18 Miles of Insanity
by Steven K. Roberts
November 20, 1986
Do you ever read my stories and wonder what it really feels like to be out here, exposed to the world, unsure from one day to the next where I’ll sleep, who I’ll meet, what pleasures and pains will strike with the whim of chance? Do you ever try to see past the rhapsody, the humor and philosophy — looking for clues in the rhythm of my words, sensing exhaustion in torpid prose or the giddiness of new friendship in silly sentences of puns and alliteration?
Narrow-bandwidth communication like this is frustrating. I’m living an adventure of intense visceral sensation, and the only way I can share it with you is through words — and maybe a stack of photos if I ever camp in your living room and swap tales over pizza. Not enough. Today I wanted to share more: I wanted you to be there.
It wasn’t a normal day, this 18-mile explosion of violence and insanity. It was a day of curses lost in the spray of trucks, of stinging eyes and cold sweat. It was a test of hardware, a test of nerves, a challenge to muscle and mind alike. Today was one of those days that will live on as a caricature of the entire journey — a day that will instantly spring to mind whenever anyone mentions riding in the rain… or redwood trees… or the sheer looniness of challenging truck-infested mountain roads on a bicycle in a heavy storm.
Imagine sweat, lots of sweat, steaming inside layers of polypropylene and Gore-Tex. Its pressure builds, hot and stifling, as you strain in a headwind up a mountain road. You think to disrobe, but the icy trickles of rain leaking through zippers and seams warn otherwise — better to be hot and wet than cold and wet. Your shoes begin to squish, and you make a fist every few minutes to squeeze water from expensive “waterproof” neoprene gloves.
Soon you accept the discomfort and pay more attention to the other problems: packs soaking through, computers and humidity, trucks blasting by in an opaque spray. Those can be challenging as you waver unsteadily up the grade at 3 mph, fighting crosswinds. Sometimes they catch you broadside in a soaking explosion of white water and roar off into the mist, trailing diesel fumes and the smells of chopped fir, leaving you struggling for control as a motorhome passes too closely and a knot of vegetation forces a swerve into traffic. Ah, recreational cycling.
The water is everywhere — inside you and around you. You need to vent the morning’s coffee, swilled so long ago in a fluorescent-lit 50’s cafe, but the grade is too steep for parking… so you press on into the rain, splashing in brown runoff like a spawning chinook, pedaling numbly and dumbly and trying not to think about the place you could have stayed a few miles back. Giant trees pass slowly, shrouded in mist; the sounds are a muted cacophony of patter and splash, drip and roar, bicycle chain and your own wheezing breath. Higher you go.
And then the summit, understated, no sign but a warning to trucks, no place to pull off and congratulate yourself. Without fanfare you coast the level part, breathing easily, relaxing slightly — then your speed picks up and the curves fly by and the bumps are terrifying… the brakes are wet and your hands grow numb… raindrops sting your face and you squint into the gray, peer into the murk, scan the blurred submerged pavement for signs of potholes and glass and ruts and bumps and — HEY! GIMME SOME SPACE, JERK! — anything else that could drop you in a blink and spread you like high-tech road kill across two lanes of uncaring violent glorious redwood highway.
This is the kind of cycling that makes the first motel look like a sort of paradise. You hand over a dripping Visa card then drag your bike inside, spreading wet fabrics over every door, chair, and light fixture — steaming up the room while lying numb and smiling in a real bed. What a life…
And I wouldn’t trade it for all the BMWs in suburbia.