Swirling Questions in a Starry Night

The Erie Canal – Albany Aug 19th – Aug 26th

I followed whimsy every day on the Erie Canal trail, no longer looking at maps or wondering where the end of my road might be. I had found a similar road of whimsy years before, when I searched for anything beyond grief after Vasu died. Insight does not always strike like lightning. Sometimes, insight is like a fever breaking and you lift your head from a darkness in your mind that had made sunlight unbearable. I dallied with daydream, imagining offering bicycle tours to groups of strange humans, and together, explore what it means to be human. Would anyone else see this pathway that I had found? And what else would they see that I am still blind to?

The world seems mystical in it’s complexity, full of mysteries that sit right in front of my face, and yet, because I have not yet learned their patterns, I can only catch glimpses and shadows. I have not lived a life that allowed me to find truths. Truth was always ripped from my grasp by circumstances beyond my control. So instead of searching for answers, I look for the questions that might illuminate those things I do not yet know exist.

I ate lunch beside the canal, and watched ripples form on the still water. Creatures unseen moved beneath, evidence of their existence without seeing their shape or knowing their minds. This is life for me. I can see the influences of choices made in the infinite moving shapes that is reality, and yet the meaning behind it all remains deep within the dark pools.

The ripples collided with one another, bouncing beneath darting bugs that briefly touched the surface, and the water swirled lazily as if a painter expertly spun his starry tale.

I cycled on whimsy, but I knew it would not last. Every mile east brought me closer to the big cities where I feared I would spend so much time battling traffic that I would be unable to find the network of kindness that had brought me so far already. Perhaps city cycling would even disprove my theory of human kindness.

Late in the evening, I cycled into Rochester, NY. A miscommunication with my Warm Showers host took me a mile or two away from the easy Erie Canalway Trail into neighborhoods of large old homes in disrepair. I was the only cyclist around, and the only caucasian for block after block. I reprimanded myself for worrying about skin color, but my heart pumped harder and my legs pedaled faster, desperate to get off the glass strewn streets. I drew the gazes of those on their porches or on the sidewalk. The attention was the same I drew anywhere I traveled, because a woman on a bike with five large bright-yellow bags is a strange thing to see. But because I felt the pressure of being the minority in the crowd, my body reacted with adrenaline and fear. I hated that it did that without my permission. I felt as if an ambient racism had taken residence in my head like a parasite, and I had no clue how to get rid of it. Though I was raised to believe in equality, my life had been deficient in diversity. I had little experience with city living, and no experience at all with neighborhoods dominated by people of color. I knew my path ahead would challenge my inexperience, and I felt both fearful and excited simultaneously. I would be learning just how far my naiveté dipped into unintended prejudice.

I met up with my host in a large park beside the canal. She was delightful and fiery, and wanted to show me the town. I had met her husband a few days before as he guided a small bicycle tour from one B&B to the next on the canal. There wasn’t much light left to the day, but we managed to cycle into beautiful neighborhoods of stone mansions and museums. I felt none of the fear that had accelerated my pace earlier that day. Had I really been afraid earlier because of skin color? Perhaps my unintended prejudice was tied to wealth instead. At what point in my impoverished life had I learned the hypocrisy of fearing poor people?

My hosts were overwhelming in their kindness, and I was beginning to see connections I had always known were there but had never wanted to invite myself into. Cycling culture, people who moved self-propelled through the world the way I did, but actually enjoyed doing it together instead of in the deep solitude that I had been my habit since the day Vasu died. I felt tugs of desire, a movement in my depths that promised I would one day yearn to cycle with companions beside me. But I also wondered if the kindness I found every day was only because cycling culture were so inclusive, and I was so easy to perceive as safe with my red hair, freckles, and dimples. Perhaps a black man on the same quest would find a much less inviting world around him.

More and more questions crowded in, pushing out simple answers and the shortcuts my mind always tries to find for me. Upon entering Rochester I had shifted into floating on uncertainty, instead of whimsy. The pace of the road was changing, was less within my power and more influenced by the constant flow of people and places around me. But somehow I was adapting to the pace, always keeping my focus forward, like when I was young and would jump Old Blue over giant Douglas Fir tree trunks in the woods. If I allowed myself to worry about anything but my forward movement I would come crashing down. If I dared doubt that I wouldn’t make it, my tire would catch and stick, and I flipped over the handlebars many times before I learned what commitment to my goal felt like.

I saw only today, the road in front of my tire. I no longer desired to know the future, strangely confident that the future would find me no matter what road I chose.

And so I bravely asked my host if I could stay an extra night so I could explore Rochester. The next day she guided me to a coffee shop, aptly named Starry Night, and left me in a world that danced in fantastic colors and diverse peoples. I sat there for hours watching people enter, order, sit and eat. In this place, time did not exist with the goal to get somewhere, but instead it mingled in the eddies and currents of human connection. Unlike the military style baristas of the Pacific Northwest that took your order and ushered you on to the next person who made your coffee, often without even looking in your eyes, every customer at Starry Night had their coffee made by the same person taking their order. And the next customer waited patiently for their turn to be served knowing that they too would be getting the same warm service the person before them had received. Instead of impatience, I felt the network of human kindness so strongly I imagined I could see it, painted between us all in deep blues and brilliant yellows.

Soon after leaving Rochester, I received an email from a woman I admired in my grief writing group. She was curious where I might be, since I was nearing her neck of the woods. She sent her address, and I checked my maps. I was only one short day away. Had she sent her email a day later I would have missed her. It seemed to me that the entire year had been like this, one splendid coincidence after another. It was a far cry from the days of Vasu’s cancer when so many things had gone wrong that I felt like I were being punished. There was a word for what I was experiencing, but I could not quite put a name to it.

My friend wanted to take me out to dinner, so we arranged to meet at a restaurant on the west side of Syracuse. I arrived early, plopped my gear on the grass beside the parking lot, and pulled out a change of clothes. I didn’t bother to go inside to use the bathroom to change. Instead, I expertly pulled a shirt on while simultaneously stripping the old one off. I changed my shorts similarly, creating a sense of privacy by remaining seated on the ground behind my bags. My space on the road was finally claimed, a far cry from the mousy woman who was too afraid to take the bus so many months before. As I sat on the ground, I discovered that if I flexed and pointed my foot, I could make my leg muscles bulge and shift. When had those appeared? Somehow, I hadn’t noticed over the months that my body, not just my mind and heart, had changed too. Muscle too was at the whim of choice and consequence.

I stayed with my friend for three days. On the second day, I asked if I could interview her for my podcast – and had her to listen to my original podcast, the one I had recorded in April. I had been planning on recording more podcasts as I cycled, but the amount of time and quiet I needed had never really happened. I had dreamed that those podcasts would help fund my quest, but I had given up on them in the miles where just surviving the road had been my priority. The look on her face as the story ended was all I needed to realize that the podcasts were important to me; important enough that at some point I knew I would have to create the time I needed for writing them.

I was strong on the road now, but I was still not able to write the way I knew I could. That took time that my 40 miles per day would not allow me. I had pulled back on my writing to allow for the cycling and searching, but perhaps somewhere down the line I would make a different choice. My quest was not to prove my prowess as a cyclist, but somehow even just the idea of not completing the entire circuit of the USA felt like failure.

I arrived in Albany 5 days earlier than I had planned had I taken the Adirondak route. Because I was not checking maps of any kind, my arrival surprised me. I was planning to spend a week at a friends house two days south of Albany, but now I was going to arrive during the weekend she would be gone. I texted My Love with my dilemma.

Do I attempt to cycle out to Boston and back to visit my niece? It was almost 200 miles out of my way. Do I find a place to stay in Albany for the time? My funds were dwindeling, and the idea of spending a week’s worth of my budget on a hotel for five days was not appealing.

His reply was instant, “I’m flying into Atlanta to DJ for my old club, babe. Why don’t I fly you down and you can spend the weekend with me?”

I don’t think I hesitated even a second to accept. All I had to do was find a place to store Old Blue for three days. I called the closest bike shop to the Albany Airport. Not only would they store him for me, but they had the supplies I needed to fix him up for the trip south to Florida; a new cassette, a new rear tire, and a good cleaning.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling as I battled heavy traffic on poorly designed roads to get to the shop. It felt like exhilaration, but somehow I couldn’t quite let it flow as heavily as it desired. It wanted to soar into cockiness, but having lost a child to cancer I can never quite let myself ever believe that good things would continue for long. This series of chance occurrences just happened to land in my favor this time. For once, serendipity was on my side.

I was grinning when I arrived at the bike shop, and lightheaded from my joy of the road. I told my story to the bike techs in skips and spurts, and they seemed to feed off of my energy. They took Old Blue, and then took my picture too for their social media sites. Because serendipity was on my side, I was not at all surprised when one of the techs offered to drive me to the airport. I accepted without any guilt or fear, and chatted with uninhibited abandon along the way. I was going to see My Love, because nothing can get in the way of serendipity and for now she wanted us to be together as often as possible. My quest would be waiting for me when I got back, because serendipity wanted me there too.