Being Alive 1997 Apr 5: 2
This is the third in the Newsletter's series of Chris Griffin's
journal entries documenting his training and participation in
the California aids Ride, taking place the first week of June:
525 miles, from San Francisco to LA, over the course of seven
I'm pedaling out toward Highway 64, but the wind is too fierce.
I have to lean into the gusts just to avoid being blown off the
road. Dark threatening rainclouds envelop the mountains off to
the west, and every now and again light pellets of rain spit
into my flesh. Going further seems madness, but, not wanting to
abort my ride, I turn my back on the storm and head toward the
less clouded east. Dillon Road will take me through the arid
ramshackle downtown of Desert Hot Springs; beyond that I don't
know, but I can see in the far distance that it continues on
into the eastern hills and beyond. I figure it will eventually
lead me to Sky Valley and Thousand Palms, where I'll be able to
find my way home. I decide to adventure it. With the wind and
rain now at my back I pedal off into untried territory.
Soon I'm biking up a long slow grade, the storm far behind. I
can see that the road keeps climbing a good three or four miles
ahead of me. I begin to wonder if I should turn around, go back
home the way I came. I stop at a dusty roadside market for
water, learn from the Japanese shopkeeper that this road
eventually leads to the much-too-distant Indio, but that there
is a cutoff about half way which will lead me down to Thousand
Palms and Ramon Road, familiar territory. I decide to continue
The grade keeps climbing, much farther and higher than I
expected. In time I reach the summit, which provides a
commanding view of the entire stretch of the Coachella Valley.
I can see all the way from the Salton Sea in the southeast to
Palm Springs in the west. And then the road starts down again.
Down for what seems forever. No traffic, no town, no stop signs
or stop lights, no people or enterprise at all, just me and my
whizzing bike and the silent, still desert stretching off on
all sides as far as I can see. Thirty-five miles per hour,
smooth sailing, exhilarating. Laughing right out loud from the
fun of it. Then I dip down into the National Wildlife Reserve,
still racing downhill, past the old palm-ringed oasis, through
mini-canyons of ancient stone. No cars, no people, just me on
this old two-lane blacktop and the natural world in all its
This is what I bike for, this solitary adventure into marvelous
terrain. I calculate that by the time I get home I will have
done 46 miles, more than ever before.
Two days later I come down with the flu.
Ten days of wheezing coughing sneezing misery. Strep throat.
Piercing pain in my lungs when I cough. I fear bacterial
infection, in my sinuses, in my lungs. My T-cells may be
protease inhibitor enhanced, but nevertheless all my old fears,
of bacterial pneumonia, of PCP, of whatever, return.
I am revisiting my aids persona. Being sick again. Being
housebound. A shriveling of my experience of the world. A
tendency toward isolating. Being unwell.
It's almost exactly a year since I stopped feeling sick. Since
the ingestion of Crixivan brought a new vitality to my entire
system, felt in the very tissue and sinew of my body. Since the
upswing in my T-cells and the suppression of my viral load led
me to imagine this future-riding in the desert-that I never
thought I would have. It's been so long now that I rarely even
think of myself as sick anymore, despite the daily intake of no
fewer than 28 pills. How quickly has vanished an entire way of
being-person with aids, person with nearly zero T-cells, person
with diminished expectations, person out of time, person with
surgically-implanted catheter, daily infusions of IV drugs,
sporadic bouts with nausea, chronic pain, intermittent
colonoscopies, person staring awfully into the dark region of
How quickly-and easily-I have forgotten the specific feel of
such a life and embraced its very opposite. A year ago I was
increasingly feeling the tug of mortality, a gradual yet
irreparable diminution toward finality. But over the last
half-dozen months, this feeling has been replaced by a magnetic
urge toward vigorous living, a physical embrace of even the
smallest of daily events-vaccuming the house, taking a shower,
brushing my teeth.
I check my temperature hourly, but, mercifully, there is no
fever. I realize this is nothing but a nasty, vicious flu bug.
I may feel like death warmed over, but I realize that this will
pass, that good hearty health will return, that this sickness I
am experiencing is, unlike my experience with aids, simply a
minor (if debilitating) annoyance. I am "sick" the way normal
people (i.e., people without a terminal illness) are "sick": a
momentary inconvenience, tempered by Theraflu, cured by time.
This is very odd. The one thing you could never do with aids is
hunker down and wait it out. Lie on the couch feeling miserable
but know that it was simply a matter of time until you would
feel better again and the sickness would be gone. No such
assurances were possible with aids. The next day could (and
often did) bring something worse than the day before, and time
was, if anything, the enemy, each tick of the clock bringing
you closer to the inevitable.
For many of us who have made it this far, this is what has
changed so dramatically. Time, it seems, may be our friend
Don calls me. He tells me that none of the protease inhibitors
have worked for him. That regardless of which one he takes, his
T-cells keep falling and his viral load stays up in the 200,000
range. We have discussed this before, concluding that his
particular strain of the virus must be extraordinarily
virulent. He has been trying nevirapine in combination with
other antiretrovirals. He will go on nelfinavir now that it has
He is, naturally, rather shaken by the failure of the drugs to
suppress his virus.
My own good fortune, which sometimes seems as wide as the
world, now feels narrow, withered, tightly constrained. Time
goes on ticking, and Don can only dreadfully imagine where it
I am biking back home along Indian Avenue, a two-lane stretch
of flat highway cutting through the barren desert between Palm
Springs and I-10.
After twelve days of being knocked flat by the flu I am back
out on my bike again. The air is thick and warm. I'm conscious
in my breathing of damaged tissue in my lungs and nasal
cavities, but otherwise I feel altogether restored.
Suddenly, whhrrrcackkk! Some kind of enormous blast behind me.
I turn to see an eighteen-wheeler barreling down upon me,
rocking wildly out of control, one of its tires burst and
unraveling, whipping bits of rubber and casing as the truck
careens ever closer to me. All I have time for is to grip
tight, hold my breath, brace myself for collision. The semi
hones in on me, I can feel it thundering toward my back, then
it speeds past no more than a foot to my left, brakes
screeching, road dirt and exploded tire debris whizzing past my
face and arms and legs. Something hisses by my left arm; large
pieces of tire and steel-radial wire blow across my path and
behind me, stinging into the sand to my right. The air becomes
choked with dirt and dust as the truck struggles to slow. A
hundred yards beyond me it finally manages to come to a stop.
I pedal on. I am miraculously untouched. I pass the stopped
eighteen-wheeler, trying to control my shaking hands and legs.
For half a second and with great irony I have seen my new
obituary: "PWA Killed While Training for AIDS Ride." I survive
years of aids-17 years of hiv infection-only to get annihilated
in a split second by the proverbial truck.
In time, my nerves settle. In time, I make my way home.