“The perception of temporal duration is crucially bound up with memory”
“Time is a game played beautifully by children”
I was riding. It was dark. There was no moon. Swallowed by the inky blackness I entered a netherworld where all visual stimuli were black on black – gradations of the gloom expanding into the emergent silhouette of a pine tree or the dangling reach of branches articulating and then gone. Beneath my tires the ever-expanding treadmill of the asphalt swayed sinuously left and right as I breezed by, moist mists roiling in my wake.
I was repeating one of my favorite summer routines – a 27-mile round-trip bike ride to and fro across the Fox River to Primrose Farms: a community garden where I annually maintain two large garden plots (mostly super-hot chilies). My routine was to arrive an hour or so before sunset and spend the evening harvesting, tilling and grilling as the light faded and the air cooled, often with visits from friends.
This particular night fell on a particularly sultry evening in mid-August and even as I headed home at around 9:30pm the air was still so heavy that the stars were nearly completely obscured in the humid haze. As I descended into the Fox River drainage the air melted, minute droplets decorating the fine hairs of my forearms, the gloaming of the evening aching with the fragrance and nostalgia of endless summers. Like usual, I switched off my headlamp at the start of the trailhead, eyes adjusting to the near absence of light. I loved the thrill and danger of it – of the nearly unseen trail unfolding beneath my tires, the remnants of the July fireflies winking their ever shorter flashes, the ripple of the pond to the right and the endless trilling of the toads and grunting of the frogs, the sudden rumbling of my tires across a small wooden bridge over a stream, the way the soft air re-absorbed all sound. I was in love with the thrill of the dark and the heat and the sweat.
Suddenly a strange chiaroscuro outline appeared against the black tarmac of the trail. Unlike puddles, leaf piles or other obstacles this one did not grow with proximity – instead it appeared to maintain its size, almost like it was moving along with me. Shapeless, the black hole veered left and right, disappearing and pixelating in the gloom. Reappearing it flitted to the side again and with swift certainly I suddenly realized it wasn’t a mirage – that it was something alive and traveling at the same speed in the same direction, dodging to and fro to avoid me. At that exact moment the black blot swerved right, and expanded. Something was familiar about the movement and I could suddenly see the rising shape of a long black tail gilded with a shimmery white stripe unfurling like a flag as I passed, swerving. Simultaneously to the brush of fur on my leg came a distinct hiss in the darkness even as all my neurons and adrenaline woke up screaming. Fading behind me the pungent spray missed its mark by only a 10th of a second. I remained clean and shiny, bathed in only sweat. A fraction of a second later and I would have been doused from head to toe with necrotic funk nebulized from the anal glands of a posturing skunk.
My heart raced as the adrenaline coursed through my system. At first I picked up the pace but then slowed as I remembered that where there was one skunk there may be more. My eyes sought movement in the slippery blackness, my amygdala scanning, every neuron on full alert. I approached a second wooden bridge, eyes tracking low to the ground for movement but at the last second I saw, higher up, an oddly bloated orange firefly. It floated up and to the right. Then the glow intensified and suddenly the outline of an oddly shaped human face appeared, grinning, cigarette pressed to pursed lips. The man didn’t move nor even acknowledge my passing, something that should have been quite unexpected. I felt a wave of cold fear… what was he doing miles from the closest trailhead, standing alone on the bridge in the dark completely un-flummoxed by my sudden appearance? Maybe it was the light but his face look skeletal, his eyes black, ridges of tendons exposed on his wrists and fingers. My creeped-out-ed-ness grew and I involuntarily accelerated. I was tempted to turn on my lights. But I resisted and continued on towards the river, swerving with aplomb through the eddies and bends of the trail that I’d been down dozens of time. No way “Slenderman” could catch me anyway…
The trees closed in near the final section before the river. It was exactly pitch black, but the trail was perfectly straight there, so I shot through the warm slab of air like a spear through water and then saw yet another mirage – a large mass of blackness emergent in the space in front of me. It appeared only for a split second before impact. Claws scraped me, tendons snapped under my wheels, the bike bucked and I nearly went over the handlebars as my knuckles took a beating from the bones of a large dead tree that had fallen onto the trail. As my forward velocity stopped, the bike began to fall sideways and I hopped off into the waiting cradle and crackles of the dead tendrils. I backed up and slowly un-entwined the skeletal fingers from my frame and spokes and walked my bike into the woods around the obstacle and back onto the path.
Mounting the bike, heart beating like a bass drum, I gave in and, finally, switched on both my headlamp and my handlebar lights – beams as strong as truck brights cutting into the mist, blinding me momentarily. With perfect visual clarity I picked up the pace and raced toward the river, working the adrenaline out of my system. Fear coursed through me, self doubt, worry, judgment… What if the skunk had gotten me? Who and what was that person doing standing on the bridge – what if he had a knife? What if one of those branches of that tree had taken out an eye?
I finally made it down to the river and for a moment I cut the lights, however my eyesight had grown so adapted to the LED’s that I had to turn them right back on again else potentially go off the trail. I followed the river to the massive train bridge spanning it and then turned right to cross the hanging parapet underneath. I climbed up the incline and at the top of the span I stopped, exited my bike and proceeded to follow my nightly ritual: to lean over the rail, feel the breeze, smell the water, stare at the ripples reflected from the bridge lights and to … relieve myself from 50 feet up over the river – no one around to see or care. I began to unzip until I stopped short in horror.
I still had my headlamp on and in the flare of the lumens I could suddenly see the convergence of thousands tiny white filaments spanning the arch. Worse was the articulated movement along those threads. There, between the arch supports of the bridge where I had stopped so many times over the years, was a horror – a giant black Shelob waiting there to pounce, and all around the edges her offspring dozens of tiny replicas all moving, converging on the center where my partially unzipped fly was. I froze. I backed away, watching the activity coalescing in a place where I had done the exact same thing over and over again for years, without a light. A shudder wracked my body. Too much. Too much stimulus, to many unseen dangers, too many unknowns hiding in the blackness. I had to get home.
I mounted my bike. I kept on my lights. I rode fast, now fully in “flow” dodging through intersections, taking new kinds of risk, fully awake and alive, primed for monsters, horrors and hidden dangers. I pushed my physical limits and in the process experienced a weird euphoria as I hopped curbs, rode through ditches and accelerated through the final miles home.
As I consider events from 2018, this is one of the standout memories and with a little bit of analysis it is easy to see the pattern emerging: Beauty, Uniqueness, Physical Intensity, Emotional Intensity and Flow – all combined to make what would normally be a routine ride home eternally memorable. My amygdala was on full alert, writing highly recallable memories and then the flow state emerged from the stimulus, danger and possibility. And so, here I am, six months later recalling it with striking clarity: a perfect, endless summer night made, imprinted, remembered and recalled. Time expanded. I was awake. I was alive. I was really living.