Solstice.

Increasingly, I am finding meaning in the milestones marked by the turning of the earth more than those rooted in human culture. While Christmas and the 4th of July offer a day off from work to adventure, the solstices and equinoxes are what I actually feel the need to mark in some worthwhile way. I felt that desire this year more than ever, maybe because now more than any year prior, I am living my life to earth’s rhythms rather than society’s. My life situation both encourages and allows me to wake up just before dawn many days, and go to bed shortly after sunset. This time of year, the balance between light and dark and waking and sleeping is perfect. And so, I feel especially in tune with the tempo of our planet. It’s only natural that I would want to acknowledge its longest day.

I had a crazy idea to do a bike ride that would begin at sunrise (5:41 a.m.) and last until sunset (8:45 p.m.). Just over 15 hours of riding. This would likely be about 200 miles. But it was only an idea, one that I ended up not taking too seriously. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but because I never really mentally committed. It turns out that it’s good I didn’t go ahead with that plan, because it would have meant missing out on a series of events and random circumstances that would lead to an exciting new chapter in life — more on that in a post in the near future. For now, back to the solstice…

My friend and neighbor Whitney invited me to come with her to the hawk watch (a wooden platform atop Stone Mountain on the Standing Stone Trail) to watch the sunrise. That seemed like a great way to usher in the official beginning of summer and properly commemorate the holiday. But of course instead of driving, I opted to ride the 5 miles (all uphill) to the platform.

I left home at 4:30 in the morning to assure I’d have enough time to get to the top and walk the quarter mile out to the platform in time for the show. It was the first time I’d used a light on my bike in months. As I pedaled through the quiet darkness, I remembered how much I loved being out on the road at odd hours of the night/early morning. That was one of my favorite parts about my all-night ride to the southeastern corner of the state a couple years ago — the peace and solitude in place of the fear I thought I might feel to be so alone out there.

About halfway up the gravel climb, faint gray light began filtering through the fog and I turned my light off, letting my eyes adjust. The tree leaves were like ghostly shadows, the sound of little stones beneath my tires and my labored breath the only noise. I saw a lighter patch ahead, the opening near the top of the mountain. It was only 5:15. Whitney’s car was already parked in the pull-off at the hairpin turn marking the boundary between Huntingdon and Mifflin counties. I stumbled over rocks out to the wooden platform in my bike shoes. It was foggy — really foggy — and the valleys below were completely hidden, as was the sky and the mountains beyond over which we were supposed to be watching the sun rise. We weren’t going to get a spectacular show, but that was okay. Getting on my bike that early and drifting through the morning twilight was reward enough.

We talked as the sky grew lighter, giving us a sliver of milky pink, which we excitedly pointed out and photographed. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, slinking back into the white haze. As it neared 6 a.m., we slowly hiked back out to the road and continued down the other side of the mountain to keep riding for a while.

With the celebration of the summer solstice also comes a twinge of sadness. The days are getting shorter now, and the heat of summer is setting in. Each seems to be hotter than the last and deep down, I have a sobering knowledge that’s likely the new reality. I like all the seasons but I especially like spring, and it always seems to go too fast. Even this year.

In Big Valley, the fog lay heavy on the fields and lines of dress-clad Amish ladies tended to their crops. Aside from the occasional farm truck, the roads were quiet and empty. I climbed out of the valley and back into Rothrock State Forest, opting to take a less direct way back home to extend my ride. I spotted a snapping turtle lazing on a little-traveled gravel road next to a small creek, its shell covered in mud and plant matter. The fog held on until I was nearly home, and I was thankful for the extended period of coolness. Once the sun came out, the air heated up almost immediately.

Forty-something miles after I began, I arrived home by 9 to share a second round of coffee and breakfast with Evan.

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