consider the chipmunks

When I first learned to drive I felt as if I had grown wings.  I flew down the roads of rural and suburban Western Michigan like a gas powered Icarus, always approaching—but never reaching—freedom.  The little Toyota Corolla  has always felt safest on the more scenic routes.  Take it to the highway and it starts to shudder.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if my wings could just fly off while I’m driving, leaving me naked and embarrassed on the interstate.

I first experienced speed-freedom a couple of weeks into learning how to ride a bike.  The first weeks I experienced more pavement than anything else, but once I became comfortable on the seat, I rode up and down the street in front of our home in Manchester, New Hampshire.  When my parents were satisfied that I could pedal around safely enough, I biked around the block for the first time.  “Around the block” really meant down the sidewalk, take a right, take another right and go until you reach the dead end—the house of my best friend.  From there I could bike across his lawn into our back lawn, around our gardens and swingset, and then arrive back home.  Even with my newfound freedom, home was always the final destination.

Since mid-high school, when I got my driver’s license, my bike has sat in the garage in disrepair.  I first used it to unzip Caledonia, climbing up the hill in our subdivision to reach the water tower.  From the water tower through the trees to the park to the town, or from the water tower to the elementary school, middle, or high school.  I began to revisit these paths earlier this summer, after my father helped me restore the bike to mountain-climbing condition.  Although I’ve never used it to climb a mountain, I could.  Any time.

But no, no mountains in Michigan.  Instead, I biked up the hill to the water tower through the trees to the park to the Henry Thornapple trail, down the trail until it ends, reversed, from the end of the trail to the park through the trees to the water tower down the hill to my home.  This has become my thrice-a-week ritual, with occasional variation.  It’s only about 12 miles, but I power through it with my iPod beating my ear drum to keep me at a decent speed.

I usually bike after I return home from my internship.  The sun is still high in the sky and there is usually a breeze.  Last month on a Sunday night, the urge to chase the sunset hit me.  On with the shorts and t-shirt, fill the water bottle, turn on the Silversun Pickups, mount the bike, up the hill to the water tower through the trees to the park to the Henry Thornapple trail, down the trail until it ends—and no view.  I couldn’t see the setting sun, but I did see its pink tentacles slowly pull back from the clouds and retreat behind the trees.  Worth it.  Reverse.

Dad had given me his headlamp (a la miner) to wear when it got darker so I that wouldn’t crash into some car, completely demolishing it.  I put the thing on and clicked through its numerous settings until I found a plain vanilla light.  I continued biking.  A bat raced over my head, thought my headlamp was funny-looking, and told some friends, who also flew by to get a glimpse.  One of them was so bold as to dive at my head, undoubtedly to steal my headlamp and bring it back to the realm of the animals, where she or he would’ve been hailed as god or been assigned a spotlighting job.

It is now the time of the season when the chipmunks prepare for hibernation.  Each year they must find groups to build their dens with.  I’d imagine they go about choosing their den-mates in different ways, but I am sure of at least one practice.  It is a sort of tryout.  I observed it while biking the trail today.  First, there was a squirrel playing stupidly with a twig in the middle of the pavement—a referee pretending to be any old squirrel.  I chased after him until he swerved off the path to my left.  He passed his twig to a young chipmunk, who proceeded to sprint across the path I was about to occupy.

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