When I was 14, my parents gave me a Huffy 18-speed all-terrain bike, purple and teal. It had a water bottle and an odometer, so it felt like they were giving their tacit approval for me to explore further away from our house in the woods than I’d been previously permitted. (Feel the weight of that sentence, please. Know that I was an adolescent on lockdown, already permanently grounded for deviant behavior I never exhibited.) Once I got that bike, I didn’t actually care how far away I was allowed to go; I went. I biked down our lane and past the one neighbor’s house, down one of the two muddy tire ruts on a snaky access road that was half overgrown with weeds, over a hill to a shale pit that adventurous dirt bikers would’ve adored.
Sometimes I went further—if my legs held out up this one hill, I’d reach a plateau, a valley at the base of a mountain that for about a mile was just a bed of pine needles under a dying forest. It was easy riding in a serene setting, and downhill from there to get home. I’d bring a snack and my journal, or I’d bring nothing and collect rocks, or I’d just sit. Once I climbed a tree and saw a mountain lion ambling along the ridge. There are mountain lions in central PA. I knew that before I ever read about it, because I’d seen one when I was 14, on a bike ride.
I wasn’t allowed to go down our driveway to the main road, but I did. My bike over pavement, the hum of my wheels finding a harmony with the swish of wind that untied my hair (my gift hadn’t come with a helmet).
I felt about my bike the way a lot of kids did: it was freedom. Having that bike was formative; it solidified a love of the outdoors-as-sanctuary that I’ve carried with me, that I will always carry with me. And I hate to say it, but I haven’t been on a bike for any length of time since I had that Huffy.
I’m not going to say that chasing after an exuberantly active two-and-a-half-year-old isn’t exercise, but lately I’ve been wanting more. I take advantage of all the state parks and go hiking a good bit, but now that summer is here, I can’t be outside enough.
The number one recommendation for relieving stress is exercise. You should know I hate gyms. I can’t sit or stand on a machine and stare at a wall, or worse, a TV. I don’t like to be stationary (and experts say I shouldn’t be sitting at a desk so much, either). I don’t like the vulnerability of working out in a room full of strangers. I want to be outside. I want mountain air and mountain sights. I want to ride under trees, far enough away that when I stop, I’m the only person around. I want to build strength. I want to remember what my legs can do, and I want them to do more. I want to be able to bike away from danger, even if that’s just an illusion. I want to feel better.
I found my dad’s old mountain bike in the basement. It’s a Specialized Hard Rock 21-speed (with odometer!). It’s just barely not too big for me, but it will work. When I saw it, the 14-year-old in me squealed because she’s still there; 20 years later, I still recognize freedom when I see it.
Tires need pumped at least, possibly replaced. Honestly, no one’s touched the bike in a decade, so a trip to the bike shop in town for a tune-up is in order before I’m trail-bound.
When I say “trail-bound,” I want you to know what I mean. I live about 10 miles from the Allegrippis, a 33-mile trail system around Raystown Lake. I live across the road from the entrance to a nature trail that runs along Stone Creek, a Juniata River tributary. I live a short drive from the northeast entrance of the Central PA Rails to Trails system.
All those possibilities. All those miles. All that freedom.
Thank the universe I’m not actually 14 again, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling my best 14 once in a while, is there?