I haven’t been to the hospital for a bike crash since I was six or seven. My Mom took me then. We lived in Mississippi, and I was riding my neighbor Malone’s ragged bike down the hill beside our house popping wheelies, imagining I was Evel Knievel, my hero at the time. (I still have my Evel doll. It’s in my office at school.) Malone rode my sweet yellow Schwinn with ape-hangers, banana seat, and rear slick. Mom sunbathed in the front yard. One trip down the hill, I pulled back on the bars, only to watch Malone’s front wheel exit the front fork and bounce down the road. Since I’m (still) not Evel, I couldn’t hold that wheelie forever. Fork, meet pavement. I launched over the bars, landing on my face and chest. My cut-off jeans didn’t protect me like Evel’s leathers protected him as I slid to a stop on my bare chest. I must have screamed, because Mom appeared instantly beside me. My chest was solid road rash, prompting my younger brother to exclaim later “Jimmy scraped his titty off!” and my left arm dangled uselessly.
In the intervening years, I’ve ridden thousands of miles of roads and trails in several states. I’ve raced all kinds of races on all kinds of bikes. I’ve witnessed all kinds of crashes, and crashed a few times myself. Given all that, I find it amusing that my worst crash to date occurred due to a rookie mistake on the commute home on a road I’d ridden many times—not paying attention. Not paying attention cost me six weeks off the bike and around ten weeks of not riding outside, the longest break I’ve had from riding in nine years. Adding insult to injury, it was a mild winter, too. (Last winter, I rode regularly, including possibly my sweetest moment—meeting my cyclist buddy Jared, I on my bike, he in his car, in the dark, his car’s thermometer reading seven. Because of those rides, I didn’t thaw out until June.)
Since my crash, I’ve gone back and forth about what it means. On one level, it means nothing. I wasn’t paying attention, smacked the ground, end of story. On another level, it reminded me that I’m a part of a special community here. The outpouring of support boosted me through the worst physical pain I’ve ever experienced. As some of you (unfortunately) know, breaking ribs is not good. Clearing my throat hurt. I worked actively to avoid sneezing or coughing for weeks. I forbid my kids to say anything funny. But your support helped dull the pain as much as Vicodin and Percocet. (The gifts of beer helped, too.) I also have a renewed appreciation for modern medicine and donors, an appreciation I’d have preferred remained theoretical. My clavicle required a steel plate, ten screws, and cadaver bone to piece back together. I am now part cyborg, part zombie, though my taste in flesh still runs to the porcine. I do find myself wondering from time to time about the identity of the dead guy in my shoulder, but I figure if he was willing to undertake the ultimate in recycling, he’s all right.
Mostly, I missed riding. Now that I have a few miles back in the saddle, I realize how much riding connects me to the world outside. I can keep track of the red-winged blackbirds, the red-tailed hawks, the red efts, and the spotted salamanders, the water level in the creeks, the cycle of growth and decay that occurs each year. I keep track of which houses are for sale, where the gas wells are being built, and where barking dogs run after me. I connect with friends I don’t see much otherwise, and I connect with the little boy trapped in a 45-year-old body pretending he’s Evel Knievel. I am reminded that the world is bigger than me, which gives me hope.