With Death in my Draft

Day 40: Santa Cruz to San Francisco, 81 miles

With Death in my Draft
(part of a larger article, for future submission to the Sun)

I’ve always feared death.  Deeply.  An almost paranoid, morbid fixation, filtering through my life, peak experiences and the mundane.  There is this still small voice on my shoulder whispering, “So what’s the use, you’re going to die anyway.” Not a voice of comfort or reassurance, rather one of fear, anxiety, undermining my ability to enjoy my life.

So how is it that I find myself careening down Highway 92 at dusk, cars barrelling past, totally inadequate headlight, bicycle loaded with 50 pounds of touring gear.  Down, down into the dark towards San Mateo, 20 more miles to reach the BART station at the San Francisco Airport, to reach the hostel, the last ride of my third consecutive fall bicycle tour from Oregon to Southern California. Sprinting almost all day, over 80 miles, north from Santa Cruz along the Cabrillo Highway to Half Moon Bay, then over this insane mountain pass.  At dusk.

The thrill of my life. No fear at all. I am tempting fate, I know.  Perhaps that is why, for this moment, and during most of my cycling experience, my death obsession is vanquished.
The climb to the 1000 foot pass on 92 was long, arduous. A grade of 7%, but no harder than the hundreds of hills I’d ridden in the last 10,000 miles since I’d resumed cycling three years ago at age 47. I laugh at the cars descending at the snail’s pace of rush hour, heading back to Half Moon Bay from their jobs in the City, probably taking longer to descent the mountain than this cyclist will take to climb it.

Then the summit appears, and the last California sunset I will see.  I marvel at the beautiful hues of orange, yellow, fading into deep midnight blue, stars appearing above.  Sad that most of the travelers inching forward in the opposing lane will not see this splendour, instead must focus on the taillights of the cars ahead.  Another one of those experiences only a cyclist can have.

Earlier today, I flew along Highway 1 in the warm November afternoon, ecstatic in the sun drenched Cabrillo coast.  Ice plants turned scarlet by the cool fall nights, still in bloom with bright purple flowers. Thunderous surf pounding the sandy beaches and rocky headlands. Sea gulls and pelicans and ravens soaring in the brilliant cloudless sky. Miles pass effortlessly, and landmarks: Bonny Doon, Davenport, Ano Nuevo, Pidgeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, Bean Hollow.  My spirits are high, though I am anticipating the end of this 40 day tour with mixed emotion.

I learned yesterday that my 90 year old uncle died. Passed away is the preferred euphemism. I didn’t know him well, but he was an anchor of the Anderson dynasty. PhD Physicist, my father’s older brother. A kind father, generous community leader. Now my father is the last of his family alive. This the second death of my tour, following that of my friend Zach three weeks earlier.

I don’t know how to comprehend, how to respond to the survivors of the departed.  “I am so sorry for your loss,” the truest thing I can say. Beyond that, best to keep my fears, doubts, cynicism to myself. As I have been for the 1000 miles since Zach left this world.  To myself, and this blog, and the long empty miles. Death has been a constant companion on this tour, on all my tours.  If anything, my awareness is heightened, but not my fear.

The long descent down the mountain drops me on a series of dark roads.  Thanks to Google Maps, I can navigate in what otherwise would have me hitching a ride from the next available pickup. Winding mountain highway becomes gentle curving road through a long narrow park, crickets chiming, creeks rushing with the rare recent rains. The fog line is my guide, as I cannot see the shoulder, especially in the glare of oncoming headlights.  But traffic is mercifully light as I ride on in the dark.

I reach the city of San Mateo.  Civilization! I ride through a series of turns, then head north towards the BART. I cross the 101, here an 8-lane freeway filled with thousands of cars heading to and fro. The cycling bridge is spooky and enthralling. How many miles of 101 have I enjoyed.  And here, I fly above it, in its grotesque grandeur, millions of acres of concrete and asphalt.  Then I am back down the other side, riding towards the bay.

Euphoria returns, my legs seem stronger than ever as I push on over the last few miles along the waterfront. The aromas are potent: swampy seaweed, juniper, eucalyptus, then restaurant cooking, beef, coffee, pastries, chocolate, then the diesel fo trucks, the sweet intoxication of jet fuel as I pass the runways and docking gates where the huge flying machines await to transfer passengers, temporarily grounded.

Irony is rich: my tiny metal vehicle, which has transported me nearly 1800 miles this trip fueled by my legs alone, next to the mammoth jet airplanes, metal boxes with rockets attached to their wings, the most carbon-hungry mode of transport. I don’t think of myself as superior, for I know I am dependent on a system of roadways and the vehicles needed to build and maintain them.  Yet I relish the simplicity of bicycle transport, to see the bicycle highways of Denmark, multiple lanes for pedal power, heavily used year round, even in the snow.  Americans love of cars is mirrored with the Danes love of cycling.

When at last arrive at the hostel, via BART, I am truly spent. At the end of my tour. I think of writing this article, how I will excerpt the blog, somehow take these experiences and share them with others. I want to grab the memories, fear they will slip my grasp and vanish into the dark night of that mountain pass, dying as certainly as those who have passed, as certainly as I will also go, one day.

But not today, something I have learned to utter when I pass the many graveyards, or when the vultures soar overhead, or when death whispers in my ear.  “Not today.” Today, I have lived a fuller life. Today, on my bicycle, I have crawled, flown, soared, landed.  Today, I am alive.

One thought on “With Death in my Draft

  1. I had a friend who taught me how to skydive. He did a lot of crazy things, like jumping naked holding chickens. The last time he jumped (that I know of), he was totally ripped on LSD. What he realized that jump was that every time he jumped and landed on the ground alive, he had cheated death once more and his fear was quelled—-for a while. When his fear built up, he had to jump again.Now that I’m pushing 70, I realize how short life is (and always was). The thought of death does not terrorize me. ( I’ve been fortunate to have slipped out of my ego enough to know that at my core I am immortal). I think of my death as riding on my shoulder reminding me to appreciate with these senses the beauty around my while I can…and to do what love and my heart tell me to do with this body while I’m here.

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