She was just a tiny wisp of a girl, balancing on the cusp of The Great Big Kid Land of Kindergarten, that ultra-fine baby hair blonde and bleached blonder by the Florida sun.
She was too young to know anything of fear. So when her neighbor's daddy asked her if she wanted a spin on the bicycle around the neighborhood, she said Yes! Yes! Please and yes!
It was the 70s. Nobody worried about things like helmets or apparently, shoes. Because the little girl, feeling nothing but free and happy, unaware of risk and danger, let her sun-warmed bare feet dangle just a little too low, and one small foot was caught tight in the spokes of the wheel, a wheel which kept spinning in its steady rhythm. Everything spiraled into dark whirlpools of pain. It was a blurry, slow-motion movie of scenes, of being carried to the house in the tight, panicked arms of her friend's dad, of seeing only a crowd of people chatting and playing on the yard in front of her until a figure suddenly became distinct from the crowd. Mom. Mom was running to her. Moms always picked out the sound of their child's cries as if those cries pulsed on their own wavelength above the screams of happier children all around.
It was the 70s. Nobody worried about things like seatbelts. The little girl was held again, this time in her mother's arms in the front seat as the slamming hospital doors came near. The masked faces of doctors and nurses rushed toward her, and all went dark.
I was that little blondie. I still wear the ugly scars of that day on my foot. I've never remembered my feet without them. And for decades, I never, ever cared to get on a bicycle again.
My whole childhood, I would make up excuses when my friends wanted to ride. I was desperately afraid they would laugh at me if they knew I couldn't ride a bike. I mean, who couldn't do that? It was a rite of The American Childhood. Every few years, I mustered enough willpower to do a couple of half-hearted tries at learning, but at the first lean toward a fall, I was out. Off. Done.
Until my youngest child learned to ride. That was it. I was not going to be the only person in my family unable to ride a bike. I vowed, as my 40th birthday loomed nearer, that it would not pass without my learning.
My fumbling, stumbling practice took place in the back, gravelly road behind my house. NO way was I going to let anyone see me trying and dropping to the rocks again and again. Until one day, it just....happened. There was no magic, no special technique. It just clicked.
I wish I could say that there were only smooth roads ahead. Not so much. My first time on a smooth, fast trail with my kiddos, my perfect Downton Abbeyesque basket perched on the bike's front met its match with a pole. And then I tried to use my ankle as a kickstand, discovering the truth that first-time bike spills are meant to be had when you're six. There's significantly less spring in your bounce-back when you're 40.
A few days ago, as I was peddling down the quite-busy road to my sister's house, I realized that my temporarily forgetting about the lack of any shoulder on said highway and the fact that I no longer flinched at every truck that zoomed by meant I was really and truly a bike rider now. I could zip (and by zip of course I mean coast slowly) around our curvy, country road with my kids and cheer them along as they left me in the dust or enjoy our conversation as we kept pace together. I could even dream about a romantic bike-trek through Tuscany some day, once the braces were paid off and the college and the....well, a girl still can dream.
Maybe you, like me, carry an ugly scar that's been a part of your body or your heart for as long as you've had memory. Maybe a trauma, a betrayal, a rejection turned into a foundation of fear and holding back in your life.
Maybe you're 37 and What-If is the strong arm pushing away that little voice, that knowing, that soul-deep certainty of something you are meant to do. Because what if you fall again?
Maybe you're 47 and about to launch a houseful of kids into the world. Maybe the wide open spaces before you bring winds of fear instead of freedom. What will happen when you ride into those dreams? Will you crash and break?
Maybe you're 76 and sure your bike-riding adventures are over. Your family is grown. You look back on the chaotic days with wistfulness, and you dread the long, empty hours that must be filled over and over again. You are sure that following a dream at this age will only lead to falling.
As a former bicycle-avoider, I want to hold your hand and tell you this: Get on the bike. Yes, you will crash and destroy the skin on your elbow and the pride in your head. Yes, you will hurt. And fall. And fail. And be embarrassed.
And sometimes, you will ignore the rushing pound of your heart and will choose not to squeeze tight the brakes and will find, instead, that you will fly.
None of us know the spills and stops that wait for us. But as long as we keep looking down at the scars on our feet, we will miss the sun-streaked fields we were meant to peddle past. We will miss the hearts we were meant to know. We will miss the joy of creating something that was meant to be set free to find its own way in the world.
Don't miss the ride: The beautiful, accident-filled, soul-overflowing ride we were meant to be on. Don't miss it. You will get hurt, but your scrapes and bruises will heal, and the scars will become a part of you that you can't imagine yourself without anymore.
See you on the trail.