Closing the gap: taking time to ride into a new life

Closing the gap: taking time to ride into a new life

Typically, a gap year is taken between the end of high school and the start of college, suggesting that it’s meant for 18-year-olds.

Always a late-to-the-party guy, I took mine when I was 45.

Twenty years ago, I was between jobs, having determined that I was not – in the parlance of the day – Y2K compliant.

You may remember the mass hysteria that gripped the world as the global clock ticked toward Jan. 1, 2000, the way doomsayers convinced many people that leaving 1999 behind would confound computers to such a degree that everything would shut down.

In hindsight, it was a boundless fear, equal parts hyperbole and ignorance, which means that humanity hadn’t evolved all that much since the flat-Earth days; in fact, there were some survivalist types who made intricate plans to ride out the mechanical apocalypse in specially prepared bunkers.

One hopes they could get refunds on all that water and Spam, not to mention the vast supplies of toilet paper and AA batteries.

But at the time, it seemed real enough and it provided me just enough of a feasible smokescreen behind which I could engineer my great escape from the grind of daily journalism. I’d been in the game since I graduated from college in 1977 and, 22 years down the road, I was burned out and ready for a break.

A deferred gap year, if you will.

Of course, I had done zero planning in advance of my decision to hit the eject button on my career, but I suppose that was in keeping with my laissez-faire character, too. Always one who preferred letting things take their own course, usually sticking closely to the path of least resistance.

I was an English major, for God’s sake.

What did I know about the real world, aside from the beauty of its books and the wonders of its language.

I was no more prepared for earning a living outside the tight-knit and slightly inbred cloister that was Notre Dame in the mid-’70s than I was for the plague that was disco.

All I could do was take refuge in my friends and our devotion to such literary punk avatars as Lou Reed and Patti Smith even as we delighted in the sonic simplicity of the Ramones. We were happy enough in our underground fraternity of misfits and outcasts, forgoing all manner of popular trends in favor of angst and satire.

This tendency to, in the immortal words of Neil Young, “drive straight into the ditch” enabled me to shield myself from the trivial realities of the mundane and ordinary even as I sought to find my place in a better, more enlightened place.

That, of course, was self-absorbed, ego-driven gibberish.

Even a would-be anarchic rock’n’roll novelist needed to eat and, especially to drink, in order to survive, so I did what any self-respecting and newly minted college graduate would do: I got a 1.) menial job that 2.) paid next to nothing and 3.) required extensive physical strength.

Three career boxes … three boxes checked.

And on the third day, I tore a muscle in my right forearm so severely that my doctor, a comely green-eyed lady who always had a smile when I wandered in with a new – and well-told – tale of misadventure, prescribed something called Valium.

It didn’t help much that at the same time my body was breaking down, my college girlfriend was breaking up with me. There wasn’t much I could do 250 miles away so I did nothing except 1.) feel sorry for myself, 2.) spend an inordinate amount of time listening to melancholy country songs in a downtown dive and 3.) learn how to shoot pool pretty well.

Three boxes open … three boxes checked.

Somewhere in there, I began working part-time as a stringer for the local paper, covering high school football games on Friday nights. I was a quick study and by the first of the year, I was hired on a full-time basis and, by the next fall, I was the sports editor.

I did that for the next decade or so before accepting a job offer at our sister paper, this time covering all manner of entertainment, everything from rock concerts to community dinner theater, from professional light opera productions to county fair shows featuring some of the self-same country stars whose sad songs had gotten me through so many dark nights in that downtown dive.

Ah, the symmetry of a writer’s life.

But even that job – as companionable as I found my colleagues to be – began to wear me down. At first, I attributed my melancholy to simple fatigue, owing to the daily 50-mile commute on rural roads where horse-drawn buggies were a constant reminder to change the radio stations with great caution lest calamity ensue.

But as the winter deepened and snow became more common, I began to realize that after a decade or so running around the same calendar-based track, I had hit the wall.

Not literally, though I did bury my Civic in a few snowdrifts.

And so, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I walked out into a new world.

To keep myself busy, I did what any self-respecting guy taking a sabbatical in his mid-40s would do; specifically, 1.) watched a lot of sports on TV, 2.) rediscovered my Catholic roots and began going to church twice a week and 3.) rode bikes with my fiancée.

Three options available … three boxes checked.

That last one – the item about taking bike trips with the woman who would one day marry me on the beach at Kitty Hawk – proved to be an incredibly valuable and edifying diversion. Not only was it a healthy outlet for my pent-up anxiety, vis a vis not having a job, it gave me a chance to experience a more hopeful slice of life.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as climbing a 45-degree incline in the hills surrounding greater Coshocton and then cruising into Roscoe Village at 30 miles an hour, just flying into that rustic locale like desperadoes in quest of a quenching sarsaparilla.

Over the course of that spring and summer, we covered more than 650 miles – my fiancée kept scrupulous notes – and took advantage of many of Ohio’s Rails-to-Trails riding paths. Those picturesque paved ribbons of asphalt carried us into lots of pretty places, including Gambier, where my favorite uncle had served as director of libraries for many years at Kenyon College.

A lifelong baseball fan, he attended most of the Lords’ games, even joining them on their annual southern swing through Florida. Following his death, the school named the field in his honor, and we made a point of visiting it before we rode out of town.

And if I tell you that it was part of something called the Kokosing Gap Trail, well, you might say that I had a wonderful gap year.

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