Anticipating the Trek

By Jory Squibb | Jul 09, 2010
Courtesy of: Anita Brosius-Scott Scene from 2010 Trek Across Maine.

The following is a commentary by Jory Squibb of Camden, who took part in the 26th annual Trek Across Maine June 18-20, a 185-mile bicycle ride from Bethel to Belfast.

"I consider every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance." — Samuel Johnson

Admittedly, Johnson was a real extrovert. He needed others to sharpen his wit, stoke his thinking, and engage his rapartee. And in the English upper class of his era, socializing was often the centerpiece of each day.

Yet that quote, that deep curiosity about people, catches what I look forward to the Trek Across Maine. It's a three day hot-tub with 2,000 people, and this year, the weather prediction is sunny and in the 80s. The ride itself seems routine in anticipation. It won't be routine, but it is definitely known, and much of it is on busy roads.

No, the nuts and bolts of the Trek don't fire me up. But imagine this: 2,000 people who have chosen the same activity. They love bicycling. They, almost all of them, have some commitment to clean air. Most are in the so-called prime of life. The Trek offers lots of free time. You're free every day about 1 p.m. There are endless social contexts: self-serve meals, evening activities, camping in close quarters, swimming in college pools, and two or three intense rest stops during each day's ride. Samuel Johnson would thrive.

That's the central theme of my anticipation. That's the grounding I will need, to make this the best, to make it worthy of my time and training: People to get to know, stories to hear, bike talk to talk. There's a kind of zen to the situation: hang back or jump right in.

You could say, heck with the rest stops, those muddy, wait-in-line, shout-to-be heard, food-and-drink-stuffing encampments in fields along the route, usually every 20 miles. I'm going to make my own rest stops in private little glades. I'm going to read my books in the free time and take walks in the evenings. I'll tone this intense thing down. Well, I can see that. There's nothing wrong with that.

But it's not why I'm coming. No, I'm with Samuel. It's how I'm wired these days. The hour-glass of this lifetime is drizzling down. There's still so much to experience and to learn. I can't afford to choose the known over the unknown.

The start

7 a.m. Friday. Outside the South Lodge of Sunday River Ski Resort, 1,932 bicyclists, probably more bicyclists than you've ever seen at once — in spite of the early hour — have breakfasted, fine tuned bikes, and are packed in a long long line 10 abreast, behind the starting line. In many ways it's the Trek's finest hour: You get to see almost the whole community when enthusiasm is at the boil.

In Maine, we don't often operate in big crowds. We're a pretty scattered state. But here in the bright and cool air of high altitude, you feel the vibration of what the Orientals call "together action" — when large numbers of distinct individuals choose to move as one. Alas, it is also the energy turbocharge which powers the collective insanity of war. But here, harnessed to a happy cause, it's intoxicating.

Everyone here is daring to be in revealing attire. I wouldn't be caught dead in this outfit alone. Yet what lovely, diverse bodies are compressed into synthetics. Because we move in tandem, we are somehow emboldened to be together so frankly.

I move freely along the long line of starters. Bikers are released in packs of 50 to avoid bunching up, and I have no interest in coasting down in one of the early groups. No, I want to savor this. I chat up those riders with interesting bikes or attire, easily striking up conversation in the heady commaradrie of this special moment ...

I went through a hard patch in May, as I trained and struggled to raise money for the Trek. OK, this is my last Trek, I whined. Money raising is just too hard, and the training rides are just too risky for an older body. Yet today, this morning, I know I will do this forever. I will "upshift" for a few more years with sportier equipment. Then, as the body inevitably breaks down, I'll "downshift" to a 2-wheel recumbant bike, then to a 3-wheel recumbant trike, and then maybe to something hand-cranked.

Finally Ed, the MC from the Maine Lung folks, sends off my pack of riders, and we roll without effort the two miles down to Route 2, the black flies thickening as we lose altitude. This first day is the most beautiful of the three, as we cruise beside the lazy Androscoggan River, with mountains to our left. The potatoes thrive, bright emerald green in this rich bottom-land, their straight rows separated by herbacidally-clean dirt. By Grafton Notch, the pack has thinned out, and you can scrutinize each bike as they or you
pass. Before long, we are bathed in the paper-plant smell of Rumford, and glide off the road into our 25-mile rest stop.

Here we compare notes with others, greet a few friends, pop peanut-butter and banana sandwiches, and — avoiding the mistake of too long a break — we roll out again, into my favorite section of all, cruising north into the mountain-sillouetted valley of the Webb River. I happen to ride beside a Mid-Coast neighbor — chatting bikes and biking — as the miles pass, and biking seems to go into that extacy, that perfectness, we sometimes experience. Moving fast, perhaps 15 mph, silently, in perfect station, with energy to spare for conversation ... the day, the river, the air, the chill — a human frame can hardly contain the joy.

For the two nights of the Trek, we sleep on two quite different campuses. The first day ends at the University of Maine at Farmington, whose well-used, no-nonsense character is sweetened by its location in a quiet and beautiful town. After the Trek's second day, we come over a bridge and catch this glimpse of Colby College. You almost expect the three little pigs to come waddling into the scene.

At Colby, it seems that the Trek gets into its top gear: bands are playing, amazing food is served, and the community gathers in the evening. The next morning — our bodies now resisting another day of cycling — we make the final 55 miles, mainly on Route 3, to Belfast. The miles count down. There are more flat tires, more cyclists walking, instead of riding, up the hills. And the last two hills, just West of Belfast, remind you of two reasons we've chosen to live where we live. You crest the first: There lies island-studded Penobscot Bay stretched across the horizon, unlike anything you've seen crossing Maine. You crest the second. Cool air — laden with 'humdidity" as Marshall Dodge once quipped — anoints your overheated body with its balm.

I look back on the Trek so fondly. Last year was the close-up lens: Could i survive this? This year was the wide angle lens: A practice run of what the world can be like if we all freely express our gratitude, encouragement, and positive energy. This year I could see that the trek is not about bicycling. That's the context. Life has a context, a stage set, you might say. But the meaning is not the context. Life is not really about what it appears to be about. The meaning, rather, is the quality of our mind as we live the context. Can we bring curiosity, attention, adventure, letting-go to whatever the context is.

In the Midwest, where I was brought up, I was trained in a militant, almost manic positivity and optimism. My parents always left us with the injunction — Have fun! — as though having fun were a decision we could make. And here in my dotage, I've come to agree. To really have fun, to have fun in all the contexts life offers, comes when attachment, when clinging, when having opinions, are finally set aside.

The Trek Across Maine … it's not about biking. It's about jumping into the particular river that happens to be in front of you. And, even against the odds, having fun.

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