A 53-Mile Lesson in Surviving and Thriving in 2020

“Please subdue the anguish of your soul. Nobody is destined only to happiness or to pain. The wheel of life takes one up and down by turn.”

–Kalidasa

This morning’s ride started off humidly, but blissfully. After a short internal debate—”Do I face the 61st Street dogs early in the ride, with tailwind, or later in the ride, with headwind, but when the dogs are likely to be hot and lazy?”—I headed west. That meant I would pass these pests (Their people are the real pests, since they allow them to run.) within the first three miles, but then be done with them for the rest of the ride. As I approached their home, on the same side of the road, I came upon a rural traffic jam—two slower cyclists up ahead and multiple cars both directions. “Great!” I thought, “Of all places to have to slow down.” I did slow down, knowing that I couldn’t move to the oncoming lane if the dogs ran out to chase. After the last oncoming car passed, I called, “On your left,” and pulled around the cyclists, two Biking Across Kansas acquaintances. We exchanged pleasant greetings, and I said, “Glad those dogs didn’t come out, with all that traffic.” “That’s for sure!” one said, clearly familiar with the furry fiends, as well.

I soon turned south and saw in my mirror that the women continued west. It always feels like a small victory when I get past those dogs without a sighting. Pedaling happily, relishing the quiet Sunday-morning roads, I saw hot air balloonists preparing to launch or wrapping up a flight—I’m not sure which—a few miles later. Except for the dogside traffic jam, the roads were quieter than usual, which had me thinking that people were sleeping off the Fourth of July celebrations.

My ride continued smoothly for several more miles, including a bathroom stop at Lake Afton, until, all of a sudden, 25 miles in, a shockingly painful sting to my groin literally nearly caused me to crash. Disoriented, I realized I was hurtling toward the gravel at the side of the road. I managed to regain control of my bike and come to a stop. Once I clipped out of my pedals and put my feet down, I had to practice great restraint not to strip off my shorts right there on the side of the road. A stinging beastie, apparently unaware or unimpressed that my vegan nonviolence extends to insects, had delivered an excruciatingly painful stab to a very sensitive region. I never did find the perpetrator, but I’m sure anyone who might have been watching from a house window got an entertaining show as I searched.

The scene of the stinging.

After taking some breaths and this photo, I got back on my bike, unsure how it was going to go with a painful groin and shaking body. Fortunately, shortly after getting moving, the pain subsided (Thank you, endorphins.), but the quick reaction that kept me from crashing came at the cost of a serious adrenaline dump from which I never fully recovered for the remainder of my ride. It was a fair trade—staying on two wheels but feeling like I was dragging in the dirt afterwards.

So, I pedaled onward, wondering what stung me. Murder hornet? Given that it is 2020, the thought crossed my mind. I thought about other insect encounters on the bike. Years ago, climbing the big hill (Heartbreak? Wilmar? Manhattan Hill? I can’t remember what it is called.) in Manhattan, Kansas, a bee flew into Kenny’s cycling glove. This resulted in much cussing and an impressive glove removal with his teeth, while we continued to climb with David Blair. Kenny has also been stung by a bee inside his helmet. That also resulted in cussing. One year, as we rode through Andale on the Tour de Parish, Kenny decided to call it a day, and I continued on for the metric century. My phone rang a short time later, but I didn’t answer or check voice mail until I got to the next SAG. I had a message from Logan saying, “A bug is inside Dad’s ear. He went to the emergency room.” According to Logan, he was first alerted to the problem when he heard Kenny yelling profanities in the driveway. So, Kenny has certainly had his share of bike-bug problems. I have had stinging insects fly into my jersey and into my sports bra, leaving trails of tiny bites before I could extricate the creatures. Flies have bitten me through my shorts. On some late-summer evenings, I have come home thoroughly plastered by gnats that had been so thick they flew into my nose and eyes. But no sting has ever hurt this badly or shocked me so dramatically.

I thought about all that as I rode, feeling worn out by the adrenaline dump. Finally, I turned west. Although the wind was not bad at all, by Kansas standards, I looked forward to what should have been a nice push from the east. However, the first things I saw when I turned were two orange construction signs. “No center line.” No big deal; it’s a quiet road. “Loose gravel.” That was less welcome. “Of course there is,” I thought grimly. The gravel wasn’t all that loose, but new chat had been put down since I was last on that road. It was what I refer to as “boulder-size gravel.” Not that loose, fortunately, but it still required a much greater effort than I felt like expending. I tried to distract myself by asking, “What is the lesson in this?” After all, I’m writing a book based on lessons I’ve learned on the bike. Surely, there must be a lesson.

After four miles, I turned back north and soon reached my bathroom stop in Goddard. I felt beaten up by the stinging insect, the ensuing adrenaline dump, the chat road and the humidity.

I was glad to stop for a moment and said hello to a cute little boy and his dad, as I headed into the bathroom. A thorough inspection of the interior of my shorts yielded no evidence of whoever had stung me, and the light was too dim to assess the damage to my skin. I washed my hands and headed back outside. The little boy, whom I soon to learned was three years old and named Tower, approached me and wanted to talk. His dad said, “She’s a smart girl. She wears her helmet.” I told Tower, “Real cyclists always wear helmets. You have a good brain, and you want to protect it.” He asked his dad to get his Spiderman helmet out of the car to show me. Tower talked to me as I filled my water bottle and took my electrolyte capsule. He held the button on the water fountain so I could refill my Camelbak. He said, “You have a flashlight on your handles.” I explained that I had flashing lights on the front and rear of my bike so cars could see me because I ride on the road. He asked about my bike computer and my dog horn. I asked him, “Does your bike have two or three wheels?” He said, “One, two, three, four.” Ah, training wheels. As I prepared to leave, Tower said, “I have a sticker,” and pulled a water bottle barcode sticker off his shirt, gently pressing it to my jersey. I said, “Thanks, Tower. That will be a nice souvenir of our conversation.” I mounted my bike and headed back to the road, telling Tower’s dad, “He is quite the charming conversationalist.”

Heading north, I felt lighter and more energized. I hadn’t totally shed the effects of the stinging/near crash, but I felt happy and recalled other experiences at that very same bathroom stop on the Prairie Sunset Trail, just off 199th Street West in Goddard. Two days ago, I spent an hour and a half in the pavilion there, waiting out a thunderstorm. In 2018 I had another blog-post-inspiring encounter there, when I met Dale who stopped for a bathroom break while on a solo bike ride two days before his 90th birthday.

After crossing Highway 54, I allowed my mind to wander pleasantly again. A mantra, borrowed from Gabby Bernstein, that I use daily in my meditation came to me. “I am open to creative possibilities for abundance.” Then I knew. This ride was a metaphor for 2020. Like the year (2020 just sounds cool!), the ride started with such promise. I had the good fortune of passing the 61st Street dogs without incident, a pleasant exchange with the cyclists I passed and the balloonists, then BOOM! Out of nowhere, I’m stung in the groin (How did the little beast even get between my leg and the saddle?) so painfully I nearly wreck. So startlingly that I am brought to a standstill to assess the damage and recover enough to keep moving forward. (Not unlike the current pandemic when it knocked us all off course and closed and cancelled everything, starting in March.) Making my way after that, I felt battered and weakened. Then, there was Tower, a pleasant surprise who revived me enough to keep going and gave me the boost I needed to recognize inspiration.

As I thought about the ways that my bike ride mirrored the year, I recognized that it was a gift, truly a creative possibility for abundance that called for an impromptu blog post that I expect to develop into a book chapter. It occurred to me that, even as we make our way through the rest of 2020 and beyond, tired and beaten down by the pandemic and all its effects, by social unrest, by political ugliness, by personal and family struggles, we need to remain open to the pleasant little surprises, like curious three year olds and beautiful sunsets caused by the Saharan dust cloud covering the Kansas sun. As the quote at the top of this post reminds us, 2020 and life itself is full of the unexpected. Some of it is painful as heck. Some of it is delightful and energizing. We will always have a mix. We just have to be open to that.

I made it home. Even though I’m sure my average speed was lowered by the exhaustion I felt after the stinging, I made it home safely and in a decent time. (Sadly, when I went to take a photo of the sticker Tower gave me, it was gone. I felt bad because that meant that I had inadvertently littered and because I had lost my souvenir. I guess I was just too sweaty for it to stick.) I think the message of my ride is that we will get through this year. It may be hard, and it may hurt, but there will be joy, too, as long as we allow it in. We have to set the intention and make the effort to notice the gifts, those boosts that will sustain us as we keep moving forward, never completely sure what awaits on our journey but courageous enough to persevere and find out.

What lessons are you learning from 2020? Please share in the comments.

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