“Miles later and the heat is just ferocious. Sunglasses and goggles are not enough for this glare. You need a welder’s mask.” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert M. Pirsig.
In our culture, as we grow older the process of negotiating transitions with ourselves and others is a constant challenge. Transitions involve condition or status changes in health, careers, finances, and relationships that can overwhelm us or open a door to new growth and opportunity. I will be 74 years old next month and one of the transitions bugging me is my physical fitness. I have always been into regular exercise, while at the same time not being particularly athletic. In my mid-seventies, I am feeling notable loss in strength, flexibility, and endurance.
In my thirties and forties, I ran 10ks and marathons. Starting in my fifties I began doing long bike rides, the first was 450 miles in a week from Raleigh, NC to Washington, DC in support of funds for AIDS clinics. The next was a much longer ride from Seattle to San Francisco with 35 other riders in support of the American Lung Association. Then, three times I went back to my home state of Kansas for the annual Bike Across Kansas (BAK), a 450-mile supported ride from Colorado to Missouri. You can ask, as many others have, why, but I have difficulty explaining to the incredulous. Why Kansas? Why June? My short answer is that I love the prairie landscape, my family has deep roots in the state, and I love pie.
The last time I did BAK before this year was 2010, when my oldest friend John joined me on the ride; we have known each other since first grade and he still lives in Wichita, Kansas where we grew up. 2010 was not a good year. Rain, wind, and thunderstorms chased us all the way across the state and we spent more than one night in tornado shelters. It was a wet, uncomfortable week and there was a shortage of pie. The earlier two rides had routes lined with Amish and Mennonite families selling every imaginable flavor of pie. And vendors assured us they made the crusts with real lard, from their own pigs on their farms. At the end of that third BAK I was wet, worn out from lack of sleep, and unfortified by good, honest pie. I was done and vowed not to return.
Then, this year my 33-year old daughter Jessie, who lives in nearby Seattle, suggested we do the ride together. She is a strong rider with lots of experience, but not, as she came to learn, with the hot, dry flat conditions of endless prairie that she would find in Kansas. Important, at least to us, was that the starting point on the Colorado line was the town of Tribune, talked about in our family as the town my grandfather founded, went bankrupt in, and lost his health. He eventually recovered financially and physically, but Tribune is a marker in our family of the risks of betting it all and losing.
So, in June I found myself driving my motorhome to Kansas and Jessie would fly into Wichita to join me. From there, a chartered bus would take us and our gear to the start. That first day was a short ride (36 miles) in the late afternoon to the Colorado line and back, but a head wind was blowing it seemed both going and coming and the ambient temperature was well into the hundreds. We made it okay, but worried what the next day (71 miles) would bring.
On the second day, we got an early start, up before the sun and on the road just as dawn was breaking, after breakfast at the VFW hall. There I got some contact info for the local historical society so I could learn more someday about my grandfather. We had to make 71 miles to our next overnight stop and the temperatures were projected to reach over 100 degrees by mid-day with winds from the south (we were heading east) blowing 25 mph and gusts to 40. We made good time until our lunch break in a Methodist church serving “walking taco salad.” That name does not refer to any parts of the salad that might be alive and moving, but to its ease of assembly and ingestion while on the move. Despite the name, it was refreshing to see a salad in this land of fried meats and boiled vegetables. Great huge pitchers of iced tea (the national drink of the State of Kansas) lined the dining tables and the church hall was air conditioned. Thank you, Methodists.
I came out of the church and found a flat tire on the bike. I went to work, strategically placing myself in the middle of the church lawn, under a shade tree, calculating that I would attract lots of help. In no time, four or five women riders from Seattle offered to get the flat repaired; they claimed expertise. I also suspected they were delaying getting back on the road. I was going to either replace the tube with one already patched from my kit or find the leak in the flat and patch it. Before we got to that point, however, another rider asked what size tube I needed because he had some new spares in his bag. He gave me two new tubes, one went on the tire and the other went into my kit for the inevitable next time. He would not accept any pay, just said that he had several and I was welcome to them.
My daughter did not wait for this repair, better to get on down the road before it got even hotter. We would see each other in camp at the end of the day. This repair took an hour, even with all the help, and I got back on the road still with 35 miles to go.
I felt good: fed, full of iced tea, well caffeinated, rested, and slathered with sun block. It had gotten hotter over lunch and through the delay. Air temperatures were around 105 degrees and the surface of the road was 20 degrees above that. Wind continued unabated. The road was boringly flat, through wheat fields ready to harvest, with cattle feed lots and their associated aroma mixed in. I took advantage of every rest stop to fill my water bottles, but none of the rests offered any shade. There was going to be no shade anywhere until I reached my destination.
Consider the volunteers who ran the rest stops. They were on their feet for hours in that sun and wind, serving cold water, Gatorade, fruit and other snacks. They would be out on the route every day for the entire week and the heat and wind. Rest stops were spaced about 15 miles apart, which as it became clear was not often enough for us.
I spoke at the end of day with a couple from Colorado who said they only finished the last 20 miles by stopping for breaks every 2-3 miles. Like my daughter and I, they were not acclimated to the heat and wind having prepared at the cooler temperatures of high altitude Colorado. I had been training at home on the Olympic Peninsula where I never had a training day above 60 degrees.
I was not prepared. I had done this Bike Across Kansas three times before, but never in this kind of heat and wind. The guy who ran the tent and mattress concession for the ride, someone who did this all season long all over the country, said he had never seen conditions like this before anywhere.
My daughter made it into camp still pedaling. I did not. At about mile 60, I stopped along the road (no shade, no break from the wind) to rest and catch my breath. I had a heart monitor on my bike and I could see that my pulse was good. I was hydrated and I was eating salt and potassium tablets. Also, I was hoping that some energy chews – Gummi-like blocks of sugar and caffeine – would see me through to the end.
But, I could not catch my breath. Bent over my handlebars, I was gasping for air and could not stop. I learned later that this was a classic symptom of heat stroke. I did not have some of the other symptoms, however, no cramping, vomiting, dizziness, etc. A group of riders approached and as is the custom on long rides they slowed and asked if I was all right. I answered at once, saying no I was not all right and I needed help.
I could, of course, have said, “I’m okay. Just need a break. Go on. I’ll see you down the road.” Instead, I stayed within my physical limits and did not push myself to a point where I would become a danger to myself and others on the highway.
The guys pulled out cell phones and called the emergency support number. They then stayed with me for another half-hour or so (in the sun, heat, and wind) until a Deputy Sherriff pulled up and I got into the front seat of patrol car in front of blessed max AC blasting from the vents in the dash. Later that night those riders would seek me sought to check that I was okay. I later learned that several riders went to the local hospital with severe heat stroke and dehydration. I stopped in time. In the patrol car, I was shaking, on the verge of tears, and very apologetic for causing everyone such a fuss. The deputy was great and we just sat there in the AC, swapping stories about Kansas heat, waiting for the emergency backup team to come by and take me to camp. After some delay – the emergency team was very busy — I rode into camp in the cab of an air-conditioned pickup with my bike in the back.
After a shower and a change of clothes, Jessie and I got supper from the Baptists, who were selling grilled burgers and brats. The line for food was long and I had a chance to chat with other riders. All had done the distance that day, but they understood and supported my decision to stop. Still there was a part of me that hated quitting. This had not happened before. That did not stop me from enjoying both a brat and a burger and more iced tea. Thank you, Baptists.
My daughter had said the earlier evening, after the first hot and windy day of riding, “Dad, this is probably the worst idea for a vacation we have ever had.” This second evening we talked again. According to our phones’ weather apps, the heat and wind would continue all week. Plus, in two days we learned, the schedule called for us to ride through Ft. Riley, a U. S. Army base, but our Washington driver’s licenses were not acceptable photo ids for entrance and we would have to take a long detour around the base. Crap and double crap. We agreed to quit. The 2010, 68-year-old me could have done it: Jessie was strong enough to do it now. I had no doubts about her, but about me? I was done. And, the ride was no longer fun for us. Looking around the high school cafeteria where we sat, we saw nothing but exhausted, miserable riders.
I made two phone calls. The first to my emergency backup ride, an old high school friend In Wichita. John had done this ride with me in 2010 and he knew what we were going through. He without hesitation agreed to pick us and our bikes up the next morning. He arrived at 8:00 AM after a three-hour drive and the three of us had breakfast in the local bowling alley. John reported that, when coming into town on the highway that all riders would be leaving on going east, he saw a lot fewer riders than he thought he should be seeing. We think there was large attrition overnight, but we have no way of knowing for sure. Perhaps I find comfort in not being alone in my decision to quit.
My second call was to my wife back in the Northwest. To be honest, she has no love for Kansas in the summertime, but she does understand my nostalgia for my home state. I told her what had happened and said that Jessie and I were taking the motorhome, which I had parked in Wichita at John’s house, and going to visit relatives in Kansas and Missouri for the rest of the week. Her reaction to our quitting was a mixed bag of emotions – fright, anger, relief, love and support. Before we hung up from a lengthy conversation, she said wanted me to do two things: (1) promise that I would never, ever do this again and (2) admit that I was crazy. I agreed to and did both and I meant it. I will not go back to the BAK, ever.
It took me a few days to recover physically and I am still processing what this year’s BAK means to me emotionally. Writing this piece has been helpful and I am very aware of how many people helped me in the rescue and recovery. I cannot give enough emphasis to them and the gratitude I have for their kindnesses. As for the physical side, I am working out again, nothing strenuous, right now focusing on strength, balance, and flexibility. If I do long bike tours again, they will be age appropriate and in locales that have moderate climate and geography. I plan to check out for 2018 what Elderhostel may have to offer. Are there flat tours of Tuscany with wine tasting or of Scotland with pubs and distilleries thrown in? See you down the road.
David Rymph, Ph.D.