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Bicycling through the Midlife Crisis


Chapter 1: Mile Marker 267.5
Saturday, May 21, 2005: 8:45 a.m. 
The Oxbow Trail 

Some say people who have extramarital affairs are looking for one. I say it's more like what happened to me on that bridge. One has an affair not because he is—but because he isn't—looking. I had flown headfirst over the handlebars, landing facedown on concrete. Ten years earlier, a similar crash almost ended my biking career. And this fall was harder. Much harder. 

  Were those angels doing their jobs?
**** 

  I had woken that morning thinking of angels. Wondered if any would be along for our ride to Estelline. If so, I hoped God would send some who were good with rattlesnakes. Trying not to wake Charlotte, who still slept in "Carrie's Room," I dressed and went downstairs early, carrying my biking shoes so the metal clips wouldn't make contact with the old wooden floor and wake the other guests. I wanted to talk with Mona Boles, innkeeper at the Hotel Turkey, while she was still preparing breakfast and not busy serving it. When I entered the kitchen, she was in her pajamas stirring muffin batter. Mona seemed surprised to see me. 

  "You up already?" was her greeting. 

  "Yep. Working on a piece about the Trailway, one I hope to publish. Like to interview you before you get too busy—if that's OK?" 

  "Sure." She began filling a muffin tin. "Glad to. Let me get these in the oven, then I'll clean up and be back." 

  "What time is it?" I felt stupid as I noticed a clock on the wall behind her. 

  "5:15." She looked at the same clock. From the hotel's parlor I could hear the ticking of another time piece, a large grandfather clock, whose measured ticks were mocking me. "Stu-pid. Stu-pid. Stu-pid." 

  "But my room clock says 6:15." I stared sheepishly at the clock's little hand, which was indeed pointing to the five. 

  "I'm sorry." She reached for another tin. "Guess someone changed it." 

  "No problem." That's what I said. What I thought was, What kind of obsessive compulsive nut sets the clock ahead a whole hour? OK, so mine at home are five minutes fast. Well, um, OK, my bedroom alarm is up 13, but one hour? 

  "I'll just go and get some more sleep and catch you in a bit." I left Mona and the kitchen.

  But I didn't want to go back to sleep. Actually, I had been awake for more than an hour already, had just lain there waiting for the clock to get to at least 6:00 so I wouldn't disturb Charlotte by rising so early. She had been disturbed by similar risings more than once in the last two weeks. For I had been working on my book, this book, the one that would tell my midlife story, the book I had been planning to write for 10 years; yet every time I tried to start, I couldn't. I'd get bogged down in the details, or it would seem too negative or—there were dozens of reasons it wasn't working. Then, two weeks before the Trailway trip, while still grading final essays for composition students, the dam broke and the words flooded onto the page. 

  It was a first—like being before that crowd of teenagers at the Bull Barn in '69. God's hand was on me. And even if no one else learned from my story, I was learning. I now could see seeds of unfaithfulness in childhood—Dad's alcoholism played a role—and my phobias as a teen certainly predicted the ones that had followed. And I knew now how much my ill-advised California trip in 1976 had hurt Charlotte, and in the process, hurt our marriage. And there was the grace thing. How can one overemphasize God's grace? Just as well overemphasize the grandeur of a West Texas sunrise. 

  Anyway, I knew God's grace had rescued this angry teenager from his self-destructive behaviors in 1966, and the same grace saved this selfish midlifer from destroying both himself and his family in 1989. Yes, writing this book was both teaching and healing me, giving me peace for the past and hope for the future. And I was pretty sure reading it would do the same for others. So I couldn't wait to be through, and, on this point, my lovely wife agreed. She was ready to get her husband back. 

  The trip down the Caprock Trailway was to be the last touch. I would use this journey to parallel the longer journey, the one through midlife, which I would chronicle with a selection of my newspaper columns and some historical narratives. So I didn't want to go back to sleep; I wanted to get on the trail. And frankly, the heat was worrying me. Clark and I had talked the night before. I wanted to leave when the sun came up at 6:30. He thought it would be best for the others, mainly the girls, to leave much later. Our departure time directly affected their departure time since they had to pick us up at the trail's end. That's Clark. Unlike me, he's always looking out for others. Anyway, we compromised and decided to leave at 8:00. 

  I surprised myself and did go back to sleep, lying in my biking outfit on top of the sheets and not waking until light streamed in through our south window. I looked at the room clock—8:00 a.m., which was really 7:00. I would have to hurry to interview Mona, eat breakfast, pack and get my bike ready by 8:00. 

  Mona, whom I'm guessing was in her mid forties (one doesn't ask), had shoulder-length brown hair and a ready smile. She was easy to visit with, but I didn't get much from her that I could use in the book.  The Hotel Turkey had been open continually since 1927, a year before the first railroad train came through town. Mona lived on a ranch 22 miles to the south near Matador. She had bought the place four years earlier with her 24-year-old daughter to give them something to do together, and to give her daughter something to keep her in this small country town. Mona told me that most visitors to Turkey came to see the home of Bob Wills, legendary creator of Western Swing, a style of music that combined New Orleans jazz, blues and folk fiddle music.

  When I asked Mona other questions about Turkey—what people did there, what the history of the place was like—she kept referring me to Cody, a middle-aged cowboy who had just arrived for his Saturday morning breakfast.  So I went in the large dining room, which with its wood floors and high ceilings could have been Miss Kitty's saloon on Gunsmoke, and introduced myself to Cody Bell. As we ate our breakfasts together—apple quiche with blueberry muffins and orange juice—we talked about Turkey and the Trailway. 

  If I wanted to cast someone to play a cowboy in a movie, he would look like Cody. Cody is one of those cowboys who looks the part. He wore jeans stained by spots of red, a testament to the dirt of the Caprock canyon lands. His shirt was long-sleeved, button-down, clean and stiff. Why do cowboys like their jeans and shirts full of starch? Cody wore a felt hat, a Stetson I guessed, shaped cowboy-style with the wide brim slightly curled upward and showing several brown stains—sweat, tractor grease or worse. The hat covered what looked to be long, white hair. His mustache was white, long and turned up at the tips, and he told me he had just cut his full beard that morning, which also was white. With his round face, ruddy complexion, mischievous smile and, of course, a different hat, this guy could be Santa. 

  Cody told me he was born in 1947, which made him only two years older than I. Of course, he looked much older than I. In fact, every man about my age I've met in the last several years has looked older than I, even the one I meet in the mirror. 

  After discovering we knew a lot of the same people, Panhandle area cowboys, Cody and I mostly shared rattlesnake stories, a topic that came up when I confessed to what I feared most on the Trailway. I told him of the time my daughter Joni was biking with me, coming south from Clarity Tunnel towards Monk's Crossing. I was in front by about 30 feet and, at one point encountering some soft sand, yelled to warn her. We stopped to rest a few miles later, and she thanked me for telling her about the rattler. 

  "What rattler?" I asked. 

  "The one you warned me of. You know, when you yelled 'Watch out for the snake.'" 

  I smiled. "I said watch out for the sand." 

  "Well, I heard snake." Joni looked at her bike. "Just had time to lift my feet, and there he was. I'm sure he struck at me, maybe hit my wheel." 

  I told Cody that my daughter, who had gone on to become a wilderness guide in Colorado and Wyoming, liked to tell that story to her backpackers. 

  Then, I recounted the story I heard the day before, on Friday, from Jackie, a clerk at Allsup's convenience store in Quitaque where Clark, Chris and I waited for the girls to pick us up. Jackie told me about his brother, a deputy sheriff, who was called to Caprock Canyons State Park to help a camper being harassed by a Diamondback. This West Texas lawman got to the campsite, found the rattler coiled and rattling, drew his Colt Government Model .45 and ended the threat. Shortly, a park ranger arrived and, looking at the dead snake, scolded the peace officer. 

  "In the Parks and Wildlife Department, we don't kill rattlers," said the ranger. "In fact, it's illegal to kill a snake in the park. Instead we relocate them." 

  To which Jackie's brother responded—I tried to imitate the thick Texas drawl—"Weeel, I relocated this one fer ya. I relocated his head over yonder (as he pointed), and the rest of him over yonder." 

  Cody's Santa belly shook when he laughed. Cowboys love their horses and their land and even their cattle, but they don't love mosquitoes, mesquite trees or rattlesnakes, and when given a chance, they will kill any of these on sight. Cody then shared his best rattlesnake story. It seems late one fall a rattler had gotten in his ranch house. He knew, not because he saw the snake, but because he smelled him. I said I didn't know rattlers had a distinct odor, and Cody asked if I had ever cut the rattlers off of one. I told him I did as a boy, but couldn't remember the smell. 

  "Well, next time you cut some off, take a whiff." The rancher pinched his nose. "Rattlers have a foul odor."

  "So what happened to the snake?" I wanted to know. 

  Cody grinned. "He spent the winter with me, but didn't make the summer." It seems the rancher's cleaning lady found the rattler in a closet and Cody soon relocated him. 

  I could have spent the whole morning visiting with Cody, but by this time Clark and Chris had joined us, and we all had finished our breakfasts. It was time to hit the trail. 

****

  Chris's rear tire had gone down overnight, and he had to change it, so we left late—about 8:30 a.m. By now my fears about the heat were confirmed. It was already hot and humid, and I wanted to put some miles between us and Turkey, Texas. 

  So with the adrenaline pumping, I had run off from Clark and Chris again and was leading the pack, that is, until this bridge. Usually, I look closely at the area in front of Trailway bridges because sometimes there are large rocks to avoid, but on this one, I didn't see the hazard until it was too late. My front tire suddenly disappeared into a foot-deep hole where my bike came to an abrupt halt, but not the bike's rider.

  Now, facedown on the concrete, what I noticed first was the absence of sound, that and the absence of movement. As a child, I spent a lot of time racing across lakes in a motorboat with the family. When sleepy, I would crawl under the deck where Dad sat steering and lie down in the bow, where I could both hear and feel the mesmerizing contact with waves. Riding a mountain bike on the Trailway is like that. Sound and feeling go together. One both hears and feels the contact with a changing roadbed: a steady crunching noise and moderate bouncing caused by tires on cinder pebbles, a whooshing sound and harder bumps caused by clumps of buffalo grass. And short spurts of silence and relative smoothness when one hits sections of unpebbled sand. But this was not a short silence.

Chapter 2

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