True story: Maybe eight or 10 years ago, we were acting as Trail Angels for an Alabama judge who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. When he reached our neck of the woods in Maryland, we picked him up, brought him into town for a shower and took him to lunch in Sharpsburg, Md., scene of the famed Battle of Antietam.
At that time, I was still young enough that I would, like guys do, reflexively choose the biggest slab of meat on the menu, saving me any intellectual deliberation. On this day, the restaurant had a burger they called the Howitzer, which fit the bill, so after ordering we went on chatting about the judge’s hike, and the state of affairs back in the South.
He was a man of considerable esteem, so I didn’t say much, conscious, I suppose, that he was a man considerably above my pay grade.
It was after the lunch that we noticed two waitresses and a young man from the kitchen shimmering out of the background, obviously anxious for a word. They asked somewhat nervously if they could take my picture.
I’d published a few books and was a columnist for the paper, so I was something of a known commodity in the community, and this would happen from time to time. I have to admit I was secretly elated at their request, because I could now hold my head up high in the presence of the judge as a man of consequence.
I chuckled something to him about “the price of fame,” and then graciously asked the kids if they wanted me to sign anything. They exchanged puzzled looks. “Really, it’s OK, book, newspaper, I don’t mind.”
Well, long story short, they had no clue who I was. Instead, I had failed to read the fine print on the menu concerning the Howitzer. It turned out that if you were capable of consuming the entire culinary monstrosity in 60 minutes, along with the bushel basket of fries that came with it, you would get your picture up on the wall with a half-dozen other slobs who had performed the same feat.
Actually that’s not even true. There must have been about 50 people on the wall, the Howitzer being no particular match for this region of the country — which is the point of this story. Because the area I come from is not what you would call athletic, unless by athletic you mean being able to hoist yourself from the couch three times an an afternoon for a fresh bag of Cheese Doodles.
Not to be selfish about it, but this was a godsend for the egos of semi-fit people such as myself, who would never have to worry about being passed on a trail or by another bicyclist. I know we’re not supposed to worry about stuff like that in this enlightened age, but we all do. And I took some degree of pride in overtaking fellow outdoors enthusiasts while climbing mountains and ridges where others feared to tread.
And then I moved to the Adirondacks.
Here, where people engage in Ironman competitions, where they run a marathon, bike 200 miles and swim a couple laps around the Atlantic Ocean. And I don’t know what they do in the afternoon.
For all I thought I knew about fitness, I am being crushed. Guys 70 years older than I are flying past me on their bikes, as if I’m towing a couple of glacial erratics. Women, children, dogs, they all make me feel as if I should just go home and leave the outdoor sporting activities to the professionals. I am, very simply, not accustomed to living in a community of athletes, and it is leaving me slightly nonplussed.
I am self-conscious about my bicycle, which has those flat handlebars that in the cycling world are code for “assisted living.” My wheels have uncool spokes and do not look as if they have been cut out of cookie dough. My water bottle is Schwepps Diet Tonic, because in my old stomping grounds you never knew when someone was going to be pouring a splash of bourbon. I don’t have those water-bottle three packs that look like the auxiliary battery power on an intergalactic space vessel, nor do I have flashing running lights or a computerized dash.
And my attire? Forget it. I can’t bring myself to spend $120 for a shirt (although I would accept one as a Christmas present, ahem) so I went to Tractor Supply and got a couple of those neon highway-worker T’s that at 200 yards could be mistaken for something a serious biker would wear. I’m scared of cleated shoes, because I envision myself coming to a stop at a light and toppling over because I can’t free my feet from the pedals. And tight black shorts are not my friend, enough said.
I want to stress that I am no way bitter about it. This is pure, honest jealousy. So I look at this year as my athletic apprenticeship. Maybe by next summer I will have hardened off my calves and tightened my abs to the point where I can be seen along the Adirondack byways with all the other dazzling athletes, maintaining a similar pace in a blaze of glowing Lycra.
Or maybe I’ll just go back to Stewart’s for another half gallon of Brownie Cookie Sundae.
Photo of annual Ride for the River bike tour of the Ausable River valley courtesy the Ausable River Association.