In the dim light of evening the figure shuffling ahead was dark and shrouded by his own hood and thick coat. It was 5:15 p.m. on a Saturday evening, mid-winter. A thin skiff of snow had fallen. My mountain bike tires were just enough to keep a good grip. I noticed with interest that some earlier cyclist had dared use skinny tires the entire route I was taking, a loop of 9 miles along the river near our home.
The path crests a small hill along the river right where a local nature center is perched in the woods. That is where the man with his old bike was moving along at a slow speed. I said hello in passing and looked down at the tracks he was leaving in the snow. His feet barely cleared the ground. The line of his bike tires was scuffed out by his boots. It appeared from the tracks in the snow that one of his tires was flat.
As I slowed to consider these signs, there appeared alongside the bike path a tiny snowman, no more than 18" tall. It had black eyes and a stick nose, sticks for arms, the whole deal. There were big and small tracks around the snowman. Obviously a family had stopped to use the wet snow to make the snowman. It was an interesting sight in the half-dark.
Something about the snowman and the sight of the shuffling tracks along the trail made me brake my bike to a stop. I turned around and rode back toward the man with his bike, about 200 yards back the trail.
As I approached from behind I saw the man had stopped next to a tree, but was not leaning on it. I slowed my bike with its blinking headlight and asked, "Is everything okay?"
What a loaded question, it occurred to me. Of course it wasn't. There isn't a person on earth who can say that "everything is okay."
But that patent irony was lost in the moment, for the man gave absolutely no response. In fact he stood stock still in the way of a wounded animal when cornered. Years ago I'd encountered a raccoon that had been struck by a car on the nearby road along this same section of trail. The raccoon hunched in the weeds, fearful and defiant at the same time.
This fellow had that same demeanor, silent and dark. In fact he reminded me of the Spirit of Christmas Future from the Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol. He aimed his shrouded face away and made absolutely no move. There was some sort of long black plastic rod mounted on his bike. I could not identify it.
"Do you have a flat?" I asked.
Still, no words.
Respecting his space and clear interest in not wanting to be disturbed, I backed up my bike and pedaled away. Forty yards up the path I rode by the little snowman again. It had fallen over in pieces. My Good Samaritan act was not helping anyone this night.
I considered using my cell phone to call 911 and get the man some aid. Yet that seemed like an invasion of privacy in some respect. Would it be fair to have the police descend on him? What was the right thing to do? Sometimes we just don't know.
Right or wrong, at that point I kept riding, and met up with the young family and a stroller on the path. I hesitated, wanting to tell them their snowman had fallen over. But it struck me as odd and cruel. I would be the strange one, then. So I waved hello and chirped, "Beautiful night for a walk." And rode on.