I went for a ride on the Silver Comet recently. I was enjoying the day, and the ride, when I came up behind a group of three cyclists in my lane. I slowed. They were two men followed by a woman. She was maybe 2 or 3 wheel lengths behind the two men riding abreast. There was also a dog-walker coming toward me on the grass. He and his pet were completely clear of what I could have used as the passing lane. The dog walker was giving me the right of way, but that front cyclist near the center line was riding like someone who was not paying attention, not just because he was talking to the man beside him, but he also had the small wavering movements of someone who didn’t have much of his secondary attention on his riding either.
After the dog walker passed the group, I picked my pace back up and called “Coming up on your left”. The woman thanked me loudly and I called passing again, to make sure the guy I was giving all the space heard me too. As he saw me pass, he began to yell the sarcastic, profane, name calling accusation that I had not called the pass. He was still yelling when I lost the ability to hear him.
I never respond in kind to the abuse of a stranger. It’s not just that I don’t want to be that person. It’s also that you never really want to know how far a person acting out in anger will go. At that moment though, I was really in touch with those feelings that make people yell back and escalate things. I wanted to give the guy the finger as I left him behind.
I make mistakes, more and bigger mistakes than I’d like, on and off the trail, but I had given this guy the kid gloves treatment and anger over his abuse was roiling through me. I tried to calm it down, leave him behind in my thoughts as quickly as I had left him behind on the trail. I wanted to change my thoughts so he didn’t stay camped out in my brain.
At first, all I managed was to blunt my feelings. I reminded myself that my anger hurt only myself, then remembered the empathy meditation. When doing this in a more formal way, you are supposed to choose a few people, starting with a difficult person, and then after a few specific people, expand it to all beings everywhere. Picking only the difficult person on this occasion (clueless raging guy of course), I repeated in my mind “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe from harm. May you live with ease.” Instantly it took about 80% of my remaining negative feelings out of my body. It’s amazing how that works, but I still had negative thought every now and then for some time. It’s amazing how a stranger can get to you when your defenses are down.
Stuff like this isn’t the norm on the trail. People mostly come here to get away from stress and find their center, but it happens. A week or two earlier a walker mocked me for calling a pass. She did it in that ugly grating voice that comes from some kind of pain unrelated to the current interaction. I was sorely tempted to stop and tell her that calling a pass was safety, not bragging. But, again, you never know how they will react and the chances of positive outcome were low.
The Silver Comet Trail is not a loop. It’s a linear 60+ miles and growing. After I turned to go back to the car, I met another group of cyclists, this time facing me, traveling in the opposite lane. As they passed by, they greeted me with such smiles and enthusiasm it made me wonder, at first, if they thought they knew me. It took me a minute to fully take in the antithesis of my earlier experience and appreciate it. I had been anticipating seeing the angry rude guy on the flip side and wondering how that would go.
Then, after fully adjusting to the happier tone, there he was. The woman in the group was taking a picture in the direction of a trailside mass of kudzu. She was probably trying to photograph some bird or other pollinator (oh look, a butterfly!) because she was standing back with body language that said she was afraid of spooking her subject. The angry guy was standing behind her, in the middle of the path, on the center line, legs straddling the top tube with one wheel in one lane and one wheel in the other. Of course he was!
I called “Passing on your left.” It wasn’t true. I was passing behind his back, but saying so could have been perceived as provocative rather than merely accurate. He jerked, looked like he was going to say something, then didn’t, at least not anything audible to me. He didn’t move out of the way either, at least not while it made passing easier. I said the Empathy Meditation again.
Here’s the thing. What you say and do matters to everyone who sees and hears it. I have bad days too, and who knows what this guy was trying to get over. If you ever see me out there having one, deepest apologies, and that empathy meditation, it’s pretty effective.
See you on the trail, and have a glorious day.