The Wheel of Life: Biking with the Ghosts of AIDS

To donate to my Hill Country Ride for AIDS effort on April 30th, please email me at <ADudeAbikes AT gmail >

The Wheel of Life

It’s early morning on a cloudy Sunday in the Hill Country town of Dripping Springs, Texas.  Fifty cyclists trickle into the empty school parking lot slowly, as if arriving at a wake.  They spill out of Subarus and Priuses (Prii, my high school Latin teacher’s voice echoes from the past), weird clowns in brightly colored costumes, but tight and made of Spandex, shoes not floppy, clicking on the ground.  Aliens looking down would be perplexed by this bizarre parade.  Their faces still show signs of sleep, coffee tumblers clutched closely in hands that would soon be covered in fingerless gloves.  There was banter and hugging friends, and talk about the chance of rain, while mentally they were each preparing themselves for 22 or 44 miles of relentless pedaling up and down country roads.

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The Hill Country Ride for AIDS “Joy Ride”, they call their training outings.  But underneath the frivolity and anticipation of just another weekend sporting event being replicated around the world, an air of solemnity hung over this group.  Despite my staunch atheism I can’t help but shake an eerie feeling.  It’s as if the ghosts of people lost to that damn fucking virus — so many lives lost, and still without a cure — are also gathered in that parking lot with us.  Brothers, sisters, lovers, husbands, wives, partners, mothers, sons and daughters.  They were there, watching and waiting, their energy drawn to the event, simply by virtue of being remembered.  I imagine a silently cheer emanates from the ghosts of HIV victims past, urging the living riders to go on in their names.

“OK everybody, gather up!” the ride leader barks out, his chipper but bitchy drill sergeant’s voice carrying loudly over the conversations and traffic on highway 290.   He goes through his usual checklist:  “Point out crap in the road!” he shouts.  “Say ‘On Your Left’ when passing — and don’t wait til the last second!”  “There are some hills out here, but they ain’t too bad, don’t worry, we’ll all get home.”  Riders laugh, some nervously.  Then he bellows, “OK!  Where are my fast riders?”  I yell back, “Your FAT riders?” raising my hand.  The group laughs.  I smile, glad to provide some levity before the hurting begins.  Then it’s time for the speech from the director.  He reminds everyone to keep fundraising, which is why we’re here.  To help people live with HIV, not die from AIDS.  The riders seem to collectively sigh with an internal, “Yes, we know.”  The ghosts nod their silent assent.  Now it is picture time.  Then finally, it is time to go.  For most this was just a ride, but for me, make no mistake:  the race was on.

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Temple in Austin

The riders clip their shoes into their pedals, making that distinctive, satisfying click.  The guys training for 100 miles take off like a bullet from a shotgun with a silencer.   Foolishly, courageously, or both, I went with them, for one simple reason:   I had to pee again, and I didn’t want to get dropped.  But I also felt I had the legs, at least for a while.  I wanted to feel the burn.  Right away we’re crossing the highway, gingerly at first then quicker, moving down the two-lane road, single file.  Heart, legs and lungs were pumping in concert, speeds already surpassing 20 miles an hour.  The cool breeze stings my exposed skin and the sudden exertion sends a message to the muscles:  “WAKE UP!”  They scream back:  “But I’m not awake yet, slow down!”

It is better to travel well than to arrive.  -Buddha

But I don’t slow.  Instead, I speed up.  Just a little faster.  I shift another gear up, onto my big chain ring.  I hug the curves, leaning into them, somehow keeping pace with the speed demons.  Trucks and cars pass by within feet, and other danger looms with every pothole and piece of debris.  One wrong decision and down I’ll go, maybe getting some road rash or worse causing a pile-up and breaking a collarbone.  My day and all these weeks of 100 miles of training would be all for naught.  So I’m all concentration and perspiration.  The miles start ticking by — it is as if I am in a European road race but with no cameras or crowds.  The leaders stopped at a fork in the road to check the directions with the SAG car driver.  I pause to be sure I was on the right path but just fly by the meeting.  A Dude doesn’t take meetings on weekends..

Suddenly I am alone, leading the ride, taking my turn, or “pull.”.  “This won’t last,” I think, telling myself to “enjoy it while IMG_20160410_120841you can.”  So I keep pedaling, surging up a slight rise, around the bend, upping my speed even more, a mile per hour at a time, heart rate rising.  A quiet minute goes by, then another.  I start to tire.  Then I hear it:  the hum of a well-tuned $2,000 road bike coming up behind me like a tiger stalking its prey.  “There you are,” I say through puffs of breath to the well-oiled machine of a cyclist as he passes me by like I was standing still on the side of the road thumbing a ride.  “Have a nice ride!” I say cheerily but with an undercurrent of envy as he sails away from me.  The tall young man with long legs and 5% body fat and French name smiles but says nothing.  Another one with a bushy beard and muscles like a lumberjack comes by, and then another.  And then, like apparitions, suddenly they’re gone over a hill and around a bend in the Texas countryside.  It is as if the ghosts had become real and rode bicycles, if only for a moment.

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“There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos: A Work of Political Subversion” is a book by Jim Hightower

Humbled, I slow down out of necessity, having burned a match, and begin riding at a pace that allows me to finish the day.  I drink some hydration fluid and dip into my jersey for a snack.  I see a turn off and pull over for that long-awaited pee, most of the pack still behind.  I remount my trusty silver grey steed and others pass me, and while I pass some of them.  Sometimes we ride in a group, often alone.  The ride continues to unfold in this way, up and down, back and forth, with stories being written for each rider.  A chain comes off for one, a Spanish Cuban man who kindly took me to a previous ride.  I try to help him but can’t, and know the SAG wagon will come along.  Another breaks his bike fork from hitting a cattle guard too hard, and later I learned he had sadly separated his shoulder.  It could have been worse.  I could have been the desiccated armadillo that was in the road.  Or the living armadillo I later saw being eaten by a vulture.  The haunting Phil Ochs anti-war song lyric comes to mind:  “There but for fortune, go you, or I.”

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White goats in green trees under a grey sky

The scenery is lush from recent rains, with abundant flora and fauna.  Cows, goats, longhorn, dogs, horses and birds either see the parade of colors flash by or don’t notice and carry on with their business.  A scissor-tailed flycatcher avoids a photograph like a celebrity eluding a paparazzo.  A hawk takes off from its perch and flies next to me, mistaking me for possible prey, and then soars off.  But always, there are the hills asking travelers their timeless taunt:  “Do you want to go over me?  Well, DO you?!”  My response is an automatic, unthinking, if weakening “Yes!”  So I’m pedaling and braking, steering and shifting, sweating and swearing, breathing in, and breathing out.

The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius. -Sid Caesar

Then at the bottom of a hill, I see it:  Rest Stop #1.  “I made it!” I proudly congratulate myself.  Then I realize it’s only 25% of the ride.   So I quickly survey the well-appointed tent and table, and eat some peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters, a tiny power bar (and take one for the road), half a banana, and Gatorade, and I refill my water bottles.  The volunteer surveyed his small audience and boasted, “My rest stop is so much better than the next one.  You’ll see:  theirs is SO ghetto.”  Scott removed a layer, drawing whistles.  The women riders of the SWAG — the She Wolf Attack Team — whom I’m proud to know, took off.  “Damn, they’re so fast for being so short,” I thought to myself.  “How do they do it?”

Turd at HCRA rest stop
A Dude Abikes pointing out the $100 fake turd

Then I look down and see it:  a brown, shiny round turd.  “What is this?”  I ask the volunteer, Mike, who’s involved with the support group for the local medical clinic for HIV positive patients.  He said, “It’s a fake piece of crap, and you’ve just won $100 toward your fundraising for being the first person to notice!”  So I say, “Are you for real?  You better not be shitting me!” I add, laughing.  He takes me to his SUV and takes down my name.  And he was serious; the money appeared on my page the very next day.  “Shitty, shitty, shitty good,” I think, a paraphrase Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm mantra bubbles into my awareness unbidden.  Not a bad slogan for the day.

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Randy riding into the frame unplanned but on cue
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Winery? Closed. Whinery? Open all damn day long.

Taking off again, careful not to dawdle too long, I ride alone again for a long time.  I’m taking a photo of a winery when Randy comes by.  He had kindly given me a ride from Austin.  As a Ride Leader, he had been waiting for others at a cross roads to direct us.  When no one else except I came by for 15 minutes, he decided to ride with me.  We continued on together for many miles, inching onto the side of a two-lane highway, traffic zooming by, my adrenalin surging and subsiding with each near-miss.  Randy’s fit and fast because he’s a 100-miler, but somehow I keep pace.   I suspect he’s slowing down for me, and he gives me words of encouragement.   Blanche DuBois’ “the kindness of strangers” phrase comes to mind.

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A Dude sporting his Fuji Sun & Ski jersey with Randy the speed demon and nice guy

Finally we reach the second pit stop.  A woman with no tent or fancy bowls or tablecloth is there with just some pb & j and Gatorade powder and jugs of water on the hood of her car.  I tell her the other pit stop was talking trash and she says, “Oh yea, this is ghetto,” and I say, “But ghetto fabulous, right?”  She and Randy laugh.  I ask her to take our picture, and she obliges.  In it, I’m smiling.  Or is it a grimace?  I can’t tell sometimes.  I’m trying to push the pain in my legs, my wrists, my back, my sits bones — my everywhere — down, to the outer rim of my consciousness.  With only limited success.  But stopping, resting, eating and receiving encouragement all help.  I’m grateful, and the surge in my blood sugar makes me emotional for a moment.  I think about the enormity — for me — of what I’m doing, and why.  It humbles me.  The ghosts whisper in my ear.

And then we start out again, refreshed but with many miles to go before we sleep.  A big downhill comes and I attack it, pedaling furiously in my highest gear.  With my added ballast I descend hills much faster than the bean poles.  I glance down at my speedometer and see I’ve hit a speed of 41 miles per hour, almost a personal best.  But then Randy catches up on the next uphill and asks, “Are you OK?”  “Yes,” I hiss out between in-breaths, struggling to stay on his wheel, but inwardly a little happy I smoked his ass for a little bit.   We ride in silence; more miles and minutes, cars and countryside, pass by.

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Are these the Drippings Springs?

Then it’s time for Randy to make another loop and put in his extra 20 miles.  He gives me directions and more encouragement, “You’re doing well, just keep going.”  I tuck the cue sheet back into my Lycra shorts.  Enviously, I see him go, and I’m on my own again.  “Isn’t this supposed to be a social ride?  Where the hell is everyone?” I wonder to myself.  Biking is paradoxically a solo effort but much more easily done together with others.  And it is nothing if not a moving meditation, a metaphor of the Buddhist wheel of birth, suffering and re-birth, but it is also not without its pleasures.  So I’m like Forrest Gump on his run across the country:  I just keep spinnin-guh.

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I knew Austin’s public transit is bad, but really?

Muscles aching, I see a big green thing in some trees.  So I pull over to look and I see a Crapital Metro bus in the middle of nowhere.  I ask a man who pulls up to unlock his gate why it’s there and he says it’s his neighbor’s.  “He’s got all kinds of stuff over there.”  A man across the road jumps out of a red pickup and goes through a gate.  He emerges with a rifle in a camouflage case and I see the handgun on his hip.  “What’s the weaponry for?” I ask a bit nervously.  “Wild boar,” he replies.  “Do they get loose and onto the road?”  “Sometimes.  Just go around them.”  I am freaking out since once I came upon a herd on a trail in Austin at night.  I thought it might be the end of me, but I startled them too and they ran away.

So I get the hell out of there.  I stop for more and more pictures, so I can tell I’m beginning to bonk.   I remember to reach into my jersey for whatever I’ve put in it:  an oat bar, a sugary, gooey mix of vitamins, peanut butter and sugar that tastes horrible but keeps me going.  I drink more water and hydration fluid.   I climb another small hill, and then I hear it:  the highway.  A jolt of exhilaration passes through me as I realize I’ve reached the end.  I pull up to the care where the trunk mimosas are being served.  I just take orange juice.  I rest and chat, and riders who are usually faster than I come rolling in.

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A country shack. In Austin it would be called a tiny house and rent for $2,000/month.

But I know more people are still on the road.  So I go out to help them get home and to get some more miles.  Back across the highway, down the paved road, down hill, across the bridge, past the little cottage, up a big hill, I almost have to dismount and walk it, but I don’t, I gut it out.  I get down in granny gear, inching along, even zigzagging like I’m Lance Armstrong, ascending my own little Alp du Huez in the Tour de France.  Finding that extra bit of energy that I don’t think is there is always a revelation to me.  I find myself calling on the spirit of Lance.

(Yes, THAT Lance.  He has a house in Austin, and in biking circles, he’s just Lance.   I swear I saw him biking the other day.  As we passed going opposite directions I gave him the thumbs up, and he gave me the “L” sign.  Like the one for “loser,” but not on his forehead, but just to let me know it was him.  Whatever one thinks of him using Performance Enhancing Drugs, he still beat cancer, and he still rode those 2,000+ miles every year for seven years, and he beat everyone else who was using too.)  “I’d give my left testicle for some go juice right about now,” I mutter to myself.

Suddenly I see the last two riders, and the drill sergeant, bringing up the rear.  I say hi to the women, who are gutting it out, and seem happy to see me, or at least I imagine they do.  I turn at the site of the bus and the guy with the gun, checking for javelina.  Seeing none we ride back to the school and aside from one rider having to evade a car on the highway, it was uneventful.  Randy comes in, he’s back safely, tired but wearing a grin for his extra effort.  It’s a 52.7-mile effort for me.  We pack up.  Some of us go to a brewery for beer and pizza.  I get dropped off in Austin and I do another 7.6, making it 60.3 for the day, my second longest ever day on a bike.

I’m proud of myself but bone tired, so once home, I finally nap.  That’s what you do when you’re S.O.F.T. like me:  Slow, Old, Fat and Tired.  I fall into a deep sleep, and I don’t remember if I dreamed it.  But I imagine the ghosts of AIDS from that day are still with me, with all of us, urging us to do what we can about the damn Human Immunodeficiency Virus.  To keep asking people to donate money for the AIDS services that grants do not pay for.  To keep fighting stigma.   To alleviate suffering with compassion.

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Accidental art, but I like it.

For me, the ghosts tell me to keep on pedaling, farther than anyone thinks I can, and even farther than I think I can (within reason; it’s good to know one’s limits, too).  Because tired metaphor or not, going up and down those hills IS a simile for life.  And how do we deal with life when the hills seem too steep?  Through whatever religious traditions, spiritual practices, or personal beliefs and actions you can muster.  In Buddhism, one attempts to get off the Wheel of Life (also known as “the wheel of cyclic existence”).

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Hill Country Ride for AIDS socks, worn out Pearl Isumi shoes, and A Dude’s tired legs and feet.

Whether your cause may be helping people with HIV/AIDS, opposing war, saving the environment, or other hopefully progressive movement, there is good news:  we are not alone.  Like many efforts, biking for a charity ride is messy, sweaty, bloody, dirty, exhausting work.  But we do it together, with other people.  Even when we’re alone, we have the support of others.  And that helps get us down the road a lot further.  But how do we keep going when the going gets really, REALLY tough?  To quote a marine from the recent movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:

 You embrace the suck.  You move the fuck forward.  What other choice do we have?

The final scene is of our heroine driving away.  Guess what’s attached to the back of her car?  A bike.

Strava 52.7-mile ride         Strava 7.6-mile recovery ride

To learn how to donate to my Hill Country Ride for AIDS effort on April 30th, please email me at <ADudeAbikes AT gmail >

 

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More accidental art of A Dude’s Ookley-style sunglasses with phone case in mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “The Wheel of Life: Biking with the Ghosts of AIDS

  1. Awesome post!!! My memories of those lost to the virus inspire and motivate me every day. I wonder how many ghosts were with you on that ride???
    KUDOS on a fabulous post and THANK YOU for supporting the Hill Country Ride for AIDS.

    Liked by 1 person

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