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Changing My Palette

 

Denison, IA

 

July 19, 2013

 

“The headwind will kill you,” he noted after he and his wife had extended the offer to allow me to use their back yard as a campground. “If you find yourself needing to pedal while going down hill, your soul dies just a little.”

 

A few hours earlier, they had passed me on the road between my photo shoot in Vail at St. Ann’s Catholic Church and Denison, honking and waving.

 

As a bicyclist, it is never easy to distinguish the difference between a friendly “Hey, we support what you are doing, good job” wave and a “Get off the road you are blocking traffic” honk and wave. I must confess, though I smile and wave in return, deep down inside, the cynic in me is muttering, assuming the worst regarding the gesture.

 

How often do we do that in life, assume the worst about people’s motives?

 

“I wish u would reconsider the bike trip. Its dangerous out there. Please let safety rule over adventure,” [sic] my ex’s wife texted me a few days before I left Chicago.

 

This had been the first time she had ever spoken to me since she and my husband had begun their affair eleven years ago, and the communication was not welcome.

 

After a quick exchange of hostile barbs in which I reminded her that she was driving my car and living in my house, I steeled my resolve to embark on my trip.

 

My grown daughter—who had been particularly stung by the affair since the woman who brought her life as she knew it during senior year in high school to a crashing end had spent years nurturing a “friendship” with her as actively as she had pursued my husband—laughed when I told her of the messages, adding, “She doesn’t know you well, does she? Now you HAVE to do it!”

 

After two cold, lonely winters in Chicago, riding the El in and out of the Loop three times a week on the notoriously unfriendly Red Line, the cynic in me had bordered more on bitterness.

 

Suits (male and female) assumed a physical closeness  with the homeless, the type of physical proximity I shy away from even in intimate situations. Yet they all refused to acknowledge one another as human beings, losing themselves in their 1 ½ x 3” mobile devices or their own bitterness.

 

Every time I would ride, rather than losing myself in my own device, I lost myself in the alienating devices of humanity, comparing the commute with its physical closeness to the “hook-up culture” that too often haunts the city-dweller’s interaction with their sexual partners: “I will touch you, use you, but don’t ever expect me to talk to you afterward…”

 

Yesterday evening, I had for the umpteenth time relied on Google for directions, looking forward to what promised to be my first genuine “camping out” experience since beginning my trip.

 

Rather than being a Google designated wildlife sanctuary or state park, the icon for this park-like green grid on my GPS had the universal symbol for camping, a small triangle.

 

I was elated since my motivation for the trip had been a return to nature to wash my aesthetic palette of the smog and grime of the concrete jungle, a full immersion into the baptism of nature.

 

After my failure to hit Ledges State Park because they had no potable water and I had been led astray by promises of blacktop back roads, I had stopped at a convenience store on the west side of Denison to fill the thermos water jug one of the Good Samaritans had given me near Tama.

 

I had learned my lesson, one that, alas, follows the theme of “expect the worst.” I wanted to be well prepared, just in case…

 

“Are there any paved back roads to Sunset Village?” I asked the store clerk.

 

Her look of skepticism puzzled me, and her single response, “Why?” caught me off guard.

 

I explained my quest, concluding, “I am camping there tonight.”

 

She quickly informed me the area was less than desirable, and suggested I circle back around to the campground I had passed four miles ago.

 

I left the store disappointed, but since I had to circle back into town to pick up dog food, I headed in the general direction of the campground.

 

As I struggled to push the trailer up a steep hill and manage my dog’s leash at the same time, the grounds person I had met at Vail pulled along side me, and after explaining why I looked a bit more haggard than I had during the heat of the day, he pointed to the crest of the hill I was climbing and noted, “I have seen people camp on the courthouse lawn. I would suggest that over Sunset Village. It is safer.”

 

I trudged up the remainder of the hill, secured my dog to the trailer, and sat on the curb, frustrated once again by Iowa’s idea of “roughing it.”

 

Just before sunset, they rode up on their reclining bicycles, noting they were the ones who had waved at me along the highway earlier in the day. I explained my plight, and, without much hesitation on either of our parts, asked me to follow them.

 

Yes, it may be “dangerous out there,” but I have found within each human heart lurks the biggest danger: ascent into cold misanthropy.   

 

A shower, two glasses of water, an air mattress, breakfast and a two hour session of small talk about dogs, politics and bikes later, I was relieved and grateful to have found yet another reason to wash away the gray palette of bitterness that had colored my world.

 

 

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