by Steven K. Roberts
Healdsburg, California
January 23, 1987
11,450 miles

It began dramatically, as befits the coast. Looking down through Minolta 8×20’s on the backs of soaring hawks, wingtips like splayed fingers playing the thermals with precision. Wide-eyed flight down a tightly coiled road, losing 700 altimeter feet in moments only to hurl ourselves once again against the great wall of gravity: clattering down through the gears to that never-quite-low-enough granny, setting the jaw, tinking the aluminum seat supports with the pulsing backthrust of pedal effort, watching the quads on freshly exposed pale legs ripple smoothly with uphill cadence. It becomes hypnotic, even smooth and poetic — the rhythm of heavy cranking the antidote to its own pain.

Russian River. A good shoulder at last, 20 miles up easy grade into wine country. Dormant vineyards, the names familiar from years of casual wine rack perusal; yellow mustard flowers carpeting the spaces between rows of wired chest-high vines. The traffic changing, the flavor changing — suddenly a river instead of a sea. The end of an era… a feeling of winter… vague sadness…

Somewhere south of Healdsburg, in a flat valley between vineyards, a man stepped from a black van. He stood by the road and watched my approach, calling as I passed: “Hey, can I get to Santa Rosa down this way?” I couldn’t interpret my detailed map quickly enough to reply while still within earshot, so I slowed slightly, glanced in the mirror, and began a leftward U-turn.

Something went wrong. I turned too tight, too fast. The front wheel oversteered and jammed 90 degrees to the frame, bending the stainless-steel steering rod and skidding the 16-inch tire. Fighting to overcome impending disaster, I dropped my left foot to the pavement and pushed while turning back to the right… releasing the front wheel like an uncoiling spring and dropping the machine abruptly onto its left side.

The sudden pain was that of a dagger-jawed hydraulic vise: my left foot was crushed under 220 pounds of bicycle, twisting the leg unnaturally counterclockwise and whipping my body face-down onto the pavement. But I was far too busy screaming over my ripping tendons to notice the minor scratches: as the bike ground to a halt atop my ensnared foot I felt that unmistakable sensation of Real Injury — the numbing shock of major pain.

“Somebody get this thing offa me!” I cried from deep inside my private world of nervous-system overload. I was vaguely aware of running feet, stopping cars, people messing with my bike and trying to figure out how to park it. Maggie bent over me, eyes full of moist concern as I lay moaning and squirming on hard asphalt; the guy seeking Santa Rosa stood beside her, guilty-faced.

“To answer your question,” I gasped through clenched teeth, “the map’s hanging there over the console.” With a feeble hand I pointed, then the pain flooded again and I knew my ankle was broken.

The endorphins kicked in. I freed the foot gingerly from its Avocet and Wigwam bindings, vapors of sweat and agony radiating from violated swelling flesh. Somebody fussed with my twisted steering linkage, and a gawker leaned down to ask what all the electronic stuff was for. “Ballast,” I hissed.

There we were in wine country, disabled ten miles from the nearest town. I suppose there could be worse places to get road-hurt, but first I had to deal with encroaching dusk and the throbbing injury that lay just beyond the wall of fire in my lower calf. I scooted on my ass over to the bike, groped for the repeater directory, and quickly made contact with local hams — getting a message to our Healdsburg friend via N6GXI that I was hurt and might be a little late for dinner.

I could hardly expect someone else to pedal this massive recumbent megacycle, and the logistics of loading it onto a truck seemed overwhelming. No choice: I wrapped the injury with an Ace bandage, gobbled a few codeine tablets, and struggled to my foot. Only one way to do this… two people lifted me onto the bike.

For twelve long miles I rode, wincing at the minor hills, sprinting as best I could through the shoulderless night traffic on the Highway 101 Russian River bridge, through Healdsburg, through stop lights, and up a mile of bumpy dirt road. Consoling myself with the thought that this would make an interesting story someday, I tried to imagine coupling a custom kevlar foot cast to a bicycle pedal…

But it’s not broken after all — which is a shame, said the emergency room doctor as he squinted through my X- rays at the overhead fluorescent. Fractures heal faster than torn ligaments like this, you know. Stay off it, use lots of ice, and keep it elevated. Have some codeine… Sign here.

On borrowed aluminum crutches with crumbling dry-rotted armpit pads I hobble about Paul’s trailer — every trip to the stereo, refrigerator, or bathroom a major project. The foot’s a teaser: I lie in a gentle prescription fog, surrounded on the hide-a-bed by the trappings of a day’s half-work, thinking the pain has subsided. I swivel my feet to the floor and press gently — no problem. Carefully, I struggle to an awkward standing position — still no problem. I smile, imagining the road ahead. Then I take a step and it all comes flooding back in an agonizing rush of icepick and boltcutter, sledgehammer and cattle prod. Not yet, I guess. Not quite yet.

Maggie left. She flew to Seattle to rescue our Puget-rusted brown van. Her voice on the phone, familiar yet odd in the 3 kHz long-distance passband, speaks of Bainbridge Island friends and barely remembered possessions grown musty in the woods. “There’s enough stuff in the van to start a household,” she says — and I wince at the image of hobbled normalcy. I wiggle my toes, force my foot to bend. “I don’t want to start a household,” I say, filtering out the knife-thrust of renewed anklepain.

Day, bluebright sky, winter gray vegetation on horsey hills, long slow crutchwalks around the pond of goose, heron and coot. Night, skysparkle cold, calm, hot air mini-balloon weather. Exuberant Rosalene, Joshua, and Noah make bright freckled kidgrins at my dormant machine; I eat burritos with the neighbors. Paul’s record collection and woodstove urge me off my butt every half hour; he’s out carpentooning somewhere, Maggie’s on a freeway somewhere, the cats are hungry here and now. Clumsy tubslipping showers, crutch-fumbling doorways, fingers on touch-tone, signing on much too often. Getting to know Cleo and Badger and Tigger well enough to predict their feline spats; reading myself to sleep in mid-afternoon. An easy-money online searching job, naked under down bag and computer as Lockheed Dialog disgorges raw corporate intelligence into my buffer — then ZAP through GEnie to distant Fortune 500 client. Strange business for a busted technoid cyclebum sprawled numb on a wine-country fold-out sofa…

And the nights, the nights. A man gets used to a woman. Here’s a surprise: I suddenly recall in the solo days and quiet evenings with Paul the flavor of my first trip — long long miles of monastic solitude punctuated by desperate sexual quests ending more often than not in frustration. There were sweet moments, of course, dozens of them, but the subtle flavors of travel were obscured by a pungent hormonal salsa based upon classic male horniness and the piquance of pure fantasy.

It’s different this time. Maggie and I are of like passions, and seldom do my thoughts return to those flawless 2-dimensional images in the glossy Wish Book. Without that old urgency, I find it worthwhile to know people better — even men, since in the era before MagWheels male hosts were but temporary holding patterns while I scanned the horizon for a suitable female landing strip.

But now she’s gone to Seattle — her sudden absence revealing the depth of my addiction. NOW I recall those other reasons for taking on a companion (besides lifestyle maintenance management, sensory enhancement, additional load carrying capacity, and long black hair). Strategically, of course, the timing of this van-recovery project is correct… I might not be able to pedal for a week or three. But the enforced inactivity, the headaches, the crutches, the squalid pool of possessions filling my bed by day and piled on the floor by night, the sight of our bikes poised outside by the porch steps — all underscore the need.

(Cleo, as if on cue, uncurls from sleep, stretches, steps across the notebook to my lap and begins sharp-clawed rhythmic kneading. Thanks for the thought, kitty.)

OK, OK. Enough maudlin rambling. One good thing about being laid up alone is that I can theoretically get some work done before plunging into the Bay Area maelstrom of media, adventure, new toys, and old friends. As Paul slaves in the back room assembling lightweight NiCad-powered halogen helmet lights for cyclists from Cycle-Ops, I turn my attention to the rapidly multiplying obligations of this thoroughly loony profession.

Cheers from the west ward!

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