We are a concatenation of memory.
Without it we don’t exist, with it we are formed exactly as we are. Memory is a trap and a lie but it is also the touchstone of truth, sunk deep inside the paradox of never knowing which memories are real, which are only imagined, which are distorted, which are piecemeal, and which are the poisonous and mortal byproducts of nostalgia.
Memory is how we shortcut having to relearn, but also how we shortcut having to relive pain, beauty, happiness, and regret. Memory can be burnished, exercised, buffed, smeared with suntan oil and posed for competition, but it by definition degrades, crumbles, and does so randomly without even the courtesy of keeping the good and chucking the bad.
Memory leaves us with the damp and misshapen grains of sand that, formed early into castles, gradually dry out with old age and fall in upon themselves, leaving nothing but a smooth and level surface, inseparable and indistinct from the other billions of grains on the strand.
I remembered yesterday, or rather it was yesterday when I remembered, wheels spinning along roads I first rode in March, March 1987 … what were you doing then? Were the things that mattered to you then the things that matter to you now? How were your legs then? How were your lungs and heart? How many miles had you ridden, races had you won, defeats had you washed down in all their bitterness?
Did you know in March, that March, what lay ahead? Did you even suspect it? The births, the deaths, the marriages, the divorces, the illness, the recovery, the exploration, the plodding dull traces that you would fall into for decades, grinding out shit so that you could buy more shit, the mere possession of which forced you to grind the night soil even more?
March in those days was free from a melted nuclear plant a mere 60 miles away from this quiet city. Its poisonous fumes now circle the globe and the only thing that the world does in quiet complicity is watch while the powerless-that-be dump another daily hundred thousand tons of cold ocean water on the smoldering core that will burn for a million years.
March in those days was ruled by an emperor who presided over the bloody murder and rape of Asia, later venerated as the titular head of state, the tit that he sucked dry from cradle to grave, as honored in his butchery as in his dotage.
In that March, that March of those days, I was young! I wore no helmet and encountered nothing for it other than the wind through my hair, I was tied to no man or woman, I had no future, my past was too brief and irrelevant to merit mention or much thought, and the only treasure that poured through my fingers was the golden treasure of time, of today.
March in those days these streets were filled with bicycles, old people and young people and in-betweens, pedaling furiously in the fickle temperatures on their way to work, to school, to the green grocer because there was such a thing! Kobori-san sold fresh in bundles or singly, in season, imports unknown, and your teeth bit through the vegetables and fruits with zest.
Somehow the cold and snow and sleet, the last spurts of angry winter gave way to April, and my memory tells me this: It was thirty-two years ago that I first pedaled out west of town towards the mountains, direction a small town called Fubasami whose kanji I couldn’t read and from there to the even smaller burg of Okorogawa, equally indecipherable to an illiterate, and from there to the fork in the road, one way up the sheer mountain climb into Kiyotaki and Nikko, the other way a path I never took, not once, to the purgatory of Kobugahara and the copper mining village of Ashio.
The deepest memory trigger of all is smell, and if you have never read Jitterbug Perfume then you have missed the greatest trick your mind can ever play upon you, the trick of remembering through the flash of scent. Yesterday I ascended into the lower reaches of the cedar forests and wasn’t struck by the flood of memories that come from inhaling the deep wooded scent, no, I have been congested for decades and am blind to smell, mostly.
Instead I was struck by how much I love the cedar, the true emblem of this forest nation, so different from the cherry blossom! Cherry flower, fie on thee. You come briefly, in full beauty, you beguile us with a shimmer scarcely of this world, then you are gone as quickly as you came. Your bole is small, what house or temple was ever built from cherry? Your fruit are tiny and scarcely worth gathering, the sweet meat surrounding a bitter and hard pit that lies in wait to crack the enamel off your teeth should you bite it by mistake.
But cedar? Give me your cedar over your cherry flower any day, evergreen, massive, as useful in youth as it is after 400 years, wood that lasts forever, upon which giant temples, massive homes, shrines of antiquity, all were built. Give me your cedar in rows thirty miles long stretching all the way to the temples in Nikko, so giant and towering, silent and strong, green and sheltering whether rain, snow, sleet, or sun beat down. Give me your cedar whose high branches are home for birds, whose forested floor is home for every creature, cedar, imperious and impervious, mighty, enduring.
As I reached the road’s fork I turned left, towards purgatory, and the road does what it had been doing from the moment I left home, it tilted up, only this time it was a kick. For more than an hour prior there had been no traffic, not a car, not a truck, not a scooter, nothing but perfect tarmac laid out seemingly for bicycle tires alone. There was no memory here as I’d never passed this way before, but a few miles later the road dropped down, connecting with the road to Furumine Shrine.
That I remembered, but how? It went along a river that I’d been along before, and the giant torii that began the giant climb also rang my memory bell, but when? How? For what? I vaguely remembered hiking the mountain trails once, up above the shrine, but with whom? Alone?
And what about you? What were you doing in the mountains three decades past? Were you in the mountains at all? Were you skiing? Trying out the newly invented Board of Snow, the one with a rubber line attached to the tip that you held onto while “surfing” down the slope?
Were you camping? Snuggling in a tent? Fighting fires? Getting lost in the Sierras, stumbling along some rocky route in Sangre de Cristos, hiking the Rainbow Trail, angling for fish in some freezing stream?
My memory’s skein has nothing here but a big hole. I remembered the road, the torii, the trails above the shrine but what fit into the hole was simply the junk and detritus that I invented to fill it. This is memory at its worst, refusing to accept the hole as an empty thing lost forever, and filling it with shit, or worse, with photos from an album, or worst of all, with 1’s and 0’s.
Where my crippled memory still walks with a steady gait, though, is in its rejection of memory aids. I had no compulsion to stop as I pedaled and snap pictures with my phone, because I had no phone. Why do I need pictures to remind me of the past? The past is gone, and if it wasn’t strong enough or sweet enough or bitter enough to imprint itself into my web, then let the whole thing rot, I will save the strands in the web for something that matters, like death.
Oh, and this memory! How did I pedal these roads in a 52/42 x 13-21, gearing bolted onto a steel frame with 36-spoked wheels? Today the plate on the back was a gigantic 25, and the saucer on the front a tiny 36, little children’s gears, things that a baby could ride to the top of Everest with, and here I was, barely turning the pedals on this endless grade? I tried to remember what it was like to have legs and lungs that thrashed mighty gears up beastly climbs like this, but nought.
The road forked, which is what roads and lives do. They fork. And in the middle of this one was a shop selling noodles and ice cream, and so I dithered because the road ahead was long and steep and my stomach was growling and surely there was nothing between here and there. The proprietor ran out and motioned me in, pointing to of all things, a bike rack and a sign that said “Kanuma Friends of Cycling.”
He was old and said, “I don’t know you. I know all the bicyclists who come here. Who are you?”
I told him that I remembered. I remembered when shops like his didn’t know about bicycles or care, I remembered when drivers gave us a half-berth and a honk, I remembered when “cycling” in this provincial prefecture was as novel as piercing low body parts, but I didn’t remember him, either.
He smiled because he had been trumped, and he laughed. “We used to not care, it’s true. But we are friendly now because bicycles are good business!”
Ah yes, business! Why love a thing because it breathes and hugs you tight, why love a thing because it nurtures your soul and your legs, why love a thing because it makes you a woman or a man, strengthens you when you are alone, succors you when you are ill, accompanies you on the high roads, bombs you, heart in mouth, on the low ones, pumps you with speed and terror, thrill and disappointment, why do any of those things matter when it is good business?
Good business, too, is the smoldering nuclear bomb, exploding daily far beyond the lifespan of humanity itself. Good business is human trafficking, air pollution, harvesting life until it becomes extinct, Monsanto! Monsanto is good business, welcome Monsanto along with the bicycles! Park your Round-up here and tip a few grains into your green tea because, you know, it is good business!
My teeth sunk down into the cold soba noodles. They were good business too and my stomach growled appreciatively. A few coins later I got ready to remount, pointing my bike towards the tunnel, where clearly there was nothing ahead but bad business and much of it.
“Not there!” the host shouted. “Nikko is that way!”
“I’m taking the road to Ashio,” I said, but I thought “and bad business.”
“That road is farther. Much farther. And steeper. Bad roads. No bicyclists go there. This way is shorter and better.” He motioned precisely in the direction I had no intention of taking, reminding me of a similar occurrence outside the village of Shimogo, also thirty-two years ago, when I had ignored local advice and almost died on a snow-covered trail stuck high in the Fukushima mountains in April.
Here it was again April, again spring, again high in the mountains, and again local knowledge advising me against bad judgment and poor choices and bad business, and here I was again, utterly unchanged, ignoring facts and seeking something better, eagerly vying for the chance to throw my money and my life after what could only be very, very bad business.
The climb began slowly and slowed down from there, yet I had the confidence of a full belly and the memory of the map graven in my head, huge squiggles closely bunched together for twenty miles or more, up, up, up, bad business at ploddingly slow speed all the way. These are the times that you reflect on your chances if you flat or fall and bust your skull or break a leg. No cars, no trucks, no people, nothing, you will bleed out or go into shock and die and become a local headline. “Cyclist Ignores Warning, Dies.”
“Cyclist Hits Head without Helmet, Dies.”
“Cyclist Loses Way in Mountains, Encounters Snowstorm, Dies.”
Those headlines all reverberated but were drowned out by the counter-headlines that would never be published:
“Cyclist Ignores Warning, Has Ride of His Life.”
“Cyclist Rides without Helmet, Enjoys Incomparable Happiness.”
“Cyclist Finds Way in Mountains through Force of Memory, Pedals in Glorious Spring Weather”
A good wet memory smacked me hard, the memory of exploring these roads three decades prior without a phone, just like today. You can have adventure. You can have security. You cannot have both. After a time the road fell, then fell, fell, and fell some more. Turns were punctuated with loose gravel, sand, and carpeted cedar needles, and I have another question for you.
When is the last time you took a road whose end was unknown? When is the last time you wandered? When is the last time you were … exposed? The road went from tiny and narrow and twisting to impossibly so, the speckling from the sunlight hiding treacherous holes in the pavement, sudden tiny bridges over cascading mountain streams, brakes rubbing and burning and smoking, hands exhausted from the clenched brake levers, hoping that the tires held and yet enjoying the Paradox of the Terrifying Descent: It is terrifying, yes, but contains the kernel of joy from going downhill rather than up, and its corollary: The worst descent is better than the best ascent.
I have ridden more roads than you, likely.
I have ridden more miles than you, likely.
I have ridden more crazy rides than you, likely.
I have ridden more hidden roads in Tochigi Prefecture than you, certainly.
And I can tell you this: The leg from Furumine Shrine to the bottom of the climb up to Ashio is one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful, gut-wrenching, spectacular pieces of bicycling I have ever done in my life or ever hope to do, and all of that before the third major pass of the day had even begun, a climb that put everything before into the deepest shade.
At the bottom the road does what such roads always do, which is go again up, this time the final climb to the pass at Kasuo. For a mile I climbed, slowly, out of the saddle, on a grade with only a few gradual turns until the road became so steep that the switchbacks began, and at the first switchback there was a sign with a number: Curve No. 1.
What would you think when you saw that? Well of course you would wonder, “How many more?” and I can tell you now without spoiling it because the chance you will ever ride this road is zero, the number of numbered switchbacks to the top is 38 … but that’s not really true because there are an equal number of turns that are simply not numbered.
These numbers reminded me of the lettered curves up the fabled Irohazaka climb, which pales in comparison to this monster. At the top the only thing that awaited was silence; this high up it was dead winter with the door ajar just so to let in the rays and tendrils of spring, here a chickadee calling, there a woodpecker hammering on the early feast. In addition to winter and exhaustion, the queen descent awaited, as poor a road with as treacherous a surface as you could wish on your poor 25mm tires, pot holes, stones, gravel, sand, speckling, off-camber switchbacks, collapsed guardrails, and another 30 hairpins to the bottom for ten very long kilometers.
What should I more say than that the road spread out at the bottom into another untrafficked, perfectly paved highway with a howling tailwind and a gradual 10-km climb to the tunnel that dropped you down into Nikko? The day was mostly spent, my legs were wholly shot, and the final 45 km though downhill came with a stiff, in-your-face headwind. From start to finish it took 8.5 hours, including well over an hour at the noodle shop and at the convenience store before the tunnel.
In those hours I relived the things I have lived before, memories soldered to new experiences which, at day’s end, had become memories themselves, memories to be written down here and shortly thereafter, except in fragments, to be forgotten, forever.