The faint hint of sulfur was unable to overpower the smell of the grisly roadside barbecue. Malone stared past his nose at the struck match, his cupped hand protecting the harmless flame as it caressed the end of his cigar. When did his hands get to be so wrinkled? The deep shadows jumped back and forth in his palm, chased by the flame’s flicker and the pulse of red and blue light from the top of his squad car. Cigar lit, Malone tossed the charred match stick. He drew in deeply and leaned back on the hood of his car.
In his hoarse voice, “You alright back there, Greene?”
From behind the car, “Yeah, just give me a minute.”
“No rush, Greene,” Malone called back. He crossed his ankles and puffed on his cigar. “We’ve got a wait ahead of us anyway.”
That’s how it always was when Malone responded to these kinds of calls. It always seemed to happen about dusk, when the light started to fail. It was always so damned far from the office too–took almost 30 minutes to drive to this one. These calls kept Malone on the clock, kept him from getting home in time for supper. Probably for the best though. An empty stomach on these occasions was better than the pain Greene was suffering through.
Greene leaned against the hood next to Malone. “Sorry Sarge. I’m good now.”
“Yeah?” Malone eyed Greene, his newest deputy, barely 2 months on the job. Even in the faint light Greene looked pale. He still had a bit of saliva on his chin too. “Well, good. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to this kind of thing.”
Green swallowed loudly, his mouth still salivating. “Why?”
What the hell kind of question was that? “Well, Greene, when you’re repeatedly exposed to something unsettling, you just…you develop a kind of resistance to it.” Malone looked back down the bank of the road.
“No, I get that Sarge.” Greene leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to focus on his breathing. “What I don’t get is why this happens often enough for me to get used to it. This is the third wreck along this road in the last 6 weeks alone.”
Malone pulled deeply on his cigar, the ashy end illuminated to a blood red, matching the sun as it fell over the western range of mountains. The expansive valley was in full shadow now. Malone stood and faced Greene, looked him up and down. His shirt was pressed so nicely, the creases visible even now, at the end of a long day. His brass badge caught the orange flickering behind Malone, its surface still polished to a sheen. Malone’s own badge had started to dull. His own uniform carried yesterday’s wrinkles.
“Well, Greene,” Malone plucked the cigar from his mouth and let his arm fall to his side, “what would you suggest?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Greene looked down at the insects hovering around his knees, bathed in the beam of the car’s headlight. “Maybe lower the speed limit?”
“Hmmm. Lower the speed limit, huh?” Malone brought the cigar back to his mouth.
“This road sir, I know there are a lot of straight stretches, but there are curves too, just like this one we’re parked on. I think they just sneak up on people and,” his eyes drifted down to the twisted remains of a car frame, barely recognizable, “well, you know what happens then.”
Malone forcefully exhaled, pursing his lips and directing the smoke at the mosquito that had been hovering in front of his face. “What’s the speed limit on this road, Greene?”
“And how fast do you reckon that car was going?” He reached his arm backward to the smoldering remains, his cigar held between his pointer and ring fingers.
From Greene’s perspective against the squad car hood, the smoldering end of the cigar was right below the wrecked car. “Maybe 70, 75.” It looked as though the Sarge was using his cigar to set the car alight.
“Right. What do you think that driver felt?” Malone’s pulse quickened.
With a raised voice, “What he felt, Greene, physically.” A few beads of sweat formed on Malone’s brow. “If that would’ve been you in the car, what would your last moments on Earth have been like?”
“I’m not sure, sir.” Greene eyed the carnage just below the level of the road. The car was totaled. Frame distorted, panels missing, glass shattered. The spilled gasoline still fueled what was left of the flames. “I don’t imagine they would be much of anything.”
“Exactly, Greene. At those speeds, you’re damn near guaranteed a quick death.” Malone turned back to look at the remains of the car and its driver, still inside. “He didn’t have to deal with any of this disaster. His time spent suffering was limited. He was dispatched quickly.” Another deep draw. Malone, eyeing the aftermath lowered his voice. “Probably at the pearly gates right now.”
Malone looked back at Greene. The saliva still clung to his chin; now moisture appeared at the corners of his eyes too. “There are always going to be wrecks on this road, Greene, awful ones. Like you said, the turns sneak up on people. If we lower the speed limit though, we risk people dying slow. You know how long it took to get here. Do you really think we can do anything for them?”
Coming down the road was another set of headlights, large, mounted high. Either the fire department or the wrecker. Almost time to get to work. Greene spoke again. “No sir. Our response times are too slow.”
“Exactly, Greene. The high speed limit nearly guarantees a quick death.” Malone could hear the engine now; almost here. “If anyone could guarantee my death would be as quick as these poor souls, I wouldn’t question it.” The fire engine pulled past the squad car and against the side of the road. The exasperated hiss of the air brakes was the call to action, but no one inside the engine made an immediate appearance. They weren’t in any hurry.
Greene stood. “I understand, sir.”
“Good.” Malone dropped his cigar butt onto the asphalt as a few men stepped out of the fire engine. He stamped on it and rotated his foot to smear the ashes across the road. He ran his hand down his cheek and across his chin, the prickle of his facial hair a reminder of the late hour. “Now let’s get to work.”
One. That’s all you get. Just one.
The realization was terrifying; but a second look made it liberating.
There’s something unique about riding a bike. Just over a year ago, I began to train for a long distance mountain bike ride. I spent a lot of time on my bike the next few months. Lots of time–enough to think, reflect on my experiences, dwell on life. That’s when it happened. I realized I only had one and that I was already in its midst.
He wrote that there really is no past, that there really is no future.
How do we experience the past? We look to history books, documentaries, movies; stories from our parents, grandparents, and tribal elders; and most importantly, we have memories. Our own memories remain our most potent source of knowledge about the past because they were based on direct experience. But all of these are things we experience in the present. We don’t read or watch movies in the past – we read and watch in the present. We don’t hear stories in the past – they are told to us in the present. And our memories, they fit the bill too – memory recall occurs in the present moment.
What about the future? You might say, “Well I’ve been planning to do this and do that. Those are in the future.” Well, no; they’re not. Those are called plans. Plans are nothing more than intentions, nothing more than a visualized action. Any guesses as to when exactly we formulate those intentions, those visualizations?
It was late May and my trip was just a couple of weeks away. I was out on one of my last major rides before I left and I wanted to see just how far I could go. It had been a hot day and the trail I rode cut through pines before it entered an arid, un-vegetated landscape.
I rode to the far terminus of the trail before I turned around and started back. I was just a few hundred yards from my car, the other terminus, when my odometer passed the 90 mile mark. That was the furthest I had ever ridden in a single day. I was satisfied to say the least, but I was so close to riding my first century.
Gnats danced in the grass where I sat, just out of eyeshot from the parking lot where my car sat. I snacked while considering my options. I was already exhausted and the day was getting late. If I rode to my car and went home, it would have been a successful day. But 100 miles…it was a milestone just 10 more away.
I remembered that this was my only moment. No past, no future, just this present moment, the only moment to define myself. I finished my snack, jumped back on the bike, and rode away from my car. One hour and ten miles later I loaded my bike and crawled into my car, sore, exhausted, but with my first 100+ mile ride under my belt. I looked at myself in the visor mirror. Salt caked my temples and cheeks and dirt was smeared across my forehead where I had wiped away the sweat; in the middle of it all, a wide, satisfied smile.
Do you follow the red line? Do you trace its every angle and hug to each meander? Do you even know which line I’m talking about?
If you’re lost, don’t count yourself alone. I too was ignorant of the red line until recently. To demonstrate, let’s travel through time, back 2 years to when I was a college senior 3 months from graduation. I was passionate about science and would receive a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science. Biology, huh? That should land me a decent paying job right out of college, right?
Frankly, I don’t know. I haven’t even put that degree to use. Two years ago, I began an introspective journey, a very critical evaluation of myself and my values. This culminated in a bike ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the longest mountain bike route in the world. Now I spend my days writing, trying to capture that experience and the lessons it taught me.
One lesson I learned: the red line doesn’t own you, so go your own way.
The GDMBR traversed 2700 miles of country roads, forest service roads, single track, and quad track from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. To guide me, I had a set of 7 maps. Each side of each map was bisected by the “red line,” the route, the path that I was supposed to follow if I was going to claim that I had completed the longest mountain bike route in the world. Hell of a resume entry, right? I suppose it was pretty important to stick to that red line then.
This wasn’t the case though. The map makers couldn’t know what I would be experiencing as I rode, what I would value, what I would hope to gain from the route. The further I rode, the less value I assigned to the red line–I didn’t let the red line dominate my life. On the 40th night of my backcountry-bicycle journey, my last night before finishing, this was the advice I passed on to a pair of cyclists that had just begun their own ride along the GDMBR. It seemed natural to me, even obvious: “Don’t let the red line dominate you.”
I still needed to apply this to the big picture of my life though. When I graduated from high school, I had aspirations to be a writer. I threw those under the bus though when I left for college. I enjoyed science and there was a career to be made in such promising fields as chemistry and biology. Better go that direction, right?
Now, almost two years a post-grad, I can tell you that if it were not for some life-shaking events, I would still be on that path–I would still be following the red line, the line drawn by someone else in a way they saw fit. I would probably be in some stuffy lab in a graduate program where thinking is confined to measurable observations, statistics, and line graphs. I would probably be building my credentials in anticipation of arriving at the red line’s next destination.
This isn’t to say that this particular path, this particular set of life choices is wrong. In fact, I hope to return to graduate school, albeit, to study something different from my Ecology/Wildlife education, something I’m more passionate about. But what I am trying to say is, don’t follow any red line, purple line, pink line, green line, black line. Don’t live up to the expectations set for you by someone else. Live up to your own expectations and go where your passions might lead you–leave behind a line that is its very own shade of you.