It was dark and I was cold. Sunrise was still an hour away. There wasn’t a hint of orange or even gray in the eastern sky. I’d rolled out of bed not thirty minutes earlier and my eyes were still waking up. If it wasn’t for the 700 lumen blowtorch mounted on my handlebars, I never would have seen the skunk in the middle of the trail, dead ahead…
I skidded to a stop not more than ten feet from the little critter half expecting all hell to break loose. It never did. The skunk wasn’t bothered by me at all. She eventually turned and ambled down the trail before turning into the brush. It was only then that I clipped in and moved on.
Welcome to the Iowa Outback after dark. This is my brave new world since starting a new job two weeks ago. The first week I was in Dallas, not far from downtown. I rode in the dark there, but it never really gets dark in Dallas or any other city for that matter. If there are people around, there are also street lights and security lights and lights in store windows. Even the Katy Trail, my preferred route, was lit from end to end. I’d read reviews before heading out where people complained of “dark spots” along the way. If only they knew.
Out here, darkness is pretty much absolute. I pulled over this morning and turned the torch off for a moment just to see. I held my hand six inches in front of my eyes. I couldn’t see anything. Then I looked up, drawn by the light above. The heavens were ablaze (that’s the right word) with stars, none of them closer than 100 million miles to us. Is there intelligent life up there? Yeah, of course there is. The universe is too big to believe otherwise.
I know that there are risks to riding in the dark, but it’s not like I really have a choice. I ride when the time is available and they need me at work when the sun is out, so I’m riding early. I bought the 700 lumen torch and it helps a lot. The biggest risk I face is a collision with wildlife. In just three days this week, I’ve seen everything from raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, deer and a fox or coyote…not sure which…to the aforementioned skunk. Just because a critter is small doesn’t mean he or she is not capable of doing some serious damage.
That said, I’m not afraid of wildlife. Through numerous close encounters, I’ve learned that most of nature’s critters are better at assessing and responding to risk than we humans are. Animals don’t overreact. Take this morning’s skunk, for example. She didn’t spray me. I probably would not have been so reserved if our roles had been reversed, and so I think that maybe I still have some things to learn from nature.
Luther Standing Bear, the wise Oglala (Sioux) chief, once wrote that our hearts become hard when separated from nature. I know this to be true in my own life. Perhaps it explains some of our collective angst as a people. We’ve been doing our level best to eradicate nature and beat it into submission for as long as I can remember. This is one of those times when even if we win, we lose. I wish we could see the damage we’re doing and then just stop doing it but I know better. That’s not how we’re wired.
It seems to me that the real magic of cycling, the thing that makes it unique and special, is that it allows us to slow down to a speed where we can see the world as it really is instead of just passing through it at the fastest speed possible on the way to some lit up big city at the end of the line. When I look at it that way, riding before sunrise isn’t a hardship at all. It’s a gift and a blessing and one that I feel very fortunate to have had foisted upon me.