Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter Ridge Climb

The boy rode his bike into the base of the ridge sunward, an unpaved one-and-a-half-lane service road.  Westward, squinting, the ridge shading half the sun's rays, the crest hid beyond the rising bulge of earth and the bare oaks, leafless as they were.  It was a north-south ridge and the road traversed a saddle in it.  The darkening turned the gray gravel white and the griddled oak bark rich, almost wet shades of black.

No cars or bikes or people here watched or passed or stood.  Sitting and arching his thin back, hunched, then standing, on the bars lightly with fingertips, he rose into the switchbacks.  Lean, sedate, open mouthed, having a child's face and limbs as spare as the tree branches he passed, his bike made silent with his own constant and precise mechanical care, he lit into the climb eager.

The ridge under him had once been higher than the Himalayas now are.  450 million years ago the African and North American plates collided and the earth here lifted.  But then the tectonic pressure reversed and the plates repelled, a divorce of continents, and like a pulled rug,the ridges collapsed and formed immense troughs.  Of which the Atlantic Ocean is the most notable.

The ridge remained, still vast and a boundary to living things.  A wall rose in front of the boy, but here--here was his genius.  Here his extraordinary lightness, his absense of mass, let him fly upward.  Not that walls such as this were easier for him; steepness led gravity to pin harder and, as all laws must, granted him no exception to its consequences.  He was rare, among the least bothered by its pull.  Alone, it simply seemed to slow him.  Had there been other riders with him, his swiftness would have told:  they would have gasped, slowed, and then seen the boy pass beyond.

But this was a mountain, and the boy, however lean and swift, climbed it as we all must climb mountains--as a struggle and fitting metaphor for struggle.

His strength and endurance was a gift.  His leanness was not; it was hard earned.  Siddharta had been deathly thin before he'd been fat, fasting to lose appetite.  That's what they'd said.  He had taught his body by training it to the point where either it no longer made demands or its demands fell like the philosophical tree does--with no one there to hear it, its sounding in question.

That was not at all the boy's experience; his appetite, in fact, grew as he deprived it.  It wasn't that he didn't eat.  He ate constantly.  His pockets were full of food.  He was always hungry nonetheless.  He dreamed of pies, of cream, of melted butter.  He starved his appetities, but he was no Buddha.  He rode in the mountains for months, every day climbing and falling, and his riding self remained as his other self burned off.

Why the earth had chosen to heave upwards here, 150 miles in from the Atlantic, the boy was unsure, but he believed that which raised the ridge, whether mystical or physical, also lent its collapse.  It once rose too high for man to summit, above breathing; it had flung ash and liquid rock now crumbled into red soil along the coastal plain.

Now it was a dying range, every year diminishing as wind and rain and gravity tugged it down.  It no longer rose above habitable climes, was not even chilly enough to hold a continuous snowpack.  Even amid the ice age, here it had not hosted glaciers.

Headwind, and he knew the crest lay close, wind gusts not so deathly, but not warm either, curling over the top and brisker now, last week's snowfall that in the valleys had now melted, here held out.

Faster now on the leveling summit, the silent ancient and withered ascent passed and the wind now roared in his face, the spokes now blurred in the spinning wheels, the smooth action of his seated spinning accelerated, his fingers flicking through his 17, his 15, and then the momentous shifting to his big chainring.

Gloaming came on, but then the light held as he crested the apex and the ridgeline lowered and his legs halted and his head fell forward and he seemed to kneel into the descent as the wind, on a free arc from the distant west, now met him.  The land fell and the sky opened downward and the evening hit the boy full and warm, not yet blocked by the distant westward earth.

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