Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Child Alone

On Sunday I was riding my bike with my father in law. It was an absolutely stunning Fall day -- perfect temperature, perfect humidity, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. The sort of day where you are thankful simply to be alive to enjoy it.

We were on our way home, riding along a new bike trail in Raleigh, NC that runs along Crabtree Creek. This trail has only been paved and open for a couple of months, and meanders a couple miles up the creek from Crabtree Valley Mall. This segment connects into the larger Raleigh Greenway system, which contains miles and miles of paved trails running along creeks and beside lakes throughout north Raleigh.

We had passed a father and daughter at the wooden footbridge about half a mile back. The father was on roller blades and apparently just learning how to use them. He did not look too stable. The daughter was on her pink Barbie bicycle, complete with training wheels. As we went by, she turned too quickly going down a small incline and fell off. She was uninjured and we had stopped briefly to help her up. She was perhaps 6 years old, with long, curly blonde hair.

We rode across the bridge, down the trail, around a bend, and had started down a long straight stretch. As we rode along, we looked ahead. There was a boy, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. He was also on a bicycle with training wheels. He was making great time. He too was enjoying the weather, enjoying the incredible freedom of riding fast with the wind in his hair, and he had not a care in the world. However, there was not another soul on the trail near him, neither a half mile behind us because we had just been there, nor looking forward a good distance ahead.

A 4 year old boy riding alone on a trail like this made sense in only one scenario -- that was dad and sister about half a mile back. The boy also had curly blonde hair, so it added up. At his current pace, the boy would be a mile away from his father in just three or four minutes.

A little shiver went down my back. I have four kids, and imagining one of my kids in this situation is a terrifying little vignette. It has never happened to me -- I have yet to lose track of any of the kids -- but it is very easy to imagine it happening.

This is a nice, well-kept trail system, but it is somewhat isolated. And on many of our rides, my father in law and I see people who I would not pick as the first string team for interacting with 4 year olds. Teenagers dressed all in black carrying nunchucks, groups of two or three men smoking and carrying on beside the trail, vagrants, etc. In all the years of riding these trails, on the other hand, I've never seen a cop.

We pull along side the boy. He is doing about 10 miles an hour and is as happy as can be until he notices us. He looks at us with a "don't talk to strangers" face, instantly distrusting.

"Hi, how are you doing? Are your parents out here riding with you today?"

Nothing. He keeps riding.

"Is your father wearing roller skates today?"

He looks up at me, "yes."

"Maybe you should turn around and go find him."

He looks at me again.

He thinks about it.

He coasts to a stop. He gets off his bike and turns it around slowly. He gets back on and starts pedaling.

My father in law and I have stopped to watch the boy. I wish my son David could ride this fast -- David and I could be riding together. Way off in the distance we can hear the man and girl hollering. After a minute of watching the boy ride away, the man comes around the bend on his skates, waving his arms and seeing his son riding back.

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