We can never go back to before

It’s actually a popular theme in literature. Our innate desire to return to a more idyllic setting or time. “The Twilight Zone” highlighted this with two episodes in the first season…A Stop at Willoughby and Walking Distance. Both episodes featured a man in middle age, seeking to escape the pressures and stresses of an overly hectic modern lifestyle. One finds a mental escape to a mythological town from the previous century, replete with bandstands, ice cream socials, etc. The other takes a walk and finds himself back in the hometown of his childhood…confronted by a much younger version of himself and his long deceased parents. It doesn’t end well in either case.

Most religions stress that all human suffering is impermanent. The Buddha is credited with comparing time to a river “You cannot touch the same water twice because the flow that has passed will never pass again.” In doing so, Buddha teaches that not only is our past suffering impermanent, but our past joys as well. Stephen Flaherty puts it a bit more bluntly in the song “Back to Before” from his Tony Award winning musical Ragtime. In this song, and at this point in her life, Mother is acknowledging all of her past joys and yet is stating that she has grown and must move on from these. That in order to live…truly LIVE…we can never go back to before.

So here we are on New Year’s Eve. I have just finished my last ride of 2019, and, like the rest of you, are reflecting on the past year and wondering what 2020 will bring. Many resolutions will be made this evening. Most will be broken by the end of next week. Some will be kept throughout the year. Does this mean that those who keep their resolutions are better, or more successful than the rest of us? And what goes in to planning those resolutions? Are there ways to construct resolutions that have more of a chance of success? Most importantly, perhaps, is the question of why we even bother.

As for the inventory of my goals and resolutions from last year – see “What Now Carl?” blog post #2 – I can only state that I gave them the old college try. Some were kept – my mileage goal that was my last promise to my wife was surpassed in November. The goal of 8500 miles translated into 9634 miles on the road. Man, are my legs tired! Also, last year I had mentioned that I wanted to keep alive an active streak of consecutive months of earning a STRAVA Gran Fondo badge – earned by completing at least one ride of 62 miles or longer in the course of a month. That streak now stands at 20 months and is ongoing, as I completed 51 such rides last year – including at least one in every single month. I had also stated that I wanted to earn the STRAVA monthly distance challenge badge (1250km or 777.5 miles in a single month) at least seven times (one more than my previous record for a year). I met that goal in November, and almost made it eight in December, but fell just short.

But not all was a bed of roses. While I did participate in some RUSA events…completing two and forced to abandon a third due to a severe electrical storm with a blinding downpour…I did not, after all, complete a 100, 200, 300, 400, and 600k series of events. In fact, I found the truth of Buddha’s teaching in that the RUSA I had been so enamored of before my life was turned upside down, was not the same that I had come back to. I had changed. Leadership had changed. Rules and expectations had changed. The waters had quite literally moved on, and I have opted for the time being to no longer participate in RUSA activities. Does this make me a failure? It sure doesn’t feel like it. I did enough 100-200k rides this year to know that I am capable of doing the distance in the time frame. I also know how frustrated I was with the changes and how miserable/grumpy I would have been had I chosen to participate more in RUSA events. By stepping back and focusing on my riding experience and mileage, I gained more enjoyment from my time in the saddle.

In fact, the decision to drop RUSA and explore more on my own led to a few happy discoveries! One July day I decided to ride to my hometown and visit my parents’ graves. I chose to do this on a very long stretch of a seldom used gravel road. It was peaceful. It was glorious. Upon my return, and while looking at the route in my STRAVA heat map, an ad suggesting the app “Wandrer.earth” came up. This app, like STRAVA, tracks your rides and displays them on a map. That is where the comparison ends! The app is also a game. Unlike the STRAVA heat map, which changes colors as you ride a particular route more frequently, this app will give you points for riding a particular road…but only the first time you ride it! The goal is to see how many different roads you can ride in a given area, state, country, or the entire earth! One point per mile…bonus points for completing certain percentages of a city or town. Bonus points if you have covered the most unique miles (the first time miles on roads) in a county, state, country, or earth for a given month! Challenge accepted!

Did you know that there are 32,260,997 miles of roads on earth? (well, roads that are not marked private or designated as freeway/motorway only) At this writing, I have earned 9976 points for riding different roads on the planet over the course of the last 7 years (yes, they will go back and upload your previous rides from STRAVA), have covered 0.03% of the earth’s public roads, and rank in the top 170 users of the app! My ranking in the US and State of Michigan is much higher! Actually, I have covered over 3.5% of all roads in Michigan, which has over 169,000 miles of roads. That ranks 1st among all app users…as does the 51.5% of the roads I have traveled down in my own county (out of over 1600).

By inspiring me to explore, I have used this app as fuel to travel over 1425 new miles of roads this year…better than one out of every seven miles I covered was new (to me) road! I daresay the RUSA experience would not have generated that kind of excitement or sense of accomplishment for me. I know this would have excited my wife. Again, although we enjoyed our invitationals over the years, she was concerned about the cost. So far, all of the exploration has been free! And breathtaking!

Invitationals…yep. Did my share again this year, albeit fewer than in years past, and not all that I had mentioned in my post a year ago. I did the Pumpkin Pie Ride in Ottawa, and the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride in Grand Rapids…but I also did a new one in Indiana to benefit public school STEM programs. The ride route was literally designed to look like a giant Space Invader, and thus constituted my first STRAVA art! (see pic below!) It inspired me to redesign the route for the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride into a pair of angel wings, if a rider opted to do the entire route! Good thing I never went to art school! It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. I needed more diagonal roads! Even the designer of the Pumpkin Pie Ride got into the act and designed his route to look like Snoopy as the World War I flying ace atop his dog house…scarf flying in the wind! Three pieces of STRAVA art for the year…not bad!

But what’s next, you ask? You can guess at a few goals fairly easily, I am sure. Another year, another increase in overall mileage – just as I promised her. 9500 miles in 2020. I did it this year, so I am actually hoping to cross 10000 miles by a year from now. The basic goal will require 26 miles/day. That should be easy enough to average. I had a total of 11 different periods this year where I did no riding for seven consecutive days. Some of those were back to back. If I can cut down on the time I spend sitting on my all too expansive rear, I might even hit 11,000 miles by year’s end! The coolest thing about this year was that I set personal bests for mileage in a month during January, April, May, June, September, November, and December! If I can just come close to those, and set new personal records in February and March, I know I’ll have a great year in the saddle.

Obviously the Gran Fondo streak is something I would like to keep going. As I said a year ago, December, January, and February are the hardest months to log one of these in the State of Michigan. I did, however, just acquire my first set of studded tires for my fat tire bike! Road conditions will no longer be a viable excuse! Along the way this year, I started paying more attention to the mileage accrued on my various bikes. I rotated through them more often to help limit the wear and tear, but it also provided a great deal of enjoyment as I rediscovered the feel of each. This year, of course, I put more miles on four of my bikes than I had ever put on them in a single year before. I came very close to doing so on my cyclocross bike as well. I’d like to continue with that somehow next year, but haven’t quite made up my mind about how to go about it yet.

Other than those, I have only one new goal for the year. Several years ago, again, as I said in my What Now post last year, my wife and I had started to plan long bike adventures for retirement. The initial trial run was going to be in the summer of 2020, because that was the year I was going to retire. The trip was going to be from Vancouver or Seattle to Bar Harbor. Of course, such a trip would have been fairly easy to do with her acting as SAG (when she wasn’t shopping or stopping at cafes) (with my blessing) (like I would have had a choice!) and carrying the camping equipment and gear. I know she would want me to do this. So I will spend this winter refining my packing list, speaking with local, provincial, and state organizations about the best possible routes and camping facilities, and my children about who is going to house sit for me while I pedal 4000 miles between June 10th and August 13th. The beginning date was to be the week after my last day ever in the classroom. The end date would have been her birthday. I wanted her to be able to relax and be waited on by me on the ocean shore that day.

Over the last month I have written about what drives me…what keeps me going…so you can see how I go about this whole goal setting thing. Since I pedaled 9600 miles-plus this year, you might very well ask “Why not go for 10,500?” The answer is, of course, that I will most assuredly strive for that total. But it can’t be the goal. Goals and resolutions have to be grounded in realism. This does not mean you must set the bar low, by any means. But setting the bar too high only sets one up for failure. At this point in my life I am not set up well to deal with failure. I failed to keep her alive. I failed to keep my dog Jasper alive. And as I write, her dog Ginger is struggling with the after effects of a November surgery that I believe will result in her death at any point…losing yet another piece of my beautiful bride. Much like the Detroit Lions, (or Detroit Red Wings) (or Detroit Tigers) (or Detroit Pistons) (see a pattern here?) I need wins…however inconsequential they may seem.

I once took over an inner city junior high choral program that had literally been laughed off the stage by their peers and relatives the previous year. My first day I sat down with them and asked them what their goal was for the new school year. What did THEY want to get out of choir? Almost to a person, they said they just didn’t want to get laughed at anymore. Fair enough, although a low bar. We worked on setting their sights a bit higher. They swore to me they would do anything I asked as long as they didn’t get laughed at. The band directors were shocked when I told them mid-year that I was taking them to a competitive festival for the first time. They cautioned that a Division III (out of IV, with I being the highest) would be a major feather in my cap (their exact words), but that I might want to take them (the ensemble) for comments only to “protect them.” We earned a Division II, just a few points off from a Division I. Those kids needed a win. Within a few years, they were posting I’s, earning All-State Honors Choir spots, etc.

They never went back to before. Neither did I. Every district I ever taught at was the same story. The kids needed a win…inner city school kids don’t give a damn about educational outcomes, scope and sequence of instruction…they just want to have some pride in their lives. Every district, although starting from different perspectives, obtained the same results. Not because I am such a great leader…again, I think I am just a herder of cats!…but because they were committed to never going back to before.

Too many resolutions and goals focus on restrictions…what you shouldn’t do, or want to stop doing. This is why so many resolutions fail, in my opinion. When your focus is on the negative it is all too easy to quit when the habits just don’t magically go away. I was able to get my students to focus on new abilities that matched some of their own interests…to get them to trust me as their biggest cheerleader as well as their biggest critic…to focus on acquiring new skills as opposed to stop perpetuating poor behavior. It turned their focus outward as opposed to inward.

In the last month or so, my abler soul has truly begun to work that magic in me. Yes, I slip from day to day and get depressed, etc. You think I didn’t have to assign detentions or referrals? Please! I was simultaneously the most hated and most loved teacher in my buildings…which meant I was doing my job!…. SQUIRREL! …. Sorry .. my point is that I know that for me to stay alive, keep my promises to her, that I must daily approach life the same way I did for those kids. My life – OUR life – going forward has to be about those grandsons and being there for them to learn from. To do so, I cannot expect to touch the same water twice. I am focusing on wins…minor skirmishes…and moving forward with goals that will help me do just that.

I hope the same for you!  

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Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

3 thoughts on “We can never go back to before”

  1. If you want to take the “easy” way out, check out Cycle America. They offer a coast-to-coast trip (Everett WA to Gloucester MA) from June 20 to August 22. Their price is reasonable, the organization superb, the food is good, they carry your gear, and mechanics are available as needed. Total mileage around 4300. This may be their last year doing this. I rode with them in 2018 and recommend them highly. And if you go, I’ll meet you in Baraboo WI with a Warped Speed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I have seen them and wondered if they were worth the cost. Cost being the operative word. Have you read the book “Tailwinds Across America?” Wife and I met him on RAGBRAI five years ago. Excellent book! That shaped our inspiration for this trip…already considered before we met him, but unsure how to go about it.


      1. Haven’t read it; hadn’t heard of it until now – thanks! I definitely think Cycle America was worth the cost; especially when I saw what other companies were charging. It is hard to get enough calories in yourself when on your own for food – that alone might have made it worth it; not to mention being able to ride an unloaded bike. If you really like the planning parts – figuring out where you’re going to stay and where/what you’re going to eat – then go it alone. Otherwise, as Greyhound used to say, “Leave the driving [gear hauling, meal prep, sleeping arrangements] to us!”


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