Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

28 June 2010

Lightning Crashes

I didn't do a lot of cycling today:  just short hops for errands to the bank, post office and dry cleaner.  The day grew oppressively hot and humid very early and very quickly, and the haze that stretched like a gauze over the sun actually made it seem hotter somehow.  But, of course, that haze was a prelude to the weather about which the forecasters were warning.

I was tempted to go out in the rain.  I used to do that often when I was younger:  On warm, wet days I would hop on my bike while wearing as little as I could get away with.  I reasoned that on a warm day, I didn't need insulation, and that whether or not I wore anything, I'd be soaked to my skin anyway.   

Plus, I used to love the feel of the rain against my skin.  Actually, I still do.  And I'll tell you a secret:  It's better when you're not high or drunk.  It's even better when you're full of estrogen.  

Anyway...I didn't go for a ride in the rain.  What the National Weather Service issued was not just a forecast for rain; it was a warning of severe thunderstorms.  Somehow I get the feeling that getting struck by lightning wouldn't enhance my experience of the ride.  Plus, it got very windy.   There was a tornado in Connecticut last week, so I was thinking of that.  

Now, I've ridden--though unintentionally--through thunderstorms.  Why do they call them "thunderstorms" anyway?  The thunder is just a lot of noise:  It doesn't do much more than make my cats hide.  It's the lightning that really matters, especially when you're riding.

Of the times I've ridden in thunderstorms, two in particular come to mind.

The first was some time in my early adulthood.  It was about a year after I'd gotten back from living in France.  My grandmother had died a few months before, and I was still grieving and angry (and would remain so for a long time afterward).  I had moved back to the town where I went to college.  That wasn't a good move, except for one thing:  New York wasn't far away.  Sometimes I would make a day trip out of pedalling in, riding in the parks or along the Verrazano-Narrows promenade, or through some neighborhood that looked interesting, and having lunch and/or going to book and record shops before riding back.  

Well, on that day, I pedalled out to Coney Island--which, in those days, looked like the Atlantic City of Louis Malle's eponymous film, but without the colorful characters.  All that you could find there in those days, besides Nathan's (whose French fries I used to love), were whatever the tides deposited on the beach and the subways expelled onto the streets.  It was literally the end of the line, in every way you could think of.

And that was part of its appeal for me. It was a time in my life when I was disguising my self-loathing as some sort of somewhat hip misanthropy--and I pretended not to be aware of what I was doing.  I convinced myself that I hated all those people who looked like they were having fun when the truth was that I wanted to be one of them.  That would have violated almost everything I believed --or professed to believing --in.

So...When I got to Coney Island--after about forty miles of riding--I bought something that was, at the time, illegal everywhere in the US and is now allowed for medical purposes in a few states.  (I can say this now, as the statute of limitations has expired!)  In those days, it wasn't hard to find on Coney Island.  And, let's just say that afterward, I spent I-don't-know-how long watching the waves before going to Nathan's and eating three orders of French fries, the way I have always liked them:  garnished with spicy mustard and diced onions.

As I passed under the viaduct for the trains, rain began to drop.  As I crossed the bridge over Coney Island Creek into Bath Beach and Bensonhurst,  the drops turned into a fall, then a deluge.  I heard rumblings, but I kept on riding.

Then I climbed the stairs to the Brooklyn Bridge.  (The ramp to Tillary Street hadn't been built yet.)  Enough rain had fallen that the pavement and pedestrian path weren't slick; the rain was washing everything away.  So, I wasn't concerned until I was near the middle of the span, a couple hundred feet over the water.

Then, the lights of the city got bright--really bright.  Lightning flashed all around me:  Only Roebling's hundred-year-old steel cables stood between me and it.  High as I was, I started to get nervous.  I remembered--from Boy Scouts?--that lightning will strike the tallest thing in its path.  All right, I thought, the towers of the bridge stood a couple hundred feet higher than I did.  But each of them was about a quarter-mile away from me, in either direction.  And I was at the point on the bridge where the long transverse cables dip.  So, as there were no other cyclists, and no pedestrians, on the bridge, it looked like I was the tallest structure between those two towers.  

Nearly two decades later, I would have a much closer encounter with lightning while riding.  Tammy and I were touring the Loire Valley.  We had left Chinon that morning and were pedalling along one of the many pleasant roads (Routes Departmentales) found in that area.  The early sunshine continued into afternoon; about an hour after we had lunch, the sky darkened quickly.  We were in flat farm country:  The only things that stood before us, besides the tall poppies, grain and trees, was a silo that looked to be a few kilometers away.  

Seemingly within an instant, we went from glistening with our sweat to slick from the rain that poured down.  She spotted what looked like a lean-to, but we both decided it was better to press on:  We were soaked and we didn't know how long the storm would last.

I felt my skin tingle that turned into a subcutaneous electric shock.  I yelled, "Watch out!"  A bolt of lightining crashed only a few meters, if that, in front of me.  That night, ensconced in one of those charming gites one finds whether or not one is looking for them, we agreed that it was the loudest boom either of us had ever heard.  At least, I'm pretty sure that's what we said:  I think my hearing was just starting to come back.

Hmm...If I'd been struck by lightning that day, I could have been a hero, sort of.  After all, it would have hit me because, I was riding in front of Tammy.  (I did through most of the trip, mainly because I'd cycled in that part of France before, could speak French and had navigational skills that were less bad than hers.  That's not to say mine were or are good:  I inherited them from Columbus!)  Would I have been given la Legion d'Honneur for protecting a woman's honor?  

Of course, I've since learned that a woman is the only one who can protect her own honor, and that we perpetuate the patriarchy--and, sometimes, simply get along--when we let men think they're doing that for us. But I'm digressing--really digressing!

That day in the Loire Valley, I was many years clean and sober and could practically feel the lightning coursing through me.  I can only imagine how it would feel now, as the hormones seem to have removed one layer of skin all over my body and the surgery seems to have pulled away another.  Actually, it did, but that's another story. 

P.S.  If you're worried that cycling will make you impotent, don't read this.  

1 comment:

  1. Great story! I love storms, regardless of whether I'm riding in them or not. I could (and have been know to) just lay outside in them. I love then rain on my skin and the adrenaline rush from the thunder/lightning/winds. The bigger the storm the better. :) I've only been caught in two on my bike so far this year.