Being Alive 1997 Jul 5: 5
I am cycling out into the crisp morning air on Day 3 of the
California AIDS Ride.
We are somewhere between King City and Paso Robles. The
untrafficked road is mostly flat and straight, running through
a gorgeous stretch of California's rich fertile farmland.
I've been pumping hard for about ten minutes, which has sparked
an intense endorphin rush. My flanks feel like thick slabs of
horseflesh, pounding away at the pavement. Arched over the bike
I am both the jockey and the horse, and I ride with a steady
delirious joy, tugging on the handlebars as if to urge the
horse, my own muscled body, into a faster pace.
On either side of the long flat road tall oaks shadow the
course from the morning sun. Up ahead of me I can see a line of
perhaps 30 AIDS Riders stretching out through the valley and
off into the distance.
All at once the endorphins spark higher. On either side of each
Rider ahead of me I see apparitions of those they are riding
for, spirits of people who have died of aids, friends and
lovers and children and uncles and aunts and nephews and nieces
and fathers and mothers and countless unknown souls.
These spirits race along the road as well, spreading out from
each Rider's shoulders like wings, vectoring off into the sky.
For every Rider up ahead of me there are at least four spirits
at their shoulders. The entire valley is filled with the
healing energy of our momentum. For a brief second I imagine
that the force of this energy, this flow and breadth of
spiritboth living and deadcoursing down the length of the
State, might actually create a shift in our common destiny.
A typical morning in the life of one California AIDS Rider:
4:30am. The subtle but piercing pulse of the alarm clock eats
its way into my rather leaden sleep. I rouse myself and, with
the aid of a flashlight, I immediately locate my supply of
medications. I down two capsules of Crixivan, so as to give
them an hour to be metabolized before I eat anything. Then I
reach over and nudge into consciousness my tentmate Karla, who
has slept the night away with earplugs.
Outside a concerto of quiet alarms is waking other Riders,
accompanied by groans of still others who would just as soon
stay snuggled in sleep. Fourteen hundred tents identical to
ours are spread out across the campground. As the sun rises and
the morning progresses nearly 3000 people will wake, be fed a
warm breakfast, pack up their gear and face that day's route
through the State.
Everyone has his or her own style in the morning. Some like to
get up and out of the tent immediately, stagger to breakfast,
eat first, pack later. Others need only to sit at the breakfast
tables in a silent stupor and drink their morning coffee. Still
others prefer to sleep in a while and later make a casual
And then there are those of us who are like impatient
racehorses at the gate: we want to be out on the road the
minute our bikes are made available to us at 6:30am. We
therefore set alarms, turn in early, and wake from sleep ready
for immediate action.
So, in the pre-dawn dark and without a word, as quietly as
possible, Karla and I dress, pack our duffles, roll up our
sleeping bags, disassemble our tent, roll it and stuff it into
its bag, haul our gear to the gear trucks, and then make our
way to breakfast, where we eat a relatively light meal of
perhaps oat meal and yogurt and banana. If we're lucky we have
a successful bowel movement.
By 6:15 we are at our bikes. The morning air is bracingly
chilly. The sun has just cleared the horizon and radiates
bright golden light across the landscape, warming our faces and
hands. We towel morning dew from the saddles, stretch our
not-quite-wakened muscles, and greet the other 75 or so crazy
souls who are also chomping at the bit, eager to set out on the
At 6:30 one of the volunteer crew members announces the opening
of the route, and we are off. For the next hour and a half
thousands of cyclists will break their way into the morning air
and begin their traversing of this route.
Each of us is but a sole body on a single bike, and each of us
will have an intimately personal experience of the day's labor.
And yet the exhilaration is in the sharing: sharing the road,
sharing the determination, sharing the pain, the fatigue, the
inner resistance, the muscle cramps, the butt ache, the hunger,
Sometimes you ride alone for hours at a time. Others are ahead
and behind, but the exertion is a solitary endeavor. These
times can be gratifyingly meditative, giving you the
opportunity to turn inward without distraction while the body
goes on beating out its rhythmic pace, sometimes happily,
sometimes painfully. Other times you fall into cadence with
others, one or more strangers whose paths you just happen to
cross. Sometimes the riding is intensely private, at other
times it is a magnificently social affair.
A day's Ride is, therefore, an ever-changing phenomenon, a
kaleidoscope of various and disparate moments: intense and
deeply profound inner impressions regarding one's own life and
spirit, wildly funny or quietly meaningful interactions with
other riders or with crew, extraordinarily beautiful vistas of
California's great inner valleys or rugged coast, painful
exertion to scale a particularly difficult hill, the exuberant
joy of flying down that same hill's other side, hilarious
encounters with the many crew members in costume and drag,
quiet contemplative conversations over lunch or dinner, the
intense stillness of night...
The sum effect: the fusing of a profoundly private experience
with an intensely social one, creating a uniquely
all-encompassing whole, neither experience supplanting nor
dominating nor subsuming the other.
Up ahead of us a frighteningly long incline stretches to the
summit of a hill. We can see perhaps a mile of Riders ahead
slowly propelling themselves forward and upward.
There is nothing to do but forge on. The hill must be mounted.
No matter the legs and back ache, the head reels, the spirit
flags. Somehow or other one must dig into one's gut and find
the requisite inner resources of power to continue on. It is,
after all, just another hill. Not the first, and certainly not
the last. To power on is a lesson in determination and
perseverance and humility.
In reality, the courage required to complete the task is in
directly inverse proportion to the body's ability or
willingness to do it. The less capable the body, the more
courage and fortitude required.
It is not the speed or the agility of the climb that matters. A
slow, steady, even halting, painful and yet determined ascent
reveals a remarkable character. As does the willingness to set
out on this adventure in the first place.
Each Rider, alone with his or her body and bike.
Life lived in the moment:
The pain of ascent. The heat of the body as it struggles
against gravity and its own deficiency. The sleek sheen of
sweat. The hot breath, the burn of muscle. A cooling wind
arriving miraculously out of nowhere, tousling the hair,
rippling across the body. The fulsome inhalation of clear air
at a summit finally achieved. The breathtaking view from that
summit of an inner valley, cascading thousands of feet below
you, empty of cars and habitation and people, vibrantly still
under a sky heavy with dark clouds threatening rain. The
exchange between relative strangers, upon an isolated mountain
top somewhere in California, of smiles and knowing glances, of
shared confidences, of frank understandings, of congenial
respect and mutual happiness. The sheer elation of soaring down
that same hard-won hill. The hideous fight against the
afternoon head winds, coming late in the day when the weary
spirit desperately needs assistance and instead must grapple
with some new and harsh antagonist. The look of struggle, or
despair, or agony, or feared defeat, on Riders' faces, as well
as the more durable look of satisfaction, or joy, or even inner
Life lived passionately and vitally. Not without pain, but
through it and in harmony with it. What we might all wish for.
What we might all crave.
So many gods, so many creeds
So many paths that wind and wind
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.
(A poem, attributed to Ella Wheeler Wilcox, on a sign posted in
The unsung heroes of the AIDS Ride are the crew. This company
of 500 volunteers rises at dawn and works often until 7 or 8 at
night, making sure that the Riders' lives are made as
comfortable as possible. Two set-up crews, five pit-stop and
two water-stop crews, security, traffic control, medical,
chiropractic, massage, gear transport, tent transport, bike
tech support, and others we're not even aware of. It's an
amazingly large and complicated job, moving a small city of
3,000 down the length of the State over seven days, providing
showers and food and shelter and every other necessity of daily
life we never think about.
To sign on to crew the AIDS Ride is to commit to being of
service, no matter what the demands. So simple, and yet so
challenging. None of the hoopla involved with riding a bike
over 500 miles, none of the thrills and chills of the physical
ordeal. These guys have a much more difficult and selfless
responsibility: to serve the needs of others, hours on end, to
radiate invincible good will, to support and nourish and
promote the efforts of the Riders. Day in, day out.
Caught up as we Riders are in our own personal struggle to
survive the physical ordeal, these men and women are
experienced as guardian angels along the way, offering us
sustenance, filling our water bottles, serving us lunch,
directing us through traffic, tending to our aches and pains
and scrapes and hunger, and making us laugh.
I am struck by how different from my expectation is my own
sense of self on this Ride.
When I began preparing for the Ride, and all through the six
months of my training, never far from my consciousness was the
fact that not long ago I had been very sick from the effects of
aids. In June of 1996 I was diagnosed with CMV, I had but 8
T-cells, for nearly a year I lived with a "permanent" catheter
in my body and daily infusions of one drug or another, regular
blood transfusions, numerous bouts of candida, microsporidia,
nausea and lingering malaise, a wasting body which gruesomely
mirrored my sense of a diminishing life force.
Then Crixivan miraculously appeared to check the onslaught of
the disease, and to give my body a chance to regenerate its
severely damaged immune system. Training for the Ride (and
writing about it) became a highly personal undertaking. I was
on a mission, and each mile I biked and each hill I climbed
during training were part of this effort to reclaim my physical
being from the ravages of aids.
I expected that the Ride itself would be the culmination of
this process, the ultimate evidence that I had indeed regained
my health and vitality. A definitive triumph over adversity and
death. And of course it is. But as I move through these miles
and miles and these days and days and let myself feel the full
power of this communal endeavorthis shared common purposeI find
that my own bold struggle falls ever more behind me and
diminishes in importance and impact, and I feel something
wholly new opening before me: something as undefined as the
morning light or the afternoon wind, and just as real.
I've been pumping hard for about fifteen minutes now, and have
once again entered that heightened emotional space provoked by
constant physical exertion and elevated levels of endorphins.
I've gone beyond pain and labor, into some altered state of
momentum and flow. The body keeps pounding out the rhythm,
while the mind and spirit simultaneously soar inward and
outward. The beauty of the external landscape, of rolling hills
and towering oaks and fertile farmland, is drawn in to fuse
with my inner emotional landscape, creating a startling sense
of unity, integration. This exact moment, containing as it does
all time and all memory, is all there is and everything there's
Suddenly and surprisingly, as my muscles keep on pumping and
this body on this bicycle continues to hurtle down the road
into the future, I am overcome by uncontrollable sobs emanating
from my gut, wave upon wave of muffled memory and suppressed
agony and fear of death and benumbed grief. My own illness, all
its accompanying anxiety and heartbreak, all the others'
illnesses, years of disease, more than a decade of fright and
anger and hopelessness and deathall of this comes tumbling out
of me. All-encompassing grief then gives way to gratitudemy own
astonishing survival. And I still can't stop crying.
Eventually these waves pass. I regain my composure, and settle
into a quiet, even tranquil joy. Just to be alive, here, on
this road, among these trees and these hills and these valleys,
sitting on this bike, pumping these thighs, flying down this
road with the wind in my face and the sun at my back and my
life stretching out before me. Unparalleled.
I decide to take it easy the rest of the day. I slow my pace,
relax my effort. Another Rider comes up on my left, we say
hello and fall silently into stride with each other. We then
ride on through the countryside together for the next several
hours and countless miles, and casually tell one another about