A bicycle. Isn’t that what every little boy wants for his birthday?

Apparently, it’s what every soon-to-be-middle-aged man wants also, because it’s what I bought myself for my 39th birthday. So it was that on July 3, 2000, I decided to treat myself to an epic ride.

Our city has an excellent network of bike trails that wind through lovely parks and forests, allowing Red Deerians to escape the city without ever actually venturing out of it. I set out with no specific course in mind, simply determined to take full advantage of the wonderful summer weather and some glorious time alone. No work or family obligations; just me, the open road and my new mountain bike.

For the most part, the outing lived up to my great expectations. It was only near the end that things took a bit of an unfortunate turn.

Nearing home, I needed to decide between one of two options for ascending the hill that would take me back into my own neighbourhood. One involved continuing along my current course for a time, which would ultimately lead to a long, slow (8 minute?) climb up a wide, smooth bike trail.

The more immediate option stared me right in the face. Perhaps even dared me to attempt it. There was a little creek to my left, running parallel to the bike path. A short distance ahead was a quaint  bridge that would allow me to cross the stream. Then I could make a hard left onto a shale walking path, followed by a sharp right, straight up a very rough, steep trail that would get me to the top of the hill (2 minutes, maybe).

Here are the primary factors which led to my rather unfortunate decision:

  1. I had a new mountain bike. Mountain bike. For climbing mountains.
  2. It would be faster (theoretically).
  3. It was my 39th birthday, and although some might characterize 39 as being on the very brink of middle age, surely I was as young and strong and manly as I had ever been, and this wee slope would be no match for the sheer power and courage of the manbeast that I was, and would always remain. (I fully acknowledge that this last one was more of an emotional reaction than a fully formed coherent thought. And remember, the hill had dared me.)

The first sign of trouble came early. I built up as much speed as I could coming off the bridge, knowing that I would need some momentum. But there was a large log stretched across the base of the slope, separating it from the shale path—almost like they didn’t want people to ride their bicycles up the hill. But I had a mountain bike, so it would be fine. In any case, I did have to slow right down to get over the log, which meant that I very soon found myself beginning my very daunting upward journey at a distressingly low speed.

I might have decided to turn around there, had I been in my right mind. But what I thought instead was, Let’s see what this mountain bike can do! I began to pedal furiously, and my speed immediately doubled (from 1 kph to 2 kph). Looking up, I realized that I had much farther to go than I had thought. When one has ridden bicycles for most of one’s life, one develops something of an internal computer for assessing the interrelationship of variables such as steepness of hill, rate of speed and length of climb. Mine was screaming, “Warning! Abort! Abort!”, to which I responded by intensifying my efforts.

Then things got interesting. The hill got steeper. Apparently the first third of the trail was just a gentle introduction. Now I found myself almost at a standstill, and faced with a very simple set of facts:

  1. When one finds oneself on a dirt trail upon a very steep hill, there are two directions one might travel, those being either up, or down.
  2. When one is facing up, going down means going backwards, which is disconcerting in the extreme.

Quitting was really not an option now, so I went with my lifelong go-to: sheer determination. I would, like the hero that I was, simply summon the strength, courage and know-how with which I had been so uniquely endowed, and triumph against all odds. At that moment, my eyes fell upon the horns that rose triumphantly from the handlebars of my new bike. In one swift maneuver, I seized hold of them and pulled with all my strength whilst also giving the pedals one last mighty push. The results were predictable (but not by me at that point in time, unfortunately).

The bike reared up so that I immediately found myself blinded by the high, midday summer sun. For one gut-wrenching moment, I teetered on the verge of falling completely over backwards. I desperately leaned left, and my bike followed suit so quickly that I instantly spun 180 degrees. All at once I was facing downhill and travelling very, very, swiftly. The scene before me included a wooden signpost, the remainder of the hill, the log at its base, the trail, and the bushes that lined the embankment along the creek.

The signpost required my immediate attention. Somehow I squeezed between it and the forest just beside it. (Not sure how. I’m going to say divine intervention. Looking at it afterwards, there was barely enough room for the bicycle to pass through.) Then came the log. After that, the next thing I recall is finding myself upside down in a thornbush, precariously perched on the embankment, metres away from the creek, bicycle still in place between my knees. The front wheel spun slowly against the bright blue sky, a single green leaf wedged in its spokes, mocking me.

Moses heard from God through a burning bush. This was my version of that, I suppose, although until very recently, it served as nothing more than a funny story to tell. What I’m now able to see is that this incident was something of a metaphor for the 39 years that had preceded it, and perhaps a warning regarding the ones yet to come. Namely, if one insists upon taking on the the wrong challenges, or even the right challenges for the wrong reasons, one will eventually end up upside down in a metaphorical bush. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to grasp hold of the message yet, and I continued to forge headlong up any hill that presented itself in my personal or professional life, undaunted by the numerous warning signs that should have alerted me to danger.

Why? The thrill of accomplishment. The need to be exceptional. The approval of others (and failing that, myself) that goes along with those things. Of course, I didn’t really need any of it, nor was I even aware that they were things that I was pursuing. But God, in His grace and mercy, kept supplying strategically located bushes until I got the rather painful message that was necessary to set me free.  

Which is not to say that I never wander off-road onto paths that lie outside God’s will and purpose for me. Old habits die hard. But I do find that I’m catching myself sooner, recognizing the warning signs, and avoiding some unnecessary pain along the way.

You know what? Maybe middle age isn’t so bad after all.