Monday, September 19, 2016

The Last House



It is a road that I have climbed so often, it is really no longer a road, or a climb, but more like some inexplicably repeating drama. A play in which I find myself performing some peripheral, but necessary, role, again and again, as if caught in a dream loop.

The play consists of three acts. First is the long and sweeping, gentle pull, through meadows and gated gardens. So subtle is the gradient here, at times I would almost wonder whether I were climbing at all, feeling compelled to check my tyres for flats. It is a slow beginning. Time seems to drag. The sound of insects is loud. The landscape feels suspiciously open, bringing about that sense of being watched. Uneasily, it stretches on and on, until its monotony comes to an abrupt end at a sharply rising slope.

The slope intimidates with its vertical immediacy. But this is a ruse - as the crest, hidden from view by its steepness, is near. And after it, a dramatic dip. End of Act 1.

As the road twists and narrows, I climb my way out of the hollow, in which sits a small village. Or maybe it is a settlement. There is no shop, no postoffice, no pub. There is, however, a surprisingly large church, and it sits back from the road behind trees and an iron gate, almost coyly.

The houses are densely clustered and old, different in shape and size but nonetheless resembling each other in a way that suggests they were built in the same era. At a gradient that steepens with every meter, the road snakes narrowly between them, now almost like a private driveway. The temperature rises here; the hollow is a sun trap. Sweat runs in streams into my eyes. There is a crossroads now, with roads to each side offering a way out of completing the climb.

After the crossroads, the houses grow sparser, the tree shade thicker, the gradient steeper. As I round the next bend, I keep my eye out for the pillar with the white mailbox attached. When I see it, I drop into the small ring. I stand, then sit back down again, then stand for a while longer. And I keep my eye now on the houses. After the last one, ends Act 2. The real climb begins.

And of course Act 3 is what it's all been driving toward. When it arrives, it is almost cheap in its shock tactics, a jumble of pain, desolation, loosened emotions. But it is not only painful, this climb, this third act. It is plain bad. It is all so exaggerated and improbable - from the eye-poppingly sharp gradient of the final mile, to the bare and windswept bogland that is now the only thing to be glimpsed in any direction. It is this improbability - the sense of suspended disbelief - that propels me through the whole thing every time. It is also what keeps me coming back. I remember the play as being bad. But could it really have been that bad? Perhaps I need to sit (or stand) through it just one more time, to be sure.

But after every last time, would come the next last time. Until the bad play becomes a cult play. A bizarre obsession.

How many times have I done this climb? Don't ask, I have lost count. And the ending never fails to surprise me. Because by the time I recover sufficiently to attempt it again, I forget how bad it is. I forget every single time.

It is only once I am cycling up this road again, that a point comes when suddenly I remember. And that point is just as I'm about to pass the last house. The last house before the trees end and the bogland begins. The last house before the nastiness and the drama assail me.

The last house stands on the righthand side, on its own and some distance uphill from the ones that come before it. It is white, with green trim. And although there is nothing in it unusual, I study its nuances with a grasping intensity, as if stalling for time. From the texture of its finish, to the likely number of rooms within, to the possible character of its occupants, I have given all things about it tremendous consideration. Over time they've acquired a sort of secret meaning, as if hiding clues as to what sort of time I'm about to have up the road ahead.

When I last attempted this climb, the journey took on an unusual sense of buoyancy, as it does on those rare occasions when my head is extra clear and I am in my very best shape. I began to think I had conquered the climb and the shock of its final drama.

It was then I caught sight of something ahead. I could not discern it at first. But as I drew closer, it looked like the beginnings of a new construction. The site stood unsheltered, surrounded by bog, some ways up the road from the last house.


36 comments:

  1. That first bit you described is what we would call a false flat.

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    1. We have those too. Although this one would be more of a "slow road."

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  2. I may not know how to comment on these types of posts, but I wanted to let you know they are appreciated.

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    1. Agreed. I enjoy the stories, particularly the bits of whimsy.

      Wolf.

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  3. In awe of the ascent into Gothic horror.

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  4. I spent two years during my grad school days cycling up a hill from house to campus….two miles of hell! It was segmented into three sections and my mind would narrate the ordeal as I cycled, unless I was blessed with better thoughts coming from some angel. This was not sport, it was transportation, and anyone who lives in Ithaca may know the route. Traveling by bike and needing to focus on effort is like an insomniac needing to figure out how to go to sleep.

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    1. I've been to Ithaca and can only imagine. Sectioning and narrating is a useful strategy, I think!

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  5. As they say, hills build character, for what it's worth.

    Two tips for hill climbing that I live by. Breathing, deep exhale to push out all the old/stale air and deep inhales, slow, controlled. The second, don't look to the top, look ahead 6 to 8 feet and focus on something on the road, a crack, a branch, a pot hole, whatever, pull in and repeat.

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    1. I do fairly well on long hills with reasonable grades. The difficult climbs for me are those that combine steepness and duration. And by difficult, I mean they make me nuts, sometimes to the point of mild hallucinations. The road ahead or a branch... half the time I don't even know what I'm looking at and only start thinking/seeing clearly after it's over.

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  6. Mrs. Lowry woke with a start, her nap interrupted by a chill shadow slowly passing by her bedroom window. She froze, glad for the Hydrangea blocking her view of the suffering soul toiling up the hill.

    She no longer felt the urge to steal glimpses of it in it's misery. Before, she might have peeked around the corner of the cottage or timidly waved from the parlor window. That was when she still assumed it was a living, breathing human. She realized that couldn't be true the day she stepped out her front door and was surprised by the wretched creature inching by, not 10 feet away, eyes empty, mouth drawn in a mirthless grin of painful irony, limbs hardly moving but quivering as though under some tremendous strain, strain too great for flesh and bone but silently endured by this unfortunate... this unfortunate what?

    Now she held her breath and just wished it gone. Gone to where? To what place, distant in space and time are such horrible judgements meted out? Mrs. Lowry dared not wonder. Nor did she wonder anymore if the grimacing creature was doomed to it's fate fairly, in retribution for sins unimaginable, or unjustly, for the amusement of some extravagantly cruel deity. She no longer cared. The endless suffering of this obviously ancient being was beyond the ken of mortals and so she anxiously waited out it's passing, hoping the shadow would eventually pass one more time, leaving behind the sun, just as the original peoples of this land must have waited out the once in a lifetime eclipse that seemed to threaten the entire world with oblivion.

    After what seemed an eternity the pitiful rider ground it's way further up the hill, the aroma of Hydrangeas returned and the kind reassurance of the late Summer sun once more warmed Mrs. Lowry's face. With a drowsy prayer unfinished on her lips, her eyes closed and she drifted back to sleep.

    Edward George Spin-Lytton

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    1. Hey... I think I know that guy.

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    2. This is brilliant, but I can't help myself: it's its, damn it, not it's!

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    3. Good point from the guest editor, but unfair to poor Mr. Spin-Lytton: I can redact posts, but comments c'ant be altered. (see?)

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    4. I know its its, I just have a job lot of cheap comma's I'm trying to burn through. BTW, its DAMMIT, dammit, not damn it.

      E.G.S.L.

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    5. I am an arrogant bastard unaccustomed to being impressed with the intelligence and wit of others. Hats off Mr. Spin.

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    6. EGLS:
      Love the commas hovering at apostrophe height. That's such a good trick. Ever considered marketing them to weight weenie writers? (Hovering? LIght?) Custom bike racks and now custom punctuation? Bet there's a niche just waiting....

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  7. You really conveyed the experience of a long, subtle gradient with a hill at the end. Riding home from work on my "downtown" route is just like this with 6 miles of gradual uphill that has very often had me checking my tires (especially when I take the "big" bike). This leads to a steep hill, followed by three blocks of a very steep street. But unlike you I have pleasant, leafy, residential surroundings; then the small bustle of downtown plus the ever-changing visage of Pikes Peak and the foothills to gaze upon.

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  8. What about getting back down?

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    1. Not sure whether this is the case with mountain roads in general - But around here, if one side is twisty the other is usually a long straight slope, or at least less twisty. So I go up the twisty way, down the straight way. The ascents are a bit harder in that direction, but the descents easier, which is in keeping with my skill level.

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    2. No particular skill is required to descend. It is quite simple. There is a reason you find it hard.

      Do not listen to tales of derring-do. Descending quickly is not a big accomplishment. Anyone can do it. The bike should always feel stable. The bike should always feel securely planted on the pavement. The bike should inspire confidence. Descending is not about risk-taking.

      Make the task easier. You can't jump high hurdles before you can clear low hurdles. Saddle down, saddle back, wider front tire, moderate tire pressure. When that combination shows you how simply you can get off the top of the mountain, when you feel safer than you ever did before, then you can let go of the brakes on the last turn before the valley.

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    3. It's not really about any of that. I get dizzy and panic; can't react with the quickness necessary for tight bends at high speeds. I am getting better at it though. It's a process and everyone has their weaknesses.

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  9. Living next to Dartmoor in devon I am well aquainted with the horrible steep nasty 20-25% killers round here and all their nuances but on the way back from a ride with a friend the other day we came back via a road I have only ever ridden in the other direction, it's always been a bit of a drag but I had put that down to surface and exposure but I had to chuckle when we both looked at each other in surprise and my friend exclaimed "oh my god this is downhill!". Not just a false flat but a road we have both ridden countless times before and never actually realised it was uphill!

    No matter how well you think you know a road there's always a way it can catch you out or show you something new ;-)

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  10. I really like this photo, what a sweet little cottage and one can't help wondering what lies ahead at the curve in the road. I understand you like a challenge, but just wonder, since the last stage of this climb is painful and by all accounts not in the least pleasant, why would you not consider walking the final stage?

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    1. Oh I've walked it at times. It's actually easier to cycle!

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  11. And as Act 3 reached its crescendo, the devil whispered in her ear "kaufen ein Agattu"

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  12. this is a wonderful story. great writing. thank you!

    also, why do so many people feel compelled to put forward unsolicited advice? g-d- it is annoying, especially on a post like this. no questions were posed. there was no problem posited that needed solved. it's just a lovely bit of poetic writing.

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    1. As I read the English language our esteemed bloghost is frequently soliciting advice. Sometimes that happens in comments as well as in OP text.

      Would you like me to say something effusive? I can do that. I've been looking for an opportunity to state the following.
      Our host has noted she is not a native speaker of English. The only other authors I can think of who wrote English notably well who were not born to it are Conrad and Nabokov. In spite of Conrad's genius, and aside from the enormous pleasure of reading his prose, it is evident on every page that he is laboring in an adopted language. Nabokov never labors, in his early work it is still plain he is not a native. In his later work he had superstar editors. In the years I have been reading this blog I have noted exactly two usages of the definite article that recall the way Slavs attempt English. Either of those instances would have been possible random errors for a native speaker. And all else is wonderful.

      Is that effusive enough? Comparing a blog to Conrad and Nabokov is laying it on a bit thick. I would not sully the names of those great men if the praise were not deserved.

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    2. Funny thing about definite article use. UK English speakers are less fond of it than American English speakers. I am sometimes corrected by Americans when I write or say things such as "in future" and "in winter" - which for me is actually a British, as opposed to an ESL, way of phrasing things.

      Nevertheless, you are right. I am a native Russian (and German) speaker. More often it's the latter that's noticed, due to my overenthusiasm for compound nouns.

      All that said, I don't think it's language Unknown above was referring to, but climbing advice.

      I would disagree that I frequently (or almost at all) solicit advice, though some seem to interpret it differently.

      But that is enough of that.

      Time to re-read some Conrad - who I always seem to forget was Polish.

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  13. Loved this. Such evocative writing (again).

    As someone who can generally max her excitement threshold watching paint dry, and living in a prairie city, I haven't built up much of a tolerance for hills. I even whine about our river valley, though I'm getting (marginally?) better w both headwinds and the euphemistically called "elevation gains."

    I spent a little time in Jasper, AB, a few weeks ago, and a 35km ride took me most of the afternoon. Mind, this included stopping for lunch, gawking, taking pictures, and getting just a little lost. I was humming along and saw an elk on the path. I looked at her; she looked at me and wandered off to the side. I was just putting foot to pedal and noticed her baby on the other side of the path. Thought perhaps I wouldn't get between them, so I thanked her and turned around. The alternate route was marked as one level of difficulty more than the one I was on; how bad could it be? Yah. Root features and rutted, muddy bits and biggish hunks of jagged rock. It was fun when it was over — bragging rights, you know — but hard work in the moment.

    Last summer, come camping in the Rockies time, my husband and I bought a rack for the car, reworked how to fit in tent, food, gear, etc — no travel-light gene here — and brought bikes along. There's a lovely trail at Lake Louise (outside the electrified bear fence: we saw two different bears during our few days there!) Trail runs along the river, gently undulating up and down, and for the most part well maintained and freshly upgraded w chickpea-sized gravel. Now, my 700x28 tires are not the best thing for gravel, especially in areas where the incline means fresh gravel slips off the tops of the hill-lets and sits, deep and treacherous, at the bottoms. There was sliding and fishtailing, and no small amount of white-knuckled brake riding, and then a little voice in my head, channelling something I read here: "Trust the bike." Relax, and trust the bike.

    And it worked. Loosened my grip just a bit, let up on the brake just a bit, flowed w the hills just a bit more. It was wonderful. Peaceful and exciting at the same time.

    Of course, this did not save me later, while "riding" up to Lake Louise chateau. Little voice discovered a vocabulary I don't normally indulge in, but again, the advice was good: *expletives deleted* "Walk the bike."

    The way down though, was fabulous. In the middle of the road, exceeding the speed limit so not worried about someone passing me. Ah. The exhilaration of acceleration! Days later in Banff, bike computer read 57.7km/hr on one descent. And, yes, I know that's not fast fast, but compared to paint drying....

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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