Bicycling Through The Woods of Memory

I pedaled away from my parents' house, intending to remember. It was a beautiful day in Brickerville, and the yard's grassy smell blended sweetly with the odor of sun-baked asphalt.

Bicycling had been a longtime hobby of mine; lately being on a bike started my mind's movie camera, and called up forgotten sensations of burning thigh muscles and audacious two-wheeled stunts.

I was home again for a few days and I decided to trace an old route, back on the trails, through the dark woods. I looked right and left and headed out the driveway.

It took about 15 minutes to get to the trails. I rode on the highway - a two-lane express route my mother had, in years past, always admonished that I take care on. ``It's dangerous up there - drivers don't pay attention,'' she would say.

The cars moved out of my way. There were a few other cyclists at the parking area, zipped tightly into their bright spandex and cotton.

I rode past them toward what my brother and I had as children dubbed ``the big rocks'' - towering outgrowths of shale and lichen.

They were still big, but not as big as some I'd seen lately. After all, I had been away at college in the more-mountainous central part of the state and had traveled to other countries. The rocks were bigger in those places.

I hurtled down the gravel trails on the bike (my father's bike now that I didn't have time or money for one, living hours away in a busy, expensive city). I watched the tires spit out the pebbles. These were the trails I had commanded as a teenager; my hungry tires had torn over them like heavy boots on little anthills. I was confident then. As a young man, I went barreling over the muddy roads, speeding and daring myself on.

Today the wheels slipped a bit. I had hit a gravel patch, unprepared. Years before I would have pulled up on the handle bars and wrenched the bike onward. But I was careful now.

Stopping to rest, I looked down at the cut on my finger from an accident earlier that day, a careless slip of a knife. It wasn't related to biking (``It didn't have anything to do with the bike,'' I told myself), but I felt vulnerable anyway. I decided to slow down.

I biked on, the black frame and tires swaying underneath my body. I rode up some small hills, taking them without strain, with only a few pushes on the pedals.

I had always considered them mountains. As a boy I would tell friends about the mountains I lived near, hoping to incite some envy in their young eyes.

In elementary school classrooms I could tell stories about the mountains, and kids would want to come to my house. I had what they didn't: an adventureland next door.

Now, from travel, from my many self-imposed exiles in Asia, Canada, and the United States, the mountains seemed smaller (I had seen the sunrise from Mount Fuji). I saw them as the hills they were.

In these hills, on my visit to my boyhood home, I saw part of who I had been. My mental movie camera not only played back my teenage biking reels, but a collage of characteristics. Perhaps it took an impressionable boy to see mountains where there were really only smallish slopes of dirt. But I could not have known any differently. I had never been elsewhere.

Yet I felt that I had inherited at least some of my ways of seeing from that landscape and those trails: Both had tutored me and shown me my first, small world.

The rocking chairs on the quiet porches stared at me and showed me where I had come from as I rode past them, now lazily, thoughtfully. They seemed without time, or at least time beyond my own. They had been here, on my native soil, before me, and they were still here. They had remained the same. They seemed almost without decay, creaking back and forth so comfortably on the porches.

I had ridden avidly in these hills at 14 and 15, and probably passed the same chairs. Now I had just marked my 24th birthday. Where had I been?

SO many of us are called away, or led away; away from these places where we first gained an intimation of ourselves. There are many beckoning sirens: jobs, opportunities, relationships, adventures outside the familiar.

We make ourselves anew each day. But we have our memories, and maybe we go back, to a changed place, as changed people, but to a place not wholly unfamiliar.

Who can qualify these memories? Memories can wrack us or soothe us; nonetheless they come back, triggered by sights or smells or bicycle rides. And we are given a freeze frame of who we were.

Parts of my own particular early self came back to me in bits as my legs pumped on the pedals of my father's shiny bicycle. I was slightly tired now and I wanted to rest. I pedaled through the rocky gravel, over the anthills.

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