He thought there would be a limit and that would stop him. He depended on that.
“An Atlas of the Difficult World – VIII” – Adrienne Rich
Before I left:
A month before I left, a bus hit me on the sidewalk as I avoided² the dangers of an indifferent suburb riding to the job I did as pittance-paid worker on a bike industry profit trawler. The night before I left, I couldn’t get the tire off, sobbed, exhausted. Six days before I left, I stopped having fun at a race and decided to bail, tired, beer softened, slowed wrong, ate gravel, wrist sprained. Before I left I destroyed my shell in the wash. Before I left I shook nothing down. I wasn’t ready but it didn’t matter. I had to go. How would I keep on otherwise?
Some of us are hoping for limits. There are reasons for that.
It would have to be fall and it would have to be alone. Until I caved, until I remembered what it is like to try and move along alone, bones askew. There are only so many acceptable ways to be afraid.
With someone alongside me I was more afraid to depart. Or maybe it was the rain. In the morning together on my first day we rode fire roads through trees owned by the fathers of the gears my clumsy body slowly smashed into ruin, no man in this present able to work sunk cost alchemy, no man self-made. Keep out, the signs said, the bargain struck to keep on. I flagged and thought of the day we rode the plains together, where my earnest pace got us to that line, where I stopped often even though I never want others to do the same for me. I stopped then, there, on that rainy hill to breathe. Of course I was afraid.
Of course people will say things, anything, some things, seeing you, alone, with your bike and bags. It rained. It was Oregon, of course it rained. I stayed skittish the first days on the 101 flexing in and out with traffic, faded lights, Sunday trucks headed south to a sunnier state.
From the holded breath of the trees on my right, the dunes emerged. I knew the Pacific was right there. What a thing to crush you, and so: quickened heart, slow push up the shoulder or no. I strained with these memories of pell mell love of each time in my born-bred-Midwest life we found each other.
Dusk came on, the rain lifted. I pulled off for candy and camping pennies. Almost a sunset for a moment. The gentleman in the store reported football scores when he heard where I had started from.
Said I’d face days of rain, I’d just missed the summer, and I said I’d take anything over a goddamn Minnesota winter.
Do you like hot chocolate he said and I said who doesn’t and he filled a cup from his machine for free gave me my change in his Seahawks jacket said You be careful out there, sis.
The lone tent in the park at the Dunes, amidst fourxfours and beached RVs, I hung my wet clothes in my tent and drank the sweet, still warm, slept holding gratitude’s long-dying embers.
Women ask questions. Does my mother know? Am I really by myself. Don’t I get scared? They ask what I carry. Do you have a tent? Where are all my clothes? What do I eat? They marvel. They say how without possibility it would be for them. What a thing I do. What I thing I do alone.
Men tell me the terrible things that have happened. The killed, murdered, maimed. Urge me caution. Suggest firearms and another person, which must mean a man.
An Atlas of the Difficult World, again:
I don’t want to know how he tracked them
…. Hid close
by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion
killing one woman, the other
dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his
of what they were
I don’t want to know
As though I do not know why they press this. As though in the years I continue to live I am not branded with what men will do. As though I am as well-meaning and stupid and kind and dangerous. As though I do not know the perpetual cruelty. As though it was not borne in the body I ride on, where it remains, where it will remain I cease. Stop.
Some limits, are, for example:
On the 8th floor there will be no smoking, no windows that open, no exit outdoors. In the six months after discharge, chemicals prescribed will inspire fourteen hours of sleep, at least. Talking to strangers may be too much of a reminder of madness. Being alone will be bookended by public space and rarely more than two hours. The thought of being amidst companions, friends, lovers, will be too frightening to bear sometimes. Don’t even think about riding a bike.
A limit could be the dark, but here I was grateful. How could you not know how grateful how glad how could you not see it and if not from how elated and slow I took the track along the falls in the ebbing light in the fireroad and singletrack, in our descent in the dark on my silly whateverthefuck bike, how it was dark and how I was not afraid and how I had no idea where we’d end up and how it didn’t matter
Once upon, when a storm snowed shut the roads on that ridge in blue and our rescuers packed us into their truck, sheltered us, I stepped outside with the quiet woman and her gift of trust. Rowdy moonshine night, thawing bones. She and I stood in the snow, still. Looked straight at me, said, you know there aren’t many women who would do this.
Alone I can stop whenever I want. Along so many roads when I want to read signs or look at big rocks or break down terrified for one reason or another (and often just hunger.) When I want it slow, when I don’t want the days to slip, when I need to hold all of the things and remember reality.
I say when I get to California the second week and ride there I will worry less and this ended up true. California 1, which I had planned not in the slightest, not really, not at all but something in me always pulled, a sweet call, a song, a light, to San Francisco. The second week, north of Big Sur and the fog burnt off and woman or whatever I am, that life, the winter, that time so far away. On the 1 toward Salinas, headwind warm, the sun always to my left. Off with my shirt, took in all the sun I could kept on, the blessed state of forgetting anything about my goddamn body.
The business of riding alone: southern route riders headed solo: almost all men. At Half Moon Bay the pairs clustered together for breakfast. I returned to under my tree, wine drunk watching the sun sunk into the Pacific, trying to distinguish the fading sky from the ink sea, knowing I never wanted to drown, and cried, of course, again. One day up near Salinas, I was forced to reckon with my chest, the crimson washes along and not-binder-just-bra worn the day before. Burn faded into my erratic tattoos, a jagged light switch. Get it? that’s the panic switch.
Oregon, Port Orford. Jenny and her warm, dry bedroom, who asked if I’d done EMDR. We met at nineteen and she is a social worker now and I said, actually, yes, three days before I left. Isn’t it, she said, isn’t it crazy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is used to treat PTSD amongst other things; I used it because I’d been hit by a bus. Amongst other things. What shakes up and out and into each other feels like a descent, transcendent, spiritual. EMDR makes our brains to tell the story again, the trauma reprocessed, the continual motion against a disorder beyond choice.
This, too, was my riding. Telling stories in my head. Riding, writing. I’ll stick on phrases, if I can tug anything out of the words of elation or fury or despair, because climbing 2000 feet will bring me to pretty shitty places. Things I write: Christ, what do any of you know about fucking pain caves?
Books of poetry came to me in the hospital, “An Atlas of the Difficult World” by Adrienne Rich, a poet of the California coast, a book of this continent, of cruelty, of others, of thirst and movement. When I knew I would ride down the coast after five years living after trying to die, I brought it along, of course:
it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will
Ten days like a lifetime, so that five years later I would need to prove my ability to be alone and alive. Ten days because a surge of electrical power couldn’t decide how to make me live, what lives with pain, what realities. California was a place I had stayed safe. Rich, again:
If you had known me
once, you’d still know me now though in a different
light and life. This is no place you ever knew me.
Off 1 outside Pescadero, the steep curves and my silly double and everything hung back on the rear rack, I stopped a lot. I didn’t care. I think of the artichoke soup in the old saloon, the smug roadies at the motorcycle coffee shop, the seals, the easy descent before I slept under a new moon. Off the west side of the highway: an empty space, concrete dividers, a bit of calm. There was a break in the concrete and the Private Property nowhere to be found. Ate almonds and salty, oily olives over hunks of bread, and wanted more: oysters, bracing, cold wine.
I walked beyond the barriers, the copse cathedral unfolding before me. The trees lined parallel in a bowed bough. Their leaves and limbs intertwined at the edge of the sea’s cliff. I breathed. The order let me know it was the work of hands, even empty. A knotted rope hung from a tree, the sheer cliff beneath the dessicated fibers. I did not move any closer.
O pain caves. Words, a space chosen, then crowed. O I will tell you about pain caves.
Days trapped inside, most locked in a hospital. Locked my fixie to itself outside the house, terrified I’d let myself die careening as I did because I felt alive riding but I didn’t know how to live anymore. Stayed away for months, and thought I’d forgotten how.
A cave of an inpatient ward, November outside the window, just winter. Pyrrhic choices, so no one had any. Sitting in the window, knuckles on glass thinking how fast I would my body have to go, how could my bare feet hold if I leapt through seconds of an open door, into the station, over the turnstiles, onto the train and down the blocks, how I could flee.
A path lead out of the trees, just next to the edge and I started to cry, which kept happening. Because I have been so free so much of my life, even with the time scraped and saved for this, the careful gathering of the less-than-a-living-wage. And the limits of precision counts of medications in my pouch. Because when the limit did not stop me, when no one ever knew me, when I refused to know the pain no longer possible to work or drink or push through. Because part that very much wanted to die, until something combusted to stay alive, and what remained were the pieces. Five years gone by and I was lucky, this was what I was allowed to find, free as I am, and so I cried.
No, I am not very interested in your pain cave.
I could stop whenever I wanted. Along HIghway 1 the traffic went steady and fast and sometimes I thought to myself, they’ll never come back around to see I’m still here, breathing. I felt kinder to myself on my bike on those hills than I had since I started dicking around a long ways for a long time. I was alone and I had the ocean and knew I would sleep under the cool ribs of redwood trees. Still, the ease of small stories to escape: a terrible body, and oh how it lacks. How there were only set ways to move. I came to the end on a bus, because I wanted to enjoy my day, my friend who called my name loud, with joy, when I arrived. I wanted to climb out of the Castro and coast onto Market to the ferry and laugh at the bridges and port indifferent to me.
I followed the path out of the trees to the top of the point, so close to the edge.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
The ocean below, this limit: the instant end and endlessness that stilled me. I went no farther. I had come so far.