There’s a bike path near my house that runs all the way to the Wisconsin border. Usually, I head in the other direction – it holds some real charm, such as the old gravel pits (wondrously massive, rusting conveyors and materials), the gentle sweep of Larsen Prairie, the bridges over brooks as well as eight-lane roads of standing traffic.

It also, however, passes through another area.  It’s essentially a camping site for some of the local homeless; or at least, that’s the impression that it gives. There are some half-abandoned sleeping bags tucked under bushes, and often a strong scent of urine.

It doesn’t bother me much – the path is well-travelled, and I’ve never equated homeless with predatory. But I’ve got well-meaning family members who get nervous when I take that trail, and they were forefront in my mind at the time. So last Saturday when I got in the saddle, I headed north instead.

That trail’s got many more steep hills (by the standard of an Illiboy) and its own kind of peaceful beauty through the wooded areas, which include a number of unpaved side paths that lead heavens know where. On my way back, I hear some voices from one of those paths, and decide to see where the paths led. I stop the bike to ask the travelers for directions.

Five teenagers, bless them. Babies, really. The boys shirtless in the sunshine, with sunken bellies and Gothic-script collarbone tattoos darker than their wispy mustaches. The girls with that fragile trailer beauty which never ends well for anyone involved, in stained crop-tops and beanies bedazzled with hemp-leaf symbols.

They’re skittish when I pull up out of nowhere and ask where the paths led, but smile a second later.

“Just woods,” the lead boy says. “More woods.”

“There’s a real serious hill, though,” one of the girls volunteers. “Getting your bike up it would probably kill you.”

“Where you going?” The boys asks.

“Nowhere,” I say, honestly. “Exploring. Enjoy your walk!”

“Have a good ride,” the girls chirp together, and we continue on our separate paths.

As I ride away, the voices in my head start scolding. I have an iPhone in my shirt pocket, half-visible in the sunlight. I have a nice bicycle, and a fat wallet. There are killing-steep hills all around me, and they’re young enough to chase me down if they want to, like young lean wolves after a stag grown fat with success. Why would anyone stop alone in the forest to talk to a pack of strangers? How can you be so innocent and blind?

But … it’s not my voice. In my head.

I recognize them all. Well-meaning, no doubt, and full of love. All they’ve ever wanted is to protect me, keep me safe from what they call my childishness, my naivety.

I’m privileged. I know that’s a part of this. I’m white, I’m male, I’m comfortably middle class. I’ve rarely had to consider my safety as closely as many others do, whether from police or from neighbors or, hell, from an entire fucking gender.

Too often I’ve lived afraid, though. I listen to the fear in other people’s voices as it squats inside my skull, and I fail to take chances on what I really want.

Riding back, speeding down a hill, going far too fast in the sunlight of May, I can listen to my own voice for a while. It reminds me of who I am.

I like going far too fast, and I like being on my own in the woods. I like meeting new people, even if only for a minute, to sketch them into my memory.

And yes, I like trusting people. My instincts through history have been pretty sound, in terms of warning me to leave certain people or places alone. I’m still here, aren’t I?

It’s good to hear that voice again. I understand why some would call it naivety.

But to me, it sounds a lot like life.