It took 23 days.
23 days to have that moment in the dirt, quite literally. 23 days to have that moment that will NEVER be funny in retrospect, NEVER! 23 days to have that NOW WHAT THE FUCK AM I GONNA DO?! moment. 23 days to want to light my panniers on fire and throw Whitey Jackson off a cliff. 23 days to feel defeated enough to want to run away and hide, to quit – or, worse, to self-destruct. 23 days to search for someone, someTHING to blame for my limitations, my lack of fortitude, my inability to follow the rules. … 23 days to realize that I am the one making the rules.
That’s not how Day 23 begins, of course. I wake up in the Mayers’ home in Lake City, Iowa, after a decent night’s rest following a smooth 96-mile ride and a homecooked meal and a shower with a fan to cool off afterward, and great company/conversation, and good-natured laughs at my friend Jess’s expense. (If she gives me permission to post the collage of posy teenage angst pics of her, then you’ll know what’s funny. …But then again, you probably need to know her.)
In the morning, I eat one of Mike’s muffins, some cereal and a banana. Leisa enters the kitchen. “Take snacks!” she says. I have enough supplies, but I pack up a couple more of the muffins and some fruit. Leisa is beside herself. She is a mom through and through.
Mike and Leisa do plenty of two-wheel traveling themselves on their Harley. I ask if I can take their picture beside it, and they comply.
The sky is really dark that morning. Thunderstorms are promised but not for a couple of hours (last time any of us checked the weather). I need to take off. It’s about 100 miles to Sioux City from Lake City, and I keep hearing Anne and Larry telling me, “Iowa doesn’t get hilly until you get to the western part of the state.” Where I am now. It’s been pretty hilly already, and if it’s going to get worse, then so be it! I gotta go. I hug the Mayers, and I’m off. It’s Day 23, my final Iowa day.
I ride through the downtown part of Lake City which is only a few blocks long, kinda perfect Americana. I am keeping my eye to the northwest where the storm clouds are worsening. It’s chilly so I already have my jacket on. Maybe the fact that I’m prepared will jinx the storm, and it won’t bother me…?
Maybe. Not. I’m about 10 miles out of Lake City when the rain starts. And the wind. It’s not terrible…yet. I can see a cluster of trees up ahead about a quarter mile. In Iowa, the presence of trees may mean there are buildings, and thus, a place to take cover. I mean, it’s farmland I’m riding through, not the desert! Just as the thunder starts to crash, I arrive at a farm with several structures. I choose the gazebo. Seems like the least presumptuous of me to access. No door. The property I’m on is a farm cum garden store. The gazebo is full of pots and ‘Welcome’ signs and hanging garden ornaments with price tags. A paddling of white ducks nestling inside is disturbed by my presence. Please don’t tell anyone I’m here! I try to vibe them. I’m one of the good guys! I want them to like me, of course. They are, however, dubious and escape the shelter of the gazebo, opting for the storm instead of being beguiled by my urban aww shucks, ducks! charm. From what I’ve been told, ducks like the rain, so the storm must’ve been pretty bad in their estimation for them to take shelter and then relinquish it to a strange human. What goes on in your tiny minds? Stupid, cute ducks. Playing hard-to-get. Ducks in a rabbit hole!
There aren’t lights on in the farmhouse, so hopefully no one is home. I’m sure it’s cool for me to take shelter on their property while the storm is moving overhead (I mean, there are tons of ‘Welcome’ signs…for sale, to be sure, yet prima facie, right?), but I was already a little troubled by having to break for weather so quickly into a 100-ish-mile ride with hills looming. Meeting more Iowa farmers would only slow me down.
It rained hard. Thundered loudly. The rain went on for what seemed like hours, though it wasn’t. This is a perfect opportunity to work on being patient, right? I amused myself by taking photos of the ducks fussily preening themselves (they seemed riddled with anxiety, drinking rainwater and flushing out their feathers and nipping at their chests with their beaks to pick out what has fallen into their feathers, wings and tails) and posting my weather woes on Instagram. I saw that I had a call from a strange Iowa number. It was Mike seeing if I needed him to come get me. Leisa also texted me to make sure I found shelter. I’m good, I’m good! Once the rain lightened to a gentle pattering, I took off again, pleased with allowing myself to be patient.
As fast as that storm came and went, the heat arrives…and stays. What can ya do? As much as I try to apply the principle of one revolution, one minute, one mile at a time my brain is computing and re-computing constantly ok if I can average x mph because of this stupid headwind then it’ll take me x hours to get to Sioux City adding x minutes to grab something significant to eat like a sandwich then I’ll get there at ugh X:XXpm?! that’s so LATE I’m so behind on the blog I really need to work on finishing that Indiana part before I cross another state line maybe I should try to see if there’s another town closer than Sioux City but NO no I have to get to Sioux City tonight because then I will get to South Dakota tomorrow but WAIT am I sure that I figured out the exact number of miles I have left? maybe I’m overestimating? well you wanted to overestimate so you can be pleasantly surprised but now that I’m having this thought I’ve ruined the surprise but can I ever really trick myself? so hopefully the winds won’t be too bad wait check the weather app no! don’t stop you’re already behind do I need to plug the charger in I don’t want to get it too low or should I just wait until I get the 20% battery remaining notification shit wait I forgot how many hours I said until I get to Sioux City let’s figure this out again maybe I should try percentages now instead of fractions yes! that seems less threatening but ugh I think I’m only at 16.67% that’s one-sixth! I can’t believe that I’m not even a fifth done STOP YOU SAID NO FRACTIONS! but is it really a full 100 miles cuz if it’s only 98, then I could say that I am practically 20% done NEVER MIND let’s just make it a Get ‘Er Done Day ugh no Get‘EM Done make it gender-neutral but whatever happened to Kum n Git It Day?? that’s supposed to become your thing.
[Oh, side note: as a substitute for the Get X Done Day I’d been trying to institute some quirky genderless reimagining of one or both of the two fabulous gas/convenience store names I’ve encountered in Iowa, (1) Kum & Go and (2) Git n Go. I won’t list all the options I came up with, but Kum n Git It Day was the winner. However, as I am writing you from the future, I must say this whole process of coining a cute name for a riding day where I’m just putting my ass to the grind and riding and not worrying about anything else has been inorganic and, therefore, difficult to uphold. Daniel, stop trying to make Kum n Git It Day happen! It’s not going to happen!]
So, this is where I’m at. Dig? And it’s hot.
I blow through a few towns, then marvel at the cheese-o-rama Camelot-esque castles of Ida Grove, Iowa. Seriously, google Ida Grove. (No pics, cuz I was gittin’ it done).
I stop at a sparklingly clean Subway in Battle Creek, just over halfway to Sioux City. I am accosted by a woman, probably late 50s, wiping down tables. I’m reading some NY Times article on my phone as I wolf down a 6” turkey and spinach on whole wheat and soak in the AC. The woman is imperious. “Read a book!”
I don’t feel like getting into the whole I’m not a millennial/as young as you think I am thing, so I fib, “I’m reading one right now.” (At the recommendation of my friend Kathryn, whom I’ll be visiting in Missoula, Montana soon, I have started the forward of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose about the Lewis and Clark expedition in iBooks, so it wasn’t a bald-faced lie. I mean, I’m in the process of reading a book on this phone, though not at this precise second.
I’m missing her point, I guess, because she slaps my arm that’s cradling the iPhone. “A book!” she scolds. Haven’t you ever heard of a book? You can turn their pages and get ‘em for free from the lie-BRAY-reeee!” She sounds out the word as if I’d just uttered it, pronouncing it ‘lie-berry.’ I wonder if she has ever turned one of today’s youths onto reading actual books via this methodology.
“Well, once I don’t have to lug my whole life on a bike, then I can start back reading the real thing.”
She acknowledges the helmet and cycling gloves on the table, eyes my getup. “You doing RAGBRAI this year?” (RAGBRAI is The [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Every year almost 10,000 cyclists ride their bikes west to east across the state. Apparently, it’s a giant, wild drunkfest as well as a cycling event.) I don’t want to get into my whole story and answering the usual questions (not from here, doing something different, big events aren’t my thing, Washington, DC, Portland, Los Angeles, I’m doing it because blah blah blabbity blah,etc.), so I say, “Nope, not this year. Just doing it on my own.”
“You’re better off,” she said. “That way you won’t end up drunk with an illegitimate child.”
“Yeah…well…you’re right about that.”
Back on the road, the heat, headwinds and hills are ramping up. After my detour off johnnyg’s RideWithGPS route to get to the Mayers in Lake City, I am back on it now. RideWithGPS has a great feature where you can view the elevation profile as you ride, which is good because you know what’s coming – and bad for the same reason. (Please consult Figure 1.)
As per the route instructions, at mile 57 I make a left turn onto 220th Street which I’ll be on for 10.5 miles, and pedal for about a quarter-mile before the terrain becomes, er, unpaved. It’s a dirt road. Not a gravel road. Sure, there’s some gravel but this is dirt. Well, johnnyg did this ride, right? …Or did he? He must have, so it’s doable. Don’t be a fussbudget. Just ride.
The road is slightly downhill for about 100 yards and then flattens for about 50 more. On the downhill, I think I’m ok as long as I don’t use my brakes. Or pedal, really. Once on the flat part Whitey’s tires are spinning through the dirt. I’m moving forward slightly but the back tire is skidding. How do I even do this?
The ‘road’ starts uphill immediately. Both tires are skidding in the dry and dusty dirt. I. Can’t. Get. Up. The hill. Fuck it. I unclip out of my pedals and push my 80-lb. fully loaded bike and gear up the hill, about 50 yards. My cleats are skidding now. I’m running in place.
What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?
I get to the crest of the hill, hop back on Whitey, and coast down the other side of the steep hill and YIKES! I wipe out. First fall of the trip. I’m not hurt, just dirty and shamed. I didn’t click back into the pedals, so my feet were free. The right pannier cushioned the fall. I try to ride the bike up the next hill, which is right in front of me. Same as before. I can’t move. I push Whitey up this hill and survey at my surroundings. It’s farmland. Corn ‘n’ beans. Sure, there are farm structures, but no people as far as I can see. Well, at least no one’s witnessing my plight. I can’t see over the next hill. Maybe it’s paved on the other side. …But what if it’s like this for the entire 10.5 miles? I’ve already come a half mile; that’s less than 5%! I can’t turn back without losing major mileage. I didn’t pass any other roads to get out here. There are no other roads.
I’m furious. I should be able to do this, right? Right?
I have to keep going. If I’m careful, I won’t fall again on the downhill. I won’t brake or pedal. But this next downhill is steeper. I’m afraid to just go for it, having just tumbled. So, I gently brake. I crash again, harder this time. My right foot is caught. I’m like a caged animal unable to figure out how to free myself. I finally maneuver the leg out from under Whitey’s weight by anchoring that foot and lifting the bike.
This is the moment I alluded to earlier. In the dirt. The WHAT THE FUCK AM I GONNA DO NOW?! moment. I now hate johnnyg more than I’ve ever hated anyone. He’s worse than Trump! I’m way over the border into Irrational Land. I imagine johnnyg has engineered this just to fuck with ME. I want to cry, but I can’t. I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong with me or my bicycle that I can’t ride this road. What if I had different tires? Not an option. What if I were a better rider? Where is a cliff I can throw my bike off of? I have a moment of wishing that I’d broken my leg, so I wouldn’t have to finish the ride. Ugh, no! That’s worse! Because I know myself. The second it healed, I’d have to come back to this exact location, with different tires, and finish the ride. Probably in fucking February. How long does it take a broken leg to heal?
I push Whitey up the next hill knowing that I have to hitch a ride, if a vehicle ever comes by. Is that cheating?
Forty-ish minutes later I’m in the cab of some nice guy’s pickup, Whitey in the back on his side, looking defeated. Rick is surprised to see a cyclist out there. He is retired but still does some farming for the people who own the fields surrounding us and lucky for me, he was calling it quits early because of the heat. He has a bunch of health issues. Rick was headed the opposite direction but is willing to drive me to the next town, eight miles down the road.
“Oh, that’s probably not necessary,” I said wanting to minimize the number of miles I’m not riding. I’m still wearing my helmet and gloves, ready to jump out any second. “How many miles until the road is paved?”
“Four or five. Next town is Anthon. That’s about eight. The convenience store there has the best ice cream cones.”
I don’t deserve ice cream! “Wow, that sounds great! But can you just drop me off where the road starts again? If that’s cool. I should really ride it.”
Rick misunderstands. “I get you,” he says. “They’re judging you on the number of miles you do.”
Umm. “Ha, no. They’re not…There’s no… ‘they.’” My voice gets a bit smaller, less certain of my demand to jump ship ASAP and back on Whitey as soon as the paved road begins again. “No. No one is judging me. It’s just…me.”
I’m the only one who’s judging me.
I chuckle. I can’t believe it, but I’m already laughing at myself, so soon after tumbling twice and raging at johnnyg my illusory nemesis and wanting to end it all with a leg injury and a fiery explosion and then having to finish the ride in an ice storm. Without a hint of knowingness, Rick is my spirit guide, guilelessly uncovering and exposing Grasping Flailing Me to My Better Self.
The paved road starts again. I ignore it and ask Rick more about himself. He’s a veteran, recently sold his business (something about farm machinery) to a friend, is loving retirement, has horses, lost part of his leg in a horse-riding incident, has diabetes and an auto-immune illness he’s been struggling with, but he soldiers on, not letting his limitations get him down or stop him from enjoying what time he’s got left on this earth.
“Let’s go grab a cone in Anthon,” I say.
“You got it,” says Rick.
And we do just that. I treat Rick. He’s embarrassed by that, I think. “It’s the least I can do,” I tell him. I didn’t want to overshare, but he did more than just answer my thumb.
The fruit of some of life’s simplest lessons continue to elude me; I’ll get a taste of the juice but then have to be reminded over and over again 1) that I’m my worst critic (perhaps my only real one?), 2) that I get to decide what I want to do in life and how I want to do it, 3) that I don’t have to make things as difficult as possible in order for them to be more worthy or meaningful or impactful, 4) that being humble enough to ask for help when I need it (or just fucking want it) is way stronger and more valuable than raging blindly through the mire, and 5) that I’m not perfect but am perfect just the way I am. And as much as I would like to snarkily distance myself from the cliched banality of that bolded, underlined statement, I have bolded and underlined it.
I rode 90 miles on Day 23, instead of 100. I arrived in Sioux City completely worn out after trying my patience waiting out a storm, eating dirt, enduring heat and headwinds, experiencing the comedown from a raging adrenaline rush, being man enough to ask for help, laughing at my reactions to real and imagined adversity, and giving myself a dose of compassion.
People have commented to me on social media and in emails that this ride is a metaphor for life (the ups and downs, the winds you can’t do anything about, the mental and physical challenges, and on and on). But it’s not a metaphor. It is life. It’s happening right now. As I’ve heard over and over in recovery: “Life is in session.”