Winter2009

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A Tale of Travel

Spokes

By Aaron Whallon

Travel is a weird thing. Very circular. You go somewhere, experience something, and return to where you started. He lived on an island and had the opportunity to take a trip around the shores. Starting at one point, peddling for two and a half hours, and returning to that same point. Very circular. It was for a good cause—raising money to find a cure for multiple sclerosis—so he decided to do it for the second year in a row.

His eyelids were sleepy. Heavy. And he'd been riding in the rain for five minutes before even getting to the start-finish line. It was a morning when the sun had been up for two hours but the clouds were so thick and low that it felt as if it were the middle of the night. Gloomy and disgusting. The perfect morning to crawl back into bed. It was like a bad date with an ugly girl. And you're on a carriage ride with a horse that had just eaten too much Beef-A-Reeno. Disappointing.

Not as disappointing as showing up to the start-finish line only to walk back and forth through what seemed to be a never ending bike rack, looking for the team of his fellow Blitzer employees. They were supposed to be there, huddled in a big circle, wearing neon green t-shirts that you could spot from outer space. All the returning riders were supposed to wear the shirts they were given the previous year. He had donated his to charity about 363 days earlier.

"I mean, who the hell actually keeps shirts like that?" Gerry asked while telling me about his adventure.

I'm sure in a year or two we'll see his shirt in a photo in Nat Geo on the back of some poor African kid holding up one of those $100 laptops that doesn't have any battery power because there's no electricity in his village. And we'll all be proud.

When he sees that picture he'll think back fondly on his bike ride. And wish that the green shirted African would have been there that day, because his teammates were nowhere to be found.

For the second year in a row, he'd have to ride the entire 30 miles all by his lonesome. He'd always hated doing things by himself. Absolutely loathed it.

The ride was limited to five thousand riders. When he explained that to me, I wasn't sure if that seemed like a lot of people.

"I can tell you that when you all start at the same place, at the same time, it makes for a fairly crowded 5-lane freeway," he said.

"Alright, I'll take your word for it," I said.

"Listen, it's like the southbound Stevenson at 4 p.m. on a warm summer Friday evening."

I laughed. "Thank God we're both from Chicago. I don't think normal people would get that."

"So, I'd pedal four complete revolutions, coast for ten seconds, then have to stop, unseat and wait until the crowd in front of me got moving again. It was awesome."

All of a sudden the rain stopped. The mass of bikers with ass-tight padded shorts gave an uproarious cheer. He was not amused. A couple minutes later the crowd had dispersed enough that they could keep moving; albeit at a snail's pace.

I learned several lessons from Gerry's trip. Four to be exact. The first is that humans are weirdly fascinated by their echo. Two miles into the ride there was a tunnel-like underpass that stretched for nearly half a mile. As soon as riders hit that cavern they let out shrieks to hear the sound waves bounce back and forth. Oddly enough, the number one choice of words to hear echoed was "echo."

Why was it that these people felt inclined to shout out in front of complete strangers? We've all heard an echo before and they're pretty common in places like bathrooms, garages, and basements. It makes me wonder if a man walks into a bathroom and no one else is around, does he hoot and holler like some kind of banshee? Probably.

He finally made it through the echo den and emerged back into the rain. He liked to ride a bit faster than the average person, but is always hesitant to speed off with such a crowd. It's just not safe, nor fun. But coming out of the tunnel presented an opportunity to pick up the tempo. Cruising around the southern tip of the island at a brisk pace, he was finally starting to wake up.

And with waking up comes increased awareness of one's surroundings. So what did he notice? The master craftsmanship of one of the world's most famous bridges? Nope. The graffiti artwork that would rival the Mona Lisa any day of the week? Nope. The ever-changing skyline just over the swiftly flowing river? Nope. It was a cute blonde. Which just happens to be lesson number two: It's nice to look at beautiful things.

This particular beautiful thing had on a pair of those tight black shorts. As Gerry explained it to me, "These weren't padded and they didn't have to be. If you know what I mean."

The only problem with this lovely lady was that she was in much better shape than Gerry. And it was a struggle to keep up. He'd look around at the less picturesque riders surrounding him and instantly become motivated to reel her back in. This went on for several miles until she turned on the afterburners and broke free from his tractor beam-like stare.

Fortunately, his eyes were then free to do some wandering, which led to the discovery of the funniest thing of the day. A whole pack of middle aged women were marching down the coast of the island wearing bright pink shirts. It turns out that someone scheduled two big charity events on the same day.

“I couldn't help but momentarily think that I was campaigning for the wrong cause," he said. "I mean, let's be honest with each other, if there's one thing every guy should be fighting for, it's to save boobs."

That's lesson number three…Save boobs.

"Then I got to the end of the pink line. And guess what I saw?"

It was a man. Not just any man. An oversized man. An oversized man in a tight pink t-shirt. Not tight because he wanted it to be tight, but tight because it was the largest size for a woman and yet still way too small for him.

"But here's the real kicker…he had giant man-boobs!"

As I laughed uncontrollably, I said, "How poetic is that? I hope the fight against MS was back on, cause this world can do without man-boobs as far as I'm concerned."

Although the breast cancer march provided some much needed comic relief, the next 10 miles before the mandatory rest stop were brutal. He was wet, cold, tired, hungry…and just going through the motions. A bad combination. And he just wanted the whole day to be over with.

The rest area was in a park at the northern most part of the island. The bike tour briefly goes off the path of highways and byways and enters residential streets. It just so happens that for the 10 blocks the course was on neighborhood streets, his apartment was less than 20 seconds out of the way. He confessed the consideration to sneak off to go to the bathroom, slip into some dry clothes and hop back into bed. But he started thinking of the plight of someone afflicted with MS and the battles they face every day. They can't just give in and quit. And Gerry wasn't going to either.

After resisting his temptations, he made it back to the wide-open 3-lane highway. Autumn in this part of the island is absolutely stunning. Trees that look out of place block the views of the massive skyscrapers that are the typical trademarks of the island. The routine colors of town are grey, metallic…concrete and steel. Or black. The color of the dirt that coats your skin on a warm afternoon, or the trash bags that mountain up along the sidewalks like gigantic ant hills twice a week. These trees were the color of fall. The browns, oranges and reds that painters can only dream of recreating on canvas. And they brought about a rejuvenated sense of motivation and focus. After all, he was doing this ride for a reason.

His grandpa, Larry, had MS. Larry was in a wheelchair, paralyzed, the entire 13 years the two were alive together. It's hard to say definitively, but this fact, in and of itself, may not have left a lasting impression on Gerry.

His grandma, Marie, and Larry were married up until Larry's death. More than 50 years. Larry wasn't able to live at home with his wife full-time. Instead, he lived in a hospital.

To the best of Gerry's knowledge, his grandma would only do two things each week. Take a taxi to the beauty salon to get her hair done. And take a taxi to visit her husband. Larry would get to stay at their home on the weekends but would need help from a nursing assistant to get in and out of bed.

Gerry enjoys talking about those times…his grandpa would roll around in a big, 1980’s-style electric wheelchair. Two solid metal plates would fold down like a Transformer to hold his feet in place with Velcro straps. A gigantic battery that could power a small Buick sat in between the wheels. A joystick remote control was perched along the right hand rail for his shaky fingers to control.

"I'm pretty sure that joystick could have doubled as an NES controller," Gerry joked.

Larry was prone to running into things with the shiny silver footrests. The wooden doorways leading into each room were just beat to hell. Like a mini Paul Bunyan would come in every night and just whack away. If you came into a house and saw doors like that you might think some pretty trashy people lived there.

"It made me realize that sort of thing isn't really important," Gerry said. "And why I could care less that my kitchen is too small for a refrigerator (it's in his living room) and a dishwasher (it's in his bedroom)."

When he'd visit his grandparents, the nursing assistant would come at the regular time, which was fairly early. And his parents always went to bed early. So he and his sister would stay up and watch late night talk shows with their grandma.

"Every now and again we'd hear a very weak and faint, 'Marie' from down at the end of the hall where my grandparents' bedroom was. And every single time, without hesitation or complaint, my grandma would trot off down the hall to see what her husband needed."

"So she's the reason you were riding?" I asked.

"Yep. She's the reason."

If anyone has ever had a forgivable reason to leave their spouse it would have been his grandma. Her husband, a cripple…a figment of his former self, was not what she had signed up for when she agreed to marry him. Yet, she didn't leave. She loved.

As he pedaled the pedals down the home stretch, the skies parted and the sun appeared.

"I began to think about the reason I was sitting on that bike. It wasn't to have a cure for all the grandfathers inflicted with MS. But to find a cure for all the loving grandmother's whose husbands are unfairly inflicted with this disease."

To ensure that no other human suffers the way his grandma did.

"I started crying. Right there on the bike in the middle of the West Side Highway."

He lowered his head as a steady stream flowed from his ducts. He couldn't help but feel ashamed as rider after rider zipped past him.

"I know my grandparents wouldn't mind, so I held onto the emotions for as long as I could hold on."

He crossed the start-finish line with little fanfare other than the ceremonial giving of a cheap medal. Lesson number four was more of a reminder. That good trips don't have to be to exotic locales. They don't have to cost thousands of dollars. They don't have to last for weeks. It's about the experience. The memories. And the thought-provoking nature of the event. He was right back at Pier 43 where he had started, mere hours before. One full lap.

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