I got out of the car into the cool Montana air and took a deep breath. I held my breath for a few seconds before slowly exhaling, my breath becoming a soft white cloud that quickly faded. A bright splash of red and orange parted the mountains and sky before me; the night gives way to the new day.
Shaking a bit, I zipped my jacket up to my chin and began unloading my bike. The morning sun seemed to bounce off the black metal frame. My partner and I exchanged a few words while checking our tires, adjusting our shoes, fastening our helmets and putting on our gloves. When we were ready to go, I swung one leg over my bike and wedged my foot into the pedal, gently twisting back and forth to make sure it was tight and secure, then pushed forward with my other foot beforehand I snapped. I stood up and got out of the saddle, leaning forward as I pedaled. We started our journey.
From behind dark sunglasses, I focused on the road ahead, occasionally glancing up to give a slight nod or wave to other cyclists who were also out on the hazy, blue-gray morning. The sixteen-mile climb of Glacier Park’s Going to the Sun Road curved and stretched like a ribbon before us. No wind moved the tall pines and wild grasses that strewn the valley below; the slopes and hills looked like petrified waves in the still stillness. “I can do this,” I thought to myself. “Forward. Push through.”
Shadows spilled like murky water across the flat road, crashing into the trees and rocks that lined our path. Ragged clouds stretched long and thin across the sky, white ropes in the pale blue sky. The steady whirring of gears sounded like a swarm of bees until the road steepened and the whirring became clicking sounds as we both shifted to lower gears and began the climb.
In my other life, the time I call “before,” I couldn’t drive ten miles or drive up a small hill. I did not have to. I was where I wanted to be. But when almost everything I thought was strong and reliable collapsed around me and dissolved into piles of ash and dust, I knew I had to find a way to move forward. Push through. Or crumble.
I got on my bike. I thrust into the sadness, into the loneliness, into the anger. into the wind. Tears ran down my face, blurring my vision as I rode. My legs would ache and my heart would pound. But I pushed. And then one day the hills just became part of the journey and put distance between me and the pain. I pushed hard I pushed forward. I have prevailed. It wasn’t long before the tears stopped and I started singing.
There were few barriers along the Going to the Sun Road. Rugged, steep drops were to my right with small patches of glittering snow scattered between the trees. The air began to warm as the sun found its way to the center of the sky. The climb got steeper and steeper and with every pedal stroke I felt like electricity was coursing through my legs. To ease the pain in my back, I stood up on my bike, muscles tingling. My heart started pounding even harder when I heard other cyclists yelling about a grizzly bear sighting, but I kept my eyes on the road. I pushed forward.
Looking up, I saw the endless Montana sky above me, arching like a shelter; the warming air seemed to wrap around me like a blanket. As I continued my ascent, a lone red hawk soared over the valley, rising and drifting on the breeze, its high-pitched cry breaking the stillness. “That’s his song,” I thought, smiling.
I weaved my way around curves, in and out into the shadows of the mountains, through cool waterfall mists; sometimes slowly, sometimes weaving, but always forward. As the road leveled out, I could hear the ticking of gears shifting and locking as I and the other cyclists shifted. I looked up and saw the snowy peak in front of me.
The dictionary defines “ascension” as a movement from a lower to a higher state; an ascending movement, an ascension. When I reached the top of the Going to the Sun Road, I knew I had climbed from a lower place to a higher place. I had gone forward and through. I slowly rode to the edge of the cliff, released my pedals, got off my bike, took off my helmet and looked at the bright yellow and purple wildflowers growing among the rocks and patches of snow. The air was clear and cold. I felt like I should bow my head in thanks, but all I could do was look over the mountains, slowly turn around, and listen to the wind.
A prayer of thanksgiving is not always full of words. Sometimes it’s the silence that speaks the loudest.
There were no tears to dry as I rode down the mountain.
You can reach Sheryl Kennedy at [email protected]