December 19, 2019

Just Keep Pedaling

“Sir, buy me a gingeale!” someone shouts as I turn left and lean against the cold to turn onto Jesse Hill Dr. at 4:45am. The statement is such a sudden cut through the meditation of pedaling that I couldn’t respond. Without this contact, this person may have remained invisible to me during a busy day – a disturbing thought to carry as I proceed through my morning routine on general surgery. My medical training is only one facet of membership to a larger community and world, which I am often reminded of as I bike each day.

Although my first foray into bike commuting ended in a broken radius and 6 months of recovery, when I was able to bike again I embraced my able bodied-ness. The feeling of helplessness in my life with a broken arm was replaced with the empowerment of relying on my legs, lungs and arms to steer me to my destination. Through the fog, rain and cold I pedal, rewarded with twice-daily endorphin highs. Though each morning starts the same: with a choice to care for myself enough to get out of the house to exercise while experiencing a little corner of Atlanta.

With bleary eyes and morning fog clouding my mind I clamber into biking clothes. After a rushed breakfast, it is time to face the darkness and cold. The first downhill brings doubt to the fore – is it really worth it in subfreezing temperatures? My fingers say no. My mind reassures them that cold is but a momentary state. We must press on. The downhill ends in a stop sign with a smooth transition to a gentle uphill; the cold onslaught recedes. By the time I hit the crest of Wiley street, heavy breath replaces my gasps of cold air. There is a triumph in the feat of conquering this steady uphill when many are still deep in sleep. My sweatshirt is sticky and only my ankles feel the sting of the cold. As I come down Edgewood, I see bodies huddled into doorways against the cold, and this morning brings a long line of hungry people. When a bundled body steps into the lane, annoyance bubbles up, quickly replaced with guilt knowing that there is no place else this person belongs. His tired face looks up cloaked in a torn jacket with shoes cracked and faded brown, while my jacket repels the cold and my Nikes push the pedals around and around. The smell of close bodies is quickly replaced by the downhill wind and a rush of gratitude for my warm house, sturdy bike and daily purpose. Hills and valleys roll me to Grady, where a surprised guard waves as I deposit my bike in an empty rack. Mission accomplished.

As the cold yields to heat and my mornings start later, I begin to share the road with more fellow bikers. At the stoplight a reflective neon biker comments on the beautiful 40 degree morning with buds adorning the trees and I agree wholeheartedly. We sport matching flashing lights and look over our shoulders to stave off the wayward car as he encourages me to edge gingerly past while he follows closely behind. As the traffic slows and stops we leisurely cruise by in our own lane and onto the sidewalks, thankful to elude the hazards of the morning traffic jam of metal boxes. My mind wanders towards my accidental companion – who is he and where is he going? Each pedal resists the pull of isolation and separation, while bringing us closer to our daytime destinations. Our paths diverge, and I arrive satisfied to feel my breath slow and muscles glow.

The end of the day brings the eager anticipation of the wind on my face during the evening ride home on a warm day. The uncertainty of the day has been replaced with relaxation as I meander slowly home. The hills are welcome challenges and no longer difficult hurdles. My eyes track the cracks in the road and branches that threaten to unseat me: tracking not too close but not too far either. Just as with my medical training, I must remain concentrated on the moment and journey without losing sight of the destination. When a biker pulls out suddenly into the lane I hit my brakes hard. He sees me a second too late, though spends the next three stoplights apologizing – apology accepted. We are kind to each other out here; we have only meager protection against disaster. With each revolution my adrenaline dissipates and my thoughts circle through the events of the day, the smell of the trees and flowers, and the hazards of the revving engine behind me. Hills turn to valleys as home comes closer with every pedal. The bike slows as I stand for the final hill: 7th to 6th to 5th to 4th to 3rd gear as the flat of the driveway stretches out. After parking, the door opens to the furry purring bodies of my “children.” We lounge on the bed as the soft light creeps in, reveling in the moment while their heads butt my hands asking for love. I am reminded of all that I have to cherish: my sister roommate, good health, regular commitments, pets, a safe home and much more.

My bike commute reveals what my car seemingly blocks out – my vulnerability and interdependency. Nothing but my helmet separates me from the pavement; other bicyclists and pedestrians share this same void. I never anticipated the resulting connections and revelations: stories of our commutes, the need for sunscreen/gloves, and the minimal space between me and those who are forced to make their home out in the open. My state and ability to move through my community is but a temporary joy, and each successful passage is a tenuous achievement. I gather this appreciation and bring it with me even as the feeling threatens to slip through my fingers with stress of the jostle of rotations.  As I cling to this, Ophelia Dahl, cofounder of Partners in Health, rings through my head “I think to not be optimistic is just about the most privileged thing you can be. If you can be pessimistic, you are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way.”

Emily Trautner, MD