Kaleidoscope Essay

Susan wearing a green shirt and sunglasses waves to the camera while standing in front of a Powell-Hyde cable car in San Francisco.In 2012, Stockton and I took an adventure. I wrote about it, but felt it was too long for a typical post here on Adventures in Low Vision. I formed it into an essay. I submitted it for publication. After rejection, I edited and resubmitted. I kept at it. Last year, I received a new response: accepted. Eagerly, I awaited July of 2016 to see my words live in Kaleidoscope, an online literary magazine which focuses on, “the experiences of disability through literature and the fine arts.”

With excitement, I invite you to read Forward Momentum, the featured essay in Issue 73: Coping with Change on the Kaleidoscope website. The essay begins on page 6, biographical notes on all contributors begin on page 66.

One note. The magazine content is provided through Scribd, Inc. For those unaware, the NFB filed litigation against Scribd, Inc. in 2014 for failing to make content accessible for screen access software. Parties reached agreement in 2015. Scribd promised to collaborate with the NFB and make content accessible by the end of 2017. A bit of irony, eh,  the visually impaired writer’s essay is not accessible to all of her readers. Not to fear. You know I figured out a solution, dear readers. As rights revert back to the author with publication, I am providing my essay below to ensure inclusivity. Any person who wants to ride along in their imagination with Stockton and I shall do so.

Have you tandem cycled or been to San Francisco? How did the essay make you feel? Does anyone have a sourdough starter to send my way? Tell me about it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Forward Momentum

Our route—if everything went well—included three stops. First, we planned to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge for lunch in Sausalito. Forgoing the bike-friendly but effortless ferryboat cruise home, we plotted our way back over the bridge to the second stop, the Legion of Honor art museum in Lincoln Park. The third stop would be meeting relatives at the de Young art museum in Golden Gate Park. Finally, we would end our twenty-five mile jaunt by traveling across town to return the tandem in Fisherman’s Wharf. Try to keep up.

We arrived at the rental shop breakfasted and prepared to hurt. After checking in and tucking away the provided ferry tickets, my husband and I waited with other riders for instruction. I spied rows of bicycles at the far end of the room.

“Okay, listen up,” a guide said, holding a pointer to a large map of the Bay Area. “No riding until you reach the path in Aquatic Park,” she said and tapped a nearby square. She traced routes and indicated photos around the perimeter to highlight landmarks with the poise of a seasoned lecturer. She wasted no effort, pausing only to raise her dark eyebrows. “A tech will make sure your bike fits you. Please wear your helmet.” She set down her pointer.

A tech adjusted the tandem and the staff waved us out of the shop. In Aquatic Park, we swung into the saddles. Up front my husband steered and controlled the brakes. I commandeered the backseat, contributing power and maintaining equilibrium as much as possible. To do that, there was going to be a lot of me staring at my husband’s spine. At times I peeked to the side at the blurry scene, trying not to wobble. We completed a narrow turn on the path and a lady we passed said, “Look, experienced tandems.” I assumed she said it with sarcasm.

We toiled—or rather I toiled and my fitter husband pedaled—to conquer the hill by Fort Mason. I prayed my dark yoga pants wouldn’t slide down to reveal my pale backside. We carried on, finding rhythm as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge. Even with compromised sight, the structure amazed me with its reach and striking color, softened at a distance in the fog, a terra-cotta colored masterpiece stretching across the expanse.

We paused to take a photo. My husband psyched himself up for the bridge crossing, anticipating negotiation with pedestrians nearsighted by cameras. We pushed off in sync toward the steel towers. In a few minutes, we merged onto the bridge’s bike/walk lane. Traffic whizzed past us beyond the concrete barrier and tidal currents flowed under us in the strait. People talked to one another at the railing.

“On your left,” my husband said, maneuvering past the crowds. “Heads up.”

I witnessed more than one person yanked out of the way. My vision impairment robs me of capturing facial expressions, but I imagine the reactions. Perhaps it’s what heightens the response in a scary movie: imagining the terror beats a full shot of it. I snickered, but kept pedaling.

I smelled the water below us, brackish swells rolling in the wake of watercraft, energy rising and falling. I dared to glance at the water from the backseat and gazed above as our tandem passed the towers, drinking in the Art Deco structure. The autumn wind subsided and the sun warmed my shoulders. We soared across the last half of the span without incident; most tourists didn’t venture this far.

We refueled in Sausalito at a place where the margaritas ordered by a nearby table taunted my sober, tired body. Crispy fish tacos, comforting carnitas, and fresh plum juice down the gullet. It’s hard to end a meal like that, but we set off. The foghorn of the ferry bellowed as we left our first stop behind.

The bridge awaited us. The open water to the east reflected sunlight, patches of indiscriminate sparkles in my eye. It encouraged me and provided motivation to ride uphill and over the bridge. We glimpsed the Pacific Ocean and wound through the Presidio. More views. More hills. More work, together.

“Go,” my husband said over his shoulder, beginning a relentless climb lasting blocks. His back flexed in effort, but his shirt appeared dry, no noxious odors drifting to the gal in the back. We scaled the hill and started another. I ordered my legs to kick it, working through more than a hill.

I wished for green lights at intersections, restarting on an incline killed our momentum. My ignorance of the neighborhood layout plus my inability to read any signs we passed allowed me to focus on the cadence instead of the miles left. Push, spin. Push, spin. Around and around.

I trusted my reliable husband’s instincts to keep us safe on the tandem. His lean frame supports more than what’s expected from a friend, a son, a husband, proving with his actions when tested, he rises. He encouraged me up the hills like he encourages me out the door on the way to work in the morning and after eye surgeries. A year after an uncertain summer, we nudged each other forward, paddling through the rapids of loss in our proverbial lifeboat. Most boats in life row steadier with pairs—the work halved and the joy shared. No struggles, no life.

“Easy,” he said, our signal to coast. He gave auditory direction knowing that I wouldn’t catch silent gestures on the ride. I listened to the whirr of the wheels and exhaled. A breeze tickled my face and my sweaty scalp itched beneath my helmet. A dog sitter marched by with at least eight animals. I squinted in vain at the fuzzy creatures, wondering if any of them were my favorites, terriers.

“None of them were terriers,” said my husband. Mind reader.

We turned a corner and parked our rental in front of the Legion of Honor, the second stop on our journey. I breathed hard, but smiled in the shadow of my tall partner as I flexed my fingers, sore from gripping the handlebars. I gulped water and offered him the bottle. He drank and returned the bottle with a kiss.

We entered the hushed interior of the building and treated ourselves to the oil-on-canvas scenes. I walked close to my husband to avoid bumping into things, but also because I like him nearby. After examining the collection of Impressionist master painters—where the blurring of images fits in—we resumed pedaling toward our third destination.

We worked, unified by the challenge and the adrenaline rush of riding a tandem through the city. No peloton to draft behind, no domestique handing up musettes, no team car. Just me and my husband to finish the course with the resources we carried: water, trail mix, and a cell phone for GPS or to wave the white flag of surrender if a mechanical sidelined us. Quitting due to the increasing soreness in my legs and back was not an option my stubborn mind would entertain. Instead, I inhaled. The blood circulating in my veins recycled the spent energy in my cells for fresh oxygen one heartbeat at a time. Life flowed in me.

We climbed up and coasted down hills to reach the green vista of Golden Gate Park and the de Young museum. Our comfort with the rental peaked and we dismounted in front of our relatives. Stuck it like champs. We greeted our adorable, sleepy niece at the side of her stroller. I wasn’t the only one a little tired that afternoon.

I wouldn’t receive my white cane training until a month later in Baltimore, waiting my turn for therapy behind those in greater need. Until then, I moved with caution and extra awareness of my surroundings, but without the confidence the white cane would give me. At the museum, I trailed relatives in congested sections. Patrons lost in thought jostled near popular collections. The reshuffling movement camouflaged my uneven gait. As I admired an installation it dawned on me that in a museum, a place filled with observation, everyone may look at the same things, but our impression of what we see varies. People tend to accept and even embrace those differences instead of marginalizing them, a destination I hoped to reach after gaining my disability.

I continued to explore. In less crowded areas, galleries echoed with the footsteps of strangers. I moved independently, turning my head all the way to the left to minimize my blind spot. I took care to stand apart from the work. I didn’t want to pull a Steve Wynn and by accident put an elbow through a canvas. Oops.

Time slipped away and the sun lowered outside the gallery windows. We exited the museum and walked to the bike rack. After saying see-you-laters to our relatives, we snapped on our helmets and left in synchronized movement, spinning through the sunset toward the rental shop. The sloping landscape granted us a break with smaller hills. The commuting cars and buses rumbled by as we cycled in harmony to Fort Mason. I sensed the exciting pulse of traffic on my left. It didn’t bother me when vehicles passed too close—can’t see them anyway over there. I followed my husband’s steady pace.

Pleasant whiffs of fresh sourdough stoked my hunger as we entered Fisherman’s Wharf. Push, push, push. We pedaled in the seats uphill to the final destination and rolled over the shop’s threshold to dismount. The employees cheered for us in a systematic way reminiscent of perky servers with flare, but I heard an employee say, “Wow,” and another say, “Most people walk it up Hyde Street.”

“Thank you.” I handed the tandem to an employee; my low vision kept me from recognizing the face or reading the name tag. I stretched and sighed while my husband returned the unused ferry tickets. A streak of grease from the bike chain marked my left calf like a jet contrail, a sign of my labors in the afterglow of accomplishment. We left the rental shop hand-in-sweaty-hand and joined other tourists under the cover of the evening shade. We moved together, a shared bike ride, a shared life.


18 Comments Add yours

  1. Casee says:

    This was such a lovely read. It took me back to a memory of being a little girl and my big brother putting me on the back of a rented tandem bike and riding me around a park. I was so happy and I felt so safe with him. I haven’t thought about that in years. It sounds like you had a wonderful day. Thank you for jogging my memory. I had forgotten just how happy and content I was on that bike. I haven’t felt that way since. Memories.

    1. Thanks for sharing the lovely memory Casee. Bike riding brings people together.

  2. johnmill79 says:

    Congrats on publication! I like the essay, because of the actual connection and how you metaphorically linked it to other connections you two share. I’m finally getting to experience what it is like to have such a caring partner, and it does help in many ways. I can do a lot by myself, of course, but another and her support encourage me to reach just a bit farther when I least feel like it sometimes, as I sense you experienced during this ride. Always good writing.

    1. Thanks, John. Supports does encourage us to do a bit more. And I liked your posts about your recent Ashville trip.

      1. johnmill79 says:

        Thanks. They were fun to write.

  3. Jenelle says:

    I absolutely love this essay, Susan. We actually just returned from San Fran a few days ago and did this same tandem ride (minus the 2nd half – we hopped on that return ferry!) The way you described the ride made me feel like I was back on the tandem and I enjoyed the ride you provided through your words almost as much as the one we just completed.(and I won’t feel sore tomorrow!) I can see why this was published -beautiful essay!


    1. Thanks, Jenelle! I’m glad you enjoyed your ride, it is such an interesting and fun experience. Definitely wish I had worn some padded bike shorts though to conquer those steep SF hills, ha.

  4. Great essay! I really enjoyed reading this and was right there with you! We have visited SF and I love that city…My husband and I have been riding a tandem now for about 2 years. It definitely requires some fitness and good communication skills. And what a thrill to be able to ride a bike again after vision loss!! We want to someday do a bike tour in Europe. The tandem bike is a great symbol for a healthy marriage… Not all couples can handle it! For some they are known as divorce mobiles!! Ha ha!

    1. Haha, yes you can’t go your own ways on a tandem, must work together. Love the idea of a euro tandem ride Audrey!

  5. Wonderful. And I thought I was brave riding pillion on the back of Honda in San Franciso and across the bridge in the 1960s! I love the warmth and excitement of your writing, Susan. Go for it! more please.

    1. How exciting, Bridge! Sounds like a fun way to explore the area. Do you have any photos from your trip?

      Thanks for reading and supporting my writing over the years. Always love your perspective.

      1. Sadly no photos. I lwas living there and not into photography in those days. If only!

  6. Joy says:

    Mmmm…..I was sipping every delicious word like a well-loved cocktail (I don’t know how you passed up the margarita in Sausalito, though that might have made for a challenging bike ride!) Like Jenelle said, we just tandem biked half this route a couple weeks ago! Having met Stockton, I appreciate the description of him even more…..spot on, and you two make such a lovely couple. And that GG bridge is WINDY, even in July! When we rented our bikes, I asked the man at the desk, “Is the bridge going to be super windy and awful?” He laughed and said, “Well, I don’t know about awful, but it will be windy!”

    1. Thanks Joy. It’s so fun to share the biking tandem over the bridge experience with you. And the wind felt pretty constant, yeah, but I’ll take it with the great experience ha.

  7. Kathy peterson says:

    Susan, I so enjoyed your essay! I was right there with you with the feel and smell of the sea breeze, the sore thighs, and the exhilaration of its completion! Thanks for the journey! I love how you write!

    1. Thanks, Kathy! A good bike ride can be like a good run, challenging, fun, worthwhile.

  8. Lianne says:

    Susan I enjoyed reading your essay, thanks so much for sharing it with me!

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