No Exit

We lost Mark. Just the other day. COVID. He’s gone. 

It hurts. It could’ve been me. It could’ve been you. Mark did everything right—mask, distance, washed his hands. But it found him. This whole year has been a macabre game of hide and go seek, except that being found can be fatal. Maybe what I’m feeling is survivor’s guilt. Maybe this is what war feels like. 

I don’t know why I thought after a few days the pain would subside. Mark was one of the great ones. The ones that really hurt to lose. The ones who fight like hell for twenty days on a ventilator. 

I was hopeful that, with the vaccine rolling out and change in the air, that I’d get through this shared nightmare with my little world intact—the half-million+ we’ve lost just an abstract number. Maybe I’d hear about a friend of a friend who died. But not a friend. Or, for Mark’s young son, a Dad. 

It’s a pointed reminder that this isn’t over, not even close. 

I’ve also found myself thinking, over these past few days, about a ride I did a couple weeks ago. No idea why—it wasn’t remarkable. It was simply good in the way most rides are; it got me outside, and for a few hours I was distracted from the status woe. It was nothing worth ruminating over, but still I’ve found myself revisiting it the way a chess player replays a key match, over and over in their head. Which is ironic, because the ride nearly never happened. 

It was a typical Saturday morning. I was up before dawn and ready to roll out for some steady solo road miles, except that I noticed my rear tire was worn through to the casing. If there was ever a time to need the long miles, it’s been this past year. 

So, there I was, kitted up, the garage door open, and the sky beginning to glow over my neighbor’s roofline. The frustration welling up inside me killed the chill wafting in from the outside. Then I noticed my gravel wheels propped against the wall. So, I just swapped them. 

There’s a trailhead two blocks from my house. Convenient, I know. For a neighborhood that’s four exits from downtown, such proximity to compressed wilderness is something I don’t take for granted. Before I knew it I was through the gate and onto the trail. 

It was a January morning in Southern California, which is balmy by most standards, but forgive me for having shivered as I dropped into the canyon, out of the emerging daylight, and into a microclimate that was at least ten degrees cooler than I was dressed for. 

It’s a pretty technical ride into the canyon—a winding single track that at one point drops down a short 20-percent grade to a shelf, high over the creek. If you can make the hard right at the bottom, it’s just a matter of slaloming a few hikers and you’re onto the flats. (If you can’t … just hope somebody finds you.)

The canyon’s not the most suitable spot to start a ride, particularly when your joints are stiff and, after the long, “technical” descent, you’ve yet to really start pedaling. So, as I began criss-crossing sections of the rocky creek bed, rubber side up quickly became the rule rather than the exception. Even for me, it was a dismal performance. But I got through it, eventually, and spent the rest of the day trail hunting through the surrounding neighborhoods.

It was a reasonable day on the bike—fun enough, but thanks in part to a sidewall puncture, not particularly noteworthy. Still, my mind keeps going back to it, replaying every pedal stroke—the sound of the garage door clanging, my file treads buzzing down the street, the whack of branches along the trail, the rumble of the rocky creek bed, and falling over (and over). How did I mangle the lines so badly on trails I know so well? What went wrong that day? What did I do? Or not do? Should I have gone to the left of the Eucalyptus root instead of the right? (Obviously.)

I’ve managed, over the past few days, to reimagine that morning in the canyon dozens of times. My actual memory of it now has to compete with a revision I’ve created from scratch. A perfect execution of a line that begins on my driveway and ends at the far end of the canyon. A flow state that never happened, but it may as well have. I can literally almost feel it now.

Over the past year, I’ve reimagined several of my rides, and have likely replaced actual memories of some with these fantasized recreations. It’s to the point where I have to refer to Strava to remember what actually happened on a given day, since I have no one to ask—like most of you, I’ve been riding solo since last Spring. So, the imagination is free to wander. And thank God for that.

I’ve realized that it isn’t the rides I’m reinventing, but rather the reality I’m living in. It’s like all the spiraling COVID numbers and riots and insurrections and everything else we’ve all been experiencing gets a time out. While death scrolling my phone, I suddenly find myself deep in the canyon, meditating on the ideal line. Going over it, re-imagining and repeating until it’s perfect. Smooth is fast. Concentrating so hard that—suddenly—I’m not here, I’m there. 

Losing Mark reminds me that this is all far from over. And every day it gets closer and closer to home. And we have fewer and fewer places to hide. It’s great to escape on my bike over the weekend. But what about the rest of the time?  

I know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’m optimistic like that. At least until the media barrage of doom and gloom drags me to the edge of the abyss, and I close my eyes to find myself approaching that Eucalyptus root, gnarled and exposed, and skirting past it like it doesn’t exist. 

I’m down there, in the canyon, more and more, it seems. I can be eating breakfast, the news on in the background, and the texture of my cereal suddenly resembles the rocky creek bed, and my hand feathers the spoon like a brake lever. My breathing is short and sharp. But I can still relax my shoulders. It won’t always be this cold, I tell myself. Every ride starts this way, and if you just keep going, eventually the sun comes up. It always does.

In memory of Mark O. Waters, 1966–2021

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  1. TominAlbany says

    I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

    1. Miki Vuckovich says

      Thank you. It felt good to do.

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