"We like to believe there's magic. The reality of it is right in front of our faces. It's right inside us. It's our heart, it's our desire. It's passion I want to learn about myself. I want to learn how far I can go. It's about challenge. We naturally want to strive for something. The rawest form of striving is surviving." Long distancing touring veteran, Tom Middaugh
Riding east on Route 155, we neared a pass through the Greenhorn Mountains of the Sierras. Flat terrain near Delano, California, gave way to peaks that cut the sky into wrinkled shapes at the horizon. Wildflowers bloomed along our route that grew steeper with every crank of the pedals.
John, Mike, Kevin and I pedaled on a cross continent journey. John, hailing from the coastal town of Kiama near Sydney, Australia, charmed all he met. His voice and wit got us invited into three families' homes within the last week. The night before, we sat in a restaurant devouring the "all-you-can-eat" salad bar, when a couple overheard John talking about the southern California climate. Before we knew it, John, who could be as charming as a Koala bear on one of those airline ads, got us invited into Larry and Valerie Johnson's house for the evening. Our hosts couldn't do enough for us, and they loved to hear about our bicycle adventures. It's as if the price of admission: sharing our lives.
Being invited into complete strangers' homes may seem awkward, even unheard of by most travelers, but we'd been asked into peoples' homes often during our tours. It may be the vulnerability of a bicycle rider. People feel we're honest, sometimes giving us the keys to their homes and cars.
On one tour, a man stopped me on the highway and invited me to his home. He tossed me his house keys before driving off to a ball game. When I arrived at his home a half-hour later, there were two bags of fruits and vegetables on the table and a note saying, "Help yourself."
I'm not sure why people think a touring bicyclist warrants trust. Maybe they believe it takes depth of character for someone to pedal a bike for long distances--that someone who earns every mile with the hard work and sweat could not be dishonest. Anyone with less character would never be on the bike, because it's not a free ride. It takes guts to pound the pedals mile after mile, mountain pass after mountain pass. My legs burn and I'm always hungry. I'm soaked in sweat and I'm exhausted at the end of the day. It's not for those with weak physical resolve. Age makes no difference because I've met men and women in their seventies on world bicycle tours. It's their attitude.
Being asked into homes also has to do with a cheery disposition and the sparkle in their eyes as well as my own. Some folks get a kick out of living and they can spot it in others. They enjoy connecting with another life-force person who returns the energy. For that and other reasons, I've enjoyed many memorable evenings in peoples' homes around the world.
But that day, the heat and the climb fatigued me. John proved a ferocious climber. Mike stayed with him. Kevin and I followed them. From flats, to hills, to bigger hills, to mountains. I pushed my bicycle into the Sierras. By the afternoon, I had climbed 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 and headed for 4,000 feet. Even with my 24 to 34 gearing, my legs took a beating. The constant power strokes with no rest kept my muscles pumped and full of lactic acid. Kevin wasn't faring much better. The grade caused me to sweat profusely so I stopped to drink often. Each time, the cool afternoon air-dried me quickly. Minutes later, more sweat moistened the dried salt. Passing cars threw dust on me, which locked onto the sweat. At the next water stop, it dried again, leaving me feeling like a mud-covered dirt ball.
When I reached 5,000 feet, darkness crept over the mountains. A gray mist slipped down from the summit, cutting visibility. By that time, we labored through tighter curves that hugged the mountainside. I was ready to call it quits.
"John is probably at the top of the pass right now," I grumbled.
"I wouldn't doubt it," he said.
"It's another 1,000 feet, but we'll have to do it in the dark for the next half hour," I said. "I'm blown out right now. You wanna' keep riding?"
"My knee is acting up," Kevin said. "But I can do another fifteen minutes."
Kevin and I slipped our feet into the toeclips and shoved our bikes into motion. We continued upward into the mist. Sweat soaked my jersey. A few minutes later, a car passed us going downhill. I didn't think much of it until the car swung around and slowed beside us. The electric window slipped down.
"Good evening mates," John Brown said. "How would you boys like a nice hot shower and dinner compliments of my new friend Ross?!"
"Only if you promise never to drag me up a mountain again," I said.
"But you wouldn't be getting a hot shower," John said. "So why would you be upset?"
"Because you dragged us up this mountain all day and I'm gonna' die," I said.
"If we hadn't gotten this far, we wouldn't have met Ross and his nice shower," John said.
"You're right John," Kevin broke in. "We'll just bend your spokes after the shower!"
"Fair enough boys," John said. "Follow me another half mile."
"All the hot water you want, too," Ross said from the far side of the car.
"I'm gonna' live for it," I said as my body continued lathering up with mud-laden sweat.
Ross and John drove away. I felt weary and caked with dust, but the thought of a hot shower kept me going. I dreamed about it as I pedaled the last two miles up the dark, winding highway. Even though I felt tired, that single thought kept me going. It seemed to make the next fifteen minutes go faster, because I felt the soothing, hot droplets massage my skin. The cranking seemed easier. Kevin started talking about the shower. Sweating like two horses and steaming in the cool night air, we reached the guest ranch sign John had mentioned.
Ross operated a summer kid's ranch. He gave us kitchen privileges. He led us to a row of six showerheads.
"Plenty of hot water," he said.
"God," I said, "is going to give you an A."
John, Kevin, Mike and I slipped off our shoes and walked into the showers. After adjusting the temperature, we walked under them with our socks, shorts, shirts and gloves on. I've never heard so much groaning and laughing. Everyone soaped up.
Hot water steamed over my aching muscles. As the first rush of water doused my head, it cascaded over my face and streamed down my shoulders. I tore off my shirt and slapped it down on the tile. I peeled off my socks and shorts. The water ran down my body in waves, taking away the dirt and grime. Soothing steam filled my nostrils. I grabbed a bar of soap and lathered up my hair.
The soap and water did more than clean me. The whole day's hardship vanished in moments. I stood in the middle of one of the greatest showers of my life. I felt so worn out cranking up the mountain, but now I felt tingling in every cell. As I stood there, transformed in the spray, I heard my friends' shouts at our good fortune at having this hot shower at the end of a tough day. From those gut busting power cranks on the pedals, to this ecstasy.
My mind slipped back to when I read Aldous Huxley's "BRAVE NEW WORLD." The protagonist was born in a test tube, and his fellow human beings lived in a bubble-covered city, where perfection touched everything. He broke out of the city into the forbidden zone, which was a wilderness where he had to hunt for his food and had to protect himself from mosquitoes and animals. He commanded his life. He accepted vulnerabilities to the normal consequences of life. The "savage" in him said he wanted to know love, hurt, pain, joy, hunger, heat, cold....
That book changed my life. I decided I didn't want to be so comfortable that living became too easy. I didn't want to go from my air-conditioned house to my climate-controlled car to an office complex where everyone wears the same suits and thinks the same way as they claw their way up the corporate ladder with accompanying stress levels and ulcers. Too much comfort and success kills the spirit. I wanted to know the differences--because in the opposites, came perspective and appreciation. I have never been a spectator. I can either live life, or watch others participate. The result of my decision becomes more precious with each passing year. Life sweeps along swiftly enough without spending precious hours and days on useless routine or inactivity. I've figured out many answers to life's problems while riding my bike. I've embraced life's ups and downs, even mosquitoes biting me. I don't put myself at risk, but neither do I want to become bored or work a job that doesn't enrich me. In that mode, life would pass by mundanely. In a twinkling, I would be on my deathbed wondering where it all went so fast.
Have I made the right choice after reading Huxley's book? Is it worth the agony and sweat of climbing a 6,000-foot pass or one at 15,000 feet through a blizzard in Bolivia? You betcha! I want to fill up my life with living. Even when I'm home working a five-day week, I make every day a positive experience. Daily life is an adventure. Weekends are a grand adventure. Each sustains the balance.
One night while sitting around a campfire, John and I, both being teachers, invented the A.B.C. Concept. It fit our philosophies for happy living. The message is a simple attitude that anyone can choose to follow. With any life activity, a person can "go for it" and enjoy it before/during/after. That's the strategy of the ABC concept:
AIM--take aim on life like Terry Fox who suffered from cancer and ran on one leg across Canada to attract attention to the disease before he died. Fight for what you believe in like David Brower or John Muir when they brought their environmental message to Americans long before it was in vogue. Diane Fossey tried to save the gorillas. Ann Kanabe rode her bicycle trans Americas. Anyone with a passion can work toward fulfilling his or her dream.
BUOYANCY--keep buoyant in the troubled waters of living. Maintain motivation with a positive attitude. Keep light hearted against heavy odds. Lightness travels well and long. Bob Wieland, in his walking across America on his hands, epitomizes buoyancy. He didn't stop at that success either. Later, he completed the Boston Marathon. Later, hand-cycled across America three times.
CELEBRATE--Jump up and shout about being alive. Celebrate life. Don't be afraid to be counted. Show your energy and excitement. Jump into a cold stream when you want a bath. Laugh at the hill you are about to climb. Remember that riding through the mountains is like a dance. Let the mountain lead and you follow. Enlarge that special photograph and hang it on your wall. Relish your excitement. Reach beyond your boundaries. Finally, you need not be afraid of failing, for that fear can prevent you from ever being fully alive. Failure can lead to success if you never give up.
Winston Churchill said it best: "Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
We have 70 odd years to fill up our lives, and I want to fill them up with the voluptuousness of living. Especially on a touring bicycle. It is being aware of pain, of joy, of potential within myself--of being excited for every leaf on a tree as it flutters in the wind, or watching a hawk rip down from the sky to grab a mouse, or the delight of discovering a ladybug on my leg in the early spring, or gazing upon a mountain as it pierces the clouds.
It leads me to a kind of rage too, which is the blood sister of love—because the people of this world make it a charming, insane, exciting and confusing place. I want to maintain the ability to deal with them, with my mind, and spirit—at full bore. To see is to know, and to know is to fall in love with what is known.
What this?!? My shower just turned cold. The hot water ran out. I jumped back. The cold water shocked my skin. My four friends and I headed for the towels. We dried our bodies and gathered our belongings. Dinner awaited us.
The next day, we loaded our bikes with food and water. Within seconds, sweat glistened on our bodies. Was it a lot of hard work? Not really. It was another day of glorious adventure across America on two wheels. ###
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