I am loyal to a road.
It’s called Dixie, and it lives within the boundaries of Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army’s largest basic training facility here in Columbia.
Dixie Highway is the driveway to my own bicycle Shangri-La. It’s length is 10 miles, which is not a distance that begs cycling dreams when compared to other routes of greater renown. The scenery on either side is forgettable, unless you like control-burned pine thickets and rifle ranges. And until a few years ago when federal stimulus money left the Pentagon, hop-scotched former Gov. Mark Sanford’s filibuster and landed at Fort Jackson, Dixie Highway’s pavement was anything but smooth. Crater-filled was more like it.
But for Columbia cyclists, they were our craters to memorize and dodge, created by random and rare Humvees and battalion trucks and soldier transport buses. And if you think that sounds dangerous, believe me, better to share a road with a soldier driver whose orders are to operate a vehicle safely and carefully than face one driven by someone who … well, I digress, this is not about the rules of the road.
I have ridden countless miles with buddies named Bucky and Ray and Greg and Todd and Neil and Kenny and Daniel and Zach and Tom and Brian and lately my son Jake. And I could go on about routes with better scenery and better conditions. But good manners dictate that I “dance with the one that brung me." Dixie Highway is a conduit connecting me to Wildcat and Hartsville Guard and Fort Jackson Boulevard, and once I gain entry I can ride to my heart’s content; 10 miles, 20, 30, 40, all within a controlled road course.
For me, the basic elements of a great ride are a clean and meticulously maintained bicycle, a smooth road uphill or down or flat, and a dry sky. These elements birth a silence I have yet to find elsewhere. The gentle flow of wind over my ears, the fluid movement of my chain and pedals rhyming with thin tires on glass pavement creates a chorus of Zen.
But here is my disclaimer if you are considering a ride on Dixie: When you do so, at times the Zen is cracked with the sound of rifle or automatic gunfire. It’s more than loud.
But I keep riding with the gunfire. I am loyal to my road because of that very gunfire, not in spite of it. That’s the reason. My loyalty is gladly given because of the loyalty those soldiers pledge to me every time they shoulder a practice weapon or hoist a pack or lace a boot to march beside roads I glide upon.
Riding Dixie is cerebral. I think about what makes my days hard, and then I see those soldiers in basic training, war training, and I am embarrassed by what caused me anxiety earlier in my day. I ride on and posit the merits of war, the lessons learned, or forgotten. I often say “Thank You” to a standing column when I whiz past. I don’t know if they hear me, but maybe it is just as well.
Dixie Highway puts me up close and personal with patriotism and faith and the hard thought merits of just war theory. And in all my admitted contradictions, I think it is good for me to hear myself say “Thank You” to young soldiers whose names I will never know but whose service to me goes far beyond allowing me to ride on Dixie Highway.
You see, it’s their road, too. And I am thankful.
I hope they can hear me now.