Today was the loneliest, coldest and most unforgettable birthday of my life. I know for a fact that each of these descriptors is accurate. It was the loneliest because I did not have human contact with a single person that I knew. Hell. I don't know if I even interacted with more than five people the entire day. It was the coldest because my birthday is in August, which implies hot in the Northern Hemisphere, but I was in Wisdom, Montana, where overnight temperatures drop below freezing. Finally, it was the most unforgettable because I had some experiences which I am unlikely to replicate for the rest of my life.
From the moment I awoke in Dillon's Jaycee Park I knew that I was on my own. All the guys I had been riding with were either a day ahead or behind me. On my own, it was up to me to structure my day for myself. Accordingly, I chose to have an early morning, arising before the sun. It was very cold when I awoke with temperatures around 40 degrees. I didn't let the cold or the solitude slow me down. Today was my birthday so I was going to keep it moving. In my cozy little tent I treated myself to a pastry and some chocolate milk that I had purchased the night before at Safeway. Quite the breakfast of champions.
I got to peddling. On this special day I had not one, but two mountain passes awaiting me. The first, Boulder Pass, reached nearly 6,800 feet. The second, Big Hole Pass, reached even higher, nearing 7,500 feet. Though I was faced with a rather daunting challenge, I knew exactly what I had to do: peddle. I put my head down and welcomed this challenge on the first day of my 29th year.
By the time I overcame the second mountain pass I was feeling like a champion. I felt like I had accomplished so much. Well, in reality, I had "accomplished" about 40 miles and had a good 25 more to go. My original plan was to head to Wisdom, located at the 65 mile marker. My feeling of optimism compelled me to push harder. I started telling myself that I should go for a "birthday century" just to get the year started on a strong foot. It's funny. Even though I was in the middle of nowhere I was finding a way to be some sort of capricious little birthday brat.
The descent after Big Hole Pass was refreshing. I cruised downwards into the Big Hole Valley. As I pushed forward, an odd feeling overcame me. I was completely and utterly alone. I mean, I was singular in every sense of the word. I was on the only road in sight which carried about one car or truck every ten minutes. No matter how loud I screamed, no one would have heard me. There were no homes, no cyclists, no nothing out here. Seizing this unique moment, I pulled my bike off to the side of the road and took a seat on a rock.
I looked around. The valley was gaping. Staring towards the West, my eyes met a row of towering mountains. At their feet laid sprawling plains with a few ever-so-rare ranches spread about. Despite the unfathomable space that I viewed, I heard not a sound. How could such an area lack even the slightest noise? It didn't make sense to me.
I closed my eyes. I wanted to be immersed in this sonic void. My feet felt the heaviness of my sore legs which twitched occasionally to keep my body balanced atop the stone. My rear felt the hard rock upon which it sat. My eyes contributed nothing to the sensory experience. My ears wouldn't have either were it not for the occasional bumble bee which buzzed past my head. The buzz of the lone bee was like a shooting star, quickly igniting the sonic space, then dissipating into the ether just as fast as it arose. The poor bee. It spends all day buzzing around in its frivolous attempt to find peace. If only it knew that its ever-flapping wings were the source of the strain. If it could just settle on a flower and let its weary wings rest then it would share in the blissful silence that had now overcome me. As I settled into my seat, my five senses became obsolete. There was nothing...absolutely nothing to perceive.
I observed my thoughts. In this state there was nothing else for me to do. Any and all external stimuli were null. Every ounce of attention was focused on my mind. And in this blissful silence, where did my mind choose to go? Right to the calamity of the city. I was mentally transported back to Berlin. I relived the comment I had made around New Years of 2009 that Berlin was the most quiet city I had ever visited in my life. I re-experienced the gaze that I made into the courtyard out of the window of the apartment that my brother was house-sitting in the German metropolis.
Berlin was gone. My mind flipped through the Rolodex of cities I had visited in my life. Glimpses of Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires; all streaked through my mind, before settling atop Meridian Hill in Washington D.C. I was in my bedroom, that intimate place of comfort and privacy that I had become so estranged to over the past five months. It was a calm D.C. evening. It must have been a weekday, since there were no disturbances from the bar-goers returning to their homes. It was as peaceful a night as one could experience in the District. And though the city, my city, was at its most peaceful, there was a humming. There was the hum of the occasional car passing through the city's arteries. There was the hum of the central air conditioning unit in my apartment. There was the hum of street lights, separating us poor city dwellers from the cosmos.
A voice spoke to me. "Colin. It's time to start wrapping this thing up."
My eyes opened. My immersion in the silence had a purpose. It was a reminder that my nature is where there is no silence. I am a city person. Home is where the noise is. I mounted my bike and peddled on.
Around noon I came over a hill. Approaching me was another cyclist. His name was Dan, perhaps the third person I had seen on this day. We chatted for a good 15 minutes. It was nice to have some sort of human interaction, especially with such an interesting fellow. He told me about how this was his second cross-country tour. His first was on the Northern Tier. This one was Eastbound on the TransAm. I grew jealous, realizing that he would be riding into the mid-Atlantic during Fall. If there was anytime when my home was most beautiful, it had to be Fall. For me there's really nothing like seeing the orange, brown and red-painted leaves of Appalachia during autumn.
Before adjourning our conversation, the birthday brat came out again. I'm not sure what we were talking about, but this comment was going to come out one way or the other. "By the way, today's my birthday."
"Oh! Well happy birthday!" Dan wished me a very genuine "Happy birthday." Man, I can't tell you how much I appreciated the comment. Who knows, maybe it had been a while since he had wished someone a happy birthday?
I peddled forward into the town of Jackson. Up until that point the ride had been pretty mellow. As of Jackson I had 18 miles to Wisdom where I was tentatively planning on staying. From Jackson the route headed due directly North until bending West at Wisdom. Time, ticking away as always, brought about the early afternoon and the heavy winds that tended to accompany it. Those winds, caring not that it was my birthday, blew straight out of the North. These were perhaps the worst headwinds I had experienced on my entire journey. I was miserable as I fought against the current to arrive in Wisdom. These 18 miles were more strenuous than the 40 miles it took to climb Big Hole Pass. By the time I arrived at Wisdom I was completely spent. Mother Nature had willed that I would spend the evening in Wisdom, despite the wishes of the birthday brat within.
When Celine was riding with me, I had suggested to her that I might want to cut myself off from the world on my birthday. I supposed that this trip was a unique opportunity to have a particularly introspective birthday. There was some part of me that thought it would be a good idea to just totally detach from the world. But then Wyoming happened, and I realized that I thrive with company and wither in solitude. Perhaps the greatest lesson, or reminder, that Wyoming taught me was that I was a social being. By the time I made it to Montana, I had fully debunked the idea of having an introspective birthday. The Universe works in funny ways, however, so it turns out that I was going to have a lonesome birthday whether I wanted it or not.
Here I was at 2:00 pm in Wisdom, Montana, a town of hardly 120 people. The only thing that was going on here was the wind. Half of the town's businesses were closed so I settled down for a bite at The Crossing Bar, one of two restaurants. The entire town was a dead zone, but I was at least able to get free WiFi at the bar. I spent a good four hours in this bar listening to country music and talking to no one. I treated myself to a beer and a choclate milkshake. Hey, what the heck, it was my birthday!
As sunset neared I made my way to the American Legion Park on the West side of town. It was a nice little offering that the local veterans made to Wisdom. There were a few picnic tables, restrooms and fire pits for the public to enjoy. I would be the sole occupant of this space on this evening. There was a little open-air shack on this plot of land. I guess that would be my room for the night.
As the sun set and the temperatures dropped, I prepared myself for bed. I put on my Under Armour tights and hoodie in anticipation of the below-freezing temperatures. I placed my sleeping mat on the cold concrete, then laid my sleeping bag on top of it. Well, I guess this was it. There was nowhere to go but to sleep. I tucked myself in and stared at the ceiling until sweet sleep whisked me away...
My eyes shot open. Dusk was long gone. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew that it was late as evidenced by the permeating darkness. I couldn't believe my ears. In the not-so-far-off distance a pack of wolves was howling at the moon. This was incredible. I exited my open-air shack to investigate the night sky that was so compelling to these creatures. (In hindsight I probably shouldn't have gone outdoors knowing that there was a pack of wolves nearby, but oh well.)
I looked up in disbelief. My eyes befell the most brilliant night sky that I had ever seen in the US. The howls now made perfect sense to me. How could one, man or best, not be so moved by such a cosmic display?
One shooting star crossed the night sky.
Two, three shooting stars.
There was a fourth shooting star.
It had all come together. The headwinds, the solitude, the wolves; they were all guiding me to this site for a reason. Twenty-nine revolutions about the sun later and I had finally found a comfortable place to reconnect with the Universe.
Hmm. Maybe this birthday want so bad after all?