Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luck of the draw ...

Boston, beautiful

Nine years ago this morning, I was hunkered down in my basement office, furiously tapping away at the keyboard, trying to wrap up a story before my scheduled flight the next day. Lauri called me after dropping the girls off at day care, asking if I'd heard the news -- a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. I hadn't, but my immediate reaction was that it must have been a small, single-prop craft. Maybe a lunatic, maybe just an awful accident. Like the rest of us, my mind wouldn't even consider the reality that eventually came to pass.

I went upstairs, flipped on the tube, and watched the horror unfold. By that time, the second airliner had flown into the South Tower of the WTC, and all hell was breaking loose in Manhattan. I sat there, dumbfounded, unable to comprehend what was happening right before my eyes. Terrorism had taken on an entirely new meaning. When the TV anchors announced that the second jet was United Flight 175, a chill knifed through me like a bony finger of the Grim Reaper. United Flight 175 was my flight the next day. Although I was on assignment for Continental, my trip was organized by the Hawaiian tourism office, and they booked me on United, flying direct to Los Angeles, then to Hawaii.

My mood immediately shifted from disbelief to ashen. I was actually shaking, watching the coverage. My story didn't get done. And my flight, and trip, were canceled. My life, like the lives of countless thousands, was changed forever. So had the world as we knew it. And we're reminded of it every time we fly, every time we wait in a security line. Our daughters, thankfully, were too young to comprehend the depth of the evil on display that day. Lauri, my wife, was understandably distraught. I, for some odd reason, was simply numb.

That night, I played hockey down at the local prep school. I hadn't planned to, but needed to do something to shake myself out of my stupor. So I grabbed my gear, drove down to the rink, and got into the first fist fight I could recall since high school. It was stupid, a reflection, I'm sure, of the tension that everyone was feeling that night. Not even hockey, a game that was my great escape for most of my life, could provide any refuge.

A month later, I flew to Denver, Colorado, to meet my brothers Matt and Mike. We were headed to the High Lonesome Lodge on the western slopes of the Rockies, and along the way the United States unleashed its military fury on Bagdad. When we arrived at the High Lonesome Lodge, the place looked like a ghost town. Buzz Cox, the manager, explained that the lodge had been booked solid by Cantor-Fitzgerald, the finance firm devastated by the 9/11 attacks.

Americans, to this day, are justifiably outraged at the murderous acts of Sept. 11, 2001. Like most, I will never forget. But I also try to remember how fortunate I was, of the difference that 24 hours can make. Did God "spare" me? I don't think so, because that would insinuate He didn't spare the 2,977 people who tragically lost their lives that day (and the 19 hijackers He allowed to live long enough to perpetrate such a heinous act). Sometimes I think the Almighty simply sets things in motion, and then lets the chips fall. Why wasn't I on that flight, along with Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis of the Los Angeles Kings and 63 others? It was just fate; the luck of the draw. It's a cruel reminder that none of us are guaranteed anything. Ever.

Which is why we should celebrate everything we do have, and never once take the things we hold dear for granted. I get to enjoy this stunning Saturday morning, and plan to go for a bike ride the minute I get this essay posted. Today, I'll hug my bride and our girls a little more tightly. I'd like to say I do that every day, but I don't. Life, with all its challenges, tends to dull the immediacy of these moments. But every now and then I'm reminded. I need that.


Monday, September 6, 2010

The Sketch King rides again!

Boston, a splendid Labor Day

I admit it ... I'd almost forgotten. The sweet, cool breezes of early autumn and splintered sunlight filtering through the trees. That distinct loamy smell of the earth, and the absence of bugs. The sublime thrill of fat tires on skinny trails winding like a roller coaster through the woods. I'd almost forgotten how quickly your breathing becomes labored the moment those trails tilt uphill. The nuisance roots and rocks that litter New England's rugged landscape. And I'd almost forgotten the spontaneous laughter that erupts when it all comes together.

Yes, the memories had faded. In the four years since I trashed my right shoulder after augering my bike's front wheel in a washed-out section of trail, and gone flying over the handlebars, I'd taken a self-imposed sabbatical from the singletrack. I had dabbled here and there, but I'd lost my nerve, frankly. I was scared. Scared of every slick, off-camber root or tire-grabbing chunk of granite that might send me to the ground or into a tree, and eventually the Emergency Room, again. Between hockey and mountain biking, I'd suffered a litany of injuries that had me feeling my age. The shoulder was the worst of the recent vintage, though, and I began contemplating more genteel pursuits.

I turned to the road bike, not so much because I enjoyed it more, but because I felt like I had more control. The irony, of course, is that, among my cycling friends, road accidents typically have proven to be much more devastating. My thinking was (and this is probably as good an indication as I can offer of how far my confidence had sunk), if I tumbled on the road, someone would eventually find me, and help me get back home. In the woods, I could lie there for days. Ridiculous? Of course. But that's the mindset of a rider who has lost his bravado.

Fortunately, my friends wouldn't let me fade away. They kept prodding me to join them, luring me with tales of new trails being carved in nearby parks, Bradley Palmer and Willowdale. Eventually, they wore me down, and I relented. I suited up Sunday with a fair amount of trepidation, but the morning was so damned beautiful it was hard to feel too negative about anything. I asked my buddies -- Billy E. and Mark O. -- to go easy on me. Not only was I venturing back into the woods after a long hiatus, but I was also riding on a bum right hip, compliments of a recently diagnosed torn labrum. It didn't hurt while I was riding, unless the incline got real steep, or unless I had to get off the bike. Which I did. Often.

It was a strange sensation. I spied old, familiar obstacles that I'd cleared easily in years gone by, but I was unable to stop myself from stopping. I realized this was going to be a slow process. I told myself to be patient, even as I publicly admonished myself for being such a wuss. I was the ride's anchor, but Billy and Mark never once made me feel like I as holding them up. Every time I apologized, they would just look around, and comment on what a gorgeous day it was. The support was a huge boost. So were the trails, which had been cut with an artist's flare.

I started to link some sections together, started to look where I wanted to go (instead of focusing on the trail's not-so-hidden dangers), started to reconnect with my Fat Beat's supple Ti feel. I started, even so subtly, to feel that flow train. I was back. Not all the way, but back nonetheless. I was still riding like the Sketch King, but I was riding. Off-road. And smiling just about the entire time.