by Randy Ford
That summer Mike and I decided to ride bicycles across America. Yes, Mike and I decided to tour America by bicycles. We decided to take off work. Yes, we decided to take off work and leave our wives at home. We decided to take off long enough to ride across America. It meant leaving our wives to fend for themselves and our children, while we took off on our great adventure.
Mike and I bought new bicycles, ten speed bikes, light weight touring bikes and bought panniers and camping gear, heavy camping gear. But we soon realized that gear we bought was too heavy, so we started over with two tarps, two ground clothes, and two sleeping bags. We didn’t plan to cook, so we didn’t bother with a cook stove. We didn’t bother with many things we once thought were necessary.
It was hot that summer. Why wouldn’t it be hot: it was summer? It was June, June in southern Arizona. And we soon found we weren’t in shape, in shape to ride all day, ride during the day in Summer, in Arizona. The first day we rode only thirty miles and sought shade a number of times while sleeping for a stretch. Remember it was hot, unusually hot that summer.
I generally rode behind Mike, and on the first day we soon exhausted ourselves and had to get off our bikes and walk, pushing our bikes up hills. A mistake, maybe … walking and pushing our bikes up hills made a long, hard day, a long, hard thirty miles, and we never learned to work together, as bicyclists (never drafted each other or stopped when the other wanted to), and as…well, we were friends but we didn’t know each other. Another mistake, perhaps; if I knew what I know now, maybe … a big mistake. Meanwhile, imagine two out of shape, middle-age farts riding heavily loaded bicycles out of Phoenix in June, in June! Torture! June! Murder!
But we were wise to begin before sunup and head north into mountains…a couple of old farts who underestimated their endurance and strength and found themselves stuck in the middle of desert and steep mountains. What were we thinking? We weren’t thinking when we faced the first long, steep grade. Maybe we should’ve seen right then that we weren’t supermen and that we were a couple old, middle aged farts and should’ve called our wives to pick us up. I ask myself now what if we made those phone calls, what if we called our wives to pick us, would Mike be here today? Neither one of us had a clue what we were in for.
A long hot afternoon. We walked most of the way, pushing our heavily bicycles, sweating and swearing at mountain grades, grades we needed to climb. When we could ride we used our small sprockets as we climbed long false flats. Previous day we only rode thirty miles before it got too hot, hot, hot to ride and spent the rest of the day sleeping under an underpass, sleeping on top of bat droppings. That evening, in sober reflection on our first day in the saddle, we planned our next day, which we expected to be harder than the first one. Bats flew around our heads (prudently we covered our faces with T-shirts), and for a couple of discouraged farts, bats were a distraction. We tried to sleep but couldn’t and took off around midnight hoping that we wouldn’t get run over by a car or a truck, started that early because we didn’t want to get stuck in heat and desert again.
Before the trip, like I said, Mike and I really didn’t know each other, didn’t know each other the way we would, the way we would despite being acquainted for several years, and with him seemingly having everything a man could want and with me a little envious of him. Before the trip we had our differences, of course; but we solved them as they came up. As they came up, we worked them out. As for choosing a route, it was our first debate, and since we wanted to stay off major highways, our options were limited. It was a heated debate. Desert verses mountains. Desert in Arizona during June or mountains. Mountains. Mountains won out. So we climbed out the desert and had our hardest day near the beginning of our trip. We were, of course, tempted to hitch a ride with tuckers, hitch rides up long, hard grades. But we didn’t hitch rides as we wanted, all right, just as we didn’t do a lot of things we should’ve. Should’ve, could’ve, wanted, yeah. Every project requires decisions, some easy, some hard, and as it turned out choosing a route was one of the easier ones. But let’s not jump ahead. Nature of what happened, what I’ve always called mishaps caused me to keep many details to myself. Many details would’ve been too hard to face. Many details of our trip woud’ve been too hard for Mike’s wife to face. Many details would’ve been too hard for Mike’s family to fac. And if I had recognized Mike’s problems sooner, had known what to do, and had made right decisions, maybe…just maybe…maybe Mike would be … now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sad, sad indeed, bicycle trip, now a sad memory, relegated to memory. Relegated to memory, thank God. Thank God.
I’ve gone over it in my mind, gone over it over and over again. When and where did it begin? On a highway somewhere, somewhere … in Show Low or Springerville … on the road, somewhere, somewhere, somewhere? But where? Where was somewhere? Surely not in a ditch where it came to a head, or before our trip. Back when, somewhere? Before our trip. Surely, before our trip. Our trip, our trip, our bicycle trip, it couldn’t have begun on our trip. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know when it began, but I suspect bicycling and me had nothing to do with Mike’s problems, though exertion may have triggered something. I don’t know.
The color of his face was red, the grade was steep, and the summit wasn’t in sight. In a world of his own, Mike was (though he said he felt fine) … he was struggling as much as I was but otherwise he seemed fine; and when we spotted a campsite on a curve, we decided before the day was half over, decided to call it a day.
It had been a hard day. Mike was outgoing and likeable, a good man who seemed to have everything going for him, a home, a wife, children, and a job. Although we had been friends for several years, we didn’t know each other well. We didn’t know each other’s quirks. We didn’t know each other’s likes and dislikes. We went on a few short training rides before our trip and swapped a few horror stories about bicycling, so I thought he was in better shape than he was. I don’t know which of us came up with the idea of touring across the country, but getting away from hectic jobs sounded appealing, appealing to me. Moreover, we both set personal goals for the trip: as much as I hated to admit that I was overweight and was asking for a heart attack. But whatever happened to the adventurous notion of accepting a challenge simply for a challenge and enjoyment of it? Goals? Hell, why did we have to have goals? Wasn’t riding bicycles across America, a big enough goal?
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and in spite of fatigue, heat and fatigue, we were feeling pretty confident…except we were running out of water. Mike was a long way ahead of me. Off in my own world, I was pushing as hard as I could, but I still couldn’t catch him…and I couldn’t see how he could keep going at that pace. As would surely come to pass, he ran out of energy. Then I had to wait for him.
I didn’t resent his prowess. Mike was serious about training, had trained more than me, and was (after all) in better shape. Although, as it turned out, there was something driving him more than a desire to race me, something more, something more that drove him, something that made him not want me to forget that he wanted to come out first … to always be first … to always win. Now I never wanted to compete. It didn’t matter to me. It didn’t matter if he reached top of a hill before I did. It didn’t matter and never mattered.
To me winning didn’t matter, and I always reminded him that we agreed that we would never rush or try to make a specific destination on a particular day. Moreover, I didn’t envy his prowess as much as I wanted to get in better shape. I wanted to ride up mountains rather than push my bicycle up them. I wondered whatever happened to the idea of sharing an experience and working as a team? Whatever happened to the idea of building a friendship? Why was he racing me? Why was he racing himself? Why? Why? Why did Mike always have to try to outdo himself? Why? I wondered.
I stopped trying to stay up with him, because there was no way I could. Why try, try and try to stay up with him when it was impossible. Why try, as he got stronger and stronger. Both of us, by late afternoon, wanted to get where we could spend the night, he without a doubt with a specific destination in mind, and me without one. I worried too that he might collapse…have a heart attack or something, and as I said, we were almost out of water and he was racing. Racing himself. What would I do if he suddenly collapsed? I wondered. Thank goodness we were coming to a junction, where I knew there was a gas station. Of course, Mike got there first.
But we had three or four hours left before dark, and there wasn’t a good reason to stop yet. So mile after mile I continued to chase him: “Not for any particular reason, I raced him. Heck, I didn’t want to get too far behind. I felt discouraged and didn’t want to be left behind. My legs, my legs, bless them…from somewhere I got the legs…persevered, yes…persevered and raced down Salt River Canyon and dragged myself up the other side, rode up it without stopping. I could honestly say that I was getting stronger. A risk taker by nature, I flew down the south side of the canyon…look mom, no brains… and huffed up the north side, but I saw no point in trying to catch Mike, who naturally made it up the north side first.
At the top he aired his feet out. Took off shoes and socks, his smelly socks. He farted and removed his smelly socks.
My idea of camping wherever we landed won out that evening simply because I refused to ride after dark. I didn’t ask Mike…this was where we were going to bed down, and I didn’t care whether he liked it or not. We carried emergency rations with us. I refused to cook (please, cooking was too dangerous), so all we did after we found a place where we could hide was spread out our ground clothes and unroll our sleeping bags. Easy enough, I thought. Unsatisfied, however, Mike wanted a hot meal and a shower, which by my reckoning was more than twenty miles away. Fists clenched, Mike clearly wasn’t happy, touché, for me touché. If we’d been closer to Show Low, maybe I would’ve been willing to risk it. A hot meal, a warm shower, and a bed with clean sheets was enticing.
But how could we make it across the country on money we had if we splurged, splurged in Show Low? And hadn’t we agreed to mostly camp and only stay in motels when it was critical? And hadn’t we been on the road less than week and had four or five weeks ahead of us? I still agreed that Show Low, after desert and climbs, might be a good place to recoup, recoup energy and wash cloths. It would all depend on how we felt when got to Show Low if we recouped or not, which I calculated would be fairly early in the morning and, if we decided to stop there, it would basically make a rest day. There were plenty of options, I knew, and I kept telling myself we weren’t in a hurry. Show Low, a pleasant mountain town, was just a place to establish a precedent and bring sanity back to our trip, and I was determined not to let Mike make all decisions. If on balance we both could agree on something like spending almost a whole day in Show Low, it would be worth a stay.
And I was enlivened by cool, mountain air. After heat and heat, sweat and heat, I was enlivened by cool, mountain air, which with gentle breezes, scent of pines, and as tired as I was, made for great sleeping. To this day I don’t know why Mike, bless his soul, screamed in the middle of the night and scared the wits out of me. It had been so peaceful, peace, so peaceful, sleeping and then Mike screamed. Only sound of wind, wind in pines and an occasional vehicle until Mike screamed, screamed like something or someone attacked him. It took all my strength to show restraint. To show restraint took all my strength. I was sure Mike’s tendency to exaggerate came into play when he screamed. And it was an explanation I clung to for the next few days. A reference to Big Foot clinched it for me. A footprint! I didn’t see one.
Or did something else set Mike off during the night and caused him to scream and insist that it was Big Foot, something I missed, and while I couldn’t believe it and didn’t see footprints, much less believed he saw them, he was obviously frightened by something. There were no footprints. There was no bigfoot. I was sure of it.
At any rate, I wasn’t sympathetic, as he tried to prove that there was something. Why couldn’t it have been an animal that I didn’t hear because I was sleeping so soundly? Or maybe he had a nightmare. Regardless, it seemed awfully juvenile to me. It had to be a nightmare, or why else did Mike scream? I hated him for it.
If someone doesn’t understand what’s going on with someone else, he or she…even though they might be friends…might not be as tolerant as they should be, and at that moment, all I wanted was to go back to sleep.
But Mike wouldn’t stop.
I told him he had to stop. I told him he had to stop. He wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t have hurt if I had talked to him, though, in order for me to know what was going on, I would’ve had to have been a psychologist.
There was no way that I could’ve looked inside Mike’s brain and seen what was going on. There was no way that I could’ve known that there was a disease at work, so I went back to sleep without saying another word. In hindsight, I kick myself for not being more alarmed. I should’ve paid more attention to Mike and his distress. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been blindsided, but how was I to know…know that I was dealing with something serious. Mental illness was something I knew nothing about. In route to Show Low, rolling along through the pines, it was so pleasant that I put the incident behind me. Mike turned on the gas, and we actually raced for the first time until I relented and turned off the gas just as we reached the outskirts of town, and…? He headed straight for a restaurant…hollered “Real Food!” as if he hadn’t had anything to eat for a week. Took our bicycles inside, smelled bacon frying and the coffeepot was on, breakfast upstaged everything else, thus putting off the forces Mike couldn’t control for another day.
After a rest day in Show Low and a good night’s sleep in a bed, next morning would be relatively easy and was a welcome gift; about twenty or thirty miles across a high plateau. We had climbed as much as we were going to. But the cool air and easygoing didn’t keep me from worrying about Mike, who decided to ride without his helmet and rode slumped over his handlebars in a way uncharacteristic of him. My attention however was diverted by scenery, which included a mountain lake, high chaparral, and several cinder cones. At one point I thought I might score a point or two by passing Mike, after I stayed on his wheel down a great down, near the bottom I shot past him, and tried to make it up the next hill before he did. More importantly, even if I didn’t beat him, it felt good that I could finally keep up with him. This alone should’ve eased tension between us (now we could help each other, switch off while we drafted each other), and by doing this I felt we really might remain friends. I could see road stretching before us with wind at our backs, our heavy loads lightened along the way, and when it rained, we enjoyed it, enjoyed each other, enjoyed it together.
After Big Foot, or perhaps because of it, I tried to ignore Mike, tried to ignore Mike when he yelled, “See there, a jackalope!” I remember now how unsympathetic my response was, as we peddled into Springerville, and would think nothing of it had what happened afterward not happened. Jackalops! Everyone knows Jackalops are fictitious. Truth was I didn’t believe in jackalopes any more than I believed in Big Foot, both fictitious. As with any fictitious animal I never expected to see a jackalope,, and I didn’t think Mike saw one either, so I had two options, either humor Mike or ignore him … either way I felt jerked around and didn’t like it. But there was also a possibility, a possibility if I stuck to my guns and pretended that I never heard him, maybe he wouldn’t do it again. Then think what would have happened had I totally agreed with him and had taken off chasing a jackalope (imaginary or not) across a field; what would it have done to him. What was his problem anyway? I didn’t know then. I didn’t know he had a problem and wasn’t pulling my leg.
The problem, I sadly admit (which is hard without blaming myself), was that I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t pulling my leg and that he really believed that he saw Big Foot and then two days later saw a jackalope. Now I’ll never know what he actually saw, or that I might’ve been wrong because he might’ve seen something. If I had taken him seriously and stopped him then, maybe then he wouldn’t have gone on and on and ended up … well, ended up the way he ended up. True, but we’ll never know, will we? Assuming that there are jackalopes on earth and Mike saw one along a highway east of Show Low (the jury may be out), I’m certain I didn’t see one.
“What an imagination,” I thought as we bade goodbye to our pleasant morning of cycling, which I’ll always remember for how Mike and I enjoyed each other’s company. Then he yelled “jackalope,” which perturbed me. I tried to ignore him, tried but he wouldn’t let me. Excited and persistent, he did everything he could to get my attention (“overreacted” would be a kinder way to put it), gestured and pointed at rabbits in a field, and yelled “a herd of jackalope.” A herd of jackalope! A herd! Jackalope! And not huge ear jackrabbits we saw all day. The mythical critter itself that has been described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns was supposedly inspired by sightings of rabbits infected by disease, diseased rabbits, but I wouldn’t put stock in that explanation any more than any other (in spite of having heard of a stuffed one somewhere). I might’ve humored Mike if it hadn’t been for his previous theatrics (Big Foot, my eye!), but now jackalopes! Jackalopes or diseased jackrabbits depending whether you believed in them or not). I liked Mike indeed, indeed I did; hadn’t we agreed to spend five or six weeks riding bicycles, riding bicycles together across America? We peddled into Springerville as planned; he going his way and me going mine: he wanted to explore Springerville, and I wanted to find a city park. Planning to save money by staying out of restaurants, we agreed to eat lunch in a park, so I thought I’d claim a picnic table while I had a chance. I also needed a break from Mike. I however didn’t get much of one …but recognize Springerville wasn’t very big, though I had to chuckle when Mike pulled up to the picnic table before I could unzip my panniers. All right I didn’t expect him to stop anywhere; but have him say the whole town was against us was quite a stretch. Anyhow, I appreciated his help with lunch.
What began as a peaceful lunch ended up an ordeal (during which I thought Mike would get himself killed) and with us having to cut lunch short. A lunch on the run instead of a leisurely one (all because Mike got involved with a motorcycle gang) didn’t leave us with a good impression of Springerville, but this was more so for Mike than for me because he still claimed the town was out to get us. I now think it had nothing to do with Springerville.
They came roaring up on their huge machines and took a break under a tree near us and had a sidecar with a little boy and a little girl in it. They gave us dirty looks, gave us dirty looks from the start, which wouldn’t have mattered had Mike ignored them. Although they weren’t very interested in us, they had an attitude … an attitude … an attitude. I’d call it a nihilistic attitude … something that even I didn’t like, but still Mike should’ve ignored them. God did they appear rough, tough as if they didn’t give a fuck; with black leather jackets, tough, fuck, fuck, fuck. Mike had to wave and yell, “Halloo!” I wanted to disappear. I wanted to run, hide, disappear when Mike greeted them. He was not at all inhibited; didn’t see that they didn’t want to have anything to do with us; given the circumstances he should’ve kept his distance … a wrong word and Mike could’ve ended up in a hospital. I knew a wrong word and Mike could’ve ended up in a hospital, and it could’ve ended our tour, so I was glad to hear one of them ask Mike, “Is this your first time through here?” And then add, “Not a bad little town. Better than some places.”
“Friend, it’s filled with armed crazies,” answered Mike, without hesitating. Note: the motorcyclists were armed.
In all of my life, I haven’t felt more threatened than I did then, and I could tell that the motorcyclists weren’t all too pleased with Mike. While showing it in different ways, they all seemed annoyed with him, but it didn’t seem to bother Mike. This would’ve been a difficult situation if he had had all of his wits about him. I’m sure it would’ve been different. I’m sure of it. Mike should’ve seen how they were, seen that they were armed, and I felt scared for him. Bikers don’t come in one model or one size; they can be moms and pops or hell-raisers, or fall in between. They could be trigger happy (some were…packed firearms on their hips…as a statement, I suppose) or bring along their kids (these bikers had…that could’ve meant they wouldn’t harm us), or they don’t give a fuck, as this gang apparently didn’t. Or they could be totally unpredictable; one minute they could be a nice bunch, and the next minute they could blow your head off. Thus I was unnerved. Unnerved. Unnerved. Then Mike walked up to the biggest dude and said, “It’s true, guys.” Then this dude looked at Mike in a way that seemed to say, “What’s with you?” And at the same time, “Scram!” And Mike persisted, telling him how people around Springerville had told him that they didn’t like motorcycle gangs because “two weeks ago a motorcycle gang rode though here and tore the town up. “So if I was you, I’d keep going.” And this really pissed the biggest dude off, and Mike still didn’t seem to know when to make a hasty retreat. As a friend then, I intervened, and we were lucky to get out of there alive … Devil take Mike and his big mouth.
Even then, it hadn’t dawn on me that there might’ve been something wrong with Mike, and even when later that afternoon he moved from obsessing on jackalopes to taking on tigers. He told me he made friends with tigers, which I assumed happened at the Phoenix Zoo; but now I don’t know, and it was something that resurfaced that night after a climatic race for the state line and we camped in New Mexico. Welcome New Mexico. I’ll never forget what happened during that trip though New Mexico.
“Hunted by a tiger,” Mike talked about trying to escape, while we set up camp for the night. And as we lay there under the stars he wondered out loud, almost in passing- about his wife- “Tiger against me! Ever wrestled a man-eating tiger?”
“So,” declared Mike the following evening while camping at a major junction behind a service station, where we had the campground to ourselves: “My wife is a man-eating tiger. She knows when to pounce.” He pointed at me before he said, “You better stay away from her.” I didn’t know Mike’s wife.
He started sobbing, and I wasn’t used to seeing grown men cry. I gradually managed to calm him down. It took a while but I gradually managed to calm Mike down. His four kids were grown; a tragedy for him really; according to him they weren’t supposed to grow up. But his wife refused to get pregnant again. He said he loved babies, and babies loved him. It didn’t seem to occur to Mike that his wife might’ve been too old to have children. It didn’t seem to occur to Mike that his wife, at her age, didn’t want to have any more children. It didn’t occur to him; never occurred to him. Unexpectedly, Mike accused her of poisoning him and turning his children against him. Unexpectedly, Mike accused his wife of slowly poisoning him over the years. His accusations surprised me because I knew he and his wife were still together; but what did I know? I knew that too often walls of seemly happy, normal homes hide unspeakable horrors. Quite aside from the obvious there was too often the unexplainable; that however didn’t mean that there was validity to what Mike said about his wife, still I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he was generally a truthful person or not. All the same, his behavior over the past few days was anything but rational. Mike’s world, and his behavior, to say the least, seemed strange to me, and I planned to talk to someone about it as soon as we got somewhere where there was someone who could help. There was something else. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue our bike trip.
There were times when my friend withdrew within himself. Watching him, I couldn’t tell what he was thinking or what he’d do next, as he withdrew within himself. “She tried to poison me, man,” he went on, speaking to me in confidence. “Ever since we first got married she was conspiring against me. I know she has been slowly poisoning me with slow-active poison. I know she has been. I know it. I know it. I’m positive, and several times she almost succeeded … although I have no proof.”
Mike stopped sobbing when he started talking about his wife plotting to kill him.
“I suspected her,” he said, “for a long time. You don’t know her,” he went on. “If you did, you’d see that by the way she treats me that she doesn’t want me around anymore. She has pushed me aside, aside, locked me out. I’m onto her, and I’m onto you, Bill. I’m onto you both. I am onto to you. I am onto you both.”
At that point I decided to say nothing else, or not until at least I could get help.
Mike now, compared to me, was a huge man, like a gentle giant was how some people later described him. “Huge and a person with a big heart,” I heard them say that he was a man with a big heart, but they didn’t know the Mike I knew. He could whip anybody’s ass, or so I thought. I’m confident he could, could whip anyone’s ass. It wasn’t long before I saw how unpredictable he was; unpredictable and explosive, and I didn’t know but he might’ve been a danger to himself. I came to think it … that he was a danger to himself. The next day would prove it, I think; more so than previous days, as he got worse and worse, but I still didn’t know what was going on.
That morning I had a full breakfast in a café connected with a service station at the junction, and Mike ate a whole avocado. Then he took off before I could get on my bike. Off and running, racing, I didn’t get it.
I couldn’t have predicted what happened next, after I decided that I wasn’t going to chase after him. By then I had it with him.
I should’ve called for help then, for he needed to be in a hospital, but I didn’t know it. He needed to be restrained, for he was out of control and no one could predict where he would land. When the brain is short-circuited and the pressure inside the skull is released, nightmare that follows can be, and often is, explosive. Nightmare, including sightings of Big Foot and jackalopes, and tiger attacks and a wife poisoning him, would culminate that day in a culvert along the highway. But before then, keeping on the lookout for Mike, I proceeded at my own pace.
My experience hadn’t prepared me for what I was about face, which I rated a ten, when ten was as difficult as it could get, and my gut feeling was that I would never face anything like it again. Like I’ve said, I wasn’t prepared, but who would be. Back on the road, I decided not to break any records, but I wanted to get to Socorro before dark and even planned to treat myself by staying in a motel. As far as I was concerned, Mike could fend for himself, so I let him get as far ahead as possible; maybe I’d get lucky and never see him again. But that wouldn’t happen. I knew it wouldn’t happen. He may get to Socorro before me, but he’d surely be waiting for me on the outskirts of town. Should I have turned around, do you think? If I did, I could go a different route. Head north and then across…
…had this feeling, after last night…
As I rode along that morning, I thought about how Mike said his job wasn’t going anywhere and how his department head had turned against him. Maybe…
My friend had lashed out at me, “You’re like the rest of them!” he yelled. Okay, so I’m not perfect. “There was a time not so long ago,” he said, “when I would’ve fought it, man, because it seemed so unfair; seriously I’m finished and I know it. It doesn’t matter now. I’m beyond it. But I’ve forgiven you because if I hadn’t I would’ve hurt you. I would’ve taught you a lesson. So watch your back, watch your back, dear friend. You may be done with me, but I’m not with you, so watch your back. Sleep well, meanwhile. Tomorrow’s another day. But watch your back.”
He turned on his side and in a different tone concluded, “Speaking of friends, you’re the only one I have left, but you can’t count on me.”
I ought to have been more alarmed because he threatened me. Instead, in the morning I merely asked him if he felt better.
“Sure! Bring ‘em on. I’m not ready to bail yet.”
“Good. Then how about breakfast?”
“Breakfast sounds good.”
“But listen, man.”
“Oh, never mind.”
I let him get ahead me. Mike could get as far ahead as he wanted. I no longer cared. I had not established a rhythm (a comfortable cadence for me was 75 rpm); didn’t expect any major hills that day; had almost forgotten that I had a touring buddy, and it wouldn’t have upset me if I didn’t see him again. For once I was determined to enjoy myself.
“For once I was determined to enjoy myself,” but hadn’t I enjoyed riding through pines and a stretch of road between volcano cones? But now Mike wasn’t in sight. “Without Mike,” I asked myself, “would I continue trip?”
Mike? Well, honestly, he was getting on my nerves. Nightmares repeated (if only I could shake him, wake him) without emotion he described them in great detail. Nonsense about Big Foot and jackalopes must seemed real to him, and all about a town being against him, all added up to something, but what? Saying those horrible things about his wife and me. In a word, crazy! Me? Insane.
Me! I wasn’t the one who was insane. “Certainly seemed sane this morning, let’s say, okay. We can hope he stays that way.”
“I do hope he’s okay.” Without emotion and all over the place, he pointed to things I couldn’t see: God on a motorcycle, penguins in the desert, squirrels as drunk as skunks, aliens on a roof, and eggs for eyes. Violation of my space by a guy I hardly knew. I couldn’t get away from him, and then he was nowhere in sight.
Friends. One of my warmest, personal friend, we met one day, I believe, on a bike path, Mike Creed and we agreed to share our summer. Where were we now? Somewhere in New Mexico with the National Radio Astronomy Via Telescopes on both sides of the highway.
You know I didn’t know what had gotten inside his head … what was going on inside his head. What he could hear from outer space. Was there life out there? Nothing that came in loud and clear. Nothing. And not in a voice that you would recognize. Nothing hospitable. “God.” God? Inhospitable.
God. Messages picked up by the big ears on both sides of the highway; location of a culvert in which I next saw Mike’s bike, lying on the ground next to highway. Mike was nearby. Where was Mike? But who really knew what he heard, who could get inside his brain, what was inside his brain, and our route just happen to take us through 27 antennas of a radio telescope, and they were just as distinctive as cinder cones were. Mike said he talked to God. Heard God speak, I believe he was sincere. Now he was surround by ears, ears! Did he hear God talk back?
Were his tears real? I felt embarrassed for him.
Get off it, Mike.
Static again, which I couldn’t hear; never did. Lots of attempts, come to think of it. In church, and out of church. Even on a bicycle tour when it got dicey; but I picked it up on my own, not from Mike.
Leave God out of this.
Aliens too, friendly or not. Emission from stars, galaxies, and quasars, though I never heard them myself. It had been a perfect day. It had been a good morning, and I remember it started out with Mike saying he expected to live forever. Something about eternal life. Going to heaven. Hymn singing. Praying. Preaching. Et cetera.
Religion. Old time religion. Get right with God, Bill. Was this Sunday?
Preaching, preachy: looking forward to death and at the same time yearning for some way to get out of it…some way to get out of death, and I had my moments too…who I could’ve been. I could still look ahead and see a future, a future. I saw I had a future. I thought I had a future. I thought I could forestall death for a while. Would a while be enough, I wondered, but I was relatively happily married … had our spats, our ups and downs but relatively happily married and had a job I could count on. It was important: a job I could count on. Then I saw what Mike was going through and wondered what he meant when he said, “I’m afraid my wife is dead.” I knew that wasn’t true because she saw us off…along with my wife and son, in Phoenix, in front of the state capital building. Alive, and pleasant, too. A nice lady, pleasant, not a hag, a nag from what I could tell. My gut feeling was that I misunderstood Mike when he said, “I’m afraid my wife is dead.” While I knew a thing or two about how hard it was to keep a marriage alive, so I worked out to my satisfaction an explanation for Mike’s statement about his wife dying. “Until death do us part and through sickness and heath” I knew it was sometimes a tall order under the best of circumstances. “Until death do us part,” a tall order. Then we did have something in common.
We were a couple of middle-age men. We had careers and could afford to take a summer off, break away and see America. Mike impressed me with his intellect. What other things did we have in common?
Overachievers, easily that. True for me, for quite a while one, and reason enough to go on a bicycle tour…halfway through life when I was ready for a change and well enough off to afford a break, thankfully my wife understood. But even then I hated to take time off. So I made myself get in shape and made it so I couldn’t back out. I didn’t want to back out. The last thing wanted was to back out.
“I know the first four days will be tough, Bill. Until we climbed out the desert.”
The desert in June, the hottest, longest days of the year and incredible climbs, how big a toll did it take on Mike? How many times was he tempted to call it quits, call it quits with the hardest part at the beginning of trip…but we pushed on in spite of extreme heat, in spite of exhaustion, and possibility of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It was a risk we took, I believe, and though we both lived in desert and endured many summers, endured many Junes in southern Arizona, in deserts, even though we considered ourselves desert rats, and maybe because of that, we thought we were macho. I’m astonished how we ignored symptoms, even when it got scary, and yet we survived. Absent common sense, we pushed on, with Mike in the lead, so I didn’t have any idea what it might’ve been doing to him.
Mike impressed me with his intellect; I assumed he knew his limits. I certainly thought I knew mine.
The epitaph Mike composed for himself…though I didn’t appreciate the significance of it when he shared it with me. Even though it was a strange thing for him to bring up then, I shake my head now because I dismissed it. Was he even then thinking of taking his life? It never occurred to me that he might be. Went over my head, but by that time I was trying to pay less attention to him and didn’t really hear him. He said something like “they’ll be sorry.” Who’ll be sorry? What was he talking about? It made as much sense to me as the other things he said and how the day before he went on about carnage, ferocious cats, and road kill… rodents, snakes, turtles, and the like, smashed by cars and trucks.
Aha, but nothing he said surprised me by then…though now it all makes sense.
I wasn’t totally stupid; just didn’t know what was wrong with Mike. That’s all.
Were there other signs? Yes. Something besides being sunburned and dehydrated? Yes.
You were there. You should know.
Come on. Hey, you said you knew something wasn’t right. You had to have known. Out there in the middle of New Mexico, not far from where they first exploded the atomic bomb, and you were riding along with someone who was about to explode and you were off somewhere else?
While he ate his avocado, we sat juxtaposed to gas pumps of a busy service station situated in the middle of a Y at a junction of two major highways. Then he took off. But by then I didn’t care.
The night before I hadn’t slept very well. I thought about Mike, considered my options, what I could do, how I could confront him. He seemed to be getting worse and worse, just as I was beginning to get in shape. He was spoiling everything. “You hold the trump card, Mike; I’m only here for a ride. Who thought we could ride across America, anyhow?”
Then I would have to bide my time with care and hope for the best…we were in the middle of nowhere, after all: and there were no cell phones in those days. It was how we wanted it, I guess…a time away from considerable burdens, pressures, and problems, “out of a pressure cooker and into a frying pan” was how I later saw it. I don’t think either of us intended it to be that way. We both came from a world where persistence, optimism, and hard work paid off, but now we were confronted with a situation in which none of that mattered. Ignorance on my part, I add in passing, may have been my excuse, but it doesn’t ease my conscience now. There were those who would say that I managed Mike as best I could within my capabilities: asked for help, which I did and insisted on help, which I didn’t. In hindsight, I should’ve recognized an emergency when I was confronted with one. In Show Low I should’ve been willing to end our tour.
In short, I was wrong about Mike. He wasn’t playing games.
So you were wrong about Mike…but you shouldn’t blame yourself. Even when you could’ve ended the tour with a phone call or two, and gotten help for Mike in Show Low, and he was hospitalized, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there would’ve been a different outcome. You weren’t responsible.
I still plead ignorance.
Plead ignorance, then.
So I’m not to blame.
You’re not to blame. You’re not to blame.
Mike was my friend; or else we wouldn’t have taken off on our bicycles together.
Heading east, yes. Once Mike told me “You can be either against me or for me, but don’t be neutral. Neutrality is equivalent to death and should be filed away as such.” And I had gotten around to opening a file: thinking how I’d gotten sucked in: sucked into ups and downs of Mike’s saga, when I started thinking about how I’d been suckered in. Terribly wrong, which I found out the hard way.
Crazy talk about different ways of dying (that is to say, poisoned, shot, or attacked by tigers) notably having same outcome, and as Mike attempted to explain, he compared life to a bubble…virtually everything he said toward the end had something to do with fragility of life and permanency of death. It started with him fixating on mythic creatures, Big Foot and Jackalope, and later and more expansively on tigers and people, and finally on his wife and me. According to Mike, we were trying to do him in. According to Mike, we were killing him.
That was what he was talking before he took off after finishing an avocado. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I no longer wanted to be suckered in, so I took my time getting on my bike, thinking he would slow down whenever he got whatever it was out of his system. “And if I don’t see him again, good riddance!” Saying “good riddance” was liberating.
Suddenly I became aware of all jackrabbits. Jackalope! I cackled.
“Goodness, Mike!” He was flying, or else I would see him in the distance. Then I found myself trying to catch up. No, no, no! “No wonder he’s driving me crazy. Crazy, for so he was driving me crazy, or I was approaching end of my patience (we would make Socorro by dark), and I was determined not to pass through the town without doing something about Mike.
I enjoyed solitude except for an occasional vehicle. Enjoyed it. Many more pickups than cars. There was a town up ahead. I planned to treat myself there with lunch in a restaurant. I knew a place was on a corner, on the north side of the highway. Is it any good? Excellent home-cook food and I wasn’t going to worry about Mike.
“Nice idea.” But it never worked out.
Who said it would? What would keep Mike from ruining a perfect day, with a cool breeze at my back? Free from the pressure of compassion and understanding, it was too late, too late, too late. “When I catch up with him, he’ll get an ear full from me: it’s time to put all of this nonsense to bed.” I was thinking how nice it would be to not have to worry about Mike, but I knew that wasn’t possible: not for a while anyway. “There still might turn out to be a simple explanation for Mike’s behavior and the tour for us both still might go on the way we planned; that’s why I kept going. Then too, as long as he doesn’t drive me nuts who cares if the guy’s a little crazy? We all have quirks. But Mike has got to control himself.”
I’d lost count of how many days we’d been in the saddle. Spin! Spin! Spin! Still no sign of Mike, but then I didn’t care if I ever saw him again: damn, where was he? It was a long flat highway… open range got to me because I thought I’d see him. Could see for miles, but still couldn’t see him. I began to worry in spite of myself but tried not to for the next several miles.
Now, then (except for a huge mailbox and a long dirt road that took off from the left and disappeared up over the horizon) with nothing: to break silence I sang “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of Collibah tree…” Mike was still out of sight. Now that he was ruining my day (for which I wasn’t about to forgive him), whereupon I started cursing, yes, I thought I was about to lose it, while not knowing how I was going to cope, I tried to set aside my grudge long enough to come up with a plan. Somehow I had to get rid of Mike. Somewhere along the way that morning I decided I didn’t want to have anything else to do with the guy.
But before I could think of some gentle way of letting Mike down something unexpected happened that changed everything. Before I could follow an internally guided course, outside events interceded, and just as he prophesied, Mike crashed.
Still no Mike. I had no warning before I saw his bike lying beside the highway. Mike would be in a ditch…actually coming out of a culvert…when I came up; I first thought a vehicle hit him. As you can imagine, it was scary, a scary moment, and my heart leapt to my throat. I don’t know how Mike ended up in a ditch, but I do know I was thoroughly pissed.
To the best of my recollection, I don’t think I was really thinking of Mike at this point. Instead I was thinking about ending our Grand Tour, and I was going to confront Mike and not wait until Socorro. Would I have?
Three utility men pointed at the entrance to a culvert, as Mike crawled out. I felt like saying I didn’t know him. I wished I didn’t, didn’t know him.
Come again? What’s going on? (I hated Mike by then.) When he emerged, he had no shirt and no shoes on, and seemed wild to me.
What was new? The world wasn’t coming to an end, but Mike was acting as if it were. My friend was stepping with bare feet on broken glass and sharp rocks while no longer in control of himself. He was screaming, laughing, sobbing, and trembling all the same time and throughout the whole ordeal he never let up. Sadly he didn’t stop until he exhausted himself.
Right. I was persuaded then by what I saw that this friend of mind was totally insane and that I couldn’t handle him. So I was glad to hear that the State Police had been called and that they were on their way and would be there in more or less thirty minutes. Meanwhile, Mike was down on his hands and knees, in a fathomless daze…talking to himself…laughing, everything to an extreme. On his third go-round I thought he needed to be restrained, but there wasn’t anyone to do it. After that Mike calmed down.
I went down into the ditch to talk to him. Talk wouldn’t do any good. But I didn’t know it wouldn’t.
In one syllable, I wish I had strength to walk away…Yes, I would’ve been better off had I walked away. But Mike was already sucking me in again, starting with how he looked at me with tears in his eyes and telling me how much he was hurting … telling me how much he loved me. “Love you, pal!” Was this any way to show love? But by time State Police arrived, he was totally calm and rational.
By then he stopped talking about spiders crawling all over him, diagnosing red bumps all up and down his arms and legs as spider bites, and he balked at the suggestion that maybe he needed to be in a hospital. He refused when asked by the police. “Our hands are tied,” one of them then explained, “he has to be a danger to himself or to others before we can do anything. He doesn’t look as if he is a danger to himself or others.”
By then Mike found his shirt and shoes and had them on. And then he said he was ready to go and asked what the holdup was before he got on his bike again. All this for the police, I suppose. Now then remember we were in the middle of nowhere…really over fifty miles from Socorro and our destination that day. And what was I to do but to get on my bike.
Slowly at first (caution, fear, and resentment set in) my friend stayed in front. And then I wasn’t about to stop for lunch unless he suggested it because I was afraid of what he might do. Et cetera: it was all up to Mike. Now then: Mike had me, but I’m not sure he knew it. I wasn’t sure of anything…what I should do next…whether to stop then or not…
I didn’t know just where we were. The words “mystery” and “tragedy” came to mind, as I road in my friend’s slipstream. “Easy now, take it easy,” I kept saying over and over again, while not wanting to upset anything, while not wanting to upset him. After what happen, I didn’t want to upset him, and then cursing at the situation…not at the person, but at the situation.
My apprenticeship hadn’t ended by the time we reach Socorro. We both needed showers, and I decided it wasn’t wise to camp. Mainly, I didn’t think it was safe to camp and thought that maybe I could control him better in a motel room. Here I was again trying to hang on to as much as possible. Somehow I slipped back, slipped back into thinking I could control Mike, could control the situation, and the culmination of everything I’d been through the last few days hadn’t hit me yet. All that from Mike and when we got to Socorro and after he apologized, I was ready to give him another chance.
“What’s going on, man?”
Mike lowered his head. “Here’s where it gets difficult, and tomorrow is another day, and we’ll be in Santa Fe tomorrow, right? Neither you nor anyone else knows the hell I’ve been through. You have to acknowledge that it hasn’t been easy; that first there was heat, then long climbs, and finally thin air; it was a combination of these things that almost did me in. But now you can see I’m better and have returned a new man, after having routed the monsters and lived to tell about it. No one but me knows what it’s like…what it’s like to confront your worst enemy, to fight to the end and face death and almost lose; that there are inevitably distortions coming from the brain when it misfires and transmission is broken up, and what comes out… Well, you were there with me. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a comedy or a tragedy, or both. At least, no one got hurt. Anyway I’m okay now, and there’s no need for the Calvary because I have a handle on it. I’m back…and from now on, I won’t cause you any troubled. If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that… Como? I’s been silly. “ Silly?
We returned to our motel room after we filled up on carbohydrates. After a hard day we always made it a practice to take in as many carbs as we could. Full of pasta, absolutely stuffed, and satisfied. “I bet I’ll sleep well tonight.”
“Yeah, hey, thank you for putting up with me and for all you did out there, for sure and then some. Look: For all the things that happened…I’m sorry, really sorry.”
“What can I say? Of course, I forgive you. I have to, don’t I? Now don’t bother me.” He sat on his side of the bed, and I sat on mine. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” He lay there in his riding shorts and with his biking shoes on, with the television remote in his hand. “So let’s try to sleep, okay?”
“You helped me today,” he told me. “More than you realize, probably.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“For one thing, I learned the importance of the buddy system. Imagine what would’ve happened if I had been out there alone,” he said soberly.
“You wouldn’t have been alone for long.” Though I may not have sounded like it, I felt pleased and relieved that he was talking sensibly. “But you’re right. We’re in this together, man. We’ll make it now. We don’t have a choice. It’ll certainly be something to tell our grandchildren about.”
If we have grandchildren.
He looked over at me. “This hasn’t been a picnic, especially today. At least you didn’t murder me. You hung in there.”
“The ride tomorrow.”
“The ride tomorrow, right.”
“On to Santa Fe. It should be an easy day.”
“Right. It depends on wind.”
“Do we have to go through Albuquerque?”
“I think so.”
“Good. It hasn’t been a picnic so far. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Then let me get sleep.”
“I sympathize with you.”
“Go to sleep.”
“But I’m afraid…”
Afraid? It was something that I shouldn’t have ignored. Give me credit. I didn’t totally ignore it. We try to justify our actions, or inaction, when something goes wrong, don’t we? And pay a price later, if there’s a price to pay. I wanted to keep my distance in a bed that took up most the room, yet in a bed that never felt big enough for the both us. A room with a Bible and a telephone in it…could’ve called someone, but didn’t think it was necessary. Wasn’t thinking. So what does that make me? An accomplice? Mike started again, and I admit now that I realized it.
Who could I have called? When had I last called my wife, or called and asked her advice? Right enough, I should’ve called someone! After the last few days, I should have. I should’ve recognized the beginning of a cycle and should’ve known it would grow in intensity. In intensity…and also potentially violent, depending on how long it went on. And/or without intervention… Again I didn’t have a crystal ball; again every day was a struggle, as I…
blame. What’s more it’s what a psychologist told me: that it wasn’t my fault and I know it…know I couldn’t have stopped him. I knew it without him telling me, knew it without a psychologist telling me. Figured it out on my own. It took two or three days. Yes, it troubled me. The town reminds me of it now, especially when I go through it, especially when I go through Socorro, when I go down the main drag and pass the same motel, but I by no means blame myself. Talking to a psychologist helped. A day or two afterwards.
Every so often a train went through town. No one welcomed us. No one knew us in Socorro. No one knew us from Adam. Why would anyone know us? Why would anyone know us in Socorro? Only a flickering neon motel sign promised us something. WELCOME VACANCIES. Only a neon sign welcomed us. That would change.
Going over what happened in my mind. We had all expected amenities, I couldn’t think of anything else we needed. Of course, our bikes and gear came inside.
Showers. Then sleep. Sleep would’ve been nice. Sleep, sleep, only if I were allowed to sleep. Sleep, sleep, soundly sleep. I decided to take a room with a single bed because I wasn’t certain of Mike. I knew I had to keep close track of Mike so I decided to take a room with a single bed. I don’t know what I was thinking, and that could pertain to the bicycle trip, a bicycle trip across America.
Sleep. Neither one of us, however, really slept. I couldn’t sleep. Mike couldn’t sleep. Mike was too restless to sleep, his tossing and turning kept me awake. He wrestled, wrestled with himself and me, and I had to restrain him.
He tossed and turned and tossed and turned that night, and never stopped. I could hear a train and traffic noise; some mouse escape from its hole, while doubts mounted and seemed to call for an end to our trip. I couldn’t shut out the neon sign. Then around midnight, he started to have spasms and it pressured me to let him get out of bed. In a manner of speaking, I was trying to hold him (or restrain him) against his will.
That he was stronger than me was evident. A test of strength no doubt. In bed a mighty struggle. Finally, I gave up. But hey, no one could say I didn’t try. Then he started tearing up the room. I should’ve called the police then.
Who could’ve known then that he wouldn’t calm down after he exhausted himself? The day before he calmed down; of course, he calmed down, and then he apologized. He apologized and was perfectly normal by the time we rode into Socorro. I knew what to expect or thought I did at that point. But shit I was wrong, dead wrong. We were in the farthest room from the office. The people in the room next to ours were already up and packing their car, so I don’t know why they didn’t call police. I would’ve called police. Just as he did the day before, Mike went on a rampage without his shirt or shoes and socks. Then before I could do anything he ran out the room, screaming, screaming, and screaming like a lunatic. Though I was alarmed (and not very appreciative of Mike’s behavior), I shouldn’t have chased after him, but instead should’ve picked up the phone and called police. When I ran past people packing their car I… Where was I, for pity’s sake? Why did they just stand there? Why? Why didn’t they call police?
A hundred yards from the highway. Mike ran straight for it. Sadly…
This haunts me to this day, which I know it is insane, but I knew I couldn’t catch Mike. This I’ve replayed a thousand times, at least a thousand. The question that remains is what could I have done had I caught him?
Questions remain: what could I have done differently? Questions remain … Questions remain … So many questions remain. What if? What if? What if always comes up? And then … there is always then. What if and then …
First and finally! Did I think I could stop Mike? Maybe. I don’t know. It was insane. He was insane. Maye that answer is too easy. But by the time I reached the highway, it was too late.
After he ran in front of a truck and was killed, I felt … It was too late, too, too, too late. I don’t have words for it. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop him … I watched him run in front of a truck. I was there. I watched him … I watched him run in front of a truck. I watched him kill himself. I watched him, and I don’t know if he knew, knew what he was doing. I watched him kill himself and don’t know if he knew what he was doing or not. There was nothing I could do … could do … could do. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Then I felt obligated to call his wife. Someone had to call her, and I felt obligated, obligated, obligated to do it. And I decided to keep details to myself.
And what about the bicycle tour? I finished it. A year later I finished it in honor of Mike. Went all by myself, but Mike was there. Listen to what I’m saying; that until I finished the bicycling tour I couldn’t move on. There was no way I wouldn’t finish it. There was no way I could move on.
Started in Socorro and headed north to Santa Fe. Fought wind whenever road turned south and flew when it turned north. I didn’t have a single flat tire. All summer I didn’t have a flat.