August 22, 2014

From A to Z, Everything In Between, and Whatever Lay Beyond.

They call the route "The Hell of the North", a partial homage to the legendary Paris-Roubaix race in northern France held each April, yes, somehow still apt for the generally north-south oriented Liberty-to-Albany, MO. 300k of KCUC fame.  Infamous, perhaps?

I love this route, and I really - sincerely - hope that Bob brings it back for 2015, as preparation for P-B-P.  Selfishly, I must admit... with most folks satisfied sticking to 200k for their monthly rides (me included, if I'm honest), it's really, really difficult to ride this route as a permanent unless one enjoys being alone.  Finding anyone to accompany me on this route has proved difficult in the past . . . and, it's proved difficult for me to attempt it on my own.  Mental, nothing more.  It's a route map and profile that can creep into one's head, if allowed, and it's aptly-named.  So, too, is the Ride with the Devil 200k permanent route - which passes this same intersection from the opposite direction.  It's a different slice of "hell."  Tasty... but tough.


Whichever distance, whether alone or with someone else...  it beckons.  I cannot wait until I'm cleared for riding longer distances...and, thankfully, it's a personal clearance:  I've permission from the surgeon, so it's up to me as to what I can tolerate.  Knowing what I've been through, I'm not rushing it.  That may work out fine... doing either route in the fall?  Maybe with calm conditions yielding a northern wind in the
afternoon, for the push home?  Perfect.  Not very likely, mind you - diving back in with a 300k isn't smart.  200k may be slightly smarter, but I imagine I'll return at something like "the commute", then ease my way to 100k.


...but, being up there... as I had been in the photos.  It always gives me pause.  I look fondly upon this as a personal landmark - a reminder, each time I see my own mug ruining an otherwise magical view of Missouri countryside and "that storied highway" leading to the horizon.  I'm fairly confident that cyclists invented the 'selfie' long before it became 'a thing'; and for the requisite, yet unofficial, proofs-of-passage we randonneurs often create around the region, this is my favorite photo spot.  My facial presence aside, the image remains inviting, alluring . . . begging one to ride, to see what's over there.  

This otherwise uninteresting intersection is one of countless in Missouri, home (as far as I know, anyways) of the "lettered" rural county highway system.  A-though-Z and every letter in between, sometimes doubled up or mixed (like "RA", or "VV"), the lightly traveled highways zig-zag across the state in every direction.  Also "as far as I know," this intersection is the only one with the first and last letter of the alphabet placed next to each other - albeit backwards in this case.  In the already curious and cryptic vernacular of the common cyclist, the lettered roads serve to further confuse our non-cycling friends and onlookers, as we wax philosophical on "how many K will be left once we get to O and C", and how strong the winds had been the last time we'd come through.


Yet, this place has become more than that.  It's a milestone, a shrine, a monument... for me ...of what I am able, what I have done.  It's MY intersection.  I have never been there in a car, only under my own power.  It represents one of the worst days I've had on the bike, and one of the best.  Here lies the old me, may he rest in piece (and good riddance) and, still, the new me waits to be picked up . . . a hopeful hitchhiker, thus-far not confident enough to carry the responsibility of truly meeting his potential.  

Oh, I've seen him standing there, in the rain, waiting - eyes empty, face blank, wrapped up in shadows and waving grasses, staring at me from behind the signpost - yet, I can only see him from my periphery.  If I try to make eye contact, he is gone - vanished behind throngs of fans bracing against the barriers for a closer look.  I extend my arm, yet he remains out of reach.  The crowd never parts, their screams are always louder than mine.  In an instant, all of it is gone.  I stop, wander, gaze into the sky, off to the horizon, stretching my ears against the silence of the roaring breeze...  I can no longer hear his calls - and he ignores mine.  But I'm there.  I'm always there.  I huddle under a space blanket, counting the seconds until I see a pair of headlights and their blinding salvation.  I stand tall under the bright sun, arms reaching to the heavens, mouth open in a soundless scream, triumphant when others had faltered.  I shake hands with myself, we high five when I pass, and we weep together while the horizon changes - year over year - after all the memories are dust, after the cheering crowds leave for home, after the presses stop, after winter's gale carries away the fire's last breath, we will be entombed beneath mankind's paving stone, our fate sealed beneath concrete and rebar


You see, we can never leave.  For some reason this ignorant intersection, merely the result of two lines meeting on an ancient map, becomes the center of all we know.  No-one who treads here knows what it means to me, just as I have no idea what it meant to those before me - perhaps nothing, perhaps everything - merely a flash of light to the omniscient.  I have to shield my eyes from the pulsing waves of intense light, the result of the sun rising and setting at thirty frames-per-second in my minds eye, the road-sign's very existence doesn't register at all.  Here for a moment, then gone.  The sky changes from white, to orange, to red, until fire consumes it - until nothing remains but a pure, deep black - so rich, so endless, it pulls the at the threads of my mind - unraveling - as the space between blinks grows wider and wider, until they stop.    

A rush of hot air, an alarming jolt; a passing farm truck flings sand, like the sharp bite of reality, against the side of my face - crisp as a fallen apple.  My eyes snap to focus.  I am back on my bike, gazing just to the right, a slight grin replacing the agony of the last hill.  Is that him, grinning back at me?  I pass by this lonely road-sign at 15 miles per hour, and as my mind's eye stops once more to watch me riding away, leaving myself behind, I come to rest on a perfect chair, my wife, my kids, my dogs, my family nearby.  We rest here, wrapped in the most comfortable of clean, white rooms - a room with only three walls, we face outward at the world.  We sit; happy, smiling, comfortable, warm, weightless, without a care or worry on this Earth.  We sit.  We rest.  

Off in the distance, I watch -- straining to see myself cresting the last hill at the far horizon.  I reach with my gaze, my arms, my spirit -- I am only a tiny black dot against the giant orange disk of the sun.  Take me with you...

We are only tiny black dots to each other, but, cresting the hill I turn around in my saddle and wave back with a knowing smile, an accepting smile - we connect across the infinite, our condolences exchanged, our measures counted, our ledgers balanced.  I watch as I turn my wave into a vertical reach, touching the top of the setting sun, taking hold and pulling it downward like a window shade - his arm, and the sun with it, drop from view.  Night unrolls across the fields toward me and my eyelids grow heavy.  The edges of the world rise, the trees gracefully take a bow, the road folds away, the hills flatten, and I recline.  The silence multiplies, words touching words, ink upon ink; the jumbled smear of nonsensical perfection creates a complete darkness; warm, soothing, honest, fearless.  I close my eyes with a satisfying, palpable whuoomp.  I pause for a moment to consider my own weight, and, cradled safely in the arms of the author, I am comforted; acquiescent; whole.

We ascend the ladder together.  An arm outstretched along the circular walls of an endless collection, I am angled and maneuvered precisely - the silence briefly interrupted by the gentle slide of binding leather against polished walnut, grain caresses grain emitting a gentle whisper, a small feather of dust takes to the air - and with a satisfying, tactile thunk the motion stops, and we are home.  Home at last among the billions, our story told.  From my lofty vantage point, I catch a last glimpse -  a thumb, a forefinger, a link of chain, a pull, a click.  Lights extinguished, debts settled, and the most comfortable of pillows in which to sink a tired head.  


Photo from Last Chance 1200km Grand Randonee, 2008 -- credit to RMCC

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