Sherri and I eventually got back together. I don’t remember the specifics other than a lot of crying and the appearance of a little stuffed purple dragon on the hood of the Quincymobile. I’m a sucker for a kind gesture.
That’s actually at best false bravado and at worst an outright lie. I did her no favors by accepting her kind gesture. No, I thrive on the tiniest display of affection. Kindness is like sunlight to me, and without it I’m lost in absolute darkness. Self-doubt hovers in that bleak night like death, waiting for any opportunity to wrap me in its shroud.
Recently I was talking to a friend about the death grip in which self-doubt holds me sometimes. We were talking about the piece I wrote juxtaposing Woodstock with the protest my twelve year-old daughter organized. To my eye it was a solid piece, maybe not a home run but at least a stand up double. But the data disagreed — traffic was no great shakes, not too many shares, etc.
“It’s harder when you think you’ve made a good thing and it falls flat,” I said. “I think I create platypuses. People who want to read about Woodstock don’t want to read about my kid, and vice versa. I’ve created with Why It Matters exactly what the experts warn against. It doesn’t fit into a neat category — not a music blog, not a memoir. It’s a platypus.”
I moped for a few seconds. “But you know what? Those Woodstock pieces are the ones that feel right to me. When I luck into one of those I feel like I’ve made a good thing. I need to stop worrying and learn to trust the platypus.”
But at age seventeen the mope never lasted just a few seconds. No, the good thing I made with Sherri and then walked away from gnawed at me. She was kind and adoring; she had such absolute faith in me. I had no idea what about me was worthy of a stuffed purple dragon, but if she could see it then it must be there.
Summer came quickly after that, and with it time for my blue Pinarello and me to make the beach ride for which we’d spent spent months training. Lee G. and Matt volunteered to support me by driving along the route with our luggage, spare tires, tools, and water bottles. At the end of the road lodging awaited us, arranged for us by Lee G.
The day before we left I drove over to Camelot Music to get my paycheck. Steve the Manager called me into his office, offered me a seat among the stacks of promos. He reached under his desk and grabbed an album. “I want you to have this,” he said, and he handed me a promotional copy of The Fixx’s Reach The Beach.
He may as well have handed me an Oscar, the keys to the Space Shuttle, a stuffed purple dragon. I looked at the emaciated figure on the cover, pulling himself from the nothingness with his last bit of strength.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I said.
“Yes you can, and when you get back we’ll sit right here and you’ll tell me all about your ride.”
Always trust the platypus.
The next morning I set out in the dark two hours before Lee G. and Matt took to the road in the Quincymobile, my parents’ 1977 Ford LTD station wagon. The Pinny and I rolled down Rainbow Lakes road in the moonlight. There was no danger — we knew every turn and pothole in that road, and no cars were out at that hour. We turned right onto Highway 11 and headed toward Gaffney.
The only sounds that morning where the whirr of the Pinarello’s freewheel and the soundtrack playing in my head. Tangerine Dream’s “Cloudburst Flight” repeated note for mental note, waiting to greet the sunrise. The Risky Business song. The making love with Sherrie on the stairs song. She believed I could make it to the beach, too.
Twenty miles in I was stopped by a passing freight train. The beast stretched forever, crawled past slower and slower. Finally it came to a complete stop, blocking the highway. I don’t know how long I waited, but I was afraid to cross between the cars. I knew as soon as the Pinny and I climbed halfway over its coupling the beast would jerk back to life and knock us both over. I wasn’t so much concerned about myself as I was the bicycle.
When my patience reached its limit I hopped over the coupling and got back to work. There was a lot of road to cover still, a long way to go to make a good thing.
The sun was coming up now in the most inglorious way: no dramatic rays of light, just the impression of someone slowly turning up the dimmer switch. God’s little secret — the heavenly rheostat. Tarney-Spencer’s “No Time To Lose” popped into my mind and out through my lips. Every day I walk through shadows / I know not what it is I’m looking for…
A car behind me honked and my middle finger flew up. The driver slowed next to me and the passenger window descended.
“We thought you’d be farther.”
“Got stuck behind a train.”
“You need water?” Lee G. hung out of the passenger window and took my empty water bottle. “We’ll see you an hour down the road.” Matt honked the Quincymobile’s horn and I watched its taillights disappear over the hill.
The hill. Boiling Springs, South Carolina is located in the Piedmont — the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. As much as I’d ridden in the months leading up to that day I don’t think I once considered the number of hills standing between the beach and me. Matt and Lee G. pulled twenty miles ahead of me after that first water break. Twenty miles per hour seemed like a reasonable assumption, and it would’ve been if not for the hills. I came in at maybe an hour twenty, bone dry and cramping from the climbs.
“You doing okay?”
“Let’s just get this over with,” I said, and I jammed the fresh bottle into the Pinny’s water bottle cage.
“Somebody’s grouchy,” Matt yelled. I waved, sort of, and kept pedaling. When they passed me Lee G. yelled, “We’ll only go fifteen miles ahead this time.”
Manfred Mann’s “Runner” lodged itself into my grouchy mind. I’m not sure why, probably because it was about a guy pushing against his own body. It didn’t really matter why. All that mattered was that it was a welcome distraction over the next fifteen miles.
The summer heat and humidity crept up on sweaty cat feet. Up ahead the Quincymobile shimmered, and behind it Lee G. waved his arms and hooted “C’mon, boy!” in his best good old boy voice. He paced me for a few steps and we made the bottle swap.
“I can’t do this,” I grunted.
“Just go!” Matt yelled from the driver’s seat. I flipped him off and kept pedaling.
No music entered my mind over the next hour, only the sounds of my heartbeat, my short breaths struggling with the humid air, and the specter of self doubt panting on my pink neck. The Pinarello creaked and my cramping quads felt like cement and whose stupid fucking idea was this anyway?
That’s when I realized that I had bonked. To bonk is to cyclists what hitting the wall is to runners. It’s the moment when one’s energy stores are completely depleted; well, not completely. The victim’s mood is shot and his or her legs are leaden, but he’s still functional. Athletes have pushed well beyond this, driven themselves to such energy deficits that they lose control of their sphincters and their limbs draw up in a manner visually similar to any number of neuromuscular diseases.
In my nervous pre-ride state that morning I completely forgot to eat. That plus the hill work was a toxic combination. I didn’t want to fail, but I didn’t want to be found on the side of the road frozen in some sort of palsy attitude and covered in my own shit.
But I was out on the road alone, so I had no choice but to drag myself eastward toward the Quincymobile. Finally I spotted it just outside the limits of one of the quaintly identical small towns that decorated our side of the North/South Carolina border. I grabbed the Quincymobile, came to a complete stop. “I can’t do it.”
“Yes you can,” Matt said. “Just go.”
“No. I can’t. I have to eat and lie down.” He didn’t argue. We threw the Pinny into the back of the car and found a motel. I fell onto the bed fully dressed. “Wake me up in a couple of hours and I’ll get going again,” I said.
I slept restlessly. In my dreams my friends were laughing at me. I woke up just enough to realize that it wasn’t entirely a dream. “What’s so funny?”
“You are pedaling in your sleep.” Somewhere in there we ate something, but I don’t know what. Groceries. Fuel. Carbs to convert into glycogen. I fell back to sleep.
The clock read 5:00 a.m. when I woke again. I pulled on a fresh pair of shorts and a tank top and rolled the Pinarello through the room as quietly as I could. Across the parking lot rested a Burger King, so I pedaled up to the drive-thru and ordered a greasy croissant with cheese and death.
“Where’s your car?” the cashier asked.
“Don’t have one.”
“What are you doing out so early?”
“Riding to the beach.”
“That’s two hundred miles from here.”
“Hold on a minute. Debbie, come here. This boy is riding a bicycle to the beach.”
If felt good to get out of that little town and back onto a quiet stretch of highway. Sleep and food did the trick. The Pinny was purring and I was singing “Reach the Beach” and the long ribbon of asphalt unrolled before the both of us.
Three hours passed before I heard the Quincymobile honking behind me.
“Hey, Jim, how you feeling?”
“Why did you bastards let me sleep so long?”
“We couldn’t wake you up.”
“Now it doesn’t count.”
“The ride. Now it doesn’t count.”
“Shut up. You’re still riding all the way to the beach. We’ll see you in fifteen miles.”
Without portable music, cell phone, electronic distraction of any sort, being fully present was easy. I counted my pedal strokes, practiced riding perfectly parallel and just an inch from the white line. I listened to the insects singing in the fields and watched the Peidmont’s red clay give way to the sandier textures of the middle of the state. I constantly monitored the Pinarello, listening for clicks and creaks, and talked to her like the partner that she was.
A light rain began to fall just before we hit what turned out to be the last descent of the trip — a gentle downhill that looked to go on for a mile. I put the Pinny into a big gear and cranked hard, dropped my chest until it nearly touched the handlebars, my big nose jutting over the front brake, knees tucked in tightly.
A sedan pulled even with me, inside rode a couple who were maybe in their fifties. I motioned for the wife to roll down her window.
“How fast are we going?”
“He wants to know how fast we’re going. Fifty? We’re going fifty miles an hour,” she said.
“You’re going to break your damned neck,” her husband yelled.
“Get out of the rain, honey. You’re going to crash that thing.” But I wasn’t going to crash. I was seventeen and invincible; besides, my Pinny would never let that happen. She wasn’t even a bicycle anymore, just another appendage.
My water bottle was a little less than half full when I spotted the Quincymobile on the side of the road. I kept pedaling in order to quiet the Pinarello’s freewheel. Matt sat in the driver’s seat, window open, reading a comic book. I pulled the bottle’s cap open with my teeth, launched my grenade through the window, and sprinted away laughing. This was the game for the rest of the day, or at least until they threatened to stop giving me fresh water bottles.
Without the hills to deal with and with the day’s rain already past, the miles dropped away predictably. I ate lunch on the bike, kept the pedals turning. We hit some heavier traffic in Dillon, now known as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s hometown. Matt and Lee G. grew concerned about safety, so they decided to run interference through town. Matt turned on the Quincymobile’s hazard lights and drove a steady twenty-five mph while I drafted behind them.
We were almost across town before we were pulled over and stuffed into the back of a squad car. The cop turned and talked to us over the seat. “Just what in the hell are you boys doing?”
“Going to the beach,” Lee G. said.
“You being funny, boy?”
“No, sir,” Matt said. “Our friend here is riding his bicycle from Spartanburg to Myrtle Beach.
“That’s got to be 2-300 miles,” the cop said. “Why you want to do something like that?”
“Because it’s too far to walk,” Lee G. said.
The cop stared at him. The silence was deafening. “What’s he got to do with y’all obstructing traffic?”
“We just wanted him to get through town safely. There’s no shoulder,” Matt said.
“I could run y’all in right now,” he said, staring at Lee G.
I hadn’t said a word. All I wanted was to get out of his freezing cold cruiser and back on the bike. “It’s my dream to make this ride,” I said. “Haven’t you ever had a dream?”
He looked me in the eyes. His shoulders dropped slightly. “Hell yes, son. Everybody has dreams, but you boys can’t be obstructing traffic. I don’t want to spoil your dream, but y’all can’t be doing that.”
“We won’t anymore. We didn’t know.”
He let us out of the patrol car, and then he stopped traffic long enough for me to get the Pinny back up to cruising speed.
The terrain was flat for the rest of the way. It felt like the beach, smelled like the beach: humidity, coconut, and cocoa butter. My body wasn’t happy about the patrol car cool down — my quads and shoulders cramped, my neck and knees ached. My inner thighs had enough of rubbing against a fine Italian leather saddle for one day.
But I didn’t have a choice. The coconut and the cocoa butter and the girls who wore them were so close. I didn’t really care, though. The fight was between the road and me; between the body and the bicycle and whomever was kicking around inside my head now, reminding me what a worthless failure I was.
That little bastard is still rattling around inside of there. He’s loudest when I’m confident that I’ve made a good thing. You can’t do that. It’s been done. Nobody cares. You think you’re something special? You’re not. My life is half over and that little voice still stabs, jeers, goads, intimidates, undermines. And it still sounds like my father.
Maybe I’ll reach / I’ll reach the beach. I didn’t sing it so much as croak it, and then I laughed, or he laughed. I don’t know. Somebody laughed. The last couple of water bottle swaps occurred without levity.
“Last one, Jim. You’re almost there,” Lee G. said, and the Quincymobile rolled away for the last time.
Fifteen miles left. I was empty. Everything seemed gray. Hundreds of times I’d doodled a Rolls-Royce puttering along, spewing rainbows from its exhaust, my poor man’s homage to Heinz Edelmann’s Yellow Submarine. I imagined rainbows trailing the Pinarello’s rear wheel and penetrating the gray, relieving the pain and the boredom. Anything to make it stop. Anything to get it over with.
We crossed a bridge, the Pinny and I. It was the last bit of climbing we had to do. The liquor and the lust were all around us now, the primer-gray Camaros heading for the Strip. I spotted Lee G. at the head of a side street waving his arms frantically. I weaved through the Chevelles and the Firebirds to meet him. He ran down the block and I followed. The cheap beach motels fell away and there stood Matt, leaning against the railing of a small stairway.
And on the other side of these steps laid the wide, flat sands of low tide and the deep blues of the ocean and the dusky eastern sky. I pedaled the last hundred feet, bawling and screaming “I did it!” over and over. Matt turned away.
I grabbed the railing. Lee G. ran up behind me, winded. “I did it,” I bawled.
“Not yet. Come on, you have to touch the water. ” Matt held the Pinny and Lee G. held me as I wobbled across the sand. The warm ocean soaked my shoes. I stared at it — endless miles stretching well past the horizon. The ocean didn’t say anything: no talk, all action.
“I did it,” I repeated.
“Yeah you did,” Lee G. said.
Always trust the platypus.