Bike Riding During the Pandemic Brings Quiet, Fresh Air and Surprises

Yesterday while riding my bike I came across a snake that had been run over by a car and though the tail end of its thick black body was flattened, its head still swayed, its tongue darting. I wanted to swerve away from it but the narrow shoulder on which I rode left little room for maneuvering.  To the right, a thick hedge of thorny foliage, secreting dangers known and unknown, bordered the woods where a ditch, three feet deep and alive with days-old standing water crusted in insects and scum and pollen and oily yin-yang shapes waited for me to skid on a leaf or swerve away from a still live snake writhing in my path and topple into the muck. 

I slowed to a stop and checked my surroundings. No people in sight. I lowered my mask and watched the snake twist and strain.  It was black and thick as a garden hose, with a square head and humps like headlights above the eyes. Later, I’d page through wildlife encyclopedia that I have been using to raise up my reading lamp and identify this animal as a black rat snake. A common species around here, black rat snakes are nonvenomous and helpful to farmers because they keep the rodent population in balance. They suffocate their prey and then swallow them whole. Also, they can scale cement walls and tree trunks without aid. I wish I didn’t know that part. My snake stretched out to probably three or four feet in length. According to the encyclopedia, black rat snakes can grow as long as six feet. I had to feel lucky then, about my snake. If it had been six feet long, its head would have breached the thick white line demarking the shoulder and I’d have surely been forced to veer away. I cannot decide which would have been worse: to face down a black rat snake or be dumped into the ditch. 

I saw the glistening scales contracting in peristaltic waves, steady and strong. If effort had any say in the success of this snake, it would be halfway into the ditch by now. Instead, the body remained stuck to the pavement while the head dipped and swayed, dipped and swayed, and I wondered, did it feel pain? The snake’s movements suggested agony: clenching, tensing, swaying side to side. Whether reptile or human, agony looks unpleasant and I didn’t want to watch any more. But I remained transfixed. The snake’s determination mesmerized me. Dead the moment the tire crushed its spine, it continued to try.

 “Get up,” I said aloud. Of course I humanized it. I decided he’d had a rambunctious hunt the night before, scoring not one but two speckled sparrow’s eggs from a nest tucked into a rusted out old mailbox lying sideways on the floor of an old barn, and he’d spent the next hour in blissful solitude as the eggs were processed along the conveyer belt of his digestive tract, the hooves of penned horses rumbling the ground below.  Or, maybe he’d devoured a rat or a vole. I’d need to do more reading. I watched a while longer, listening to my heart beating. It was always good to hear my heart beat. It was, I knew, not a sound to be taken for granted. I unclipped my helmet, and retrieved my water bottle. Warm air clung to my neck as I drank; overhead the crows screeched.

Since the winter I’ve been watching the birds from my easy chair at the window with binoculars at my side and the Almanac of Eastern Birds open on my lap. Woodpeckers, geese and mallard ducks osprey and herons and night owls have become my friends in the absence of everyone else. They have filled in the gap of human interaction and become my regular companions. And then, when the air hinted at spring, I found a used bike for sale on a neighborhood chat, the perfect solution to winter isolation. I bought a sturdy helmet at Home Depot. I added a little pouch strapped with Velcro to the handlebars for my phone and my mask, and a clamp to holds a water bottle. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a kid, but it’s true what they say: you never forget how to ride a bike. 

One of my favorite bike routes is on a point of land that extends far into the water where I can see the boats dotted atop the Chesapeake Bay. There, the wind can be so fierce as to knock a person off their feet, but I think this is one of the best parts of riding near the water. Brisk salt air smells like health, and the gusts themselves seem to transmit strength and wellness and, maybe, even immunities. Life along the shore is fast and turbulent. Fish fling their slivery bodies out of the water in stripes of light. Gulls screech and chatter to one another.  The birds, the sand pipers, the turtles. It is all very encouraging, though it can be difficult to maintain balance when observing a mound of piggy-backed horseshoe crabs making their way to the sandy shoreline in search of a good place to dig a nest. Nature is blissfully unhindered by our human mistakes – so far – and continues to swarm and sing.

The path’s entrance beckoned from a few hundred yards ahead.  Its head rested briefly on the cement pavement. “Get up,” I said it again. The snake’s tail writhed and curled on the pavement. A car was coming; I heard the engine beyond the curve in the road. There was nothing I could do to save this animal. I repositioned my ear buds and coaxed my bike forward.        

            Riding  is my time to not think. To blur out the images of sickness and suffering, block my mind with music that silenced the relentless undertones of panic of human voices. 

I clicked into gear and allow myself to settle, focusing on the pleasant gyration of tires on earth. The path led to the water, to the long green parkland that braced the Bay. A gull screamed from a wooden piling stranded near a washed away dock. Come this way, it seemed to call.  I turned my face to the wind and focused on my legs, on my hands, on my breath, on the very lucky stroke of being alive.