A few weeks ago I packed my gear, sweated and strained into spandex biking shorts, hopped on my bike and set out on a week-long journey from San Francisco to L.A. as a part of the annual AIDS Lifecycle ride.
I wrote about this experience two years ago, the first time I did the ride. I talked about how I started off training to do the ride for myself, for some grand mystical challenge that only the middle-aged can truly understand. I sweated and strained through that week, mired in my own concerns. It wasn't until that final night, on a candle-lit beach in Ventura when I really understood why I was there. What it meant to be a part of that ride, raising money and helping in the fight against AIDS.
It made me want to do it again. I was unable to do it last year due to being out of the country, but I resolved that this year I'd do it. I wanted that feeling again. That sense of community, of feeling that getting on the bike the next day mattered more than anything, because it was making a difference.
So off I rode, a little wiser, a little better trained. And that allowed me to have an awareness of what was going on around me that I didn't have last time. That sense of community was there all the time, not just during a big ceremony at the end but in lots of little ways all the way through.
No one ever got a flat tire, had trouble on a hill or got sick where there weren't at least a half dozen others right there waiting with a spare tube, or a kind word or just a hug to help get them through that few moments of weakness.
It permeates every facet of the ride. There are huge lines for everything. Food, drinks, air pumps and especially for the porta-potties. But no one jostles, no one argues or fights. Rather, they turn to the person next to them in line and strike up conversations while they wait.
My friend and tent-mate Joe Hui summed it up for me after just a few days. He said, "Don't you just wish the whole world was like this camp for the week we're here?"
There were little epiphanies like that that sneak up on you and then there are the ones that punch you in the gut. I remember one of those. I was slowly grinding my way up a hill we call Quadbuster. A guy passed me like I was standing still. A short time later I saw him go flying back down. And sure enough he passed me again.
I admit my "sense of community" might have been waning a little after that but I couldn't believe my eyes when he went down again! And as I was topping the last few feet, there he was blowing by me. Covered in sweat, panting hard but grinning.
As I guzzled water and mopped sweat out of my eyes I silently screamed at the guy for making it look so darned easy. Then the bottom dropped out for me when I heard the reason why he did that climb three times. It was a personal challenge for him to climb that particular hill three times - one time for each partner he'd lost to AIDS.
Something like that really put things in perspective. And there were dozens of those stories. A man named Ken, who is called "The Chicken Lady" by everyone, because he has ridden nearly every AIDS ride dressed in a garish costume. He gets out early and leaves plastic eggs filled with candy on the tough climbs. Last year he missed the ride after suffering a stroke. Odds were that he wouldn't ride again, but there he was smiling, laughing and handing out eggs.
These are amazing and wonderful people who I am fortunate enough to have met through this grand effort and astounding community of people. There is a quote I read once by Jack Kerouac. It reads, "I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life."
By getting to know these phenomenal people and getting to know the Lifecycle community and why they are out there on the road year after year they've given me that. That "great consciousness of life". An understanding of the love, the loss and the commitment they share.
It was a grueling, difficult, frustrating, joyous, peaceful and exhilarating experience. And it is one I most heartily recommend.
-Geoff Gillette can be e-mailed at ggillette@DanvilleWeekly.com.