Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us …
— Hebrews 12:1
If I hear about another gay man contemplating suicide … I’m gonna kill myself.
– Anonymous Queen
At the Doctors
At my last doctor’s appoint, I sat in the small examining room pouring out my anger, frustration and sadness about how things and ended up and how things were going. The emotion in my voice began to rise and I began sobbing. I choked out, “I can’t do this. I just can’t do this!”
The doctor looked up from her pad, “Have you felt suicidal?”
In all honesty I’m too vain to be suicidal. “No, but this is a very, very dark time for me.”
I remember the darkest moment, after I was told that I would always walk with crutches and never be able to bend my knee again. It was late at night and I was in bed and I began to cry and I thought, “I’ve been through enough. I quit.” Those words took me back to a time and place when I vowed I would never quit.
The Great American Bicycle Journey
I am not sure who was more terrified when he let go, me or my father. I do, however, recall the unexplainable feeling of freedom that comes from riding a bicycle under your own power. It was a mystery to me how one kept one’s balance during the endeavor. It did not come natural to me, probably due to my intense fear of falling. It was brave of my father to let go. My brittle bones were a constant concern to him. And each time I broke a leg, his pain was equal to or greater than my own. Yet, the feeling when his hand left the bike was worth the risk. That being said, a broken leg every year for the first thirteen years of my life did not allow for much bicycle riding.
My bones strengthened by later adolescence and by my junior year of high school, I bought a 10-speed bicycle. I’m not sure where I got the idea, but during my senior year of high school, I had determined that I would take “The Great American Bicycle Adventure.”
The plan was to ride my bicycle from La Grande, Oregon to Three Sisters, Oregon. My final destination was to camp with my three aunts at Suttle Lake. I spent the winter and spring planning and plotting the trip. My aunt Rosella had a book called, The Complete Hiker. I would read that book and make lists of all the things I would need. I would pour over maps and make decisions about the best route. The trip would be about 300 miles through rural Oregon.
I knew that my father was uneasy about the trip and that my mother was furious. I had told them both that I was doing this with their blessing or without. My father sat me down one evening to ask for a compromise, “David, you can make the trip you are planning on one condition. If you can ride to Meacham and back without incident, I’ll let you make the trip.” Meacham was only about thirty miles from La Grande, but it did include some serious inclines as you began the ascent of Cabbage Hill to Immigrant Pass. I told him that I was sure that small trip would not be a problem and would be a good test run for the longer trip.
In the spring of 1971 I began the short trip to Meacham. The day did not seem stormy or overcast as I began pedaling my way out of town. I crossed the viaduct that went over the railroad tracks near my home and passed Pioneer Park and the public swimming pool where I learned to swim. I began my ascent up the hill that led out of town. I looked back over my shoulder and smiled at the toy town that lay behind me.
I would need to merge onto the freeway. In fact, most of the thirty mile trip would be on I-84 heading west. Eventually, it would be illegal to ride a bicycle on the freeway, but in 1971 it was not a problem, at least out in eastern Oregon.
Once I was on the freeway, gray clouds began to roll in overhead and the wind picked up. I began pedaling into a headwind and drops of rain began to fall. I continued on and even managed the incline on the small road off the freeway that led to the only landmark in Meacham, a gas station/grocery store. But once I reached Meacham the rain was pouring and I was soaking wet. I locked my bicycle to a post and went inside. The rain was coming down harder and showed no sign of abating. I knew I only had once choice, call my father and have him come take me home.
Our station wagon pulled up and my father got out. We silently loaded my bicycle into the back. It truly was raining hard and it would have been foolish to attempt to try riding my bike back home. My father was gracious and did not lecture me, in fact the ride home was silent except for the sound of our windshield wipers and the rain. I tried to beat my father to the punch and said, “I’m still taking my trip this summer.”
I never made another attempt at a round trip to Meacham. Instead I planned my trip with great attention to detail. I mapped the route in yellow highlighter. I jerry-rigged saddle bags for provisions. I bought an expensive down-filled sleeping bag and made lists. I made lots and lots of lists.
When the day of my departure arrived, I stood in our front yard poised with my white, ten-speed bicycle. The canvas saddle bags hung over each side of the back tire. They were bulky and made my bike slightly awkward. My blue down-filled sleeping bag was wrapped tightly and pushed up under the seat. I was excited but also a little afraid. I had talked non-stop about the trip to family and friends for months, and now I was on the verge of the journey. A high school kid who had spent more time in wheelchairs than on bicycles was about to embark on a 300 mile excursion to adulthood.
My mother kept saying, “Homer, you’re not really going to let him do this are you? Homer!” He ignored her and looked at me with a mixture of pride and fear. He pulled me aside and said, “David, I want you to know that you can call me at any point on the trip and I will come and get you. There will be no I-told-you-so. I will simply come and get you and bring you home. Don’t be afraid to call me.”
And with that I mounted my bicycle and began the journey.
The first few miles were a repeat of my journey to Meacham, except the sky was a dazzling blue and it was a gorgeous summer day. I-84 wound along the Grande Ronde River and at Hildegard Park I left the freeway and began down Hwy 224. My spirits were high because of the natural beauty of eastern Oregon and because it was downhill. One of the first things I noticed about travelling by bicycle was the silence. I grew to love gliding through the greens and browns around me in nearly utter silence, exposed to the air, to the subtle scents of the meadows.
I stopped for lunch at Red Bridge Park. The park had large green, grassy fields, a river, and, of course, a red bridge. Pedaling had made me hungry and I quickly devoured my tuna fish sandwich and bag of chips. I had great memories of Red Bridge Park and I took time to explore the paths and trails for “old time’s sake.” Why is it that boys love throwing rocks into rivers?
Back on Hwy 224, I resumed my trip. It was no longer downhill, but the inclines were not severe and I continued to make good time; but to be honest, I remember little of the trip from Red Bridge Park to the campground where I camped for the night. My only recollection from that campground was sitting by a campfire with a can of pork and beans and no can opener. There were numerous campsites with people around me who most likely had can openers, but I had a streak of my father’s stubbornness and would not ask for help. However, that can of pork and beans was to be the primary part of my meal that evening so I went in search of an alternative. I stumbled upon a large rusty nail and a rock that could serve as a hammer. I made a series of holes around the lid of the tin can, hoping to put them close enough so I could rip the lid open. It worked well enough for me to dig most of the beans out of the can. Until now, no one was the wiser. I slept well that first night on the road. The scent of pines and smoke from neighboring fires put me fast asleep.
I woke fairly early in the morning and pedaled to a nearby country store for some jerky and can of pop – my breakfast. I noticed that the journey was now beginning to be uphill. It was strenuous, but manageable. I had traveled this route many times with my family in a car, but now on a bicycle at a much slower pace, it was breathtaking. Wide open fields and ancient barns, horses and cattle, stone walls and barbed wire; common enough in eastern Oregon but now they enchanted me. Okay, “enchanted” may be a bit of hyperbole, after all I had just graduated from high school. I found them “breathtaking.”
I felt the barns and horses, walls and wire become part of me. There is vulnerability in riding a bicycle. Your pace is slow enough for you to look at things longer. You open to them in a way that you can smell and touch them. They seep into you if you let them.
There is a passage in the Bible where the prophet Samuel hears, “the bleating of sheep in the distance.” (This was a foreshadowing of the decline of King Saul’s reign and his being usurped by the shepherd boy, David.) As I stood next to my bicycle drinking from my canteen, I heard the bleating of sheep in the distance and could see a tremendous cloud of dust in the middle of the road. I pedaled toward the sheep and realized that the shepherd was herding them towards me. As they got closer, I could see that the flock was enormous, not hundreds of sheep, but thousands were now coming down the two-lane highway. I stopped my bicycle. There was no place for me to avoid them, so I stood in the middle of the road and the herd went passed me as if I were invisible. It was a cloud of dust and fur and cacophony of bleating and baahing; finally I saw the shepherd. He did not acknowledge me; I had no opportunity to tell him that in another life I was a shepherd and a king.
Once the sheep had passed, the road became much steeper. I struggled to stay on the bike and keep pedaling. I strained at the task and it made me breathless. I made more frequent stops. There was no longer the shade of occasional pine trees, just a hot afternoon sun that beat on the just and the unjust. I could see the road before me and how it rose through the mountains. Most boys my age could have shifted the gears of their ten-speed and made the ascent. Thirteen broken legs had taken their toll and I had to be content to get off my bicycle and push it up the mountain. After each turn, the road was steeper than before. At first it was just walking up a hill. Eventually it became mythical and I was Sisyphus, cursed with rolling a huge stone up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and to repeat this throughout eternity.
The first few miles of pushing my bicycle uphill, while difficult, seemed doable. But eventually it seemed impossible and then became painful. Occasionally, I would encounter a sign showing the current elevation. The information only discouraged me, so I stopped looking at the signs. I simply determined to push my bike a few more steps and then stop, and few more steps and then stop. I consulted my map. The next town was Long Creek. It was 20 miles away and at least twice my current elevation.
I found a spot where I could push my bike off the road and sit on a rock to evaluate my options. First, I had to decide if I was going to quit. If so, I knew that going back would a be quick ride downhill. My father’s words came back to me, “David, you can call me at any point on your trip and I will come get you, no questions asked.” My other option was to “cheat” and flag the next truck going uphill. No one would know. No one would probably care, either. My final option was to keep pushing my bicycle up the mountain, painful step after painful step.
I chose to keep going. I did not want to quit. I did not want to fail.
Long Creek eventually came into view. The road was not as steep, but now my legs were in such pain that I couldn’t pedal, even on level ground. I began to develop a fantasy as to what I would do, once I reached Long Creek. There would be a grassy city park and I would gently lay my bicycle on the ground and then lie in the cool green grass. I would watch hawks circle in the sky and chew on a piece of grass as I contemplated my victory over the mountain. I would fill my canteen from a fountain of mountain fresh water and pour it over my head. Perhaps the city would come out and crowds would gather to celebrate my accomplishments.
When I reached Long Creek, the reality was heartbreaking. There was one building at a four-way stop, the Long Creek Café and Gas Station. There was no city park. There was no green grass. There was only gravel and rocks at the shoulders of the road and deep trenches. The fields were parched straw and dirt, more rocks. There were no houses from which people could emerge to greet me.
I looked over at the gas station-slash-café. I saw a phone booth on the wall. Now would be the time to call my father and admit defeat. I pushed my bike to the phone and propped it against the wall. I decided to go into the café and order a Coke and rest before calling home. The waitress could see that I was exhausted. “Long trip, honey?” I managed a smile and shook my head. I set my canteen on the counter. “Here, sweetie, let me fill your canteen with ice.” It was such a nice thing for her to do, I started to cry.
I sat there drinking the best Coke I had ever had. The feeling started to come back into my legs. It was just me, the kind-hearted waitress and a housefly. The fly buzzed around the ceiling fan and I finished my Coke. I picked up my canteen and thanked the waitress. “Have a nice trip, sweetie.”
I mounted my bicycle and pedaled west. It was nice to be riding again. The afternoon sun was much lower now. I turned a corner and suddenly the road began a sharp descent. The wind was rushing past me and I was no longer pedaling. I applied the breaks slightly to avoid going too fast. I gathered even more speed and a sense of joy filled me. I had not called my father. I had not quit. I had continued forward and now I was flying. There was no pavement beneath me. There was no circling of the pedals. The sun had turned my world golden and I was flying past barns and horses, stone walls and wire.
Hwy. 402 took me past three small towns: Hamilton, Monument and Kimberly. At Kimberly, Hwy. 402 became Hwy. 19 and followed along the John Day River. Riding downhill along the river at sunset was exactly what I needed. Eventually, the highway ended at Mitchell. I went into the small grocery story next to the gas station. I bought a quart of milk and drank it while standing next to my bicycle. It was now early evening and I wasn’t sure if there were any nearby campgrounds. I went back into the store and talked to the woman at the counter. “I wouldn’t advise sleeping on the grounds ‘round here. There’s rattlesnakes and they are attracted to warm bodies and one might decide to crawl up into your sleeping bag with you.” I couldn’t tell if she was serious or pulling my leg.
She seemed serious, as there was no smile or hint of a smile. I asked her if she had any suggestions as to where I might sleep. She pointed across the road at a large white house with a porch that went all the way around it. “Those folks are friendly enough. Ask them if you can sleep on the porch. Being up off the ground and all you shouldn’t have to worry about snakes … much.” Still no smile.
I pedaled across the street, parked my bike and walked to the door. I felt a little silly knocking on their door asking to sleep on their porch because I was afraid of rattlesnakes. A rotund farm woman answered the door and stood wiping her hands on her apron. She smiled as I told her about rattlesnakes and my fear of sleeping on the ground. “Sure, make yourself to home on the porch.” I secured things on my bike and brought my blue mummy bag to the porch and rolled it out. I was both exhausted and exhilarated from the trip. I crawled into the bag with my jeans on and pulled it around my head a little tighter than usual … just in case.
I thought I would fall instantly asleep, but I lay there wide awake. This trip was so different than what I had expected. I was glad I hadn’t quit and returned home. I lay in my bag listening to the sounds of the night, the wind, the crickets. Soon I could hear voices from the house. A group of people were playing cards. It wasn’t loud or annoying, it was comforting in a way. And that’s how I went to sleep that night, to voices of friends playing cards.
I woke at sunrise and left the porch as quietly as I could. Mitchell is in the heart of what are known as the John Day Fossil Beds. In the same area are the Painted Hills. It is a unique area of Oregon that many people never discover. The hills do seem to be painted in varying shades of oranges and reds of ochres and blacks. Shortly into the ride that morning I stopped to take a picture. The sun was coming over the hillside and the strata of colors were so striking. I knew that my cheapo camera would not do justice to what I saw, but later when I looked at the picture it came close.
My journey from Mitchell to Prineville was perhaps my favorite part of the trip and also the shortest. The two lane highways were narrow and sometimes there was not much a shoulder. My only close call on the whole trip was a logging truck that refused to veer into the other lane when he passed me. He forced me off the road and into the ditch. A few more yards and I would have tumbled down the hillside into the river. I was not injured, only a little shaken. My hand was bloody from the gravel but nothing was broken. I pressed on.
By noon I had emerged from the mountains and forest into a drier and flatter part of central Oregon. Shortly after lunch it began to rain and then the downpour hit. The rain was coming down so hard that I could no longer ride my bike and I was forced to walk. I decided that I would not hitch for a hide, but that if someone stopped and offered I would not refuse. A battered pick up stopped and a cowboy helped toss my bike into the back of the truck. I rode in the cab with his dog.
I felt somewhat guilty as he let me out at the campground just above Prineville. I had decided to not tell anyone that I had not biked the entire way, a sin of omission rather than commission. I said good-bye to the cowboy. The rain had stopped and I stood among the Ponderosa Pines, their red skins glistening from the rain. It was early evening and I took the time to hike around the area. I could see the city of Prineville off in the distance and I knew that the next day would be my last day on the road. There is a song that Ponderosa Pines sing in the wind at night. My father had taught me to listen for it throughout my childhood, on various camping trips. I built a fire then sat and listened to the trees sing to me, they sang me to sleep.
The next day was another day of downhill. It was not as exhilarating as my first, in part because it had not been as earned as it had the day before. Prineville was the first actually city of any size that I would pass through. Hwy. 26 would cut through the center of town. Prineville is a city of about 6,000 and has a charming courthouse and city park. It felt odd to be among people again as I pedaled through town. I was glad when I reached the large state park on the other side of town and was alone with my thoughts. It would only be 15 or 20 miles to Redmond and another 30 to Sisters. I was on the last leg of my trip and the anticipation of arriving made the miles go by very quickly.
I loved this part of central Oregon and had spent most of my summers with aunts and cousins camping and hiking in the region. My destination was Suttle Lake. I’m not sure why my three aunts (Rosella, Zilpha and Peggy) had chosen Suttle Lake as the destination for extended family camping trips. But most of my childhood summers revolved around trips to Suttle Lake. Those three sisters had divorced or would eventually divorce their husbands and were independent ladies. It was not lost on me that the small mountain range near Suttle Lake was called Three Sisters.
That mountain range was now in view as I passed through Redmond. I smiled at the thought of the sisters waiting for me at the campground. I could picture the large green tent, the tarp that would create a dining area, the crates stacked to allow for a make-shift kitchen of no small proportions. The Coleman lantern would be hung and the checkered oil-cloth would be on the picnic table. Aunt Peggy would not be there, she would be in Ohio. But Zilpha and Rosella would be there waiting for me, worrying about me.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at the entrance to the Suttle Lake campground. There was a message board just off the road. On a round paper plate was a note from Zilpha, “We are at campground 203. See you soon. Zilpha.” I slowly pedaled through the campgrounds and eventually saw the lake. I was eager now to share my tales of victory and triumph with my family. I saw the green tent at site 203 and turned in and down the path. The first thing I did was have them take a picture of me standing with my bicycle. I wore a striped green shirt and light brown pants. I was proud of what I had done and it showed on my face. I was Don Quioxte standing next to his horse, Rocinante.
I sat down and Zilpha prepared me a bowl of fresh peaches and cream and I began to recount my tales … the brutal climb to Long Creek … the rattlesnakes in Mitchell … the miserable log truck that nearly killed me … the rainstorm minus the free ride.
The next day my parents arrived. My mother rushed to hug me. My father stood back next to the station wagon. He was proud and a little sad. Perhaps he thought back to that day when he let go of my bike for the first time and perhaps a little sad about letting go again. “How was your trip?”
“Good,” I replied. “Really good.”