On Tuesday my friend Bob suggested a bike ride starting out from Paoli, a village south of Madison. We’d do a twenty-mile loop through the countryside on back roads free of traffic. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and, for a change, free of the humidity that has been plaguing us too early in the season. We agreed to meet at Paoli’s “water pump,” which is an actual hand pump in the village square. If I add that on one side of the square is an old stone church and on the other a former convenience store turned local organic food shop, you get some sense of the picturesqueness.
I’m in decent, if not great, cycling shape, so twenty miles sounded reasonable. But they turned out to be twenty really hilly miles — and I like hills more than some. After awhile I felt myself starting to flag, and I looked down at my bike computer. I was relieved to see we’d already ridden eight miles until I remembered that my computer shows kilometers.
This is not because I’m some crank who believes America will yet convert to the metric system but because my bike was put together in France. France — specifically, rural southwest France — was where I started cycling, and though I haven’t cycled there in some years now, my former routes are as present to me as if I’d just gone out yesterday. I can still reconstruct, like a silent home movie rolling in my head, the road surfaces, the darkness of certain stretches winding through woods, the cows that are grazing around certain curves, the dogs that will start barking in the yard of the house at the top of the hill as soon as I approach. The grasses and sorghum and sunflower crops. In the middle of fields, the crumbling old stone towers called pigeonniers. In the quiet of a hot afternoon in Astaffort, random comings and goings outside the little grocery stores and cafes. The columns of sycamore trees bordering the roads. The vista from the top of the hill before descending into Pergain-Taillac.
The memories are not only visual, and even the visual memories are still so acute because over the course of several years and many miles I made those routes a physical memory, as well. I can still feel the grade of the hills and the gears I needed, the interplay of effort and coasting, vigilance and a trance-like glide through the landscape.
I didn’t have that kind of familiarity with the route out of Paoli. Mostly I had the increasingly warm sun on my back and an exaggerated awareness of the physical effort required to keep going forward. At one point, though, we came to the top of what seemed like at least the sixteenth steep hill and looked out over a wide vista of Wisconsin farmland, a lush abstraction of greens with a red barn and silo far in the distance. It was as lovely in its way as the French countryside I’d known.
And it’s where I am now. I plan on going back soon to get better acquainted.