It is a Thursday in May, and my teenage son Oakley and I have cut school and work for the day and are headed off to bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail. It is a 50-mile-long, paved, flat trail connecting Hyannis to Wellfleet, surrounded by beautiful lakes, nationally-acclaimed seashores, and miles of pine forest. Oakley has been especially naughty lately and this outing counts as being grounded. Time with his parents, away from the influences of social media, friends, and bad patterns often helps him regroup. First, we need to bike to the Portland Gear Hub to pick up a rack. Twain, my husband, will pick us up there and drive down with us the rest of the way.
As we navigate our bikes through Portland, I accidentally stop short at an intersection, and Oakley screeches to a halt with his front tire nearly kissing my rear. “Mom, why did you do that?” he yells, both scared and furious.
“Because I didn’t want to get hit by that truck. I am sorry.”
“This is so stupid. I don’t know why we have to do this. You are the worst biker.”
The tirade continues as we navigate our way up Washington Avenue, weaving in an out of construction mayhem, and clouds of grit and sand kicked up in the wind from the road work. This seems to add fury to Oakley’s mood. “This was your idea, this whole bike thing. I never wanted to do it. I won’t go!” he yells over the sound of jackhammers and traffic. His biking is becoming more erratic, and I realize that we need to deal with this before we get to the shop and attempt to be socially appropriate. I pull into a parking lot and signal for him to join me and park his bike. We sit on a curb a bit away from the road.
“This is just dumb,” he mutters. “Why can’t I be like other kids and just go to high school. I don’t like biking, you do.”
I feel defeated, but I sit there and listen. This isn’t the first time that Oakley had voiced anger over the choices we have made as parents. His fury over having to participate in sports, play an instrument, attend forced-family-fun activities, and do homework, comes on hot and fast. I want to validate him, but I am also aware that he would likely opt out of all structured activities if given a choice and partake solely in what we call Idiot Glee—when his physical activities rise to a hysterical pitch. We try to make room for this in his life to an extent, but as Twain frequently says, “Oakley needs a firm hand on the tiller.”
Once again, I take the time to explain to Oakley why we are taking this trip and all the benefits. Getting away from the jackhammering and construction seems to quiet him as much as my words.
I am not sure he can completely comprehend that this isn’t “just a bike trip,” and it isn’t just for me. I am afraid of this bike trip. Afraid to leave my family and the comfort of my home. Afraid to close my business and have to reinvent a career when we return. Afraid of camping alone with him for three months. But I am more afraid of not going.
As Oakley transitions solidly into a teenager, the repercussions for his impulsive behavior and emotional deregulation take on a new weight. We need to break some patterns to help him reach adulthood healthy and intact. It isn’t always pretty and can seem controlling and heavy-handed to some but, when you are trying to lasso a runaway bull, you can’t pussyfoot around it.
It isn’t long before his fury subsides and he is able to acknowledge that getting away from schedules, rushing, and lists, and the idea of perhaps biking by bison, rather than orange cones and blaring horns, does sound intriguing. He can even voice that he is struggling to make good decisions. Eventually, he cools down enough to continue on to the shop.
We arrive at the Gear Hub, and I begin talking to Bryan about bike racks. Oakley wanders about fingering stoves, tents, panniers and associated touring gear. “Mom, look at this!” he calls again and again as he notices all the little accouterments that would be good to have on our trip. Before I know it, his mood has swung 180 degrees, and he is exclaiming about how fun it will be to start our adventure. Life with him is an emotional rollercoaster and often leaves me exhausted.
When we finally arrive at the Cape Cod Rail Trail, Oakley takes off like a rocket, as I knew he would. His legs power up and down, and he quickly outdistances me. A flock of wild turkeys has congregated on the path. The males have their tales fanned, out and the females are coquettishly prancing around them. Again, Oakley must screech to a halt. “Look at the turkeys,” he calls. I zoom up behind him. As I do, a rabbit is flushed out from the bushes and joins the turkeys. It freezes long enough for us to marvel at its huge, white fluffy tail and twitchy whiskers. “He is so cute!” Oakley has obviously forgotten how much he hates biking. “This is awesome! I am going to see how many miles I can go no-handed.” He is off again. The dark fury inside him has been extinguished as he moves through the outdoors burning his energy and feeling amazed by what he encounters. He cycles one and one-half miles no-handed with panache.
How many times will he shout at me during our cross-America bike adventure “This is the worst idea!”? How many times will he insist he is quitting? Probably as many times as he will say, as he did while we ate our ice cream along the Rail Trail, looking out at the ocean and watching the ships roll by, “This is really fun. My bike is awesome. Watch me do a backflip from that rock.”
And maybe, it will help us figure out a lot more.