Many years ago, we lived in the mountains of western North Carolina. A long ridge rose up on the outskirts of the small town in which we resided. From where it began, the rise to its highest point was around 3 miles in length. There, the ridge abruptly ended with a rocky outcropping, rapidly dropping away several hundred feet to the valley below. Along the ridge, a meandering and relatively steep two lane road led to the top of the ridge.
It goes without saying that any self-respecting town in which such a geophysical feature is found is also the home of a legend relating the sad tale of a young maiden whose true love had gone off to war, or to sea, or on some such quest.
You probably know the rest of the story. When fate, in one form or another kept her true love from returning, the young maiden, overcome with remorse, met her demise by flinging herself headlong off of said geophysical feature.
The ridge in our town was known as Jump Off Rock and the maiden in the legend associated with it; a Cherokee Indian whose warrior soulmate never returned from battle.
It’s interesting to note that over the last few generations, your average young maiden appears to have been made of tougher stuff or to have come up with more constructive strategies for handling any remorse they may feel in relation to absentee true loves. That’s probably a good thing.
That aside, I had taken up cycling as a means of keeping myself fit. I’d been a jogger for several years, but a hip injury had caused me to cut back on running. When I discovered that pedaling a bike didn’t negatively impact my hip, I hung up my running shorts and replaced them with a pair of black spandex cycling pants and away I went.
The ride up to the top of Jump of Rock became one of my favorite cycling routes. From my home, the round trip to the top of the ridge and back was about 15 miles. The climb up to the rocky outcropping wasn’t comparable to climbing the Pyrenees Mountains in the Tour de France, but I’m not ashamed to admit that it would cause one’s thighs to burn before the top was reached.
One spring afternoon, I completed the climb to the top, pulled my bike over to a grassy area near the outcropping, and was sitting there basking in the internal glow of having once again made the 3-mile assault to the top without having to stop anywhere along the route to catch my breath.
It was then that I noticed an old man hobbling toward me from the other side of the road. He was 85 years old, if he was a day, and was relying heavily on a weathered wooden cane which looked like it had been handmade from a crooked tree limb.
He slowly walked over to where I was relaxing in the grass. For some time he stood there silently gazing at my bike as it lay in the grass between us.
Abruptly, he reached out and began hitting the derailleur on the back wheel of my bike with his gnarly wooden cane. For the uninitiated, the derailleur is the device that allows for the multiple gear changes typically found on modern road bikes. For the record, my bike had 12 gears.
Then in a heavy, guttural German accent he shouted, “What’s that? What’s that!”
“That’s the derailleur. It allows me to change gears on the bike which makes it easier to pedal when riding up steep slopes like this one.” I explained.
He paused for a moment, shook his head slightly from side to side, and shouted, “One gear! One gear! When I was a boy, my schoolmates and I rode our bicycles from Zurich to Lyon, over the Alps, with only one gear!”
He paused momentarily to catch his breath and clear his throat before adding, “One gear!”
Believing that he had sufficiently made his point, the old man silently limped back across the road to his car and drove away; all the while shaking his head.
I sat there for a few moments pondering whether or not I should go over to the rocky outcropping and hurl my bike, myself, or both my bike and myself over the edge.
But realizing that I didn’t want to be found laying at the bottom of the cliff in those spandex biker shorts, I got back on my bike and rode home; a more humble man than the one who had just ascended Jump Off Rock.