I don’t believe in signs. STOP signs, sure. They’re not wired to lie, set – as they are – in intersectional domination at the corner of ‘oh crapsticks!’, and ‘this is gonna hurt’. Hand on Santa’s grab bag, I believe in STOP signs.
No, I’m talking about those mumbo-jumbo signs that futures are cooked up over and fancy stories about equine giddyuppers, of which there are four, are hatched about. Signs of things to come. Events yet to occur. Hints at our destiny and coy, creepy winks to our unknown futures.
“She shoulda seen the signs,” they’ll say, looking back to an event, unrelated, that could’ve been held to the light and made to glint a certain way to indicate…doom. Or something.
I don’t believe in signs.
I’m a pill.
Slouching on a hard, orange plastic chair in the barely-awake morning I spy the desiccated dollar bill wedged in, low, behind the Pepsi machine. Cobwebbed and dusted. Dejected, rejected, neglected and now, most certainly mine. I look around, take a swig of the Pepsi and squint at the scene as the fizz hits the back of my throat. Suspicious.
Candid camera? Fishing line attached to a corner, and someone poised to pull it away at the last possible moment, perhaps?
But there’s no-one around. No signs of life. The only thing missing from this scene is a post-apocalyptic tumbleweed sauntering across the road, and some ominous, worlds-end music.
Man, I’m starving.
Using the invisible string at the top of my head, I pull myself out of the grubby chair. Squeeze my rump between the heavy table and over to the treasure. Wiggle my fingers in there for a lousy buck. Stripper in reverse. The more I shake it, the less I earn.
“Dirty,” says eyes, assessing it.
“Sign?” asks brain.
“Hungry!” yells stomach.
I plonk myself back down at the lonesome table under the awning of the deserted grocery store in the tiny town of Crowley. Examine the bill. Snap it tightly between my fingers to loosen the previous owner’s karma and assert my authority over it. George Washington stares back at me.
What’s that, Prez? Speak. What are you trying to tell me?
I stare deep into his colonial eyes. Ping!
“Look to your right,” he says. “See that SIGN on the door? That’s an actual sign. It says CLOSED. Interpret that, why don’t you?”
It’s Monday, George. I don’t have time for this. Just tell me why it’s closed.
“Reach deep into the empty caves of your brain,” says George. “Think.”
One, there’s no need to get all haughty about it, and b) for a dude rumored to have wooden teeth, you sure are lippy.
Cogs turn and ratchet into place before meshing in a pleasing fashion. Ahhhhh! Got it! It’s Labor Day!
I’d forgotten. Evidently, the early morning start had shaken the Magic 8 Ball of my mind and all that’d come up was: All signs point to Dumbass.
Sign 1: The creaking floorboards in the Hotel Ordway
On occasion, I imagine myself to be quite stealthy. Nimble as a cat with paws padded and joints well-oiled to hide the arthritic crack and snap of their age. I see myself creeping by armed guards as they protect some fortress, and all that ninja badass running-up-walls malarky. But even Ninjas can’t beat a creaky floorboard.
Each gently placed bare foot on the prehistoric floor of the Hotel Ordway elicits a cry of such ancient wooden torture I freeze in place for a good few seconds. Listening. Waiting to hear movement, signs that I’ve woken all the guests. All one of them. Nothing.
In the darkness, I lift my other foot and gently place it ahead, all creepy creepy like. Same deal. The boards whinge and complain with such raw vehemence I think they really just want me to get back into bed and wait for the sun to rise. I could do that. That’s actually a great idea. But here’s the rub. I have no food. I am starving. I barely had dinner last night. I must get to a place with food and chocolate milk to stop my stomach creaking like these floorboards.
That, and there’s supposed to be a wicked wind later today. I’d like to avoid that, if possible.
Because today’s the day. Today’s the day I RENT A CAR and GET SOME REST and DRINK A BEER with old friends.
Nope, these floorboards are not a precautionary sign of ne’er-do-well-ery. They’re a firewall of negativity which I choose to ignore. Outside, I crunch across the stones out to the back stairs to rescue Precious and set him up all eager and twitchy on the sidewalk at the front. The green neon glow of the hotel sign looks on. A crescent moon hangs there. A simple, warm and wafty breeze tickles.
I trudge in. I trudge out. I sherpa on. In and out of the room and all the while creaking creaking and ‘don’t go!’ boards cry. And I don’t care.
I’m booking it out of this joint and no cedar-stained motion sensor alarm is gonna stop this train!
Sign 2: Even correctional facilities look sexy in the sunrise
Things are what they are not. Or not what they are. Or appear to be. Stop it.
Ok, so I’m riding along in the absolute darkness and my headlight is being a total jerk and slipping down to show me my pannier, and my stomach is being spasm-y because I need to stick something in there. I’m just stating the facts, ma’am. And this goes on for while and I don’t think much of it because I’m too busy having to stop and fix the angle of the light. That can really take up some think space.
Owls hoot. Frogs croak. Stomachs grumble. Welcome to the circle of life. Cacophonous audio. Cricket chatterboxes join in. Whirring wheels and spokes and chains.
From the darkness to my left, high-powered spotlights call my attention to their stage. There, a state correctional facility squats. All moody and sullen. A watchtower. A fence, high and pious. The buildings, low and sprawling. I take a photograph, though I’m not sure why. Instant thoughts of escapees in ditches, and me with my stupid lights and clueless thoughts. My photos will be the only way the police will be able to track my movements. Best to take as many as possible.
Light is creeping now. Purple and bruised blue hues and I’m standing there long enough that the sun begins to peek over the silhouettes of the land behind me. I look back. Decide to wait for it. Wait for it.
It’s a stock photo sunrise. A pure egg yolk yellow with orange juice morning. The colors dab the underbellies of clouds strung out on the sky and bounce the light back to the ground. Emotional orange changes to warm yellow. The correctional facility is shaking its polaroid from menacing and dull to golden and happy. It could be a sign, I suppose.
Things are not what they seem.
Or they actually are, but the mind plays tricks when the sun gets involved.
Sign 3: This dollar bill
Will there be anything to eat before Pueblo? What if I have to do this 45 miles on an empty stomach? Eh. I get up. Tuck the dollar into my handlebar bag. Swing the leg over and clip in. Off I go. I can bumble my way through a day with no gas in the tank. I know what lies at the end of it, and that’s enough to spur me on.
Sign 4: The Mess
The Mess is positively glistening on my plate. My stomach is doing elaborate cartwheels in anticipation of having it slide all over its acidic walls. It’s a sign – that not all signs are bad.
For example: Uncle Billy’s. That’s a good sign. Name your cafe using familial terms and people will instantly think of home-cooked food and… ok. You had me at food.
OPEN. That’s a GREAT sign. I push on the door and it swings inward and reveals to me an old-fashioned red-and-white checked tile floor. Comfortable red booths. Stark white laminate tables. Grill smells.
A young man emerges from the back wiping his hands on a rag and asks if I’d like a coffee. It feels as though he’s asked me this every day. Like I’ve come in here every morning my whole life and this is our routine.
I read the menu and see the next sign. It’s a sign of contentment to come. It’s called, “The Mess” and consists of scrambled eggs, sausage, cubed ham, and bacon bits all mixed together and topped with cheddar cheese and salsa. It costs $5.95. My heart pole vaults over the joy bar. Nothing but air. To call a menu item something so bold is a truth-be-told sign. One that I must embrace.
Order. Smile when he says ‘good choice’. Move to the booth and sit. I am the only customer in this cafe in Olney Springs. I feel very special indeed.
The Mess arrives and I gasp. It is massive. It is immense. It is glistening and teasing me. Potato skins wink. Red peppers alluringly show me their rumps and ham cubes smile coyly. The smell is intoxicating and steam pushes this divine odor right up my nostrils. It tries to force my eyes closed. Egg and cheese and the sharp snap of a cheeky salsa. It takes all my willpower to not just plant my face in it and chow down. Cutlery. I was raised right.
It beats me though. I can’t eat it all. Even as I get the check and thank the young man for being open on labor day, I keep looking back at the wreckage of it. Wonder if I can sit down and just shovel.
“It was awesome,” I say. “A real surprise treat!”
He looks happy and I am distracted by his smile. So distracted that it isn’t until I’m well on down the road and back in love with the glorious day that I realize I forgot to leave a tip. I kick the guilt trashcan around in my brain and it clatters on the cobbled streets of my conscience for many, many miles.
It takes a mountain range to silence it.
The land is really starting to change today. The earth has more form to it. Slow bubbles of hills rise up, smattered with wildflowers and tussocks of unidentified grasses. Bushes like acne, stands of trees clumped together in council. The word ‘height’ is entering my vocabulary again. Green is making a strong comeback. Black-eyed Susans are still like ponds of yellow in my viewfinder, but they’re more forcefully set off against the sweeping hues of greens and browns and all-round general sense of ‘this is different to what you’ve seen before.’ Twisted trees and saggy-panted shrubs. Cactus hiding in the grass. Prickly pear fruits peek out with spiny determination and watch me go by. Thistles wave behind broken-down gates and fences.
The road is getting more of a poker face too. Not so straight anymore. Curves and rises and ups and downs, and edges littered with the bodies of dead snakes. Dried blood pools of animals whose carcasses have been snatched away, probably by those birds circling overhead. Here, the signs are peppered with bullet holes. But these are real signs to dictate speed. Not life-signs. Though kind of signs of life.
I pop over a rise and see the subtle silhouette of a mountain range in the distance. It begins as a smudge to my left and my gaze follows across the horizon to my right as it gets higher and higher until it disappears behind the cover of a closer hill.
Elevation, baby. That’s a whole mess o’ trouble right there. My daily life, my struggle against the map, is about to change. I know it. I know that all these days of constant slow up-and-up are about to change to sudden, even slower up-and-up. It’s about to get significant. It’s about to amount to something real. I can’t even explain the tingle and the smile on my face. This day, this awesome day. Leading to a rest, sure, but beyond that. I’m at the front door of the Rockies. I’m ringing the bell. I am so excited, I could warrior cry.
But I’m not there yet.
It’s pretty hot, but the wind is taking the edge off, so I don’t really notice how much I’m sweating. Just keep going in a kind of happy sing-song manner. So many dead snakes I start to think that’s a sign for sure. That I shouldn’t ride so close to the crumbling edge. That one could lash out and ankle bite me and that would be the end of it. Stupid thing to think about, really. But still, I assert myself in the lane more. I am mindful of the blind edges and unkempt grass.
Rounding a bend and the mountain range peels back a bit more of its chocolate wrapper. It reveals a little more of itself to me and I see the bald grayness of a very, very high mountain. Bald? Past the treeline, I guess, though I can’t see any snow. I am a little frightened by its presence. I mean, that’s really high. Hawks wheel and arc above. Fate. What awaits?
Not far to Pueblo now. I have the constant company of a rail line at my side and I roll through the small town of Boone. Another deserted place with nothing open and nowhere to grab a snack. On the outskirts of town I spy a man in a huge shed packing onions into bags and loading them onto a pickup truck. The wind has dialed up past breezy now and the golden shucked onion skins fly across the road and get caught in the grass. Their wispy demeanor as they cling to the roadside gives me a pork floss flashback and I come over all hungry again.
Outside of Boone and powering towards me comes a long locomotive. It storms by, black smoke rising from its belly and coal groaning in its open bins. The engineer waves to me and I jauntily wave back. Two ships passing in the day, crossing paths in lonely Colorado.
The shoulder suddenly becomes very wide as I approach the intersection of the 90 and the 50. Traffic is heaving on this road and that most certainly is a sign. Sign 5, I guess. These people are headed somewhere big. Places to be, things to see. I am close now. Very close.
I turn onto the 50 and suddenly the wind is there. In my face, all ‘woah, where’d’ya think you’re goin’ in such a hurry, lady?’
Fully force it hits. Right in the kisser. Slap slap, back. Get ye back, plebeian! This could be a sign, too. But I don’t think so. Sometimes wind is just wind. Ask a baby.
It becomes quite comical quite quickly. If I wasn’t in such a good mood about picking up a rental car and having two whole days of rest stamped into my calendar, I imagine I’d be quite cross right now. Seething, perhaps. This is really just what I need, because there’s a window of opportunity to pick up the rental car at the airport – between 12 and 1pm – and I’m ahead of schedule.
Struggle. Head down. Push against it. It’s like a door stuck on carpet. Laugh like a maniac at the futility of it all. Cars and vans and RVs whizz past with consummate ease. Flashy boats and horse-floats. Time off. Barely noticing the speck of humanity being blown around on the shoulder. Fighting. Fighting for her survival.
What a sight I must be.
Notch it up, wind. Ok. Stronger now. Grit in my eyes and lashes attempting to fend it off. Dust sticking to me, coating me like a chicken about to be deep fried. Throat dry as wood chips and lips still angry at me for what, I don’t know.
Hay bales are scattered here. I pass broken biscuits of lucerne strung out on the road’s edge with twine twisted in their bellies. Two whole bales of feed down in the ditch. Some farmer is gonna be pissed.
Lift my head into the assault and see planes flying in, way up ahead. Must be close now. Six miles to go. What luck, I just happen to be going 6mph with this headwind. Now I have a real sense of time. I’m still going to be too early.
Close to the turnoff for the airport, I spy a gas station with what looks to be food options. It’s a hive of activity. People pumping gas, fueling boats and washing windscreens. Stocking up on beer for the holiday. I wander around the aisles picking up packaged items and putting them down again. Examine pastries through glass cabinet doors, assess the sugar content of donut glazes merely by looking at them.
Zoning out the static and white noise of belligerent children with red slushy-stained lips and grabby confectionary-seeking hands, I settle on a bear claw and a cup of fruit chunks for myself. A chocolate milk of unfamiliar brand and some Hot ‘n’ Sweet beef jerky for the car. Outside, I lower myself down to the cool concrete and begin to eat. Watch the world go by and judge it pretty harshly in the midday shade. I can Judge Judy like no-body’s business.
You there, you should go put those chips back. You there, you don’t need more beer, look at what its done to your belly. And you momma, get a reign on those brats or they’ll grow up to be cowboys.
Beat up cars park and I watch as their schlubby drivers enter, then emerge with vats of soda and cardboard bricks filled with beer. Hotdogs and deep-fried golden…I’m going to call them dongs. Gossip girls with phones glued to their ears slide into back seats. Bedazzled leggings and pulled-back razamataz hair.
If this is a sign, I can’t even begin to guess at what it means.
Back out on the road and the wind is just as ferocious. Dust is picked up and organized into a billowing tube of movement that I see heading right for me. I stop and brace for the sting of dirt hitting my skin and face, but see it rise suddenly in front of me and go over my head. This wind is starting to be a real drag now.
Turning off the road and toward the airport, I find myself on a wide open boulevard, devoid of traffic. I turn again and trundle past the aviation museum, smiling at the fighter plane and old transport hulks positioned behind its fence.
At the terminal itself, I find myself pretty much alone. The Hertz counter is silent. The baggage carousel also mute and still. I am early, with 45 minutes to kill, so I get changed and sit out of the wind just inside the door and let myself be pleasantly licked by the air conditioning.
Two security guards enter, then disappear into the belly of the terminal. They don’t give me a second glance, but on their way back, stop next to Precious and say a few words to each other about him. Point at the trailer. Move on. I watch them leave, then lower my gaze to the pile of stuff I have to load into the car. Can’t quite believe I’ve managed to lug it over 2,000 miles already.
The Hertz lady is cheery as she unlocks her booth and stresses that the flight must have been early and how sorry she is that she wasn’t here. I explain to her that there was no flight for me. That I am bike-bound and she’s full to bursting with questions.
Brave. She uses that word. Stupid. I use that one. We laugh. I never get sick of my joke.
I sign stuff, get keys and am spat out onto the sidewalk at the car that’s been sitting in front of Precious the whole time. A white Corolla. Indignity attacks and before long, Precious finds himself sans wheels and packed tightly into a car trunk. Loaded up and relaxed, I get in and pull away from the route I have been on for 40-something days.
The temperature gauge in the car says 97 degrees. I’m glad to be out of the heat.
One of the first thoughts I have as I pull into the auto-stream of cars on the road is “THIS IS SO MUCH FASTER!”
I’m not even trying to make a joke. It’s a revelation to me. That something can move this fast with ease. It’s exhilarating and for a split second I entertain the thought of driving the rest of the way to Oregon. I could totally fake it. Stop every now and then and take a photo of the bike and me ‘gettin’ it done’. Who would know? But the thought disappears as quickly as it appeared. That wouldn’t make me happy at all.
With music cranked and my foot getting used to not being attached to the pedal, I fly along this road and join the human race. I duck in and out and pass and tail and I’m just happy in the river. My legs are tired and tingling but content, and when I stop at a Popeyes and stuff chicken in my face and spoon gobfuls of mashed potato into my mouth it’s as though I can literally feel it glueing torn muscle and sinew back together. The icy root beer is like salve to my fatigue.
Back in the car and the radio is playing music I’ve never heard, I’m that far out of the mainstream. Up ahead, the sky looks ominous with smoke. There’s a large fire in Boulder today, and I’m driving right into its domain.
Three hours later and the sun is masked by a smoke monster as I skim the outskirts of Boulder. When I pull up at my destination, I am met by Heather at the front door. Ash is falling, the smell of smoke overwhelming, kids are shyly being introduced to Precious.
I am here. I have arrived.
Sign 6. People like your bike better than you
It’s 8,30am and Precious is flat out and lying vulnerable on the street in downtown Boulder as I reach into the back seat to get his wheels out.
“Is that Precious?!”
I hear the yell come from across the road behind me and freeze a little as my brain questions whether or not I actually really just heard that or not. I stand up and look to see a bloke crossing the street with a very broad grin on his face. He stops suddenly.
“That…” he hesitates. “That probably sounded a bit weird.”
I nod and indicate that yes, it was weird and actually kind of creepy. Imagine you’re in a town you’ve never been in, on a street you’ve never been on, and a complete stranger calls out in recognition to your damn BIKE.
“I’m Meatflag,” he says. If ever there was a sign, that’s it. It doesn’t really ease my tight-shouldered stance. “I follow you on twitter. I recommended the bike shop.”
Ah, ok. With you now. Things are cool. Rad. There’s a little light fitzing in the back of my brain. One of bitterness and resentment aimed squarely at Precious. Because honestly, just once I’d like to be recognized before my damn bike. I am the one that’s doing all the work here, after all! But the rational part of my brain blacks that light out and I accept this encounter for what it is: kinda cool, actually.
We chat for a while and I get some food recommendations. I leave Precious at University Bicycles and feel naked without my bike in my life. At least when he was in the car, he was still with me. Does that mean the sign is that I can’t live without him? That’s just sad, although when I pick him up the very next day I actually get excited to see him before he’s wheeled out all clean and newly shod.
Sign 7. Ignore the signs. Just do what you do.
I am human again. Held to the bosom of old friends in the comfort of their house. Their hearts. I’m not great at keeping in touch with friends in general, so always hope that brief catchups, however sporadic, can adequately communicate my love. That they’ll see that in a world of things that mean little, this means something. That it means something to me.
Pete is off to Seattle, so I only see him for a night, but over the next two days I greedily absorb his family into my pores. I read bedtime stories, talk silly, and eavesdrop on kids’ whispers and giggles. I drink cold Colorado beers and have real grown up conversations. I eat well and stare down a cat on a staircase. My brain slowly remembers – this is how to be with people. I wrap myself in a decadent duvet and sink down deep into a bed in a real bedroom and sleep until I wake up naturally. Breathe deeply. Do nothing much of anything.
It is heaven for me. This pill.
On the drive back to Pueblo to drop off the car, it hits me again. I don’t believe in signs. I don’t believe that the world is trying to tell me anything, except to be present in it. I have a map and a bicycle and a place to be. I’m still breathing. I’m still here. I’m still alive and I’m ready to go.
And that’s the only sign that matters.
Date: September 06, 2010
From: Ordway, CO
To: Pueblo Airport, CO
Distance: 45.10 miles
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