The victory of defeat
September 8, 2022 Comments Off on The victory of defeat
I’ve found myself in plenty of difficult situations over the last forty years, but I’ve never stopped to beg a ride. Yesterday I sure wanted to.
I left camp at 4:00 AM. The heat was supposed to reach 114, my 50-mile route had a 23-mile climb, the last thirteen of which were brutal, and there was no way my legs or my water would last without an unusually early start.
I had a taillight but no headlamp, it was pitch black and felt like a real-life video game with only one life. I could barely make out the center stripe and put my faith in dumb luck, heart in my mouth.
I covered the first twenty miles in ninety minutes, a terrifying but exhilarating ride beneath the stars. When the climb began I knew that I still hadn’t recovered from the climb up into Sequoia National Park several days before. My legs ached, and as the sun rose I couldn’t focus on the beauty and instead began telling myself, “Just keep pedaling. Just don’t stop.”
The last two miles up and over the pass took half an hour and when I crested the top I shuddered, pleased with the effort and utterly drained. The remaining seven miles were all downhill to Springville and breakfast. It’s a good feeling sitting down to breakfast knowing you’ve already knocked out a 5-hour ride, but not such a great feeling when, after breakfast, you’re just as destroyed as you were before.
The next leg was another terribly bitter, 16-mile climb up to Camp Nelson, far steeper than the climb I’d just done. I slept for a couple of hours in the park, and remounted. As I’d feared, the food and rest had done nothing. A hundred yards in I was struggling, and after an hour in the blistering heat I stopped, five miles completed, at the Lower Coffee Camp recreation area on the Tule River.
I flopped down on my mat and slept. Then I heard a voice. “Excuse me, sir?”
I turned over and opened my eyes. A smiling man about my age was standing over me with a plate of food. “My wife said you looked hungry.” He held out the plate, which was filled with chicken, bread, and potato chips.
“Oh my gosh, thank you. I’m starving.” I accepted the gift.
“My name’s Juan,” he said. “I wash dishes down at the casino. We don’t have much but we’re happy to share.”
I thanked him profusely and wolfed down the food. Then I got in the river and swam over to where he and his wife were sitting. I thanked them both again.
“No need to thank us,” she said. “We’re blessed by God and just passing on his blessings. It makes us happy to share.”
I told them that in my many travels I had only been offered food by strangers once before. “I used to be homeless,” Juan said. “Can’t nobody live without help from other people. We all need help sometimes. I just put my trust in God and try to live day to day. We don’t none of us know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
I choked up and looked away.
The night was cooler, the full moon was out, and the river roared over the rapids. I wondered if I’d be able to make the final eight miles up to Camp Nelson.
I got up at five and was riding by 5:30. My legs couldn’t get started. The road got steeper and by Mile 6 I was walking. I heard a car approaching and stuck out my thumb. Two guys on the way to a construction site pulled over.
“You okay, bud?” the driver asked. “You don’t look so good.”
“I could sure use a ride up to Camp Nelson.”
“No problem.” They put my bike and gear in the back and I climbed into the bed. As we swerved around the ever-steeper curves, I knew there was no way I’d have been able to ride in this condition. It struck me that the people on this trip who had immediately come to my aid were hard-working people with little money, as if there’s a correlation between a hard life and empathizing with others who are in a bad way.
We got to the cafe in Camp Nelson and unloaded. “Get some rest,” the driver admonished.
Profuse thanks don’t describe what I offered but it’s close.
I had hot coffee, lots of milk, and a huge omelet. I can’t say it erased the ignominy of quitting, but it sure as hell came close.