A journey into the landscape and the soul.
By Anton Krupicka
I’ve been a runner for 25 years. I grew up in Nebraska, running endlessly undulating gravel roads and pasture paths as a monomaniacal adolescent, bent on success in track and cross-country. I never realised much achievement on the tartan oval, nor as a harrier (that would eventually come a decade later in the mountains, while contending ultra-distances), but what I did discover was an appetite for movement, and thereby, an understanding of place. Hours spent alone, striding over the hills, developed within me a connection to my surroundings. My integration with both the weather and the land resonated far deeper than competitive results or even the act of running. What I discovered was the importance of simply being out there every day, amongst it, developing a relationship with a landscape and its history through regular practice and diligent accumulation of time outside.
However, running itself became limiting. My body would repeatedly fail me in the form of overuse injuries, depriving me of that essential melding of kinaesthetic movement, overland travel, and daily discovery that I’d spent twenty years cultivating. The need for more consistent and sustainable exercise to fill that void is what ultimately led me to the bicycle. Running is and will always be a part of my life (fingers crossed), but I can much more confidently rely on the bicycle. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States earlier this spring, it coincided with an already fraught time in my family.
My mom had passed away from cancer only a week or two before the country shut down completely. When I returned to Nebraska for her funeral, the extreme lack of population density and the emotional support my Dad required suddenly made Nebraska an unexpectedly logical locale for riding, running, and living during this time of social distancing. The amount of time I’ve spent back in Nebraska these past two months is easily the most since I was a high school student.
I spent my teenage years in these hills of grass, dreaming about the mountains and success as a runner – and I’ve lived the last 20 years in Colorado enjoying both of those things. By means of a bicycle, however, I was suddenly able to see the land of my upbringing in an entirely novel context. In a moment where the virus seems to be inflicting closures and restrictions nearly everywhere, bringing the bike with me back to Nebraska was, conversely, unexpectedly expansive. Instead of feeling perhaps cloistered and uninteresting as it did when I was a teenager, the bike imbues these hills with a sheen of freshness and opportunity, only amplified by the newly green spring grass and incipiently budding trees.
“You are stuck in your body. The furthest I could reasonably explore on foot was about a fifteen-mile radius from my family’s farm, whereas with a bicycle, the diameter of that circle instantly tripled, even quadrupled.”
While biking began for me as a means of cross-training to supplement my running fitness, over the past five years it has quickly progressed into a standalone love affair. Bikes afford a unique freedom, autonomy and range that – due to its repetitive impact – running simply can’t offer. Not to mention, the lack of carrying capacity when moving on two legs. You are stuck in your body. The furthest I could reasonably explore on foot was about a fifteen-mile radius from my family’s farm, whereas with a bicycle, the diameter of that circle instantly tripled, even quadrupled.
“I spent my teenage years in these hills of grass, dreaming about the mountains.”
On the bike I can spend the entire day out or plan a quick overnighter, while easily carrying everything I need without interacting with anyone except my partner on and off the bike, Hailey. In a region with such a low population there is a significantly diminished probability of both transmitting the virus and getting struck by an automobile.
The grid of gravel roads, minimum-maintenance, rights-of-way and pasture cattle tracks offer delightfully varied types of riding on high-volume tyres and supple steel frames as compared to the tarmac-bound, carbon-framed, skinny-tyred pedalling that was my gateway into the activity.
Working through the grief of my mom’s passing while living through this pandemic has been doubly trying, but without those impetuses to be back here in Nebraska, and without the bicycle, I never would have gained such a radically new appreciation for a landscape and a region that remains often both misunderstood and unfairly maligned. Let’s set the record straight, Nebraska ain’t flat.
Obviously, for twenty years, I chose the mountains almost exclusively (and will continue to call them home), but the past couple of months have allowed a valuable reconnection to the place that has been the most formative to my life. This reconnection will certainly always mark these times just as much as my mom’s death or the historical significance of this pandemic. For that, I am grateful.
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