It’s been over 20 years since I was able to hop on a bike and pedal myself down a path. That saying, “just like riding a bike” always catches me—people think riding a bike is something you can’t forget how to do. Yet for some of us, because of balance issues caused by many things, riding a bike is exactly what we can no longer do. Maybe it’s not that big a deal for some folks. But before my life changed because of surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor, I was physically very active. I loved to get outside, loved to walk, loved to swim, loved to dance, and biking was something that was easy for me.
I am so grateful the paralysis that gripped half my body after life-saving surgery has abated to some extent, but I continue to live with many life-changing consequences, not the least of these was my inability to balance on a bike alone. But after I met my husband, a lot of things began to change. He was determined to figure out how to allow me to share his joy of bike riding, with him.
We tried several tandem bikes, but found them very difficult for me to manage. But one day we rented a bike that was easy—so easy for me! I mistook this ease for healing on my part—perhaps my ankle was so much more flexible that the tandem we’d purchased would now be easier for me to ride—I couldn’t wait to get home from vacation to get back on the tandem we’d found on Craigslist.
Alas, when we returned home I discovered my ankle had not changed very much. It was the style of bike we’d ridden on Sanibel Island that was different. And so our quest began.
It took several years for us to obtain a tandem with slightly foot-forward styling that allowed me to begin to really enjoy biking again. Over several years we’ve modified our bike to make it easier for my right foot to stay on the pedal, we’ve added panniers to the back of the bike to make carrying ice and jackets and other such items safer. (I easily overheat in warmer weather; ice is a necessary precaution we have to carry with us.)
And then this spring I fell. Not just fell, but landed from a raised porch flat on my back. No broken bones, amazingly, but muscle damage, extreme pain that’s taken five weeks to heal from. We woke to a gorgeous spring morning the other day and my husband wondered if we could try our bike. We rode it down to the end of our street for a test run, and I felt OK. Yes! We headed out to find a new bike trail near the New Hampshire line, in Gardner and Winchendon.
Riding a bike is the closest I come to feeling like I’m flying. My view from the rear seat is a little blocked since I’m riding behind Jon, but there is so much to see and feel. The wind blowing in my face, the stone walls that often follow the paths we ride along, swamps, streams, rivers, ponds, birds, and on this latest ride—a snake in the middle of the path.
We stopped, turned back, concerned this silly snake would get itself run over as it sunned on the warm pavement. With little encouragement from us, the garter snake slithered off the pavement back into the nearby woods. Done—our good deed for the day.
Many proposed railtrails have disconnected portions of the trail completed, but it’s difficult to tell trail conditions without actually visiting each path. This was the case when we went to Winchendon. We checked Google Earth, but even this wonderful tool was not as updated as we needed. In fact, we found a lovely brand-new paved portion of railtrail that crossed several streams and offered some really pretty views.
We found one more portion of trail that followed the edge of a pretty pond and led into the downtown area of Winchendon. There we spotted some old factory buildings right on the edge of the water, and Jon recalled years before when he had worked in the area in one of the buildings. Remnants of a much more prosperous era of productive factories, these old buildings continue to stand next to the waterway, increasingly derelict.
I was able to see all these things because I flew along on our bike. I cannot walk long distances, but once again, after healing from this latest injury, I can pedal along, with support.
We hear comments regularly, as we pedal by, from children who think our bike is “really cool!” and adults who smile and nod. A couple stopped to talk as we ate our lunch beside the lake. They asked how we liked our bike. I answered, “It’s the only way I’m able to ride.” I then smiled at my husband, the person who has been so determined to help me share these experiences with him. “He’s my hero,” I said. People see my smile, my joy, and perhaps think we’re simply having fun. But it’s so much more than fun. In reality, it’s grace, in action.
Marjorie Turner Hollman
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and has completed two guides to Easy Walking trails in Massachusetts, Easy Walks in Massachusetts, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. A native Floridian, she came north for college and snow! New England Regional Chair for the Association of Personal Historians, she is a Certified Legacy Planner with LegacyStories.org, and is the producer of numerous veterans interviews for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s History Project. http://marjorieturner.com