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When you are pedaling along through the rollers and the sagebrush, a high-plains drifter with nothing to depend upon but yourself, the gear on the bicycle and the guy riding alongside you, times can seem lonely. Names become frivolous at this point in the journey; time stands irrelevant as the miles course along. All that matters is the road -- and whether that bank of clouds brings merely shade or something wetter. Eating is a matter of fuel, not fun, choking down protein-powdered coffee and gooey energy bars in an effort to maintain caloric stasis as the body burns kilojoules before you can cram more inside. Days and nights merge into one chaotic segueway, imminently chartable on any map yet so much harder to document on any primal level. This is the moment where the notion of a no man's land becomes so relevant, so reassuring...


We are far from the Pyrenees or Alps; this is no Tour de France journey, and my maillot is most certainly not jaune. There is no caravan... there is nary a car on this voyage. Antelope frolic through the dusty Wyoming expanses, as free of heart as the traveler on the bicycle slogging along. The burn is comfortable, a reminder that the body is a wonderous instrument of transportation as well as a vessel for intelligent life. Vistas of mountain and plateau merge with the omnipresent ribbon of road coursing ahead and behind. The stresses of everyday life melt away when all a person's worries are invested in nothing more than moving forward simply because the path is there...


As we grow up, our childhood selves run about playing any number of sports -- kids on the sandlot digging for grounders, out on the schoolyard tossing a pigskin or kicking at makeshift goals, cold winter dusklight spent carving the last laps around the pond. These are moments where we simultaneously live out visions of glory, yet do so with the innocent and abstractly-formed dreams of victory, not payday, in mind. Yet too soon, it seems, sports evolve from the realm of participation to one of a spectator status. And when this occurs, a new ethos creeps in. Even as children organized into recreational leagues, the message is one of recreation. Win or lose, you're going to the pizza parlor or out for ice cream after all is said and done. Handshakes among opponents are common; the lesson isn't to win, it is to play. Parents by and large are there to watch their kids play, not to see them win but to have see them have fun. These children are playing and growing all the while, simply because the path is laid out before us in this inevitable play of life...


We too often forget HOW to play. Many people might compete on a team, but that is not nearly the same as participation. Once the competition becomes competition enough so that spectators form on the sidelines to root for victory, the innocence by and large has been drained from the festivities. By the time schools begin to organize their teams, from the middle-school ranks on upward, a premium is placed on victory regardless of its conscious acknowledgement. We can talk about the virtues of school athletics and the emphasis upon development as athletes and human beings, yet still the local papers exalt success and ponder the reasons when there is a dearth of such success. Student-athletes start to dream about scholarships, about paydays in money-driven sports leagues. No longer is the thrill of movement enough to sustain interest... or is it?


We derive less enjoyment and more anxiety from sports as we drift from an active to a passive role. When the exercise we obtain from football or baseball amounts to little more than twelve-ounce curls and the occasional fastball hurl of the remote as our blood pressure hits a boiling point, we forget about the joy which comes from the simple thrill of getting out, getting dirty and playing. Also in the process, we forget to look for a good story and instead become enamored with results...


No longer do we exalt an athlete (or most anyone) for the content of his or her character; no, thanks, now we sound like Brillat-Savarin, gluttonous for athletic rather than gastronomic excellence, as we expound, "Tell me your stats and I'll tell you how good you are." But more heroes than not in life are nameless; more joy is derived from getting away from the cerebral vortex of our media-driven world than from delving deeper into it. So here sits the drifter, a tailwind at his back, taking joy in the miles as they pass along. His favorite teams could be in crucial stretch drives, battling for a playoff spot, but here he sits unencumbered by the thrills and agonies of the fan...



That drifter is doing more than himself a favor. Not only is this venture into the no man's land of participation for the sheer sake of the journey good for his physical and mental well-being, but the empathy of suffering on the journey leads one to a greater perspective of the accomplishments of elite athletes when he returns, inevitably, to his spectator role. When we, in  our imperfect physical reality, attempt to ride a bicycle a hundred miles (or even one) or go play eighteen holes or travel to the municipal tennis courts, we connect with the athletes we see on the screen and in the stadia of the world on a level of understanding that no amount of mere spectating can ever attain. Periodic voyages back into the world of personal, imaginative, free-flowing destination-and-expectation-free athletic adventure rekindle our ability to look past a simple score to better realize what goes into such achievements. So the pedals continue to crank, first the right and then the left, fueled by energy gels and innocent giddiness onward and forward toward the blur of the horizon beyond...


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