"You're doing it! You're doing it!" Mama called from where she stood, a half-smoked cigarette forgotten in her hand as she willed me to stay upright. I was thrilled - flying - across the yard, the wind in my short brown hair (these were the days before kids wore helmets, except the kids with the over-protective parents). My mom yelled something else that I didn't catch. I was intent on keeping the bike going as long as I could.
And then I stopped, suddenly and without warning. I had run into a pine tree. I popped up from the ground, confused and looked back at Mama. She was swallowing her laughter and wiping tears from her eyes.
"You have to steer!" she told me.
My family took lots of family bike rides when I was small. "Exploring," Mama called it, and we'd all get our bikes out and ride through the side streets of our tiny town, finding areas I didn't know existed, houses that belonged to long-dead relatives once upon a time. For my 7th birthday, I got a new bright blue girl's bike with a basket on the front. My dad showed me how to clip cards to the spokes. I pretended she was a horse called Bronco, the same horse who was my imaginary friend and who would come to eat the vegetables I didn't like (except green peas. Even Bronco didn't like green peas).
One lazy warm Sunday afternoon, my parents got out their matching dark green single-speed 70s-era bicycles with the child seats attached, strapped my young brothers into their seats, and we headed out. We were nearly home, coming by a different route than we used to. The road was wide and empty, the sun illuminating it with late afternoon summer light. I took off, urging my bike-horse faster and faster.
We didn't see that the road curved at a near 90-degree angle until it was too late. I knew better by this point than to try a quick, sharp turn - my torn jeans and bloodied and scabbed knees were reminders of my hard-gained knowledge. We went off the road and were, briefly, airborne. Flying.
And then we came down in a weeded-over, dry drainage ditch.
"Snakes," I thought to myself. "There are snakes in ditches." I grabbed my bike, heart pounding and dragged it out of the ditch, scrambling, expecting the snakes to pour out of the ditch in droves.
My parents were waiting at the curve in the road as I came out of the ditch. My mom was wiping tears from her eyes again, and shaking with laughter.
"You have to steer," she told me. "You didn't see the turn."
I was pissed, my little body shaking with anger. I was nearly dead from snakes, and Mama was laughing.
"The way your little head just popped up out of the weeds," she said, and convulsed again.
"There are snakes in ditches!" I told her, stamping my foot and holding Bronco close. "You said there are snakes in ditches."
"Probably not in that one," she said.
I was an outdoors kid, who liked to explore our yard, and I was welcome to turn over rocks, to find whatever I could wherever I could, except in the ditches. They were a temptation. I knew there would be very cool stuff in the ditches. I knew that if I could just get in there, I'd find any number of new species of wildlife. But the ditches were forbidden, and I'd felt the sting of the flyswatter on my bare thighs when I'd dared to trespass.
"Snakes live in ditches," Mama had said, again and again. "Snakes will bite, and they're poisonous. Stay. Out. Of. The. Ditch." Each word punctuated by a swat.
And here I was, barely escaping from the snake-filled ditch, and Mama was laughing.
When I was 10, for Christmas, I got a ten-speed. It was never named, but I lived on it. Christmas morning was unseasonably warm, and I dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and biked across town to Grandmama's house, my parents following closely in the wood-paneled station wagon.
I'm sure I had accidents on it, but for the most part, the bike stayed in the shed, collecting cobwebs and dust. The houses we lived in were not in good areas for biking, and I had gotten bored with riding in the yard many years before. The bike was no longer a horse - Bronco had stopped visiting, and I had to eat my own vegetables.
From then on, my bike was, simply, a form of transportation. It was a way to get from one place to another. My college bike got me to class, to the beach, to the mall, to the downtown shops and bars. My graduate school bike got me from a free parking lot to the campus and helped me avoid parking tickets.
The bike I borrowed from iGrrrl, a heavy, slightly too small bike, collected dust on my porch, when I decided that it wasn't worth it to bike the mile to the T.
And then I got my current bike, a Trek commuting bike I secretly call Binky, after Death's horse in the Discworld books. He's tall and lean, lightweight and faster than anything I've ridden since I was 7 years old. In my heart, as I pedal as hard as I can, urging Binky on, speeding down hills, barely remembering to steer, I am flying again.
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