all this fucking exercise and i’m still so fucking sad

As a lifelong non-driver, and as an urban cyclist of 20+ years, I generally dislike walking. People who drive see walking as this fun, recreational thing, a privilege to get to do. They have the option of getting in a car and being whisked somewhere once walking gets too inconvenient, once they get tired, once it starts to rain. They can even drive to an attractive location so they can walk around it and then get in their car and drive somewhere else.

For me, I usually associate walking with bad times. I associate it with my bike being broken, or being too sick to pedal but needing to get somewhere. I associate it with deep east coast winter, January and a hacking cough and a mile uphill to the train station and absolutely no one to call. I associate it with not having the $1.25 to take the bus. I associate it with heavy groceries and a deep feeling of abandonment. Some of the worst memories of my life involve walking somewhere. The feeling of needing to move forward and the only way is slowly. The feeling of endurance. It’s not fun or novel to me.

But then the pandemic happened, and like many responsible people, my world became very small. I could still bike, but suddenly there was nowhere to go, besides work and home, home and work. The occasional grocery store visit. The park, of course, the park was great but there are only so many times one can go to the park.

I read an interview with Isaac Fitzgerald in New York magazine, where he was interviewed by a friend as they took a 3-day trip walking across the length of fire island, about how he started walking around NYC in the pandemic, with a goal of 20,000 steps per day, and how much it changed his life. The interview lit up something inside of me that looked like hope, so I decided to try it.

I closed my computer and walked to the river, no headphones, no distractions, just myself and my shoes and my thoughts about the world. I remembered something I’d forgotten about, a conversation at a mall in Memphis, Tennessee in 2001. I lived there, for a short and disastrous time, and I worked at a movie theatre at the mall. There was an Obvious Gay who worked at Starbucks who would hook me up with free stuff, and we would talk, and he was very different from me, but he told me, “When I walk around the block, even if I’ve done it a hundred times, every time I do it it’s a new block, every time there’s something I haven’t seen before, and so I’m learning it,” and the starry-eyed baby I was was like, yes! Someone else gets it! Although I am still a starry-eyed baby in many ways, I have mostly discarded that notion. It got lost to trauma, to exhaustion, to my frontal lobe closing as it’s supposed to. It’s true: the older you get, the more your brain changes. You forget what it was like to feel that truly anything could happen. When you were younger, you saw the look on an older woman’s face when the subway performers were doing their flips and spins, and you figured if you ever felt that way when someone bravely shared their talent for all to see, you might as well be dead inside. Now it’s been years since you haven’t internally cringed when that music starts and energetic young people do their tricks and stunts. Sometimes it’s kind of good but mostly it’s just annoying, mostly it’s something you don’t want to look at because you don’t want to pay money, you just want to fucking commute, and isn’t that sad, that you just want to fucking commute. That you just want to get from point A to point B with no interruptions, no surprises. Like you’ve forgotten that surprises are the only things that matter. Like you’ve forgotten that surprises, and dancing, and music are some of the things that make life worth living.

So, that first walk was worth it for that memory, alone. I walked by a fancy grocery store and I saw the weird woman who works at my neighborhood pool. She has her mask pulled up so that it almost obscures her eyes and leaves her mouth exposed, the blue expanse under her cat-eye glasses. She wears a fake flower crown in her hair and always seems overwhelmed. I keep seeing her—on the bus, at the co-op—and I wonder if I should talk to her. I wonder if she is my future and I’m meeting her on this street.

Writing is the most shining, important thing that I do. It’s so easy to forget it. It’s so easy to act like it doesn’t matter, like it’s more important to watch TV. Walking is like that, too. It doesn’t have to mean that I am abandoned, that I am alone. It can mean that I am choosing to engage with the world differently. To remember what is out there, and even though it no longer has the ability to light up my brain the way it once did, it’s still so important. Things become other things.

Last week, on my day off, I was feeling upset about a conflict that had really gotten me down, so I got on the light rail and went to Folsom, with the idea of biking to the unfortunately named “Pilgrim Trail” which may or may not actually exist, I am finding conflicting and confusing info about it on the internet, but according to an outdated guidebook I have it starts at Folsom Lake. I’ve been to Folsom Lake twice before, once with Amanda and once by myself. I never got to know the lake the way most Sacramentans do, as a fun summertime place with a snack bar and a lifeguard, a boat launch, lots of people. Probably fighting and sexual harassment and weirdness too, nothing can be perfect, especially in this city. But I only know it the way it is now: appearing on the news sometimes as the reporters shake their heads. The lifeguard stands sit ridiculously far from the edge of the water, marooned. What did this place used to be?

The ride to Folsom Lake is hard, harder than it usually is. The weather has gotten colder and it makes it harder to breathe, even though it’s not actually “cold” by anyone’s definition really, I’m no longer used to it. When it’s over, I title my ride on Strava: “Attempting—and failing—to have fun.” I can’t really find Pilgrim Trail, but after a while I decide to lock up my bike and just walk for a bit in the lake. Amanda and I tried to get to the water’s edge in the summer but we couldn’t because it was too far away and the sun was sinking and we wanted to get home. This time, I am early enough in the day.

And the old adage is right—something about the walking does soothe me. I still think a lot about my conflict, but I’m also surrounded by rocks and plants. The dried out lake bed feels strangely ancient, even though I’m pretty sure it’s a human-made lake, created by the giant scary dam looming over the horizon. I piss on the dried earth. I have the usual fear of someone seeing me, but there really does seem to be nobody here. Of course, two minutes after I’ve peed I see someone and feel that usual fear, again. Even when I’m feeling free, I’m always reminded that I’m never actually free.

It takes almost 20 minutes of trudging in sand to get to the water’s edge. When I do, it’s beautiful as always. The blue and the ripples on the surface, kicking up that human instinct to love it, to feel at peace. The birds are peeping, they’re used to humans mostly leaving them alone. Hell, I even see a fish jumping out of the water in the middle.

I check my Strava to see where I am on the map and I am shocked to see that it thinks I am underwater. Everything I walked through is supposed to be covered in water. This earth isn’t supposed to mix with air. What was it like? What is it supposed to be?

I woke up the day after my walk feeling better, feeling less like other peoples’ displeasure and disapproval will kill me, and the next day just got into a whole, unrelated world of shit. I spent the next few days being my worst self. Avoiding, smoking cigarettes, isolating, quietly raging. Every day it’s gotten a little bit better but today I had another day off so I decided to bike all the way to Folsom. 25 miles. Why this obsession with Folsom, you may ask? It’s just because it’s a public-transit-accessible place with lots of trails.

So I went. I took J street because the internet told me, which was a mistake. Rode on the sidewalk for a bit, saw some weird graffiti. It started raining. When I made it to the trail I felt my shoulders loosen. The trail was nice, in a quiet way. Saw lots of plants. I spotted a spotted squirrel. Some quail ran across the trail and they were so cute. I stopped to take their pictures.

I used the pit toilet and someone had written on it, “fag-ish, bitchass, worthless, cokefiend, loner and the happiest person to ever exist.” I thought about that a lot over the miles. I believe that person, whoever they are. Believe that life can suck so much and they can still feel overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I used to be like that and I’ve forgotten how.

I stopped to have a cigarette on a picnic bench. Someone had written their epiphanies all over it with colorful markers. They wrote, “LOVE & FORGIVENESS IS NOT ALWAYS EASY BUT IT IS MEDICINAL.” They wrote, “NOT ALL PEOPLE R BAD. EVEN BAD PEOPLE R NOT ALL BAD.”

I guess that’s why I bother leaving the house.

Around mile 13, I texted my partner, “Despite all this exercise I am still very sad.” They texted back, “Oof, yeah 😦 “ That was something to add to my intrusive thoughts as I pedaled. Despite the exercise, I’m still so fucking sad! I do all this motherfucking exercise and still I’m so motherfucking sad!

Around mile 20, I noticed that my intrusive thoughts were gone. Not just the exercise ones, all of them. I made it to Folsom light rail just as the train was arriving and I went home. I am doing the best I can in a bad situation. I am offering myself to the universe. I am trying to get off the fucking internet, trying to stop staring at the phone. I am trying to remember what it is to be a human being. I am trying to help myself. I feel out of options. I feel like this is all I can do right now. This is supposed to be fun and it’s kind of just OK. I hope that maybe, someday, I will start to feel things differently.

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