Summer Essays: About the Bike

Finding courage on a Hawaiian vacation.


Published:

Photo illustration by Spirala

Editor's Note: Summer essayists contemplate personal moments of disloyalty, sharing their stories that range from a failing body and objection to war to peer pressure and loss of faith.

An act of betrayal can cause hopelessness and despair. But people show amazing resilience and often overcome the temporary setbacks disloyalty leaves in its disastrous wake.

The East Bay Monthly asked East Bay writers to consider a moment of betrayal in the summer essay contest. The theme seemed to resonate well with the wordsmiths, and essayists responded by turning in moving prose about infidelity, loss, abusive relationships, inside jokes, bullying, and other topics.

The essays chosen to present in print address betrayal in wide-ranging ways, touching on the strains of a weakening body, standing up to the U.S. Marines, and making a gut decision that puts a group of friends at odds. They explore a loss of faith in a trusted adult and a careless act in wartime. They are poignant, dramatic, exciting, heartwarming, and humorous tales, and they are well-written.

Congratulations to the winning essayists, Naneen Karraker, Robert Menzimer, Stacy Appel, Patricia Young, Anna Rabkin, Flossie Lewis, and Bobbie Stein. Thanks to all the many Bay Area writers for submitting such wonderful prose—it was truly great reading. Look for our next essay contest in the winter.

This is the third of the seven winning essays:

 

When I thought of vacationing in Maui, snow wasn't the first thing that came to mind. I pictured sunsets and poolside Mai Tais. Yet here I am on the lip of the Haleakala crater, in sneakers, white cotton pants, and a windbreaker, nose running and teeth chattering. The countryside was invisible as we drove up the mountainside in the darkness, but now that the sky is getting lighter, there's no doubt: That's snow out there on the rim.

I squeeze myself into the glassed-in and claustrophobic—but definitely warmer—Visitor's Center, part of a cheerful crowd. In the next few minutes I understand why my friends and I took this 2:30 a.m. ride up the mountain to this wild, cold moonscape. First the sky turns pale violet and magenta, then the gigantic orb of our first Maui sunrise is upon us, blooming impossibly orange-red over the crater's edge, illuminating each crevice of the sleeping volcano's surface as it makes its way higher into the sky. Even the smallest children are suddenly transfixed and quiet. It's as if we're all standing together, watching the dawn of time.

Haleakala means "house of the sun." I'd be perfectly content to stay here, just taking it in, but the crowd disperses through the glass doors into the parking lot. Hurrying to catch up, I spot my three friends already back at the tour van, donning hideous-looking orange slickers and adjusting bike helmets handed out by Joe, the tour operator. My knees feel wobbly. I'm so cold my fingers barely work, but I suit up as Joe shouts commandments over the howling wind. There will be no passing of a slower bike. Single file all the way down. Stop at designated rest areas only. Eyes on the road at all times. He says he'll be in radio contact with the van behind us, which will alert us to traffic overtaking us on the public highway down the mountain, but it's imperative that we watch our pace on the many hairpin turns and note immediately his signals to stop or pull over. Is he glaring just at me, or at everyone?

"The ride down Haleakala will take approximately three hours," he says. "There's no pedaling, just braking—we're on an incline—but if you're nervous about your bike-riding ability, you can ride down in the van." He scans our faces briefly, knowing we've each paid a significant amount for bikes, gear, and his leadership. "Anyone want to opt out?"

My three companions look enthralled at the particulars, eager to begin.

"This is fantastic!" Bethann nudges my frozen arm exuberantly. My breath makes steam on the mountain air. This was a terrible idea. I haven't ridden a bike since my teens, we've had no breakfast, and we look like orange astronauts. I want to get back in the nice, warm space capsule and go back to Cape Canaveral.

"Bikers line up!" barks Joe. "Order is by skill level, most experienced at the front." I picture myself at the back of the 12-person bike brigade, struggling to round the curves, bashing into the bike in front of me or lagging so far behind the van will run me over.

I edge toward the van, desolate. The driver, a small man with a bronzed face, spots me and leans over to open the door on the passenger side. "Second thoughts?" he says, patting the seat next to him kindly. Before I can make my move, Bethann and her brother Craig are at my heels.

"Where do you think you're going?" Craig bats my orange hood with the back of his hand.

"Might just ride in the van," I murmur brightly, and then it's like a bad dream. Craig's girlfriend, Linda, strides up and cries, "Chick-en!" Thinking themselves hilarious, all three make loud clucking noises and try pushing and pulling me toward the line of bikers, who are clearly waiting to take off. I feel like I'm back at nursery school. The tour operator wheels up on his bike. "Cold feet?" he yells over the wind.

Yes, literally. My toes are entirely numb. I'm so jittery and tired and ashamed I want to throw up. Was this supposed to be fun?

"Just get on the bike, will you? Everyone's waiting!" Craig is even a little angry now. Bethann turns away and whispers in Linda's ear.

"No," I say. The word rises up inside me like the sun, filling me with its simplicity. "No, thanks, I'll see you at the bottom."

And we're off. The bikers keep their heads down, eyes fixed on the pavement, but I have three cozy hours, safe and warm, to gaze all around me at the eucalyptus forests of Olinda, the sugar cane and the pineapple fields between Makawao and Paia. The Hawaiian driver and I sip hot tea from his thermos and he delights in identifying the variegations of each slope we pass, the lush pasture lands and exquisite vistas of his island. Between radio communications, he points out the little cream-colored house where he and his sisters were raised and asks me about my own upbringing. I tell him I'm a second-born. My brother was the brave one.

He eyes me before turning back to the road.

"Maybe that's not true anymore," he says quietly. "By the way, the Hawaiian word for "No" is "A'ole."

I practice saying it a few times, savoring the feel of the word in my mouth. A'ole. It feels like a key, unlocking something good. At breakfast with all the bikers at the bottom of the mountain, I listen as my three companions chatter away over pancakes, barely looking at me. We seem to have betrayed each other. There's a newly separate feeling among us, though maybe it will melt away. The heat of the day has finally descended, ocean glittering in the distance.

When I leave the island a few days later, the word "no" comes safely with me in my pocket like a tiny moon rock, my only souvenir of the trip. A talisman to remind me that there's more than one way down the mountain, not always the way you've been told.

 

Stacy Appel is an award-winning writer in Lafayette whose work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She has also written for National Public Radio. She is a contributor to the book You Know You're a Writer When … by Adair Lara. Contact her at WordWork101@aol.com.

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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