At the light at the west end of the St. John’s Bridge I turn right and coast down to the intersection with Highway 30, enjoying the last bit of easy riding. The 13 miles from my house to Newberry Road is almost paper-flat. The bridge is the only real elevation change. The “ride to the ride” is important, though. By the time I come off the bridge I am sweaty and warmed up and ready. After a couple more flat miles through Linnton, I turn left off Highway 30 onto Newberry. Newberry Road immediately turns right and goes straight up, like a wall. My ego tells me to stay in a bigger gear but 100 feet up the first section reason prevails and I drop into my granny. The granny is the lowest gear on a bike, the climbing gear. Newberry Road is a climb. And by the time I make the first switchback the music has started.
By the time the shards of glass have come to rest in the sink I’m gone. The seat on my Schwinn five-speed is still warm from my trip to Mr. Fresh as I shoot out of the driveway and down 6th Street, over the bridge across the Hennepin Canal, and out of this shit hole town. It was only twenty minutes to curfew. Apparently, 13-year olds have no business being out after 10:00, at least not according to the civic leaders of Green Rock, Illinois, so if I’m not going home, and I’m not, I need to get out of Green Rock quickly. The cops in Green Rock enforce curfew because they have nothing else to do. At least in East Moline, there is enough real crime that the cops don’t hassle a kid on a bike after 10:00 PM.
He sent me to Mr. Fresh at 9:15 to get his all-important Vanilla Ice Cream. Why he was still up I couldn’t say. Hoping to capture some kind of positive father-son connection I jumped, racing the mile and a quarter, reaching the store before it closed, getting home before the ice cream got too soft. I felt good, like this might open up my father to hanging out together, maybe watching a late-night movie together; bonding. But I forgot the chocolate syrup. I didn’t know I was supposed to buy chocolate syrup.
“What’s the point of getting the god-damn ice cream if you don’t get the god-damn chocolate syrup!” he screamed and launched the semi-frozen box of ice cream into the sink. At least one glass paid the price for my mistake. I bounced.
Some climbs start gradually but Newberry meets Highway 30 at the bottom of the west Portland hills, just off the Willamette River, and immediately climbs at a 16-18% grade for a solid mile. It doesn’t get much less than 12% to the top. It’s only 2 ½ miles end to end, but there isn’t a flat spot on it. It hurts. I love it.
Climbing is why I ride. Climbing opens the mind, eliminates the variables of life. Your only focus is on going forward, and going forward requires an immense effort. Like vipassana meditation and heroin addiction, climbing releases you from all your other thoughts and focuses your mind on the moment. For me, climbing releases music.
I’m out of Green Rock and hit the Rock River Bridge about ten minutes after ten. The other side of the bridge is East Moline and the road is known as Colona Road. It climbs a mile or so of steep hairpins we call “Suicide Hill” because the corners are all blind. It’s dark and I have no lights and no helmet and I don’t care. I point my front wheel up, always up, and crank that gas-pipe Schwinn as hard as I can. All I want is to get away; away from my drunk dad, away from the shit-hole town, he moved us to, away from the rage in my head. All I want is the music.
I dodged the few cars out that late for eight trips up and down. My record is ten. I headed home at about 4:30 in the morning. If I could have stayed gone forever I would have. My mom got home from her third-shift job at about 7:00. That afternoon she asked me about the broken glass. I feigned ignorance.
After the initial climb has crushed my quads, Newberry relents a little and the grade drops to about 12%. This qualifies as a relief. My heart rate settles down and I find my rhythm. A couple of minutes of this and the music starts. It comes from somewhere inside of me and I can never seem to find it any other way than suffering on a bike. Some people push themselves athletically seeking endorphins. I search for the music of my body; my own Ode to Joy.
A little past the halfway mark Newberry snarls again. For the next mile or so it hits 14% but I’m usually so far into my head I don’t notice. A clarinet and double bass have been trading riffs over the violins as I grind past the Wildwood Trailhead parking lot. A cello takes the melody and fills my heart with baritone warmth, regardless that my lungs are burning. Kettle drums set the pace of my legs and the flutes soften everything. The melody is surprising; I am more of an observer than a composer. I have no control over it, other than occasionally suggesting a new instrument or a key change. The music exists. I simply release it.
I don’t listen to classical music much, so I can’t tell you anything about the music I hear. I’ve heard it most my life, but only when I work for it. I remember the first time I heard it. My dad was drunk and the TV was too loud and the books I escaped into didn’t work anymore. My mom had started working nights and the only barrier between me and a parent who thought I was disappointing was gone. My bike was always there for me, though, always ready to go. I never had a dog growing up but I had my bike and that was something. I remember always trying to leave the house about 30 minutes before my dad got home and riding anywhere, everywhere. I always tried timing it so I got back just in time for dinner, but never any earlier. On school nights I rode to Geneseo, 15 miles each way, and home to Springfield Armory and “Geneseo Girls”, rumored to be sexually active at an early age. On weekends I rode to Galesburg, 40 miles each way, and the home of Carl Sandburg and the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate. I would put a couple of peanut butter sandwiches in a bag and tie them to my handlebars.
That night I was home when he got home. My mom was getting ready to go to work and my dad did his usual routine – took off his shoes, put down his lunch box and thermos, and poured three fingers of Almaden brandy in a glass, and downed it one go. He poured another three fingers into the glass and topped it with orange juice and headed for the shower. He would nurse this glass and one more just like it until dinner, after which he would fall asleep on the couch, the TV blaring. On the best nights he would be down and asleep before my mom left but this night he was still awake, drunk as shit, and it was just him and me. He asked about school and I felt the fear rising. I don’t remember my response, but no matter what I said, no matter what grades I got, in his mind I was always behind, failing. After ten minutes of being berated I had had enough of his opinion and told him so. He started yelling and I started screaming and he jerked up off the couch, the pink towel he always used as a blanket falling onto the floor. I ran.
I jumped on my bike and resolved to ride until I couldn’t anymore. I was still screaming, providing both sides of the argument with him as I flew up Cleveland Road. I was hating him and wishing my mom was there and hating myself for being such a disappointment when I noticed the faintest note from a trumpet rising. I stopped pedaling and it faded. I started up again and the note became a chord with a saxophone and french horn harmonizing. It was beautiful, this incredible chord ringing in my head. I assumed I was losing my mind. Schizophrenia was known in my family and I figured this must be how it started. As I rode around the old quarry, past the dog kennels, it kept building. More instruments joined as the chord changed and became a progression. Instruments began breaking away and following their own paths. The trumpet emerged with a melody I had never heard and the timpani kept it moving. It all ground to a halt as soon as I crossed the Hennepin Canal bridge and rolled into my driveway. It was 20 minutes after 10:00. I was lucky I hadn’t been stopped by the cops.
My dad was asleep in his bed when I got home. I sat in my room with the echoes of a symphony in my head; a symphony that I had created but wasn’t in control of. I was convinced that I was losing my mind, but something about the music was comforting. Like being crazy wouldn’t be that bad. I decided I liked this music and I would try to find it again.
I found it while riding to Hampton on Hubbard Road, past the golf course. I found it riding around Illiniwek Forest Preserve. Mountain bikes hadn’t been invented yet but I rode my Schwinn Collegiate five-speed up and down those trails, oblivious to anything but the music and the bald eagles that lived there. It became my sanctuary.
Just past the Newberry trailhead of Wildwood Trail is a house with a peace sign built of wood and decorated with Christmas lights. It’s a compass point. It appears and I know the top is coming, a half-mile or so. The climb is about 14% and when I’m feeling strong I stand on the pedals and blast up to the top as hard as I can go. The music quickly builds to a crescendo; a cacophony that drowns out the screaming from my legs and my lungs and builds and peaks and before I realize it I’m at the top, Skyline Blvd. The hill flattens, the music disappears.
When I’m feeling strong I turn left and ride Skyline all the way to Burnside and home. There are a couple of climbs but nothing serious enough to wake the orchestra. But I don’t always feel strong.
When I’m not feeling strong and the peace sign appears I usually stare at my front wheel. I can feel the symphony fading, my thoughts returning, and sometimes I find I’m back on Suicide Hill, raging at my drunk dad, wishing he was here.