Before we get into it…let’s contextualize the moment. It’s not reeeeeally Day 1 right now. It’s Day 9, the second of two rest and recuperation days after a joyful, grueling and, um, rife-with-incident Week One. And I’m finally getting to the reportage.
As whomp-whommmmp it might seem to start on a downer, on Day 7, Sunday October 3, I got into a bit of a wreck. I had just hit my first 100-mile day of the trip and was headed to downtown Phoenix to a hotel where I was going to have at least one rest day (rest = laundry and writing). I was on a pretty busy thoroughfare headed into the city. I’m comfortable riding in this milieu. I live in LA, after all, and have commuted on my bike there for years and years. As I was headed back toward the shoulder after coming down over an overpass, I was struck from behind by a car. Slo-mo mowed. “I didn’t see you,” the man defended himself. How is that even possible? I was directly in front of him, as evidenced by my damaged rear fender. Maybe he was looking at his phone? Or was deep in thought about current events or a breakup or the death of a friend who took her own life. Or was temporarily blinded by a malevolent entity.
I’ll never know what was happening in his brain, body and spirit at that moment, so I can’t concern myself with that. One thing is for sure: before the impact, I did know he was behind me for what felt like ages, in that slo-mo way we sometimes experience an impending catastrophe. As he got closer, I assumed he was one of those drivers who hates cyclists and was trying to intimidate me by playing some starkly uneven game of chicken me to freak me out. But no, he rear-ended me, and I went down. The impact (and my cleats which are set rather loose on my pedals, something which I’m glad I hadn’t tightened though I’d been thinking about it) sent me off the bike (known as Whitey Jackson, if you’re just joining us). Only damage to the bike was a bent fender (yes, a fender-bender on a bicycle) and my wheel was a little off. Only damage to me was some road rash on my arm and on my ass. My cycling shorts torn. My nervous system, um, took the brunt. Not gonna lie, it’s been a rough couple of days trying to stay positive and sane.
To answer your inevitable question, the guy did stop. He said it was my fault. Of course. He was not a total dick but he was not helpful or apologetic. I said I’d call the police, but I didn’t want to do that. I mean, what are the police gonna do? I didn’t need an ambulance.
I couldn’t move my bike because the fender was jammed under my rear rack immobilizing the back tire. I didn’t know what to do. The guy gave me his number and his insurance and registration info. But I’m not focusing on him. I’m just focusing on myself. I did want to text him in the middle of the night after it happened: Just admit it, you rear-ended me. You know it was your fault but you blamed me. You hurt me. Be a man. Be cool. Say you’re sorry. Ask me if there’s anything I need. But I didn’t do that. I do feel a bit like, fuck I should report this cuz of statistics for bicycle/motorist accidents. But I didn’t do that either. I just want to get on with it.
So, how did I get outta that mess? Well. I had been texting the night before with my good friend and work colleague Jeremy who just left Phoenix after living here for several years to find out where was a decent neighborhood I could crash for a couple of days in moderate comfort and write about my first week on the road. Ugh isn’t it crazy how hard it is to make a call to ask for help, even when you need it unquestionably? I couldn’t puzzle out any other scenario. Jeremy’s a problem-solver, type-A in the best way (and a kind person) and I knew he would help. So he hooked me up with Handlebar Confessional Hero ’21, Jack, the son of a colleague (Kristi) who works with Jeremy whom I also have worked with over the past couple of years though we’ve only met on zoom. (Obvs they live in Phoenix.) So Jack got in his car, drove 30 minutes to where I was marooned and brought me back to their home in north Phoenix where he and his grandma, Johnie (Kristi’s mom) have been giving me the Southern hospitality treatment (they are originally from Houston). They are so sweet and caring and accommodating. Like beyond. I’m so grateful. Johnie is a nurse, another boon, and she examined my wounds and told me I’ll live. I’ve also had this horrendous fuck-knows-what-or-how rash of hives all over my back and shoulders. And I’ve been really rattled, to be honest. More about all that when I get to it, in the proper order. Also kudos to Noah and the REI crew who were incredibly empathetic and took their time to make sure that Whitey is in proper working order. They only charged me for the new fender. Thank you, Noah.
I’m planning on taking off again tomorrow. So say a little prayer of thanks (or whatever you do) for Jeremy and the Allen clan. (DM me if you wanna see the real butt shott!)
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It’s Day 1 again! Groundhog Day… But not. Not in the least. Probably should delete that dated and inexact reference but oh well too late. I mean, can it truly be Groundhog Day when these trips are spaced out randomly—May 2009, May 2018, and now September 2021? And the characters in the story are already different, and I am only just leaving. The coveted role of “Natalie” (Day 1 Sender-Offer, First Moment Video Shooter, Are You Sure You Wanna Do This-er?) will now be played by horror legend Don Mancini.
I’m leaving from Los Angeles this time, from Donny’s house and riding to Florida, a state with a worse reputation now than even New Jersey. Joss my father and Iris my stepmother moved there in May, and I have been mandated to come visit. Florida is such a national pain in the ass. But I think it will be fascinating to pedal through.
I’m eastward bound, instead of loading my shit—including my bicycle, whose handle is Whitey Jackson, if you are joining us for the first time—onto a plane and then riding the bike west. In 2009, I left from my sister Natalie’s house (also, respectfully and inclusively, home of my brother-in-law Larry and niece Allison) in the Washington, DC metro area and cycled home to LA via San Francisco. In 2018, I again set off from Bethesda and pedaled to the Oregon Coast (and then did some train hopping and an additional 300 miles riding back home to LA).
I guess we leave the Groundhog day-ness with me waking up early, somewhere, in the home of someone/people I love, and pedaling away alone. Excited yet trepidatious. Confident and thrilled, yet anxious as all get-out. Living my best life and confronting my worst fears (failure, inadequacy, regret, discomfort, people, weather, bugs, roadkill, live animals that might maul me, all sorts of injuries, dying, and more that will surely be revealed). Driven and disciplined, dare I say daring, dubious and deranged.
Handlebar Confessional 2021 or 3.0 or III or HBC ’21 or Season 3 (or whatever appellation we fully settle on) begins on Monday morning, September 27, 2021. Donny sends me off. Both tearful. It’s harder, I know, to be the left than the leaver—but my heart is heavy to exit the familiar comfort of Donny, Gilly and Robin (cats aka The Children, ironically), and The Nest. And I’m still raw with grief, only 12 days out from Kate’s suicide and the comfort of support and closeness of those also suffering that often follows a loss. I know I’ll be thinking a lot of Kate as I pedal—and of my mom who I lost to COVID-19 in April 2020. I’m putting this out there right away so I don’t have to explain later. My Ma, Ruthie, would definitely disapprove of my decision to take this ride at this moment in time. Certainly the pandemic has been a consideration. It seems that the rates are vastly improving in the states I’ll be traveling to that have seen some of the worst of it in recent months (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and of course Florida). And then of course there was Hurricane Ida in August that gave me pause. What if this ends up being the most horrific hurricane season on record and renders passing through the Gulf areas difficult or impossible? And in the weeks preceding my departure the temperatures in the deserts of California and Arizona are 110ish. Kate was excited for me about my decision to take this journey, full stop.
Choosing to go ahead with this trip was a tortuous and tortured road of indecisiveness and overthinking, but I definitely had help. My therapist for sure. Donny. Heather my BFF. Kenny, my close friend and my sponsor in NA, as always lends me tons of support and an ear, many ears. Vince, who is my grandsponsor (my sponsor’s sponsor if you’re not up on 12-Step lingo) and my coach, was pro all the way. Kim, my friend and fellow grant writer and one of my fave workmates ever, from our laptops over a thousand miles apart, she in Poulsbo, Washington and me in LA, looked at the Adventure Cycling Association Southern Tier route together, discussing the various places I might jump over to Mexico and say hola and ándale pues (and she also recounted a time in a West Texas town that creeped her out). And Pam, a dear friend and a boss (dually defined), helpfully suggested a hard deadline for the decision which I met two days early. And Alex was there too, especially in my insanity of all the millions of decisions that followed about what to bring with me. And many other people. And websites. And blogs, such as this amazing one, Exploring Wild. (Btw I guess I’m okay with ‘blog’ again. ‘Blog’ is the new blog. It’s just easier. Ugh. We can still just say ‘website’ or ‘handlebar confessionals’ too. We have choices today.) As I wrote in HBC ’18, it takes a village to make something like this happen, in that You Didn’t Build That kinda way, per Barack Obama.
Vince, offhandedly yet perhaps presciently, suggested that something outside of my control might tip the decision one way or the other. And that did sort of happen in that—out of the blue—I received a text from a great friend, Bonnie, from an unfamiliar 512 number asking if my number was still correct. Bonnie, Erik and Delia had rented out their home in Austin, Texas and moved to Munich (Germany, not North Dakota) a few years back. I’d been lamenting the fact that they wouldn’t be in Austin if I bike through there. But they are back. Bonnie and I facetimed, and by the next day the switch was flipped and stayed that way. HBC 21 was happening.
As I leave Donny’s, I’m acutely aware of COVID and hurricanes and the danger of the desert, though the highs predicted had considerably and graciously lowered. Seemed like upper 90s would be the worst of it. And I was more prepared than before having revamped my water carrying situation, thanks to Alissa of Exploring Wild (probably will explain this in too much detail at some point) and bought this odd-looking, fluorescent-yellow sunblocking attachment for my helmet, embarrassingly named Da Brim Sporty, that provides 360-degree protection, sorta like a safari hat. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if I’d be willing to look that stupid. I mean, Da Brim Sporty was Plan D. I knew keeping the sun off my face was critical to getting through the desert. I have enough experience to know this. And Jeremy, a friend and a boss (again, double meaning here) who just moved out of Phoenix for the greener pastures of St. Louis) said something specific about the Arizona sun—don’t remember exactly what—that made my antennae flip and stay that way.
Plan A was getting a visor to attach to my helmet, but the model Giro helmet I own doesn’t have that option. Plan B was to shove a visored hat from the last Ironman 70.3 I did (see how I casually threw that in there?)under my helmet. But that bothersomely (yes, that’s not a word. I often make up my own, if you’re just joining us; unrelatedly, blithesomely, however, is a word and hopefully we will find a fine placement for it) smashed my sunglasses down on my nose which is why I kept exploring. (I used a similar option for HBC 18 but I just recently lost the hat I used for that ride! It flew off the rack of one of my other bikes, dripping wet after a workout in the park with Vince.) I do have the Ironman hat as an emergency option should Da Brim Sporty fly away in the wind which amazingly has not happened yet. Just to finish out the Plans: C was a new helmet that came with a visor but I am spending enough money on upgrades and the trip as a whole. I don’t need two helmets. I have one head. (Don’t quote my logic on this.) I am getting ahead of myself here but I am so glad I got over my fear of looking stupid in West Texas (and anywhere) cuz Da Brim Sporty is literally saving my life here in the desert, as a write to you from Phoenix.
Natalie had expressed her concern about the COVID of it all. Having lost Ruthie to the virus and the fact that Joss and Iris were just getting over having it (and I did have a mild case of it in January of this year), the pandemic has seriously affected our family. My and Natalie’s plan was that she’d meet me in Florida and we’d visit our dad and stepmom in their newly purchased abode in a Lake Wales retirement community together. But she had cautiously and understandably changed her mind, since traveling to Florida by plane with its high rate of infection, hospitalizations and deaths—and not great rate of vaccinations—might actually be insane.
Ironically, and unpredictably for September in LA, it is cloudy and cool when I pedal away from Donny and Robin and Gilly. Besides about 10 raindrops around mile 16, there is very little that is remarkable for me about riding to Laguna Beach from LA. I have ridden there before and I’ve done pieces of this route over and over again through Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Chinatown, to East LA and corruption-storied Vernon and into one of the most hideously industrial areas of Los Angeles. This is where I can hop onto the LA River Bike Path that takes me to Long Beach. A few miles before Long Beach I have my first ‘where ya headed?’ experience from a guy on what looks like a motorized fixie. He’s just ridden the C&O trail along the Potomac (remember from Days 1, 2 and 3 of HBC 18?) and is also the first ‘Florida…?’ with an implied ‘why Florida?’ We ride together for a bit and then he’s gone.
Long Beach is familiar, too. If you’ve run a marathon in a particular city, the areas you traverse get burned into your brain. I think I ran the Long Beach marathon in 2011 and had one of the biggest attitude turnarounds I’ve ever experienced during a race. I had been running at my desired pace and then hit a wall. At like mile 9. I was devastated that I was already experiencing a breakdown until mile 13 when there was a literal turnaround along the beach path (that I was riding on today!) and only then I realized that I’d been running into the wind. (I don’t know how I didn’t realize this at the time, but I sincerely didn’t. I was only focused on my pace.) With the wind at my back, I blithesomely (!) ran the course, until mile 22 when it became miserable, because it always does by that point. I also ride by where my first I attended my very first Pride festival, fka Long Beach Gay Pride—back in 1990. I wasn’t quite out yet. As a canvasser for the California League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit that monitored the environmental voting records of California politicians, we were sometimes asked to canvass for other organizations. We were hired out to what was then known as the Human Rights Campaign Fund (now Human Rights Campaign, I believe) to collect signatures for something HIV/AIDS-related. That day is not only emblazoned on my brain as my first pride festival but also because of my 21-year-old know-it-all-ness when approaching gay guys for signatures and when I got rebuffed sniped a few times something to the effect of “Don’t you care about AIDS?” Ughhhhhh. To now think of the men I was approaching—in 1990, no less—whose lives were completely and utterly upended and ravaged by the AIDS epidemic killing all their friends and they were just there to have a good time and maybe not think about hard shit for a few hours and here was this twerp guilting them into signing a petition for which he was getting paid a dollar per signature, I wanna pretend this never happened. I can forgive myself for being so completely and utterly ignorant and naive. My brain wasn’t totally developed. But I won’t ever forget it.
Just before the Orange County line, I eat lunch at a Whole Foods in Naples, which I guess is a fancy LB hood. They have a salad bar! A real one. I know that my days of blithesomely (!!) consuming fresh produce are numbered so I take full advantage and get going again. I cross into the OC and soon am reminded of the Surf City marathon as I hit Huntington Beach which I ran with my friend Michael (aka Bubbles) in 2014, I think. Like Long Beach’s beachy/touristy area, Huntington’s is pretty empty. On the first post-autumnal equinox Monday, summer is really over. Next is Newport Beach. Route takes me away from the seaside up into a super-tony, hilly neighborhood where the owners of the yachts I saw along the ocean likely reside. A perfectly appointed middle school I pass looks as if only good things happen there which has never been my opinion when espying a middle school.
I am back near the beach on Coast Highway/CA 1 (or ‘cah-one’ as the Ride with GPS app robot lady pronounces it) at Corona del Mar and on a bike path again through Crystal Cove. It’s nice to be viewing the Pacific without oil tankers in the distance or sewage treatment plants or giant utilities. Except for the climb from the Downtown LA area to the east side, this is the hilliest part as I rise and descend into my destination of Laguna Beach where I’m staying with Ryan (aka Farmer Leo—yes, he’s a farmer and a Leo), a warmshowers* host and two other cyclists who are heading to the Mexican border from the Canadian. My first day, their second to last. Ride with GPS always routes you along bike-specific streets or paths which is generally great but the bike route above Laguna, when you get into town, has some short, very steep climbs that I remember from staying there last summer for a pandemic getaway weekend I took. It’s hard on my Day 1 knees but I’m blithesomely (!!!) determined. Well, not really blithesomely (!!!!), more like resigned.
[*Can we get the titters out of the way re: warmshowers? It’s a community of bicycle tourists and those who support them, according to their website. It’s basically couchsurfing for cyclists, not something dirty, in a good way or a bad way. Yes, the name brings up—shall we just say it outright?—PISS PLAY. Or whatever your specific subculture calls it. The name not only evokes whatever it evokes for you, it’s also a dumb name and the topic of many, many discussions I’ve had with many, many people for the last 12 years. Let’s all agree to let this go. And move on. This is coming from someone with the last name Getzoff. What is funny is that I met a couple of guys the very next day who were on a century (100-mile) day-ride. I gave them my Handlebarconfessional.com business card and one of them reads my name and says, “Hey, where do you gets off?” I haven’t heard that specific line for, I dunno, maybe decades. Even as a kid, the non-grammaticalness of that construction vexed me. WE. GET. IT.)
Ryan greets me enthusiastically, congratulating me for having made it through Day 1. After spending the day alone, endorphins (aka endolphins, to some) raging, I babble his ears off. He’s set out beautiful snacks in the sweet dining area of his lovely house that is so eclectic and beachy and cool with zero pretentiousness. And welcoming. Ryan is a consummate host. He loves having people over. He lives for it! One night he had NINE cyclists crashing in his two-bedroom, one-bath cottage that also sports a yard with a vegetable garden for which he has big plans. “The dirt feels so nice under my bare feet,” I say. “I just raked it,” Ryan replies. I think I would find raking dirt very satisfying. (Now all of a sudden ‘raking dirt’ sounds like a double entendre.) Too bad it was so recently raked or I would have asked to do it.
The other cyclists arrive soon after I’m done showering. Ron, who works as a consultant for a pharmaceutical company (he’s curing cancer!), lives in San Diego. He started this ride (he’s done many) at the Canadian border and picked up his buddy (and former tennis partner for years when they both lived in Indianapolis) Vic, an electrical engineer and avid cyclist and someone with a particular tic that I adore: he laughs uproariously at his own jokes. He reminds me of my friend Ross.
In addition to his general elan for hosting and entertaining and growing produce, Ryan is also an accomplished cook, having worked in restaurants while learning to farm up in northern California. (Unsurprisingly, he went to UC Santa Cruz, like me but graduated several years later, so we missed each other.) Ryan’s partner Nathan arrives as we are devouring the incredible meal, ravioli, roasted veg, and sausage (all stuff from Ryan’s farmer’s market buddies), and chocolate chip cookies he’s made and all these fantastic grapes one of which is a Thompson-Concord hybrid (ha, I can’t believe I remembered that detail, didn’t write it down – but was it Thompscord or Concson? Hmm. I think the former). An architect who has designed a ton of stuff (buildings that I actually know of!), Nathan is witty and reserved and after hearing of my nonprofit professional experience throws out a few names in the hope that we have a mutual friend. It doesn’t happen, but I vow to keep trying. I’ve crashed from the endorphins by now, and I’m barely keeping up, doing that thing where I laugh in the correct places but a little too loudly to make up for the fact that I’m fading. Soon we’re all retiring. I get the couch which is roomy and very comfortable. It’s also a bit nippy out. Better enjoy it. Who knows when I’ll ever be cold again? (Spoiler: sooner than expected.)