The morning hours were fresh and sunlit. I was moving through a rhythm of sleepy highway trails marked by prolonged stretches of wilderness and the occasional small towns. Comfortable in my old running shoes. Somewhere in between the Okanagan Valley and the next mountain pass.
My body felt energized and strong, adapting impressively to my daily routines. Muscles were reacting and finding their value for the rides ahead. My bones and joints steadying to the extended repetitions of pedaling down, never pulling up and around. No more lingering aches or soreness. A newfound normal in my world. With each day, this journey felt more familiar. Light.
Must have been midday. I was cruising into a town populated by the telltale signs of a long existence peppered with little change. Closely resembled my faraway childhood town. No stoplights. About five minutes of riding between opposite sides.
I wheeled along the quiet main road, bothered only by my own increasingly wandering mind. I already felt less burdened by the physical tolls of touring, no longer occupied solely by surviving the cycling grind. Thoughts flowed through every waking moment on the bike; a truth I was beginning to realize.
With a sudden desire for food and respite from the road, I turned left onto a side street, a place where only the locals might feel compelled to go. I felt hungry, and my body was craving for a position off the tiny perch of Sonja’s black seat. Down on the nearest corner, I spotted a wooden bench in front of a modest church, generations old. No reservations required here. I’d found my lunchtime resting place.
With Sonja leaning against the bench’s backside, I sat facing the street, staring blankly. Stillness painted the scene. Only Sonja and me in this world. The bench was comforting, and the sun shone, its warmth a slight shock in the moment, a reminder of the illustrious quiet all around.
I did not know where I was, and I had no idea where I was going to finish my day. Keep riding. Just go where I go. More mountains await. I felt content in that moment. Strong. Buoyed by my ever-growing distance from the ocean and my struggles over Allison Pass. Trail mix and a softened red apple served as this stop’s feast.
My mind calmed with the momentary rest and sustenance. In this moment, all felt right.
Slowly, though, the scene changed.
The prevailing quiet was cast out. In its place, the pervading sound of bagpipes echoed my way. As the noise grew louder, I remained still. Grasping onto my peace in this place.
Mindlessly, I continued to fish into the trail mix every few seconds. Minutes earlier, my crunching bites of dried fruits and nuts and chocolate chips might have been the only noise on the entire side of town. Steadily, the bagpipes drifted noticeably closer, joined by a chorus of low-revving vehicles. The cavalcade seemed to be parading along main street.
I kept crunching. Determined to retain this feeling of contentment. But, I could no longer resist. I felt drawn to the sudden overflow of traffic in this sleepy town. Pulled to the noise as it herded into view.
Several cars and trucks crawled along the side street, locals passing by the lone cyclist filling their typically empty bench in front of the old church.
What am I missing here?
Though jarring enough to care, I wasn’t quite so allured to wait for the answer.
Three more bites, and I’m gone.
With my final handfuls, an elderly woman entered my periphery, walking down the same street as the cavalcade, approaching the corner on which I was sitting. She glanced my way and turned to my direction. As she neared, we exchanged small-town pleasantries. I asked of the unusual traffic to cure my curiosity.
We just had a funeral.
Almost everyone in town went. He was from here, and he died here.
I felt satisfied with the answer. Curiosity quenched. I could move on. I stood to pack my snacks and prep Sonja for the road. As I moved, though, the old lady sat down on the bench and continued speaking:
We were friends for a long time. A long time. He loved this town. Everyone loved him. He was eighty-eight years when he passed. Things have changed so much since we were young.
I finished packing, leaning against Sonja, standing behind her as she vented on:
This town was different, you know. People used to take care of each other. We used to spend our time outside. Now, it’s so quiet. Everyone stays inside. Nobody knows nobody. He was one of the only ones left that brought people together. Now he’s gone.
I fear what’s gonna happen.
I put on my helmet. Part of me was in a hurry to leave. Another part was intrigued. She wasn’t yet done:
Everything changes everywhere else. I hope they don’t change this place, too. Nothing would be the same. More houses, more people, more cars, more noise.
I hope they don’t ruin this town with… progress.
Progress. The old lady’s voice scratched and clawed at the weight of her final word. With a heavy sigh, she invited the stillness to return. I stood beside her, frozen. Too puzzled to move.
A few unsettling seconds later, the old lady stood up. She wished me well, wherever I was going, and continued her walk. She didn’t ask one question. Never pried into my reason for sitting there, a bike-riding stranger occupying a side-street bench in her lifelong town.
I remained caught in the quiet. A visibly baffled statue. I gripped the handlebars of Sonja in my hands tightly, a dazed look in the old lady’s direction as she sauntered away. A strange moment. I felt so small. Scarcely an afterthought.
When I finally snapped into the next moment, I shook my head and moved toward the street.
I was uncertain of my place in her day, and her place in mine. I’d been floored by some kind of meaning from another open stranger. Progress. Our interaction would ripple through my mind for the next extended stretch of my ride.
Never had I ever heard progress uttered with such clear disdain. The memory of the elderly woman from the nameless town in between mountains burrowed. Progress. I wrestled with the idea, fighting the urge to forget her heavy blow to my previously weightless day.
What’s wrong with progress? I’d never thought to question its virtues. I’d never meditated on its prominence in my world. Between her town and the next, I grappled with the concept.
What was her angle? Is this a generational divide?
An old woman tethered to old ways? A small-town lifer’s view?
A yearning for a simpler familiar? What did she mean?
What am I missing?
As I pedaled to the next town, I felt a conscious pull to the previous one. I kept returning to that lonely bench with the old woman. I couldn’t move my mind beyond. She didn’t ask a single question. I didn’t feel centered. I’d been shifted by her brief passing-by. I’d become distracted from my own meagre ride. Drawn to a larger scene. To a small, nameless town in between mountain passes.
Progress. The word began to scratch and claw in my mind, and I was turning on the term, too.
I felt the meaning immediately take root, but decisively lost on how to harness it. My sense of contentment was gone. Pushed away. The ensuing turns and climbs were experienced and forgotten. An unfamiliar awareness and mindful expanse filled the empty space instead.
Somewhere beyond the nameless town, I stopped along the shoulder of the highway. My mind rolled furiously on. Progress. I felt a surge of unfamiliar sparks within, every thought connecting square on the barrel. My thumbs darted around the keyboard of my phone to record the sudden eruption. For the rest of the day, I repeated this cycle several times. Riding and thinking and stopping and writing. I wouldn’t share these words for years thereafter, but they felt right from the first words. In the moment, I realized these thoughts might seem obvious to other minds. Yet, I felt lifted; I’d arrived at the roots by my own strides.
Sure, progress is a foundational assumption – an obsession – of our kind. The concept is ingrained into my worldview, for certain. Pervasive may be a more apt description.
Within the burning edges of every present moment, the threads of every complexity our kind has ever contributed exists. From fires to iPhones. From runners to space-travellers. From foragers to GMOs. From communities to empires. From family to worldwide. A foundational theme of our story, no doubt. The same holds true for our individual lives. We complicate, inventively and needlessly and persistently. All for progress.
Life on a line.
In many ways, my worldview is a line. Always tracking, comparing, and competing. Either I’m moving up or down. Forwards or falling behind. Winning or losing. Succeeding or failing. With others and within myself. With every past and every future. Always striving to sustain or rise.
As we innovate, we complicate. With every connection and creation. With every idea, concept, and intuition. For better and worse. Within and all around. Life on a line.
I didn’t care if the words made collective sense. This felt a victory, a breakthrough. I could feel myself connecting to new questions and thoughts; a glimmering, growing speck, darting his thumbs around a touchscreen, finally beginning to wander along these roads with a greater sense of purpose and meaning.