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from "Momentum Is Your Friend"
Momentum Is Your Friend: The Metal Cowboy and His Pint-Sized Posse Take on
How am I looking? I don’t want the truth. What am I doing? I ain’t in my youth. I’m past my prime, or was that just a pose? It’s a wonderful lie. I still get by on those. —Paul Westerberg
It’s never enough until your heart stops beating. —New Order
Prologue A few things you should know about me: I’m involved in a rather unhealthy relationship with caffeine; it’s been going on for years, and I have no intention of breaking things off. Also, by my twenty-first birthday I’d quit more jobs than you’ll ever have, leaving me free to follow the only path left for a strapping young man of questionable aptitude and work ethic: I became a writer. When folks ask me what that’s like, I tell them to picture a super-hero with no special powers. You’re all Clark
What else? I don’t know when to say quit, especially around certain flavors of pie, or after I’ve climbed onto a bicycle. Often, combining my suspect intellect with my stubborn resolve makes for lively entertainment. Case in point, I once raced a greyhound on foot along uneven
I would learn too late that centuries of breeding are responsible for its loopy smile, not to mention its incredible speed out of the blocks. Also, that there is no margin of error when running between barrel cacti.
One more thing, I have what teachers euphemistically referred to on progress reports as socially excessive verbal proficiency. I’m chatty; my mouth runneth over. Let’s review. What we have is a jittery, unemployable scribe, a tenacious bastard to be sure, but lacking a certain intellectual curiosity, who wants nothing more than to ride his bicycle . . . and won’t shut up.
I’m as surprised as you that it’s worked out this well.
Part 1 How Momentum WorksThe aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely divinely aware. –Henry Miller
Know thyself? If I knew myself, I’d run away. -Goethe
Climbing a healthy series of switch backs through the chill of a
It’s every man’s secret desire to raise a middle finger to the approach of mid-life. High time to stick it to the reaper while I still have the lung capacity. I want to humiliate that cloaked coward. Put Death in polyester bellbottoms, gaudy gold medallions, cue the DJ and make him do “The Hustle” for the viewers at home.
After that maybe we’ll dress life’s little party crasher in tight Lycra, ride him hard, then drop Death like a wet bag of dirt on some slow rise in the
He nods reverently. "And here I thought I was doing something this morning.” We let that hang there for a few moments. In an uncharacteristic show of modesty, I try to shrug it off. The cycling equivalent of Jack Lalane pretending he hasn’t just crawl stroked the
“Don’t kid yourself." The Insomniac spreads his arms wide, in an effort to take in the whole monstrosity, before he gives up. “
When it comes to needing a competent mental health professional, Insomniac could certainly give me a run for my money. It turns out bold statements backed up by equally derelict actions are his operating instructions. He has to be pushing thirty, but when the helmet comes off a spectacular abundance of piercings, ten in one ear alone, and a little metal pipe, glowing cobalt blue in the predawn light, runs the width of his pinched and punctured forehead. It’s an unsettling marriage of tribal art to a pack of angry teens. You know the ones who loiter, smoke, curse and nod with no enthusiasm from the steps of the public library; maybe a tribal leader failing community college who’s stopped speaking to his parents. “I lost my sweetest trick bike into Blue Mesa Reservoir last weekend,” Insomniac announces.
A promising way to open an anecdote, it brings my second grader, Quinn, back from whatever reverie he’s lost in across the horizon. Five-year-old Enzo pops up through the top flap of the bicycle carrier, a prairie dog emerging at the first whiff of excitement on the breeze. “It wasn’t a road bike.” As if this explains everything. We wait him out. “I do BMX most weekends. Trick riding, extreme jumps. People know about me . . . I mean people outside the
I recognize this behavior. To back up bold statements, a certain amount of grandstanding is required. Not always pretty, but absolutely necessary if one wants to complete the motion. “On weekends, we toss up a plywood ramp on the railing of the bridge. It’s sixty feet to the water. Crowd mushrooms by noon. Music, Frisbees, lots of vans, a real Dead Show vibe.” But with more tattoos and Incubus music is my guess. “Never a question of ‘if,’ I’m just waiting until the crowd can’t take anymore tension.” Or they’ve run out of ecstasy, perhaps?! “Where was the other ramp?” Quinn asks. His question makes me proud and a bit melancholy, motivated as it is by a sense of safety and his misguided belief in self preservation as a universal human trait.
You can tell Insomniac lives for moments like these. “The lake Big Guy. I’m over the top and landing in the lake . . . roll tape, news at 11. You want to catch huge air, nail a triple spin like you do this every day, then kick out from the bike before hitting the water. No one wants to be near their ride when it lands. Bonus for a quick resurfacing to snag your swag before it sinks to the bottom.”
I watch Quinn’s world-view shift before my eyes. As though he’s studying the zoo orangoutangs hanging on high vines doing something foolish with fruit, a garden hose and their nostrils. The evolutionary connection has been made. I will need to watch my eldest son more closely the rest of the way to the
I interpret for the boys, complete with hand gestures. We should all have access to a diplomatic translator in Lycra. “Speared, splattered . . . sunk.” A cliffhanger before breakfast… it just doesn’t get any better for my kids. “Bammo . . . I have to give the handlebars a roundhouse kick, then torque my back around like some circus performer, Dudes. Hit the water so wrong I forget everything until I’m pulled out and panting back on concrete.”
The boys sigh at the same time and in the same pitch. The only thing more satisfying than Insomniac’s ending would have been if it included a prize at the bottom of the box. They might be done, but I have a few loose ends that need tying. Like how he has come to possess such a high performance road bike. “My brother took it in trade for a drywall job. He says I’ll bury his best time by the end of the summer.” Replaying how Insomniac stalked me up the mountain like some sleek jungle cat leaves little doubt. “You know, there’s not a lot of crossover between trick riders and roadies,” I say. Insomniac looks back down the mountain. Its angle and the distance to the lake below are something out of a Dr. Seuss drawing. Then he eyes our bikes, the boys and the radical tilt of the Earth in the other direction. “There ought to be,” he says, not a trace of guile in his voice. “If this ain’t extreme, I relinquish my membership.” We wait for sunrise at the top of the world—casual gods surveying an Evergreen kingdom that spans for miles in every direction—then roll the summit and barrel into another day on the road.
This is a perfect world, riding on an incline. —Talking Heads
We’re a few weeks and brutal headwinds beyond our triumphant cresting of 12,000 foot
To my left is a church, its spiral steeple penetrating the heights that man can reach. To the right, a hospital… which will come in handy if the spots at the edges of my vision continue to grow.
Since clearing the
It’s on the humidity-stoked
Wait a minute. Why not join me down here on the gravel? That’s it, lie down in the road and let the burning asphalt blister your sweat-drenched skin, swallow back the tips of your lungs poking right through your throat and try to roll into the shade like some wounded Green Beret hunting for a depression on the battlefield, only to find that shade, like everything else inside the breadbasket of America, is a Heartland lie. Okay, that could be the heat stroke talking, but we are stretched across what most call a gutter, two hundred yards from the summit, seemingly incapable of forward progress, two kids counting on us and it’s not getting and earlier, I’m allowed a little latitude.
And since you’re down here, I’ll tell you what we’re looking for; somewhere between the gravel pocking your soft spots and glass shards boring into your back, the ants going about their business as if you don’t exist and the hint of fresh cut grass carrying memories of renewal . . . is our will to live. We’ll need that, or, at the very least, faith enough to fake it.
One more thing, don’t lie so close to me, I really should take in some air that no one’s been breathing for awhile.
We’re nine blocks, less than two miles from our destination, but I don’t know that. I can only recall it’s something of an oasis, the home of close family friends, God parents more or less, and their beautiful daughters, one of whom broke my heart in all the right places years ago. Oh, and there’s a pool, nestled under tall pines and lush flowering plants.
I can’t beg or borrow the strength to do what is necessary on that bike. Eyeing the angle of our slope divided by the build up of lactic acid in my joints, then carrying the remainder of the day . . . nope. I’d better stay here a little longer, until my math improves or time and nature grinds the hillside down to an acceptable size.
“Go Laaaannnce!” Followed by a few yips and yeehaws from the passenger side of a pickup truck. I’m too far gone to let its sarcastic undertone, or what may have been snickering from the back seat, touch me. Nothing’s thrown in our direction, so there’s that. Quinn wields the bike pump like an old man waving his cane at the neighborhood hooligans.
“Do you have any chocolate?” He comes to a halt over me, stares for a moment, and shakes his head. My current state does not offer him much hope of obtaining cocoa product. I hear the little fan whirl into action. Enzo spritzes himself a few times, then, in an act of unprovoked kindness, what I choose to read as empathy, he turns the mist on his old man.
“No one’s out of gas around here until I say so,” Quinn barks, parroting one of my favorite self-help seminar lines. He gets in close, eyeing me with the disappointed glare of a high school football coach. “Get up. We’re in the
Enzo turtles his neck a little and scans the skies for aerial chimps and twisters. I’m not trying to scare them, just buying some time. It occurs to me that if I can still make fun of my situation, there might actually be something left in the tank. “Another minute, boys, that’s all I need. Quinn, get me some of that Clif recovery powder from the right pannier. It’s in a Ziploc.”
I manage a seated position without blacking out. Quinn has my water bottle in one hand and a bag of powder in the other. “No, no . . . that bag’s your grandpa. I’m talking about the other Ziploc, next to the gel packs and Band-Aids.” Did I mention we have three generations on board? After my dad’s heart blew, Thanksgiving morning of 2000, his urn ended up in my home office. Not much of a final resting place. The man spends a lifetime grinding it out inside cubicles . . . it didn’t seem right to keep him cooped up any longer. Deserving better in life, but when all that’s left are gestures, go big. That was before every ounce mattered, back when rolling weight on a bicycle was just an abstract theory and a source of future bragging rights.
But when the road hits this hard, every item, even your long suffering dad’s remains, feel like a burden. With Pop back in the bag, a few gallons of electrolyte therapy down my throat, and a pair of wobbly sea legs under me for support, we soldier on. It’s asking too much to straddle the bike yet, but pushing it the short distance to the top is no picnic either, even with Quinn’s help. Enzo has located the dregs of a lollipop along the floor of the trailer, silencing him for the moment.
The adventure hits rock bottom at what could be the highest point of Kansas or
Quinn’s rage and recriminations are perfectly natural. The only surprising thing is why it hasn’t happened before now. For a seven-year-old, over 2000 miles into a bike adventure, he’s been, with a few exceptions, Jedi-like in nature. Knocked down by the rig that has brought us all such joy, and by a father who, until now, has protected him from injury, not caused it; all this is too much of a betrayal to let stand. His outpouring of raw emotion is a Cal Ripken Jr. hard ball to my head. Knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it hurt any less. Shame, exhaustion and this hapless feeling of failing my son nearly sends me over the edge.
I pull him close, a bear hug he’s both encouraging and resisting with physical violence. I take a deep breath, absorb the worst of the blows, and for once really question the wisdom of this endeavor. Am I giving them the time of their lives on two wheels, or making them do hard time in the saddle? We stay like that until his tears dry up and his breathing levels out. I’m not broken yet, but for the first time on our “Boys of Endless Summer Freedom Tour,” you can see some cracks.
That’s when he remembers the swimming pool. “According to this sweat stained freebee map of
How important is this underrated law of physics? Here’s the thing about trying to push pounds of metal, gear, human cargo and two thin strips of Kevlar 4,000 miles across
Narrow mountain roads focus your attention like finding religion or dating a supermodel, ancients navigating motor homes around blind curves send shivers down the small of your back, hills go on without end, windstorms blow, fatigue settles in, flash floods threaten, black flies bite, humidity, tornados, traffic and worse try to break you like balsa wood under a well made work boot.
Momentum . . . is the only force on Earth that can possibly carry you through. But if you want to come out the other side with more than miles, then you’ll have to grab the brakes, get off the bike when your gut tells you or your legs force you, and have a good look around.
I decide we’ve seen enough of
The pedals crank on one last surge of energy. I dump our rolling whale on the front lawn and crumple in a happy heap. No ticker-tape parades, brass bands or medal ceremonies; the hum of cicadas in the high branches is our only soundtrack. Chain grease covers my calf, gratitude the rest of me.
I’m on my feet before the boys can locate bike pumps and spritz bottles. “Pool’s out back.” Quinn hits me with a bear hug, Enzo whoop-whoops from the carrier. We’ve come halfway across
Part 2"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed . . . or buy anything sold or processed . . . or process anything sold, bought, or processed . . . or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that." —Lloyd Dobler, “Say Anything”
"We all agree that your theory is crazy, but is it crazy enough?"
Niels Bohr (1885-1962)
JULY 1 | 0 MILES
Neighbors stop weeding their flower beds and let hoses spill water down porch steps as we wobble by. “Feels like a parade,” Enzo calls from the trailer. I can barely hear him at this distance, but I’m glad he’s enjoying himself. “We are the parade,” Quinn points out.
Big Steve, an engineer who is never without his smokes, bottled beer or his black convertible with suicide doors—the John F. Kennedy assassination car—stands at the curb shaking his head. He smiles at us through a prodigious cloud of smoke rings.
It’s T minus two hours until lift off and I still have a few bugs to work out, but even this minor victory tastes sweet. I imagine it’s what the Wright Brothers savored high on that hill. Granted, we’re going to have to stay aloft for more than a couple hundred feet, but considering that 24 hours earlier our engineering set backs had reached an Apollo 13 rescue scramble, and not a rocket scientist in sight, I feel pretty damn good.
“Your arms look like Popeye,” Quinn says. It really is taking some muscle to steady the rig and soldier forward on our pancake-flat boulevard. I try to ignore the fact that we aren’t even fully loaded yet. Pannier ballast will trim the wobble and straighten the ride, but add to the overall rolling weight. I’m vindicated regarding a winter regimen of free weights and hours spent wrestling with the basement Bowflex machine—Spanish Inquisition style.
I wave to the white haired woman on the corner who wears nothing but brown tunics or billowing pastel moo-moos no matter the season. This innocent action almost takes us to the ground. Adrenaline, angle, and dumb luck avert a pre-trip disaster.
Speed seems to level out our ride so I increase it. More reactions from front porches and other pedestrians. A blind man could read their expressions. “Would you look at that! He thinks we haven’t thought about some foolish jailbreak from the daily grind? But what sort of man acts upon such things? And with kids in the bargain?!”
I opt to nod instead of wave this time, hoping to hold off a call to child services. If there was more time, I’d stop and explain myself. It’s like this; I misspent the better part of my youth on a bicycle, with a career total of 100,000 miles and counting. That includes six coast-to-coast marathons, a 2,000-mile epic across
I was raised in a community of Tupperware pioneers making damn sure no one would want for anything they could order from a catalog. This left me insulated, parochial and restless. Who wouldn’t wander into traffic?
I did stop rolling long enough to find a full life. But a wife, two boys, three books, and one mortgage later, the dangerous notion that it doesn't have to end in one zip code keeps surfacing. Still, a meandering, unsupported, seventeen-state ride from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, DC, at the height of summer, my two sons in tow, Beth lost to us at grad school, and the big clock set at sixty-five days and counting?
Vegas bookies call this one a sucker’s bet, throw open the window and try to mask their grins as they take my money clip. Close friends talk around me in hushed tones. Several have the backbone to come right out and predict I’ll get the whole fiasco hooked together, realize my folly and call it off in the driveway.
Only my wife seems serene. Maybe it’s the thought of all that peace and quiet, but it’s more than that. We’ve witnessed enough of each others lives to know real resolve. “You need this,” she says during a rare respite from the chaos around our homestead. “But if this is about our promise of always trying to stay awake. You do know we were young, foolish, and strung out of Springsteen at the time. Okay, and only because I know you’ll be the same big-hearted, safety freak of a
That went well, considering that my backup plan was nothing more than to say we were heading out for some Snapple, then keep going. We’re calling this the WWLDD tour. It stands for What Would Lloyd Dobler Do?
For those who missed the 1980s, or VH1’s “I Love The 80s,” Dobler was the working teen’s hero in Say Anything, a very smart film starring John Cusack that, despite a few hairstyling missteps, feels contemporary even today. It dealt with love, tax evasion, kickboxing as a career choice, and how to look cool holding up a forty-pound boombox. (Answer: make sure it’s playing Peter Gabriel.) Dobler had it together even though it didn’t look like it. He took chances on things that mattered while wearing a trench coat right through August. He’ll be our patron saint for the duration of the ride.
I’ve had T-shirts printed up with WWLDD on the front, and Dobler’s four-line, star-making speech on the back. Along the way our shirts will elicit responses I expect: “great flick!” catchphrases from the movie like “Keymaster!” and the pantomiming of someone holding a boombox while they shout out the chorus to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Other reactions will catch me off guard. I never expected so many thumbs-up signs and “amen”s from folks throughout the Bible Belt. They mistake it for a variation on What Would Jesus Do? In this case, What Would the Lord Do, or Decide to Do? or What Would The Lord Do, Do?
A sweetheart of a gal behind the meat counter at a country store in southern Indiana went so far as to ask me, after reading the “I don’t want to sell anything . . .” quote on the back, if Dobler was some holy man she hadn’t made the acquaintance of yet. Maybe on Sunday morning TV? “As I live and breath,” I said. “But these days, he’s only on cable.” Most wannabe mavericks looking to instill a bit of rebel yell in their sons would do well to start each morning by teaching them the lyrics, plus hand motions, to songs such as Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”, and read aloud from Huck Finn every night. I’ve taken this prescription a step further.
Instead of a raft, we’re floating on five wheels and so much forged aluminum tubing. Standing in for the Muddy Mississippi is every blue highway, back road, and the occasional farmer’s frontage path ending abruptly in barbed wire and robust cursing.
While Tom and Huck had the ingenious if not quite literate Jim, Quinn and Enzo have to settle for Papa Joe, clever in a limited sort of parlor-game way, chatty to a fault and, for what it’s worth, fully matriculated.
Lest you think I lack for loftier goals to leave as a legacy, our plan includes learning, to public-performance level if asked, a full catalog of songs, mostly Brit punk, Talking Heads and three-part harmony on Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” because there’s nothing more satisfying than really putting your suburban, white-boy back into the line, “Oba, Oba serving the hypocrites, mingled with the good people we meet” in a faux-Jamaican accent. It’s been known to help heal the hurt when the engine of injustice bears down on your rear wheel. A simple Trenchtown gift from Mr. Marley, which I want my boys to make their own; if only for singing in the shower, or in lieu of slugging a nasty coworker one Tuesday morning twenty years from now.
And while I doubt our tales of chainring rebellion will be banned in libraries and classrooms someday (couldn’t find myself in better company though), the audacity of our endeavor is obvious. You heard the body-pierced man of
Stupid is as Stupid pedals, Sir!
Regardless, our project doesn’t want for wanderlust, a solid grab at independence, the head-clearing simplicity of graceful transportation and enough journalistic commitment to make the ghost of Twain tear up a little. Braving first light with my pint-sized posse in tow, shaking off the easy pleasures of inertia and the merits of good sense all summer, we’re entering serious windmill-tilting territory.
On the face of it, blame falls squarely on an article deadline imposed by a national magazine, but that would be taking the easy way out.
I’m all about personal responsibility, sometimes.
To that end, I’ve been up nights assembling a long list of reasons for doing the ride and for doing it now, but here’s one that feels authentic: I've just hit forty, and there's no denying every man's fantasy—no, not that fantasy, the other one—to see if his body, tuned up to its current best, will stand or fall; stage a bloody mutiny at the bow of the boat or hold the lines.
In other words, do I still have “it”; the soaring finger-roll into the basket while two men guard me, (almost had that once) the perfectly executed swan dive from the three-meter platform. (never had that)
But I did have “It.”
What we have then is an old-fashioned
I’ll be pulling 14 feet of traffic-stopping rig: My custom-made 27-gear Rodriguez touring bike, plus four expedition-size Arkel panniers loaded with everything from replacement parts to fishing poles to pots and pans. Quinn’s my copilot, pedaling a Burley tagalong cycle attached to my rear rack; Enzo will lounge in his Chariot trailer, wedged between sleeping bags, bike pumps, and the occasional watermelon. Most days this 250-pound caravan will feel like I'm hauling a Hobie Cat behind me. I draw inspiration from the unsung Sherpas working Everest and
Returning safely from our “startle the neighbors” tune-up ride, we begin the tedious task of refolding map after map covering the hardwood floor of our living room. More of an accusation than a departure date, the red circle around July 1 stands out from the piles of papers. By pedaling
“We’re bringing the red light saber for you,
And they say you’re always the hero in your children’s eyes. Losing interstellar laser battles from here to the
With a long holiday weekend ahead of her, Beth will pace us out of
“It’ll be less of a blow that way.” She notes from the front seat of the Forester, windows down, AC blasting enough to compete with the Coldplay CD. Beth appears to be enjoying my burdens a little too much. I’m reminded of every
When we finally take our starting positions, the day turns against us. Not by wrath-of-God thunderclaps and plague-of-frog proportions, it’s more subtle and far worse. A thin, hazy summertime cloud cover traps heat and humidity across the length of the
Absolutely not. I’d look back but I wouldn’t want to turn to salt or lose my resolve.
“Let’s do it, boys.”
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