“Not all who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
There were a lot of pressing matters vying for my time, but it was a gorgeous November day. The sun beamed down on Columbia far warmer than November has any right to be in Mid-Missouri. My laptop told me it was 60 degrees. Forget responsibility. Nothing could confine me.
The MKT Trail was smathered with joggers, walkers, and and the occasional biker who had the same idea on this glorious Wednesday evening. I easily passed most of them, slowing a touch to arc around the bodies before whizzing by and resuming my straight path. I wanted to be alone. A sense of serenity came over me as I rode farther from the city. The whoosh of cars on Providence was soon muffled to inaudible by the hug of trees still clinging to some leaves. The whir of my bike and steady crunch of gravel under my wheels wove together the thoughts dancing in and out of my head. I didn’t try to concentrate on anything, just let my mind wander.
It had been a while since my last venture down this path. I kept noticing previously hidden background peeking through the thinning foliage on either side of the trail. I rode slowly enough to take it all in as it slid past. This trip had a different feel than my other frequent rides. I was used to being accompanied by Michael, who naturally took the lead and set the pace. Without my better half, my rhythm was choppy and sporadic, spontaneous like my spirit. I alternated between bursts of speed when my feet pushed the pedals furiously to feel the wind whip against my cheeks and stretches of coasting along, soaking it all up, in no hurry to get anywhere. It didn’t matter, this was a solo ride.
College has been its own sort of solo ride. Though my seven and a half year relationship with Michael was still very much a part of every aspect of my life, I had to learn some independence to follow my own path. I didn’t understand the necessity of it before coming to here. I’ve always been strong-willed and Michael is far from overbearing. I knew my own mind. I didn’t need any more independence. But part of me must have known that our relationship needed breathing room, a test, a healthy temporary distance. So we didn’t apply to the same universities. It was time for me to find myself. To be something besides half of MikeandNikki. Tests aren’t easy, and this one hasn’t been. But nothing worth having comes without a struggle. I’ve become stronger as an individual striving to find myself and reason out a purpose for my existence. Better yet, Michael and I have become stronger as a couple. We’re still two halves of a whole, but we’re very distinct, complete halves. We’ve matured to hone our strengths and admit our weaknesses. We feed off each other’s vibrance and uphold each other through the storms.
As my brain sifted through all this, I came up to a woman jogging beside her little son on what was clearly his first bike. I smiled as I passed and my mind drifted into the future. What would my life be like? Would I settle in Columbia, and run beside my son on his first bike? I tried to picture thirty-something year-old Michael. We’d probably stop at a field to fly a model airplane. Won’t he make a good grandpa, I thought to myself and laughed. I was getting way ahead of myself. The energy of youth is pulsing in my veins, no need to plan out the future today. It will come on its own, probably far faster than I realize.
When I came to the MKT tunnel, there was no one to turn to with my best Gollum impression of “a tunnel!” No one to notice the spattering of muddy droplets on my butt after I slogged through the ever-present tunnel puddle. I missed him, but I didn’t mind today. The solitude wrapped around me like a fleece blanket on a 25 degree night. I love people, but sometimes I must be alone. I didn’t want to solve any problems, set any goals, think about anything. I just wanted to be.
Brown and green leaves dripped golden with the backlight of the setting sun. I had to keep track of time carefully- one of my weaker spots- lest I find myself out alone after dark. I relished the slight thrill of danger that no one knew where I was. Slight yes, but I love little things like that. There was a sense of freedom knowing that I could just slip away one day without a word to anyone and never come back. Even as a little girl I dreamed about disappearing into the woods where I would live off the land. I always aspired to be either an Indian (Native American version) or a hippie. Later, I added roaming gypsy to the list of possibilities. Maybe that’s why I can’t visualize myself in any traditional career, and can’t seem to settle my restless heart on my major. Certainly it’s why I refuse to cut my hair.
A lot has come and gone in life. God gave so many possibilities. So many opportunities to screw things up. So much potential regret. But there was my empowerment- my ability to decide. Not just what path I would take, but what outlook I would take with me. No reason to obsess over the past or the future…or even the present. No matter what came and went, I could choose to rejoice over the good or pout over the bad. And no matter what happened, I would have this. Solitude and nature and myself- the perfect retreat.
As I studied each passing person, I pondered the complexities of being human. On one hand are my inhibitions and on the other my temptations- I mustn’t let either overtake me. Such struggles of apathy and passion, of motivation and resignation. I’m spontaneous, yet obsessed with planning. I love community and seclusion. I hate limitations but love commitment. Sometimes I hate my existence, but I always love my life.
I reluctantly turned back after crossing one of the bridges. I didn’t want to return home. Society would lurch forward whether I participated or not. Must I? But I pressed forward, my back to the sinking sun. My legs settled into a steady rhythm and I rode fast, not racing the darkness but just for the heck of it. After a while I saw the familiar smoke stacks looming ahead on my left, then the apartments through the trees to my right. I smiled as the whoosh of cars on Providence rushed at my ears. Humanity carried on with business as usual. There was a lot waiting for me.