I attended what was by modern, national standards a small, rural high school near a small city in the US Deep South.
Small meant intimate.
We did not think of our school, our community, our world, as small. We did not realize we would live to be so much older than our teachers were then. We did not foresee that we would later have cause to look back and judge our behavior in the harsh light of hindsight. We were too absorbed in every glorious, baffling moment to contemplate the future as more than vague improbabilities.
We were young.
We were naive.
We were silly.
And we were obedient.
Until we weren’t.
Oh, and our school mascot was a lion. A real, live, male, African lion, enslaved in a small cage at our local zoo and, on game days, in an even smaller trailer-cage in which we hauled him to and from the football stadium.
We should have called him Testy, or some such, because, yeah — caged lion — but his name was Cheepa.
Some things you just can’t make up.
But neither that name or his circumstances felt weird at the time.
When he roared, we roared, which made him roar, which made us roar — good times for everyone but Cheepa, who could never get the last roar.
No wonder he was pissed off.
My private memoirs claim I was asked to transfer him from his zoo cage to his trailer-cage, attach the trailer to my pickup truck, drive him to our football stadium, then reverse that process after the game. There was no mention of training.
It was some kind of honor?
I’m usually confident of the accuracy of my old notes, but that can’t be true. No adult would entrust a live lion to high-school kids, even in the early 70s.
Our 50-year high-school reunion is in October of 2022, and the reunion committee is compiling a directory/memory book for circulation among our surviving graduates. I’m thankful for their efforts, because I now regret not staying in touch.
The older I am — the more distant in time I feel — the more I miss them, all.
The memory book will incorporate answers to five questions, and I’ve invited classmates to read mine here, if any desire, because I could not squeeze my answers into the finite blank spaces of a printed questionnaire. I’ve written too many long-form essays to feel comfortable reducing life to five sentences.
The same answers speak to motivations for continuing the Pedaling Astronomer Project, and, more generally, for exploring the world by bicycle, so I thought others who visit these pages might find something of interest, as well.
There was no gradual awakening as from sleep. No transition. No bleary-gray moments, then awareness. No before.
Just … NOW.
And gasps for air.
And the shock of skin pressed into the harsh cleft texture of ice-cold slate.
But I could retrieve no memories of that floor or of the cabin that sheltered it.
You’ve got this.
Slow as you go.
Slow as I go?
Your breathing. Slow your breathing.
I knew whom I was — at least, it didn’t occur to me to wonder at that moment — but not where or when.
Perhaps I wasn’t alone?
I called out, “hoouooh?”
What the … !?
No one answered.
Good, that. While I recalled the words and conventions of this language, I’d lost the motor memory for voicing it, so produced little more than grunts, which were embarrassing enough to experience alone.
Plus, I was lying in pee, long gone cold and clammy, so, yeah, I was relieved I was the only witness.
Okay, maybe worry … just a little.
Between long, shaky pauses, I inch-wormed to a window and saw a landscape blanketed by snow so deep, it was clear that I was far from home.
The problem with … scratch that. One of the many challenges of perpetual travel is retaining a sense of home. Home is where your people are, and while I still knew whom my people were, panic set in when I realized, I could not recall which compass point would lead me back to them.
It was my second hemorrhagic stroke. The first, in 2015 — also minor — introduced itself with an audible pop, then erased about 40 percent of my field of vision. A degenerative retinal condition has since blurred the rest.
Therapy restored basic speech after the second stroke, but it still does not flow. I have to concentrate — to en-vi-sion each syl-la-ble as I pro-nounce it — if you are to understand me. I see the words, as if formed on an ephemeral display, which might distract me from seeing you, when we talk in person.
Some find the resulting, unfocused stare off-putting.
And I lost some general memories. How many? What percentage? I’ve no way to know, because that’s how memory works … and how it doesn’t.
When, in 2019, a cousin asked if I had contact information for another cousin, it was as if I’d discovered a physical folder labeled Cousin Mike, but the file was empty. How do we know what we don’t remember, until confronted with something or someone, like the existence of a cousin whom we can’t recall?
More than the memories themselves, I lost my sense of their contexts. I’ll recognize a restaurant, parkway, or neighborhood, but will still be unable to access in which city it is.
I wrote the first draft of a book during the early bicycle journey, before the 2018 stroke, and planned to complete a final draft while in New England later that spring. But when I revisited it, I did not recognize many of the people in its stories. Even the prose was unfamiliar.
And those were events I’d lived in recent years, not from more than half a century ago, as our reunion questionnaire asks us to recall.
So, were the lion or barracuda scenes that follow real, or did I invent them when writing some later bit of fiction? Was Ann as winsome as she remains in what’s left of my mind’s eye, or Debbie’s eyes as captivating, or lovely Kathy’s intellect as intimidating?
Here’s what I know with reasonable certainty:
Since 1981, I’ve kept a daily journal. I also began extensive memoirs then, including of our formative high-school years, with no pretense of ever having cause to publish any of it. Most use language to resolve problems through conversations with others; I worked through mine by writing — internal conversations.
Add research notes and drafts of articles and books, email and text threads, ad copy, ledgers, geo-tagged photos, GPS tracks, and other such digital records, and I have effective, artificial substitutes for mental memories.
How accurate are those journal and memoir notes? Given that many read like fiction, such as that of the lion, who knows? I appear to have been my own harshest critic, though, which argues in favor of their credibility. Regardless, they’re more reliable than the bits my mind can still retrieve from my brain alone.
So, if you read anything here that does not match your recall of our shared experiences, consider the source. Oh, and please, do let me know, so I can correct my record.
And trust that, if I don’t remember you when we meet again, it is not for lack of caring.
I remember precious little of the adolescent who attended high school. He has all but disappeared, and what memories I’ve retained are filtered, refined, and redacted, beyond recognition, by all I’ve experienced since. So, answering the reunion questionnaire was a bit discomforting. I seldom invest as much of the present in revisiting the past, given that now — today — is so much more interesting.
Has it been the same for you?
I’m sorry for the length of these answers. I’ve written so many long-form essays, the first 2500 words just kind of happen.
Plus, I want to know of your dreams for life beyond the safety of whatever has long been your comfort zone, and how better to encourage you to share them than by offering you so much (too much?) of mine?
“What did you want to be when you were in high school? Did you do it?”
An architect. I admired its synthesis of art, psychology, and engineering. Still do. Credit Escher, Fuller, and Wright, I suppose, given the era. Plus, it felt like a good fit for an introvert, but I was too weak then to insist, so no, I did not.
“Which teachers influenced your life and made a lasting impression/impact? Why?”
Mrs. Nolan, Mr. Peske, and Coach Fontenot introduced insights into analysis that are still relevant. I suspect that’s also true of another of our science teachers, but I’ve lost her or his name and face. And Mrs. Taylor’s lessons in the fundamentals of constructing stories still serve. Oh, and 10-finger touch typing, but I can also no longer recall who to thank for that essential skill.
Who knew typing would become keyboarding?
I did not appreciate the quality of our faculty, until I studied education decades later, and, given our current ages, I’m shocked now that they were all so young then.
We learned from each other’s parents, as well. Witness David’s dad, who taught a quick method of braiding long extension cords he called a “controlled tangle.” It seemed a small thing then — just one of his many practical lessons — but I’ve used the technique countless times since and give silent thanks whenever I do.
“What was the dumbest thing you ever did in high school and did you have fun doing it?”
The hormone surges of our teenage years cause temporary insanity in many boys. It’s true, I Googled it! And that’s the best excuse I could find for my own high-school stupidities.
I could not reconstruct why Mitchel’s dad impounded the Barracuda at his body shop, but he even removed its seats to prevent Mitchel from driving the car. He should have taken the steering wheel, too, because we stole it, anyway. Turns out, you could squeeze a lot of kids into a two-door Plymouth sans seats.
Too many. At some point, teetering on stacked coke crates, we made an unscheduled detour ending with the passenger-side door against the bottom of a deep ditch.
Ours was the usual idiots’ calculation: Foolishness + Futility = Fun! I cringe now at our irresponsibility; there might have been terrible, irrevocable consequences. But still, stories from that night remain among my favorites.
Damn, I miss Moose.
I found a long note on standing within peeing distance of our irate mascot near the end zone. His peeing distance, not mine. His was amazing! As was his accuracy. I can’t admit to stupidity on that occasion, though. I mean, pee on me once, shame on him, right? And it’s not like he did it again.
Speaking of foolishness, I borrowed our 1972 yearbook from best-friend Evalyn, hoping to restore memories of certain science and typing teachers. Instead, I found … so many gorgeous girls! You were and are, ever lovely, never lovelier, even in monochrome — especially in monochrome! Splendor, hiding in plain sight among us fools, too busy playing grab-ass to notice.
Well, most boys, most days.
But the most foolish thing I did in high school was accepting banishment to a school in rural Australia. That bizarre adventure hardly seems real now. I rebelled, but much too late, with results both devastating and irreversible.
My high-school experience was not the same after that. Nor was I.
Throughout it all, though, you were the ideal pride among whom to grow, if not mature. I remember you, with rare exception, as kind, patient, and generous.
“What was your first paying job after high school graduation?”
Pump jockey, inventory clerk, janitor, bookkeeper, file clerk? I don’t know which began in high school and continued into college versus which started after graduation. I had too many part-time gigs during my three years at Northeast.
Ronnie, ever the superior salesman, even convinced me to peddle vacuum cleaners door-to-door, a crash course in persuasion that continues to serve.
The early work I valued most, though, involved writing, and I’m still striving to be worthy of that craft.
“If money, health and time weren’t issues, what would you be doing?”
I wear one of those tacky silicone bracelets when traveling by bike, engraved inside — black-on-black — with: Now. In this moment. You are never again more alive.
Trite? Yep. The punctuation and grammar are questionable, to boot, but I still bear the reminder.
Plus, it’ll make a killer punch line for whoever finds me dead along some back road.
I invested a couple of decades into a career I did not enjoy. I spent much of the rest as a writer/editor, ultimately with an astronomy publication. And since early 2016, I’ve also traveled far by bicycle, COVID and health permitting, as part of the education/outreach Pedaling Astronomer Project.
The 2017 solar eclipse was shaping up to be the astronomical event of our lifetimes, as well as a make-or-break marketing opportunity for many of the advertisers who supported our magazine. So, we brainstormed what we could do to help leverage exposure for the industry we covered.
Which is why I attempted to pedal the 48 mainland states in the months leading up to the eclipse, riding a bicycle laden with a telescope, among other astronomy oddities.
Ambition and reality don’t often agree; I managed just 37 states before the eclipse, partly because — damn! — ours is a big-ass country, you know?
Plus, once I embraced the liberating vulnerability of unbound adventure, I did not want to rush it.
And within months of that epiphany, I realized, I did not want it to ever end.
Whenever I experience what, on surface, would appear misfortune, it is instead the journey delivering another detour leading to yet another magnificent someone — a new connection whom I would have missed but for the delightful vagaries of wandering.
But that only happens organically. It cannot be forced.
Anyway, it took until February of 2018 to finish the remaining 11 states, which, ever in the right states during the wrong seasons, were in the US Deep North and Mountain West.
The bike journeys aren’t what I expected. There’s something more human about the pace of a bicycle — about faster-than-walking movement under your own power, balanced upon nothing more than a simple assembly of wheels and gears.
There is solitude and silence aplenty, the better for reflection, and for writing, but there are also countless opportunities for connecting with folks from the broadest range of the delightfully varied cultures of this vast continent.
The bike forces introductions an introvert would otherwise miss, if only because so many people stop odd fellows on overloaded bicycles to ask, “What the … !?”
Somewhere in rural Vermont, I’d gone into a country store for coffee. When I stepped outside, a tall, elegant, Japanese gentleman was examining my odd bicycle and asked her purpose. After I explained, he bowed, then declared with solemn formality, “Tonight, I tell my grandchildren of you.”
Before the bike — The Big — and her penchant for odysseys, that did not happen in my small, isolated world.
I’ve been too blind to drive since January of 2015, so The Big is a Godsend. You’re safe with me pedaling her 10 to 15 mph. Not so much driving anything faster.
Non-cyclists often react with amazement to the distances she and I cover, but it’s not as challenging as it may sound. 40 to 60 miles, five days of seven; do that long enough, and the miles add up. Since we met in the summer of 2014, The Big and I have logged more than 50,000 miles of everything from local commutes and out-and-back day trips to out-and-away year-plus journeys.
It’s a rare clear day or night when she and I don’t find occasion to share views of the Sun, Moon, or planets with someone we encounter along the way. I stop and convert her to astronomy mode wherever people gather outdoors: schools, festivals, campgrounds, sports venues, churches, truck stops, public parks, backyard barbecues, busy sidewalks.
One night, I set her up with the telescope aligned to the Moon beside two near-nude young ladies posing for photos in front of the Bellagio Fountains on the Vegas Strip, although I had to register for a busker license for that pleasure. Another day, we targeted sunspots for the ladies of a bordello I pedaled upon on our way to Death Valley, no license required.
The Big and I spent six enchanting weeks exploring southern Nevada that winter.
I ask people, Have you seen the Sun through a telescope? Or the Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter – whichever bright solar-system wonder is best displayed at that moment. Most haven’t, and when they do, some laugh, a few cry, but the majority respond with a spontaneous “Oh – My – God!”
Which never, ever gets old. I can no longer see through The Big’s exquisite little telescopes, but — who knew? — sharing those views is far more gratifying than experiencing them firsthand.
So, this is what I would do — what I do — regardless of wealth, health, or time.
It took too many decades for what I do to fit who I am, but I got there.
Meanwhile, I continue to find fulfillment in writing and remain passionate about astronomy, despite that I’m a bit too blind now to do either justice, and I still figuratively pinch myself that I managed careers in both.
But those are solitary vocations. After my daughters left for school, I lived alone and worked from home, ghostwriting 20 articles under others’ bylines for each about astro-tech under my own, weeks often passing without encountering anyone in person.
More ghost than writer.
Now, thanks to a bicycle, I do not, I am not.
Thus the cheesy black-on-black wristband, lest one too many freezing headwinds, or yet another too-steep mountain ascent, demoralize me into settling — again — for my former insular existence.
October 14, 2023, will see an annular eclipse from Dunes City, Oregon to Corpus Christi, Texas, and in April 8, 2024, another total solar eclipse will darken a narrow track from Mazatlan, Mexico to Point Sapin, New Brunswick. I’ll be pedaling one path or the other until the 2024 eclipse.
Beyond that, there are countless vistas yet to explore and new friends to encounter there — more than enough to enrich the decades ahead.
Meanwhile, I look forward to reading of how you would have spent this day — how you will spend tomorrow — regardless of money, health, and time.