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Friday, February 20, 2009

"Spring" Training

I like to get out of town during our February break. I've visited my sis in SoCal before, but it didn't work out this year. I figure I'll throw the bikes on the car roof, drive to Philly and see Mom for a couple of days, then head south a ways in the hope of gaining a few degrees and maybe finding some strange mountains to ride.

That all adds up to Mt. Jackson, VA, right off of I-81, in between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. I get a hotel room and some cue sheets online, and I'm in business. Friends react strongly, and trot out all sorts of Southern stereotypes. Hey, I retort, I have a cell phone and a GPS. If you don't hear from me in a week, call the state police. Some nervous laughter follows.

DAY 1: I pick out a 33-mile loop, and have about 2 1/2 hours of daylight in which to do it. That should work out, I think, barring any mechanicals/wrong turns/acts of God. First lesson: roads in states that don't get lots of snow have correspondingly smaller (read: nonexistant) shoulders. OK, point taken. Still, the traffic is light and generally forgiving. I get greetings from friendly walkers. Two kids in hoodies give me the thumbs up as I zip by. Up and down all sorts of cool roads, lots of them with names including either "hill" or "hollow" -- that seems to be country for "high" and "low," respectively. I get multiple bovine stares, ride through a town called Quicksburg in about ten seconds, and see a building that could be a church, a barn or both. I see the misty breath of horses. I see a fragment of a halo a few degrees west of the sun, and think of three people who have passed. I feel a surge in my cadence as I imagine their faces before me.

DAY 2: I find some cool mountain bike trails in Harrisonburg, and spend a couple of hours doing loops in the squishy soil. Run into (nearly) a bunch of ROTC kids traipsing around. Now, seeing someone in camo in the woods tends to give me pause, but they are only armed with compasses. "Practicing your orienteering?" I ask one. "Yes, sir," comes the reply. Well, it's good to know that I'm not alone out here.

DAY 3: More iffy weather. I wake up to school delays on the radio. (It turns out that it doesn't take more than the threat of flurries to cause that in Virginia.) I take my time getting around, and finally set out at about 11 into some actual flurries. I picked out a 57-mile route, reasoning that I could always turn around. Up the hill, into the teeth of the punishing wind. Yikes. I begin to argue with myself: You could have driven to Bucks County to get beaten up like this! Just get in your warm car! No way, I'm riding. So what if I'm listing like a half-sunk battleship? I'll warm up eventually.

Hey, at least the cue sheet is accurate. What an act of faith: Print something from the internet, and trust it when it says "turn here." REALLY trust it when it says "SHARP DOWNHILL." It scares the bejesus out of me when that wind catches my front wheel briefly.

In Basye (pronunciation, please), I stop at a country store at the bottom of a monster hill. Ears and nose clogged, hobbling around in my cleats, I wander around the store until I find the hot chocolate. Thus fortified, I check the map: maybe I'll make my own route back. Yeah, I think. Third day in a row of riding, my quads screaming, maybe dial it back a bit. I'll still get over 30 miles.

So I'm on my own. My map is good, but it says nothing about road surfaces. Left turn, the road turns to dirt. OK, I'm up for it. Just like Columbia County. Dirt road turns a corner. Goes up. Around another corner, more up. Well, let's see if those "switchbacks" we did in spin class bear any resemblance to this. Somewhere mid-hill, it starts snowing. Hard. And gets windy. A brief flash of panic: it's up to me to finish this ride. I don't know what the frequency of cab service is here in Shenandoah County. Don't get off and walk, or it's all over, I say aloud. My panic evaporates as I see the road level off. My quads have strangely recovered somewhat as well.

The ride has taken on a quality, a color: It's dirt. And more dirt. Hey, I'm getting used to this. Twelve miles in the Battenkill will be NOTHING. A quick map check and a right turn past an ancient spaniel with a keening bark, more dirt, then a quick shot down an actual paved road with the wind at my back for once. Feeling strong again.

After a few more map checks and a couple of sharp, dirt climbs, I'm rolling with the wind down into the valley, crossing I-81, briefly mingling with semi-trucks before turning into the parking lot, with the wind still behind me.

All praises to the gods of county maps, tailwinds, hot chocolate and cue sheets. I check my odometer: just shy of 40. Yeah, like me.

Why do I do it? Well, to get ready for the season, of course. Yeah, but isn't there some serious discomfort involved? Hey, that's life, too. And I feel a range of emotions while I'm out there unwinding my mind. All that, plus that amazing all-natural buzz that comes early and stays late.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I began a new section of my creative writing course a couple of weeks ago. We were writing about talismans, and this came out. I haven't edited it much. Comments, please.


Digging through the box
faded paper envelopes
bright colors faded
mixing in with
the negatives


digging down through layers
of dust and years
seasons on leaves
pages turning in
a book

Digging down
like yeilding soil
stick together
hanging on walls in my mind

my cousins and I smile
the shutter opens
letting in light
the camera's metal aperture
a black hole
and here I am
on the other side

digging through a box
the shoes worn and gone

there's Dad, still some black
in his wavy hair
large glasses
robe and pajamas
on Christmas morning
there's me
eyes flash red
engineer cap tilted
on my head
a train circles the track

digging and putting back
layers of light and years
in the box
in the closet
as new light
wanders in

Sunday, February 8, 2009

My heart is in your hands

I often use the concept of heart to teach denotation and connotation to my students. There's usually a few chuckles as I point out the humor that arises from confusing the two. I mean, literally having someone's heart in your hands isn't a particularly endearing or romantic image.

Ain't that the truth.

Now, as I'm nearing one of those "oh" birthdays, I'm encountering an entirely new level of meaning for heart.

As one who regularly pushes his own pulse rate well into the triple digits, I thought I'd do well to get it checked out, lest a "lively" bike ride end unceremoniously.

A little blip turned up. And that's it, really. Nothing to be concerned about, said the doc. No restrictions. This from a guy who was quite the cyclist back a few years.

No restrictions. But I did learn much more about my heart, via all sorts of medical equipment. An ultrasound of one's heart sounds an awful lot like walking through mud in a pair of Chucks. EKGs have a sort of seismic vibe. And, I'm proud to say, I held out for like 16 minutes on the stress test.

So, thanks, doc. My heart is still in your hands.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I've never posted lyrics before, and I'm not sure how they'll hold up without music behind them. I'm still trying to find the right key in which to sing it. Does such a key exist? I still haven't made peace with my voice yet. OK, enough disclaimers...


Long rays at the end of the day
been here so long, the air seems to say
many years, still finding my way
in a world where nothing stays

in between the blue and the black
in between the blue and the black

want to know you like the smell of the rain
like I knew you before you came
more than comfort in my bed
bring some peace to my head

in between the blue and the black
in between the blue and the black

watch the sun as it fades
feel the wind come over the waves
starlight falling, older than sand
walk in the night, take my hand

in between the blue and the black
in between the blue and the black

A Letter to My Students

I don’t say it enough, but I care about you. Each of you. That’s why I’m here. It’s too much work to do it for the money, so there must be ...