Like riding a bike, or not

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I’ve heard it said that routines are good, especially healthy ones like getting to bed on time, meditating, eating breakfast, and exercising. But there’s also something to be said for shaking up the routine, adding a little spice to your life, and trying new things. I took up knitting when my kids were younger, and was amazed at how my fingers, which were utterly tangled in the yarn when I began, soon moved in a smooth, perfect rhythm, producing a lovely even row of knits and pearls, where once had been a tight, then loose, mess of unidentifiable stitches. Practice was the key. Since my mom suffers from Alzheimer’s, I’m keenly aware of any new research regarding brain health. I know that novel and complex activities can light up new synapses, which keep the brain sharp and decrease the possibility of degeneration later in life. And so, I attempt to push myself out of my comfort zones when a new interest intrigues me or challenge presents itself.

Take, for example, riding a road bike. While the old adage “it’s like riding a bike” refers to the ease with which you remember a previously-learned skill, there are big differences between bikes and riding styles that can present a brand new set of obstacles, even when “riding a bike.” My road bike has much skinnier tires, and a higher, narrower seat than my old comfy hybrid. At first my starts and stops were klutzy and sometimes painful, but with practice, my brain formed new pathways and I was able to take off and stop with minimal effort. The confidence I gained, and the thrill it now brings me was definitely worth the discomfort I felt at first.

It’s the same kind of discomfort, and then thrill, I’ve experienced when writing. I often feel totally out of my league among other, more competent and experienced writers. I’m afraid to try, for fear of failure, and wait for ideas to come along and hit me over the head before I’ll venture a post on my blog. Until recently, I spent very little time practicing, had no plan, and consequently, produced very little writing and made little progress. Now, with the encouragement of others, I’m attempting to push myself harder, take some classes, practice everyday,  and hone my skill. I remind myself that if I mess up or fall down, I can always get back up and try again. Speaking of which, that reminds me of a story. 

***

It was the winter of plentiful snow days. By Valentine’s Day, the school I work in had racked up ten, due to snow, a polar-vortex, and ice. I was thrilled to get that call at 5:30 a.m. on days #1-6. I started getting a little antsy on days #7 and 8. But by days #9 and 10, it was getting downright ridiculous. I had not only Marie-Kondo-ed my closet, the kitchen, and the mudroom, but had watched all the newly Netflixed “Tidying Up with M.K.” episodes, and started several other new series as well. I had spent hours in my PJs reading and writing, completing the girls’ FAFSAs, drawing up meal plans, and catching up on other menial tasks I tend to procrastinate on. I was running out of things to do, or at least the desire to do them.

Boredom was setting in. Glancing at the calendar I was reminded that in two days my 4-day Presidents Day weekend would commence. At this point, I looked forward to spending more time at home about as much as I yearned for the canned music that plays over and over again when I'm put on hold with the doctor’s office.

“We should go somewhere this weekend! I’m tired of sitting home all alone in this quiet house,” I whined to Tom over dinner on Wednesday, the day before Valentine’s Day. We had made a reservation at one of our favorite local restaurant for the day after Valentine’s, since Friday was a better date night in our minds, and we wanted to avoid the holiday crowds. We had nothing else planned for our weekend. I could already envision hours of Kondo-ing the bathroom closets and craft cabinets. Uhhggg. Cue the repetitive music.

“Well, I do have plenty of vacation time built up, and no meetings scheduled on Friday,” he replied after checking his calendar.

“Okay then. It’s settled! Where should we go?” I queried. We discussed the usual suspects: Chicago, Indy, or maybe even a bit farther south to escape the cold weather. We decided to table our decision until the next day, after we’d spent some time pondering our choices.

Being not the most spontaneous of travelers, we have never just “taken off” with no destination in mind, and typically I have things planned at least a couple weeks or even months in advance. So it was already feeling like a very atypical adventure, when Tom came home on Thursday evening, and asked, “So where are we going tomorrow?”

I had been Googling, and searching the VRBO, Airbnb, and Hotels.com websites for the previous couple of hours. My co-workers had suggested Traverse City, Michigan over lunch, and I took the idea and ran with it. We had been in the general area before, but had never made Traverse City a destination.

“Ummm...well...what do you think about Traverse City?” I said tentatively, not sure how he would feel about driving four hours each way, and heading north into what could be colder and snowier weather. He looked at me questionably, but heard me out. “There are supposed to be great wineries, and cute shops, and maybe we could even try some outdoor sport like cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, or fat-tire biking!”

I had him at “wineries” and “biking.” He was in.

I cancelled our Friday night dinner reservation, and made a hotel reservation instead, deciding on a Comfort Inn with good ratings and an even better price. We arranged to drop off the dog at our son’s house on the way, and we packed our bags.

Friday morning, we loaded up the car, set our GPS for Traverse City, and off we went. Other than the hotel, we really didn’t know where we were going. Other than driving there and back, we had no idea how we’d spend our time over the next three days. We are still learning that one of the perks of an empty nest is the joy and excitement of being spontaneous again, like a newlywed, kidless couple! I was looking forward to breaking out of the house doldrums, and figured a little spontaneity wouldn’t hurt our marriage either.

Regardless of how healthy it is to try new things, even our new-found spontaneity required a little planning. By the time we arrived in Traverse City, we had a plan. Using my laptop with my phone as a hotspot while Tom drove, I had researched things to do in the area, made a list of the most compelling wineries, found a few fat-tire bike rental shops, and Yelped the area’s restaurants. I studied up on the outdoor nature trails the area offered, checked out some maps, and memorized the general geography of the bays and peninsulas. I also remembered a very “cool” thing I’d seen on Facebook a couple months earlier.

“Hey, how would you like to try one of these new-fangled outdoor igloo things? They have them all over Michigan at brewpubs, to entice people to come and hang out during the winter months. You can sit outside under twinkling lights and they’re sort of heated, and it just looks so cool! Literally.”

Tom was intrigued, and since “new adventures” was the theme of the weekend, he said, “Yeah, that sounds like it could be interesting.” We added it to our must-do list.

Once we arrived in the city, we headed straight up Old Mission Peninsula, and leaning into the 25-30 mph winds and snow, we stepped up to the doors of Chateau Chantal. It was the first of three wineries we visited that afternoon. Although it was frigid outside, the soft reds and crisp whites warmed us from the inside out. We’d visited wineries in lower Michigan before, and with practice I was beginning to refine my skills: sniffing the bouquet, tasting the pepper or chocolate or raspberry on my taste buds, and distinguishing the oaky flavors. I could almost feel the synapses firing in my brain.

A good wine has a good finish, letting the flavors linger a little while after the wine has warmed your throat. I could already sense this was going to be a good weekend. A perfect ending to a rough winter.

Three hours later, with three wineries down, and nearly three sheets to the wind, we checked into our hotel. We couldn’t help but notice the pool area and hot tub were overflowing with rambunctious youngsters and their parents. We settled on going out for dinner first, and hitting the hot tub later, after the kiddies had gone to bed. Hauling our bags up to our room, we stumbled onto a pack of little boys racing with hockey sticks through the hallway. Dodging a puck, I muttered, “Looks like there’s a youth hockey tournament in town.”

My observation was later confirmed, and the Comfort Inn (and likely several other hotels in the area) was full of miniature Gretsky-wannabes and their families. Oh well. We had been there and done that for soccer tournaments once upon a time, so who were we to judge? Still, it was a bit of an unexpected kink in our spontaneous, romantic weekend getaway. When we got back from dinner, the hot tub was still packed. We resolved to have a good time anyway, turned on a movie, and La-La-Landed our way off to sleep.

Our room was situated across the hall from a big window overlooking the pool area. At around 8:00 the next morning, as all of the hockey players were gearing up and carbing out at the hotel breakfast, we peered down at an empty hot tub and pool. We quickly donned our swimsuits and ran down for a short soak before breakfast, to start our day.

This was the day our new adventuring would start in earnest. The first item on our agenda was a fat tire bike ride. Since we bike all summer long, and try to keep in shape in the winter (especially Tom), we figured the thing bikers should try in the winter is biking on snow, on bikes with big, fat snow tires. Really, how hard could it be?

Our first challenge was finding bikes to rent. We tried a place called Brick Wheels. They had just rented out their last bikes. So we walked across the parking lot to McLain’s. “Sorry guys. We’re all out. We’d be happy to sell you one though.” “Uh...no thanks. I don't think we're ready to invest yet," was Tom's reply.

We hopped back in the car and drove another 25 minutes up the road to Suttons Bay Bikes. We had called first, and they were holding rentals for us. The friendly guys at the shop suggested we try biking the trail at Leelanau State Park, and they handed us a map. We asked for any pointers on fat tire biking, explaining we were first-timers who typically enjoyed summer road biking. “Hmmm... if you’re used to road bikes, it will be interesting,” one guy said with a half-grin, as he pumped up the fat tires. They put a rack on our car, loaded up two bikes, and handed us our helmets. They told us to have a good time. I should have noticed them snickering in the rearview mirror as we drove off. We were ready to try something new, and figured it couldn’t be too difficult with all our biking experience. I’m sure that old adage, “like riding a bike” must have crossed our minds.

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Let me tell you, riding a fat tire bike, on a barely groomed single-track trail, is NOT like riding a bike! I felt like a 6-year-old, learning to ride all over again. Just taking off took all my strength to get the tires to grip the snow and move my bike. And if I didn’t move fast enough, the front tire would sink into the snow, turn sideways, and down I would go. Fortunately, I was never going more than about two miles an hour and there were fresh, soft snowbanks on either side of the trail, making for a soft landing that was only painful where the bike frame smacked into my calves and thighs.

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I pushed on, noticing Tom (who is always in better shape than I) was also having trouble. To say our ride was “interesting” was an understatement. While the surroundings with pine trees and snow-covered branches were beautiful, it was hard to take in the beauty in the midst of this extremely challenging ride. I found myself riding about 50 feet and then either falling, or stopping to prevent a fall, gasping for air, walking my bike up a tiny hill, and then getting back on again, only to repeat the process.

At times, after falling into a snowbank, I would just lie down on this soft bed of snow and look up at the sky through the maze of branches. I stayed right where I landed until my breathing and heart rate had returned to a more normal level, before taking on the arduous task of lifting my fat self and my fat bike out of the snow. It was totally exhausting, and a bit humiliating, as I realized how totally unprepared I was for this new activity. My goal was simply to finish the ride before slamming into a tree or having a heart-attack.  

With more persistence than I’ve needed in a very long time, I managed to make it to the end of the 2.5 mile trail an hour and a half later. Tom was beginning to catch on, so he rode a bit more while I dropped my totally spent self into the passenger seat of the car, and dreamt of the hot tub back at the hotel. I concluded this new skill was going to take a LONG time for me to catch onto, IF I ever decided to try it again.

Back in Suttons Bay, we thanked the shop guys for the bikes and the adventure. At that point they shared with us some pointers we could have used earlier. Like how you should find trails that are well groomed and packed on your first time out, and how letting a little air out of the tires can make the ride easier in certain conditions. (Luckily, some kind, fellow riders on the trail had shared the air-in-the-tire-secret with us, so we did gain a little, and I stress little, more control as we went along.) We were grateful for any advice we could get from seasoned fat tire bikers, even if it was a bit late for this round of adventure. 

The rest of our day was spent relaxing and unwinding at a few more wineries (this time on the Leelanau Peninsula), browsing some cute little gift shops at the converted old State Hospital/Asylum, and enjoying an amazing Italian dinner at Pepe Nero’s. It was our one real splurge meal of the weekend, topped off with a decadent chocolate dessert that our waitress referred to as “heaven on a plate.” It was.

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Back at the hotel, we again found the pool and hot tub filled to the brim with little bodies and big bodies. Although MY aching body wanted those bubbles, my mind and good sense said, “Nope. Not tonight.” As we settled in for the evening, we watched the documentary RBG on the life and living legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a woman who was not afraid of a challenge, and one who found a way to achieve her dreams despite many obstacles. I looked down at the half-dozen bruises on my legs, and smiled as I remembered the crazy fat tire ride that almost killed me. Or so I thought at the time.

We took it easy on our final day. Another 8:00 a.m. hot tub visit proved to be just the ticket for my sore muscles. Lunch in the igloo at the Hoplot in Suttons Bay was “cool” and delicious. I could almost hear Tim Allen doing one of his "Pure Michigan" commercials as we savored our lunch, and later warmed our feet by the fire. After lunch, we wandered through the gift shops downtown in Traverse City. At Cherry Republic, we tasted chocolate covered cherries, cherry salsa and hard cherry cider.

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We crossed a couple more wineries off of our list. The last one we visited was Mari Vineyards on Old Mission. Looking like a castle, overlooking the vineyards and the bay, it was quite striking. We sipped slowly, as the last bit of Merlot drained from the glass. We knew the best way to taste wine was to let it linger. The finish was perfect, allowing the sweetness to remain long after the wine was gone.

We stepped outside and looked out over the frozen bay, imagining what the scene looked like in the summer.

“We’ll have to come back when the snow is gone,” I said, “with our own bikes.”

“Definitely,” Tom agreed, with a dreamy look in his eyes.

I reached for his glove with my mitten-covered hand, leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek and said "Thanks for the adventure, my love." 

***

A week later, Lady Gaga accepted her first Oscar, and gave us these very fitting, inspiring words:

"I've worked hard for a long time, and it's not about winning. But what it's about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There's a discipline for passion. And it's not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down or you're beaten up. It's about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going."