3,000 Miles of Solitude
The streets are empty with the streetlights being the only company in the morning. Wet, damp fog provide the only relief in what is projected to be another scorching day when the sun comes up. I can’t see the crows screeching into the dawn, but I can hear them singing their song.
It’s July in central Illinois. I lace up my white bike cleats, marred with grease marks and mud and clip into my bike; providing a stark contrast to the hot-rod red paint job of my carbon fiber contraptions. Ever since moving by myself for the summer, this bike has been one of the few constants in my life. Looking at the watch, there are 3 hours before I have to head into the office—the day doesn’t start until 8 A.M. There is enough time for 60 miles on the bike. With no cars, I am the fastest on the road. I hope this is one of those days.
A month ago, I recently moved out to the city of Champaign, Illinois in June to start my internship with Ameren. From dawn to dusk, I work and bike, constantly in a perpetual state of movement. From dusk to dawn I lie on my mattress, listening to the revelers of the night, cracking beers and spilling laughs under the silver claw of the moon. Sometimes I wonder, why haven’t I been able to bring myself to go join them. I just can’t.
Something in me just can’t
Something in me just can’t
There’s something weird about being the only person out in the plains for 25 miles around. The silence is comforting, yet unnerving. Occasionally, the silence is punctured by the occasional ’neigh’ as I speed past their home. I want to be alone. At the same time, I don’t.
The next intersection comes up, left, right, or straight? The decision won’t matter in the end. The roads of Illinois are reminiscent of a mother’s quilt; made of consistent patches in a neat grid-like manner. Every intersection signifies another mile. In my head, I quickly work out the numbers, headwind, and final speed. Going 22 miles per hour, with a 7 mile headwind and I’ll be going still around 18 miles per hour.
These calculations are what come to mind when you are alone. This is what I learn about myself when I’m alone. This is what I think about when I am alone. These are my thoughts.
A car zooms past, taking me out of my daydreams to refocus on the road.
Biking is highly analogous to how we as humans spend our time with others. As I start my ride, it can be compared to childhood and college, constantly surrounded by people or the bustle of the city. The farther I go, the more the towns melt into desolate farmlands. Similarly to us, as we age, research has shown we spend less and less time with people. On a road of solitude and being the only human around, I am the fastest on the road.
Unclipping my bike, I get off to take another picture of a small town.
The paint-chipped sign reads Mansfield, IL; presumably from decades of weather and neglect. Why hasn’t anyone repaired the sign? Is it because of the neglect of authorities, or is it because of the soon-to-be fate of the town becoming a shell of its former glory. It’s hard to know exactly why this happens to so many towns in the Midwest. This is a too common sight the farther you go from a hub of a college town. The ascent of the car and the concept of a freeway quickly squashed these towns. Now, instead of slowly going through these towns whose livelihood depended on free-spirited motorists, freeways enabled faster than ever travel which usually meant avoiding these towns and going as straight as possible from A to B.
Back in the saddle, I have once yet again become free; feeling like a jet pilot whose controls are only a touch away. I never thought about biking with other people. 3,000 miles and surely at least 20 miles would have been ridden with other people. Surely there are cycling clubs on campus where the group rides into the sunset. Surely they would be accepting of a novice biker like me. However, the feelings are one-sided. I like being alone. I am efficient alone. I am the type to go into a grocery store with the layout in my mind, and coming out with exactly what I needed in 5 minutes.
During my freshman year of college, I joined the club cross-country team. After coming off from a high school cross-country season, I wanted to continue running throughout college. At that time, 17:28 became a meaningless number, a remnant from a high school 5k race. Running bibs and medals still adorn my bedroom wall, memories of a past so far away. Now, running has become a pastime, a way to escape the outside world and a chance to be enveloped in this blanket of security.
I still remember the first cross-country race I ran in 7th grade, a junior-varisty open race, in the trails of Western Pennsylvania. Standing on the start line in my all-too baggy checkerboard uniform, smiling at my parents with a goofy grin dotted by braces. The kid next to me crouching down, in a ready stance to take off at the sound of the starting pistol. Carefree as I ever am, I follow the pack; disappearing into the woods at the crack of the pistol.
I thought of all the sports lessons I’ve done as a child, most of which were done under the backdrop of the hot summer sun. These sports programs were a way to fill a what would be summer devoid of any interesting activities. From tennis to karate to soccer, none have really been a good fit for me. Try it once, then the next summer it’ll be a different sport. One day, these things just stopped; I never quite truely found my fit inside the world of sports. I couldn’t quite hit a ball off a racket, or shoot a basketball into a hoop. I never quite played well in team settings; either wanting to hog the ball to myself, or let other people take the work. However, I found out that I was good at moving my legs, as fast as I can, and as long as I can, in a world all by myself.
I then sometimes realized the solitude isn’t so bad.
A 3 A.M. bus ride to Chicago O’Hare Airport only to stand through security for an hour and then devouring a greasy Burrito Beach Miguel Burrito. Eggs, potatoes, guacamole, bacon, sausage, corn, and more come together to a greasy, juicy mess. Despite my daily attention to everything I consume, this burrito is the exception. Everything is done alone. Some small talk to my seat mate on the airplane as we get ready for takeoff, but the rest of the flight is spent in solitude. After we land, we talk about our destinations and then part ways at the terminal, the only remnant of our friendship is the ephemeral conversation. I have become alone yet again.
A bike ride heading east. The bone-chilling cold of the fog gives way as the warmth of the sun rises. Riding another mile, one in what feels like an infinity.
Being alone hasn’t bothered me, instead acting as a break from the social front that is put up during the day. On the next bike ride, I pass someone; black Trek, red helmet, and built like a college student. For a second I consider slowing and asking to join them. In one moment, he veers to the left and I go straight through the intersection.
And then he’s gone.