Being Alive 1997 May 5: 4
This is our fourth installment of Chris Griffin's record of his
training and participation in the California AIDS Ride, which
kicks off on May 31: 525 miles, from San Francisco to L.A.,
over the course of seven days.
Straddling my bike I look up into the foothills, my eyes
following the road as it steadily rises, curves and vanishes
behind a ridge. Uphill. Ever uphill. No respite. No leveling
out, no plateauing. This road I've chosen to train onthe road
that eventually leads up to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramwayis
no ride in the park. In just over four miles it rises over 3000
Having become aware recently of the need to accustom my body to
the particular rigors of climbing hills, I have committed to
scaling these four miles of unrelentingly ascending roadway.
Since most of my training here in the desert has been on
relatively flat terrain, I know I must challenge my body with
this radical ascent if I want to be ready for the variety of
topography I'll encounter on the actual Ride.
The sun is already blazing: 82 degrees and it's only 7:30 in
the morning. I take a swig from the water bottle, attach the
clips in my shoes to the clips in the pedals, and propel myself
forward into the climb.
I've been deep into training mode now for several weeks. The
thrill of adventure, the uniqueness of this endeavor has worn
off. My training now has taken on a nearly zenlike sameness,
and requires a determinedly focused discipline. My long rides
now measure 75 miles and up, six-plus hours, which is a hell of
a long time for one's butt to sit on a bicycle seat.
Long before my muscles or my wind give out, my butt is
screaming for relief. I have learned to stretch my thighs and
gluteus muscles without stopping or dismountingstanding tall on
the pedals, lengthening my thighs, arching my back, extending
my lower torso up and back. But even this brings only temporary
relief. This cycling venture has brought whole new meaning to
the phrase "a pain in the butt."
Within five minutes of beginning the uphill climb my body is
sweltering from the effort. Sweat breaks out on my forehead,
glistens the skin of my arms and legs. No shade, no rest, just
the relentless uphill road and the heightening sun. In the
lowest of gears I manage to advance, foot by arduous foot. I
must buckle my mind down into my body's effort, and buckle my
body to the rhythm of forward movement. All my senses rise in
rebellion, yet the pedals must go round. Lean into it. Keep it
going. Move on. My brain is suffused with exertion-engendered
endorphins; I enter into a kind of blazing delirium, aware of
pain yet somehow separate from it. Leaning into it. Keeping it
going. Moving on.
I lie in the hospital bed, hooked up to IV Bactrim to fight the
pneumonia (May 1993). My throat and chest rasp with pain, but
worse still is the steady, dull, deadening throb in my head and
sinuses: a pulse of pain deep behind my eyes, recurring with
each beat of my heart, an ache so deep and central as to
disrupt all sense of place and time, annihilating everything
except the constant, relentless, merciless repetition of pain.
I cannot sleep. And resistance is futile. All I can do is try
to enter into the rhythm of the pain, move and swell and
subside with it, fused as it were to the very agony I wish to
escape. Make the pain not a feeling but a thing, and tune
myself to it. Time, I pray, will alleviate this torture. For
the moment, this pain is all there is, the only reality I am
conscious of. Pulsing, then pulsing again, coming around, ever
again and again. Lean into it. Move on with it. Be in it.
After what seems like hours (and in actuality may have been), I
pass into merciful sleep.
My breathing, while labored, is steady and sure, timed to the
cycle of my pedaling. Occasionally a single car will race by,
or a fly buzz my head, but otherwise I am utterly alone. The
sun, now higher in the sky, bakes. I'm covered in sweat, but an
exhilarating elation strengthens my resolve. I think of
dismounting, taking a break, but commit instead to pushing the
envelope, propelling myself even deeper into the labor,
hunkering down into it, leaning into it as far as I'm able.
I'm not even half way there yet.
Steve and I bonded to each other through our illness. When we
met (June 1994), we intuitively sensed that we were on parallel
paths, about equal distance along the aids road to disaster. We
had similar coping strategies, among which was a desire to be
unblinkingly honest about the realities of our experience with
aids. We counted on each other to be there, no matter what
horror came our way. He steadied me when my CMV hit and I
became a visible casualty, my PICC-line catheter right there in
my arm for all to see, supposedly to stay there as long as I
might live. He would tell me of the agony of his KS
We shared bouts of malaise, candida, nausea, wasting, anxiety.
We'd sit outside at the Abbey and talk it all through. He was
one of the few people with whom I could speak directly and
unflinchingly about my fears of physical devastation and death.
And we gained strength through our connection, even a kind of
superstitious power: as long as the other was there, going
through it too, things could be endured (and perhaps even
survived). Despite intermittent setbacks, we were managing our
diseases just fine. Both of us still went to the gym, still got
out into the world, went to movies, ate out, did our best to
Steve woke in the early hours one morning last year, not able
to breathe. He managed to call 911, paramedics rushed to his
apartment, got him into the ambulance. He died on the way to
the hospital. Just like that. Unexpected and unanticipated. Out
like a light. A life extinguished, and my friend and talisman
One month later the first protease inhibitor became available.
Within four months two more protease inhibitors had been
Sixteen months later I am biking up a brutal hill.
I am hurting now. I've been into this uphill ride for about an
hour now, and can tell from my computerized odometer that I've
got another mile and a bit to go. I'm flagging. I need to set a
goal. I look ahead and I can see four telephone poles lining
the road before it vanishes over a crest. I tell myself simply
to get to the last pole, then I can take a break. Keeping at
it. Pedaling on. Breathing in, breathing out, transcending the
pain and fatigue through sheer will. I will do this. I will
carry on. I will make it to that last pole.
I am about halfway between the third and fourth pole when I
round a ridge and see that what I'd thought was a line of four
poles is actually a line of six. There are two more poles
before the phone lines veer off to the left and out of sight.
Agony. This is some kind of cosmic joke: just when I thought
I'd gotten there, I hadn't. Having committed to making it to
the last pole, I make myself persevere to the sixth.
I make a mental note for the future: The last may only appear
to be the last. The end may only seem to be the end.
I cannot understand how it is that I can do this. A little more
than a year ago I was unquestionably on the downward spiral
toward death, and now, protease inhibitor enhanced, I am biking
75 miles at a clip, or scaling the brutal heights of this
ever-ascending road. I grasp the scientific and medical
realities of the new treatments, but this empirical knowledge
cannot help me fathom the more profound metaphysical
perplexities. Such as how or why it is I have managed to
survive the plague long enough to benefit from these new drugs.
Or how or why it is that I did not die in the first wave, as
did so many of my friends and sex partners and drug buddies, or
even in the second or third or fourth or fifth waves. Or how or
why it is that these new drugs actually work, and work
powerfully, for me, when for many others they prove to be
intolerable or ineffective. My speculations center on genetics,
viral strains, attitude, even the grandiose and somewhat
narcissistic notion of destiny. But nothing can truly explain
what is, at base, unexplainable. The mystery is a mystery, and
will be with me as long as I live.
At last I see the top of the road, where the Aerial Tramway
station sits wedged into the canyon. With renewed energy I make
my way up to the crest, coast to a stop and, thankfully, lift
my butt off the saddle and dismount. I sit in the shade, gulp
down water, eat a Powerbar, cool off, relax, enjoy my success
at scaling this height. It's 9:30 a.m., there's no one around,
it's strikingly quiet and still. My heart is beating
vigorously, my leg and ass muscles are rock-solid, my mind is
clear and energized.
As I sit there alone I think it all over. I know that I do this
training, exert this energy so as to forcefully reclaim my
physical life from the devastation of aids. And to remember and
honor Steve. And Dan and Jay and Chris and Doug and Greg and
Marvin and all the others who were slaughtered by this vile
epidemic, who did not make it this far. All of us have been in
essence pioneers, blazing a trail through uncharted territory
rife with ineffable pain and mortal danger. Those of us who
have survived to this promising day owe it to those who fell
along the way to continue on the pioneering trailto not turn
back to safety, convenience and ease, but to forge ahead into a
new and as of yet undefined future. I fight this brutal hill as
a formal gesture in my struggle to define anew my miraculously
Three thousand feet below me, the desert valley stretches in
the morning light out to the far hills of Joshua Tree National
Park, which in turn then stretches on out to infinity. I know
that soon, after this brief rest, I will climb back on my bike
and be streaking down this hard-won hill, effortlessly flying
through space, sailing through the canyons, across the ridges,
swooping down the slopes of God's good creation. The pain of
the morning's effort will give way to the pleasure of downhill
speed. And I will, once again, be utterly grateful for these
daysand this mysteryI never thought I'd have, and that are now,
Funds raised by the California AIDS Ride benefit The L.A. Gay
and Lesbian Center and its aids-related services, including the
Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinics and the Pedro Zamora Youth
HIV Clinic. If you wish to make a contribution, please sends
checks payable to the California AIDS Ride to The Center, PO
Box 2955, Los Angeles, CA 90051 or to Being Alive, Attn. Chris
Griffin, 3626 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028.