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 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/2019

Giving Thanks

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving afternoon. In the traditional scheme of things, the house would be suffused with aromas of baking bread and pies and, above all, with the heady scent of roasting turkey, well on its way to a star turn in the dining room in a few hours. A gaggle of family and friends would be lolling about, laughing and joshing, made merry by brandy-laced egg nog or an endless supply of IPA. Someone might be watching football. Someone else would suggest a brisk walk to work up an appetite.

But that’s not what’s going on today. The wife and I are home alone. The house is empty and silent. She’s out in the garden, turning the compost, and I’m making use of the quiet day to tackle this column. Our son and his wife had planned to drive down from Seattle for the occasion but at the last minute decided to stay home, which now looks like a smart move, with snow closing I-5 over Siskyou Pass yesterday. (Our family members are scattered all over the West and winter travel is always a challenge.)

But don’t feel sorry for us. First of all, most of the members of our extended family are getting together for Christmas and it seemed like too much of a good thing to do the big turkey and all the rest twice in quick succession. But more to the point, we’ve just had a delightful long weekend with friends that included festive dinners three nights in a row and a smokin’ barbecue on the last afternoon. Also, other friends are having a big Black Friday party tomorrow, and I’ll be very surprised if we don’t end up as stuffed—and basted—as a turkey by the time we stagger home.

Anyway, with or without the classic Thanksgiving festivities, the fact remains that I have a lot in my life for which I am giving thanks. And seeing as how this is ostensibly a cycling column, I aim to bring that grateful feeling around to the world of skinny tires and chain rings before too long.

But first the obligatory disclaimer: I know all too well that there are many people who would have to work pretty hard to come up with things in their own lives for which they might be thankful. I could rattle off a long litany of the world’s woes, from the global level right down to the very personal. Even the most delusional pollyanna has to concede that this is not the best of all possible worlds. None of us is going to sort out all the miseries and problems that muddle up our days. We do what we can. It might be precious little but we try.

However, on this day of giving thanks, we can, at least for the moment, do as the corny old song says and “accentuate the positive.” In my case, a heaping helping of positive comes from cycling and all the side dishes that go with it. It’s more than just the riding itself, although that alone might be enough…the exercise and the movement and the eye-opening, mind-expanding dharma of simply being out there, rolling down the road, soaking it all in.

But being on the bike is just the can opener. And what it opens up, beyond the act of riding itself, is so much more. It’s how being out there opens up the world for me. Every ride is a pilgrimage to the church of zen buzzardism: floating on wide wings, up over the ridges and down the valleys, skimming the tree canopy…a 90-proof cocktail of endorphins and serotonin making it all come alive and snap into sharper focus. 

But that again is still being on the bike. After the bike, before the bike, there are other gifts this activity brings me. Thanks to a few fortuitous bends in my own life, I now write about cycling a good deal. (I owe thanks to my parents and my teachers for laying down the fundamentals of decent word-smithing, and I even tip the hat to that typing class I had in high school that makes banging away at the keyboard as easy as coasting downhill.) For better or worse, I love talking and writing about riding, and as long as I can manage not to come off as a bloviating bore, I think the writing is a good thing. Anyway, it’s at least good therapy for me. (I hope you get something out of it as well.)

The writing is all tangled up with dreaming up new routes to ride and, by way of guidebooks, to sharing those routes with others. I have no illusions that my writing makes me the next Herman Melville any more than my cycling chops qualify me for the Tour de France. But when it comes to laying out bike routes and tours, I can say I’m as good as they get in that little skill set. I do it well and I derive an immense amount of joy and satisfaction from doing it. And not just the doing of it…not just the creative process. No, the real pay-off is knowing other cyclists will follow the routes and have a ball out there, tracing my directions down new roads through new regions. That’s the frosting on the cake. 

Then there is the big, big positive of friendships that began on bike rides and grew to be life-long relationships of great value. If your cycling life includes group rides, sooner or later you’ll make friends with your fellow travelers. Some of those will only be the cordial small talk sorts of friendships that don’t extend much beyond the rides. But others will take on a life of their own, with the cycling only part of a larger, more complex acquaintance. 

Take this past weekend with our house guests and all those festive dinners and get-togethers. Every one of those happy occasions has its roots in cycling. All of the people involved are people I met through riding…club rides, centuries, doubles, brevets, weekday afternoon hook-ups, 25 miles and a cup of coffee…pretty much every kind of recreational riding you can imagine has been grist for our mills at one time or another. At this point, although we still ride, including two rides this past weekend, we spend more time together off the bike. And although cycling still comes up in our conversation we are just as likely to be discussing anything from politics to poetry, from gardening to cooking to woodworking.

I look around at the folks at that excellent barbecue on a warm Indian Summer afternoon and I see people I’ve known almost half my life. An attractive 30-something woman approached me and said, “You don’t recognize me, do you?” But after she supplied her name I realized I have known her since she was three or four, wearing a little bike helmet shaped like a turtle. Now here she is in the prime of her adult life. There were riders there who are at the apex of cycling skills and strengths right now, as good as any riders in this region, at least at the amateur level. There were others who have been that strong and accomplished in past years but are now dialing it back a bit. And others who never were that strong but bring their best to their biking, whatever that may be. On the bike that might make a difference; off the bike, not so much. We’re all friends. We’re all on approximately the same page when it comes to the verities we’ve learned on two wheels.

As for giving thanks, I sometimes think there is a fine line between humility and hubris. When some folks express their gratitude for whatever good fortune they have, you can almost hear a subtext: look at us; we are so prosperous and healthy and clever! Aren’t we the lucky ones? I dearly hope you don’t read that between the lines of this column. In broadest outline, I see good fortune as made up of two parts. First off, there are the cards we’re dealt: the nature and nurture of our birth and family and other circumstances pretty much beyond our control. Then there is how we play those cards we’ve been dealt: the values and virtues we apply to make the most of what we have been given. For the former we can take no credit. For the latter, if we have behaved with something approaching honor and courage and compassion, we might be able to feel good about how we got to where we are today…but not too good. We do the best we can with what we’re given and then say "thank you" for even being allowed to make the effort.

In my life, cycling and all its collateral benefits has made my life better and perhaps has even made me a better person. For that I can and do give thanks, today and every day.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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