Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From the Archives - Brutal Mountain Bike Crash Recounted in College Paper


In the fall of 1992, during my last semester of college, I took a course in creative writing. One of our first assignments was to write a scene. I wrote about an early morning mountain bike ride 

I’d done in Berkeley’s Tilden Park the previous summer. I read my essay aloud in class and watched with amusement as my classmates argued about whether or not it was a satisfying story. I personally believed it wasn’t—it was only supposed to be a scene, after all.

My instructor, a successful writer, actually found some valid issues with it even as a scene, and offered some ideas on how to develop it further into a story. I’d always meant to revise the essay with her comments in mind, and now, almost seventeen years later, I’ve finally gotten to it.

Rather than rewrite the piece from scratch, I’ve simply fleshed it out with more details, many of which I’ve accumulated during return visits to Tilden Park. I haven’t removed anything from the original essay. There are some awkward, overreaching sentences in there that actually make me wince, but so be it; they can stand. (I did make some simple line edits based on my instructor’s feedback.) The new, added text is in blue. In the interest of sharing with you the advice that my instructor offered, I’ve included some of her questions and comments as section headings, in red and in quotes. You can decide for yourself whether or not I did enough with her input. A final note: I added some photos, which (needless to say) I took recently.

Tilden Park, June 29, 1992

“What motivated you to go on such a strenuous ride?”

At the tail end of college I had given up racing but I still loved to hammer. Riding hard enlarged my world—with a finite amount of time to ride, speed increased my range, taking me farther from the well-worn rut between school, my bike shop job, and home. Besides, having raced I was accustomed to a certain pace; anything slower felt like a defeat that repeated itself with every pedal stroke. I chose my riding buddies according to who could give me a good run for my money, and if they could show me some new rides, so much the better. As for routes, I chose the ones with the most hills: climbing is romance, descending is sex. (Flat roads, by comparison, are just a long, dull chitchat.)

One morning before work, my bike shop pal Dylan took me on a mountain bike ride that started with a brisk climb up Spruce Street in the Berkeley hills before dipping down into the trails of Tilden Park. I don’t actually remember riding up Spruce at all. This surprises me because Spruce is a steep hill that can seem endless, especially when I’m not warmed up yet. There’s actually a lot about this ride I couldn’t remember afterward; my recollections of it are an incomplete bunch of scraps I’ve assembled, with some artifice, into a sequential narrative. Perhaps from the very scarcity of recalled moments comes the vivid detail of those few I have.

After a steep dip down a paved road, Canon Drive, we get to the trailhead and set out. The trail is about ten feet wide and winds up a shallow climb and out of sight. I don’t know where the trail goes because this is my first time riding it, but we’re in a large basin ringed by hills. The ground beneath my tires is grey-brown and dotted with green and blond grasses. I’m not on a sight-seeing tour, of course, so I don’t pay much attention to the wild chamomile sprouting here and there on the trail, or the thistles drying out as summer gets underway. I’m going slow enough, however, to appreciate how the drier parts of the trail have a cracked surface like the top of a pan of brownies. I can make out horseshoe prints, and the tire tracks other riders have left in the dirt. That track is certainly from a Specialized Ground Control, and I think that’s the tread pattern of a Panaracer Smoke.

“You need more detail”

I’m frankly ignorant of the names of the vegetation surrounding me, but there are bay laurels, blackberry vines, poison oak, and expanses of Queen Anne’s lace. Oaks, redwoods, and pines make a guest appearance in my consciousness, and though they get lumped under the blanket category of “tree,” I do appreciate how the morning breeze sighs through them. And I notice the narrow tributary trails that run along the main trail for short sections, because I think about switching to them here and there, just for fun. I spot California quail running across the trail, and enjoy how short and fast their stride is, like they’re spinning a low gear. I marvel occasionally at how bright white cottontails spoil the otherwise perfect camouflage of little brown rabbits fleeing the trail ahead of me.

My head itches slightly as sweat runs down from the soaked the pads in my helmet. As I sway the bike from side to side, pedaling out of the saddle, I can hear the handlebars creaking slightly, and this little crunching sound comes from my left pedal or crank—a nagging mechanical problem I haven’t been able to fix. Now and then a drop of sweat rolls off the end of my nose, and I play a little game: can I time the drips, with little shakes of my head, so they miss hitting my tire as I rock the bike? Watching the tire, I enjoy an optical illusion: its knobby rubber tread appears, periodically, to stop moving forward and to begin spinning backward. Before I become mesmerized I look away, up at the hills ahead. A low mist is slowly receding, backlit by the rising sun and thinning as if being melted away by the morning. As the sun gets higher in the sky, dim shadows appear, and I watch a butterfly dragging its blurry shadow across the ground.

“What kept you going? Machismo? Finding the edge?”

I’m relieved when Dylan, riding just ahead of me, tells me we’re almost at the top of the long uphill. My legs and lungs burn, my right toe clip is biting into my big toe, and the collar of my jersey itches on the back of my neck from the sweat. Roughly the first half of this loop is climbing, and we’ve gone out good and hard. I haven’t ridden much with Dylan before this, so there’s a bit of a pecking order to establish, but that’s not the main reason for our tough pace. We go hard because we can. We go fast because faster is just better—an unquestionable fact that is hard-coded into our DNA. It’s partly a macho thing, I suppose, but I hammer when I ride alone, too. It’s not a matter of “finding the edge,” exactly—it’s more like honing the edge, striving our way toward our best possible selves. We don’t wear out; we wear in. That the body improves in response to cumulative physical duress is nothing short of a miracle. There is suffering, certainly, but it’s infused with bliss. And that’s just the climb.

Before we begin descending, I adjust my helmet and, one last time, use the back of my gloved hand to wipe away the annoying drip from my nose. As we accelerate down the shallow grade, the sun leaks through the leaves of the trees overhead, scattering on the ground in faint diffused patches. We’ve got a good view of the basin below, and I faintly register the scrubby, dry grasses of the hills and the brilliant blue lupines jutting up here and there. Large birds circle above, rising on their thermals: red-tailed hawks with their telltale cry of “keer, keer.”

But my attention is downward, ahead of my bike. I make no connection between the bark and leaves littering the trail and the naked-trunked Eucalyptus trees they have fallen from. The trail surface itself commands extreme focus: traction is all-important, and I heed the warning of tiny pebbles and clods of dirt rolling over the ground, of shifting dirt on rutted, hard-packed ground. I tune in to the rattle of my tires over cracks in the hard clay. This is all crucial feedback: how fast can I go on this surface? Hazardous roots protrude here and there, and half-embedded rocks like fruit in Jell-O.

Unsure of the terrain, I match speed with Dylan, who is about twenty feet ahead, and watch him lean into the turns, his knee swinging out for balance. Occasionally I can faintly taste the dust kicked up by his wheels. The morning is suddenly chilly as the wind blows over the sweat on my arms and legs. As I bounce over ruts in the trail my bike rings—the noise the rear brake cable makes as it slaps against the thin steel tube of the bike’s frame. The noise—danga, danga, danga, danga—brings to my mind the cowbells that European spectators ring as they cheer on their downhill ski racers.

Suddenly, over the rush of wind in my ears, Dylan is yelling, “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” to warn me of a blind switchback. Out of the corner of my eye I see the drop-off I’ve just avoided. My rear tire, skidding and fishtailing in the dirt, makes a sound like the static of a radio lost between stations. Back on track, the bike rolls almost silently, the hum of its tires almost quiet enough to escape notice. Only when I jump a rock, during that brief moment when the bike is airborne, do I really know the true silence of Tilden Park on a Monday morning. Touching down again, I realize I am making every sound that I hear.

At the bottom of the long descent, we pedal across a flatter section that winds through a tunnel of trees, like something out of a fairy tale. A deep creek runs to our left and the ground here is a thin carpet of flat, dry leaves.

Reaching the end of the loop, at the trailhead where we started, we stop to catch our breath. Dylan says, “That was great, man, we were haulin’. Do you wanna do another lap?”
“Yeah, sure. Do we have time?”
“Yeah, if we hurry.”

If I look at a certain cloud formation long enough, I see that it is very slowly drifting across the sky. The sky hasn’t yet reached a deep blue because its color is washed out by indirect sunlight behind a thin cloud cover. After a while my squinting eyes begin to water, burning from the brightness, and I shift my glance. Now I am looking down at my own body. It is absolutely motionless, and seems distant—strangely detached from me, as if just a blurry photo. I know it is I, yet the sight seems confusingly unfamiliar, like a lifeless object I’m looking upon, some slightly melted wax statue. Foreign garments—a red shape suggesting a sweatshirt, and something blue—are draped over me like a tarp. I cannot make out details at all—the image is distorted as though my corneas are frosted glass. Gradually I become aware of a dull throbbing pain, spread throughout my body, devoid of localized pangs: my torso and every limb are stiff and sore as if they had been sprained a day ago. This pain threatens me with violence if I shift my body. The body, not the brain, perceives trauma.

Trying to look around by shifting only my eyes, I must settle for an incomplete panorama: a twenty‑foot arc of vision, encompassing mostly dirt and rocks, and then (as I scan upwards) a vague backdrop of faded brown and green tints, and finally the sky again. My eyes long to see something familiar, something that could give me a trustworthy frame of reference. Eventually I understand that I am lying on my back. Now I want to hear something—any sign that I’m not alone—but I’m enclosed by silence. “Dylan!” I yell. Nothing—still not a sound. Louder, “DYLAN! DYLAN!” Every time my mouth closes the noiselessness returns. I look down at my body once more. It dawns on me that I’ve crashed, and that Dylan has left me behind so he won’t be late for work. “What a dick!” I think to myself.

I do not know how much time has slipped by before I notice the hands. They are joined together in the semblance of a handshake, both clad in mesh‑backed fingerless cycling gloves, one of which is spattered with blood. My vision is fading now as I send my gaze past a wrist, up along a suntanned arm to the shoulder and neck: all ambiguous shades of color. Only when I reach what I know should be the face does my vision finally clear. My perception of precise facial features is sudden—as unexpected as that moment when a meaningless cluster of colored dots, finally viewed from a sufficient distance, miraculously becomes a pointillĂ© painting. The goatee and boisterous eyes now spell out Dylan’s identity. Now my vision makes sense: this is Dylan. This is his hand I’m holding. Now that my eyes have solved this mystery, they let go of sight completely and I see nothing.
The rest of the scene becomes more difficult to describe, because my memory does not seem to tell an honest story. I recall my vision as having been limited to occasional flashes of light, like blank slides thrown against the wall of a motel room by the headlights of a passing car, broken up by a partially closed window curtain. I also remember losing most of my hearing, and only being vaguely aware of voices, like a low murmur, an almost subliminal chant that carries no more meaning than would the buzzing of bees. Oddly, this memory doesn’t match Dylan’s—he tells a completely different story. From what he has told me, I have reconstructed, as accurately as possible, a part of his version: a conversation I apparently held behind my own back.

“Dana, whose hand is this? Who am I?”
“Okay, Dana, that’s good. Can you feel my hand?”
“Am I gonna lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Don't worry about that. Can you feel my hand?”
“Dylan, am I going to lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Do you know where you are?”
“No. Am I gonna lose my eye?”
“You asked me that already.”
“What? What did I ask you already?”
“About losing your eye.”
“What? Am I going to lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Hey Dana, why don’t you tell me about the barbecue you were at last night. Do you remember Paul’s barbecue?”
“No, I wasn’t at a barbecue. Dylan, am I gonna lose my eye?”
“That’s good, just keep him talking, we don’t want him to lose consciousness. Was he out for a while?”
“He was out when I went to get you.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Only like ten minutes ago.”
“Good, he hasn’t lost much blood. Did you see him crash?”
“No, I was ahead and I heard him go down and I looked back expecting to see him laughing and getting up, but he wasn’t movin’.”
“Dana, can you hear me? Dana, I’ve got what is called a scoop stretcher and we’ll be using it to get you into an ambulance. You’re going to feel it slide under you and the metal might feel cold on your back, but just try not to move. Are you ready? Okay, on three: one, two, three. Okay, great. You’re doing great. How old are you, Dana?”
“Is he twenty‑three?”
“I think so.”
“Dana, did you go on a bike ride this morning?”

As I’ve said, this differs radically from my memory of the scene. I remember having as my sole sensory organ my inner ear. After my last flash of vision, it alone tells me I’m conscious. It tells me I’m being lifted. It tells me my neck is suddenly being raised, cradled. Now it tells me I’m pitching to one side, now uprighted. Now I can perceive a rhythmic bounce that I can almost recognize. This sensation calls me back to my childhood: I’ve fallen asleep in the back seat of the car and Dad is carrying me into the house, to my bed, disrupting my sleep only enough that I perceive this simple motion, and have the vague feeling of being cared for. The body remembers now and tells itself that it is being carried.

A violent sound finds its way through my muted hearing. It’s the choppy roar of a hundred lawnmowers surrounding my head. If I strain I can hear yelling over the roar, but I can’t pick out any words. Like a headache the huge noise won’t go away and now I feel dizzy. My body tells me I’m being dangled somehow, swinging but without direction—without that serenity and regularity enjoyed by a pendulum. My stomach lifts and falls and I become nauseated. I don’t know where I am or what is happening. Actually, it’s even worse than that: I have forgotten what it means to know anything. Finally only nausea and pain tell me I’m conscious at all. And nothing tells me I’m being airlifted out of Tilden Park.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! But let me confess; your writing has done nothing to entice me into the world of cycling. I never was very good at suffering...