This is a story from my childhood and one that I remember well. This is a picture of me near my house in Florida which isn’t in the picture and one of my many beloved hand-me-down adult bikes that would have been taken within a few years of the time of the story I’m about to tell but unlike the story which happened at night this photo was taken in the day time. As you may surmise from the photo, I grew up in a very rural area. I spent a lot of time working on a farm and even though I went to school like every other kid there were many nights that I didn’t get home from the farm until late into the night. The road I took in this story was less maintained than the one in the photo. So let’s start shall we…
a story from my childhood: a farm kid, a bicycle and a pitch black night.
I was on a dark dirt road on this particular night when I was probably around 12 years old, part of the farm from where I had been working was to my back and had some dim lights which barely broke the firm grasp of the darkness. Me and my bike were in a dark area pointing towards what looked like a dark swamp and to the untrained one wouldn’t have recognized it as a road. Slightly to my left was the main road which was a wide well maintained dirt road but still pitch black except in the distance you could see dim lights of another part of the farm. It’s the road I normally take home at night when I’m on my bike and forgot to bring a flashlight like on this night. It would have been easy to take the main road even in pitch black darkness but it was a mile and a half home that way. I was alone and it was late on a school night and I was exhausted and just wanted to get home to my warm comfy bed. Through the dark swampy trail, it would have been around a 3/4 mile trek though much more challenging to navigate in the complete darkness with no stars or moonlight to speak of.
Decisions, decisions. Standing in the dark on the road with my oversized bike, I contemplated the choice in front of me and I remember not being scared of anything as I made the careful necessary calculation. Taking the swamp trail would be very challenging; I would have to rely purely off memory from where I took the trail countless times in the daytime but never at night. It would be like taking the trail blindfolded or with my eyes closed but in the mind of my young 10 year-old self, “no problemo!” It all boiled down to the time savings so off on my little journey into the darkness I went.
I had to build up speed and hit the ditch between me and the trail head. The deep ditch was full of water and was muddy which could easily stop a bike and throw it’s rider right over the handle bars. I had learned this the hard way one unsuspecting day. But this night there were no magnificent handle bar acrobatics and bad physics experiments in store for me. However, my bike hit the deep ditch full of water hard and bounced violently before I made it across to the other side. I got soaked with water and mud but it was too dark to inventory the damage so I continued on having walk my bike up a steep embankment. I knew the path ahead of me which I could not see in the total darkness was straight for about a quarter mile and made a hard right turn. I knew there were always deep holes almost big enough and deep enough to swallow me and my bike about the distance of 20 bike lengths. I couldnt see those either so I decided to push my bike until I passed those hazards. The road, well if one could call it that, maybe a goat trail is a better name for it, was mostly grass and only about the width of an automobile tire or slightly wider was the dirt part of the trail. It was easy to walk in the dark and feel the dirt under my old worn out shoes. When I started venturing off the road which happened a couple of times, I could feel the rough grass and weeds under my shoes. Each time I quickly corrected my direction to get back on the road. Eventually, I stepped right into one of the deep holes and knew I was there. Oddly the holes didn’t hold water long after storms so they were dry. There were large hogs in this area so I always wondered if that was their little watering holes and they drank them dry.
Now, I knew I had a straight shot in the darkness until the road curved sharply to the right. I knew the field past the curve would often get muddy with something I can only best describe as quicksand though rarely went deeper than waste deep and also tended to harbor a great briar patch which could slice up ones skin with all it’s barbs. I surely need to avoid running into that field I thought to myself as I got on my bike and began to pedal. I ran off the road a few times but quickly corrected by just feeling the narrow but smooth road under my tires. I picked up speed and tried to remember how far it was to the curve. While I was pedaling, I noticed an eerie quietness in the cool night air. Nights can sometimes be loud due to the magnificent orchestra of frogs and crickets and who knows what else in the wooded areas like this one. But not on this night. I made a mental note of it an continued onwards since by now I had gotten a little better at navigating the road and correcting course when needed to stay on the smooth dirt.
Then just as I got comfortable with my blind bike riding adventure, I ran through the curve into the field full of weeds. My feet instinctively landed onto the soft muddy ground and kept me from falling and I paused a moment waiting for the strong sting of briars but it never came. Wow, I thought I’m lucky these waste high weeds aren’t briars or I’d be shredded. I stood for a moment to see if I sank into the potential quicksand. But tonight was my lucky night – no razor blade weeds and no quick sand. Things are looking up for me so I by using nothing but the feel of the ground beneath my feet, found the curved wannabe road that I had failed to recognize earlier on my bike and climbed back onto my bike.
I tried to make sure I was oriented in the right direction and not go back in the direction from which I had came and get well positioned on the road before I started pedaling. This entire area was surrounded by thick forests so I couldn’t use any lights from the farm or from my house to help guide me. I took another moment to calculate the distance of this leg of the obstacle course. I knew the path ahead of me was straight for a little over a quarter mile and then veered left into a very swampy and wet area of the road that was usually under water. I dreaded the thought of having to navigate that area as I’d likely have to travel through water on my bike. I figured I’d wind up wading water on foot which didn’t sound at all pleasant to me. I was still wet from the ditch encounter earlier.
I then paused and once again briefly noted how strange it was that it was so quiet on this night. I don’t recall that ever happening before so it kind of creeped me out. Other than that creepy feeling I remember not being scared of anything. I got on my bike and continued on and by now I was pretty good at navigating this road in the darkness. The road felt smooth under my tires and by now I rarely even ventured off the road into the grass. So for a while I felt at ease in the quiet total darkness on my bike feeling the cool damp night air pass across my face. With more speed I could hear the air passing by my ears slightly breaking the silence and the quiet pitter patter of mud from the tires hitting me in the back of the head and back of my shirt from where I ran into the muddy field and none of the adult bikes I inherited as a child had fenders to block the dirt and mud. I continued on without many cares or concerns of what may or may not go wrong. Little kid minds like mine at the time just don’t think of those things in great detail it’s more like as a kid we live minute by minute or second by second and don’t really ponder how a bad quick decision could go wrong and potentially affect you for the rest of your life. A quick bad decision like I made on this particular pitch black night to take a narrow trail without a flashlight through a swampy area. Anyway things were about to go very bad for me and I don’t remember what came first whether it was running over something big in the road or the sound, the piercing sound that I knew so, so well. It was a natural riff played by one of the most deadly creatures in an arsenal of bad creatures also known as venomous snakes. I could see nothing and all I had to go on was feeling something very evil under the tires of my bike and the piercing sound that now echoed against all the big trees that I couldn’t see. And obviously by now a whole lot of adrenaline for a little kids body. I heard this sound often in the daytime for which I never had a healthy enough dose of fear from it but in the day time I always knew where it was. But tonight as I heard the loud dire warning, I had no idea where its lethal head was and for once in my little invincible kid mind, I was scared. I think anyone can recognize the fear inducing sound of a very large rattlesnake, it’s almost like the fear response is coded into our very DNA.
Anyway, in the split second from the time I ran over the large creature and the instant warning sound, I instinctually pulled up on the handle bars to keep the bike from stalling out the forward speed and falling directly on top of or at least near whatever the offending object was. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, however you look at it, I had well rehearsed this response after some very nasty accidents in the past including some that irreparably damaged some earlier bikes. I learned physics at an early age I suppose. So back to our story where at this moment the snake would have been between my front and back tires and well within striking distance of my little legs and feet. I pedaled hard knowing I had to make sure the back tire of the bike made it over the large lethal venomous snake that I could not see but I could hear and sense quite well. Imagining back I’m surprised I didn’t pedal with enough force to throw the snake backwards at least a 100 feet. But I felt every bit of the creature under the back wheel and I was never happier to feel the bounce of the bike and continued forward motion. I don’t remember taking inventory of my legs to see if I felt any large puncture wounds but for the 2nd half of the trail including the part of the road that was under water took no time at all to finish up. I got home and as usual no one was waiting on me and no one would have missed me at least until the next day probably if I hadn’t have made it through the field that night. I had a strange childhood with almost no rules, no curfew, and no supervision. But I made it home that night without getting bit or breaking any limbs and without a flash light. I don’t think I ever took that short-cut again in the dark without a flashlight and I’ve never forgot that night even though it was so many years ago. I don’t know how I survived my childhood because this is only one of many stories just as bad as this one. But I did survive it and I’m glad I’m able to write about it and laugh about it now.