to New Hampshire from Ohio several weeks after our wedding. I had been accepted at a private school for my master’s degree (which I deferred for a year when he asked me to marry him). New England has been tainted with memories of this person and the abuse that escalated in our six years of marriage. Part of my going back is also to establish my sense of self outside of the relationship. To expand my autonomy and move into the things I enjoy for me, while not worrying constantly about another person’s anger, hurt, or ability to show up. This trip is about overcoming my fears and self-doubts. It is about moving into a continuation of healing as I carry my dog toward a mountaintop, reciprocating the many times she carried me. This trip is about reconciling myself as an independent woman and making new trails out of old pathways.
on a thin path
covered in dry sappy pine needles
we built a trail
with rope-covered handlebars
we rode our way
through wooded red dust lanes
metal horses neigh with every jump
as rubber tires hit parched pinecones
shattering at every heaving
laughing and competitive
youthful and creative
steel aluminum stirrups
frowning over bare skin
they leave little indents on our calloused girly feet
a chain is popping
as we cheer on
manor-ing our vibrantly framed bareback steed