The thing about bikes (besides the annoyingly relevant fact that I don't really know how they work) is that when you put 11 13-year-old boys on them and say go, you're mostly saved from the burden of entertaining and corralling said boys throughout your week of camp. You put 11 13-year-old boys on bikes, and they just ride.
"Bike week, I've found, is like training a bunch dogs," my boss tells me solemnly as we watch the boys-on-wheels scatter about the area even though none of the counselors said go. "They all want to go all the time, and you sort of have to," he demonstrates, making various directional motions toward himself, "direct them."
I laugh incredulously at the analogy but watch as he blows his whistle and all the whizzing bikes screech to a halt, each helmeted head perking up to find the source of the noise.
Herding sheep would be a funnier metaphor, but the participants in our bike-themed specialty camp hadn't yet learned the virtue of calmness enough to be gifted that compliment.
My experience as a counselor for bike week began as fast paced as it was bound to end.
There were 11 boys, and there was only one girl camper, a situation which made my being the only female counselor both better and more difficult.
The week felt short by consequence of the itinerary and its quick-to-leave, fast-paced nature; each day we rode upwards of 15 miles as a team throughout Raleigh, our bike specialist in the front, the campers trailing like ducks behind him, and me at the sweep with the first aid kit, ready to swoop in and attend any injuries.
The first four days went well if there's any way to accurately summarize an experience so rich with interactions, bumps in the road and 12 crazy, talkative, weird, different campers. There were no injuries. Our communication as counselors was decent, and we got where we were going each day in the end.
The negatives were that I was stressed for the most of it, physically exhausted, after the week I had bruises littering my legs from the pedals scraping them, and I quickly learned that in a group of 11, 13-year-old boys will pretend that any girl among them doesn't exist.
The negatives were worth it though, for the adrenaline that biking through the greenways and trails of Raleigh gave me, for going to bed every night with the promise of zombie-like sleep and for moments of triumph when I was able to capture the friendship and earn some laughs from even the most boyish of the campers.
Moments on the bed of the trailer, eating lunch in the heat and exchanging stories about soccer: me sending a girl to the hospital that one time, them being on a team called the "Cheez-it's". All of us talking about our favorite videos on the internet and rolling our eyes when one of the campers couldn't talk about anything besides politics. Laughing when one of them crashes into a tree, patching up scrapes with a band-aid, collectively agreeing we never want to see a bike again in our life, but showing up earnestly the next day and hopping on one just the same.
It was exhausting, frustrating, but good.
The last day of the camp presented a different story. The night before that Friday, my fellow counselor, me, and the campers who were willing to sleep out in the July heat had a campout. It was fun, you know, the whole shebang complete with hot dogs and smores and long games of would you rather, in sleeping bags.
The next day? Everything went wrong. One of the campers planning to meet us for riding that day went to the wrong drop-off site, another forgot to bring his helmet, one managed to give himself a wicked nosebleed and yet another had left his toothbrush in the bathroom a mile away.
When we were finally on the road, my co-counselor and I got ourselves exorbitantly lost in the airport of all places, and when we arrived at the location and unpacked our bikes it became clear that the atmosphere was different. We only had one bike specialist where we usually had at least two, and the sheer amount of miles we'd already ridden was weighing unusually heavy on everyone.
By the time we'd made it through our trail circuit and sat down for lunch, everyone was too hot and tired to go on. We decided to call the day and head back to our drop off point, where we would ride some low-key trails and rest up.
At that point, our bike specialist remembered that he had to leave, and then it was just me and my co-counselor, a bunch of sweaty, tired, and yet somehow still rowdy boys (and one girl, bless her), to entertain for two hours. Here comes the moment where my lack of expertise in biking, and the necessity of bikes to keep the kids occupied, really becomes relevant.
I'm not quite equipped with the authoritarian skills that would aid me in successfully carrying out this feat, and so, feeling the stress of the hours before me, and the lack of hours of sleep the night before, something snapped within me.
"Alright guys," I yelled, "That's it. Everyone get your bikes out. Go on, right now. Everyone on your bikes, we're going for a ride."
Everyone groaned and was generally unenthusiastic about the idea of more bikes, (myself among them), but I found the choice immediately to be the right one, as the boys (and the girl, bless her again) began to zip around the parking lot.
When you put 12 campers on bikes, you don't have to entertain them or yell at them, you just ride. And ride we did, until, of course, the inevitable did its thing and we were all stopped on the side of the road with two broken bikes, no bike specialist, and no backup.
"Alright," I said, panting a little in the heat, "I guess I'll bike back to where the bus is and come pick everyone up."
I took five campers who still wanted to ride along with me, and we set off on the two-mile journey back to grab the vehicle. I was yet to realize, until a few minutes round the bend, that the peril of the day was only half past.
Three of my campers stayed with me as we screeched to a halt by the exit to the park we were in. We all stood by our bikes together, watching in despair as the other two, biking ahead, rode up a hill and out of earshot and eyesight.
Throughout the week my co-counselors and I had realized we would have to reteach rules that would seemingly remain common sense to the rowdy group of campers. Stay to the right, don't go in front of the lead cyclist, move when a car is coming, always wear a helmet. The basics become...advanced when applied to 13-year-old boys--or so I've learned.
Maybe, considering this, I had expected too much out of my campers by assuming they'd know not to go anywhere without a counselor? Genuine question here.
I took my band of three and headed back toward the group to see if the strays had found their way back to them, with no such luck. I began to stress. Two lost campers, on my watch, on a cluster of a day that was refusing to go my way.
I sent a text to my boss, saying text or call when you get off the river with the younger camp! Trying to sound calm, but still pumping my pedals with a renewed energy, looking desperately for two campers who wouldn't have dared go on without me.
The call came a few more levels of hysteria later. My boss brought the news that he inexplicably found two of my campers sitting near the bus when he brought his group back from the river. I panted my promise to be there soon and biked off with renewed adrenaline and my (very) small army behind me.
I can't think back on this next moment without laughing. I must've looked like I was crazy.
I pedaled back to the parking lot where the mini bus was and zeroed in on two figures sitting on stumps in front of another who must certainly have been my boss. Running on exhaustion and stress-fueled adrenaline, I biked over to them, and promptly braked too hard, sending my body flying off the seat and slamming myself into the front of the bike. But with eyes locked on my two campers, I swung off the thing and threw it unceremoniously against a tree.
"I have questions for you two," I choked out, my breath labored, but pointing at them menacingly all the same.
"They already got a treatment from me," my boss warned, looking slightly alarmed. "Catch your breath."
"No. I have questions." I said firmly. "What were you two thinking, when you looked behind you and I wasn't there? What in your minds told you Oh okay, I should just keep going!"
The boys had deer-in-headlights looks in their eyes, that translated into a slight panic in their voices as they launched into an explanation of what they did, their confusion that had led to such a thing happening.
Their apologies were sincere and insistent, they made assurances that they'd be the ones to come with me and load up the bus. Despite all the things I was cursing on the ride over (see:13-year-old boys, July, the bike specialist, bikes in general, bike week as a whole, fate, karma, all of that sort of stuff), I felt myself begin to soften.
"Alright, guys," I said, as I got everyone onto the bus and stood before them. "A lot of things went wrong today. Let's talk about them."
One kid raised his hand and said, "The heat".
Another said, "When we went off without you,"
One mentioned getting lost in the airport and another said doing the same trails as the day before.
One said that we didn't get to play mafia and another joked that he didn't get to drive the bus.
"So, yeah. A lot of things did go wrong, but a lot of things that could've gone wrong that didn't. No one got hurt, no one got permanently lost, no one's bike was damaged beyond simple repair, it didn't rain or lightning, we got on some super cool courses, and the group got along really well. And through the ups and the downs of this week, I'm thankful for all of those things that kept us safe and held us together."
I drove my coworker and my campers back to our pickup point, where we were greeted by my boss again. Miraculously, he wasn't mad for all that had gone on in this disaster of a day. Instead, he was alarmingly sympathetic. He told my co-worker and me to take the hours of pickup off and to go run shuttle in preparation for the upcoming week, to cool off and get some time away from the instigators of our horrible day.
To this day, I haven't been able to look at a bike without having it look menacingly at me in return. But from that experience, I have learned to stare tough decisions right in the face.
Sometimes, I have learned, life is like putting boys on bikes and watching them ride; seamless and unbothersome, direction ahead clear and all the troubles riding before you in a single file line.
Sometimes, however, life is everything able to hurt you suddenly getting on wheels and buzzing angrily around your head.
Life, when it is a ride at least, is exhausting. It's 14-year-old boys head-butting each other in their helmets and calling you names and leaving you to panic in the dust.
Biking is a lot like life I guess, bumps in the road and all that. I don't know. That day was almost like a novelty to me. I can tell the story, and everyone will laugh when I get to the part where I become a raging authoritarian, foaming at the mouth. It was something I most certainly don't want to repeat immediately, and an experience I don't look back on with any sort of nostalgia.
Pride, more like. I had seven other weeks of camp that were crazy and good and fun, but the most impactful one was the one where not only did most things go wrong, but where I was under the spitfire, tested for my decision making and composure.
And even though the bumps in the road made me handle decisions and composure with much less grace, I feel much more prepared for the trails ahead of me. Riding upward and onward, leading, following, driving that blasted minibus into the future.