the Doppler effect

It’s just after solstice in Sonoma County where the summer evenings are often warm and breezy and bright. I’m walking on my favorite nearby trail along a creek. Any trail I walk seems to be my favorite, though this gets the greater claim by default for its being the most-often-trodden. I see a woman approaching on her bike at some speed. An older man is on the other side of the trail, also approaching me. He’s a little unkempt, maybe, a very little, a little bent over, just a little bit. A little bit shabby, just a very little. He has a warm and pleasant somewhat spacey smile and fumbles with putting his mask on his face when he sees me. The woman on the bike calls out “on your left.”

I’m used to people and bikes navigating this trail fluidly together. I actively gauge the distance between the three of us. I’m going to pass the man by some several yards before she gets there. The space between is more than enough for her to pass even if the man and I were to create a bottle-neck. I don’t see any indication that he’s heard her call out, but the situation suddenly has my mouth clammed up as this woman approaches with another firm, insistent, “on your left,” as if there is a thing I or he should know to do and are somehow not knowing and not doing: this feeling is familiar and old, but unexpectedly new to the context.

It isn’t a feeling of confusion for my own sake: everything looks well to me. It’s confusion about what she is asking to change and why—from my vantage point, all of our paths look clear.

On your left? I’m hardly aware, in my solid good mood, that some part of me is second-guessing. Does she mean she is on my left? I’m on my left, is she talking to me on her right or him on her left? Maybe she’s telling me to move to my left? —I edge all the way to the left side of the trail, just in case. In fact, I walk off the trail and into the mowed brush alongside it, though there is little of mowed brush to be had before it drops down a steep bank to blackberry brambles below. And still she is slowing down now and seems to be asking for more room? The man is walking on the far right edge, his own left and hers. I speed up to pass him sooner, and notice as I do he starts drifting to the middle of the road. Uh oh, I think, but know better than to try to get the man’s attention about the oncoming bike, now. In his own half-dreamy world, I can tell he will be slow to the alert and possibly confused or disoriented for a moment if I do. He might step right into her path in response to me before he sees her coming toward him.

The woman on the bike calls out again, though I’ve picked up speed to allow a bigger gap for her to navigate, making her passageway between the two of us pedestrians as wide as I possibly can. Nevertheless, she’s slowed down even more, as if the opposite were true. As she passes me, I mentally gauge the distance between the man and I and see that she has more than enough room to move around him, even if he’s drifted to the middle of the trail. She’s slowed down enough now to maneuver safely if he’s somehow still in her way. There’s room for both of them on the trail, and maybe it’s a minor inconvenience, but I’ve watched bikers on this trail navigate such failures of pedestrian attention swiftly and surely many times.

No reason for this to escalate. I turn and keep walking.
Then I hear her crash.

I turn back and greet her frustration as she exclaims, “you wouldn’t listen!” Her accusatory tone immediately arrests the emotional portion of my concern for her tumble. The man is bending down to help her, and she says, “don’t touch me, get back.” I might say the same, I reason, casting myself in her proverbial shoes. I approach too but stay back, as she asked. It looks like her feet are strapped to the pedals and I’m concerned about whether or not she needs help getting back up, and how we can help her if she doesn’t want anyone near her—which she might not, because social distancing? She’s lying there, looking stuck and not moving at all to free her feet. I wonder if she can. The man is there and saying something apologetically. She answers him, a little embarrassed, a little cross: “I was having to slow down so much I fell, you weren’t listening.”

“I don’t think he heard you coming,” I speak up as the man is backing up a little. “And bikes are supposed to yield to pedestrians, anyway. Are your feet attached to the pedals?” I ask, understanding growing in me that with her feet strapped down like that, she couldn’t have simply put one down to steady herself as she lost her balance. Wow, I would not do that! I do not have that kind of confidence on a bike! I reflect appreciatively. That would freak. me. out.

“I’m fine,” but she looks down, having let go of the handlebars, grasping her knee instead. She makes a sound like she’s looking at something that hurts. I still can’t tell if she’s injured or stuck and needs help getting up. Or, if she’s mildly scraped, or maybe really bleeding—or just needs some time to recollect herself. She isn’t doing anything to free her feet or get up. She speaks again: “I said ‘on your left,’ like three times and you didn’t move.” She’s talking to the man but I’m aware she’s talking loud enough to include me, too. The man mumbles something oddly apologetic again and I ignore it. His ignorance isn’t a crime. And though she was responsible for yielding, none of us are happy that she fell and is hurt. The man and I both want to help her, at least to make sure she’s okay, being the people nearby when she fell.

“Are your feet attached to the pedals?” I ask again.

“You’re supposed to move to the left—”

“Bikes yield to pedestrians,” I affirm. “Bikes yield to everyone, pedestrians yield to horses—we all yield to horses,” I add the last with a touch of humor.

“The sign back there says you need to yield to the left.”

I recall often seeing the bright yellow sign she’s referring to, whose arrows indicate whom yields to whom, not in any particular direction. I understand the concept of passing on the left, but it hadn’t ever been a thing in my experience on trails—especially this flat, paved one—that anyone clung hard and fast to. I tend to prioritize the reality of the trail itself and consider individual parameters moment to moment when deciding how to yield and in which direction.

There is no “the left” on a trail going openly both ways. We’re all relating to each other, perceiving and projecting in relation to one another.

I reminded myself that I’d been passing the man walking slower than me to my left—at the asked for distance of at least six feet—and made sure she had plenty of time and space to pass. I was in too good a mood to be very phased but still felt a little dumbstruck. What more was she expecting or wanting out of the situation?

“Are your feet strapped to the bike?” I ask again. “Do you need help getting up? I can see why that was tricky, not being able to put your feet down.” I say with some warmth I hope is disarming.

It isn’t. She ignores what I’ve said—a game we both seem to be playing—and refers obstinately again to the rule of yielding to the left. The feeling of her words is unbudging: blame.

And I feel pretty clear: no blame.

Some other people are approaching at a recreational pace on their bikes. I realize this woman really doesn’t need or want any help. She’s wanting someone to blame. The man was happy to oblige, and then I wrecked it. She’s let go of her knee and is still sitting in the middle of the trail. I say again, “Bikes yield to pedestrians. The only rule is about who yields to who.”

“Well, if everyone would just follow the rules, no one would get hurt,” she bites back.

“That’s an interesting belief,” I answer before turning on my heel and walking away, oblivious to the anger that had left the conversation just ahead of me. I review the situation in my head, assessing it as thoroughly as I can, still feeling very . . . well, not blamey, nor blameable, as I reach the bridge. And, as we’re at a bridge, please forgive a bumpy transition from present to past-ish tense.

“As long as we all follow the rules no one gets hurt—yeah right,” I muttered out loud just as I started to cross. I’d caught up to the wave of anger and it began to blend with the lighter mood I’d been in. I let it blend, my thoughts churning up a multitude of recent events: Covid; protests; a text discussion I’d had earlier with another grad student about violations against immigrants; bits and parcels of my own life. I don’t need much of any of that to bring what had been combining in me to a hot simmer.

Then I wondered briefly if I was being unreasonable. Had my own ego simply been wounded by being wrong? Was I truly picking on someone who was down? I reconsidered the sign I remember seeing. I’d looked at it often, and I couldn’t recall seeing anything about passing on the left. Maybe I’d missed a new sign? I wonder, my head in a gas-lit cloud of self-doubt.

The emotions simmering in me send up clarifying steam: why would I rely on a fixed and arbitrary rule to tell me what to do on a trail with possibly shifting and unpredictable conditions? It isn’t marked out like a road. It isn’t metaphorically parallel with street traffic: there is no trail-users test and license I must take and pass and carry with me and solemnly swear I will abide by all these rules as long as someone is looking and I feel like it (I usually do) and nothing else occurs that becomes more immediately important to me than the traffic rules . . .

I highly doubt people who use the trail want or welcome that kind of coloring book rigidity built in to it. Some guidelines and commonalities, mutual understandings are great, they’re part of the trail—the trail seasoned with the herbs and salts of easy, comfortable camaraderie, bright and loud or quiet and subtle, with degrees of nuance in-between. And a light touch of the peppers of annoyance, for variety.
I’m rather used to the trail being at times crowded by bikers moving as fast and confidently as they please, passing on whatever side makes sense for them and I do the same—move or stay put on whichever side makes the most sense based on what I can observe in the moment a bike is approaching. How many are approaching at what speed, distance and interval? What other people or obstacles might they or I also need to maneuver around? I enjoy the quick attention and thoughtful calculation I give these matters for other people’s ease and mine, sometimes also considering the wisdom of watching my step: not everyone picks up after their dogs, and nobody picks up after their horse.

On a trail I get to have fun with and put to creative use the hyper-vigilance developed in my formative years, with their less-than-fun conditions.

I’ve crossed the bridge. What would you do if a horse, a bike, and a pedestrian were all trying to get by at the same time—I’m still angry-but-lighthearted as I make my way swiftly down the rocky bank to the creek’s edge and sit down in my favorite spot, the pleasant mixture of mint and damp vegetation wafting in warm gentle currents tickled by gnats, tree fluff, and something heard-rather-than-seen that issues a minuscule high-pitched wheedling of a buzz.

If a bike is approaching at X miles per hour where two pedestrians are walking opposite directions on opposite sides of a trail roughly 8 or so feet wide, and everyone must stay six feet apart…

What do you do when the man just won’t listen?

Or worse, innocently has no idea you’re behind him, and then when he does find out, can’t process what you’re saying and what is happening fast and well enough to keep you safe?

What does blaming him serve?

My mind drifts back to the text conversation I’d been engaged in earlier, where I’d described forcibly removing children from their mother as the true violation of a boundary—not the “illegal” crossing of a Federal or State border; an imaginary crime across an imaginary line. It’s a literal projection that justifies traumatic abuse and separation.

Well, they broke the rules. No right to safety.

I hear approaching conversation and whizzing wheels as two bikes Ker-clunk Ker-clunk … Ker-clunk Ker-clunk across the bridge. The snippet of their conversation rises then falls away:
“and the laDY JUST STOOD THERE LECturing at her,”

That settles in. I’m the lady. I fume. So that’s the story? I tell the truth and ask if she needs help and then like a game of telephone, she gets to misconstrue what happened and and and . . . but *I’m* the nice one: some defiant part of me leaps to its spirited feet, running after them—haunting after them with my own version of the story. I start to try to reel it in, but decide I know better, and let it go. I really didn’t want to reel it back in with the emotional energy of that self-righteous indignation on the line, anyway.

Better to let it run itself tired and come back when it’s ready.

If you were watching (and you weren’t, thank you, otherwise I’d have no reason to write this), you’d only have seen boring me, boring breathing and boring looking at the sky, half stung, half bemused and only just a little confused, knowing that once upon a time, that would have made me cry.

And now, it doesn’t. Not even a stirring, not a whisper of a tear, though I cry readily enough at other times. Maybe just an echo somewhere in there. A ghost, a boring one that glances briefly up from whatever other better story it has found to read deep in the depths of me, a furrow of up-turned attention momentarily creasing its ghosty brow, before it turns back to the tale clasped in pale, rather wrinkled, shimmery hands.
I exhale loudly. I feel centered, good, even though my thoughts are still grasping after wanting to have been right. And that was just wrong.

The trunk of my beliefs, though, is that they’re allowed to have their version of the story. And I can have mine. It’s okay to be misunderstood.

I feel good. That feels right. That is the truth, whatever they believe.

And since when has there ever been a set of rules in any society that worked for everybody?
Not anywhere in history.

I get up after a bit, cross the creek, climb the bank on the other side, and start walking back, glad to know now that sometimes bikers might be actively planning to pass on the left. It’s another consideration added to the social swirl of calculative data on my favorite little local trail. I’m glad to know now that sometimes bikers might have their feet trapped—attached to the pedals, unable to put their foot down to stop quickly or balance themselves. I wonder a little at the bravery, the gusto, the confidence, the skill that could empower a person to literally strap their feet to a bike and go. I can’t imagine myself ever doing that. But if I ever did, you can bet I’d slow myself down to a fall, too.

As I’m walking back home, I look up at the sky and my mouth pops open underneath the mask I inconsistently remember to take off when no one is near me: I see this amazing, eagle-shaped cloud—so distinctly formed with a hooked beak, huge sweeping wings, even a little blue space for the eye—it looks just like the eagle in the post office logo. Priority mail! Clutched in its beak is the whispy cloud shape of some much smaller spread-winged bird. Dinner. Karma?

Welcome to America! Where if we all just follow the rules, no one will get hurt.

I’m nearly home and thinking more generously about the incident as a whole, understanding everyone has been on an edge of near-helpless frustration at times in this pandemic-stricken socio-political climate, though my anger remains. It is something new now, though: a tight little gnomish ball that is still raving about that mean woman for telling a mean story about me and trying to blame her accident on someone else, and she is mean and bad and should be punished, no no no, stop liking her, stop being nice to her, or thinking nice about her, she should be punished! Punished punished, mean bad, no! and it waves its fists and stomps and keeps talking as I envision cupping it in my hand, inside my chest as it rages away.
A block’s walk of meditative attention to this manifestation of my anger, thus, transforms it to a mouse.

Delighted, I think: how cute and soft you are. Annoyed at being so diminutively perceived, it bites my imagined internal hand, hard. Ouch. I drop it and it runs into a hole in the wall, somewhere in me. Internally I shrug, and visualize leaving it some cheese. I don’t like cheese, it huffs in response to the gesture, but I’m already happily considering all the other things I can offer that it might like better.

And I’m eager to tell the story.