I had started working on this draft seven months ago, back when the subject of this entry actually took place. I had tucked it aside from publishing because the Emory Wheel, the student-run editorial at my now-alma mater, had heard about my story and helped me chronicle the adventure that I had embarked on.
Having someone else write your own story is something that remains foreign to me to this day.
Don’t get me wrong, I have welcomed the conversations that have stemmed from the Wheel’s wide-reaching platform. I give full credits to Zoë, at-the-time an incoming writer for the Wheel, for her meticulous interpretation of a rather extensive two-hour interview that laid the foundation for the above feature. I’m grateful for her receiving my story so positively and narrating it with such flair in a way I never could.
However, I’ve come to realise that the meaning of this particular endeavour, at least that which I personally derived from the experience, was lost through Zoë’s interpretation. And such is exactly the reason that I decided to return to it, in an attempt to substantiate it through my own lens of storytelling.
With enough hindsight– and certainly after the thrill of the initial adrenaline rush– I hope to shed light on what was left behind, perhaps due to the inevitably subjective nature of journalistic interpretation.
After all, the focus of this story has never been me, but rather the individuals below who were involved that made it possible for me to come share it at the other end. I believe this will make a lot more sense by the end.
Setting Up for the Ride
As some of you may know from my last entry, the turn of events in January had left me flooded with a million thoughts. And I’m fortunate to say I’ve discovered cycling as an activity in whch I seek refuge amidst the constant stream of noise. The hours I spend on my bicycle saddle is my means of meditation, that through which I press pause on the busyness of life and fully commit to the simple art of pedalling along.
In the typical post-millenial fashion, all the plans that I had for that day with other people were cancelled due to one reason or another. While the day was perhaps one of the coldest I have yet to experience of winter in Georgia, United States, I quickly made up my mind to take the thinking journey along my two rolling wheels. Like the Emory Wheel’s observation, very little did I know that I would end up at the Alabama-Georgia state line by the end of the day, riding for 61.5 miles/ 100 kilometers for six and a half hours through the frosty January climate.
Admittedly, the decision to pick the route for my endeavour was a little more thought out than the undertaking itself. A year ago, my teammate Josh Batista and I tried out a portion of the Silver Comet, a 61.5 mile bicycle trail which begins in Smyrna, Georgia, and ends shortly after the Georgia-Alabama state line in Anniston, Alabama.
While Josh and I knew that the trail would lead us to Alabama that time, the ‘minor bu-bu’ we encountered left it an unfulfilled desire:
Despite the misfortune along the route, I particularly enjoyed the Silver Comet that day because it turned out to be a very uninterrupted ride otherwise. While, on a more frequent basis, I almost exclusively train on the Stone Mountain Trail instead of the Silver Comet, the former always leaves much to be desired due to the way its countless road intersections bring about constant motor traffic. The Silver Comet Trail, on the other hand, restricts its use to only cyclists and foot traffic, which makes the on-the-wheel experience far less stressful or impeded.
With this in mind, I decided to take my thought-clearing bike ride to the Silver Comet, driving towards the trailhead in Smyrna, Georgia. While there were a couple of plans for the morning, they fell through because of just how cold it was outside.
In fact, below was how cold the day was supposed to turn out:
Evidently, the weather was looking frigid cold; frankly, I had never ridden in such cold temperature– hovering below the literal freezing point. However, I quickly justified my commitment given I only expected to make it a quick ride, just long enough to give myself some time to think.
Despite the relative length of the ride that I was about to undertake, though, I was rather undernourished. Having had nothing other than breakfast eight hours prior, I rushed out of Fred’s apartment with a paltry piece of chocolate cake from my friend Kevin Chao’s birthday party the night before: a meager– yet the only available– substitute for lunch. I arrived at the trailhead in Smyrna at 2pm.
On the Road
Upon getting all set up at the trailhead, I was quickly confronted with a gust of Siberian wind. Granted I did not plan on spending too long outside, I dramatically underdress for this undertaking of which, it just so turned out, I had not even a remotely close idea of its demanding conditions.
As a matter of fact, I was only wearing a short-sleeve jersey, a pair of cycling leg thermals, a soft-shell fleece upper layer, and a windbreaker.
Because I have never actually trained in such unforgiving climate, I immediately convinced myself that once I’m warmed up, I would be glad to be only wearing such modest number of layers. I plug in my earphones, start listening to the Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) playlist my friend Josh Fischbach gifted me upon hearing my study abroad plans to Portugal for five weeks of May and June (Obrigado, amigão!). I then hit the road.
Around an hour into the ride, I arrived at Paulding County, where a local sheriff had sat in his work vehicle to patrol the trail. I took a quick break here to ask him how many more miles I have left till Alabama. He doesn’t give me a definitive answer since he has never ventured out to the Alabama side of the trail. We exchange brief farewells and he also captures this jovial moment resulting from the warm human interaction:
How Many Miles?
At this point of the entry I think it’s important to disclose that I truthfully had zero idea on how long the bike ride were to turn out to be. My completely daft guess was 40 miles/ 60kms one way, since I could have sworn that my friend Tina Chang once told me that a round trip ride from Smyrna to Anniston was roughly 80 miles / 130kms. In retrospect, I wonder how I even came up with the figure in the first place, since later I confirmed that Tina had not actually told me this magically invented number.
So I hopped back on my saddle. At this stage, my phone and my Garmin cycling computer fall victim to the below-freezing temperature and begin turning off intermittently. Dang, I think to myself, without the Garmin, how do I see how many miles I roughly have left? And without Josh’s MPB playlist, how can I distract myself from these skin-piercing headwinds? Although those questions did faze me quite a bit, the biggest worry came from the realisation that I now had no means to contact anyone in case of emergency.
Modern Day Good Samaritan
Soon enough though, after another hour into the ride, I see a distant figure in the horizon running towards my direction. He stops running, starts walking for a couple of seconds, and then resumes running. Ok, he’s taking it easy, maybe I won’t feel so bad stopping him to ask how much longer I have to bike till Alabama.
This figure turned out to be a man named Paul Wilder. Upon my query, he constests that I had roughly another thirty miles to go, and replies, “Do you have anyone to come and pick you up, in the case that you do make it all the way to Alabama?”. I respond with a sincere no. Frankly, I had not told a single person that I were to embark on this adventure.
A little further into our conversation, I start to get a better picture of Paul who, luckily for me, is an extremely gregarious gentleman willing to leave me his number in case I may need his help down the road. He also tells me that I could catch passersby in the nearby locality of Rockmart, Georgia, and tell them that I am a friend of his. He assures me that they may recognise his name because he is, in fact, the principal of C.A. Roberts Elementary School in Paulding County.
I tell Paul that I’m not a hundred positive that I will be going to Alabama, since I really only needed to give myself enough time to think. Somehow though, he seemed to understand exactly what I meant by that, pulled out a thermal hood from his Georgia Bulldogs sweatshirt pocket, and told me to wear it for the journey.
I later hypothesize that the notion, ‘one is biking in the most extreme of temperatures to ‘give oneself some time to think’, might have also been construed as a thought process of a deranged sadistic nutcase, and such afterthought gives me a greater sense of gratitude to Paul for stepping out of his way to offer his hand.
Desperately, I cover my barenaked face with his soft and fleecy thermal hood, and I recommit to the road.
Shortly after my encounter with Paul. Here I am, rocking his thermal hood, about to ride through the wettest tunnel I have seen. Apparently, Georgia has had a lot of rainfall while I was traveling abroad in Chile the past month.
It’s a literal lake in here, I think to myself. Regardless, I ride through and consequently give my rear end a refreshing rinse.
And shortly after the tunnel I reach the Polk county line.
It just dawns on me, right there and then, that I’m rather peckish. After all, whenever I’ve participated in long distance races of similar mileage, I have been spoon-fed delicious nutrients along the route, thanks to regularly stationed SAG stops. Even in casual rides around town, the importance of a snack break had never been overlooked.
In retrospect, it was at once ridiculous and, quite frankly, dangerous to not be on top of nutrition especially when I still evidently had some thirty miles left to go. Correspondingly, I persuade my tired mind and body to take a quick detour to the Citgo gas station I spot to my left, as I approach the next road junction.
I enter the otherworldly Citgo, penetrating the immediate curtain of warm air enthralled by the countless available snacking options. Given that my brain was wired on pure survival mode, I grab the most accessible gourmet options that were the displayed closest to the entrance: A Banana MoonPie, a three-in-one package of gas station brand cinnamon rolls, and a seran-wrapped peanut butter cookie.
While making the purchase, I ask the store clerk, April Moore, if I could possibly charge my phone which had died earlier due to the cold. April is kind and receptive to the stranger’s inquiry; she grabs hold of an iPhone cable up-for-sale, tears the label off, and plugs it into the wall outlet upon granting my request.
Brief Honey Moon(pie)
Ok, I think to myself, I should wait a little while until my phone regains some juice. Luckily for me, I also have the lovely company that is April, with whom I at once engage in a fascinating conversation about Rockmart, Georgia, the town in which the gas station sits and where she also calls home. Our conversation reaches its climax when she shares with me how she would like to move closer to the coast at some point in life, while I try to convince her otherwise and voice my desire to move to the mountains.
As the phone is steadily charging, with the harsh outside world beckoning me, I convince myself that a warm meal is also warranted before heading back out again. I see the cup-ramen on the shelf behind the counter. Too easy an option. So I go for that, too. After all, my Korean side kicked in.
When I leave the gas station, it just occurs to me that a whole hour flew by while I enjoyed my luxurious getaway. At 6PM, it dawns on me that the sun is starting to set (if you will pardon the pun). I hurriedly move my mind and notably heavier body, and re-embark on the journey. Soon, I reach Downtown Rockmart, Georgia.
Around 43 miles / 69 kilometers into the journey, as I am chased by the impending sunset, my bike starts to malfunction. The shifters become non-responsive, presenting me with two considerable obstacles; the breaks no longer function under my command, and the chain stubbornly remains on the middle ring of the rear cassette.
To make the situation somewhat more harrowing, the landcape becomes increasingly hilly. My pace slows down because I am unable to physically control my bike much, but I nonetheless continue cycling on as I remain convinced that I cannot be far from Alabama from this point.
The Beginning of the Dark
Here is where things get a little more challenging. With the looming darkness, I am rudely awakened to the fact that I had not brought a bike light with me. Given there was no evident turning back, I encourage myself to attune to the cyclist’s sixth sense; navigating through the darkness by leveraging the moonlight behind me. Besides, I am too far away from Smyrna at this point, which was precisely 43 miles / 69 kms back the opposite direction.
Here is a fine example of mother nature’s cooperation; it just so happened to be the lunar eclipse that evening, endowing me with the brightest moonlight I could have ever gotten.
Cycling in almost complete darkness was something quite surreal and novel to the audacious cyclist. Not too different, I imagine, to walking into a pitch-black cave, wherein one instantly becomes enveloped by the impending darkness and forced to make it their friend.
True, the situation incited a fair sense of vulnerability, but adapting to the condition did not prove to be so difficult once I became accustomed to the stillness of the dark.
Just as I got into the groove of the darkness, I began picking up the pace again. As soon as I start to speed up, however, I’m entirely oblivious to the immediate sharp right turn ahead, and land myself off-road.
The unwarranted detour was frankly intimidating given that, once again, I had no way of stopping my bike due to the malfunction of the gear shifters. Consequently, I held onto the bike as I waited for it to naturally decelerate, undergoing an unsolicited rodeo ride on my painfully delicate road bike wheels, against the rugged off-road terrain.
To The Rescue
With a slight bump-in-the-road behind me, I once again find my rhythm and soon arrive at the next light source. It was at this point that I decided to reach out to Paul.
After all, when I had called my anticipated go-to emergency contact, Fred, at the Citgo, he admitted that he wouldn’t be able to travel so far out from Atlanta given his rehearsal schedule that evening.
Luckily for me, Paul immediately responds to my desperate plea when I call him.
“I’ll start heading over to the border. Got water and snacks. You got this.”
Later I found out that, when I had called him, I had interrupted him from his weekly family meeting with Amy, his beloved wife, and Caleb, Natalie, Joshua, and Timothy, his children.
As the afternoon’s brief correspondence may suggest, both Paul and I knew very little about each other up until this point. It just so happened to be that the universe had decided to place both of us on the Silver Comet, on that particular day, despite all the odds and barriers that could have easily prevented either of us from simply being there. Left aghast by Paul’s willingness to help, I hop back on my saddle to finish the ride with newfound motivation.
Due to Paul’s encouragement, my outlook onto the rest of the journey became far more optimistic than prior to the call with Paul. With determination to see the end of this long evening, I soon arrived at a residential neighborhood, temporarily leaving the wilderness behind me. Here, as I ride along the streets, I fail to spot an immediate direction to the re-entry of the Silver Comet, and I become admittedly lost.
As luck would have it, I then heard some movement in this rather barren neighborhood. A man staggering towards my end of the street, visibly drunk or inebriated in some way.
“Excuse me?” I seek attention and announce myself.
He turns around and starts staggering faster, now away from me and towards the opposite direction.
“Hi there! I’m trying to find the intersection of the Silver Comet Trail, but haven’t had any luck. Could you point me towards the right direction?” I declare, in a firm yet soft-spoken and approachable manner.
Seeming at once aloof and situationally unaware, this man turns back around and approaches me.
“Yeah, my house is in the same direction. I can accompany you for a little bit”.
This man turned out to be a local resident of the next municipality along the journey: Cedartown, Georgia. His name was Bradley Jones, and he had been on his way to a party after the pre-drinks. After all, it was the eve of the Martin Luther King holiday.
Having remembered the distinct scent from previous summer’s work as a wilderness trail maintainer in North Carolina, whereby my colleague Caleb would frequently partake during our work breaks, I inquire Bradley:
Are you smoking a Cherry Black & Mild?
Yeah. You got a lighter?
No. Sorry for ruining your evening. I concede, as I already feel like I’ve imposed myself to yet another stranger just going about with his own business.
On The Road, Again
Bradley is a kind-hearted man who bears with me for another half an hour and, as promised, drops me off at the reentry of the Silver Comet. Frozen in the chilly winter air, I am presented with two revelations; first, my body temperature had tangibly dropped since I decided on walking with Bradley, instead of riding and keeping my heart-rate up. Second, I have spent far too much time on this small segment of the ride, considering that Paul, supposedly waiting at the Alabama border, might be made to think that I decided to change my mind and to not see the end of this ride.
With this sense of gravity, and the cripplingly cold headwinds, I pedal away with conviction.
Movie in the Making
And who would have guessed! A dead tree ahead, blocking the entire surface of the trail. Somehow though, perhaps with the earlier mentioned cyclist’s sixth sense, I manage to narrowly swerve around it. With the unwarranted jolt of adrenaline from this near-death experience, I text Paul to let him know accordingly:
Paul, I’m en-route. P.S. almost died.
(A Light) On the Road
Another half an hour passes and, as I continue cycling, I start to see a speck of light ahead. This speck of light would grow larger in size as I get closer.
It was a warm, halogen-coloured light which, after a certain point, became divided into two. And the source of this light turned out to be the headlights of Paul’s truck.
Paul had waited forty five minutes while I steadily made it to him on the Alabama border, having stayed alert with the truck’s high beam turned on. For forty minutes, Paul fought his internal doubts and skepticism that some foreign cyclist was someone he could trust and drive forty minutes out from his home for, and be absent from the beloved weekly meeting with his family.
Paul had been anxiously waiting for me on the border and, as we reunited, told me he had just hung up from his call to 911; it just so turns out that, not too long ago, a cyclist was attacked on the trail. He was worried about me since my trip took longer than he had anticipated. Paul and I engage in a powerful embrace. It was as physically warming to the body as it was to the soul.
He allows me to turn around and walk my bike back to the Georgia-Alabama state line, which I had not even registered earlier given the darkness.
After the brief photoshoot, I hop in the truck with Paul and talk away the forty minute car ride back to his home in Rockmart, Georgia. Because Paul is, again, a very generous man, he had already equipped the passenger seat pocket with a Cliff Bar, a banana, and a fresh bottle of water.
It was for this reason that I could say that Paul’s Ford F150 replaced the Citgo as my new Heaven on Earth.
Once we arrive home, Paul introduces me to his family, who expressed how worried they were about me and that they were glad to finally see me in person, alive.
Amy, Paul’s wife, immediately brings me multiple trays of leftovers they had from earlier on in the day, and I hurriedly reach for those and tell them all about the enigmatic journey to Alabama.
Knowing that I must be exhausted from the ride, Paul shows me to the guest-room, where he kindly offers me a bed to sleep in for the evening.
The next morning, I have the privilege to join Family Wilder for breakfast. We engage in more conversations about my post-grad plans, how the family spent Martin Luther King day in the previous years, and my promise to return to them later next month. Paul allows me to call him Uncle Paul.
Uncle Paul also offers to drive me all the way back to my car in Smyrna, given the temperatures continued to remain below freezing. With a heavy heart, Uncle Paul and I reflect on just how special and enriching this encounter had been– I assume a lot more so for me than for Family Wilder.
If you haven’t yet recognised the true meaning of this story, allow me to tell you that the journey would have not been possible without the kindness of willing strangers: Uncle Paul; the rest of Family Wilder; April from Citgo; Bradley from Cedartown.
I also emphasise that, unlike the Emory Wheel’s focus on my own determinism to ride on, the true ingredient to the success of my journey was the interdependence of each of these crucial stakeholders who came together, and push-started the momentum that kept guiding me forward despite all the immediate challenges.
I conclude this entry with immense gratitude to these new friends for shaping my journey, and with hope that I may one day be that stranger in another person’s endeavour.