The Five-Month Pivot

February 3, 2010

Autobiography

There are moments when you know you’ve nailed it.  Pick your sport’s analogy: You’ve swished the series-winning three-pointer; you’ve wedged yourself through defensive-line gorillas and crossed the goal.  You’ve hit the game-winning grand slam.  Spike that ball.  Dance the end-zone dance.  Slap those high-fives as you cross the plate.  Leap.  Pump your fist.  No one will ever steal this moment.  Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Derek Jeder – that whole pack of sweaty jocks – has nothing on you. Anyone with an ounce of humanity knows you’re celebrating, not bragging, and your friends long to celebrate with you. They’ll push their way to the front-row seats of your cheering crowd and hush each other during your game-after interview in which you thank them for their support.  Never, ever, forget your friends – especially the friends of your youth.  They know you’ll be in their crowd.

I’ve had several moments: Living in England for a year; scaling sheer cliffs with Colorado Outward Bound; beating cancer; marriage to an astonishing woman; the birth of our son.  But I now see that there was a platform-laying, formative moment, a five-month period that indelibly and subtly altered how I viewed life.  It still lurks in my conscience’s eddies and currents.  I did, indeed, swish that three-pointer. I could dance the end-zone dance. 

 But there was just one problem: I forgot my friends.  I loathed the image of middle-aged has-beens wallowing in their good ol’ high school and college years, so I faced forward and didn’t look back.  I didn’t cut anyone off, but I made little effort to keep in touch with the friends of my youth.  Such friendships actually run deep.  College is a veritable commune; you know your acquaintances better than the friends of your later adulthood.  The friends of my youth knew me before my two professional titles: “newspaper reporter” (“Don’t quote me on this!”) and “pastor” (watch party-goers stiffen and clear the room).  I’m just awkward me, the one they tolerated and forgave.

Redemption has come and I’m back in touch with many of those friends.  I can share that moment:  In 1980, I bicycled across the United States and parts of Canada on a twelve-speed – which changed into a ten speed in Billings, Montana.  I then pedaled down the West Coast to the Los Angeles area, and then back East.

 What Made You Do That?

The germ of the idea began in my teens, when my best friend and I dreamed of buying a VW van and driving to the West Coast, picking up odd jobs along the way.  He had the temerity to realign his priorities, get married, go to seminary, have kids, become an Episcopalian priest, and play a constructive role in society.  The nerve of the man.  Plan B: A college room-mate and I plotted hiking the Appalachian Trail – except he was dismissing the idea as a pipe dream even as we spoke.  He got a job in politics and played that frustratingly constructive role.  Plan C … What was Plan C? 

There was this girlfriend …

And (violins, please) she dumped me …

And she had this idea of a cross-country bike trip …

And so …

I stole her idea.

Call it “strange revenge.”

Note: The former girlfriend and I are now in touch and she’s a family friend.  I can anticipate her reaction: “Dumped you!  I let you down so easy you should’ve barely felt it!  It’s not my fault that you sat in your high chair and banged your spoon!”  My reply: “You are, of course, right.  You’re always right.”

I purposefully avoided establishing a career immediately after college and, instead, worked in a warehouse from the late summer of 1979 to the Spring of 1980 (I went on Outward Bound in Colorado immediately after graduation).  I drove fork lifts with a bunch of guys belching the “f” word as often as I say “uh.”  I quit the job in late February of 1980 and revved into a full workout, daily pedaling from Bloomfield, Connecticut, to Massachusetts and back again.  Attempts at recruiting partners met measured responses such as “you’re nuts” and “you’re gonna die!”  One friend later told me he thought I’d get as far as Pennsylvania before I whimpered back like a somber puppy.

Fine.  I’ll go solo.

The “big day” arrived on April 21, 1980 – one of the most incredible days of my life.  For one thing, this was my first overnight bike trip, which is amusing but not absurd as it sounds: I had been back-packing and had been on Colorado Outward Bound the previous summer.  Second, I loaded up the bike and began pedaling – and it dawned on me, then and there, that I had forgotten to do the preliminary biking with all the panniers (side saddles) on it!  This was my first day traveling with a loaded bike!  I could barely steer this thing.  My formerly smooth-riding 12-speed had become a Sherman Tank missing a tread. 

I cried aloud, in the driveway: “I’m an idiot!”

Finally, I got the behemoth under control and began heading north, so much adrenaline racing through my veins that I’m surprised I didn’t have a stroke.  I reached Granby, a town just north of our family home in Bloomfield, when it dawned on me: My aim is to get to Vancouver, British Columbia (the idea, at that point, was to ride across Canada).  That’s Vancouver.  Vancouver is on the West Coast.  The West Coast is very far from here, much more than 50 miles.  And I’m riding a bike I can barely control.  By myself.

It was there, on Highway 189 in Granby, that I would actually stop the bike and holler words that would become the theme of my entire adult life: “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”  I was afraid I would chicken out and call the whole thing off. So, as a remedy, I did something else that would become thematic: I pedaled that bike through Massachusetts and into New Hampshire on a single day.  The theme: “When face to face with ludicrous absurdity, recognize it for what it is – and then plow into it full-bore.”  And remember: I’m an epileptic.  I packed the pills that usually control the seizures, but I purposefully did not ask my doctor for his opinion of this trip.  So picture it: An epileptic pedals a Sherman tank of a bicycle, aiming for Vancouver, British Columbia, and, out of sheer fear, presses much further than he intended on his first day.  Look at the picture once more: I’m headed north.  In April.  The weather is cold in April up north.

Wrong direction.

A farmer allowed me to camp on his property that night.  I slept under the stars with cows staring at me over an electric fence. 

I wound my way through northern New England, into Quebec, then into Ontario and up to the trans-Canadian Highway, where I discovered that, first, there were few people and, second, the weather was cold (ya think?).  I changed plans, crossed into the United States in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and bicycled through Wisconsin, then spent a week with my grandfather in Minnesota, my birthplace.  Mount Saint Helen’s blew up on May 18, but no worries for me: I would point myself toward volcanic ash when the trip resumed (“When meeting ludicrous absurdity, recognize it for what it is – and plow into it full bore”).  

Thunder and Lightning

 South Dakota was fascinating.

There was one hot day just after I had crossed the Iowa border and ran out of water.  I knocked on the door of a house dwarfed by the immense plains (the sheer flatness made me feel the size of amoeba) just to ask if I could use the garden hose to fill up my bottle.  A young mother answered, holding her baby.  I heard older children in another room.

There I was, a bearded, filthy, creepy-looking cyclist face-to-face with the penultimate Midwestern Mom with a passel of kids.  “She thinks I’m an axe murderer,” I thought, “I just know it – so smile, ask for water, and accept her rejection as she slams the door.  Fly before she calls Jeb, the local cop who ‘handles’ axe murderers in his own special way.”

I asked.

“Oh please,” she said, “Come in!”

 Huh?

“Come in!  Come in!”

She filled my bottle with ice water and made me some food.  Her husband eventually came in and greeted me like I was long-lost Cousin Mike, asking where I’d been and where I was going.  Their jaws dropped when I told them I had biked from the East Coast and would stop at the Pacific.  They told me of a good camping spot just down the road, where there was a picnic table under a small pavilion near a shallow lake.  I pedaled there.  The husband eventually drove down and we talked some more, then he left.

It was then, while perched on that table, that I witnessed a staggering display.  A huge, anvil-shaped, carnivorous cumulonimbus cloud moved in about 20 miles to the west and tossed lightning bolts as if they were neon spaghettis.  Welcome to the Great Plains, where the weather lurks like a massive, amoral mammoth, as pitiless as the Borg – and yet, beautiful.  I would find that very spot ten years later when my wife and I retraced the northern section of my trip in a car.  It looks like nothing: a lonely picnic table under a shabby pavilion before a muddy lake.  But that spot – that spec on the Great Plains – is my spot.  So I was happy.   

I biked west the following day, weaving my way through prairie dog road kill and under the gaze of pronghorns.  A pick-up truck driver offered me a ride and I took it, allowing me to listen in on ranch talk for some distance, and then I bicycled across the Rosebud Sioux reservation.  A farmer permitted me to camp on his property that night.  His tick-laden hunting dog barked at me, so I was grumpy as I headed into the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux and the heritage of Red Cloud, the only Native American leader to defeat the White Man in a war.

Alas, the rumors were true – at least in 1980.  The squalor was appalling and the alcoholism was rife and ugly.  I stopped in a park for a rest and to write in my journal.  Two very friendly – and very drunk – Native Americans greeted me and asked me a slew of slurred questions, then bade me well as I walked my bike to a picnic table to begin writing.

 Suddenly …

 … hollering …

 … smashing glass …

 … thumps, door slams, more glass, yelling; a boot heel on a face and ugly appeals (“He was gonna hit me!”) … Silence.  I slowly arose, packed my notebook, and walked past.  One wiped his own blood; the other stood, arms folded, frowning; a nearby girl smiled.

 “Everything okay?,” I asked.

 They nodded.  Everything was fine.

I checked in at a motel that night and played host to some Sioux kids who asked a thousand questions about my trip and told me of alcoholic aunts, parents, grandparents, uncles: their routine.   Everything’s normal here.

Just after Pine Ridge came the Wind Cave National Monument, east of the Black Hills, and its invitational sign: “Warning: Buffalo and Elk can be dangerous.  Stay in or near your car.”  I looked at my bike, looked at the sign, and then looked at my bike again.  I rode past the sign (“When meeting ludicrous absurdity … plow in … full bore.”).  I pedaled over a rise and saw five dirt mounds, then dipped down a hill and came up another rise.  The dirt mounds were much closer, with the “baby dirt mound” getting up and looking at me. 

There they were: Five bison.  And they were huge – especially the bull, who bore the tell-tale I’m-guarding-my-kin look.  What’s the protocol for bicycling past a bull bison?  I was an expert on charging dogs (stop the bike and face forward, even step toward the dog if necessary), but bison?  

Fortunately for me, several cars pulled up, people piled out and walked directly toward the buffalo – never mind that the bull snorted.  “Uh, did you see the sign?,” I asked.  A couple people sneered at me then continued their walk toward the bull. 

I pedaled on through the Black Hills (Mount Rushmore looks like a huge post card) and into Montana, where my bike broke down and my front wheel had to be replaced (the guy who repaired my bike put me up for the night in Billings), and began camping in this strange, chalky dirt when I reached the Rockies.  I wondered about the strange dirt until someone griped about all the ash.  Oh yes, Mount Saint Helens.  It’s drawing near.      

I camped in ash in Idaho, Eastern Washington, and British Columbia.  I reached Vancouver, turned south and paused in the Seattle area (a co-ed I knew in Connecticut gave me her parents’ address and I stayed with them).  A new acquaintance drove me, my bike, and my packs up to the 7,000 foot level of Mount Rainier and I hiked up a little further on blackened snow.  A woman ahead called out: “You can see Mount Saint Helens from here.”  I climbed to her level.  There it was: near.  Very near.   With a plume over it, looking like it could blow at any moment – and I’m on a bike.”

Running away from a volcano was a new experience for me.

I biked through Oregon and crossed into California, camping all the way.  I stayed in Redwood National Park one night, where the ranger announced at a nature talk, “We have a guy here who biked all the way from Connecticut!”  Some gasped.  There were who’s? and where’s?, and rubbernecking galore.  I meekly raised my hand and all eyes were on me. I was a celebrity, with my campsite a subsequent center for curiosity seekers longing to chat with “that guy who biked all the way across the country.”  It was strange: Me the adventurer, me the trailblazer.  On one level, I knew this bicycle trip was unique; on another, I didn’t know how unique – not until this moment.  I had never been the focus of such admiration.  They were viewing me as some sort of hero. It was fun and odd at the same time.  Admiration just wasn’t on my horizon when I took off on that outlandish day in April, which now felt like the last century.  I even said to people: “Are you raising kids? … You are?  That’s incredible.  How do you do that?”  But my words bounced off their faces.  They were in awe.  Of me.  Moi. 

Flattering, but weird.  

Eventually, there was San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway, and the Los Angeles area, where I lived from ages 4 to 12.  I knocked on a door in my old neighborhood and Dorothy Melendez answered (strange: I was now looking down at Dorothy; last time, I was looking up).

 “Mrs. Melendez?”

 “Yes?”

 “I’m the kid who grew up two houses down, Chuck Redfern.”

 “No!”

 “Yes.”

 “No!”

 “Yes I am.”

 “You are not.”

 “I really am.”

 “No!”

 I hadn’t thought of this: How could I prove that I wasn’t an imposter?  I smiled nervously …

 “It is you!”

Apparently, the kid she once knew showed through the smile, so she welcomed me in and phoned her now-adult children, my former boyhood friends.  They drove over and we talked and stared at each other, each of us thinking: You’re supposed to be a kid!

Again, I was a celebrity (I learned that everyone in my neighborhood still referred to our old house as “the Redfern home” despite our long absence).  Another boyhood friend had a father who owned his own plane, so he flew me across the Mojave Desert (which is dangerously hot in July).  I camped with a blend of drug addicts and alcoholic cowboys at the Grand Canyon and, after a pick-up truck driver gave me a life-saving ride in the Painted Desert, made my way to the Colorado Rockies.  I was so strong by that time that I biked all the way up the twelve thousand foot Independence Pass, pausing only once when someone leaned out his car and handed me a beer.  The free ride on the other side (down, down, down) was both scary and exhilarating. 

Other events unfolded, of course (like out-running a Kansas storm spawning tornados and getting a job working with mentally disabled adults for a week), but suffice it to say that I got home on September 21, 1980 – precisely five months after I left (I pedaled at least 130 miles on my last day).  My dad says my legs “rippled” when I walked.

Adjusting to “normal life” took a long time.  I hacked through a cold that I picked up toward the trip’s end.  Sleeping in a bed in my parents’ home seemed so luxurious, so utterly decadent – and odd.  I often longed to cart my sleeping bag outside.  And then there were those life-or-death issues: “How can you possibly walk in those sneakers?  They’re ruined! … Those pants!  There’s a stain on those pants!  Throw them away! … Someone put raisins in my oatmeal!  Call the cops! … A wasp is flying thirty feet from my head!  It’s an emergency!”

You want a real emergency?  Bike eastward in Kansas.  Relish this moment: the wind is finally with you – and it’s blowing so hard that the corn is lying flat.  You can relax – until you peek behind and see the squall line (a line of clouds bringing a torrential storm) and the aqua-colored sky.  Your stomach crawls into your throat because you now know that a tornado is forming behind you and you’re five miles from the nearest town!  A ditch!  I need a ditch!  Any ditch!  My kingdom for a ditch into which I can hurl myself and my bike!  But Toto, this is Kansas!  And the postcards were no lie: Kansas is flat – so flat that I see no ditches wider than a grave, and graves are not the idea.  So use that wind and pump until your legs are Jell-O.  Skid into the town with your heart racing at ten thousand beats a second.  Accept the invitation from the car-repair guys who are watching the storm: “You’d better get in.”  I bring my bike into their garage and – a moment later – 60-mile-an-hour gusts plow through and the power goes out.  Driving rain and hail slant sideways.  Everyone’s having themselves a nervous chuckle while doling Coors and yes, this epileptic accepts the beer.  So arrest me.  The storm blasts through and, after it’s all over, I walk outside to see fallen trees and blocked roads.  I also hear reports from local volunteers that funnel clouds did, indeed, touch down.

  That is an “emergency.”

  The world to which I returned seemed so … petty. 

In fact, now that I think of it, I’m not sure I ever really adjusted.  I’ve accommodated myself – but I always feel like there’s something more out there.  I yearn to skirt the edge again, to stretch the outside of the envelope.  I get restless and bored.  There are events and people and places to go.  Why live with neatness when we can thrive in a mess?  I actually like change.  I eat it up.  I love it.  Change is like my steak dinner.

Before that trip, I would accept “no” readily.  But now?  “When meeting ludicrous absurdity …” They said no one could find jobs in newspaper reporting.  I found them.  And then there was this strange experience in my bed at the age of 28: after a desperate prayer, something like electricity entered my head and dissipated around my waist and I was … cleansed, washed, free: brand new.   I knew I was being summoned out of newspapers and into ministry.  I turned my entire life on a dime.  I would meet my future wife we would raise a wonderful son together.  We would also venture into bona-fide miracles, minister in groups involved in yell-out conflict – often not knowing where we’d get the next penny.

It’s been quite a life – and I now realize that it all began there, in that bike trip: the five-month “moment” that inalterably changed me.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

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4 Comments on “The Five-Month Pivot”

  1. Wendy LEVINE Says:

    Wow. Now I know a little about your pivotal bike trip.
    Great encapsulation, tho I’m sure there’s more, much more.

    My kids often urge me to write the highlights of my nine month backpacking odyssey. Considered me
    inspired!

    Reply

  2. Lisa Leach Says:

    Chuck, I love this article. Right there plowing in “full bore” with you.
    As we shared before, it reminds me of both my biking and my VW days…I left for XC in October of 1980, just after you got back. Ditto re: not satisfied with “normal” anymore, and also re: wanting to sleep outside after I returned. (Actually I did…dragged the sleeping bag out to the roof.)
    That Irish blessing, “May the wind always be at your back” didn’t include the twister clause, huh.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tap Dancing at the Cataclysm « The Alternative Mainstream - June 21, 2010

    […] remember hiking on blackened snow on Mount Rainer during a cross-country bicycle trip in June of 1980, a month after Mount St. Helens detonated.  A […]

  2. Tap-dancing at the Cataclysm | The Intersection - June 28, 2010

    […] remember hiking on blackened snow on Mount Rainer during a cross-country bicycle trip in June of 1980, a month after Mount St. Helens detonated.  A […]

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