All actual life is encounter.
I live in a city so singular it helped birth and sustain a new winter sport. To be fair, snow bikes didn’t exactly originate in Marquette, Michigan, but part of their evolution, their expansion, has benefitted from local riders terrorizing the groomed trails running like arteries around town.
Go further up the Keweenaw and there’s almost too much snow and trail to maintain, further south and you start hitting slush. We’re in a perfect meteorological playground.
So it’s no wonder the recent Polar Roll Fat Bike Race drew almost 250 riders, the majority of whom signed up for a 35-mile slog through cold, rutted, overwhelmingly white conditions.
I showed up for the after-party beer.
My body goes a bit dormant in winter. I park my bike in the shed, walk everywhere in my old red hiking boots. Slowly. Bundled. Mumbling to myself.
But here were these people, these chiseled, chapped, beaming people, some of whom had just cranked in their saddles for eight consecutive hours. The winner in the female division, Danielle Musto, arrived with a recent win in a 24-hour endurance race using a single speed.
At the Polar Roll, she seemed not the least bit fazed as she snaked through the beer-swilling crush to accept her prize.
And that’s when I felt the old familiar awe of the body, of these flesh machines steered by triune brains—neocortex, limbic, reptilian. I suffer from these moments of rediscovery, like looking in the mirror after a long-overdue clean shave. The absurdity, the marvel. Wait, what? This is me?
And then the band began to play, mostly covers, all up-tempo and boppy, and the space around me filled with middle-aged women eager to dance, their arms in the air, bodies aligned to bass and drums and so hungry for movement and synchronicity that I continued to wonder, as I have many times in the past, occasionally with the nudge of psychedelic drugs: My god, what are we?
It was late, which meant it was 8:30 p.m., and I realized the racer who had made me his “plus one” for the after-party was nicely settled for the evening. I decided to walk home. As I got outside, felt the face-smack of another zero-degree evening, the proximity to my porch suddenly snapped into focus. I was a long way from the warmth of my living room.
So I started to jog, which I haven’t done in approximately 38 years, and I was in my old hiking boots, and the snow was powdery and everywhere. But I have this body, these bones wrapped up in flesh, synapses firing, a heart in my center pumping blood, pumping faster as I ran, pumping all the way to my fingers which allowed me to effectively text my wife mid-stride: I AM RUNNING!
Last words in case I collapsed in a snow bank.
I ran a mile and then two until I reached a hill that suggested I perhaps change my tactics. You’re old and tired, said the hill with a voice not unlike a concerned friend.
I walked to the top of 3rd Street remembering a recent class discussion on Thoreau’s summit of Ktaadn, where he reveled in the untouched rawness of the earth at his feet, but also of his body, this “matter to which I am bound,” these human frames treading on terra firma. He burst with the idea of it. Somehow he got inside himself, or perhaps out, and saw things cosmically anew. He sounded simultaneously elated and terrified.
Contact! Contact! he screamed in prose, his punctuation unraveling with the energy of epiphany. Who are we? where are we?
I used to think we were knit together for a singular purpose: to worship God. This was the consistent message from the pulpits of my youth, and I internalized it early and deep. Worship, I eventually learned, was more than singing songs, was instead holistic, bodily, the physical act of serving Christ and his church. At least that’s what Paul told the Roman believers. And I believed him. His message motorized my late teens and twenties as I baked bread for refugees and lived alongside orphans.
These days, I keep adjusting the metaphysical lens. I mostly feel kinship with Thoreau and his questions, aghast at the weirdness and rawness of it all, interrogating the idea of our flesh, this planet that sustains it, and the great vacuum through which we all soar.
My Sunday school teachers asked me to imagine that God had fixed all that star-dazzle just to make my sky beautiful. For the view. My view. Maybe they weren’t too far off. I stood at the top of 3rd Street and imagined, as John Jeremiah Sullivan has suggested, that perhaps the universe has grown me in order to peer at itself:
What’s true of us is true of nature. If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature becomes conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball.
I looked everywhere that night, tried to be a good articulating eyeball: car tires screaming for traction, a man shaky on his feet at a streetlight saying, “Nice night, eh?” No stars. Snow lightly falling. Everywhere breath like plumes.
I imagined myself not simply an apparatus of worship, but a tool of observation, of feeling, of sensation. And that if God really is the wizard behind the curtain, it’s possible he’s anxiously awaiting my full report. That he might actually need it. That he might be feeling it all through me.
I imagined him rejoicing in the Polar Roll, too, in a species—doppelgangers of his image!—who invent bicycles and who ride those bicycles on unstable surfaces that necessitate four inch tires, five inch tires, and who designate a course and race each other to the finish where we feel so alive and so happy and so breathless and we drink unwisely together, sway collectively to a searing cover of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, wave our arms in the air, wave our arms, our arms, the air, my god, the air.