March 6, 2016
Tiny Adventure Rediscovered
When I was a young boy, my family lived in a small development in south Jacksonville, about a half-mile north of Goodbys Lake. The neighborhood was named Montclair, and was made up of three parallel streets – Darnall Place, Leewood Lane, and Montclair Drive. Until I was thirteen, 3628 Darnall Place was my home, and those three streets, my world.
Once I got my own bicycle, I took a tiny adventure each afternoon after school. Hopping on my red Schwinn Stingray, with its white banana seat, I would pedal my way around the neighborhood, always starting with the one-block loop from Darnall Place to Leewood Lane. In fact, I might complete that circuit several times before working up my courage to venture another block north onto Montclair Drive – the outer edge of my known world.
Those rides gave me such confidence and freedom that my bike might as well have been a space ship carrying me into new dimensions. And I always packed a snack, maybe a bologna sandwich, or a PB&J, a bag of Lays potato chips, and my red-and-black checked thermos topped up with cherry Kool-Aid, to keep me nourished as I expanded my possibilities.
When it was time to rest from my adventures, I would seek the security of one of my favorite destinations – either the thick stand of bamboo at the western end of our street, or the giant live oak that grew on a rise above the eastern bank of the vast St. Johns River. Those were my sanctuaries. Nestled among the hundreds of shoots of bamboo or peering out towards the sun glistening on the river, my thoughts were free to roam, and I could just listen to the sounds around me and watch for the next new thing to enter my world.
I mention these memories because it has been months and months since I have pedaled my trusty Surly Long-Haul Trucker, well, anywhere. This is the bike I rode from St. Augustine, Florida, to Taos, New Mexico, in the summer of 2010. I was fifty-four when I departed on that journey, fifty-five when I arrived in Taos. And after spending almost two thousand miles atop the Surly, she was no longer just a bicycle. She had become a part of me. Like the old red Stingray, she was a partner in my adventures.
While automobiles and airplanes can whisk us away quickly to far away places, a bike is simply different. It is a romantic device. One that requires you to expend maximum effort to get to where you’re going. A bicycle is not a ticket for a seat or a heavy foot on the accelerator. It’s a love affair – and bike and rider are in it together.
My Bicycle, A Vehicle for Freedom
I awoke yesterday to a day that was bright and sunny and hinting of spring – and noticed an ache deep inside that stretched back to the 1960s and 3628 Darnall Place. Over coffee, when my wife, Elisabeth, suggested we ride our bikes, I knew that was exactly the thing that could ease the ache.
Even now, at fifty-nine, just like when I was a kid, I have favorite places to visit on my bike. If I want to eyeball the comings and goings of a crowd, I pedal the six-and-a-half miles to Starbucks at the Publix plaza on the beach. It’s a good warm-up ride for an old guy that hasn’t pedaled anywhere in months.
And that was exactly where Elisabeth suggested as our destination. We arrived and settled in to wait for my hot chocolate and her grande dirty chai, watching the other patrons: girls in workout clothes looking at their nails and tugging at strands of blond hair, old guys huddled outside the double doors talking politics and laughing at dirty jokes, and the impatient guy in madras shorts, who kept shifting his stance, digging his hands deep in his pockets, and sighing every time he spoke, like the mere act of ordering his java was all he could possibly undertake in this lifetime. The pretty girl behind the counter, meanwhile, seemed to be thinking of everything but coffee, and kept apologizing to those waiting for her mistakes – which were many.
It was a wonderful glimpse of everyday folks out for an afternoon, a cup of coffee, a chance at conversation. The view around us was a snapshot of the world we have created. It wasn’t perfect, but it was reassuring, as if life may not be so complicated after all. I suddenly realized I felt better than I have in weeks, maybe months, and that it was the bike ride that had made the difference – the tiny adventure. Elisabeth and I conjured for ourselves had allowed me out of my head into a space of peace and hope, found in the most innocuous of places.
On the ride home I vowed to undertake another tiny adventure very soon, and made a mental list.
- Ride my bike to Gainesville, eat lunch at the Southern Charm Kitchen, and visit with my friend Ken and his wife, Jennifer.
- Ride to “The Hammock,” just south of Washington Oaks State Park and spend the night at a small motel.
- Ride to Port Orange, south of Daytona, and stay over with my friends Frank and Nadine.
- Order the Adventure Cycling maps for the Florida Connector, a cross-state bike trail from St. Augustine to Naples – then ride to Naples and catch the ferry to Key West.
- Sometime soon, ride my Trusty Surly to San Diego, completing the Southern Tier bike trail – a distance of 3054 miles.
- And then there’s the Pacific Coast bike route from Vancouver, B.C., to Imperial Beach, California – 1852 miles worth. Elisabeth wants to make that trip with me. Which will be fun, but we will have to wait until she finishes medical school.
(O.K. So numbers 4, 5, and 6 are not “tiny” adventures. But they are goals, and I plan to complete them.)
A Look Back to Where It All Started
A few years ago, I was in Jacksonville and took a drive around the old neighborhood. 3628 Darnall Place, my family home, still looked the same. Even the playhouse my dad built for me when I was in third grade was there. But the stand of bamboo that hosted so many of my daydreaming afternoons was gone, replaced by a mansion. And the dirt path that led to the old live oak tree and that overlooked the St. Johns was blocked by huge, wrought iron gates. Even so, when I closed my eyes, I could still remember the feel of the ground beneath me as I leaned against the massive oak and ate my bologna sandwich, gazing out across the river, a blaze of sunlit diamonds shimmering on its dark surface. When I opened my eyes, I said a brief prayer of thanks to that old tree, hoping it had managed to survive the years.
As I drove away, leaving the new Jacksonville behind, I was taken aback at how small my old neighborhood actually was. To my ten-year-old self, it had been a vast world – one in which the longest ride of my life took me and my old red Stingray around and around a one-block loop, until, finally, I heeded the call of a tiny adventure and pedaled all the way to Montclair Drive.
Now, having come to a place where the road ahead of me is shorter than the road behind me, I’m asking – with some urgency – “What do I want in my life?”
The answer? To keep pedaling. Because adventure still awaits.