OHIOPYLE, Pa.—When we started this ridiculously long bike trail, I had no idea what the heck I was getting myself into.
A guy learns how out-of-shape he is when he’s riding a silly trike in the Appalachian Mountains.
That’s the ironic thing about doing trails. By the time you finish the trail you’re finally in-shape. But by then it doesn’t matter. Because the trail is finished and it’s time to eat Hostess products again.
My wife and I have been biking for two days in the Allegheny region of the Appalachians. Our route follows the roaring Youghiogheny River and it led us here, to the tiny town of Ohiopyle. Population 56.
My body hurts. And I mean all over. If it’s attached to me, it hurts. No matter how small the body part.
My fingernail? Hurts. Hair cuticles? Hurt. My nose? Totally sunburned.
Yesterday, my wife and I were the only people on a long stretch of trail that cut through the prettiest hill country known to mankind. We shuffled through miles of loveliness that became so overwhelming you half wished the scenery would stop.
But the trail doesn’t stop. It goes on and on. And all you can do is pedal.
That’s what we do now. We pedal. We pedal until we forget we’re pedaling. We’re just existing. Breathing. Zombies. Two pieces of meat with legs.
Why are we pedaling? How did we start? It’s as though we’ve always been doing this. I came out of the womb pedaling. I will pedal until I die. And when they put me in the ground they will notice that my feet are still twitching.
My wife and I mostly ride in silence. It’s an odd thing, being on a trail from sunrise to sunset. You don’t talk much. In fact, you don’t have anything important to say. And you realize you never had anything important to say. Ninety percent of all words you ever said were filler words.
So you don’t waste your calories talking. Your trail communication consists primarily of grunts. Then, almost as if on cue, you and your wife both get quiet again.
You ride the next 12 miles without saying anything other than: “How much farther to Ohiopyle?”
Or you talk about food. Talking food is a favorite pastime on the trail. You discuss the perfect hamburger, how you like your steaks, and what kinds of petty crimes you’d be willing to commit for a cold beer.
Once visions of food are in your head, you ride beneath the chlorophyll-rich canopy of leaves, two-story volcanic rocks, and the eerie dim forest, and you’re stuck on mute.
You’re always moving slower than you think. Sometimes you look at the map and it discourages you. Because on paper you’re not making much progress. You’ve been pedaling all day, but you’ve only traveled 0.02 millimeters on the map.
Still, each mile is worth it. The beauty is so arresting that you start to wonder how anything could be so pretty. How can this virgin wilderness even be allowed to exist in a modern techno world?
Where are all the Bed Bath & Beyonds? How about the Old Navys, the Targets, or the godless strip malls?
After a while your brain starts to adjust to all the natural beauty, and it no longer seems exceptional. Heartstopping grandeur becomes your new normal. Trees are trees. Rocks are rocks. The Youghiogheny is just another river.
Two mountains form a monstrous valley, and a river runs through it. Rapids flow past the gauntlet of jagged granite into the backyard of the Jolly Green Giant. The colors get so vivid they make Walt Disney look like a clown.
Somehow, deep inside, you know that you will never see this again. Not in this manner. There’s no earthly way to experience the same scenery the same way two times in a row.
As it happens, my grandfather used to have a phrase for this. He’d say, “No man can stand in the same river twice.”
I used to wonder what he meant by this. I’m still not fully sure what it means, but I think I’m starting to understand.
I think it means that life keeps changing.
I know this, of course, it’s common sense. But I’ve wasted a lot of time acting like life shouldn’t change. I resist change. I hate change.
But time does go forward, with or without you. You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still. Whatever was behind you doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not real anymore. It lives only in your head now.
I don’t mean to sound like an amateur-hour poet, but life is moving at a breakneck current.
It flies through mountain valleys, cutting through time, and you’re floating in it whether you like it or not. It changes the rules every few moments, and it is not always kind. But it is pretty, even the ugly parts.
By the time you’re at the end of your ride you’ll be in the best shape of your life. You’ll be able to handle almost anything. But by then it won’t matter anymore. Because you’re at the end of your trail, and there are no miles left to cover.
Maybe on that final day we will understand it better. Maybe we’ll realize that life wasn’t a riddle to figure out. It wasn’t a game to win. It was supposed to be fun.
And the thrill of it was not having any idea what the heck you’d gotten yourself into.