Reader Essay: Switchback
This essay was reader-submitted for our essay series on themes of joy, bliss, lightheartedness, and wonder.
The hope had been to kick off the summer with a road trip. Pack the car, hitch up the camper and hit the open road bound for places unknown. But the universe had other plans. Instead, as the fiddlehead ferns pushed their way into existence along the woodland trails of Bucks County, PA, one could find my husband and I elbows-deep in overstuffed basement file cabinets. The time had come to move my mother-in-law from her home of over four decades and settle her in a more manageable situation than her current 11-acre spread.
“The house was the only one my husband had really known growing up.”
The house was the only one my husband had really known growing up. He moved there when he was 5. He had proposed to me in this basement. We had met both my niece and his nephew for the first time here—babes in arms. We had planned his father’s Celebration of Life ceremony here. Life had come and gone and blossomed and branched here. Pastel-scented sunrises with the mist lifting off the Delaware River and deep velvet twilights with the cicadas and frogs blaring their seductions. But the secular truth behind all these seminal events and joyful gatherings were the tattered trappings left behind: the closets full of dusty toys, the giant Rubbermaid tubs filled with unviewed photos of people no one remembered anymore. At one point I unearthed a faded receipt for deck screws from 1988. Seemingly, no scrap of paper had ever been discarded.
Throughout our stay, tempers flared and emotions ebbed and flowed. On an evening walk down to his old bus stop, a wave of nostalgia broke over my husband. He wanted me to take his picture in front of the peeling barn on the corner. I have two photos saved on my phone. One of him pacing, struggling to fight back tears. The other of him smiling widely, a man standing where a boy once stood.
“Bittersweet would be the simple way to describe it, but there were many layers.”
We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary during the ten days it took us to completely clean out the house. Bittersweet would be the simple way to describe it, but there were many layers. When my husband first took me to the house we were new lovers, barely together six months. I remember the buoyant pride he took in hurtling me down the narrow country roads, showing off his childhood haunts. Sharing his home with me somehow made everything fresh and new for him, as well. Twenty years later, our shared paths here were well-trodden, but the strength and solace we could take in one another now had its own weighted beauty. The entire experience harkened of a cycle completed. We had come full circle.
“We had come full circle.”
We worked from breakfast until dinner most days. The pile of heavy, black contractor trash bags grew to epic proportions and loomed in the corner of the greenhouse. But each afternoon—at the point where our necks ached and our eyes had clouded over into an indiscriminate haze—we would reward ourselves with a ride.
We are new to mountain biking. And, though the trails had apparently been there when my husband was a kid, he had never ridden them. After all his tour guiding over the years, this was like finding a hidden paradise in our backyard just waiting for us to sweep back the obscuring foliage and dive in. There was something incredibly uplifting about finding newness amidst all the well-used.
Sailing through the first few flowy turns, I would inhale the heady scents of honeysuckle and mock orange and feel the tangle of emotional cobwebs being blown away. Presence returned to my brain as sweat beaded on my upper lip. To be capable of wading through and discarding boxes upon boxes of remnants of my in-laws’ lives required a certain amount of binding. If it seems as though all my purging was without remorse, that is only because of the leaden vault in which I would seal my emotions each day; the self-imposed numbness imperative for the seemingly insurmountable task at hand. But with each pedal thrust, the vault was cracked open, shard by shard, to the thrilling light of day.
I would never classify myself as a daredevil, but the little victories I experienced on those trails—the climb I, at first, couldn’t summit but now could; the switchback of berms I managed to finally stitch together into glossy, serpentine splendor—defibrillated my stifled senses. The soreness in my legs and the scrapes and bruises that began to decorate my knuckles were tactile reminders that I was alive.
“These are passages that all of us will have to face.”
Cleaning out a childhood home. Coming to terms with the reality of aging parents. Our own mortality. These are passages that all of us will have to face. And yet somehow it is lonely work, despite the universality of the subject. Arriving at a place of comfort with the temporary-ness of this life—the work and the worth and the pride and the proof of this life—is a bridge of understanding that each of us must cross alone. But, to rip through a newly-flush forest, your heart pounding and your breath heaving. To feel the rise and fall of the bike beneath you like a well-trained thoroughbred. To connect to a larger world, beyond the self-lens of photographs and memorabilia; a world that requires your total immersion in this one fleeting moment. For me, that is a powerful and redemptive grace.
Alexandra Budzynski is a retired principal ballet dancer currently teaching where she resides in Pittsburgh and around the country. She connected to her love for the written word during the pandemic lockdown as a means of creative escape. When she is not in the studio she enjoys travel, the outdoors and being a general observer of life.