Collapse & Recovery

July 9th – Aug 8th Cobden,Il – Lake Erie, OH

I didn’t want to leave the cabin. I didn’t want to get on the road again. I didn’t want to be on this tour. I didn’t want to quit. I cycled out of the driveway of the Air B&B stunned by the choices ahead of me and finding no motivation to choose.

But I’ve lived without motivation before. It is what grief does to me. After Mom died, I did not know how to choose to want my life again until nearly three years later. And two years after that, when Vasu was dying, I knew I had choice – I just didn’t know how to feel it. Grief paralyzes motivation. It petrifies wanting. It is why I chose to cycle the coast after. Because the coast would not allow me the luxury of choosing paralysis. Every other day the road called me to move, even when I did not want to. On that road I learned that movement can be chosen from the melancholy pathways of sorrow. I chose from resignation and surrender. The choice to move always led me to wanting, even if it was only wanting to stop and rest along the way.

And so I cycled the rolling back roads of southern Illinois. My eyes told me that the living green forests and expanding skies were beautiful, but I could not feel beauty. The plants here were more polite than in Missouri. The trees gave each other space, and vines didn’t bury everything. I cycled in the hot afternoon, and whispered a sigh of relief whenever tree shadow hid me from the humid sun. I only planned to cycle 18 miles, but then I made a wrong turn. I re-routed, adding five miles in the detour. An hour later, I realized I’d made another wrong turn. I re-routed again and felt tears attempt to flow, but the desire to even want tears was gone. My cheeks remained dry as my 18 mile day turned into a 40 mile ordeal.

Late in the day I cycled through a tiny town to the state park on the other side, set my tent on a bed of moss within a dense forest, and spent the evening lying on my back on the picnic table. Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt that I should care about something. The shadows of desire flickered across my memory. I should stretch. Plenty of time to stretch before dark; but I did not move. I should go for a walk, maybe find the kiosk to pay for my tent site. I never sleep first and pay later because that’s rude. But still I did not move. I should write, read, listen to music, text my love, anything but stare at tree leaves.

As the sun went down the forest awoke, and I fell into dreamless sleep to amphibian sex so loud it hurt.

The frog rave did not quiet until the sun was returning to the morning sky, and I woke with a headache. I cycled the mile or two to town, stopped in the first convenience store I saw, and wandered the aisles wishing I had an appetite. This store was larger than the ones in Missouri and Kansas, and had a kitchen and hot food menu. I ordered an omelet, got a cup of coffee and a chocolate milk. I sat at a table and dosed the omelet with so much salt it was almost inedible; but it did make me thirsty for the milk.

It was 40 miles to the next campground, and I had no clue how I would make it. I flipped through friend’s FB posts but their reasons to exist that day could not find entrance to my heart. On a whim I switched over to safari and searched electrolyte deficiency once again. I was eating plenty of salt now, and it was helping, but somehow I had to be missing something. Thousands of cyclists crossed the US every year without facing this kind of lethargy and inability to adapt to the heat.

An hour later I had the possibility of an answer. Although salt deficiency could explain some of my symptoms, Potassium deficiency could account for the rest. I stood and walked the aisles, reading every ingredient and nutrient list on every type of food I was willing to eat. I stayed in the air-conditioned store all day, nibbling on pumpkin seeds, milk, coconut water, orange juice, and bananas. Then I cycled back to camp and tried to sleep through that night’s rave.

The next day, I cycled back to the store and repeated everything I’d done the previous day, this time deliberately not drinking any water. I was hyper attentive to my body, looking for any sign that I might find enough strength to tackle the next 40 miles. I sat at the table with my fluids arranged in front of me. I was struck by the familiarity of it. When Vasu was dying, his cancer and failing system made him stop eating early on, but his little body still wanted a semblance of trying to feed it’s needs. He requested different varieties of juice and milk in sippy-cups, and he would hold them under his arms like they were precious. He would drink once in a while from one or the other. Even after he stopped sipping he still wanted to hold them, as if he could still feel his non-cancerous cells begging to live. I sat and wrote and took sips from different colored fluids, wishing my body would communicate with me a need of any kind.

A local woman saw me mid-afternoon and asked where I was headed. I confused her with my non-reply of not being sure. I went through the motions of explaining my tour to dispel her quizzical look. She smiled and offered to open the church down the street for me to sleep in that night. I didn’t hesitate to accept. I didn’t know how to want, but I knew I did not yet want to ride out again or sleep in the middle of an orgy. She guided me to the church, got me set up in the basement where there were two couches, a kitchen, a bathroom, and air conditioning. I spit-bathed in the bathroom, and then stretched out comfortably on one of the couches as if I had gotten a room in a fancy hotel.

Later that evening I took a photo of myself relaxed and comfortable, and was surprised by the amount of muscle that showed in the picture. I might not have energy of any kind and wasn’t building the mass of thighs I’d done in 2009, but the muscle itself was toned to body-builder definition.

I actually felt like cycling the next day, and headed out early – my bags filled with milk and juice and pumpkin seeds. I was nearing the Ohio River where I would switch over from the Trans American to the Underground Railroad Bike Route. I cycled as few miles as possible, hoping to expend less electrolytes than I could ingest, and maybe begin to build up my stores.

And then I was at the Ohio River, and my frantic eastern pace turned north to follow it. The muddy river was wide, and although it traveled quickly there was so much water it appeared slow and calm compared to the mountain rivers I was accustomed to. I let the steady pace of relentless water saturate my thoughts. I may not feel my power, but I was no longer losing strength everyday. The Underground Railroad Route was much less traveled than the Trans American, and even though locals greeted me warmly I traveled the roads in-between towns alone. I let loneliness too saturate my thoughts, surrendering to it’s quiet. I no longer pretended that I was writing my story. Snippets and sketches of story came to me now and then, and I could only hope that someday in my future I would find a voice to fill out the details. My Love texted me often, keeping the threads of longing gently woven into to my heart.

I stopped at a dive bar one afternoon to escape the heat. It was early, with only one old farmer inside sipping a Pabst. The bartender smiled at me when he took my order, which I had to repeat because he was mostly deaf, and the farmer refused eye-contact. I set up my writing tools, my phone and keyboard, my composition book and notepad, my favorite pen. I sipped my gin and tonic. A group of four farmers walked in and joined the first; good-ol-boys in overalls following the deep ruts of a well-traveled routine. They arrayed themselves at the small bar, taking up 3/4 of the seats available. I heard the rumble of Harleys outside, and soon after a troupe of older couples moseyed in, tattooed and wearing Harley shirts and leather chaps. I wondered how the troupe would mix with the good-ol-boys, expecting suspicion and distance. I was shown the error of my prejudice immediately. The good-ol-boys noticed right away that there were not enough stools at the bar for everyone.The closest stood up and said to the roughest looking biker “Here, sir, take my seat.” The entire group then shuffled around to make room for everyone, with the bikers saying “Thank you very much, sir” to each and every farmer. They laughed and drank their watery brews while I wrote in the corner in my sweat-soaked riding clothes, and greasy hair; eavesdropping on them. I loved the ease of their camaraderie. I spied on their laughter, my solitude yearning through envy to experience something other than my own thoughts. They all filed out of the bar together, still laughing, but as they passed my table, saw me smiling foolishly at them, their laughter and smiles faded and they would not meet my eyes. I was left in an empty bar with a mostly deaf bartender, laughing to myself at the irony of what I just experienced. In my world back home, these were the people I had been raised to be afraid of; ignorant small town folk and biker culture. And yet what I had witnessed was instant friendship and respect between them. It was me – a strange, dirty, exhausted single woman on bicycle – who was the danger here, even though the worst thing I might do to them is insist they have affordable health care.

I followed the Ohio River for many days, hopscotching from Indiana to Kentucky and back again until it was Ohio on the north-west bank. Like my muscles my fears also strengthened, though I still felt removed from desire. I no longer panicked when dogs chased me, and even taunted the little ones that could only barely keep pace, just to feel something other than flatline. Cars no longer startled me no matter how close they passed, and I stopped often to attempt meeting beautiful people. It was habit only. I felt no connection to them and saw their kindness as if it were a memory long-faded. I surrendered to their kindness, their humanity, waiting patiently for movement and connection within my heart and mind. The Ohio River was spectacular. Dense forests were filled with birds and frogs and insects screaming their joy into the humid air. I felt the tugging desire that someday I would like to return here to explore. Locals always found me, their love of their home was like the river itself, a steady outpouring of history and heritage flowing through the air in between us. I did not have time nor energy to explore the natural wonders they described, the road ahead was always too long and too draining. I continued forward everyday, as relentless as the river, and just as heavy with the silt of my past.

When I cycled 30 miles or less I felt something akin to recovery. Anything over that and I would fall asleep within minutes of arriving at camp. I had some small triumphs on the road. A car filled with young men honked and jeered as they passed, and instead of feeling abused by their carelessness my thoughts immediately dismissed a them as unimportant human beings to the big picture of humanity. And my muscles, even with my fatigue, responded to the demands of the road. I gazed at their density and smoothness the way a toddler gazes into a mirror for the first time; a touch of innocent infatuation. I felt no rush, no need to succeed, no despair to quit. I had time to figure out how to exist on this road, even if it meant I had to give all my thought and energy just to move 30 miles every day.

And then, one afternoon, I cycled into an gorgeous town with row upon row of old heritage houses and estates. It was early in the day, so I cycled to the library and set up my writing desk in the corner of the cool main room. There was so much writing to catch up on, so much I had seen and experienced that needed to be made into story. I set my fingers on my keyboard, waiting for inspiration to manifest, and felt my eyelids grow suddenly heavy. I just needed to put my head down for a second. That’s all, just rest my eyes for a moment before diving into my words.

I woke with a start. Someone was patting my shoulder. I looked up and saw a young librarian, her face creased and dark with concern. “Are you alright?” She asked. I nodded, but could not find any words in my head to reply. She said, “I thought you were dead,” and then walked a away.

I didn’t go back to my writing. Instead, I went to google and began researching everything I could on electrolyte deficiency, recovery, how much I was losing in electrolytes per hour of ride, and how much potassium was in every type of food available to me. I was two day’s ride from Cincinnati, where My Love would be flying in that night to meet me once again. I texted him, told him he would have to drive farther to pick me up and that I would not be cycling for a while. I left the library a few hours later with a grocery list of food and a game plan. I would not cycle another mile until I had noticeable improvement. I got a hotel room and stayed in bed for the rest of the day eating cantaloupe, sweet potato chips, pickles, peaches, seeds, and only drinking coconut water and milk. Adding potassium was no longer enough. I would have to formulate my entire diet around food that had huge levels of it.

My Love showed up in the middle of the night, wrapping his warm body protectively around me, and I wondered what he thought about the reality that my biggest danger on this tour so far was my own ignorance of how to survive.

The next day we traveled by car to my sister’s house in the small Ohio town I had grown up in.

During the day, My Love and I walked hand-in-hand around town. I pointed out the places I had haunted, the ice cream parlor, the pizza house, the parking lot where I had rented roller skates every summer and learned to skate on the fresh asphalt. In the evenings we gathered with my sister in the living room and talked about our teenage days, when we had all grown through awkwardness and independence together. I loved watching My Love as he spoke with my sister and played video games with my nephew. Love infused ever moment of every day. When I opened my eyes, I fell in love with morning snuggles and first kisses. As we explored my childhood haunts I fell in love with how my guy interacted with his world, his wide-eyed delight of everything old. And every night I fell in love with the child I once new him to be nearly 3 decades before. We spent two days with my sister and nephew, and then My Love flew back to work and I stayed for another week.

I spent those days eating and drinking potassium, and sleeping. Occasionally I found time to go out. I was invited to lunch with a woman I had never met in person before but had seen beauty within her thoughts she had shared with me online. I walked to the restaurant worried, because I still couldn’t connect, was still choosing to move out of surrender instead of want, and I didn’t want her to see that I was going through the motions of life instead of living. Her stories and thoughts were a spark in the darkness, and I returned home feeling lighter than I had in a long while. But the day for me to get back on Old Blue was coming up quickly and I began to dread the disconnect, the disillusionment, the disappointment that seemed now inevitable. The one good thing that seemed to come from it all was that, as my potassium levels increased the discomfort in my gut that I had dealt with for most of the last fifteen or twenty years, disappeared. My last day in town was my nephew’s tenth birthday, and my stomach felt so good I tried a piece of birthday cake, and then another and third. I fell asleep that night feeling full, but with no gluten reaction to be found.

In the morning, my universe went click.

That happens now and then for me. Those moments when I suddenly feel like I belong, on a molecular level, to the world I am in.

I felt my power, my smile came easily, and I actually wanted to get back on Old Blue.

I set out mid-morning, and the route soon turned onto a long, wide, inviting bicycle path that lead me north, toward Lake Erie, for many quiet and curious miles.

Ahead of me was hope. My game plan for returning to health was working. Every day my potassium-based diet reconnected me to a world worth exploring. And all along my route were the homes of people I had met over the last few years within my online grief group. Most of the strangers I met along the way saw an adventurous woman on a bicycle carrying 50 pounds of gear, but my fellow grieflings also saw the weight I carry that is not visible. The history of loss that is part of who I am. They eagerly fed my body with sustenance, while filling my heart with acknowledgment and connection.

And I took that connection with me for the road. My head lifted up and my eyes looked around and I could feel the existence of the world again. At the end of each day’s ride I found people to talk to, smiling at them encouragingly when they approached, let them be curious and in turn asking them about their lives, hopes, fears. I found strength to write in my composition book. The words did not come easily, and I was disappointed with their less-than-poetic simplicity, but I was grateful to just have words to write.

I reached The Lake and turned right, towards The Atlantic, towards possibility, towards my unknown and surprising future.