Contemplative Cycling: I Must Wrestle With My Anxieties With Fire.
Steam rises from an indoor Jacuzzi while I let tension in muscle and sinew melt away in its aromatic salts and liquid heat.
The black basin where I soak is squeezed between two unobstructed panes of tinted glass in a tight triangular corner of a home that sits on stilts at the summit of a mountainous mound of earth. I almost entirely dissolve at the center of its whirlpool, slipping quietly out of time altogether; only slender pines that gather ‘round the angular protrusion on such an impressively steep slope seem to know.
I manage to retain a modicum of alertness in a state of mind that hovers above self-oblivion, enough to read an early work of my favorite naturalist writer, the late Ellen Meloy. In these favorable conditions, and per the usual, even if I am still roaming around the Introduction, I am entranced by her observations, by the way she intends to circumnavigate a small circular swath of her then new home in a remote section of the Colorado Plateau.
Bringing her aboard by stuffing her into a pannier, I try and see and write like her, she, a gifted doorway of perception.
Just before I give up the pursuit of reading entirely, I catch a whiff of those few “about the author” paragraphs tucked away in the book’s final pages and fixate in a trance of sorts on a little word contained therein. A conjugation of being, the word Heidegger was obsessed by, dedicated as a philosopher to show up to what all of Western Philosophy had egregiously overlooked. “Ellen is a writer, artist, and western native.”
On some level I refuse to acknowledge that the book’s later editions will have made a little, significant revision; instead I hover over “is” and let it blur, then again assert itself into crisp black markings on an off-white page, becoming a meditative object of studied attention, or maybe it’s that I drift in and out of sleep in a post-exertive, soothing soak in mineralized waters.
This is the beginning of a mini-retreat in the mountains, an overnight visit to the home of one of my friends and her fiancé, who have managed to put their disposable monthly income together to rent an architecturally-eccentric, 3000 square-foot bohemian abode, heavily appointed with wood, tile, granite, and slate, with features like numbered rooms designated by intricate, dark-colored stained glass above thick wooden doors, as if each room were some numerological omen, and the Commute, the name given a glass hallway connecting the kitchen and general living area with a tucked-away office, made breezy, deconstructing rigid either/or categories of indoor and outdoor space, by virtue of design elements like inviting the forest into full view and constructing its passageway of continuous, thin-paned windows that make the temperature noticeably drop in its corridor, evoking transition.
I have journeyed here by bike. They shrugged and said, “Go figure.” The circuitous route through the canyon was as abrasive, arresting, and forcibly engaging as it was during my original acquaintance with it. This afternoon I climbed 3500 vertical feet on forest-covered granite and gneiss where the first blush of the Front Range faults and folds skyward.
Only 20 miles were covered by self-propulsion, except for the last few, where I let my kind friend’s gas-powered vehicle haul me and the bike up what would have otherwise seized my weak muscles into one giant, constricted ball of agitated fibers. But each one of those miles was ascending, either as gradual, rolling grades or lurching switchbacks cutting up what at least felt like sheer, rocky verticality.
With gear affixed to that creaky rear rack and protests of an underused body, each pedal stroke was an affront to greedy mileage and a feat of forward propulsion. Set toward a sky-raking destination, sky-raking, a word Ellen taught me, at these speeds, I muse that walking would take only about twice as long.
The last miles make up a section of windy road called City View for a reason, one that cycling guidebooks mark as “very difficult,” the most challenging designation the books tend to use. I have completed these neighboring ascents and descents over the course of other seasons.
But this one, whether due to excessive gourmanding, too many casual happy hours, one too many rationalizations to forgo slow travel for vehicular speed around town and country and, frankly, insufficient time in the saddle, and I must manage the excess weight that simply gets in the way, replacing lean muscle that otherwise would fortuitously serve my singular goal. Which is cycle, cycle, cycle.
My life’s purpose gets reduced to such endless cycling. The subjugating of aim and will to raw motion through scenic beauty is pleasant and puts me at ease. It’s a long-standing tradition, it’s my usual means.
I am neither a past nor a future when I am cycling, I am not my current lover’s girlfriend, nor a tax-paying small business owner, I am not the girl from Southern California whose father moved her, her sister, and their mother to Denver in the early 90’s to escape the clamor of Orange County, its unmanageable crime, and the expectations that grew around certain family ties.
I am a momentary cyclist transiting for some time across very small tracts of this spinning blue ball that still retains its iron core, original heat, and elliptical path of motion around its sun.
Sucked into the timeless, the vertical, the transcendent portal of self-voiding that cares not about the machinations of the self-making-itself, who it is, where it came from, what its future is going to entail, but what is occurring as a present-moment unfolding, no more, no less.
Misty fog can only hold on to its vapor for so much longer. The Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines breathe with it and don’t mind acquiring dew and mystical, shadowy intrigue. Dragonflies and beetles scurry toward some kind of shelter amongst pebbles, patches of grass, rotting logs, barns, and DIY greenhouses.
Vehicles whizz by at close clip and comparatively ridiculous speeds, some offering wide, friendly berth, others that might want to knock me off this slow-crawling perch with a side mirror. A colorful consortium of woman in neon apparel, perched dynamically on a black-and-white road bike made of aluminum, with her lime green bags, steadies and sustains revolutions that quietly spin toward the summit.
Likewise, the persistent cycling gradually disconnects me from the circumstantial detritus of details defining my current life status, sloughing them off as unproductive accouterments that insulate me from the sharp feelings and real-time movements of fog, bugs, and the chill of sweat, dew, and plummeting temperatures.
Initially the internal clutter surrounds me as an encumbering debris field of mental images, attachments to hopes, aversions to fears, aligning myself with certain outcomes, averting what I, from my exceedingly limited vantage point, foresee as disasters.
A thought experiment opens itself up to me as I ride and machinate, imparting a piercing clarity, setting me free: I imagine I haven’t even begun, that I am still my ex-husband’s wife on an innocent backyard foray up the canyon; this ride is that virginal eye, the unexerted body, and I, a cyclist uninitiated to the “10,000 things (along 50,000 miles) that would follow.”
Release from the tight bounds of what matters on this tiny islet of a puny now-moment allows one to see into the relentless pulse of change. So, I let this wash over me and deeply encode the aluminum frame that supports these spinning wheels in their lumbering transit with this insight, acting as a portal through which the bike and its conscious appropriator are transfigured.
It cherishes the current configuration, but doesn’t hold on too tightly, buffeted by the sure fact that I will still be here cycling as all those matters reshuffle and reconfigure, as they tend to unremittingly do.
I promise myself with new resolve to never back down from such demanding levels of exertion, to chisel out of weakest inclinations this rigor of pedaling that sets one up to enter some kind of kiln, or intensity chamber, where agni unleashes from cells waiting for their action potentials to be turned on, where I exasperatedly try again and again and again to banish resistance and fully commit.
All else that happens in my otherwise ordinary suburban affairs comparatively feels like child’s play.
See, the mind begins to clear, clarify, stops circling its petty eddies, somewhere in the uninformed middle of the contemplative ride.
Or rather, the consciousness who cycles and ever-so achingly floats through the outskirts of the suburban corridor, riparian prairie, the sandstone slabs, and sub-alpine woodland, decides to surrender to its violent and persistent sensorium and knock off the usual habit of constant thinking.
I’ve found it such a radical means of dropping into this organic now, of remembering the body, feeling the circulation in its tissues and the subtle pulse of the vital life force within, the cyclist stirred, awakened, and marshaled for use, that I burst to adequately communicate just what happens on these private sojourns, these spiritual excursions, these curious road adventures, that have called me back time and again to acquire this eye of perception, this energetic harmony, this cosmic alignment.
It’s supremely motivating to be in this kind of “red challenge zone”, and it seems this condition defines and structures this whole cycling thing: when the engaged body is under maximal exertion, the higher order capacities blossom forth. See, I get nowhere when I sit still in a lotus position and meditate.
To face my demons, to tame the scattered mind, to quell the anxieties of what Alan Watts calls the“quaking mess” of being human, I must wrestle with them with fire.
I resist slithering out of this basin to forage for a plush towel and to cook a dish of root vegetables with my friends, denizens of this sky-raking neighborhood, as I become attuned to this slower, deeper rhythm of restoration that’s a sharp, opposing contrast to the power climb of such violent spiritual revival.
I imbibe the entire cycle of taut heights and grounding depths the shape of large, sonorous bowls, and take a full breath. Inhale and exhale. One full round, up to the limit of one’s power output and mental patience and will to stamina, pushing the maximal On button, and then down and off into a watery vortex is so damn cleansing.
I’m about to disintegrate into some slipstream and forget about the particulars of my existence entirely, but an irrepressible itch erupts from my scalp and my hand jarringly reaches to quell it, splashing as it goes. Out of hair damp from a mixture of dew, sweat, and steam drops a tiny insect, for whom I have a flicker of retraction, then warm recognition.
It’s a tiny red-and-black arthropod, a ladybug, who must have managed to find her shelter underneath my white helmet with a design that looks like it was airbrushed, blazed with stripes of magenta, fuchsia, and deep, oceanic blue.
I save her from being devoured by suffocating steam and, after I emerge tentatively from the basin, I send her into open air to find her way back down into the canyon from whence we both came.
Sarah McKelvey is a free spirit who enjoys introspecting, speculating, and writing about life, love, synchronistic experiences, identity, psyche, self-cultivation, and her various misadventures. She typically writes in the context of traveling, and is informed by Eastern wisdom traditions, depth psychology, and the iconoclastic teachings of Alan Watts. Words are her favorite medium. In her pursuits, she pursues truth, beauty, and goodness, and hopes to, through her endeavors and writing, promote a life-affirming attitude that belongs on the spectrum of love. She lives along the Front Range outside of Denver, and practices psychotherapy professionally.