Making new anniversaries

By Phil Plait | September 13, 2010 7:00 am

Leaning on my bike, I glared up at the distant hill peak.

I was exhausted. Gasping for breath, weak in the legs, throat raw from trying to force too-thin air into my lungs, I still managed a wan smile. Two hours ago, this ride seemed like a good idea… but of course, time changes things.

The weather was perfect. The wind from yesterday had died down, and the air was clear and clean. Blue skies, mild temperatures, and best of all, no deadlines looming. I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. A bike ride seemed like the best idea.

The day before, driving back from the gym, I semi-randomly took a side road home. I noticed some bike trails intersecting it, and made a mental note to look them up. So I sat down with my Boulder trails guide and a monitor full of Google maps. The ride from home wouldn’t be too bad: ten kilometers or so, a nice wide loop, some lightly-used roads and fun trails. The guide said moderate biking, so I figured I was up for it.

An hour later that idea hadn’t changed. I was on my bike, enjoying the almost obscenely nice weather. I took some quick side routes when I saw anything interesting: a wildlife preserve, a water treatment plant (with Logan’s Run type domes, very cool), a vegetable stand. I turned on to the road I had been on the other day, and kept my eyes open for the trail. When I found it I could see this would be awesome: lakes, pastures, wild fields of hay. I turned on to the trail and my heart sang.

But soon that song turned into loud hammering. The trail started getting hilly, then really hilly. I negotiated the first two inclines in short order, though it was tough. Then I rounded a corner and my palpating heart sank a bit. This hill was steep, and had sand along it. That sapped away my momentum, and I found myself pedaling way too hard and gasping for air. Even after 3 years here, 1700 meters elevation can drain away blood oxygen before you know it.

For the first time in years, I had to dismount to get up a hill. Humbled a bit, I pushed my bike along. When I got to the top, despite being tired, I took in the lovely view: mountains to the west, prairie to the right. A sip of water, one last deep breath, and I was back on my bike and enjoying the ride once again.

For about three minutes, that is, until I hit another hill. I had to dismount again. And after that, another hill. This must be the last one, I thought stupidly. Of course, it was then that I hit the big hill.

Looming in front of me, reaching up into the sky, this one clearly was the most daunting of the ones I’d face. I made it about 20 meters up the trail before resignedly getting off my bike. Sweating, panting, exhausted, I had to rest twice just from walking my bike up the hill. I glared up at the top of it, still a solid 40 or 50 meters away, and that’s when I smiled. This seemed like a good idea two hours ago, I thought.

That’s when I noticed the biker coming up behind me. He was near the bottom of this monster hill, and struggling mightily with it. He was standing up, using his weight to force the pedals down. I was still too tired to get back on my bike, so I watched his fight. He got about 10 meters behind me, then stopped and got off.

Laughing, I called out to him: "Nice! You got a lot farther than I did!"

He laughed too. "This one is a killer," he said. "It’s my first ride of the season," he added sheepishly.

I laughed again. "I’ve been on the road too much to exercise. This isn’t my first ride this summer, but man! I should’ve gone clockwise around the trails, not counterclockwise!"

By this time he reached me. We pushed our bikes up the hill together, chatting in between gasps for air. When we got to the top, by mutual unspoken consent, we both hopped back on, and paced each other. That killer was the last uphill battle for the ride; it leveled off and we were presented with a magnificent view of the foothills and the Rockies.

We kept chatting, laughing at our mutual need for more exercise, and how nice the trails around Boulder are. At one point a huge flock of grasshoppers erupted in our path, surrounding us, a flash of tan and brown and yellow as they flew around us and off to the side.

It was wonderful.

Eventually, we got to a main street, and parted company. He turned right, I turned left. Over my shoulder I called out to him, "Take care!" I think he said "You too!" but we were facing opposite directions, and the wind of my motion stole the sound from me.

From there it was a short, thankfully downhill, ride home. The breeze in my face was wonderful. I could hear birds singing, and people I passed were enjoying the weather too, out walking, working on their yard, playing games. I saw a young father and his toddler doing some activity together, maybe building something, in their garage, but I blew past them too quickly to see what. Finally, finally, I turned the corner and saw my house. My legs were twitching from exhaustion, and I was spent.

Still, though, I was thinking it was good to be alive.

That day, when all this happened, was Saturday, September 11, 2010.

I had been fretting earlier that day, wondering if I should write something on this grim anniversary. I had already posted something, but that was a mildly funny tongue-in-cheek post about an encounter with a praying mantis. I had purposely not written about the day; I figured I had already written everything I needed to about this particular date.

But after that ride, I decided I had one more thing to say.

I don’t know the name of the man I shared those few minutes with. My knowledge of him is that he lives somewhere near me, he’s a bit younger than me, and he likes to bike, but that’s it. I don’t even know his name. Maybe he’s a scientist. Maybe he’s an accountant. Maybe he’s a creationist, or believes in astrology, or UFOs, or doesn’t like Star Trek, or he’s a social conservative. Chances are pretty good that there’s something about him that is vastly different than me.

But none of that matters. Right then, all that mattered was that we were both human beings, alive, outside, and enjoying the particular circumstances the world had thrown at us for that short time.

In time, after the Earth circles the Sun once again, people will talk about that day, that anniversary — certainly more than they have this year, since in 2011 the anniversary will be evenly divisible by ten — and they’ll remember where they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking, and what happened next. When dates align we try to circumvent the years that separate the now from the then.

But time changes things. I’ll remember all that happened all those years ago, certainly I will. But on this date in the future I’ll also remember that ride: the dust, the cloud of grasshoppers, the mountains, the exhaustion. And I’ll remember that other human whose path crossed mine, who has his own persepective, his own experience, his own memories.

But what’s important to me is that I have a new memory to add to that specific date. Time changes things. It distances us from the pain, the sadness, the anger. But that also gives us room to add new memories.

They may as well be positive ones.


Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. Curatious « Cyclelicious | September 13, 2010
  1. JerryP

    Great post, Phil…

    As someone who was there on that awful day, lost friends there and will be forever scarred from what I witnessed, I take no comfort in how the media insists that I “never forget” by bombarding me with imagery, discussion and forensic study of what happened. It still turns my stomach whenever I’m reminded of the event. I’ve learned since 2002 that it’s best to leave the tv off every 9/11 and to occupy myself with things I truly enjoy. Healing is certainly a personal matter, and some wounds run very deep. But, I can’t think of a better way to move forward than how you just described it.


  2. Annas

    Phil, why are you so good at writing? Your story-telling ability is amazing. Ever since you wrote “Deep” on Ficly, I want more stories from you!

  3. What a lovely post Phil. I don’t want to forget 9/11, but I would much rather focus on remember the way most of us (not just in the USA, but in the world) bound together and focused on our commonalities, rather than our differences. What a great reminder of that in this post.

  4. jaranath


    America, please…oh, please…read this.

  5. Hmmm… given the possibility that he doesn’t like Star Trek, I would be very cautious :)

  6. Erin N.

    This post seems a change of pace from your normal style and content, but it suits you! Thanks!

  7. Bob

    It’s not “Never forget” the events of that day. What people really mean by “Never Forget” is to never forget what lead up to it, and its aftermath. The complete ineptitude of the intelligence agencies that couldn’t connect the dots, plus the 9/12 armchair analysts who say “Well, why didn’t they just ?” The lack of preparation for a response to an attack from a NGO. The chaos of that day for 1st responders, and their lingering health issues today.

    Do not forget those that died, who just wanted to go to work that day, and come home the next day and see their families. It’s not “Never forget” the attacks. It’s Never Forget the lessons learned. Political, Social, etc.

  8. Gary Ansorge

    Anniversaries are emotional things. We rarely recall mundane trivial events.

    The assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, The Challenger disaster, 9/11, etc, elicited a major visceral response in nearly everyone who was around at the time.

    So much angst, so little rational consideration.

    With JFK, Bobby K., MLK, we elevated men to the rank of saints. Which is weird to me, considering they were much maligned by the public the day before they were deadified.

    I can well understand our national response to Challenger. Natural law punched us in the gut and stole our dreams. 9/11 was accompanied by righteous indignation, as in, “How could they do that to us? We’re the GOOD guys.” Then we set about proving we’re no better than the jerks that struck at us. I hope 9/11 is remembered as the day we learned, there are consequences to our choices as a world power. Perhaps more than we wish to accept.

    Gary 7

  9. Michel

    Lovely memories are there to treasure.
    Specially on those kinda days. Much better then doom and gloom.

  10. Jeff

    “But none of that matters. Right then, all that mattered was that we were both human beings, alive, outside, and enjoying the particular circumstances the world had thrown at us for that short time”

    Correct and well said. All human beings were evolved in an outdoor environment in Africa and we are creatures of that nature. We all are the same, and we all connect to nature. I don’t even like turning on the lights in the classroom anymore, I prefer to open the blinds and let that wonderful scattered sunlight illuminate the room.

  11. @ Gary 7:

    Last ¶. This.

  12. Beautiful words. The world is wonderful and magical. It seems our media obsessed world sometimes forgets that amongst the tragedy there is also beauty and hope.

  13. Renee

    Reading this made me feel really happy. Thanks.

  14. Mapnut

    As another eyewitness who lost 13 colleagues, it’s right that we remember the people. But we don’t need to be reminded of the horrible event. The World Trade Center site is now massively under reconstruction, and that’s the way to deal with that.

  15. A nice read to start my day! Thanks!

    I will remember 9/11 for 2 reasons. It was my oldest daughters first day of Kindergarten, and I skipped my usual ritual of tuning into the morning news that day to enjoy getting her ready for school. I will remember my ex-wife running into the house yelling, “Turn on the news! Turn on the news! We are under attack!” As I did, the camera was capturing the first tower collapsing.

  16. tmac57

    Wonderfully evocative prose Phil.I felt like I was there too.As someone who has experienced a devastating loss recently, I am acutely aware of the need to replace those negative feelings with something more positive and uplifting. Thanks for the reminder.

  17. I’ve always thought the fascination with these tragedies was especially pointless and ghoulish.

    I think it’s high time America moved on, just as it ultimately moved on from the Oklahoma City bombing, the Galveston Hurricane, and the Battle of Antietam. For that matter, few people mark Pearl Harbor Day or D-Day anymore.

  18. David P

    I always feel humanity has a weird relationship to death & tragedy. A period of mourning is unavoidable but after the raw grief is gone it is time to celebrate people’s lives.
    I think this is often seen with war memorials, they are usually quiet places of respect and dignity where you are expected to talk in hushed tones and tip toe around. What I always ask myself “Is this what these people died for, did they die for a grim respect or to protect a way of life we hold so dear”. If I was to die in a war it would be to protect the freedom of my family, so that my grandchildren are free to run wild around a park.

  19. Todd


    Very nice post. I felt like I was there, and it made me want to hop on my bike and soak in the scenery!


  20. Josie

    well I tried to do something like that…Went for a drive up to Mt. Palomar to enjoy the observatory as well as the twisty roads leading to it 😀

    Unfortunately the car said no and informed me that it needs its head rebuilt. So….I just enjoyed a nice 45 minute chat on the side of I 15 with the boyfriend on a gloriously sunny san diego saturday :)

  21. drow

    thanks for making me miss living in boulder. bastard. 😉

  22. DrFlimmer

    Indeed, nice story!

    A small side-note: actually, I LIKE being exhausted, especially when I ride my bike. Climbing up a hill and finally getting the awesome view from up there, causes such a good feeling that the pain of going up is less severe then. And, actually, it’s always good achieving something. Even if it’s just riding or climbing up a hill; the harder the better.

    As I said: Very nice story. You should post more of those from time to time (not too often, but once in a while 😉 ).

    @ #8 Gary Ansorge

    You are SO right!
    What kind of values has the western world shown the rest of the planet in the past decade?

  23. What a very beautiful essay, kudos…

  24. RAF

    My Dad died 2 years ago…9/10…since then I haven’t paid much attention to 911.

  25. Don K

    Hey Phil,

    Were you, by any chance, riding north on the White Rock trail, then west past the water tower before heading down? I want to see if my powers of deduction still work?


  26. Cobey Cobb

    Phil that was beautiful. Have you ever thought of writing more fiction? (I know that wasn’t fiction but the way you handle your words really put me in the moment). I want to read your Contact!!!

  27. Wayne on the plains

    My brother celebrated his 40th birthday on Saturday by skydiving. I think that’ll be a good memory too.

  28. Fedaykin

    Great post, though to add some levity:

    You’ve been in Colorado three years, yet you don’t understand what a Coloradoan means when they say “moderate” terrain?


  29. JM_Shep

    Thanks Phil! Reminds me of the beautiful day I was having 9 years ago on the 11th. We were canoeing, and it was awesome (until we got off the river and found out what had happened).

    This year I had an awesome time taking in an entire day of Roller Derby bouts. Great way to spend a day!

  30. The Other Erin


    Like Jerry, I was in NYC that day. And since then I have resolved to remember the beauty of life in all its demonstrations, but on the eleventh of September, I always remind people of the following:

    “Do more than remember today. Donate to a Victim’s Fund, send love to the troops, or volunteer. Remember to just be human and help others to remember it too.”

    You have done that very thing in such an eloquent way that I am left with no words, really, save two:

    Thank you.

  31. Gary Ansorge

    29. Fedaykin

    “moderate” is a POV.

    I live in Georgia(usa) and local “mountains” may be all of 3000 feet high,,,in California, we called those sand dunes,,,

    11. kuhnigget

    “Last ¶. This.”

    I have no idea what that means. Is it rude?

    Gary 7

  32. Greetings and Salutations…
    Riding a bike like that is the greatest way to get back in contact with reality and nature that one can do. I think your expedition was an excellent way to memorialized 9/11. Celebrate life…do not obsess over death or the negative. Although I was not particularly energetic, I did make a loop out through reality, where I picked up two, 16′ Maple trees that we planted later on in the evening. Again…another attempt to push towards the positive and the future instead of being held back by the ropes of the past.
    I was especially glad that the foolish and hateful actions of burning the Koran were canceled at the last minute, in what appears to be a burst of good sense. We all need to work to fight against the tide of hate and intolerance that is cresting over America, and dimming its idealistic vision.
    For a short nod towards astronomy, though, I was hoping to get a picture of the new, crescent moon near Saturn on Saturday evening, but, alas, the remnants of the hurricane looping over east Tn. precluded that. The rains and storms were quite heavy, and the cloud coverage widespread and constant. good for the plants…not so good for seeing the sky. However, LAST night, the air was clear enough that in spite of the light pollution and bright moon crescent, I was able to see the Milky Way arcing across the property. It was a great sight.

  33. Donnie B.

    In online comments, “this” is used when quoting something with which one heartily agrees — in this case, the final paragraph of Phil’s post. So no, it’s quite the opposite of rude.

    Phil, you missed one possibility that might have resonated even more than your others. That casual encounter of yours might have been — *gasp* — a Muslim.

  34. Gary Ansorge

    34. Donnie B.

    Thanks! I just learned another cool thing.

    With only about 3 million muslims in the USA, his odds were only 1/100. Now, down here in georgia, we have quite a number attending Georgia Tech., who showed up at Red Top Mt every summer, cooking shish ta ook(chicken breast, marinated in white wine and garlic), curried lamb and tabooli. They were always quick to invite the Old Guy to partake of their food and all I had to say was Kief Hallek(translates more or less as “Well Howdy”). Nice people, one and all.

    Gary 7

  35. What is this?

    I click on 9/11 to embiggen it.

  36. September 11 is also the birthday of Carl Zeiss and Robert Crippen, for the optically or space-inclined among us. :)

  37. Grand Lunar

    I was wondering where you were going with this one, Phil.
    Very nice, indeed.

    At that time, I was still in the navy. I was showing a new guy around when the word came. The naval base my ship was at went on lock down. All the ships set general quarters and all activated their radars. One thing kept going in my mind, especially after word came that the Pentagon was hit; that we were going to war. Of course, things turned out a bit differently than I thought.

    Looking back, I definately did not need reminders of death and destruction, especially with the hate mongering going on across the nation.

    Like others here, I wish to focus on life and the wonders of the cosmos.

  38. Crudely Wrott

    Thanks, Phil. That was fine.
    A refreshing tonic to wash down the dust of an arduous trail.

  39. Katie S.

    I don’t know the last time (if ever) a blog post made me physically choke up. On the other hand, this was so much more than just a blog post.

    Good on you, Phil. Keep on riding.

  40. robinpa

    Beautiful Phil…really nice….it occurs to me that the best way to honor 9/11 is to do exactly what you did…not live in fear…engage a stranger…celebrate our liberties…be kind to one another…wonder at our planet and our uniqueness in the universe. The human race, and, for that matter, all life on earth, is so great and awe-inspiring that it puts the petty differences, not matter how tragic and misguided, in perspective. Remaining angry at our perceived enemies, to the point of distraction, is exactly what they want us to do. Thanks for the sanity check, Phil.

  41. Georg

    Hello Phil,
    is there a connection between science and conscience?
    When I imagine You pedaling uphill, I question what
    is gnawing at Your conscience, to make You chasten
    Yourself in such a way?
    In sorrow :=)

  42. JupiterIsBigDownUnder

    Thanks for the Logan’s Run reminder :-)

  43. RFranklin

    Thanks for the great post. You are an awesome writer :-)


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