I was reading in my room, sinking into what promised to be a complete Sunday-afternoon, sleepy, sloth-like sprawl. I’d never been good at switching gears quickly, and I wasn’t the most enthusiastic biker. But the prospect of getting my mom to myself if only I were up to biking in this fragrant autumn day was too good an opportunity to pass up.
We got our bikes out of the garage, checked the tires, and headed out. We lived in a residential neighborhood but quickly came to a stretch of forested land unbroken by houses on both sides of the road. Clouds – most of them white but some gray – scudded through the blue sky; sunshine poured through the spaces between them.
We’d moved here from Massachusetts where our summer backpacking brought us into woods that shaped my idea of what a forest should look like. Through that lens, these New York neighborhood woods, while they qualified, seemed sparse by comparison. The trees were spread out and spindly-looking. Many of the species were familiar from my Massachusetts treks – the white pine, the sugar maple, the red oak – but most were unfamiliar, and, to my eye, inferior.
My mom and I biked along companionably in the brisk sunshine. The occasional car eased by at a Sunday afternoon pace. We’d hear it coming like a far-off breeze, getting closer and louder, then disappearing again. Now and then a song sparrow trilled. Our bike tires crunched and snapped on the gravelly shoulder. Stretches of forest rolled by.
We took notice when a cloud passed in front of the sun and then lingered there. The sky darkened with rain clouds. We biked on, our eyes uneasily turned upward. A sudden burst of wind blew in a dense rain. Our clothes were meant for a sunny day. They’d be completely inadequate in the face of a downpour, yet that’s what was bearing down on us. We stopped biking, rested our bikes against a tree, and walked a few feet into the woods, hoping the tree cover would keep the worst of the rain off of us. The downpour swept through.
Despite my assessment of this forest as meager, once the rain passed, we discovered we were only slightly damp. It had kept the worst of the rain off of us. We resumed our bike ride.
Several yards down the road, the smell of grapes arrested us. The scent filled the air and brought us to a halt. Had we relied solely upon our eyes, we would have ridden right past the grapes. Instead, the downpour had drummed their scent into the air. Now, we laid our bicycles down, sniffed the air blindly, and waded into the autumn underbrush, following our noses.
The rosy afternoon sun broke through the tree canopy like the climax of a cheesy movie where the rays point the way to God. A wild grape had climbed a thick-trunked tree, a type I didn’t recognize. Hundreds of clusters crammed with spherical dusky purple-ness hung from its branches. We plowed through fallen leaves to the base of the tree to see how many grapes we could reach. The answer was “enough”: enough to know we also wanted the ones we couldn’t reach. Sweet grapes burst through their skins in our mouths. We spit the seeds out onto the forest floor and stretched on tiptoes for more.
When we’d eaten all we could reach, we fixed the area’s landmarks in our minds, hoping to recognize the place when we returned here in a while. We swung our legs over our bikes, and headed back home to get the car, some bags, a ladder, and as many willing grape pickers as we could persuade.
On the bike ride back home, the forest gleamed and sparkled, transformed by the rain.