I was telling stories to my high school kids today. One of the perks of teaching is that I have a captive audience – I just kind of ignore all those requests for bathroom passes and the kids have no choice but to listen to my drivel. Honestly though, I think the kids kind of enjoy days like today – at least they get out of doing math for a day.
I told them a story from one of my first bicycle tours. Way back in the summer of 1988 I cycled from Norfolk, Virginia to New Orleans. My trip was pretty poorly planned, as usual (why would anybody choose the Norfolk airport if they had a choice??), but I enjoyed it nonetheless. My decisions were made at the last possible moment, and were often ill-informed at best. One of those decisions led to an experience that, quite literally, changed my life.
You see, I had a choice of two roads through one particular stretch and I randomly chose one. I had cycled probably a hundred or so miles on that path before I started hearing the warnings.
“You’ve got one hell of a climb coming up!”
“You’ll never make it up that hill – cars can’t even make it up.”
“Hope you’re prepared – there’s a hill coming up that not even the strongest cyclists can climb!”
For nearly 150 miles I heard the warnings, and that hill grew in magnitude each day. The hill became some sort of big, bad monster out to devour me. It would gobble me up, grind me to bits, and spit out my bones. As I drew nearer, the dread factor rose to astronomical proportions, and I was certain I would end up turning around and pedaling 250 miles back to where I had made that fateful decision.
Early in the morning, after eating an enormous pancake breakfast to fuel my muscles, I headed out. The hill was before me. I would give it my best shot, but knew in my heart I was defeated before I took even one pedal stroke. I’m not sure why I even attempted to climb it – probably some kind of youthful folly of mine.
I remember very clearly the man walking out of the post office. As he reached for his door handle with one hand, he waved at me with the other and shouted, “Do you know you’ve got one hell of a climb coming up?” That was all I needed.
I started climbing. I pedaled. And I pedaled. I shifted down and pedaled some more. My lungs cried for air and my legs protested at the abuse I was subjecting them to. I shifted to my lowest gear and kept pedaling.
“One more pedal stroke,” I chanted silently. “One more pedal stroke. One more pedal stroke.”
I wondered just when the really steep part of the hill would start – I was maxed out as it was. There was no way I could handle it when it got really steep. One pedal stroke after another, my bike inched its way upward. “One more pedal stroke. One more pedal stroke.” (When will the steep stuff start?) “One more pedal stroke…”
Sweat was pouring down my face and my breath came in gasps but still my legs moved in those endless little circles. I wondered just how much longer I could hold out. But in the meantime, I focused on each and every pedal stroke. I figured as long as I had it in me to pedal one more stroke, I’d keep going.
In my peripheral vision I saw a woman run out of her house clapping her hands and shouting something. My attention was focused on the road in front of my bike and it took a few minutes to register what she was shouting.
“You did it!” she shouted. “You made it up!!”
I stopped my bike and looked at her in confusion. “Huh?”
“You did it! You made it up!!”
I was stunned. I had made it up the hill to end all hills. I had conquered the monster!
As I think back on that climb, I realize I learned a lot from that day. I learned that sometimes life is like that. Sometimes life is tougher than a bed of nails. Sometimes life throws things at us we are certain we can’t handle. And yet, if we think about right here, right now, we can get through. If we set a goal and say, “I can make it through today,” or “I can make it through the next ten minutes,” we can do it. It all comes down to breaking it into small enough, manageable enough, chunks.
For me, it was one pedal stroke. If I had it in me to take one more pedal stroke, I would keep going. And when I put together a whole lot of those pedal strokes, I made it up the hill. That’s how life is – just a simple string of pedal strokes.
edited to add: That photo up there isn’t the hill I’m talking about – that is a pass John climbed between Srinigar and Leh in India. I wish I had a photo of my monster climb.