When Joe Robinson got up on Sunday morning he was excited. Even though his riding partner had bailed on him — funny how the optimism of Saturday afternoon so often fails to carry through at 6:00 AM on Sunday morning — he awoke with ease. Shortly before seven, with the sun not yet risen above the hills outside Irvine, he rolled down the drive. By the time he got to Santiago Canyon Road the muscles in his lean, 21-year-old legs were flush with blood and his youthful lungs were sucking in the fresh morning air. The whole road was going to be his because of all the days in the year, none is more peaceful for cyclists than the morning of Super Bowl Sunday.
His excitement came from the intersection of several puzzle pieces in his life. Joe was excited to be on his bike because it had been three days since he’d ridden. His mother had a broken foot and he’d been helping her get around, run errands, and make the short-term accommodations you have to make with a foot injury. Being off his bike for three days had left him pent up and eager to pedal. He was excited because this early morning ride was the only chance he’d have to cycle before work. His job selling bikes at Jax’s in Irvine was hectic, and his Sunday shift would start at ten and last the entire day.
And he was excited because of the power meter. He’d just built up a power tap hub and couldn’t wait to see how his growing strength, and especially his climbing strength, translated into watts. He’d been cycling for a short time, but was already fully smitten, and his combination of enthusiasm, youth, long legs, and a rail-like build meant that he was gaining in leaps and bounds. He hadn’t said much about it, but any experienced observer could tell that it wouldn’t be long before Joe started racing his bike.
As it has for so many others, the discovery of cycling had begun the progress of putting structure, discipline, and confidence into the life of a young man who, like virtually every other 21-year-old, was still trying to make his way in the world. Since he’d begun cycling he had re-enrolled in college. The once sporadic scholar was now bringing home A’s with only the occasional B. He was a semester away from leaving business administration, a dull subject, for computer science, the area that he secretly loved more than any other.
Joe turned onto Santiago Canyon, having now climbed the rollers on Jamboree for a few minutes, and he breathed harder as his legs jammed the bike up the climb. He breathed with the freshness and strength you only have once, when your body is as young and resilient as it will ever be. Joe Robinson had the day and his entire life ahead of him, and it was good.
We’ll never really know exactly what happened, but one possible version of reality is this: The girl was scared. She and her friends had been partying hard at the pre-Super Bowl party. They had hit the beer and vodka and tequila until the wee hours, and even though she had stopped drinking long before sunrise, she was still drunk. A friend had offered her something to “pick her up,” and she’d taken it. It might have been meth, but she didn’t care. She took it and enjoyed the rough buzz that beat back, then overpowered, then comfortably mixed with the booze. She wasn’t scared anymore.
What she still cared about, though, was how she was going to get home. She knew that at age eighteen she couldn’t afford a DUI for a long list of reasons, but her route home took her directly through Irvine, a city that’s notoriously hard on drunks. She too had a full day ahead of her and the party was over and she had to get home. If she hurried she might make it before her parents were even up.
In her stoned and drunken state she figured it like this: Her biggest chance of getting nailed was on the highway. The CHP would be out looking for leftover drunks from last night, so better to take the surface streets. She did, and was pleased at her strategy. No cops anywhere. Best of all, she could avoid the freeway entirely by taking Santiago Canyon, which ran parallel to the highway but never had any traffic because cars preferred to take the faster freeway next to it. She pressed on the accelerator, bringing the car up to 55 mph on the narrow road.
It was 7:30. The sun had now crested the hills and was shining directly into her drunken, addled eyes. She could barely make out the edges of her narrow lane. “Fuck it,” she thought. “Why didn’t I put on my sunglasses?” She mashed harder on the gas, rushing towards her rendezvous.
The soul mate
Those of us who are old and who grew up before computers don’t really understand anything about youth, least of all young love. While we stare grumpily at our beer and complain to our friends about how “those damned video games have ruined this younger generation,” the younger generation is doing just fine, thanks very much. Sydnee Hyman was Joe’s girlfriend and they already recognized that they had found in each other a life partner.
It came about in the most 21st Century way you can imagine. Sydnee had been buried in a game of World of Warcraft as a high school student when Joe entered the fray. He was good, beyond good, and she sucked in her breath as the game unfolded. Then something odd happened. When two new, plainly inexperienced players entered the game, Joe did what expert video gamers never do. He started helping them.
In video gaming, as in road cycling, the new face often endures what can only be described as bullying. Locked behind her computer screen, Sydnee watched this expert player gently and with skill help a mom and her daughter learn the ropes. His warmth and his character were right there, for the entire world to see. Was she the only one who could see it? Sydnee had to know more about this guy. The spark from his gentle character had turned a remote video game player in Southern California into a person, and the spark did what it has been doing since the beginning of time. It brought together two strangers, a boy and a girl, and it transformed itself from a spark of curiosity into a cascade of love.
Sydnee was now majoring in biomedical engineering, and even though it was early in her academic career, she was a straight A student who knew she wanted to pursue a masters degree at Purdue once she finished her undergraduate studies, and ultimately a Ph.D. somewhere on the West Coast, closer to her family outside San Francisco. She and Joe were completely in love, and her trips from Indiana back home took on a new pattern. Rather than going straight across, her flights somehow detoured to John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa. She’d spend time with her life partner, usually a few days, before continuing on home to her family in Northern California.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, and while the other students were still in bed, Sydnee was already up, studying. It was cold and miserable outside, and she knew Joe was out riding in the warm California winter. She looked forward with warm anticipation to the phone conversation they’d have later that morning.
Brian got up early and headed in to work. The shop was going to be busy and they were short handed. He was glad that Joe, his star salesman, was coming in. Even though he normally worked three days a week during school, at Brian’s request he had agreed to log some extra hours. Brian thought about how lucky he was to have hired Joe, and he grinned as he remembered the day they’d met. Joe had come in and asked for a job. When Brian asked him about his qualifications for job in bicycle retail, Joe had smiled his characteristic smile and handed Brian a sales printout from the previous shop he worked at. “Wow,” said Brian. Joe’s best month had brought in $70,000 in sales. “You’re hired.”
Joe had only been with the shop since November, but he was already a fixture. The shop loved him because he sold bikes. The customers loved him because he didn’t “sell” bikes, he just talked with them about cycling and helped them get what they needed. He had a direct, honest gentleness about him that people instinctively trusted. These were the kind of employees you lucked out with, the rare gems who were dependable, hardworking, honest, friendly, and effective at what they did. As the clock got closer and closer to 8:00, Brian worked harder, mentally checking off all the tasks he had to finish before the doors opened at ten.
Things were moving quickly, but they were coming together, too.
Battalion Chief Mark Stone was mulling over the work that lay ahead as he drove towards Westminster and his Sunday shift. The career fireman reflexively scanned the hillside, noting the dry landscape. “We need rain,” he said to himself. That habit of seeing everything at once had been with him for as long as he could remember, and it showed itself in little ways, like when he took his family to the movies and, without thinking, noted the location of every single exit, noted any strange looking patrons, noted anything that stood out. His eyes glanced at the approaching car in the opposite lane. He had an instinct for finding whatever didn’t fit.
The oncoming car’s windshield was violently smashed on one side and the driver was hauling by at well over 60 mph. “She must have hit a deer,” he thought, wondering why the car hadn’t pulled over to call a tow truck. Now he was on alert, checking the roadside for an injured animal that might stagger out in front of his truck. At the same time, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. At the beginning of his commute he had seen several groups of cyclists. “I wonder if she hit someone?” he wondered. “Not possible. She would have stopped.”
His eye caught a shoe on the edge of the road, almost invisible in the dry grass. He swung over. “Not possible,” he thought again. There was nothing near the shoe, but he waded off the roadside into the scrub. First he saw the bike, then further, completely invisible from the road, he saw Joe. Mark touched the young man’s neck where his pulse should have been.
He set his jaw and raced back to his truck. Mark’s mental impression of the car with the broken windshield was one of complete recall. He got on his radio, and the CHP put out an all points bulletin. Shortly thereafter a police officer saw the car with the broken windshield in a parking lot, deserted except for two women, one of whom was frantically taking her things out of the damaged car and throwing them into the other car in an attempt, perhaps, to vanish, to claim the car had been stolen, and to place the blame for Joe’s death on a phantom “thief.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” he said.
Through the haze of drugs and alcohol, the owner of the smashed car started to sob.
Valerie Dubois didn’t know what to do, exactly. There was no way to rehearse, to practice, to prepare yourself for this. The third day after Joe’s death she stood in front of Jax’s Bike Shop, watching the assembled riders. She had been humbled by the thought that the shop was putting on a memorial ride for her son, and she’d expected a dozen or so riders to show up there at 6:00 in the morning in the middle of a work week. Now she looked out on a group of close to two hundred, a group that would swell once the ride began and riders joined en route to Joe’s ghost bike.
The CHP, the Irvine police, and the Orange police shut down every intersection as the group made its way out to the point on Santiago Canyon where Joe had been killed. Valerie could hardly believe the rolling police enclosure as the mass of cyclists rolled through the early morning commuter traffic. At 7:30, approximately the time that Joe had been hit, they reached the site of the ghost bike. Valerie made a brief speech to the massive crowd. Her voice shook as she thanked them. The warm morning light poured over the hilltop just as it had a few days ago. Most of the people there had never met Joe. They listened in silence, thinking the same thing: “That could have been my son, that could have been me.”
Valerie thought about other things above and beyond the things she said. Joe had been her youngest, and he had meant everything to her. His gentleness, his kindness, his joyful approach to life, his passion for cycling, all of these things washed over her. The unwritten rule of parents had been broken, of course: Thou shall not live to bury your children. But even that couldn’t erase in her mind what Joe had left behind: His reminder that a smile to someone having a rotten day matters. That the way we intersect with strangers gives the truest picture of who we really are. That Joe was her angel, and if he could see the people he’d touched standing in the morning sunlight, people he knew and people he’d never met, he’d smile his gentle smile and say “Remember me for this.”