It’s 9:40. He’s turned down the travel options I offer several times. I linger only a moment in disappointment. It’s hot and humid though the sun is long down since it was 91 degrees, and I’m hoping they’re still there. I slip on my shoes and a red Buckeyes cap and say bye, and hop on my bike with anticipation. I skip the helmet, expecting a smooth ride on dark, quiet neighborhood roads. I realize I don’t have my bike lit for night riding and promise myself to be careful. It’s my secret mini-rebellion. It’s the 3rd time on my bike today, and I feel grateful. I briefly think of the previous owner – my late father in law – and how he loved to ride. It’s a beautiful machine.
I ride smoothly through the still air, all downhill, passing a deer at the end of the street, I slowly turn left past it and stare as it watches me pass, my basket rattling as I travel over bumps, the thick breeze barely cool on my skin but keeps the mosquitos at bay, random bugs tapping me in the face along the way. No walkers out. The late dusk ride feels like flying. Only two cars on the way. I keep my visor down to avoid the blinding headlights of anxious drivers using their highbeams on quiet neighborhood streets, but checking for parked cars ahead to avoid calamity. Intending to return to the same park where I saw them before, I accidentally overshoot the mark…too far south. I take the path in and survey my options. I wonder if there’s a penalty for being there after dark.
The trail is dark, and I feel a spike of nerves as I press onward. It quickly turns to excitement and tell myself it’ll be ok. I watch for animals and other late night trail inhabitants, but there are none. I banish the thought of branches or other unseen obstacles. I have to look just a few feet ahead, in order to see; looking out further produces blindness. I pass two parks as I head north, trying to remember in the dark if it’s the next one or not, and suddenly, I recall the daytime image of where I am, and see the trail downhill ahead is under water. I briefly contemplate trying to ride through, but can’t tell how deep it is, and instead take an alternate route, through woods, a mulch trail, and hope my skinny road bike tires won’t be pierced by a splinter. The path curves through a little dark grove of trees and opens into the park I seek – I recognize the outline of the giant sycamore against the sky, with the picnic table beneath, just beyond the unmowed stretches of meadow on either side of the path before they become lawn.
I ride toward the path exit and turn around so I can approach and see the meadow backed by forest, like a stage, for the thousand fireflies blinking like fairy lights. I’m excited, grateful, and relieved it’s still going on. The show is accompanied by crickets, the highway sounds, and the faint popping of premature fireworks from the neighborhoods north. The Big Dipper overhead, I watch with wonder, riding back and forth between the park entrance and the riverside trail, lucky to have a loop made by two trail exits that join and head to the sycamore. I stop on my bike more than once to stare, stock still in awe, not that concerned about the mosquitoes that are biting.
Round and round I ride, careful each time I enter the riverside trail, wondering if there are skunks, and mystified by the lack of others wanting to see the spectacle. Riding through the trees on the trail I look up for as long as I dare, balancing carefully in the dark, to see pink clouds between the black treetop silhouettes against a baby blue sky. It is a marvelous combination of light and dark, with the highway lights reflecting off of the high river water of recent rains on my right. I keep going around counter clockwise, carefully following the shadows of the trail, almost falling off around one of the sharp turns while looking at the sky.
Opposite the flashing river, I see the faint lights of kitchen windows and family room that back up to the park. I wonder if they can see the firefly show. I wonder how no one can be here to appreciate this except me. I keep riding, listening to crickets and fireworks, staring up at the show that extends high into the trees. I think how the blinking is like fireworks. I think about catching fireflies in a jar as a kid and how much I loved those times outside at night in the summer, playing tag or chasing the lightning bugs. As I ride, “one more time”, and “one more time” again, through the trail circle, from river to road, and back, riding in and out of the fairy show, darkness thickens. The show becomes more spectacular. I think, “take a mental picture you might need when you’re 80 and can’t get here”. Then I think, “I’m coming back tomorrow” and “I’ll do this even when I’m 80,” trying not to think whether there will be fireflies, or trees, or an earth, or an 80 year old me, in 30 years.
I keep riding in the night air, thinking lightly of the time, not wanting to worry him by being gone too long. One last time I leave, looking back, trying not to fall off my bike, and not returning. I put my cap back on and head into the tree lined streets with randomly lit lampposts. Uphill now, I downshift. Not as fast, but still a thrill in the dark summer air. I try to feel it…summer…a week past solstice. Almost July. It feels like a dream. I appreciate the safe little neighborhood, and my little secret adventure. I feel free, fearless, grateful, unworried. It doesn’t quite feel like I decided to do it, rather, more like something led me there tonight.
I couldn’t have done it before. Not like this – unafraid and free. An imprint of pure summer on my brain and body. Not needing permission, not needing company, not grasping for more. Perfection. I’m alive.