Xs Where My Eyes Should Be

(or: how I ended up with a blog, part one)

My first mistake was eating cold pizza for breakfast that morning.  I thought nothing of it, only that I was on vacation and anything goes when you're on vacation.

I dressed – padded shorts under baggies, long hair pulled back into a sensible low ponytail – and my husband and I headed out to meet our guide at a packed dirt parking lot behind a 7-11.  We shook hands, acted cooler than we were, and then jumped into this stranger's truck and rode south and west from Boulder to somewhere on the other side of Denver.  We had been planning the trip for months.  A week of hiking and riding in Colorado to celebrate ten mostly-glorious years of marriage.  We worked out and ate well and rode bikes at home all the time so we were fine.  I was fine.  Cold pizza was fine.

That was my mantra: fine, fine, fine.  As we left the interstate behind and wound our way up beautiful, empty, steep back roads. This is fine.  As my ears popped in the unfamiliar altitude. Totally fine.  When we got to the trailhead I watched our guide, Jake, pull my borrowed bike off the tailgate of his truck and thought, Fine.  I will be fine.  But, even as I thought it, I could feel a cold marble of dread slide down my throat and lodge behind my ribs.

"Don't freak when you see the first climb, okay?"  He was warning me.  His voice already sounded like it was coming from a tin can at the end of a very long string.  "It's a little ugly at first.  Kind of goes straight up from the gate and sometimes people get nervous.  But it's just that first part.  The trail we're taking levels out pretty quickly.  No worries, nothing you can't handle."

But it was something I couldn't handle.  We were already 8,000 feet higher above sea level than I was used to, the bike I was on already felt too big, the brakes too touchy.  I had to stop twice to catch my breath on the jeep road that led from the parking lot to the trails.  I sat in the dirt with my head between my knees while ten year old boys flew past, standing tall and bouncing on their pedals as easily as if they were skipping down the street. 

It didn't get better.  I pushed the bike to the trail and then hopped on and tried my best not to freak out, to ignore the pounding in my temples, the sweaty queasiness in my chest.  A few minutes in I half-fell, half-dove into some low brush, attempted (unsuccessfully) to throw up, closed my eyes and took big slow breaths while my husband plucked a tick off my shirt.  Then I got back on the pedals, for another ten minutes.  Off and then on, off and then on, over and over again.  Eventually I just stopped, resigned to the fact that I was going to hike-a-bike three miles straight into the sky (Jake lied, it never leveled out) while my husband literally rode circles around me. I am lucky to be married to one of those dudes who exercises irregularly (at best), snacks on soda and Oreos, and yet can hop on a rented bike and tear up the side of a hill without a second thought.  He is confident and a little bit reckless, which I usually like.  He is up for any challenge, any time, as clearly evidenced by the fact that he actually enjoys being married to someone like me.  His daredevil stamina had buoyed me through countless difficult situations in our 14 years together but it couldn't do anything for me that day.

"Just go," I panted at one point.  "Leave me behind.  Send help, preferably an airlift or something."  I pictured myself curling up in the shade of a hollow log, waiting to be roused by a friendly Saint Bernard with a barrel of brandy around its neck and a sled tethered to its back.

I snapped this photo while trying not to die.  I find that's when I do my best work.

I snapped this photo while trying not to die.  I find that's when I do my best work.

Of course my husband didn't abandon me.  Not for long anyway.  He rode a quarter-mile up the trail then doubled back to report that it looked easier up ahead.

"How far ahead?" I asked.

He shrugged.  "Just, you know, ahead."

We repeated the scene over and over that day, me struggling along and him riding up and back, barking encouragement, assuring me that I could do it, covering 20 times more ground than I did and feeling 20 times better about it.

Eventually I pushed my bike over a lip of sun-bleached rock and collapsed.  I had made it to the top.  But just as I peeled back the foil from the end of the grilled chicken and black bean wrap Jake had brought up for me, I heard a crack.  And then a booming echo.

I will never, in a million years, forget the look on his face as he turned to me and said, "I'm really sorry but we have to get down from here, like now.  That's thunder."

We were fully exposed, lunching on a warm pile of boulders atop a mountain that had yet to recover from wildfires that had claimed most of its trees a few years earlier.

I jumped on my bike, faster and more gracefully than even I would have believed, and headed for the trail. It was one thing to feel like I was going to die, to imagine my face all slack and blank, with Xs where my eyes should have been, but quite another to be presented with an actual real-life deadly danger.  Cold rain stung my cheeks as I swerved between wet, slippery roots and muddy singletrack that dropped into deceptively shallow-looking ruts.  I fell more than once and, in the process of righting myself, lost a pair of really nice VonZippers I'd hooked to my shirt when the rain started.  But I barely cared.  (I mean, I cared a little. Obviously. I really liked those sunglasses.)  More than anything, I was just ready for the day to be over.

When we finally pulled in to the parking lot at the trailhead it was warm and sunny once again.  Jake cracked open three little bottles of Coca-Cola and we clinked them together and everyone told me, with desperate sincerity, how great I'd done.  And I knew they were all lying.

It didn't count that I had tried.  It didn't count that I hadn't given up halfway through (because I might have, if it had ever been an option).  My husband's blind pride in me did not negate the bruises on my hips, the cuts on my shins where they'd bashed against the sharp edges of the bike's pedals.  Sometimes, no matter how brave we act or how valiantly we push through an obstacle, we still fail at what we set out to do.  I had given myself the assignment of getting after it that day, on strong legs and with fierce lungs, and that's not what ended up happening.

I had failed.