A few weeks ago, I drove west on the Cascade Lakes Highway toward Mt. Bachelor to scout out some mountain bike trails. Something new would be great and there are uncountable beautiful places to bike when you are fortunate enough to live in or visit Central Oregon. My new biking partner is Natalie, our cool, athletic, 31-year-old niece.
The previous Saturday, she took me out to Phil's Trailhead, one of the most popular spots in the area. It was a blast pedaling up, down and around the usually gentle, sometimes not-so-gentle terrain she chose for us that morning. Natalie was regularly looking back over her shoulder to see how Elbow Burt was doing. Elbow somehow has become my nickname. I forget how I earned it, but I like it.
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Because of the narrow nature of single-track trails, there was hardly an opportunity to catch up on our lives and have a meaningful conversation. We were in "keep your eyes on the trail" mode all morning long. We had a blast, worked up a good sweat and as we departed, set up another bike date for the following weekend. Our new family tradition! This time it would be my turn to choose the destination.
Now, back to my scouting trip for our next ride.
Our family had done some spectacular cross-country skiing out that way last winter and were told there was great mountain biking, too. I pulled off at Swampy Lakes Sno-Park. Just a few cars with bike racks were in the parking lot—a good start. But things got rough about an hour into my ride. Cruising downhill I made an error and slid into a section of deep, dry dirt. It wasn't a hard fall, but I went down on my side and somehow got tangled up with the bike. I had a few moments of fear creep into my brain—I hadn't seen a soul on the entire ride. A few breaths, a few slow deliberate moves to get me on my feet, a few more breaths and I got my aging body back up on the bike. I then noticed a few wounds I'd have to clean up later and made my way slowly, mostly uphill, back to the car.
Maybe I'd take Natalie on this trail tomorrow. I'd pay better attention if I did.
Next morning, around 7:30...
Ring. Ring. "Natalie, this is Elbow Burt. I had a little spill yesterday when I was out scouting for our ride. I'm a bit banged up, so we'd better go for a gentle cruise down by the river."
"Yow! Sorry to hear that, Elbow. Are you ok?" Natalie asked.
"Good enough for an easy one," I said.
"Sure, come on by and we'll bike from my house. See you soon," she said.
The magic had begun...
Natalie's new home is just a few pedals from the river path. We carefully made our way over to the trail. It was sweet. We could ride side by side and finally catch up. Let me tell you what I mean by catch up. She lived in Bellingham, Washington, for a good part of her life when Wendy and I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona. Over the years we would spend a few days here and there together. We'd shoot hoops. Eat meals. Goof around. A ton of laughter. I wasn't Elbow Burt back then. Later, sometime after her high school graduation, she moved south to Olympia for a few years and five years ago decided to settle down in Redmond to be closer to family. Now she lives in Bend.
Times have changed since moving here in December. Now we live in the same town, just a few miles from each other! Our opportunities to connect have increased exponentially. And we both love to mountain bike.
About a mile into our ride, Natalie looked over and said, "I've been listening to some podcasts lately. One by Brené Brown, a renowned teacher of life. She asked this cool question in one of her research projects: 'Do you believe that when people wake up every day, they are doing the best they can?' What do you think, Elbow?"
That is a heavy-duty question, even if you're not riding along the riverbank on your bicycles. I took a breath or two, paused, pedaled and said something like, "It's not a simple yes or no answer. ..."
Natalie jumped in. "Let me tell you how Brené's husband, Steve, answered the question. I'll never forget it. After thinking about it for a while, he said, 'I have no idea, but what I do know is that my life is better when I assume they are.'"
I will never forget his answer.
I will never forget our bike ride by the river.
I look forward to talking and pedaling with Natalie into our future.
—Burt Gershater is a counselor, leadership trainer, speaker and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com