By Michael Schwalbe
Funny things can happen when you’re biking in North Carolina. Like the time I almost got hit by a flying squirrel. Here in Orange County.
I was driving down Kimbro Road, under clear blue skies, when a squirrel landed on the sidewalk a few feet in front of me. I passed him, then turned to take a closer look. It was either a squirrel or the remains of a squirrel. I guess the squirrel took flight in the talons of a hawk that didn’t like cyclists or had a sense of humor. The lesson was clear: always wear a helmet.
On another drive years ago in another county, I found backhoes, bulldozers, and men wearing helmets where I expected to find a bridge. I drove to the point where the road turned into air. It seemed hopeless. I looked up and down, imagining that maybe I could carry my bike and hop it to the other side. Just then, a young man in boots and muddy overalls approached me and said, “Do you want to cross?
I was starting to explain that I had no alternative route when he picked up my bike, turned around and started to ride the twenty foot gap on a narrow aluminum plank that I didn’t even have. not seen. He nodded to indicate that I should follow him.
I had only walked a few yards, dragging in my crampons like a terrified penguin, when I looked up and saw the workers on the other side of the stream staring at me. I froze and considered turning around. What if I had to ride an extra ten miles to get home? Wasn’t that the point of being on my bike? I was too scared to try to turn around, so I dragged, the board flexing beneath me.
On the other side, the young man handed me my bicycle. I thanked him for his help as I ascended. “Have a good trip,” he said, returning to his work before I could say another word. I left confident that I had left it to the next rider to make a better impression.
Then there was the time I got into a James Dickey novel. It was the summer of 1988 and I was still living in Raleigh. I was an ultramarathon runner at the time, so I racked up a lot of miles. One day I was in Johnston County somewhere west of Smithfield when I needed to refill my water bottles.
I arrived at a small gas station and a country store. It was two pumps and a cabin that needed painting. There was no sidewalk, just gravel. The station as it was seemed to belong to the old farmhouse which was about 50 feet away. I parked my bike, grabbed my bottles and walked in.
Two white, weather-beaten men with short hair leaning against chairs. A third man, looking much the same, leaned forward on the counter next to the cash register. I inferred from their expressions that cyclists in skin-tight spandex didn’t fall over so often.
“Help you?” said the man at the counter. I asked if there was a restroom where I could refill my bottles. He gestured to the open window behind him. “Round the corner of the house,” he said, “there’s a tap you can use.” I thanked him, left, and headed home.
I didn’t see the dog until he came towards me. He stopped at the end of his chain, trying to tear me away from his territory. “Calm down boy,” I said, in my best alpha male voice. I took another step and the dog became more agitated. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see three smiling faces at the cabin window. The man behind the counter said, “He seems a little testy today. I think you better bring your water here.
Even my first ride in North Carolina was memorable. Driving from Riverside, CA to Raleigh, I decided to spend a night in Asheville so I could ride the Blue Ridge Parkway the next morning. Did a forty mile loop with no problem but got lost after getting back to town. I stopped and was looking at the map I had taken from the motel when a woman pulled up next to me in a van. She asked me if I needed help.
I told him that I couldn’t find my motel. “Well, bless your heart,” she said, pointing the way, “it’s right there.” It was my first southerner: bless your heart. I remember how sweet it sounded. It wasn’t until later that I learned that, depending on how it’s said, it can mean something like poor fool. I prefer to remember it as sweet.
Michael Schwalbe is a retired sociology professor and non-retired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.