Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Biker's Crush

The soft sun was already starting to head towards the not so distant horizon.  “Another two, three hours and it’ll be dusk,” Jimmy thought to himself.  He looked out at the trail before him.  By starting in the late afternoon Jimmy figured he had a good incentive to push hard, so that he could get home at a decent hour.  It generally took him about six hours or so to bike from Ashland to Superior, so starting this late meant that Jimmy would have to do about half of his trek in the dark.  That didn’t bother him though, not one bit. In fact he was rather excited about it.  Something about biking in the dark seemed very dramatic and cool to him.  “Biking in the moonlight, it has a nice sound to it,” he thought to himself.

The chain tightened, and then began turning the wheels as Jimmy’s legs started pedaling.  It wasn’t a fancy bike – not one of those super-duper, light as a feather, bikes that some bicycling fanatics swear by.  Those things run in the thousands of dollars, for cripes sake!  And it wasn’t one of those new fangled bikes either; the ones with the seat almost touching the ground, and that have the biker’s legs sticking straight out ahead of him.  Nope, Jimmy’s bike was a simple, old-fashioned, heavy clunker of a pedaling machine.  With its handful of stiff gears and its semi-rusted brakes, it was exactly the type of bike that you’d expect to get for $10 at a yard sale!

As Jimmy began pedaling he was met by a cool and refreshing breeze.  He smiled as he felt it gently caressing his tousled hair.  The scattered chirping of freshly returned birds, and the almost fluorescent light green glow of the buds appearing on the tree limbs, and don’t forget the lingering puddles of cold melt water along the side of the trail, were all tell tale signs that Spring had definitely found its way back to northern Wisconsin.  Life was beginning to stir.  You could almost hear the beating heart of the awakening forest.  And marching lock step with that beat was the beat of Jimmy’s own heart.  For it too was coming out of hibernation, having been struck by one of cupid’s teasing arrows.  It was that arrow, in fact, that was the inspiration for this little bike trip of Jimmy’s.

He had met her just a couple of months before.  She was a student at a local college, and she had a smile that could melt a car high snow drift!  At this point, the two were just friends who palled around once in a while.  But hey, Spring makes things grow, and among those things was the hope that Jimmy was sheltering.

The motivation for the bike ride was the same as that behind the push-ups and jogging that he had been doing of late.  With what could at best be called an average looking mug, and without any of the classic heart stopping identities that seem to work best on girls – like being a musician or some exotic foreign exchange student – Jimmy felt he needed to do something to help improve his odds of attracting this girl.  While he’d been a lean and muscular farm boy once upon a time, those days were long gone, and the intervening years had left our friend a bit on the flabby side.  A little bulking and toning up were in order!

The bike ride began ordinarily enough.  Jimmy was biking the Tri-County Corridor, which was built on top of an old railroad track.  It ran between Ashland and Superior and was 62 miles from start to finish.  Jimmy had biked it twice before, each time during the summer.  The first time he did it he made the mistake of thinking that if he biked to a friend’s place outside of Ashland, a good night’s rest afterwards would be all he needed to be ready to bike back to Superior the next day.  What a mistake that was!  That return ride home may have been one of the most excruciating things our friend had ever done, at least up to that point in his life.  His legs were so sore they could have made a man in a coma complain!  And while he did make it home, eventually, it had taken him twice as long, and longer still to forgive himself.  This time though, Jimmy had caught a ride to Ashland first, so he’d only be making a one-way trip home.

The first couple of miles were what the first couple of miles of almost every bike trip are – a pleasant ensemble of physical exertion and the soaking in of scenery.  It didn’t take long for Jimmy to get into a nice biking rhythm, and for his mind to wander off to that amicable land of blissful daydreaming – that place that only monotonous, rhythmic exercise can deliver you to!

Our friend found himself passing gurgling brooks, giggling creeks and silent ponds.  Squirrels scampered about amongst the tree trunks, while robins and sparrows chirped and hopped about on the branches – all of which was illuminated by the soft rays of the setting sun.  It was such a delightful cornucopia of sights and sounds.  Mother Nature was serving up a lip smacking helping of butterscotch topping on Jimmy’s bowl of homemade vanilla ice cream of a day!  Mmmmm!

Adding to the happy mix was a constant popping of images of college girl’s sweet smile in Jimmy’s mind.  There she’d be, walking along, smiling, laughing, doing all of those little things that girls do that set a guy’s heart a flutter.  And while maybe it wasn’t the most thoughtful decision to make, in light of the audience of small woodland critters within earshot, our friend took to signing love songs as he strode along the trial.  He tried out quite a few, like John Denver and that “Brown Eyed Girl” song, before he finally settled on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”.   Once, while hanging out with friends at a coffee shop, and having one of those over dramatic conversations that young people always seem to have in coffee shops, you know, the ones where you try to sound more deep than you really are, Jimmy had made the remark that “nobody who has ever been in love could forget the words to Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’”.

In spite of these earlier words though, the only words he could remember were “what a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way, what a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you, I want to fall in love. . . with you”

No matter, Jimmy just repeated those lines over, and over again.  Each time singing it a little bit louder – and never failing to drag out that last bit as much as possible, “I want to fall in love . . .  w-i-t-h y-o-u!!!”  Jimmy wasn’t much of a singer, but on this day, at least to his hear, he was a crooner like no other!

By the time Jimmy got to the little village of Moquah the crooning had ended.  It was replaced by some no less graceless huffing and puffing.  Though only about an eighth of the way into the ride, Jimmy’s legs were starting to get tired, and he felt the beginnings of a side ache.  Nevertheless, our friend tried to keep up his spirits.  The more it hurt, the more he tried to picture that smile, and about how a guy like him needed to really go all out if he was going to have any chance of seeing that smile on a daily basis.  “No pain, no gain!” he non-enthusiastically muttered to himself.  He said it two more times out loud in hopes that the lesson would sink in a bit more.

The next several miles proved to me more of the same: tired legs, heavy breathing, and the sense that the trail was getting longer and longer instead of the reverse.  Pulling over to the side of the trail Jimmy decided to take a little break.  Before he’d left he’d resolved to try to keep the pit stops to a minimum, but from the look of things it was a safe bet that that resolution was destined to be bent a bit.

Reaching into his backpack, Jimmy pulled out an old cassette playing walkman and strapped it to his belt.  After fumbling around a bit more, he also pulled out an old Skid Row tape.  Some wuss metal should help keep him going he thought – after all, hard hitting love ballads were the ideal soundtrack for a crush inspired epic bike trip.  Popping the tape into the walk man, Jimmy closed his eyes and leaned his head back to take in the first few chords of “I Remember”.

“We spent the summer with the top rolled down, wished ever after would be like this. You said I love you babe, without a sound.  I said I’d give my life for just one kiss.  I’d live for your smile, and die for your kiss.”  Oh man, that made Jimmy smile!  Who says an under paid janitor can’t be a romantic?

Throwing his leg back over the bike, Jimmy set off again, his head bopping to the tunes.  But just as a band-aid eventually looses its stickiness and falls off, so too does the music of a big hair band loose its power.  And then it was just Jimmy and his sore legs again, straining to keep that old bike in motion.  Maybe it was the growing darkness caused by the slipping of the sun’s edge behind the hills up ahead, or maybe it was just crankiness brought on by the realization of how out of shape he was – but those cute chattering squirrels and sparrows didn’t sound so cute to Jimmy any more.  And the sound that the brooks and creeks made was starting to sound more like hissing than gurgling.

“No pain, no gain!  No pain, no gain!  No pain, no gain!”  In the cartoons saying something three times in a row magically makes things happen, but Jimmy wasn’t in a cartoon.  He was in the middle of the woods, somewhere in Bayfield County, in the dark, riding a bike that seemed to be getting as stiff and heavy as his legs.  It even got to the point where college girl’s smile was starting to loose its charm.  Luckily, just as that started to happen, Jimmy rode into the town of Iron River.

Now the Tri-County Corridor is a pretty sweet trail, at least as far as unpaved biking trails go.  It is wide, flat and easy to follow.  And for the most part it’s pretty easy to bike on – made up mostly of packed dirt with a sprinkling of fine gravel on top.  The stretch through Iron River though is a different type of animal.  You see, Iron River lays right smack in the middle of the sand belt that runs through northern Wisconsin.  That, combined with the constant churning of the wheels of the ATVs that everyone in town seems to drive, makes this stretch of trail a frustrating morass of bike stopping thick sand.  But, as frustrating as trying to bike through sand is, by arriving at Iron River it meant that Jimmy was at least half way home!  And it also meant that there were refreshments to be had at the local gas station.

Jimmy got off his bike as he reached the sandy stretch of the trail, and he walked it to the downtown.  Propping his bike against the outside of the gas station, Jimmy trudged inside and gazed upon the rows of sweet, sugary treats and beverages that stretched out before him. Was it a mirage?  No.  It was real; but it was also a trap.  Too many Snickers bars and cans of Dr. Pepper and Jimmy would undue all of the exercise that he had done so far.  As sore and cranky as Jimmy was getting, he still wanted to impress college girl.  A quick look at himself in the mirror that hung in the gas station’s bathroom steeled Jimmy’s resolve.  He ended up placing a bottle of water and a small bag of peanuts on the check out counter.

Once outside, Jimmy walked, or rather kind of waddled, given his sore legs and butt, over to the park that sits between the gas station and the trail.  He plopped down on an old wooden picnic table, and took several big gulps of water.  Scarfing down a handful or two of peanuts, he laid down on the picnic table bench and closed his eyes – relishing the oh so blessed absence of pedaling!

After more than a few deep breaths, Jimmy wearily opened his eyes.  Instead of seeing college girl’s smile though, he saw the frown of nature.  There, up above him, through the scattered light of Iron River’s handful of streetlights, was the ominous gathering of gray clouds, racing across the ever darkening evening sky.   Jimmy knew exactly what this meant.  On one hand it meant that he was a fool for never watching the weather segment of the evening news.  It also meant that rain was likely to be falling soon.  Jimmy sensed he was about to be smacked upside the head by the sadistic backside of fate’s hand.  It apparently wasn’t enough that he was a homely, chubby janitor who had bit off a bike ride that was more than he could chew.  Now it looked like he was about to become a WET, homely, chubby janitor who had bit off a bike ride that was more than he could chew.

“No point sitting here and cursing about it,” Jimmy mumbled to himself.  He inhaled the last of his peanuts and water and waddled back over to his stubborn Huffy.  Like a saddle sore cowboy he gingerly climbed on top of it, and with the heave ho, he shakily started biking back to the trail.
Two minutes later our friend was lying on the ground, having spun out in the seemingly bottomless mire of sand.  If you’d been walking by you would have heard a less than cheerful uttering of “You dirty devil!”  “You dirty devil” was the curse of curses for all of those who grew up in Jimmy’s family.  It’s one of those sayings that gets passed down from generation to generation, from father to son.  As a kid, it had always sounded like a silly thing, almost laughable, for grown-ups to say when they hit their thumb with a hammer, or some other such calamity.  But now, Jimmy found the barb to sound just right as it shot from his pursed lips.

Jimmy had to walk his bike for about half a mile until the worst of the sandy stretch of trial was over.  During that time he tried to re-focus his thoughts on why he was doing this.  That smile, surely, it was worth a troublesome bike ride.  He tried singing once he got past the last of the houses at the edge of Iron River, hoping that that would help keep him in the zone.  This time though he chose to belt out the time honored Cheap Trick classic, “I Want You to Want Me”.
“I want you to want me, I need you to need me, I’d love you to love me, I’m begging you to beg me!”

It’s a catchy tune, and it was starting to work its magic.  Jimmy was just coming out of his cranky funk when the first one hit – a big, hard, cold . . . rain drop!  Its friends quickly joined the party, and soon there was a steady drum roll of raindrops beating down on our friend’s cheeks.
At first Jimmy just sang his Cheap Trick song louder.  After a couple of minutes he was literally screaming out the lyrics!  But yelling doesn’t make the rain stop – it only makes you go horse, and before you know it, Jimmy’s throat started to get awfully sore.  That’s when a new refrain was added to “I Want You to Want Me” – it went like this: “You Dirty Devil!  You Dirty Devil!  You Dirty Devil!”

As the drumbeat of rain became a beatless pounding of water Jimmy contracted his body as much as possible, drawing in his arms and legs as close as you could in a vain attempt to stay warm.  It was no use though.  Mother Nature was turning her back on Jimmy.  Man, oh man, was she turning her back on him!

Just then, up ahead, Jimmy saw a large oak tree along the side of the trail.  He pulled over in the hopes of getting some respite from the downpour underneath the broad reach of its branches.  Spring buds have got nothing on summer leaves though when it comes to blocking rain – and it seemed the longer Jimmy waited there, the harder the rain came.  “You’ve just got to bite the bullet on this one, buddy,” he muttered to himself.

Foot to pedal, Jimmy and Huffy pulled back out onto the trail.  A particularly frigid and fierce whip of icy rain ladened wind met them.  It smacked Jimmy in the face and sent an intense vibrating shiver to the very core of his bones!  An exceptionally loud “BRRRR!” reverberated off of the nearby trees.

More than a little angry at so suddenly being dragged into this ordeal, Jimmy’s formerly slumbering bone marrow decided that it would retaliate against the intrusion by taking on the characteristics of frozen diesel fuel.

With head bowed to duck at least some of the cold wind, which of course just had to be coming head on by this time, our friend began feverishly pedaling as fast as he could.  If he was going to be miserable, he was going to try and be miserable for as short a period of time as possible by getting home as quickly as possible.  But mind doesn’t always triumph over matter, and that was certainly proving to be the case here.  With the wind whipping, the cold raindrops were no longer falling down in sheets; they were flying vertically.  Like thousands upon thousands of icy cold needles being fired from a volley of miniature cannons, they kept hitting Jimmy, seemingly piercing right through him.

At this point he was shivering so hard, it felt as if the earth itself was shuddering!  Jimmy’s cheeks felt like solid clumps of petrified cookie dough.  His legs felt like frozen sinew, or perhaps two long strands of freezer-burned beef jerky.

And then it came – the bitter cherry on top of the soapy dishwater whipped cream – the bike took sudden nosedive!  After a moment, Jimmy sat up from the mucky mud puddle he had landed in.  Two feet behind him the bike lay on the ground . . . with a flat front tire.

Half an hour later, with his own storm system of metaphoric rain clouds over his head, Jimmy stiffly got back onto his bike, having laboriously installed a new inner-tube in the front tire.  The pedaling was so difficult at this stage, what with the muddy morass of a trail, the unrelenting stiffness and soreness of his legs, and the overall miserableness of being soaked to the bone, it was all almost unbearable.  It had gotten to the point where college girl’s smile meant nothing, or at least nothing positive.  “Curses to her!  She almost never emails or calls me back anyway!”  he said to himself.  “Heck, she’s probably out on a date with some other guy right now anyway.  Probably some jerk with chiseled abs who plays the saxophone.”

By the time Jimmy biked past the sign for Brule and Waino he had decided he was over college girl.  By the time he biked through the little town of Maple he had decided that she was way out of his league anyway.  Biking through Poplar he concluded he was just fine with being overweight, and that possessing a little extra body insulation was a good thing to have for someone living in the Northland.  By the village of Wentworth he had convinced himself that he’d die a lonely bachelor, but that at least he’d save money by never having to buy a wedding tux.  And by the time Jimmy finally reached the edge of Superior, he’d sworn he’d never even talk to college girl again.

It took another twenty minutes for Jimmy to bike through Superior to his apartment.  By the time he rolled up onto the sidewalk he had all that he could do to just stand up once he dismounted from his bike.  His legs wobbled and felt about as sure as the future of the Flat Earth Society.  At this point Jimmy wasn’t shivering anymore.  No, rather his body was doing everything it could to mimic a frightened turtle.  He felt like his body was repeatedly misfiring in a frantic attempt to implode, in a vain, but desperate attempt to escape the wet, biting cold.

Jimmy tried to drag his bike up the porch steps, but his arms just didn’t have it in them.  He let go of the handlebars and let the bike fall back onto the sidewalk.  It rolled backwards another foot and then fell over, bouncing against the side of the house before it fell onto the pavement.

Jimmy’s fingers were barely able to master the task of wrapping around the doorknob.  Numb as they were though, they eventually rose to the challenge, and Jimmy fell into the house.  After a minute of lying there in a puddle of his own wet clothes, he rolled over, and with his foot he kicked the door shut behind him.  Then, like a movie hero shot by the bad guys, but still able to muster enough strength to finish them off, Jimmy crawled into the living room and pulled himself up onto the couch.  He managed to kick one soggy shoe off before utterly giving in to the desire to just lay there, motionless.

His body’s initial reaction to the warmth of the apartment was to throb with a dull, pulsating pain.  It was as if it had earlier surrendered to the cold, and was now feebly resisting the call of this new master.  It didn’t take long though for it to give in and bask in the embrace of a warmer clime.  Jimmy took several big breaths as he lay there with his eyes closed.

All of a sudden he heard the phone ring.  It rang once, twice, then a third time.  Just as Jimmy started to sit up to answer it, he heard his roommate’s footsteps upstairs.  The phone stopped wringing, so she must have answered it.  A minute later the roommate descended the stairs, a bemused look on her face as took in Jimmy’s haggard appearance.  “Going for the drowned rat look, eh?” she quipped.  Jimmy looked up at her with a less than amused expression.  “Anyway, it’s for you,” she said as she held the phone out to him.  Jimmy’s dripping arm reached out and took it.  He brought it up to his ear.  As the voice on the other end came through a shocked looked came over his face.  And then, like a sudden burst of fireworks on the 4th of July, a giant smile came over Jimmy’s face, stretching from ear to ear.  It was her!

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