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470 Miles

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The best days are the rainy days. When you stand in the shivering cold and you just let the sky’s tears rinse you of your duties. Those are the easy days—for the somber people, for the people who’ve lost a loved one, for the people who’ve had a rough day, for the people who fear losing their minds. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they don’t understand their own mind. They might know their name—j. e. NeuCollins—and they might know their birth date—March 11th, 1993. They know their history, their likes and dislikes, their favorite foods and favorite people. What they don’t understand is their own mind.
I think the last time I knew my own mind was in the summer of 2007, late July. It was during RAGBRAI, which is an annual bike ride averaging 470 miles across Iowa. Those 470 miles cut deep into me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It was a life-altering event, but truthfully, all I was thinking at the time was, “Gosh, this sun is terrible,” or “Ouch! My butt is sore!” or maybe even, “Oh, bugger, 14 more miles to go?”
I was thinking more about the pain in my buttocks every time I gingerly stepped up onto my bike. I was thinking of the peeling sunburn spanning across my back, thinking of my cracked and bleeding lips (it hurt even to smile). I was thinking of the fresh, crisp water on my parched tongue after I rode hour by hour, heat wave by heat wave. I was thinking of the men, women, and children alike riding by with ‘RAGBRAI VIRGIN’ drawn on their calves, their jerseys printed with dancing pigs, beer cans and Lance Armstrong’s logo, livestrong. I was thinking of the food stops where families and lone bicyclists stood together in line to buy whole watermelons, where the bars were jam packed with drunk bicyclists who stopped in every town just to grab a pint of beer, where people sat in large groups either talking about the pain in their legs and back or the problems they were having with their bikes. I was thinking about the flock of people riding by at the speed of light, their legs rotating the bike wheels with sequenced movement, the music boxes blaring hip hop, Johnny Cash, news stations, popular music and if you were lucky, classical or jazz. I was thinking of the sweat seeping out of every pore in my body, making me slide and slip not only one my bike, but later on the picnic tables while drinking root beer floats. No, I can honestly say I was not thinking about the fact that I was on a life-altering experience. There simply was no time in between biking and sleeping to think how my life would change afterwards.
After those days spent on bicycle, going back home was strange—especially riding in a car again. When I was in our van, everything seemed to rush by in a blur. None of the perfect moments you can experience on a bike will ever be experienced in a car. Slowly that next week, I got back into the hang of life again... I went on walks with my family, quoted Shakespeare to my grandma, made home-made lemonade, opened my laptop and got in touch with friends. I ate mulberries after running a mile or so next to the lake, watching the swans and their families swim neatly by. Gradually, though, a thought fragment started wheedling through my defenses, and after the crack had formed, thought after thought crowded in like the crusaders of thoughts, emotions and dreams.
There was a point when I almost crashed in public. It was after I had watched a particular stirring movie with my family. We strolled into Barnes and Noble, discussing what aspects we liked and disliked about the movie. My mother immediately started browsing for a popular (and probably really cheesy) book, my dad went to the café to drink tea and read a magazine, my brother to read about the philosophies of Mayans— which left me to my own devices. I walked around, looking at books and occasionally reading their backs. All of a sudden, my fingers began to itch. I longed for a pencil and a notebook, longed to let my thoughts loose. My legs started moving and I walked around the store, focusing briefly on each passerby, wondering if they could guess my inner turmoil. The walls started closing in on me, my heart beats making everything around me also seem to pound. Finally I went to a corner, sat down shakily and let my thoughts converse. If anyone had then crossed my path, they would have glanced in my direction and then continued quickly on their way, not wanting to be part of the scene playing out in their imagination—my scene. My friends themselves would not have recognized me—only seen me either as an autistic child or a baboon.
I started developing mood swings—scary mood swings. One minute I might be cheerful, dancing up and down the stairs, singing on the top of my lungs. The next moment, I would turn somber. I would sink into my philosophical mood and begin thinking out loud or in a notebook. When nimbus clouds darkened the skies, I would lie on my deck and let the rain go plat! on my face. I began writing terrible, beautiful and bizarre scraps of dreams, or thoughts, or even poems.
I wrote this on a dreary summer day.

Summer does not do me good. It makes my mind jump, and twirl, and strip itself from any one thing. It twists and turns, leaving a path no mole can dig, and I can't follow it anymore. My eyes, so accustomed to light, have fallen into darkness. Thick, probing darkness. My nose, so accustomed to smelling flowers has inherited a smell of nothingness. Pallid nothingness. My mouth, so accustomed to tasting love--my mouth, also, has turned away and now only tastes the air. The air doesn't taste as fruitful as one would expect, no, it doesn't taste like what you and I wish it would taste like--it tastes as dry as a tree bark. My mind, in its own way, has taken me to a place where I know, once I turn back, I will not be able to find again. I have been lost, abandoned by my very own, and I cannot see anything but blackness. I say again, summer does me no good.

Soon I began fearing I was losing my mind. I was stuck in a hole with no ladder or foothold. I spent the nights pining away, shaking my head to the soft beat of the Beatles, flipping pages in my books. I became reclusive, taking an interest in Emily Dickinson and her silent life. The fact that I could become truly like Emily, a complete reclusive with only her letters and mind to talk to, made me decide something must be done. I met up with my friends. Striving to get one of them alone, I made the claim that I wanted ice cream at Casey’s General Store. Sadie, my closest fried, agreed to go with me. Our conversation went something like this.

“You know, Sadie, we’ve changed this summer.”
“Yeah, we have.”
“You noticed it?”
“Of course. We’re high schoolers now!”
“No, I mean… I don’t know. We changed mentally, like, maybe this is just me, but I feel more intelligent.”
“Well I think we’ve all changed, J.”
“No, it’s like a dangerous intelligence. I think…”
“Hm?”
“Almost like you’re losing your mind, you know?”

I started confessing, in my notebooks and in letters, my apparent instability. I tried to meet with friends more often instead of being left on my own. I tried to laugh instead of frown, and gradually I created a box. It was a metaphorical box, of course, but a box nevertheless. When school started, I opened that box and put my troubled mind away, locking it up and swallowing the key.
I have journeyed 470 miles on bike to lounging on my couch, journeyed with the world’s whole biking community to walking around in my small town, journeyed across corn fields and road kill to where I am now, but even though months have passed since the excitement and glory of riding my bike, the box is still pulsing. If you happen to catch me at the right time in the right place in the right mood, the box has cracked open and some of its contents have spilled out onto my lips and onto paper or into the open air. Occasionally I can open my mind. More often than not, I find I don’t want to.





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