Lessons from the Trail on a Birthday Bike

On my 56th birthday Mike gave me a hummingbird red bike.

I rode the dusty trails, wind whipping my hair like I was five again. Only these weren't the suburban sidewalks where I learned to steady a bicycle and watch for cars. These weren't even the paved trails where we taught our own children to feel their balance on a two-wheeled bike. These trails were twisty and narrow, up and down, rocky, and strewn with pine cones.

Sunlight streamed in through towering lacy evergreens, Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines. It was hear-your-breathing quiet. The only sounds were the crunching of pine cones as we clipped them with our wheels and the wind through the boughs brushing the clouds out of the sky. Our only friends were the white-tailed deer, hawks, butterflies, and chipmunks skittering through the thick dust, racing stripe down their backs, tails raised like a checkered flag.

Its true you never forget how to ride a bike, but riding rocky paths in the forest helps you remember muscles you forgot you had.

You may not be hitting the mountain trails on a bike anytime soon, but you may do something that challenges your muscles. I found a few lessons out on those dusty trails that we can use in life. Maybe one or more might be just what you need right now.

Taking risks is good for growth and building strength.
I felt the freewheeling freedom of riding all the way to town just like I did as a girl on my way to Eckerds for a Caramello bar. This time I didn't have a white wicker basket or streamers flying from the handle bars, but joy still flew from the sprockets. I was headed to Sisters Coffee for an iced latte.

My senses were alert, taking in the ruts and rocks in the path below, the curve of the path ahead, and the branches threatening my face. It was beauty and danger mingled together with sweat. I was aware that if I panicked at any moment, squeezing the hand brakes too hard, I might fly over the handlebars. I had done it as a girl. It would hurt more now.

Even before we got home again, my skin had been smooched by the sun which for me means freckles. My legs were scratched up from weaving through the manzanita and sage brush and I felt every single muscle in my stomach and legs, sad and stiff.

The next day, as I winced with every sit-down and stand-up, I told myself the wincing was good for me. Those muscles needed to wake up, work out the cobwebs, and get strong. Thanks to the Wonders, I was decorated in Pixar band-aids. I felt young and old at the same time. Awake and alive.

Gear up for the ride.
I won't kid you. Riding a wooded trail takes a little more preparation than walking or simple hiking. There are a few things you need for riding forest trails. At a minimum you need: a bike, a helmet, padded gloves, water bottle, sunglasses, closed toe shoes, and padded shorts. (You'll thank me later for that last one.) I have learned to wear layers of clothes to either bundle up or peel off, and a sling-style backpack to carry my camera phone, a few dollars, and SFP lip balm and lotion.

My gear for life is similar: water, layers and padding in places, and glasses.

Pay attention to natural markers.
The scent of pine mixed with cedar and the sound of water smoothing stones somewhere near settles my soul. I'm out here for the silence and beauty. The rest.

Yet, there is nothing lazy about it. My eyes need to be wide open. My senses alert.

I am learning to truly pay attention to markers along the path so I can find my way home. When I ride the forest trails, I'm noticing unusual rock shapes, turns in the path, and gnarly bark on a fallen tree worn by wind and dirt. At important crossroads, I benefit from people who came before me pointing the way with markers of where to go by stacking stones on tree stumps or atop other stones.

Cory Lambert, the Fish and Wildlife tracker in the movie Wind River, said it best to FBI agent, Jane Banner, "You're looking for clues, but missing all the signs."

The path isn't always obvious. Not the one we seek. The way out or back home isn't always the straightest or widest way, certainly not the most traveled. They can be hidden, camouflaged in creation. We have to pay close attention. There are signs in life of important paths to follow, but like the forest trails, they speak more quietly.

"There are signs in life of important paths to follow, but like the forest trails, they speak more quietly."

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Look back occasionally so you can recognize the path home.
For all of this paying attention to what lies ahead on our trail, at times we glanced behind us to see the path from another vantage point. It helped to stop a moment and look backwards. Usually when we stopped to take a drink of water or snap a photo, we noticed where we had just been so we could recognize our way back. The thing about recognition is you have to see it first in order to see it again. That's the power of "re".

Seeing again later is still seeing new. The way home is taken later in the day when the sun is lower, the shadows longer. The same things look different, unfamiliar. And we are fatigued. Our senses aren't as sharp, making it easy to miss our turns.

What is true on the bike holds for life. Sooner or later, one way or another, we are all headed home. I have found one of the best practices in soul keeping is to reflect back on a day, an event, a season, or a year and take stock of what I see. These pauses to notice patterns and markers in the weave of our lives help us see things we might have missed if we had never stepped out and looked back. This reflective viewpoint helps us see hidden patterns, beautiful and broken, and navigate our way into new adventures or even home again.

"This reflective viewpoint helps us see hidden patterns, beautiful and broken, and navigate our way into new adventures or even home again."

Take turns leading and following.
Since Mike had lots more biking experience in challenging situations, both long street rides and rugged mountain trails, I usually let him take the lead. I was busy still trying to remember how and when to change gears and so it was easier to let him do the navigating. But at some point, after I had some time to get coordinated again, I took the lead and he followed.

This switching was good for us both. Once in the lead, I had to pay better attention sooner not to miss the way. And I had to look back to make sure he was still following, something he had done for me. And as he followed, he learned to fall back far enough to keep from getting dirt in his teeth and making course corrections.

We found a good distance, a rhythm, and the art of silent communication - hand motions and head nods - that worked for us. These communications gave us just enough closeness to keep up with each other and not so much that the follower crashed into the leader. With practice and every new trail, we were building trust and teamwork.

Balance surrender and strength.
Forest trials are rugged with rocks, pine cones, branches, and ruts from other tracks. When the path got groove and gnarled like the weathered trees, I wanted to stay in my seat and tighten my grip for control. But I quickly felt the fishtail of my back wheel and the jarring of my stiff arms. On the rockiest terrain, it helped to relax my arms and stand up out of the bike saddle. This stance let my back wheel bounce freely without taking my weight with it and both of us to the ground.

To rise out of my seat used a combination of surrender and strength. This move woke up my quads, inner thighs, and abs. These are the muscles I was talking about, the ones I had forgotten. At the same time I was engaging those muscles, I had to stop fighting the path. I realized I needed to relax my arms and bend my legs to take the bumps in the road. I needed a vicarious balance of surrender and strength.

This balance of seeming opposites was something Jesus did so well. He was less either/or and more both/and. His way was less balance between two things and more headed in both directions. Jesus was both humble and bold. He was vulnerable and king. He was grace and obedience. He was surrender and strength.

That seems impossible to us. And it is when we think of these as opposite things far from one another along a straight line. I've been trying to live and love in more dimensions like being a planet orbiting a sun in a universe among universes. In multiple dimensions, suddenly lots of both/ands become possible. What in the world do I mean?

When my viewpoint includes the here and now along with another time (eternity) and another realm (the love of God), all kinds of possibilities open up. Things like dreams, promises, and all kinds of losses start to look different than we originally thought. I think this is what was happening to people through-out the Bible stories.

I'm telling you my body hurt after this ride. Who knew the mind-bending things you could learn riding a mountain bike?

Whatever is next for you, a new adventure or going home, I hope you do it with joy and grit and maybe one of these lessons from the mountain trails near my home.

If you want more "looking back so you can recognize the path home", try one of these: Things I Learned this Spring, Things I Learned this Winter.

And subscribe to be the first to get the next one, Things I Learned this Summer along with a note from my porch swing.