Photo by Dr. Julie Miley Schlegel
Back in college, I spent a summer waitressing in Lake City, Colorado, with my younger sister and our friend. While we were there, our supervisor suggested various adventures: climbing a fourteener, going whitewater rafting, and riding our bikes through the mountains to the next town.
If someone suggested today I ride my bike that far through the mountains, I would think and plan for days, and then politely decline. But back then, we simply met at the bakery at sunrise with our bikes (purchased at Wal-Mart with $150 of waitressing money), some water and a packed lunch, and off we went.
We wore dangerously cheap helmets, which was all the safety gear we had. We bought fanny packs for our sandwiches and water. In 1995, we didn’t have cell phones to call for help if needed. But notably, I had no fear of the trip, no thought that anything could go wrong, no doubt in my ability to ride through the mountains. We just rode.
Now that I am older and manage my own anxiety with facts and control, I can tell you that this bicycle ride from Lake City to Gunnison is 54.8 miles, or 67 minutes by car. I can tell you that we would travel on highway 149, a two-lane highway without a shoulder, from an elevation of 8,661 feet to an elevation of 7,700 feet. We would climb a total of 7.1 miles and descend a total of 14.1 miles.
If I were making that trip now, I would know how many calories and how much water I’d need to make the trip. I would probably have a bike repair kit, too. I’d have a special helmet, probably some Wet Ones, hand sanitizer, and a first aid kit. Also, an overnight bag in case we somehow got stranded.
That summer, my parents came to Lake City for a two-week vacation. My dad is much like me, and I’m pretty sure he knew the mileage, the elevation, and everything that could go wrong with amateur bikers on this ride. I’m sure that my mom worried about the passing cars, the possibility of a bicycle crash going at experience-level-inappropriate speeds down the mountains.
Now that I’m a parent, I find it notable that neither of my parents tried to stop my 18-year-old sister and me from making this trip. At most, they said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” They probably scoffed and shook their heads at us back at their cabin. But importantly, they never told us not to try.
My parents did drive the same road that day, but the only time we saw them was when a mountain storm passed through about 30 miles into the ride. We had pulled over for our sandwich break and were eating under a large spruce tree. All but one of us took shelter in their parked vehicle to eat our lunches, but when the rain passed, my parents drove off and let us continue our ride.
If they were tailing us, I never knew it. As far as I knew, it was my sister, my friend, my boss, and a guy named Russ who were riding with me. (And thank God for Russ, who knew how to put my bicycle chain back on when it broke around Powderhorn, the worst part of the ride).
If you’ve ever driven on CO-149, you know that for much of the ride, there are sharp curves and shortened visibility. Somehow, we didn’t get hit by a car. Somehow, we didn’t crash. Somehow, we made it.
My memory is that it took us 8 hours to ride that day. Someone met us in Gunnison, where we ate steaks and caught a ride back to Lake City. I remember we could barely walk the following day when we woke up for our restaurant shifts. We were so sore.
Now that I’m the parent who has sent my own daughter off to college for her own adventures, I need to remember this road and the lessons I learned on the trip my parents didn’t stop me from taking.
There were times we could only go from one “white dot,” or reflective marker, to the next without needing a break, but we focused on one white dot at a time. Sometimes a long-term goal seems insurmountable until it’s broken up into shorter goalposts.
There were times I had to get off and walk my bike for 15 minutes or so, just to give my legs a break, but I knew to keep moving forward. One step forward is one step forward, no matter how slow or small it is.
I can remember my sister, more athletic than I, circling back to check on me, making sure I was still OK. Know your people and look out for each other. Check on the ones you love, and lend encouragement when you can.
Most importantly, there was never a thought in our minds that we wouldn’t make it. We didn’t have a plan B. We just took our tip money to Wal-Mart, bought a bike, and made it happen. Sometimes you just have to jump in.
What happened to me between my 20s and my 40s, that I started counting fears and what-ifs instead of just getting on the bike to ride? Is it the development of a full frontal lobe? Is it a lifetime of seeing bad things happen to good people? Was it my medical school trauma surgery rotation?
This week, 27 years after my infamous bike ride, my own family and I drove this same road to go whitewater rafting on the Taylor River. Each time I drive CO-149, I tell my kids the story of the bike ride and they roll their young, carefree eyes.
As the parent, I now see the road like my parents did back in 1995 and I notice the danger signs and the very small shoulder without room for a biker. I see “falling rocks” and “watch for elk” and “steep incline,” but my kids don’t see all that. They just see the road to the rafting trip.
As my kids get older, I hope I will remember that my parents didn’t stop us from taking this ride, despite all that could go wrong. I hope I’ll be able to keep my mouth shut and my mind open, trusting them to choose their own adventures, whatever road they are on. May they never have a thought, no matter their dreams, that they won’t make it.