Though fond of the old Athenian, I was given pause when I read that Socrates greeted a bystander who looked as if he hadn’t been spending much time in the gym with the rather rude remonstrance: “You don’t look as though you’re a very good citizen.” I, and much of my cohort growing up in the American 1950s, considered athletes to be the polar opposite of intellectuals and artists. My friends and I liked to quote the words imputed to Robert Hutchins: “Every now and then I feel the urge to exercise, but I find that, if I lie down for fifteen minutes, it passes.” In high school, the boys who wore letter sweaters coalesced with the country club set in what seemed a junior version of the ruling class. I never attended a game in high school or college, though I do recall leafleting against the Vietnam War outside the University of Illinois stadium at homecoming in 1966, expecting that the football fans would be particularly hostile, fired up on school and other spirits. In the years since, I have never watched any sort of sporting event, a fact that always astonished my student-inmates when I taught in the prison system.
Yet these days I spend over an hour every day hurtling down the Heritage Trail, doing twenty-two miles at the fastest pace I can maintain. There have, of course, been cultural changes. In my younger days a runner alongside the road would have been taken for either a professional boxer or a loony, but in the 70s ordinary people suddenly began jogging and biking, then running, even marathons! And in a twinkling gyms sprang up in every strip mall.
I fancy my own evolution owed little to these trends. I had always bicycled. As a child I would roam towns near my home, looking for soda bottles to redeem for snacks. Later, I biked to school and to work as a cheap means of transport, allowing me to opt out in some small degree from the wasteful consumerism that characterizes our culture.
One day, in my forties, while teaching in Brooklyn, I found I had difficulty reading footnotes (often the liveliest part of scholarly texts) and was told I needed glasses for presbyopia. Around the same time, while explaining occult comma lore in the classroom, I noticed that, for the first time, my belly seemed to have trespassed ever so slightly over my belt. (I feel sometimes as though I slid from youth to age with no period of maturity between.) So I began biking simply for exercise, resenting the time it consumes which seems so very like a waste.
I have never understood those who say that they are refreshed or energized by exercise; to me it is a simple account book matter, energy spent is gone (though the morning’s initial store of physical potential can, of course, increase over time). No have I felt the exhilaration reported by some (those more adept at self-hypnosis?). Every day I’m reluctant to set out, feel fatigued after a few minutes, consider shortening the route but don’t, and I arrive back home pleased at having survived once more. It is a largely unpleasant grind, though not altogether without compensations.
First, of course, is the undeniable physical benefit. In my seventh decade, I am obliged to take cardiac and vascular disease seriously. One must pay nature’s debt, but there is no virtue in being in a rush about it. I admit as well the value for weight control which has after all an aesthetic component. (Is one’s body one’s definitive composition?) Besides, why live longer if you must always be eating less than you’d like?
Still I would find the trail depressing as a gym were it no for other rewards. Along its route are fields and woods, fine vistas and curious structures. I see wildlife daily: a swan family, springtime turtles lumbering across asphalt, rabbits and turkeys and deer. The regular rider will observe in the vegetation the procession of seasons as well as smaller daily changes. Just now blackberries hang for the taking.
One can think, as well, if one eschews the earphones sported by many riders. As those Buddhists knew who practiced walking meditation, physical activity can facilitate the movements of the mind. (I have often paced about my own house, looking in every corner for an elusive word.)
The trail itself is often enough a melodrama. Every milestone has its associations like incidents in the plot of a novel. Even after years, watching them pass in review has the satisfaction of familiarity known to fans of Seinfeld and of Superman comics. Approaching and overtaking others is always a tiny narrative, and being overtaken has its own sensation, one I strive most heartily to avoid. A small child just learning to cope with two wheels, a Hasidic man chanting prayers – one never knows who will appear around the next corner. Though the pathway remains in place, the experience is forever fresh.
All the while the rider feels the play of ill and desire, overcoming the impulse to take it easy, making the cyclist kin to overland explorers and those in boot camp and maybe even distantly related to St. Simeon Stylites and the Hindu fakirs. Developing the will, one gets to know the body better. And a fine rosy glow appears in overwrought thighs which seems almost erotic.
Whether these motives will prove sufficient tomorrow I cannot say. But that may be the fundamental value of the ride: like life’s ride, it is existential; it encourages the consciousness to focus on the here and now; on the burning of one’s muscles or the small snake on the road twisting off toward some end of its own. The solitude of physical exertion reflects the solitude of the island of ego, at every moment susceptible to pain and death, and, if nothing else, one hopes this modest but regular ritual (or is it a rehearsal?) may serve one well in the end.