Bike Ballad : How It Began, Part Two
Weaverville to Willow Creek: 56 Miles
It didn't take long for me to disappear among the pine trees and concrete leading out of Weaverville. The morning air was cold against my knuckles, and my toes were practically numb despite that I had two pairs of socks on. The roads were surprisingly dry the further I got away from town. I remember the shoulders were dusted with light flurries and dirt, but since that no one was driving, I positioned myself in the center of the highway, coasting along the flats and peering behind me every few minutes to make sure I was clear.
Highway 299 at this section was surrounded by overgrowth, snowy hills, slender peaks, and the occasional open field. Looking in any direction would give you hope that mankind hasn't completely destroyed the beauty of mother nature in the modern world. Trees looked tall and robust, foliage was dense, and the snow was falling gently like particles of dust caught in the faint glow of evening sunlight. There were no houses crammed into the edges or driveways mowing down a lane of trees; it was only the silence of Christmas morning and the bite of frozen air as it whipped across my face. Unlike the steep mountains entering into Douglas City, exiting Weaverville was a tremendous relief that offered a great jump on my schedule. The dry flats soon transformed into smooth dog-legs. While taking a turn, I began to notice that I wasn't pedaling anymore, and the ride became a period of circumvention, trying my best to maintain my speed and anticipation of any turns ahead. Luckily, the road had dried completely from sunlight, but I was worried about how fast I was moving down the road. The heavy weight on my back tire didn't help either. The extra pounds only added to the momentum, and to compensate, I pressed both brakes every few seconds as I leaned into the curves. For the most part, the pace was exhilarating, and every so often I would peer to my left and see the immense valley bathed in snowfall trailing behind. It got to a point where I was keeping my eyes on the landscape more than the road ahead. I looked straight out to get my bearings, but in my peripherals, I caught a glimpse of a hawk striking down into the valley. I quickly turned my head to watch, and suddenly, an SUV roared past me on the left. I jerked the handlebars to the shoulder to avoid getting hit, and the shift caused my back tire to skid, turning my bike almost sideways as I screeched to a halt. The SUV peeled around the bend below, and everything was silent again. I stood in the middle of the road looking both directions, then I gave my bike a once-over and found that everything was intact; even the water bottle managed to stay put in the jostle. I peered out one more time to the trees and a whispered an apology. There was nothing more I wanted to do than to enjoy the solitude; to celebrate the holiday with serenity and appreciation for the world. I scanned the horizon one more time for the hawk, but it was gone. Chances are it dove full-speed to a rodent tucked into a rock face or it perched itself onto the tip of a valley oak. Nonetheless, I made peace with the view and took off down the road; diving toward my own goal at the bottom.
Once I steadied my focus, I locked into the pavement and took my fingers off the brakes. Within seconds, I had to stop pedaling and let the slope take control. It wasn't that the road was completely downhill, but it snaked around plateaus with an occasional descent. It was manageable with the right kind of anticipation. I coasted in the drops, keeping my eyes just the below the brim of my baseball cap, and whenever a curve gave way to a moment of respite, I sat up straight, letting go of the handlebars and taking in the cold air. The temperature had risen to a high-point by noon, and I felt my t-shirt underneath sticking to my shoulder blades. Wind crept up the sleeves of my jacket, sending chills up my arm and neck. It was nice to recharge from the breeze, while sunshine enveloped my chest and face. I took off my hat and let the wind untangle my hair before I approached the next downhill.
Prayers in Junction City
Junction City was only 8 or 9 miles away from Weaverville, so I took my time after the downhills to cruise and enjoy the scenery at a sober pace. When I rode into town, the highway had narrowed down to two lanes, and the main drag looked as though it hosted the entire population. Only 680 people lived there according to the welcome sign, and the appearance certainly fit the claim. Houses were tucked alongside the road with trucks, jalopies, and trailer beds parked next to their mailboxes. Snow had come in and blanketed the town in a few inches the night before, and now, slush had made puddles in empty parking lots and unpaved driveways. Everything was still and quiet along the strip, no cars parked at the gas station or people outside scrapping their windshields. It was only me and my bike clipping down the road. I looked around for a place to sit and have lunch, and I spotted a picnic table sitting outside of the Junction City Store under an awning next to a few newspaper stands. When I rolled up to it, the lights were off inside. I went over to the door and a small note was taped to it that said they would be closed until Dec 26th, 9am. Inside I saw beef jerky, Twix bars, ice cold drinks; it made my mouth water, but I staggered back to my bags and pulled out a Kind bar with almonds, sea salt, and chocolate. I sat on top of the picnic table, took off my hat, and took a few deep breaths while fiddling with the wrapper. My fingers were cold and clammy, and I couldn't get a good grip on the edges. I gave up and started gnawing at it with my teeth when I noticed the sound of a bell ringing in the background. I spat out the Kind bar and turned around to see a stream of prayer flags swaying up and down tied to a small bell rattling with each gust. At my old apartment with Conroy, he had the same set of flags draped over the doorway to the kitchen. I would sit at the dining room table reading books, watching the flags float with the breeze passing through the windows. Instantly, I was taken aback. Of all places to have prayer flags dangling on Christmas day, this tiny general store in Junction City was like a lonely shrine in the hills of the Himalayas. Not a soul was around to accompany me or distract from the connection; only the wind, the cold, my strength, my hunger, and my sorrow were there to reflect on. I got off the table and stood under the bell. It rang gently in my ears and I closed my eyes clutching the kind bar in my hands. "Please help me remember. Please tell my mother that I love her and miss her more than anything. Please help me get home and make a difference in my life." Tears welled in my eyes, and the drops forced their way to my cheeks, rolling off my chin. The wind had settled, but the bell still clanged like a metronome. I opened my eyes and the cool breeze stung my pupils. My stomach rumbled, telling me that it was empty, but for whatever reason, I lost my appetite. I looked at the Kind bar and felt overwhelmed with grief. It didn't feel like a time to eat and rest, but rather, it felt like I was supposed to push on; to experience the feeling of weariness and not resolve it so easily. The sounds of the bell then turned into a signal that seemed like it was prompting me to leave. I placed the Kind bar on a newsstand and grabbed my hat from the picnic table. The wind picked up again and the flags were dancing to the chanting and rattling of the bell. I hoped onto the bike and rolled out of the parking lot onto the highway. In truth, I felt anxious all of a sudden. It was like the universe was telling me to get moving; that something better was on the way, but only if I could get there in time.
The Hills of helena
This next section was unlike the roads before since there weren't any stretches of flat curves. Instead, the area known as Helena, only went straight down; the road barreling into a lush forest with guard rails as bumpers. I didn't get a chance to visit the town itself because daylight was moving fast and another stop would have left me in the middle of nowhere by nightfall. Having to sleep outside without a shelter or basic coverage was a little frightening, and soldering on past the visit was easier to bare than the uncertainty of darkness.
As the road got steeper, the shoulder became minuscule. It was safer to ride in the lane than to hug the sideline, so I dug into the peddles and set down into a racing position. I didn't have a speedometer or sportwatch to track my levels, but I imagine I was going somewhere between 40-50mph, which was beyond anything I was used to. In LA, everything is flat besides a few hills in Hollywood or anywhere in the Valley, but I lived on the westside along the coast near Marina Del Rey. The only hill I cruised down regularly was the one on Lincoln Blvd. that takes you past Loyola Marymount into Playa Vista. At best, speeds reached 30mph when pedaling at top gear, so you can imagine how intense this moment was having complete freedom to let go and accumulate. The velocity became so powerful that it was difficult to breathe. Wind sliced over my face and made my eyes water. All I could hear was the zipping of the freewheel as it echoed off the tree line. The road maintained a sharp descent, but then a sign appeared indicating that a turn was coming up. I didn't slow down. I leaned hard to the right; my knee inching closer to the pavement. The turn revealed another descent that looked as though it went on for 100 yards, and further down the lane, I saw the SUV from earlier in the day flashing its brake lights.
It was a black Chevy Tahoe with a Nevada License plate. I trailed just behind it as it slowed and accelerated around the bend. A straightaway appeared and the Chevy moved over as far as it could to the outskirts of the lane and allowed me to speed up. The road was still very much downhill, but the driver couldn't charge the way I could, so for a moment, my coasting matched alongside their control. While I rode next to the mammoth vehicle, I tried not to pay it much attention. After all, most drivers hate cyclists and see them as a nuisance to their presence of steel and horse power, but in the corner of my eye, I saw the backseat window rolling down, which revealed a young girl about the age of 9 or 10. She had bright red curly hair, an array of orange freckles dotting the bridge of her nose, and she wore a turquoise windbreaker that made her features pop even brighter in the cold shade of the highway. I looked over a few times while speeding down the road and the young girl was smiling and waving at me. Inside the car, I could see the driver; an older man wearing sport sunglasses and a black pullover, and in the passenger seat was the backside of a soft-pink beanie with dark hair pouring out the bottom. I caught a glimpse of the man laughing and gesturing to the girl to be careful or to not disturb me, but she didn't listen to him. Instead, she kept her eyes fixated on me and started to wave again. I glanced over to her and smiled back, and then put my attention back onto the road. The descent required me to be careful at this point since I could see a crossroad coming up ahead. I locked into my position and kept my head low. Meanwhile, the little girl sat up closer to the window and held a smartphone in her hands. I didn't know what she was doing; taking a picture or filming a video, but she held it high over her face and tried to steady herself. I wanted to look over and flash her a big grin or a funny face, but I was glued to the crossroad. Once we approached the stop sign, I kept going and the Chevy stopped for a moment. The road had flattened out by now, and I started peddling again for the first time in almost 10 minutes. I turned my head to look at the SUV again, and the driver started to honk the horn and flash the headlights. Then it turned left and I saw the girl waving again. As loud as I could, I yelled out "Marry Christmas!", but the she didn't reply. She just watched me as they pulled away. It's strange to think that an image of me exists somewhere in her memory. It's an insight that I'll never have, but for a split-second, that interaction brought joy and fulfillment to my journey. Although I'll never see it, there is a moment of my life engrained in the road; one that captures patience, focus, anticipation, and kindness. However that little girl remembers me in her life, that's how I would like to remember myself when all this is over.
Following the trinity river
Trinity River is a bit deceiving if you try to trace it on a map. It originates from deep in the Scott Mountains, eventually flowing into Trinity Lake off Highway 3 at Trinity Center, but the map shows a void between the lake and the continuation of the river below it. Trinity Lake is actually a reservoir contained by the Trinity Dam, and where the river picks up again is called the Lewiston Dam. Throughout history, the remote river was the lifeblood of Hupa Native Americans. For thousands of years, salmon and trout filled the waters in astounding numbers, providing security and consistency, but once the gold rush hit in the 1800's, settlers and miners wreaked havoc on the environment. Soon after, Hupa tribes began to die off, the nature of the river changed, and the fish disappeared. As of today, the river has become a major influence on irrigation, as well as providing hydroelectric power to the Central Valley. For me, it helped navigate Highway 299, giving me a scenic map to follow as the afternoon sun faded from vibrant white to soft azure. I hugged the shoulder of the rode, glancing over to the river every few minutes to admire its power and grace. I kept thinking of how disappointing it is to know that Hupa tribes were dismantled from an area that served as their home long before Europeans claimed it for themselves. The river was a testament to their story. Just like the road I traveled on; it had no place in the mountains, breaking away foundations of earth for convenience and expansion. Flowing right next to it in a natural way is a river that follows the exact same path, and the juxtaposition sickened me. That's the mindset of the modern man; to make way for industry and progress, while having the luxury to examine the past from a comfortable distance. I realized that I was merely a spectator trying to tether myself to the essence of the world.
Diner at Big Flat
I had only eaten a few handfuls of almonds and a cliff bar by the time I reached the tiny, makeshift town of Big Flat. After stretches of mountainsides and slender roadways, It was a relief to see an open field of campground, parked RVs, yurts, and a random coffee shop decked out with a yellow, homey exterior. In all honesty, the sight of civilization in such a small radius was odd. I pulled over to the dirt parking lot and stood there for a few minutes taking it all in. I heard the whitewater from the river bashing over rocks in the distance, whips of dust and wind howling against nearby canyons, and across the street was an eggshell blue yurt sprouting up like a toadstool. There was much to enjoy, but my hunger had been reeling throughout the day, and my attention was centered back onto the coffee shop. I was willing to spend as much money as I needed to so that I could buy a proper meal and drink. My mouth started salivating as I parked the bike up against the siding and rushed over to the door. There was no sign posted indicating that it was closed and lights toward the counter in the back were fully on. Pressing my face against the glass to get a better look, I could feel the ventilation system humming through the foundation. I jiggled the door knob, but it was locked. I knocked on the door a few times, but no one answered. I figured it was Christmas night and everyone was gone. The lights must have been for security in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately for me, they didn't offer any solace.
Hungry and exhausted, I noticed a spigot protruding from the cafe over a flowerbed of mulch. My water bottle was getting low, and no one was around, so I trampled into the bed and turned it on. The water was ice cold entering the bottle. I could feel the sensation through the plastic and it deadened my palm. I was standing close to the corner of the building that revealed a back patio a few yards away, but a canopy had been strung up to keep me from seeing the whole view of the area. I went back to topping off the bottle and turned off the spigot. Twilight was beginning to take hold and I wasn't sure where to make camp for the night. I went back to the bike and contemplated my options. I had no idea where I was. Cell service was nonexistent, I didn't own a map, and I suppose I didn't care too much about where I took refuge except that this would be the first time that I was at the full mercy of nature if I didn't choose to stay put. I thought about sleeping in front of the coffee shop or breaking into the canopied-area out back, but I still had a couple hours of daylight to burn, and there had to be another city not far ahead. After making a decision, I hopped back onto the bike and started to peddle away. I took one last look at the yellow abode to singe it in my memory, and to my surprise, a cloud of smoke erupted from a chimney sitting behind the building. I couldn't see it when I was close up, but from down the road, plumes were forming and dissipating in rhythm. Quickly, I turned the bike around and peddled back into the parking lot and coasted to the canopy in the back. It was a thick, white tarp that extended all the way to the ground, almost like a tarp you would see for an outdoor wedding reception. A flap was loose against the building and I folded it back to peak inside. Standing in front of a brick pizza oven was an old man wearing a bright red fleece sweater. He was stocky, round, and bald-headed. I watched him finagle a pizza out of the oven with a large wooden spatula. He balanced it on the end and swung it around to a counter made out of white cutting board material. Cheese bubbled over shreds of basil, marinara sauce oozed over a flaky seared thin crust. The smell alone put me under a spell, and I couldn't contain my silence any longer. I pushed my way through the flap like a fawn being born and almost tripped over the railing holding it up. The old man turned around with the empty spatula and let out a gasp. "Sweet Jesus, Julia!? There's a guy out here." I straightened myself up and immediately went on the defensive. "I'm sorry, sir. I was just wondering if the place was open so I could buy some food. I didn't mean to fall through like that." I made sure to speak clear and firm, and he must have sensed my genuine remorse because he clenched his chest with a free hand and started to laugh. "You know what I want for Christmas young man; another year to live, so thank God you didn't just take that from me." His laugh was infectious, and his facial features were endearing the way a close friend smiles at you after an inside joke. I shyly laughed along with him and apologized again for the intrusion. He called out for Julia one more time, but no one responded. "Damn kid doesn't hear a word I'm saying. Here, take a slice of pizza. I'll be right back." He handed me a pizza cutter and left me alone with the whole pie. I was stunned and nervous, but the pizza looked incredible. I didn't want to seem greedy, so I only took one slice and scarfed it down before he came back. The cheese was so hot that it burned my tongue and I had to take in deep breaths to cool it down. My fingers were coated in grease and sauce, and I could hear the old man walking back to the canopy from inside the building. I wasn't sure what to do, so I wiped my hand across my jacket and left a thick streak of marinara painted over the chest. The old man came back outside and shot me a confused look. "Did you eat something or did you spill it on yourself?" He chuckled again and reached his hand out for the pizza cutter. I gave it back to him and he turned around to the counter and started dividing the remaining pieces. "Plenty of pizza left if you want another slice, son. Whatd'ya think of it?" "I think it's amazing," I replied. "Best pizza I've ever had. There hasn't been much to eat all day. Everything's closed up." "Yeah, well it is Christmas, you know...you do celebrate Christmas dont'ya?" He chuckled again and I started to warm up to his humor. "Oh yeah, sir. It's my favorite holiday." He was pretty quick-witted for his age. If I had to guess, he must have been in his mid-eighties. After I answered, he whipped around with the saucy cutter in his hand and looked like he was about to dice me up. "Then why aren't you with your family? A man's gotta be with family on Christmas day. Dont'ya think?" He went back to cutting the last two pieces apart and threw them on a platter. He took the platter from the counter and yelled for Julia one more time. "Julia! Pizza's done, and there's a man outside here!" I couldn't help but laugh at his tone and he smiled back at me with a sly grin. "If I don't yell she doesn't take me seriously." He yelled her name again and bursting through the doorway was a slender, curly blonde-haired woman wearing a red long-sleeve shirt and purple vest. She wore amulet-style earnings and had a slight gap between her two front teeth. You could tell that she was warm and effervescent, and she made me feel welcome instantly. "Is my dad giving you a hard time?" She giggled while holding a devious smile, shooting a quick glance to the old man standing over the pizza. He had grabbed a slice and carefully taken a bit. His hands were shaking, and the clumsiness caused a basil leaf to slide off and fumble onto his red sweater. Julia walked over to him, ripped off a piece of paper-towel on the counter and began to dab the material. "At least the sauce will blend in. Here, you want this back on your pizza?" She twirled the basil leaf by its stem and the old man grabbed it and flung it into a nearby trashcan. "I never liked basil, and I didn't want it on the pizza anyhow!" Julia guffawed and turned to me with a shocked look. "Then make your own damn pizza next time." You could tell that she was joking warm-heartedly, in a way that only a father and daughter could. It seems to me that a father will argue with his own mother, he will argue with his wife, he will argue with his sister, but with his daughter, he will always stand there with arms outspread, ready to take the punches. The old man laughed a little, looked me in the eye and took another bite of pizza. The bite covered his silence and his face held an air of embarrassment and truthfulness. Julia walked over to me and directed her arm towards the door. "Would you like to come in and get something else to eat? I can make you a salad or a wrap, and maybe some coffee? I was speechless. Her energy was so warm and inviting that I swallowed my words and nodded like a bobblehead. She giggled again and looked over at the old man. "Don't burn this place down, okay? I'll check on you in a few minutes." "Bring a glass of water while you're at it." The old man smiled at me again before we stepped inside. Julia laughed and shook her head. "He's a real card, isn't he?"
The coffee shop was called Strawhouse Resorts. Julia and her husband Don opened the location in 1998, and ever since, they both have continued to dedicate themselves to the community of Big Flat, doing whatever they can to introduce others to the beauty of their special place among the northern California wilderness. Entering the cafe was like stepping into the house of a close relative. The walls were stuccoed with a tint of soft yellow. Vibrant, eclectic furniture created a cozy space perfect for reading or sharing an intimate meal, and the aroma was a mix between dessert wind and arabica beans. Julia led me to the red counter fixed with a tan marble top. A glass display case featured several baked goods on three shelves and two menu boards hung above the counter against the back wall, showcasing several items in colorful, chalk-like font. A row of flavored syrups lined the counter space underneath the menus along with two blenders, several bottles of featured wine, a stack of clean dishes, and different to-go boxes stacked on the highest shelf. A small window was cut out revealing the kitchen behind it and I could see the metal drop sink to the left of the barista station through an open doorway. Inside the kitchen, a tall man ducked his head and walked out the doorway wearing a dark green dress shirt and jeans. "Julia, I think that quiche needs to..." The front of his head was bald with short brown and gray hairs covering the sides and back. His features were slim and defined; wide eyes, a long, sharp nose, and high cheekbones. To me, he looked like a giant spruce; someone who thrives on the outdoors so much that they took shape to it. Julia cut him off and threw her hands up in slight anxiousness. "Oh right! Ahh, the quiche!" She zipped off into the kitchen and the man approached me with a big smile and a firm handshake. "I thought I heard a stranger out there. Did you try the pizza?" I was so dazed by his energy that I only smiled back and completed the greeting. "Hopefully you got a piece out there. Julia's dad loves it. Makes one every time he comes over. My name's Don, what's yours?" I finally caught up to his level and introduced myself. I thanked him for the hospitality and complimented him on how beautiful the place was. "Yeah, it's home for us." He took a second to stand back and admire the cafe. I can still remember the look on his face because he conveyed what I believe was a real appreciation for one's own hard work and accomplishment. Too many people act modest or uncaring about things they've done, but Don wore it proudly with a sense of joy that deserved the highest honor possible. It was infectious to watch, and the admiration I felt was like getting hit with a defibrillator. "You must be hungry! I saw your bike out front there and I thought to myself, 'What hell is someone doing out on Christmas day riding their bike?'" I explained to him that I was on a trip to sort of ring in the new year and make peace with everything that happened in the past. As I was sharing my reasons, Julia had come back out with a hot piece of quiche and a garden salad. She held it in her hands until I was done speaking. "Well, I think what you're doing sounds like a great way to reinvent yourself," she said. "But you should eat something first!" She led me over to a wooden dining counter in the middle of the cafe with tall chairs. The counter was actually a slab of tree trunk that was finished with a glossy coat. The edges were smooth and my arms slid around the top when I rested them on it. "You have a seat here and enjoy this. Do you like Coffee? I'm making a fresh pot now." She set up the meal with a napkin and silverware like I was an important dinner guest. Don came up behind her with two glasses and a pitcher of water. He filled one and set it down on the counter. He walked over to the other side and poured himself another glass. He leaned back in the chair and watched me observe the food. "Don't be shy, Chase. You go ahead and enjoy that while it's hot." We both laughed and I admitted that I couldn't think about anything else. I quickly grabbed the fork, threw the napkin on my lap, and dug in ferociously. The quiche flaked and melted as I broke into it. The salad was cold, crisp, tangy, and sweet. "Those greens are fresh from the farmer's market just a few days ago, and Julia is the quiche queen." My mouth was so full that I just nodded and smiled. "Excuse me a second, Chase. I have to check on something out back." Don got up and scurried out the back door. I sat alone for about 15 minutes in complete euphoria, shoveling in quiche and salad. I was still chewing a large bite when I felt a hand creep onto my shoulder. "I have a coffee for a mister Chase." I looked over to my left and there was an older woman wearing a plaid, purple flannel shirt with rose-colored eyeglasses. Her hair was white and thick, and she wore a gemstone necklace replete with some kind of Indian agate or green tiger's eye. She had a petite face with aged lines that were eloquent and pretty. "Now how is it that a handsome guy like you is all alone on Christmas?" I gave her a bashful smile and took the mug of coffee from her hands. "I'm not alone anymore thanks to you all." She laughed and asked me how the food was. I told her it was delicious and that I felt like I could eat a whole new plate. The old woman smiled and lifted up her index finger. "You just hold that thought." She turned and walked away, and once she left, the old man, Don, and Julia approached the table and sat down. Each one had their own drink or snack to eat, and suddenly I was having dinner with a strange family. The old woman joined us a few minutes later and she swapped out my plate for another filled to the edges with two more slices of quiche and salad. The whole family laughed as she set it down. "Whatever you can't eat you can take with you." I was stunned by the generosity. I took a second to reset myself and then dug into the next round. During the meal, we talked about so many things. Don and Julia shared their history together and how they met. I can't remember the exact story, but I feel like it had something to do with white water rafting. Maybe he was an instructor and she was a participant. I like to imagine that maybe Julia fell over into the river on an excursion, and Don dove in to get her. Together, they clung to a rock until another raft could save them both. It's a romantic idea, but who knows. They probably met in college or at a dinner party. No matter how it went, they were together and they were happy. Julia's parents were happy too. Unfortunately, I don't remember their real names, and come to think of it, I'm not so sure they ever told me their names. But I will never forget their presence; the power of their humor, their grace, and the eternal knowledge that only comes from years of living and understanding. Being with them made me think about my own family and how much I missed them that night. I imagined my uncle and my dad playing cribbage and exchanging jokes aimed at my sister. Her and my aunt rolling their eyes and watching a home-makeover show on TV. My little brother getting dropped off by his mom; his sleepover bag full of random clothes, video games, and handmade Christmas gifts with paper cards. How before or after spending time with my Dad, my sister and I would go see our mom at her Korean church a few towns over and watch her reenact the nativity scene with members of the congregation. I realized that no matter how much time I spend at home and how simple everything seems, it will never be enough. My life has somehow taken me thousands of miles away over the years, but deep down, all I want to do is sit around the table and laugh with them; to see their faces and let them know that I care. On this night, being with Don, Julia, and her parents helped me understand just how much I was missing. Most of all, they helped me understand that there are some moments I will never get back.
After I finished eating, I could see the sunlight fading down over the canyons at the horizon. I had gotten so lost in our conversations that time became irrelevant. It felt good during the meal to not care about my schedule, but I still had ground to cover and nowhere to lay down for the night. A pause surfaced among the counter and I used it as a way to start my departure. Everyone picked up on the cue and staggered off their chairs. Julia walked over to clear my plate. "Are you sure you want to leave? It's gonna be dark soon. You're more than welcome to stay for our Christmas dinner." "Yeah, a few more people are coming by and there's no rush," Don added. I wanted to say yes and relax a bit longer, but I had hardly traveled 20 miles throughout the day. At this rate, I wouldn't even make it to San Francisco by the time I had left. I apologized again and insisted that I had to leave. Julia and her mother were a bit sad that I refused. Don and the old man were quiet, but I could tell that they sympathized with the stubborn pride that every young man holds onto when their mind is made up. Don shook my hand again and wished me a Merry Christmas. The old man patted me on the back with an open-handed thud. "Don't get yourself killed out there. Lott'a bears in those woods." Don and the old man chuckled, but the old woman nudged him out of the way and came in for a hug. "Don't listen to him. You'll be fine out there for an hour or so yet. But you make sure to stop in a safe place. Big Bar is only a few miles down the road." I made note of that and agreed with her. She grabbed my hand with both of hers and gave it a motherly pat. "And make sure to call your family when you settle in." I shook my head yes and grabbed my coat from the chair. As I zipped it back on, Julia had come out of the kitchen with a brown bag filled with cookies, pastries, and a chicken wrap. "They've been in the fridge a couple days, but it'll tide you over until tomorrow." I couldn't believe how thoughtful they were. Of all the gifts I've ever received, this small bag of food was one of the best. I thanked her with a hug and made my way out the backdoor. They all showed me out and followed me to the front where I parked my bike. Don commented on the model and said he used to ride a Centurion back in the day that was white. We chatted about cycling for a few minutes while I made space for the food in the saddlebags. The way I had everything piled on top of each other made the ladies nervous. "Why don't you carry something on your back?" The old woman asked genuinely. "You can't ride with weight on your back!" The old man cracked at her with a tone of common sense. "A man's gotta be free and light, like me when I was single." The whole family erupted into laughter and the old woman just shook her head with playfulness. The old man looked at me and fired off a wink. "You take care, son." I hopped on the bike and started to glide down the rode. The sky had turned purple with a haze of pink mist floating across the horizon. Water from the river raged in the background. I turned my head to see everyone waving goodbye. The yellow building set aglow by the falling sun, the blue yurt across the way emblazoned in a shade of light green. It was a magical place tucked into the heart of somewhere unrecognized. Big Flat was a symbol of what any person wishes they could discover within themselves; a sense of belonging and purpose unrelated to the glory of success or showmanship. At its core, the town was a beacon of inner-acceptance. A place where one can enter as a stranger and leave as a member of something sacred. I threw my hand in the air and turned my attention back to the road. The air got colder as I breeched into the growing shade of the canyons.
When I was sitting alone in the cafe eating the quiche, I had taken a pen and paper from the service counter to write a little thank you note to Don and Julia. I didn't want to make a big deal of it, so I wrote everything out and left it folded on a small side table they had positioned against the wall upon entering the backdoor. Around that time, I had been reading a book called Six Days of The Week by a 20th century pastor named Henry van Dyke. The book came out in the mid 1920's after previous fragments of his writing were published in many daily newspapers under the title "The Guide-Post." Van Dyke was a writer and influencer among the many talents of the Lost Generation, and although his writings are religious, he has a way of bypassing the righteousness of God, offering a way for the common man to become inspired by the overwhelming power of goodness. There is a particular passage that came to mind during my time with the family in Big Flat. In my letter to them, I recited the passage the best I could in Van Dyke's words. It's entitled "Keeping Christmas":
Dear Don & Julia,
It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. It helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life. But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas. Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children; to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough; to try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open; are you willing to do these things even for a day?
Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world; stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death; and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.
I thanked them for the food and signed my name at the bottom. To this day, I don't know if they ever found it or how it made them feel when they did, but I like to think that it made sense to them. I hope they know how grateful I was to be welcomed into their home, into their lives, and to be cared for during such a vulnerable time. Their zest for life will always stick with me, and when I'm an old man, I won't hesitate to share a slice of my heart with a complete stranger.
The Woods at night
The road followed along a ridge of steep canyons for about 20 miles. I had a good store of energy pumping through my veins as dusk took over the sky, and I didn't see the point in stopping at Big Bar or Burnt Ranch when I crossed into them. Thinking back on it now, there must not have been much to consider. I don't recall any enticing fast-food joints or motels with cheap rates. All I could see was the open road and fading light, and that was enough to push my limits and race ahead as far as I could. The ride was quite peaceful sidling against the river, and although it got darker, my eyes adjusted fine with the help of a small headlamp I had attached to the handlebars. In back, I had another small, red light that blinked every few seconds. I passed Burnt Ranch on mostly flat ground, enjoying the splendor and silence of Christmas night surrounded by nature's beauty. Within a couple miles, I encountered a road sign that showed Willow Creek being 15 miles ahead. It was late, but it was manageable, so I eased up on my speed and decided to pace myself for the rest of the ride. Once I slowed down, a slight descent formed that increased my acceleration without any leg-power. A few hundred yards down, I could see a black mass sprawling to the sky, almost like an enormous cave opening it's mouth, waiting to swallow me whole. It wasn't completely dark yet, but beyond the opening was nothing but an abyss. I got closer to the void and soon realized that I was about to enter the Six Rivers National Forest. A lump formed in my throat and my fingers stiffened. I contemplated stopping for the night before entering, but there was nowhere decent place to make camp. Besides, I wasn't even tired from the ride. If anything, my only hesitation was that I was about to tackle 15 miles of pitch-black terrain by myself. In the current darkness, my lights were starting to reflect the fog surrounding me rather than illuminating the distance ahead, so going deeper into the forest would only make matters worse. I thought hard for a minute or two, but what options did I have? I didn't want to backtrack, I didn't want to stop, and the path forward was scary and unknown. Right then, I thought about my mom and how she must have felt traveling to Korea knowing that it would be the last time she ever saw her daughters and her friends. Her light was dimming as the darkness enveloped, yet she burned unforgivingly and unafraid. Death had never crossed my mind before, but in a weird way, I welcomed it. I didn't want to give up without pushing myself. I didn't want to shut my eyes and let fear own the core of my decisions. My mother had raised me to challenge life head-on; to wake early in the morning, run cold water over my face and stare into the mirror with a fierce determination. For years, I watched my mother improve herself through waitressing jobs, beauty school, apprenticeships, salon management, difficult relationships, financial exhaustion, and terminal cancer. She embraced darkness her entire life while keeping her spirit aglow for my sisters and I. How could I stop now when the path became uncertain? I pulled over on the shoulder to readjust myself. I went into my bag to throw on another sweater over my jacket. I pulled out a pair of work gloves I had tucked at the bottom and pulled out an emergency LED light that a friend had given me before I left LA. It was shaped like a pen with one side featuring three high-powered bulbs that could span a distance of 30ft. It didn't occur to me to use it before since I didn't plan on riding in the dark, and the shape didn't really allow for proper cycling since it couldn't attach to the bike, but I turned the light on and stuck it between my teeth like you would a pencil. The bulbs shone deep ahead of me and I could at least see the lines on the pavement to help steer my way through the terrain. I sealed everything back up and hopped onto the bike. My hands were shaky as I stared into the blackhole. Slowly, I began to peddle in smooth rotations, trying to match it with my steady breaths. The darkness grew as I got closer, and soon, the light glared against the cloud like the wingtip of a plane ascending to 30,000ft. Anyone watching me from afar would think I was insane. Here I was, a lost soul with a glimmer of hope racing into the shadows.
Snow fell in heavy flakes after I became submerged by the forest. The light shining out revealed a flurry whipping with great velocity; so strong that any contact stung my nose and cheeks as I hugged the road lines. Usually, I listened to music to help drown out the sounds of traffic or gain some motivation, but this time, I had to shut everything down. It seemed too dangerous to risk any level of awareness with such low visibility and outside influence. I kept thinking that a deer would run out in front of me or a driver would shut their headlights off for a second to get a cheap thrill and mow me down without knowing. I wanted to be alert in case I met my demise, so I rode with the light in my mouth, my eyes peeled, and my legs pumping my absolute hardest. The road was flat for a few miles and I was making progress, but then the bike picked up speed and I started to notice the lines in the road gradually meander. The path must have taken a winding form, almost like I was traversing the body of a slithering snake. The momentum forced me to sway on the bike side-to-side, which made it difficult to not slip on the pavement. My bike was heavy in the back and each shift forced the rear tire to skid an inch or two before catching groove. The road angled to a sharp left and I hit the brake to slow myself down. The descent had become so steep that I was coasting at 25mph, which is intense for not being able to see clearly. When I applied pressure, the back tire skidded through a slushy part on the road and forced my whole body to the wet concrete. The pen fell out of my mouth and the light rolled on the ground off to the shoulder. I heard my water bottle clang on the pavement and roll off into the void. My pants were soaked to the skin. It was the first time I had fallen on my bike since I started riding it and the impact shook me up. I laid on the ground for a few minutes feeling the cold seep through my sweater and jacket. My left shoe had come halfway off on the fall and my heel felt like it was bleeding. I slowly rolled myself out from under the bike, limped onto my feet, and realigned myself. Skin on my left hand had burned off and sizzled at the touch. The glove had been pushed over my knuckles, hanging only by a few fingertips. My upper body was bruised, but mostly okay. I picked up the bike and pulled off one of the lights to inspect it for any damage. Surprisingly, my pack was only lopsided and nothing was missing. I straightened out my show and walked the bike to the shoulder to set it down flat. I then hustled over to the pen light spilling a beam out over the highway a few yards away. It was working fine, so I picked it up and scanned the area for my water bottle. It sounded like it rolled down into the tree line, but when I scanned over toward the bike, I found it lodged into a pile of brown snow. It got colder all of a sudden while I affixed the water bottle back into the pack. My jeans were waterlogged, causing my entire body to shiver. Once again, I positioned the pen light with my teeth, threw my leg over the bike's frame and balanced myself on the peddles. It became harder to gain momentum since my lower-half was in pain. My hands could barely grip the handlebars since the fabric on my work gloves were ripped open, exposing the fragmented skin on my knuckles. The snow fall grew thicker as I rolled back into the center of the road.
After regaining my composure, a large section of highway revealed another steep descent that looked like the edge of a chasm. I didn't think I could handle another spill, and now, it was nearing 11pm. I hadn't seen a car or light since entering the woods, and if I fell again, I might not have been able to get back up. Slowly, my tires began to pick up speed. I pressed the brakes every few seconds to counter the increase. The pace was easy to maintain at frist, but my rear brakes began to lose tension as I rolled further downhill. No matter how hard I pressed, only the front brake was giving me any stopping power. I turned my body to glance at the rear brake and the light revealed that a cable keeping the brake line taut had come loose. It was an easy fix, but only if I could find a way slow down. My velocity began to scream as the road got steeper, and slamming on the front brakes wasn't much of an option. Even pressing the front brakes didn't have much relief since the rims were too damp. My last option was to try and wedge my foot in between the rear wheel and frame to act as a brake or use the bottom of my foot to scrape against road. I went for the ladder, swinging my right leg over to the left side of the bike. I kept my left foot on the peddle and placed my right leg behind it, dipping the heal against the road. I tried to press hard into the concrete, but the road was too wet; the rubber only slipped with minimal friction. I quickly swung my leg back to the right side and held on for the ride. The back brake was shot, the front brake was useless, and my only choice was to ride out the adrenaline. Faster and faster I rolled down the pavement. The light in my mouth rattled and became hard to hold in place with snow and saliva running from my teeth. My eyes got windburned as I kept my head low to the handlebars, peering out just enough to anticipate any bumps or hazards. Letting go of the trepidation was all I could do in the moment. Sometimes in life, being too cautious can get you hurt, and being too reckless can get you killed; I was somewhere at the cusp. In that situation, the best thing to do was to stay focused. Putting it into perspective, imagine yourself running on a sidewalk in your neighborhood; it's easy to do and keep your balance. Now, imagine if that sidewalk was a few stories in the air. Suddenly, you forget how to do it. The same rules applied here. I had no time to try and psych myself up or contemplate what to do. The moment forced me to take action; I chose to live. Instantly, the frightening task became a thrill-ride I'll never forget. Flurries of snow bombarding my peripherals, a beam of blue light projecting a small tunnel of visibility. I barred my teeth like a dog snarling at danger, gripping the handlebars with bloody knuckles and raw skin. The cold air turned refreshing once I adapted to the bite. I kept a straight line along the center of the road and sailed quietly with the wind through the trees until a faint orange streetlamp appeared about half a mile further. The slope leveled out into a straightaway that still maintained a modest speed, but I had somehow survived the drop off. When I reached the streetlamp on the left side of the road, I got off the bike and fastened the brake line back into its socket. I tested the brake and the tire responded promptly. I took another look at the descent and started to laugh. My teeth were chattering and both my legs were frozen stiff. I took the pen light and shined it around, but didn't see any indication of where I was. I decided to cross the street and check the other shoulder. The night held an eerie, orange glow amidst ghastly pines and howling wind. When I crossed over, I flashed the light up into the trees and further up ahead. There was nothing immediately clear, but I managed to catch the corner of a wooden plank that looked like it was fashioned onto a pile of rocks. I walked up closer to the structure and shined the light across its face. "Willow Creek, Welcome."
That's it for Part 2 everyone! I hope you've enjoyed reading along thus far. I'll be adding other parts to the story as the weeks roll on, so please stay tuned and let us know what you think! I would love to hear your insights about the story or even some of your own memories of trips you've taken. It's an honor to share my experiences with you and help grow our community.