“Don’t forget to bring the bikes!”
“I won’t, Dad.”
“I have an adventure planned!”
“I know,” I laughed. “We’re excited. See you tomorrow.” I put the phone down and finished packing.
Every August since my kids were young, I’ve packed up the car, said a prayer, and drove from my home outside DC to my family’s home in Ohio. The moment we arrive, my kids jump out of the car and fall into rhythm with their cousins’ vivacious beat—playing house, basketball tournaments, kicking a soccer ball across the yard—while I unload their bags. And our bikes.
My dad became an avid cyclist when I was in elementary school. He’d ride through the long winding Ohio roads, take bike trips with guys half his age where he’d log 30, 50, 80 miles day. Once he did a Century ride—100 miles started in the morning and completed in the evening.
On my tenth birthday, my parents surprised me with a 12-speed men's frame Schwinn road bike. It was shiny cerulean blue in the front fading into silver towards the rear. This bike, always tuned up thanks to Dad, took me around the neighborhood, through unknown numbers of family rides, and it was my mode of transportation the one time I “ran away.” Two decades later, I have a black women's frame Trek mountain bike with a baby seat attached to a frame above the rear wheel.
Ever since the grandkids started to ride on two wheels, Grandpa itched to take them out riding. And not just around the block or down the road to the park. He wanted to do the Cuyahoga Valley Rails to Trails ride with the kids. It’s a national park program (practically in our backyard) which employs freight trains to transport riders and their bikes up and down the valley and river.
The freight train arrived on the track, not ten feet from where we waited—two adults and six kids—with a horn blaring so loud, my nephew ran across the street, crouched down and covered his ears until it stopped. We handed our bikes to the crew, loaded into the coach car, and settled in for the ride, seven miles north. We’d get off and begin to ride back to where we started.
The kids were bouncy, like balls of energy that kept popping into each other, hardly containable. They saw a deer out the window. We took pictures. Then Grandpa and I went over the rules, “Stay together. Stay to the right. If you hear ‘On your left’ it means someone is passing us.”
We got off, retrieved our bikes, mounted up, and began.
A moment later I shouted, “Stay to the right! Stay to the right! STAY TO THE RIIIIIGHT!!!” as a child swerved out of the line into oncoming bike traffic. Every three seconds, I shouted the same thing to a different kid. At one point, my nephew and my son, staying too far to the right, nearly skirted off the trail toward an embankment down to the river.
Okay. Let’s stop.
Who needs water? Everyone. (We’d been biking for eight minutes.)
As the excitement and initial burst of energy wore off, the stopping started.
We stopped when someone scraped their leg. To check if a bee was in their helmet. Because legs were tired. We stopped because someone needed to complain about someone else riding too close. We stopped for more water.
They needed snacks.
They needed constant supervision.
They needed encouragement.
They needed so much.
We arrived to our lunch spot and ate on a weathered outdoor picnic bench under a blue sky and aged oak tree. An eternal pause in the day, as each child needed assistance to open yogurts and granola bar wrappers, and endless cajoling to take ‘one more bite’ of their sandwiches.
Grandpa bought ice cream afterwards, and everyone was properly revived.
With a little over a mile to complete, the kids hopped back on their bikes, and waited.
I’m not sure what happened while I stood eating my peanut butter sandwich, but I could hardly get back on my bike. My legs were fine … but—I couldn’t sit down. My rear started to hurt 10 minutes into the ride, and every time we stopped and started, it got worse. This prolonged lunch stop pushed my butt to its edge.
I clenched my teeth, tightened my arms and sat down on the black gel seat. “Okay, I’m ready. Let’s go guys.” I had tears in my eyes.
We started along the last leg of the ride and my dad accelerated from the back of the pack. “You okay, Sonya?” he asked, as if sitting on a 4x4 square is as easy as breathing.
“Yeah, my legs are okay … but … I can hardly sit down. My butt is killing me.”
He chuckled to himself. Yeah … that happens.
That happens? The man is 67. He should be the one with this problem.
“Any suggestions?” I asked, lamaze breathing through the pain.
He looked ahead, wise and matter of fact, and said, “You just need more time in the saddle.”
Do you remember the first time you tried to change your newborn baby’s diaper, all awkward and bumbling? After a few weeks, though, you could change a diaper (literally) in your sleep.
Do you remember loading yourself up with a diaper bag full of extra clothes, extra bottles, extra wipes, extra toys, extra everything—just to walk out the door? A year later, you threw a diaper and a pouch of applesauce into your bag before strapping your little guy into the car seat for a quick errand.
Do you remember logging pees and poops into an app or switching a safety pin from one side of your nursing bra to the other after each feeding? With more time in the saddle, you simply changed their diaper when it was dirty, and called it a win when they ate a few bites of vegetables and meat at each meal.
Do you remember how you couldn’t remember a time when you didn’t sleep in three hour stretches, and the thought of seven consecutive hours left you lightheaded with desire? And now, despite chronic tiredness, you realize you have been sleeping through the night regularly.
Or how drop-off ripped your heart out? But after while, it didn’t.
How juggling two children and two schedules felt like you were drowning while running a marathon? Or when the situation, the diagnosis, the confession—took your breath and appetite away, leaving you heaving on the floor, consumed? Yet your heart kept beating, your body kept moving—you made it to where you are today.
With motherhood, the conditions are always changing, and we have no choice but to respond. We navigate all the turns, the detours, the unexpected falls.
But the longer we’re in the saddle, the more times we ride the challenging five, arduous 40, and it-might-actually-kill-me 100 mile journeys through to the other side—we attain the sacred knowledge of our own ability and resilience. As if the miles of motherhood condition us into our own strength.
This year, Grandpa and I took seven kids out on the adventure. We stopped only once for water, more because “this is where we’ve always stopped” than anyone actually needing a drink. At lunch, the kids prattled on, feeding themselves while we talked with the man who shared our picnic bench. He was 700 miles into a 1,200 mile bike tour—from his home in Colorado to the birthplace of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in Vermont—to commemorate and celebrate his 20 years of sobriety.
After lunch, the children peddled hard, stayed to the right. I straightened my arms and lifted my head. With shoulders relaxed, my legs pumped strong.
No matter how comfortable we are in our saddle, it's still one day at a time, isn’t it? Bike rides. Sobriety. Motherhood. Life.
Diamonds reflected off the rippling river to our right. A painted field of smiling wildflowers waved to us on our left. Lolling hills slept in the distance. Kissed by the sun, a line of healthy children rode along a dirt trail with their Grandpa.