When I was twenty-three, on vacation in New Zealand, I was thrown from a horse. Not thrown, actually. I fell off. Slid off. But it sounds better to say thrown. More badass and athletic.
We’d decided to go on a guided horseback ride, my sister and brother-in-law and I. Our other choice for the day’s activity was to swim with seals, but that was more expensive, or all booked up, I can’t remember. The horseback ride was pretty, the horses walking and trotting and cantering, just for a quick minute, on trails through low hills in countryside that looked a lot like the Pacific Northwestern United States, where I would move four months later, though I didn’t know it yet. Despite my general fear of horses, I had a good time.
At the end of the ride, the guide’s horse walked over to a field by the little hay barn where we’d started, and stopped. My sister’s horse did the same, and then Andy’s, with mine bringing up the rear. Only mine didn’t stop at the field like the other horses. He steered left, aiming for the pile of hay outside the barn. I was hungry after our long ride, so it made sense that the horse was too, given that he’d done all the work. I let him walk over to the hay pile, where I figured I’d dismount with the same grace the guide had dismounted from hers.
Only he didn’t stop. There was another horse over by the stable, eating her own hay, and my horse, due to a horse-crush or the desire to have the hay piles all to himself or I-don’t-know-what, ran at the other horse. A short chase ensued, the pursued horse bolting for the little hay barn, and my horse following at a gallop.
The hay barn was tiny, with room for perhaps one horse at a time. Not a horse chasing another horse with a person on top. The ceiling was low, and held together with steel beams as wide as the horse itself. Thwap my helmeted head went against the first metal beam. Thwap. Thwap. With each hit I slid a little further back on the horse, until I couldn’t hold onto the reins any longer, and I slid off the back of the horse at the same moment that we emerged from the hay barn, so that it was not soft hay that I landed on, but an unforgiving slab of dirt.
In other words, I broke my tailbone falling off a horse’s ass.
But the point of the story is not the falling. It’s what I did afterwards. Or rather, didn’t do. I didn’t get back on. It’s been nearly nineteen years, and I haven’t ridden a horse since. I don’t plan to ever again, even though my tailbone subsequently had a tumor wrapped around it, and was surgically removed, so it’s no longer there to break. I won’t ride again, even though it’s what you are supposed to do in life, get back on the horse.
I could put a lot of metaphorical weight on this decision, maybe linking it to the problem I’m having now, of getting back to my Thirty Days of Car-Free Existence. I was out of town for a week in October, and then daylight savings ended and it’s been apocalyptically rainy. I need to get back on the horse and leave my car at home more often. Finish what I started. Get those 30 days done before it gets darker, colder, rainier.
It’s hard. I don’t feel safe riding home in the dark with Helen in the bike trailer, and on the days that I pick her up from school I usually have Caleb with me anyway, so the bus is my only option in those scenarios. But, man, does bus commuting take a lot of time and planning. Not so much to get to and from preschool, but for places I go less often. On Halloween, for example, I was determined not to drive. I had to go to Caleb’s classroom Halloween party, then to a café to me a friend for a writing date. I’ll ride my bike I thought, but then I remembered what I needed to bring with me: a gallon-jug of water and a Tupperware full of cookies, made by another Mom, that the kids were planning to decorate. If I put the latter in my backpack and rode up the hill to school, I’d arrive with a Tupperware full of broken cookies. So, the bus. But in order to get to my writing date from Caleb’s school, a relatively straight shot and a distance of about 3 miles, I’d have to take two buses each way, and spend almost 2 hours in transit. So I drove.
It’s going to take me a long time to get to 30 days, and I feel like I’m failing in my goal. But am I? The point was, is, just to see how long it takes me, how much I have to rearrange my life to do it. Long, it turns out. A lot. But that’s okay. I’m learning a lot in the process. I’m thinking twice before I get in my car, and biking and busing places I never would have before. A couple of weekends ago, we had our first car-free out of town trip. We took the train to Portland, and stayed at a downtown hotel. Portland deserves its reputation as a great city for public transportation, and we had a fun time busing and light-railing around town. One of my favorite parts of the trip, though, was the time when we missed the bus coming back to the hotel from the science museum. Rather than wait fifteen minutes on a bridge in the dark and the rain, we decided to walk a little ways to another stop. Caleb and I pretended we were Mallards, and spoke to each other in duck language. Helen sang as she rode on Wiley’s shoulders. We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, putting on our pjs, ordering room service and watching “hotel television,” aka “Dora the Explorer.” The kids loved the train, and for Wiley and I it was much more relaxing than driving the traffic-filled stretch of I-5.
But back to my fall. The truth is, I get back on the horse all the time. I’ve had a lot of rocks fall in my path over the years. Everyone has. Though it might slow us down or divert our path, we always keep going. I’m still leaving my car at home some days. Just not as frequently as I expected.
One of my goals in doing this was to overcome some of my bike riding fears, something I haven’t entirely been able to do despite the fact that I’ve done 4 triathlons. Now I’ve started training for a 5th, and I think the bike commuting I’ve done in the past couple of months has helped me feel more comfortable biking around town. I’m still not One with my bike in the way that some of my triathlon teammates are. To achieve the kind of bike-bond they have, I think I’m going to have to do something I never thought I’d have to do: Think of my bike like a horse. That’s what I’ll bet my friends who are more into cycling than I am do. They are similar: My bike is trusty, and gets me places in a fashionable (minus the helmet hair) manner. I’ve grown to have affection for my bike, and I think it would help me motivate through another winter training season to think of it as animate, needing exercise as much as I do, enjoying getting out in the fresh air. I don’t imagine I’ll talk to my bike while I ride. But I think, to get myself in the mood, I need to give my bike a name.
Diamond is the name of a horse I once rode. Not the one in New Zealand – I don’t remember that horse’s name, and naming my bike after THAT horse seems like bad karma. Diamond was the horse I rode for a week in the summer of 1981. I was ten, and my family stayed at a dude ranch in Colorado with our friends-who-were-like-cousins, the Wieses. Janislee, the mom in the family, had chosen the ranch for its beautiful setting, not knowing that it was a Christian ranch, and that we would be the only two families who didn’t attend the nightly prayer service. She was right, it was beautiful, my first time in a state I would later choose to attend college in, where I would meet Wiley. I guess my fate was sealed that week I spent sitting on Diamond’s back on our daily rides. My birthstone is a diamond. My bike is grey and sleek. The name seems to fit.
I’ll be taking Diamond out on a lot of rides over the next few months, on the street and on the bike trail, on group rides and, more often, on my own. Just me and Diamond and the open road. It will be windy. It will be wet. We might get a flat or two. We might fall. But we will get back up. We’ll keep on riding.