Over the Hill
We were two fifty-year-old men, a research chemist and a science teacher--one going gray, the other bald--driving around northern Ohio on Saturday mornings, searching for steep hills. We wore black spandex shorts, white T-shirts and cheap, dark, aviator sunglasses we’d picked up at the local drugstore. Our eighteen-speed road bikes bounced on the rack strapped to the back of Norm’s Mazda while our helmets rolled around in the backseat and our elbows poked out the open windows. Bruce Springsteen sang “Glory Days” on the tape deck and loose maps flapped in the console between the two front seats. We chewed on toothpicks with practiced nonchalance.
We were Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Butch and Sundance, Pancho and The Cisco Kid, Hawkeye and Trapper, Frick and Frack. It was like we were making our own movie and we were hoping to be the stars.
One long, steep hill, no curves, no blind intersections, no gravel, no potholes, no loose dogs. That was all we wanted. We didn’t care about the posted speed limit or if there was a cop sitting at the bottom waiting. A cop, in fact, would have been nice, one with an itchy finger on a radar gun, a cop with an attitude, one who would give us tickets, written proof we’d hit fifty on our bikes.
We’d hit forty-two on a hill outside Hinckley, Ohio, and forty-four near Parkman. On Blair Road, east of Painesville, we nudged forty-seven, but on Vrooman Road, which was longer and steeper, we barely broke forty-five. Cool mornings with a tailwind were best. Hot asphalt went tacky and pulled at the tires like glue. One Saturday in late July, we found a newly paved road that dropped hundreds of feet down to the Grand River. The surface was as smooth as a NASCAR race track, and there was no loose gravel or blind curve at the bottom. We shot down that hill on our bikes as if we were riding rockets, but for some reason--we later decided the road was one of those gravity defying optical illusions--we never cracked forty. On a promising hill south of Mentor, we were approaching forty-five when a dozen Canada geese waddled out of a field and squatted on the pavement not more than a hundred yards in front of us. We squeezed the brakes, swerved and swore, narrowly missed the squawking birds, then went back and chased them into a nearby yard. We tried the hill a second and third time, but the gooey droppings they left in the middle of the road created a scatological minefield that frightened us even more than loose gravel and potholes. We never came close to forty-five again.
Had we been living in Colorado, or even West Virginia, biking down a hill at fifty miles an hour would have been a snap, but Ohio was leveled by the Ice-Age glacier ten thousand years ago and is mostly flat. Here and there the ice sheet left moraines, gentle hills of sediment which make good places for graveyards and well-drained cornfields but lousy places for high speed runs on bikes. In other places, where the Grand River and Cuyahoga River carved steep valleys, the hills are long, but the roads often end in sharp curves or narrow bridges.
Norm and I had spent an entire spring evening circling promising places on a topographic map, and week by week we crossed them off as we failed to find the perfect hill. By the end of July our search had expanded to all of Northeast Ohio, and I began to feel more and more like one of those East Coast fishermen who, sailing farther and farther out to sea for the big fish, risks never finding his way back home.
When we were in our twenties and thirties, we never planned our adventures. They just happened. We did somersaults out of a canoe in the middle of Punderson Reservoir. We swam two miles out into Lake Erie at sunset, said hello to a couple in a sailboat, then swam back to shore. We biked across Ohio and once went sledding on a closed road in Hells Hollow, where I chipped a tooth and cracked three ribs. We ran dozens of marathons, climbed thirteen thousand foot peaks in Colorado, raced kayaks down the Grand River, rode grocery carts down the hill behind Lake County Hospital, and late one night went into the high school gym where I taught and took turns swinging by a rope from the top of the bleachers, falling onto a trampoline, then bouncing though the air and dunking a basketball before crashing on strategically placed wrestling mats.
We were wild and dangerous, or so we liked to pretend, but then something happened. We began talking more and more about retirement, the dangers of too much sun, the benefits of fiber, and how we no longer tolerated caffeine the way we once had. We complained about cold weather and being tired. Snow became a headache rather than an opportunity for a snowball fight. Norm still played softball, but it had been six years since he’d last jacked a high outside pitch over the left field fence. We joked about things we’d done rather than finding new things to do. We said “Remember when…” more and more often. “Remember when we were in high school and rode the horses across Tubby Parker’s lawn?” “Remember when we got out of the army, how we sat in the shade, ate those candy bars, and refused to salute a single soul?” “Remember the Skylon Marathon, how we nearly collapsed from hypothermia and then stopped at Howard Johnson’s on the way home and downed four vanilla shakes?” They were good memories, but it was like the needle was stuck and the record kept playing the same nostalgic tune.
We had changed in other ways, too. Teenagers annoyed Norm. He didn’t like their tattoos, spiked hair, pierced lips, or the way the boys wore their baseball caps backwards. He complained for a week about the cost of a new dehumidifier he wanted for the house and threatened to quit getting the newspaper when the price of the daily went up a nickel. I worried excessively about the fat in French fries, the national debt, global warming, the rising cost of prescription drugs, and the pain in my left shoulder. I couldn’t figure out where the years had gone or why they were passing so fast.
Our friends seemed to embrace middle age. They laughed about the impossibility of losing weight, the pain in the ass Generation X had become, and the brutal nature of Ohio winters. They joked too much about Viagra, Rogaine, and anti-wrinkle creams. They said Norm and I were finally growing up, but in our eyes we were only growing old.
Norm and I were alike in many ways, not the least of which was the tendency to go left when we were told to go right. We hated following a crowd, a trend or a fad. We ignored “No Trespassing” signs at the nuke plant and the “No Swimming” signs at a Lake Erie Beach. Norm wore a bow tie to irk his bosses, and three times he “lost” the tag that allowed him to park in the company lot. Contrary to the school dress code, I wore jeans everyday, and I pasted my mandatory parking pass to my bumper upside down. Our slogan: You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.
It was like we were living in one of those science fiction movies, The Body Snatchers or some such thing. Along with classmates and friends, we were succumbing, the youth sucked out of us. Overnight, stray hairs sprouted on our shoulders, in our ears, and from the tops of our toes. One night I had a dream I was a buffalo in a herd of thousands of buffaloes stampeding across the Great Plains toward a giant cliff. I saw symbols of aging and lost youth in everything from the approach of distant storms to leaves dropping prematurely from the oak tree in Norm’s front yard.
One evening we were hunched over cups of green tea at Norm’s kitchen table when he said, “Middle age sneaked up and grabbed my sagging ass.” We were staring at our cups when I got the idea we should fight back. We tossed possibilities back and forth but none sounded promising until he came up with the fifty-mile-an-hour hill. It was a silly idea, a game of sorts, and at the time we thought it was damn funny. This happened in May, the month of lilacs, green grass, and short skirts. A time of youth and possibility.
Every weekend for the next three months we drove to a different hill, climbed on our bikes and raced down as fast as gravity and the pedals would take us. Despite our many attempts, however, we failed to reach the magic speed. At first we laughed. We were having fun and what else mattered? Then some of our friends urged us to get more aerodynamic helmets and new bikes, ones with frames made of carbon composites-”lighter and faster,” they promised. But we liked our aluminum bikes and our older helmets were fine, and new bikes were terribly expensive. Besides, that wasn’t how the game was played. Other friends began suggesting possible places, likely hills where we might find success. But the hills were too short, not steep enough, or had a traffic light or stop sign at the bottom.
At some point, we began to take ourselves and the hills more seriously. It was no longer just a game. Finding a fifty mile an hour hill became more and more important. If this was our movie, then it had gone from a comedy to something else. We pretended that our efforts were in fun, but we secretly knew they had become a matter of life or, well. . . giving in to middle, if not old, age. Then, at the end of August, Norm heard about a long hill on a country road near Hiram, a small college town southeast of Cleveland, and we had renewed hope. We met at his house early on a Saturday morning for one more try.
The neighborhood slept, everyone growing older in bed, while Norm and I whispered, tossed our helmets, gloves and water bottles in the back seat of his car. A newspaper boy on a rusty bike winged papers at houses, waved at us, and took the corner without hands. We returned the wave, watched him disappear down the street, then strapped our bikes on the back of Norm’s car and headed out of town.
We caught up with the kid on the bike, and, as we passed, he put his head down and tried hard to beat us to the next intersection. Norm grinned and stepped on the gas. “Dream on, kid,” I said. But perhaps we were the dreamers and the kid knew it. He laughed, then threw up both arms as if knowing he would eventually win.
A few miles later, we passed a retirement community overlooking a plush golf course. Norm called the condominiums “Raisin Ranches,” places where wrinkled retirees rode golf carts and sipped Whiskey Sours and Old Fashions. “Wingtips and white socks,” he said. He looked in the rearview mirror and shook his head. “If you can smoke and play at the same time, it’s not a sport.”
I punched the rewind knob on the tape deck and The Boss sang “Glory Days” one more time. We had shaved our legs, stripped the bikes of mirrors and reflectors, and over-inflated our tires. We had calibrated the digital speedometers down to the decimal point and carefully adjusted the tension on the spokes, so the wheels would run straight and true. I rolled the toothpick to the corner of my mouth and nodded. Norm nodded back.
I don’t know what frightened us so much about growing older. Perhaps it was visions of beltless polyester pants, stretch jeans, gold chains around our necks, and wristwatches that weighed half a pound. Maybe it was the fear of arthritis, bifocals, chest pains or worse. Maybe we were sad about what we’d already lost. Both Norm’s father and mine had died fairly young and neither of us had an older male in our lives on whom we could model our behavior. There was no one in front of us running interference. We sensed that growing older was “giving up” and hoped hitting fifty on our bikes would rejuvenate us, make us younger in ways nothing else could.
The hill outside Hiram was longer and steeper than we’d expected. There was no curve or blind intersection at the bottom, and it seemed as if the engine on Norm’s Mazda groaned louder than ever as it climbed to the top. Even better, the approach to the hill was flat. We’d have a flying start before we dropped over the lip.
We drove on for nearly a mile, then stopped, parked on a dirt side road where we untied our bikes, checked the tires, checked the wind--a slight breeze at our backs--slipped our shoes into the toe clips and pedaled toward the hill. Our first trip down was to check things out, study the pavement for loose gravel and bumps, little things for a car but potentially deadly hazards for a high-speed biker.
It was a beautiful morning, all blue and green and without a cloud in the sky. Pale blue chicory blossoms lined the road, and for miles in every direction there were cornfields and hayfields and trees soaking up the sun. A tractor chugged through a ripe timothy field and several crows cawed at us from a dead limb hanging across a fence. A groundhog chewed on a blade of grass then scurried along the road and disappeared. There was no sign of geese. The omens were good.
“Maybe sixty,” Norm said.
We were halfway down the hill when we saw a young woman, maybe a quarter mile away, strolling down a farm lane toward the road. Gravity and curiosity accelerated us forward. I needed reading glasses for close work, but my distance vision was good. A full thirty yards before Norm smiled, I could see that the woman didn’t have much on. She watched us as we coasted closer. We stared back.
Usually, after reaching the bottom of the hill on our trial run, we immediately turned around and went back up, but this time we continued on toward the lane and the girl. The closer we got, the more skin I could see. Pretty skin, too. Smooth and tan. She was eighteen or twenty, and wore a bright red bikini although there was, as far as we could see, no pool or pond for miles. She was barefoot and stepping carefully, her long legs hesitating, as she walked over the sharp stones.
We tapped our brakes.
She stopped at the end of the lane, one hand shading her eyes while she watched us approach. The other hand rested on a hip. “Morning,” she said. Her brown hair was tossed and tangled. It looked as if she’d just crawled out of bed.
“Morning,” we answered. I squeezed my brakes again and slid my foot out of the toe clip. She smiled and I tried to think of something clever to say, perhaps a joke about the weather, the foolishness of what we were about to do, or a question about the location of the beach or pool. I had the feeling she was coming to the road to meet us, tell us to be careful or admire our bikes, and I was determined to look her in the face and not let my eyes wander when she talked. But as we were about to stop, she turned and opened the mailbox, looked inside and pulled out a handful of letters.
“Have a good day,” she said. Then she turned and started up the lane, her toes picking spots safe from sharp stones, the bikini bottoms rolling with each tender step.
Norm and I watched, then slowly turned our bikes back toward the hill. “A late sleeper,” I whispered.
Norm held up his water bottle as if making a toast. “To the U.S. Mail.”
“To rural delivery,” I answered.
In our pretend movie she would have been Julie Christie and we would have been two war heroes. She would have fallen in love with us both but would have chosen me because of my daring acts on the bike. Norm, I suspect, was writing the script so she would fall for him.
We climbed the hill and pedaled on for another quarter mile after reaching the top. Then Norm stopped, bent down and pressed the palm of his hand against the asphalt. The road, he said, was cool and that was good. The certainty that we would hit fifty, maybe more, was so great I began to consider what we might do next. There were fourteen thousand foot peaks in Colorado, and Norm had been hinting at jumping out of a plane. I thought of John Glenn who had gone back into space.
I took a deep breath, Norm nodded, and we turned and raced for the hill. We accelerated as if we’d been launched by a giant sling shot. I felt like Breedlove at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Chuck Yeager in the X-15, Eric Heiden on skates, Neil Armstrong on top Saturn V, Jeff Gordon in #24. By the time we reached the crest, we were going thirty-three miles per hour. The tires sang. I shifted gears and pedaled harder. We went over the top and the speedometer turned thirty-five, thirty-eight, forty. I hugged the frame of the bike. The wheels hummed in a higher pitch and my eyes watered. Forty-three. Norm was a few yards in front and on my left.
At forty-five my front tire began to wobble. A small wobble to be sure, but a wobble nonetheless. At forty-six I began to worry about a tire blowing out or the groundhog running back onto the road. I worried about the bike disintegrating, the handlebars, spokes, wheels, and pedals flying off in different directions. I worried about suddenly losing my balance and wondered how far I would slide if I crashed and how much damage I would do to both bike and bones. I calculated the time and distance to the nearest hospital and guessed how many pints of blood I might need. I worried about not healing as fast as I once had.
I don’t know what went through my mind next, but in my frequent retelling of our story I recall an old black and white movie I’d seen when I was a kid. A test pilot--was it Steve McQueen?-- was trying to break the sound barrier, but as he pushed the jet into a steep dive and plunged toward the Earth miles below, his face became distorted with the increasing g-forces, and the plane began to shudder and shake. The altimeter spun around faster and faster as he sped toward the ground. He was on the verge of crashing. The ground control officers yelled to him over the radio. “Pull out! Pull out!” But he didn’t hear them, or maybe he ignored them. The plane shook even harder and threatened to break apart any second as he approached the critical speed. Then, the eight-year-old boy I was, sitting on the floor eating a bowl of Sugar Pops, screamed: “Pull out!”
With a good stretch of steep hill still ahead and the wind whistling over my helmet, it may have been that eight-year-old voice that I heard again. Norm, I think, heard it, too. With our bikes falling at forty-eight point five miles an hour, we both hit the brakes.
We coasted nearly a mile down the road, past the empty mailbox, then slowly pedaled into Hiram. We found an old-time cafe and leaned our bikes against a parking meter near the window, hoping someone might come along and steal them. Inside, an elderly woman on the other side of the counter called us “gentlemen” then stared at us, looking for clues as to who we were or where we were from. We sat on red vinyl stools and sipped ice-cold fountain Cokes while sausage patties sizzled on the grill and a couple regulars bantered back and forth at the other end of the counter. When we finished, we climbed back on our bikes, snapped the straps on our helmets and rode out of town.
The sun was hot on our backs and waves of heat rose from the pavement. The farm lane was empty and there was no sign of the girl.
We pedaled up the hill, stopped at the car, and sat on our bikes. Red-winged blackbirds called from fence posts, and a baler clacked in a nearby field. The air was sweet with the smell of fresh cut hay. “Beautiful day,” Norm said.
But I was still looking for symbolism in this strange movie of ours, and I now noticed that the deep blue of the morning sky had faded to that of a well-worn pair of jeans, and although it was a full two months before the onset of fall, the summer green was beginning to leak out of the trees that lined the far side of the fields. I was a little embarrassed by our vanity, our desire to be young. I remembered how silly I had felt when at the age of ten I’d been caught playing cowboys and Indians and my father had told me it was time to grow up.
“Yeah, beautiful,” I answered.
Norm kicked a stone off the pavement. “We don’t have to prove anything.”
“Or impress anyone,” I said.
“We’re only kidding ourselves if we think we’re not getting older,” he said, pulling a long stem of grass from the side of the road and sticking it in his mouth.
I wanted to warn him that the grass might have been sprayed but I kept quiet.
“It was fun though,” he said.
I nodded. “Surewas.”
Our friends, I thought, had it right after all. At least they accepted getting older. And golfing? What was the difference, really, between that and biking down a hill, other than speed? I scraped my foot against the road.
Norm glanced back in the direction of the hill. “It was a stupid thing to try,” he said.
“Stupid,” I answered and we both laughed. And for a minute I thought that I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Ice-cold Cokes, a pretty girl parading down a lane in a bikini, blue skies, and a friend who was growing old just as fast as I was.
Norm nodded at the farm lane in the distance. “She sure had pretty legs.”
“She sure did,” I said.
We looked at each other, then at his car and then toward the hill. I stuck one foot in the toe clip. Norm did the same. I turned the front wheel of my bike back toward town. Norm grinned and we both fastened the straps on our helmets. I shrugged and without another word between us, we were off. We shifted gears and cranked the pedals harder and faster than before. I slid my hands away from the brake levers, lowered my head, and tucked tight to the frame. By the time we got to the crest we were flying. Then gravity took over and we accelerated as if we were being sucked into a gigantic black hole. We shot down that hill faster than we’d ever gone, howling like two old fools the entire way.
Roger Hart’s story collection, Erratics, was published by Texas Review Press. He is currently working on a novel. Find him on Facebook.