I met a man.
This man showed me a tree.
This man showed me its roots.
This man told me a tree relies on its roots.
This man told me a tree cannot live without its roots.
This man told me a tree is nothing without its roots.
This man told me a tree is all we see.
I rode out of Vancouver in the early afternoon, pedalling eastward with intent. Hope was my goal. The white-capped mountains loomed in the faint distance. Waiting. Even from afar, their presence inspires wonder and reverence.
Aside from the knowing that I would hit those mountains soon, little semblance of control arose within. Willfully ignorant. Woefully underprepared. I constructed my own version of control instead, an instinctual habit I’d become acutely aware of performing during these first days in the dark.
This particular form of control entailed two separate days of riding between Vancouver and Hope, to allow Sonja and me a little more time to become better acquainted. I was not racing to climb the first ascent. I was training one pedal-stroke at a time, feeling all branches of my body gradually adjust to the cyclist’s unnatural position. A familiar refrain resonated in my mind: The mountains cannot be conquered, but they can be experienced. A line I’d likely pillaged from a book in my previous life. Nevertheless, the words felt warm and comforting. Another grasp for control, I now know.
By early evening, I arrived in Mission, about sixty kilometres east of Vancouver. Dusk bloomed.
My legs groaned wearily, and my back ached. The mountains stole more of the sky, its slowly closing distance ominous to a fledgling cyclist.
No rush. We’re not going anywhere.
I felt the sudden burning of a quiet competitive spark, a natural rush, tempting my emotions. I felt compelled to keep pushing, to prove to myself that I was already in fine physical form, ready to race over the mountains now.
As I pedaled through Mission, mulling over my next choice, I leaned into more sensible instincts. Thankfully. My mind shook to remember I wasn’t embroiled in a race. This trip wasn’t timed; there was no competition outside my own mind. No need to revert to the tendencies of now. I sought only the finish line, hundreds of horizons away from mine.
I coasted. The mountains covered the entirety of the horizon’s edge. The extensive reaches of the city were well behind, and the wilderness felt more pronounced. Every sight in this moment seemed entirely new. Temptations to keep going echoed within. Alas, my legs groaned, my back ached.
For the night, Mission would do.
Staring at my brand-new tent, tied to the top of my rear rack, the steps required to set up my own accommodations – find a flat, quiet refuge from the highway, pitch my tent, transfer my sleeping bag and pad, and rest my untested bones on a cold and unforgiving ground – felt grossly unappealing. I felt the allure of a hot shower and a warm bed far too tantalizing to resist. In this chosen darkness, I was bushed. My next choice drove my mind to more familiar vibes.
Old habits are hard to shake.
In the most unmemorable fashion, I pulled out my phone, quickly found a motel in town, wheeled my life through its front doors, and paid for a room with my beloved piece of plastic. Rewards points included. Sweet, merciful convenience. Tucked in and lights out. Not before I indulged in a dose of room service and live sports on TV. Comforting. Easy. Light.
Can’t strive to leap every time. Often, the fumble feels strangely right. I didn’t think twice as I fell willingly into a king-sized slumber.
Sixty-five kilometers of steady rolling mark the gap between Mission and Hope. The aches of the days previous persisted. As my body continued to adapt to its new normal, my mind slowly familiarized, too. Slowly.
I had already arranged to rest with a family in Hope. My hosts were previously unknown in my world. Our connection was forged through the common orbit of a mutual friend.
Cycling down the streets of Hope, I was surrounded by mountains in every direction except the one I came from. A surprising kind of beautiful unknown dominated my foreground. Along with the mountains, my ignorance and high spirits shielded the distant challenges to come.
I rolled into the driveway of my hosts. Welcomed by the father, mother, and three young boys, I floated into an evening of unexpected, peaceful moments.
I felt an immediate bond. Truly, I did. Introductory conversations with the father reached to depths of meaning reserved typically for long-time friends. In my world, at least. My hosts lived in the open. I was bombarded with gentle interrogation. For the first time, my intentions for this trip were questioned by the world outside.
Why are you doing this?
With a spurt of unexamined honesty, I responded:
Well, because I want to.
Ouch. I burned within, a torrent of self-doubt thrashing my embarrassing answer.
Why am I doing this? We’ll work on that.
Following a dinner of communal nachos, I was invited to join an evening family hike. A nightly ritual for my hosts, it seemed.
We hiked through the forest behind the backyard of their cabin-style home. The family wandered the trails with a knowing ease. A branch of familiar in their world.
Eventually, I was guided to views of a quiet stream backgrounded by the bluest skies and my clearest scene yet of the mountains towering immediately beyond. I absorbed the scene in personal silence, slowly finding my steps along the rocky shore. As I admired my place in this moment, an innocuous cloud of whitish grey wisped through. The sunlight coloured a dancing rainbow into the passing cloud as it moved slowly across the sky. My eyes closely tracked its easygoing motion.
My hosts wandered along the low-flowing waters a short distance away, the boys stopping to skip stones. Just as I caught up, the boys disappeared with their father into the woods, playful banter and laughter drifting with them.
I felt the need to revel in this moment. Remain still. I felt entranced by these never-before-seen surroundings. Quietly, the mother appeared by my side, looking to the same beauty she’d seen all her life.
Do you ever grow tired of these mountains and views?
A confident sigh of peaceful resolve accompanied her simple, single-word response.
I’d been placed into a world far away from any mountainous terrain. My world was a world of flat farmlands, Great Lakes shorelines, and cityscapes. I’d been gifted, to be sure. Yet, I had not been placed in sight of the awe-inspiring, humbling presence of mountains. I struggled to figure out some kind of meaning out of this place. A measure of control. But, the feeling was still too fresh to dissect. A stumble in my darkness, I suppose.
The mother and I returned to the forest to continue our hike in the glowering dusk. We encountered the father and boys playing recklessly on a rope swing. Care-free.
Further along the trail, the father and I walked astride, my steps slightly behind to follow his guide. We both walked quiet, crunching the forest floor in rhythm with each step.
Then, abruptly, he strayed from the obvious route. I assumed to continue along the beaten trail, but the father called to follow his lead. He had stepped with intention, unveiling a greater meaning only a few steps out of the way.
I was led to an overturned tree with the whole of its roots exposed. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Fortunately, my host offered direction. He pointed to the exposed tree and began to speak. For a few breaths, I listened and observed.
…Look at this tree…
…This tree is nothing without its roots…
…Yet, the tree is all we see…
The meaning practically smacked me in the mouth and plucked the chords of my nerves. During the days and weeks to come, I would replay his offering over and over within. A freebie for the wandering child, yet to grow, cycling across Canada because he wanted to.
This trip began as a choice to journey along an unfamiliar path. Create my own experience. A new one. I sought challenge and something different. Something else. Nothing more, really. I didn’t truly understand what to look for. With the father’s words of wisdom, I had been gifted an opening. Purpose. Meaning. An unexpected light in my chosen darkness. I’d always sought to look up and around; I’d never thought to explore within and beneath.
As we walked the homestretch of the trail leading back to the family’s yard, I slowed my steps. My hosts moved ahead in near unison. Faint, expressive chatter emanated from every family member. But, I’d become stuck. Caught in the urge to find an answer, to figure something out here and now.
I could feel the pull of greater significance. Something else. I couldn’t yet grasp. For a moment, I was hooked into its tenuous grip. Digging deeper. Yearning for control in a place I’d never before explored.
Before I could completely close within, an eruption of laughter ahead drew me outward. The moment reemerged to shake my mind, pulling me into its embrace. No need to feel for answers. Not yet, at least.
I hurried my pace to rejoin my hosts and revel in the evening, feeling gratitude for the moments I’d been generously served.