It's 4:15 am and dark.
The only reason I can see anything is that the back of the GMC is open and the hatch door pours a hazy, dim light over the cycling gear spread out across the back and the ground around us. Rich is assembling the tandem bike by the light afforded by the sliver-moon and the GMC's light.
I don't feel well. My stomach cramps in a sensation halfway between nausea and hunger, if such a feeling exists. I don't feel like myself on the bike as I ride between the car and hotel door, and I worry that I'll fall over at some point in today's 200 miles because I've been anchored into an indoor trainer for months and I've forgotten what it feels like to balance-- to ride a bike for real, I mean.
Our ride-mates on this crazy 200 mile journey join us in the dark. We joke as we always do: and someone points to the sheer lunacy of riding this long outside in weather conditions which predict a storm; in riding this long at all in the month of March when, since we all live in Reno, means that you have to ride inside to get the kind of miles you need to do a double century (and survive it).
It's 4:45 am, and I still don't feel well. The start line is at the gas station just North of the hotel in Lone Pine, California where we'll finish. I'm number 118 and the last in our pack to leave, once we decide to get this thing rolling. Three of us are on single bikes; my partner, Rich, rides the Calfee tandem with a mutual friend. Another ride-mate (who fell sick with pneumonia) is working SAG in a maroon suburban which will be something like the second coming when I see it on the horizon, in the many miles to come.
For now, though, we're headed South on highway 395 and it's 5:00 am and dark enough so that all I can see is the part of the road the light on the tandem casts in front of it.
Light creeps across the desert. It's so absolutely beautiful and I try to get lost in it. But, today I just can't. A pink hue rests on the Inyo Mountain range over my left shoulder, just beyond the dry lake bed that was once Owens Lake. I wonder what it means to be out-of-place, or more precisely, how you know you're in the "right place," and right where you are supposed to be.
The sunrise is spectacular.
The ride out is a gradual, rolling climb. I talk myself into feeling normal and almost succeed until mile 17.5 or so when it hits me.
I have to get off the bike.
My friends ask me if I'm OK and I tell them I will catch up. I'm not sure I will. Rich and his tandem partner wait for me as I huddle in a gulley (sort of) under the highway (but mostly out in the open) and try my best to hide in the sagebrush wearing the world's brightest pink jacket to rid myself of whatever my body didn't want that morning.
I want to cry. Not because I'm in any sort of pain, but because of how embarrassed I am. I tell Rich that I'm going to have to just ride my own pace. I really want to finish the ride, and if that means doing it alone, I will.
I really don't understand why he doesn't just let me ride on my own. He never has, when I ask him to just leave me.
In a way, it upsets me because I know, no matter what, I'm going to finish every ride and race I enter. I might not always be first. I might come in dead last, but I will finish.
But, the other half of me thinks it is incredibly kind: he never leaves anyone behind. Not even me. Not even when I smell like sage and vomit and crap, all at once. And, not even 20 miles in.
That thought, too, made me want to cry.
We pass through what I call "mini town-lettes" as we continue South on Highway 395. I can't remember the names of any of them. They are remnants of-- what, exactly? Was it back when this valley actually had water and was an agricultural center of the Western U.S.? Or, is it a relic of the 1950s novelty of a car-trip (a mini Route 66); outposts speckled throughout the desert's oddities (an abandoned ranch, an internment camp for the Japanese during WWII, an artists compound)?
I clean myself up in the first (actually operational) gas station. I try not to look at my face in the gas station mirror, but it's hard to miss because it's right in front of me. I tell myself to get back on the bike, and keep riding. I've got 180 or so miles to go, and I don't have it in me to give up.
Where and who am I?
I don't know if there's much research on the topic of self-perception in regards to one's place in the world. Or, knowing where you are and how you are and how well you are doing what you are doing, and how all of that dictates the way you exist, day-to-day. In cycling, that's crucial knowledge: are you in a road race? Then you have to know where your teammates are, where everyone else's teammates are and how you (collectively) can work together to beat the other guys (collectively.)
I think that "knowing" is a part of day-to-day life, too. Knowing where and how you are: do you live alone, or in a house with someone else? Are you loved or not? Are you going to stay in this situation, or will you be forced out? Will you settle in a kind of "draft" and find a place where you "belong"? Or, will the entire world fall away and everything you thought you knew was suddenly, irrevocably, gone?
That's what circled through my mind as I rode, and as I tried to find my place among the riders in the Inyo Double. After the first aid station, I felt so much better and strong enough, physically, to finish the ride. These other questions, though, about my place in the world (about my place in our group of cyclists) and in the end, that was where I struggled.
Where do I belong? Is it OK to feel as though you've found a spot-- and a person-- to hold onto? Or, is life like a road race in which there are no loyalties and friends until the finish line, if you were strong enough to hang on?
The wind started around mile 40 and blew us onto Highway 190, headed for Death Valley. Owens Lake sat off our left, the Sierra and Inyo Mountain range framing the desolate landscape which smelled, honestly, like a salty ocean.
We each take the lead across the undulating highway until we reach the next aid station before the 18-mile climb into Death Valley. By this point, I'm feeling a lot better. Two water bottles and a granola bar and 40 miles did the trick. I'm back to my old self again.
Up the hill. Climbing is my strength, even though I don't think so, when I'm doing it. It's so incredibly beautiful here. Every shade of tawny, brown and blue: it's a stark contrast of color and texture. And even though I work so hard to climb and pass the riders around me, I can't help but think it's beautiful. For the first time that day, I feel strong and like I have gas in the tank. I pass men and women. I'm riding fast, I'm down in the drops, I'm standing up. I reach the gateway to Death Valley, and reach the aid station.
Our friend who's SAG-ing today (due to pneumonia) meets me at the top, and another volunteer gives me a slice of the world's best zucchini bread. I wait at the top for my friends, and when they get there, I direct them to the zucchini bread which, as the volunteer manning the station told me, was baked by another volunteer.
"It's the best," we all agree.
Where do we belong?
The zucchini bread brings this question to mind. Are we forming communities with one another, in which we all play important roles to support one another? Am I helping my friends ride these 200 miles? Are they helping me?
I remember this morning, and how horrible I felt. One of the reasons I wanted to keep riding was "not to let them down."
As much as we are individual agents, we are, too, a multitude of communities. I may never meet the woman who baked that zucchini bread, but I'm so glad she did. And, although no one literally pushed me through the ride, my friends got me back on the bike. When I fell off the pack, not wanting to slow them down motivated me to catch up quick.
Are we each other's keepers? If so: am I worthy of that role?
At mile 140 or so, I get lost.
Not badly-- I ride with my friends around the Owens dry lake bed back to Lone Pine before we climb to Horseshoe Meadows. I finish the climb and, after filling my water bottles, turn around. Because I start shivering as soon as I stop riding, I assume that the tandem will catch me on the downhill. I also assume that I will know the way down because there are other riders around me.
I turn out to be wrong on both assumptions.
Figure 1: You know what they say: Assume = ASS + U + ME
A cyclist from Germany guides me down from Horseshoe Meadows to Whitney Portal to Lone Pine. I pull in front of him and I expect us to take turns, working together to the next aid station. But, he pulls next to me, tells me to "have fun" and drops back, which means I'm alone for however long in this vast expanse were I see, literally, no one else on this stretch of road.
At first, I'm optimistic. I tell myself things like "one pedal stroke at a time" only to look down at my Garmin after what seemed like an eternity to reveal I've only gone one tenth of a mile.
I despair: I tell myself I will die here. They will find my body entwined around my bike, feel bad, and hold a beautiful funeral.
Then, I remember Rich saying (earlier that morning) something along the lines of "good thing we aren't riding on that side of the lake! Look at those sandstorms!" and think about the power of words and prophecy.
I pedal. And pedal. I play my favorite songs in my head, but only my favorite parts of them, which does nothing to pass the time. I look back, but the road behind me is empty.
When I reach the aid station, I don't expect to be hungry, but I am. I ate a pickle sandwich on wheat...
Figure 2: Pickle sandwich+ cheap wheat bread + cheap mayo in squeeze bottle + sliced dill pickles
...and it's the best thing I've ever tasted. I wait for my friends to get there. In that wind-- and those sandstorms-- I missed my tandem. Or, more accurately, I missed sharing the experience knowing that I was not the only one on that highway.
I'm discovering my place in the world.
I don't know if I am meant to stay or go, to settle or charge. I don't know if I'm supposed to help other people by softening challenges simply by example or by advising them about them. I don't know how to stay, or how to go. I don't know how to be responsible and trustworthy: I don't know how to be elite.
So, how do you become what you want?
These words weigh on me as the sandstorms blast us on the stretch from 160-180 miles. I try to pull and the wind and sand explode and I feel pin-pricks along every exposed area of skin. I ride steady. I ride ahead. We are not together. I fall back. But then, I'm so far back, I'm trailing everyone. I hurry to catch up. I fall. I surge and drop everyone. I pull. The wind blasts and no one is where they once were.
The wind is exhausting, violently spraying all the sand in the desert across my face and any open patch of skin. It nearly blows our bikes off the road. For 40 miles down highway 190, we do what we can to make progress down the road. Then, with 20 miles to go, we turn right, pulling together as we travel North on Highway 395. The final 20 miles are a rolling downhill and the wind is strong and at our backs. Somehow, I ride these miles mostly alone, wanting to be strong. I align my ability to ride a bike with my ability to be a good friend, a good employee, a good partner.
Did I succeed?
200 miles, circles me back to the start....
At 28 mph, we race along the shoulder as the world turns to the dark blue of dusk as the storm gathers on the mountain peaks above us. I feel of the wind on my face, racing the on-coming storm. The light-blue of winter-dusk, the wind sometimes at my back, some times not. I sat up, in those final three miles, and let the wind push against my swimmer-shoulders and watched Lone Pine's lights twinkle and guide us back... back to where I hope to find my place in the world.