Paths Untaken

Some of the best memories of my adolescence involved hauling my bike out of the garage on a clear summer morning and simply riding to wherever the pavement beneath my tires took me.

Sometimes, that meant the mall two miles away, or perhaps the better mall five miles into the suburbs. On more adventurous days, I would make my way to one of several Illinois forest preserves dotting the city-limits neighborhood we lived in, some with finely paved trails, others comprised entirely of foot-worn dirt trails winding through relatively unmanaged forest.

I love a good bike trail, something about following the path and seeing where it led, it didn’t matter where, be it a park or a different neighborhood or even a wooded dead end (those were the best) the journey was always more exciting than the destination. And while I enjoyed the paved state-maintained network of interconnected, color-coded and mapped out bicycle trails, the more makeshift or otherwise neglected paths, to me, were far more satisfying to ride and explore.

Part of it was the unpredictability of the dirt trails. While some were simply old paths that weren’t it much use anymore, others were clearly just forged out of foot and tire traffic, narrow passages of barren earth cutting through grassy prairies, up steep slippery inclines, and sometimes running beneath trash-laden bridges. More often than not, there was no clear indicator as to where one trail ended and another began, the way splitting into multi-prong forks or disappearing all together without warning, only to begin anew some thirty yards away.

There was always a chance to get completely turned around and lost despite being in a patch of forest that only measured a few square miles surrounded entirely on all sides by civilization. But for a city kid with no real survival instincts, it was easy to lose sense of where that distant highway was or to forget to think about the sun’s position. There were moments of very real panic as I careened wildly down a weed-covered hill on an aging mountain bike too short for my sprouting teenage frame, unable to stop myself before slamming into thick-growing trees without purposely sliding sidelong into muddy ground.

On that same day, I can recall clearly a feeling of unrivaled achievement as I carried my bike against my shoulder, tires caked in thick mud, over the fallen remains of a decaying tree and across a small ankle-deep stream to find myself in a seemingly untouched clearing devoid of any sound or sight of human activity. For that moment in time, I felt as if I were at the end of a great expedition to find some promised land, standing before a new unclaimed territory even though in reality there was probably a CVS less than a mile from where I stood.

Truly though, the best (and worst) part of the trails were those multi-prong forks. Time and time again, I would return to a trail just to take the path nor taken before, only to find even more split pathways leading perhaps to even further uncharted branch-offs. A lot of times, the branches would intertwine, cutting into old familiar pathways or they would end outright, sometimes (disappointingly) in some quiet suburban cul-de-sac, other times at some cryptic insect-infested groundskeepers shack long abandoned. It didn’t matter, I simply had to know where each path went and how they connected to one another if at all and it drove me crazy to know there were paths I had not yet traveled down or had missed out on altogether.

I mean, obviously these memories have a lot of implications on life in general, about missed opportunities and unexplored ventures, and I guess you could take this to be a broader take on how we should all attempt to take the road less traveled every now and then… but honestly, I really just miss riding my bike.



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