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Being Alive

1997 AIDS Ride: A PWA Journal; The Final Entry




 

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 start.

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 day's ride.

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, the miles.

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 peace.

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 camp.) 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 ever been.

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 our lives.



 




Information in this article was accurate in July 5, 1997. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.