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Bike Rides: A Story Finally Comes Full Circle

One and a half years ago I experienced one of the worst bike crashes of my career. It’s the crash I remember most, and pain is probably the main ingredient in the formulation of that memory. I didn’t bounce into a bed of rocks, pounce on a patch of ice or careen over a car hood although I’ve met these misfortunes in a lifetime of riding and remember them all for the same reason: Pain.

The most memorable accident occurred at what should be, and usually is, the safest medium for cycling in any given community, the bike trail. The trail is really the only place a cyclist can let his or her guard down anymore. That’s what made this crash so unique, my guard was way down.

Unlike all the other accidents in the past, I never saw this one coming. There was no time, not even a lifesaving split second like I’ve depended on in the past to separate myself from the bike and control the crash. Nope, not this time.

Riding at night I was partially blinded by street lights on the horizon and slightly distracted by a rolling conversation with my neighbor Hank. I completely forgot about a five-foot-high, 4×4 post set deep in the ground, right in the middle of the trail at the heart of Todd Park.

The obstacle was one of many (up to fourteen, I believe) such poles placed throughout Austin where road meets trail designed to discourage motor traffic from entering the bike trail (and a mind so deviant would never consider driving around the posts either). I’ve had close calls with these maintenance-man made menaces before.

Hank and I were traveling northwest from the bridge at the creek crossing toward the historic Big Pavilion, our pre-determined destination for a rest. We temporally suspended our conversation as I shifted gears, accelerating ahead of Hank in anticipation of the upcoming ascent to the road.

Just at the peak of my burst I met the pole head on; Hank tried to yell a courtesy warning, “Post!” But it was too late.

My left hand and knee got smashed between the bike and the thick stud as we connected in a bone bruising collision. The post was not harmed. My Raleigh went from 15 mph to zero in a hundredth of a second. I was immediately cleared for take-off and then flew over the earth’s sphere like United Airlines before gravity brought me crashing down again to an asphalt landing strip. I tucked and rolled my body in a manner that at least spared me a head injury and maybe a helicopter ride.

I stayed facedown long enough for the shock to kick in and numb things before rolling over and looking up at Hank who remained silent and appeared traumatized by witnessing the horrific collision and subsequent body launching. I knew it must have been bad because he uncharacteristically waited for me to make the first joke before he eventually joined in the conversation. Soon we were re-living the scene over and over while the memory was still fresh in our minds.

“That was the worst crash I’ve ever seen!” Hank exclaimed.

“That was the worst crash I’ve ever had!” I added, “Those posts have got to go.” And we went on like that for awhile.

I missed a couple days of work, staying home popping pain pills like Skittles and melting sacks of ice over my swollen, bruised hand.

Once my hand was moving again I nobly reached for my notebook and painfully authored a lengthy, detailed letter of concern to the city questioning the rationale behind having posts sticking straight up in the middle of the trail.

Surprisingly, the correspondence only went back and forth a couple of times before the city astutely agreed to remove all such posts throughout the trail before winter.

Even more surprisingly, only two weeks later I got a text from Hank back in Austin while I was traveling for work verifying: “ALL posts on the bike trails in Austin have been removed.”

I didn’t write this column to embarrass or criticize the city, and I’m not suing. In fact I would like to commend the city for taking swift action and axing the unsafe obstacles, sparing someone else a similar fate. That was my goal. I’ll never forget that collision for one reason and one reason only: Pain.

Fast forward to last summer. I was reminded of the previous season’s crash again as I hopped into the chair at the local barbershop.

“What are you up to this weekend?” the barber inquired, spraying my hair down with funny smelling water.

“Oh, you know, the usual, wine, women and song,” I mused at first. “Actually my neighbor Hank and I are planning a midnight ride down the Shooting Star Trail,” I added more seriously, as he began snipping away. “It should be a good night for that warm and no wind.”

“Hey, your buddy Jon Erichson (the Austin City Engineer whom I can’t say I’ve actually ever met) was just in here and he’s doing the same thing; maybe your paths will cross on the trail.” The unwitting barber (the same barber I’ve had for over 30 years) suggested while straightening my bangs as he recalled my story about the posts and their prompt removal.

“If I see him I’ll hug him.” I said chuckling as he chopped away.

“That might surprise him a little.” The barber laughed, tightening up my sideburns.

“Not as surprised as I was by the city when they promptly delivered on a big promise to a small potato like me, and ahead of schedule,” I replied sincerely, checking my look in the mirror on the way out. “See you in a month,” I shouted over the clanking of the cowbell hanging on the door and I was off with a new look and attitude which is exactly how a good barber and a cool breeze should make you feel.

Later that day while reflecting on this conversation and preparing for the weekend excursion the idea came to pack the sidewalk chalk I’d stored some time ago in the basement along for the ride.

“Sidewalk chalk, what’s that for?” Hank inquired as we loaded the bikes and supplies into my blue Subaru. “And why do you have sidewalk chalk in your house? You don’t even have a kid,” he teased, closing the car door.

“You always gotta be that nosey?” I said laughing. “Focus on the mission Hank; we’ve got us a thank-you note to write.” I declared adding a lame southern drawl for no particular reason other than to be annoying, as I turned the car key.

“Okay Tex,” Hank replied, “I just hope you know how to spell his name.” as we sped off.

“Name?” I said, “Heck I’ve got his middle initial too. You think I was a communications major for nothing, welder boy?” I asked as I accelerated through the first three gears of the snappy little turbo before finishing the sentence, forcing Hank back in his seat with G-force. “Always define your target clearly when delivering a message, it’s the first rule I learned in college.” I went on arrogantly.

“Okay, shut-up and let’s do this thing!” Hank replied, donning his safety glasses and sticking his head out of the moon roof until his face got warped from the speed and he had to come back inside for air.

As usual, we parked in Adams and rode the 13 miles to Leroy. Near Lake Louise State Park, via bike-light and using very large, colorful but inconsistent font over the course of about 50, feet we etched out the following:

“Jon W. Erickson

Thank You for Removing the Posts.”

We sprawled the message in reverse and up the trail in a manner which made it most readable from a moving bicycle.

I added a peace sign with the leftover chalk. I think Hank added a lame smiley face his six-year-old could have drawn better and our objective was complete.

But the mission, we decided, would only come full circle if the intended recipient of the gracious message had ever actually seen it.

Lots of scenarios passed through our minds; perhaps he’d send us an email or call us. Maybe he’d turn it over to the police, somehow feeling threatened by our wily intelligence work in having pinpointed his location that weekend without even knowing him.

Maybe he’s too grown up to concern himself with silly little messages scrawled in sidewalk chalk by middle-aged, adolescent men. Either way we were left wondering in the days that followed, but never did hear anything and we began to feel perhaps the mission had failed.

“Clankity clank.” went the cowbell over the barbershop door as I re-entered exactly four weeks after I’d last passed through.

“How’s it going?” I inquired, hanging my coat up as usual before sliding into the chair.

“Guess who was in here this week,” my barber asked, completely ignoring my courteous inquiry while sporting a mile wide smile in the mirror back at me.

“Hmm,” I replied after thinking for a moment “We must be on the same haircut schedule.” I surmised, unable to contain my smug little snickers.

“Jon W. Erickson,” He declared, with a heavy emphasis on the middle initial, like a real communications pro.

“Aha! The story finally comes full circle.” I declared victoriously as he began spraying my hair down with funny smelling water.

Thank you, Jon W. Erickson.

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