The Sciences

Repost: Making new anniversaries

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 11, 2011 3:47 PM


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[Last year, on September 13, 2010, I posted an essay about how I had spent my time a couple of days earlier. I rarely repost older articles, but my feelings haven't changed and I don't have anything to add to it (though I made some minor edits for clarity). A lot of people are posting retrospectives today, of course, and I have no desire to tell others how to feel or act on this day. Think of this as me simply ruminating out loud.]

Leaning on my bike, I glared up at the distant hill peak. I was exhausted. Gasping for breath, weak in the legs, throat raw from trying to force too-thin air into my lungs, I still managed a wan smile. Two hours ago, this ride seemed like a good idea... but of course, time changes things. The weather was perfect. The wind from yesterday had died down, and the air was clear and clean. Blue skies, mild temperatures, and best of all, no deadlines looming. I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. A bike ride seemed like the best idea. The day before, driving back from the gym, I semi-randomly took a side road home. I noticed some bike trails intersecting it, and made a mental note to look them up. So I sat down with my Boulder trails guide and a monitor full of Google maps. The ride from home wouldn't be too bad: ten kilometers or so, a nice wide loop, some lightly-used roads and fun trails. The guide said moderate biking, so I figured I was up for it. An hour later that idea hadn't changed. I was on my bike, enjoying the almost obscenely nice weather. I took some quick side routes when I saw anything interesting: a wildlife preserve, a water treatment plant (with Logan's Run type domes, very cool), a vegetable stand. I turned on to the road I had been on the other day, and kept my eyes open for the trail. When I found it I could see this would be awesome: lakes, pastures, wild fields of hay. I turned on to the trail and my heart sang. But soon that song turned into loud hammering. The trail started getting hilly, then really hilly. I negotiated the first two inclines in short order, though it was tough. Then I rounded a corner and my palpating heart sank a bit. This hill was steep, and had sand along it. That sapped away my momentum, and I found myself pedaling way too hard and gasping for air. Even after 3 years here, 1700 meters elevation can drain away blood oxygen before you know it. For the first time in years, I had to dismount to get up a hill. Humbled a bit, I pushed my bike along. When I got to the top, despite being tired, I took in the lovely view: mountains to the west, prairie to the right. A sip of water, one last deep breath, and I was back on my bike and enjoying the ride once again. For about three minutes, that is, until I hit another hill. I had to dismount again. And after that, another hill. This must be the last one, I thought stupidly. Of course, it was then that I hit the big hill. Looming in front of me, reaching up into the sky, this was clearly the most daunting of the ones I'd face. I made it about 20 meters up the trail before resignedly getting off my bike. Sweating, panting, exhausted, I had to rest twice just from walking my bike up the hill. I glared up at the top of it, still a solid 40 or 50 meters away, and found myself smiling, if wryly. This seemed like a good idea two hours ago, I thought. That's when I noticed the biker coming up behind me. He was near the bottom of this monster hill, and struggling mightily with it. He was standing up, using his weight to force the pedals down. I was still too tired to get back on my bike, so I watched his fight. He got about 10 meters behind me, then stopped and got off. Laughing, I called out to him: "Nice! You got a lot farther than I did!" He laughed too. "This one is a killer," he said. "It's my first ride of the season," he added sheepishly. I laughed again. "I've been on the road too much to exercise. This isn't my first ride this summer, but man! I should've gone clockwise around the trails, not counterclockwise!" By this time he reached me. We pushed our bikes up the hill together, chatting in between gasps for air. When we got to the top, by mutual unspoken consent, we both hopped back on, and paced each other. That killer was the last uphill battle for the ride; it leveled off and we were presented with a magnificent view of the foothills and the Rockies. We kept chatting, laughing at our mutual need for more exercise, and how nice the trails around Boulder are. At one point a huge flock of grasshoppers erupted in our path, surrounding us, a flash of tan and brown and yellow as they flew around us and off to the side. It was wonderful. Eventually, we got to a main street, and parted company. He turned right, I turned left. Over my shoulder I called out to him, "Take care!" I think he said "You too!" but we were facing opposite directions, and the wind of my motion stole the sound from me. From there it was a short, thankfully downhill, ride home. The breeze in my face was wonderful. I could hear birds singing, and people I passed were enjoying the weather too, out walking, working on their yard, playing games. I saw a young father and his toddler in their garage doing some activity together, maybe building something, but I blew past them too quickly to see what. Finally, finally, I turned the corner and saw my house. My legs were twitching from exhaustion, and I was spent. Still, though, I was thinking it was good to be alive. That day, when all this happened, was Saturday, September 11, 2010. I had been fretting earlier that day, wondering if I should write something on this grim anniversary. I had already posted something, but that was a mildly funny tongue-in-cheek post about an encounter with a praying mantis. I had purposely not written about the day; I figured I had already written everything I needed to about this particular date. But after that ride, I decided I had one more thing to say. I don't know the name of the man I shared those few minutes with. My knowledge of him is that he lives somewhere near me, he's a bit younger than me, and he likes to bike, but that's it. I don't even know his name. Maybe he's a scientist. Maybe he's an accountant. Maybe he's a creationist, or believes in astrology, or UFOs, or doesn't like Star Trek, or he's a social conservative. Chances are pretty good that there's something about him that is vastly different than me. But none of that matters. Right then, all that mattered was that we were both human beings, alive, outside, and enjoying the particular circumstances the world had thrown at us for that short time. In time, after the Earth circles the Sun once again, people will talk about that day, that anniversary -- certainly more than they have this year, since in 2011 the anniversary will be evenly divisible by ten -- and they'll remember where they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking, and what happened next. When dates align we try to circumvent the years that separate the now from the then. But time changes things. I'll remember what happened all those years ago, certainly I will. But on this date in the future I'll also remember that ride: the dust, the cloud of grasshoppers, the mountains, the exhaustion. And I'll remember that other human whose path crossed mine, who has his own persepective, his own experience, his own memories. But what's important to me is that I have a new memory to add to that specific date. Time changes things. It distances us from the pain, the sadness, the anger. But that also gives us room to add new memories. They may as well be positive ones.

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