That summer Mike and I decided to take off from work long enough to ride bicycles across America, something our wives initially opposed. It meant leaving our wives to fend for themselves and our children, while we took off on our great adventure. But we soon realized that we weren’t in good enough shape to ride all day, and remember this was in the summertime. I generally rode behind Mike, and on the first day I soon exhausted myself and had to get off my bike. A mistake, maybe…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… Meanwhile, imagine two out of shape middle-age farts riding heavily loaded bicycles out of Phoenix in the summertime. But yet we were wise enough to begin before the sun came up and to head north to the cool mountains…a couple of older guys who simply overestimated their endurance and underestimated their strength and found themselves stuck in the middle of the desert. Maybe we should’ve seen right then that we weren’t the supermen that we thought we were and should’ve called our wives to come pick us up. What (I ask myself now) if we had made the phone call, 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 way, pushing our heavily loaded bicycles, sweating and swearing at the mountain grade we most desperately needed to climb. When we could ride we used our largest sprockets as we climbed a long false flat, which was imperceptible at times, but still up. The previous day we only rode twenty-five or so miles before it got too hot to ride and spent the rest of the day in the shade under an underpass. That evening, in sober reflection on our first day in the saddle, we planned our next day, which we expected to be even harder than the first one. Bats flew around over our heads (prudently we covered our faces with spare T-shirts), and for a couple of discouraged guys the 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 the desert again.
Before the trip, like I said, Mike and I really didn’t know each other in 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 for choosing a route, it was one of the first debates we had, and since we wanted to stay off major highways, our options were limited. So we climbed out of the desert and had our hardest day. We were, of course, tempted to hitch a ride with a tucker. But we didn’t, all right, just as we didn’t do a lot of things we should’ve. Should’ve, could’ve, yeah. Every project requires decisions, some of them easy, some of them hard, and as it turned out choosing a route was one of the easier ones. But let’s not jump ahead. The very nature of what happened, what I’ve always called mishaps caused me to keep many of the details to myself. And if I had recognized Mike’s problems sooner, had known what to do, and had made the right decisions, maybe…just maybe…maybe Mike would be alive today.
Sad, sad indeed, the bicycle trip now a sad memory.
I’ve gone over it in my mind over and over again. When and where did it begin? On the highway somewhere, in Show Low or Springerville, but surely not in the ditch where it came to a head, or even before we began the bicycling trip. I still don’t know, but I suspect the bicycling and me had nothing to do with Mike’s problems, though all of the exertion may have triggered something in his brain.
The color of his face was bright red, the highway was as steep as ever, and the summit wasn’t in sight. Off in his own world, Mike was (though by his own acknowledgment he was fine)… He was struggling like I was but otherwise he seemed fine; and when we spotted a campsite right on a curve, we decided to call it a day before the afternoon was half over.
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 obviously didn’t know each other well. We had gone on a few short training rides before the trip and swapped a few horror stories about bicycling, so I had the impression that 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. 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 the sake of the challenge and the enjoyment of it? Why did we have to set out with goals in mind?
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and in spite of our ongoing 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 up with him…and I couldn’t see how he could keep going at that pace. As would surely come pass, he’d run out of energy. Then I’d have 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 the desire to race me, he never let me forget that he wanted to come out on top. Now I never wanted to compete. I didn’t care if he reached to top of a hill before I did, and I wanted to remind him that we had agreed that we would never rush or try to make it to 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 having to push my bicycle up them. Whatever happened, I wondered, to the idea of sharing an experience and working as a team? For that matter, whatever happened to the idea of building a friendship?
Mike, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to outdo himself. I stopped trying to stay up with him, because there was no way I could, as he seemed to get 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. 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”; heck, I didn’t want to get too far behind. My legs, bless them…from somewhere I got the legs…persevered, yes…down Salt River Canyon and up the other side too, riding 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…but I saw no point in trying to catch up with Mike, who naturally made it up the north side first.
At the top he aired his feet out. Took off his socks, 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 had to do 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 certainly sounded enticing.
But how could we make it across the country on the money we had if we 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 the desert and the climbs, might be a good place to recoup some energy and wash some cloths. It would all depend on how we felt when got to Show Low, which I calculated would be fairly early in the morning and, if we decided to stop there, it would basically make it 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 the place to establish a precedent and bring sanity back to our trip, and I was determined not to let Mike make all of the decisions. If on balance we both could agree on something like spending almost a whole day in Show Low, it would be worth it to stay there.
And I was enlivened by the cool, mountain air, which with a gentle breeze, the 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 (with only the sounds of the wind in the pines and an occasional vehicle) until Mike screamed like something or someone was attacking him. Sometimes it takes all of ones strength to show restraint, and for me this was one of those times. Mike’s tendency to exaggerate came into play here, or so I thought then. It was an explanation I clung to for the next few days at least.
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 the footprints, much less believed he saw them, he was obviously frightened by something.
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.
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 particular moment, all I wanted to do was to go back to sleep.
But Mike wouldn’t stop.
I told him he had to stop. It wouldn’t have hurt if I’d talked to him, though, in order for me to know what was really going on, I would’ve had to have been a psychologist.
There was no way that I could’ve looked inside his 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. En route to Show Low, rolling along through the pines, it was so pleasant that I put the incident of the night before totally 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 over a week. Took our bicycles inside, smelled bacon frying and the coffeepot was on (the breakfast would upstage everything else), thus putting off the forces of evil for a day, and…
After a rest day in Show Low and a good night’s sleep in a bed, the next morning would be relatively easy and was a welcome gift; about twenty or thirty miles across a high plateau, or the equivalent of a day of climbing had we not already 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 the handlebars in a way uncharacteristic of him. My attention however was diverted by the 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 fact alone should’ve eased some of the tension between us (now we could help each other, switch off the lead while we drafted each other), and by doing this I felt we really might remain friends to the end. I could see the road stretching before us with the wind at our backs, our heavy loads lightened along the way, and when it rained, we would enjoy it.
After the Big Foot incident, or perhaps because of it, I tried to ignore Mike when he yelled, “See there, a jackalope!” I remember now how unsympathetic my response was, as we road the final stretch into Springerville, and would think nothing of it now had what happened afterward not happened. The truth was I didn’t believe in jackalopes any more than I did in Big Foot, and like any fictitious animal I didn’t expect to live to see a jackalope, so I had two options, either to humor Mike or ignore him…either way I’d feel jerked around and didn’t like it. But there was also the 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 just fooling me.
The problem, I sadly have to 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 jackalopes. Now I’ll never know what he actually saw, or that I might’ve been wrong because he might’ve actually saw something.
If I had taken him seriously and stopped him then, maybe then he wouldn’t have gone on and on and ended up dead.
True, but we’ll never know, will we?
Assuming that there are jackalopes on the planet and Mike saw them along the highway east of Show Low (the jury may be out), I’m certain I didn’t see any.
“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 really 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 the huge ear jackrabbits we’d seen 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 some disease, but I wouldn’t put more stock in that explanation 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 or diseased jackrabbits depending whether you believed in them or not). I liked Mike indeed; hadn’t we agreed to spend five or six weeks riding bicycles together across the country? We road into Springerville as planned; he going his way and me going mine: he wanted to explore the town, and I wanted to find the city park. Planning to save money by staying out of restaurants, we agreed to eat our 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 fixing our lunch.
What began as a peaceful lunch ended up an ordeal (during which I thought Mike might get himself killed) and with us having to cut it 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 whole town was out to get us. 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 which wouldn’t have mattered had Mike ignored them. Although they weren’t very interested in us, they had an attitude…I’d call it a nihilistic attitude…that even I didn’t like, but still Mike should’ve ignored them. God did they appear rough, as if they didn’t give a fuck; then Mike had to wave and yell, “Halloo!” I wanted to disappear when Mike greeted them. He was not at all inhibited; didn’t seem to see that they didn’t want to have anything to do with us; given the circumstances he should’ve kept his distance…the wrong word and Mike could’ve ended up in a hospital…it could’ve easily 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.
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. All of them while showing it in different ways seemed annoyed with him, but it didn’t seem to bother Mike. This would’ve been a difficult situation even if he had had all of his wits about him. He should’ve seen how they were, and I felt scared for him. Bikers don’t come in one model or one size; they can be mom and pop 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 the nicest bunch, and the next minute they could blow your head off. Thus I was 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 seriously 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 them, 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.
“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 went tiger! 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.”
He started sobbing, and I wasn’t used to seeing grown men cry. I gradually managed to calm him down. His four kids were grown; a tragedy for him really; according to him they weren’t suppose to grow up. But his wife refused to get pregnant again. It didn’t seem to occur to him that she might’ve been too old to have children. Moreover and unexpectedly, Mike accused her of poisoning him and turning his children against him. His accusations surprised me because I knew he and his wife were still together; but what did I know? I knew that too often the walls of seemly happy, normal homes hid unspeakable horrors. Quite aside from the obvious there was too often the unexplainable; that however didn’t mean that there was any 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 the 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. “She tried to poison me, man,” he went on, speaking to me in confidence. “Every since we first got married she’s been conspiring to get me. I know she has. I would even say that several times she has almost succeeded…although I have no proof.”
Mike stopped sobbing when he started talking about his wife plotting to kill him. “I’ve 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. I’m onto her, and I’m onto you, Bill. I’m onto you both.”
At that point I decided to say nothing else, or not until at least I could get some 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, but they didn’t know the Mike I knew. He could whip anybody’s ass, or so I thought. I’m confident he could. 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 that. The next day would prove it, I think; more so than previous days, as he got worse, but I still didn’t know what was going on.
That morning I had a full breakfast in the café connected with the 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’d had 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’ve predicted where he would land. When the brain is short-circuited and the pressure inside the skull is released, the nightmare that follows can be, and often is, explosive. The nightmare, including the sightings of Big Foot and Jackalopes, and the tiger attack and his wife poisoning him, would culminate that day in a culvert along the side of the highway. But before then, keeping on the lookout for Mike, I proceeded at my own pace.
My experience, on the other hand, 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’d never face anything like it again. Like I’ve said, I wasn’t prepared, but who would’ve been. Back on the road, I decided not to break any records, but I wanted to get 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 of me as possible; maybe I’d get lucky and never see him again. But that wouldn’t happen, I knew. 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 had threatened me. Instead, in the morning I merely asked him if he felt better.
“Sure! Bring ‘em on. I’m not ready to bail out 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 in fact 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 the pines and that stretch of road between the volcano cones? But now Mike wasn’t in sight. “Without Mike,” I asked myself, “would I continue the trip?”
Mike? Well, to be honest, he was getting on my nerves. Nightmares repeated (if only I could shake him, wake him up)…without emotion he described them in great detail. Nonsense about Big Foot and Jackalopes must’ve seemed real to him, and all of that about a whole 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?
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 no where 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 he could hear from outer space. Was there life out there? Nothing that came in loud and clear. And not in a voice that you’d recognize. Nothing hospitable. “God.” God?
God. Messages picked up by the big ears on both sides of the highway; the location of the culvert in which I next saw Mike was nearby. But who really knew what he heard, who could get inside his brain, and our route just happen to take us through the 27 antennas of a radio telescope, and they were just as distinctive as the cinder cones were. Mike said he talked to God. Heard God speak, I believe he was sincere.
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, Curt. Was this Sunday?
Preaching, preachy: looking forward to death and at the same time yearning for someway to get out of it…and I had my moments too…who I could’ve been. I could still look ahead and see a future, but I was relatively happy in my marriage and had 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’d seen us off…along with my wife and son, in Phoenix, in front of the state capital building. Alive, and pleasant, too. A nice lady 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. Then we did have something in common.
We were a couple of middle-age men. We had careers and could afford to take the summer off, break away and see all of 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 for going on a bicycle tour…halfway through life when I was ready for a change and well enough off to afford to take a break, thankfully my wife understood. But even then I hated to take the time off. So I made myself get in shape and made it so I couldn’t back out.
“I know the first four days will be tough, Curt. Until we climbed out of 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 with the hardest part at the beginning of the trip…but we pushed on in spite of the extreme heat, and the possibility of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It was a risk we took, I believe, and though we both lived in the desert and endured many summers, and maybe because of that, we thought we were macho. I’m astonished how we ignored the 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’ve been. Sort of 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’d 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 the gas pumps of a busy service station situated in the middle of the Y at the 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, just as I was beginning to get in shape. He was spoiling everything. “You hold the trump card, Mike; I’m only here for the 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 one 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 the 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.
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 the file: thinking how I’d gotten sucked in: the ups and downs of Mike’s saga, when I started thinking about how I’d been suckered. 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 the 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 the fragility of life and the permanency of death. It started with him fixating on mythic creatures, specifically Big Foot and Jackalope, and later and more expansively on tigers and people in general, and finally on his wife and me. According to Mike, we were trying to do him in.
That was what he was talking before he took off after finishing his avocado. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I no longer wanted to be suckered, so I took my time getting on my bike, thinking he’d 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 the jackrabbits. Jackalope! I cackled.
“Goodness, Mike!” He must’ve been flying, or else I would’ve seen him off in the distance. Then I found myself trying to catch up. No, no, no! “No wonder he’s driving me crazy. For so he was, or I was approaching the 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 the solitude except for an occasional vehicle. Many more pickups than cars. There was a town up ahead. I planned to treat myself there with lunch in a restaurant. I knew the 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’ve 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 our quirks. But Mike has got to get control of 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…the open range got to me because I thought I’d see him. Could see for miles, but still couldn’t see him. I had begun 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 the 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. Therefore I had no warning before I saw his bike lying in the weeds beside the highway. Mike would be in the ditch…actually coming out of a culvert…when I came up; I first thought a vehicle hit him. As you can imagine it was a scary moment, and my heart leapt to my throat. I don’t know how Mike ended up in the 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 the culvert, as Mike crawled out. I felt like saying I didn’t know him. I wished I didn’t.
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 at 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 there to do it. After that Mike sort of calmed down.
I went down into the ditch to try 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 had the strength to walk away…Yes, I would’ve been better off. 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. By the time the State Police arrived, he was totally calm and rational.
By then he had stopped talking about spiders crawling all over him, diagnosing the red bumps all up and down his arms and legs as spider bites, and he balked at the mere 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.”
By then he had found his shirt and shoes and had them on. And then he said he was ready to go and asked what the hold up was before he got on his bike again. All this for the police, I suppose. Now then remember we were out 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 back on my bike.
Slowly at first (caution, fear, and resentment had 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, 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, and I 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’d slipped back, 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 the heat of the desert, then the long climbs, and finally the thin air; it was the 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 from all of this it is that… Como? I’s been 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 have 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 all depends on the 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 some 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 the price later, if there’s a price to pay. I wanted to keep my distance in a bed that took up most of the room, yet in a bed that never felt big enough for the both of 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 had 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 for 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 that…know that I couldn’t have stopped him. I knew it without him 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 there, 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 the town. No one welcomed us. No one knew us from Adam. Only a flickering neon motel sign promised us something. WELCOME VACANCIES
Going over what happened in my mind. We had all the expected amenities, I couldn’t think of anything else we needed. Of course, our bikes and gear came inside with us.
Showers. Then sleep. Sleep would’ve been nice. I had decided to take a room with a single bed because I wasn’t at all certain of Mike. I don’t know what I was thinking, and that could pertain to almost the whole bicycle trip up until then.
Sleep. Neither one of us, however, really slept.
He tossed and turned and tossed and turned that night, and never stopped. I could hear the train and the traffic noise outside; some mouse escape from its hole, while doubts mounted and seemed to call for an end to our trip. Around midnight, he started to have spasms and used that to pressure 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 that I didn’t try. Then he started tearing the room up. 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 had, of course, and then he apologized, and he was perfectly normal by the time we rode into town. 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 away 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 the police. Just as he did the day before, Mike went on a rampage without his shirt or shoes and socks on. Then before I could do anything he ran out of the room, 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. When I ran past the people packing their car I… Where was I, for pity’s sake? Why did they just stand there?
A hundred yards from the highway. But Mike ran straight for it. Sadly…
This haunts me to this day, which I know is insane, but I knew I couldn’t catch Mike. This I’ve replayed in my mind a thousand times, at least a thousand. The question in the back my mind is what could I have done if I caught him?
The question remains what could I have done differently?
First and finally! Did I think I could stop him? Maybe. I don’t know. 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 sad. I missed him for sure, but realized I had started saying goodbye back when he started that crap about Big Foot and Jackalops. I hope his wife will be okay. I felt obligated to call her.
I saw it. If you run in front of a truck and are killed, I’ll feel sad. I hope his wife will be okay. Anyhow I didn’t mean for things to turn out the way they did. I don’t know for sure about Mike, and whether or not he intentionally ran in front of a truck. I don’t suppose it matters much now. I certainly don’t know for certain, and it was certainly hard to explain why he was running away from me with his shirt, shoes, and socks off, and I didn’t make it easier when I decided to keep all the 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.
Started in Socorro and headed north to Santa Fe. Fought the wind whenever the road turned south and flew when it turned north. I didn’t have a single flat tire