I am a kid who has butterflies in his stomach because tomorrow he is going to see the girl he is so madly in love with. Can I use this stupid analogy? How do you sleep when a remarkably unique moment is upon you? You don't.
So of course I don't sleep well. I have never slept well on the ride so let alone the night before the last push. Did Mallory and Irvine sleep before their summit push out of their camp at 8300 mts? Probably not. Well, at 8000plus mts in thin air they were freezing their asses off and could hardly breathe, that's why they didn't sleep...anyway, the point is I am aware that tomorrow could be the final day of the entire ride and I would accomplish my goal. I toss and turn well past midnight and when I realize I can't fall asleep I turn the light on and just sit on the bed staring at the bike. I look at the dirty rims, I stare at the mud encrusted chain stay. Boy, if I were in the army I would wash right out. The bike is absolutely filthy, almost as bad as my clothes. I turn off the light and I lie down again, now my brain is working furiously at finding a way into the craziness that is Los Angeles, how do you cycle into it without getting crushed? What if I have a mechanical problem on the highway? What do I do then? I haven't hit a single snag, haven't had a puncture, a broken spoke, a loose screw, nothing. 4500 miles across America fast and furious, rain and sunshine, rough and smooth pavement, mud and gravel, dirt and dust, mountains and hills and the bike has not let me down once. I had 2 flat tires on my first trip in 2010 and 5 last year (3 in a single day). Why have I been so lucky this time around? Was there a guardian angel riding with me all the way?
Lying in bed awake is bad for the mind and the body. I am restless. Why isn't 7am already? My legs are fidgety. I feel the callouses of my hands from hours of gripping the bike, I have dead blisters somewhere on my ass and I have the most ridiculous tan lines on my arms, my hands, my neck, my legs. If I look at myself in the mirror I see a cyclist's body but my face looks ridiculous, a grotesque image of absorbing capacity, an athlete body which has been chiseled not just by the hours on the road but by the mental strain of this long solo ride. I love to think that I can still change and surprise myself at this age.
I am awake every hour and when I finally fall into a deep sleep the alarm shakes me out of it and reminds me that today is supposed to be my final day of the whole ride. Adrenaline kicks in as soon as I get up. I do serious damage at breakfast and I wonder whether I overdid it. I lose counts of how many biscuits and muffins I chow down. At 7.15, I leave this uninspiring Days Inn in the middle of Santa Barbara. As I check out a tall Chinese guy lazily looks up and hands me my bill. "You take care now". No, neither of us says that and it doesn't even cross my mind to say "hey, you know what I am about to finish?" I can't talk about this with anybody, I can only write this blog, that's my only dysfunctional way to communicate with the world.
It is the first time in California that the early morning temperature allows me to wear my short sleeve jersey. Boy, that's dirty, it used to be white and now there is a yellowish, brown shade all over it. First thing I will do when I enter my hotel room tonight is to throw away all the gear. It is useless anyway, even if I washed it all it is too worn out to be used again.
It is a gorgeous day, clear blue sky and a gentle breeze that originates from the ocean. Fine, that's gonna be a cross wind, I can deal with that. I can deal with pretty much anything today. I ride through a very charming downtown where most stores are closed and others are beginning to come to life. The fresh morning air reminds me how good it is to be alive and free. I smile as I look at the clear blue sky, I feel happy knowing that I have cycled almost 4500 miles to get this far. A car is washing the street and the empty sidewalks and when I pass I smile innocently hoping that the man driving it will turn off the sprinkle for a second. He does and he shouts at me "I wish I was doing that instead!". Nothing intelligent comes to my mind and I just smile at him innocently. I am not a morning person but when I get up early I am happy I did it, how can you not be in love with a fresh morning air and an empty sidewalk in the middle of the world? I am so at peace with the world right now that I could ride anywhere through any climate, on any mountain. This is the best part of the day, the streets carry reminders of the previous day's activities and shenanigans but no matter how much crazy stuff goes on at night, the next day is always a brand new deal; the cool morning air with the sunlight so sharp and clear makes everything look new, afresh, rejuvenated, calm. I ride on the bike path all the way out of Santa Barbara, easy. But now what? Option one is to go straight to highway 101 but it is a freeway all the way to Oxnard and I don't want freeway traffic so I decide against it. I stay on the bike lane which is a slower and longer option but a safer one. I follow one bike path after another and then I ride on a very rough road which runs next to the highway for a few miles. Again, like so many times before, my bike bounces like a 4by4 on a dirt road, the bag rattles and I feel the shake going straight into my nerves, my arms and legs. Come on, you can take this, what's a few more miles? The bike holds well and at the end of this torture the only option is to slide onto the highway where I enjoy the large shoulder. But the trucks are there and they shoot by me leaving behind a swirl of air and debris that shakes me like a dry leaf. The air spits me out of my trajectory and then sucks me in like a vortex. I am familiar with this process by now so I know how to prepare myself for it. Remember the drill: don't fight it, loosen up and just let it carry you until you can control the bike again. I hang a right and exit 101 and enter Ventura on another bike path that spits me right onto the beach. I double back for two miles because when I reach the harbor the road ends and there are no bridges that connect the two sides of the harbor. After that I have ten miles on a smooth road with almost no traffic. Time to let it rip. I average 21 mph with my eyes glued to the white line; I don't shift, I don't twitch, I don't move an inch. Bike and body: perfect symbiosis. It feels good. Really good. I am good at this now. It's a shame I have to stop. I ride fast into Oxnard which is not an attractive town but the impressive amount of palm trees that line up every single street makes the place look like an okay seaside town, for senior citizens though. I stop after 53 miles for the first time to water up and get some chow. A few sips of water and two bananas. That's all.
I have to focus now, a challenging bit, the last difficult bit before I hit the coast is coming up. I ride through a very dry area out of Oxnard, from the beach resort I am in the middle of a desert environment and the dry air swallows me up, I feel the sunlight beating down on me strong. I follow the road that takes me straight to the Pacific Highway. I begin to smile as I am thinking, this is it, all I need to do is to follow the road, no more turns, no more junction, my only opponent left is the traffic. Traffic yes but Pacific Highway is scenic and I am getting closer and closer to my coveted trophy. It's not over yet though and there's more highway riding to do. Shoulder is narrow and traffic increases by the mile. I was expecting this. I am approaching a monster city what do you expect? The hillsides are so dry they seem almost burnt out, I am surrounded by dry bushes and tumbleweeds which are being kicked around by the wind on the side of the highway. If it wasn't for the sea I would think I am in Arizona. On my left the rocky desert ends right a few feet from the beach, which is a sliver of about 20 feet of golden sand. The road snakes around the hills and hugs the coast line very close to the shore. I realize that since I have reached the coast I have never been this close to the shore. It feels refreshing, liberating. I can easily make out the seaweed and the details of the water as I push on the pedals. Dozens of surfers are lying face down on their surfboards waiting patiently for the perfect wave. I scrutinize the water as I ride and a smile forms on my face. I spot a big green sign which heralds a landmark I was waiting for, that's my perfect wave: Santa Monica, 25 miles. I let out a "come on" without even realizing it. The sign shakes me like the sight of my beloved.That's the signal that the end is really here. For the next few miles I pedal with legs so light it's almost like they aren't there, scanning the horizon and waiting for the first view of something recognizable. Okay, calm down, the bike won't break down and you will not get hit by a car, you will be there in less than two hours. Keep going. The road climbs a bit, maybe 400 yards and I do the whole hill standing on the pedals, there is no point in safeguarding the bike or my energy, let's go for it, all out. Malibu is next and it is a very unattractive town, a large piece of coast where space seems to have no value at all; house after house is built on the hillsides. I admit that some houses are really cool, beautiful villas and many small but attractive mansions dot the hills but they are all close to the highway and what's worse is the lack of privacy and space between them. The amount of buildings encroaching on the hills is striking and, regardless of the architectural originality of most residences, it is not a pretty sight. I don't stop at all in Malibu, it is crowded and filled with cars and trucks carrying long colorful surfs. Actually I must focus closely as the right hand side of the road is a long uninterrupted line of parked cars and there isn't much space left on the shoulder. The shoulder is taken by the cars and at any time I expect an idiot to open the car door right in my face so to prevent this death-inducing stupidity I ride inside the lane; some cars make it abundantly clear that they don't appreciate that when they honk or just pass within a whisker of my left hand. Yep, still some work to do and this is by no means pleasant riding. The odometer keeps moving though: 15, 13, 10, 8 miles to go. Through the haze of this hot and dry day I begin to make out the silhouette of tall white buildings. Nothing recognizable, no familiar sight like the Golden Gate or The Empire State Bld but I know that the strip of land I see in the distance is Los Angeles. I check the odometer again and it is coming up on 4590 miles. Yes, you are going to make it and the bike won't let you down. I feel the callouses of my hands again, the same ones that I felt a few hours earlier in my bed in the hotel room in Santa Barbara where I couldn't sleep and I wonder whether these 37 days just flew by. I wonder how I made it. I wonder how I did not quit when I wanted to quit. What drove me to ride solo for 37 days across deserts and mountains with one mission in mind. I will never know the answer. But I know that these 37 days haven't flown by, it has been pretty tough and I cannot explain how tough the ride has been.
As I approach Santa Monica the amount of cars multiplies and by now all I want is to find the bike path on the beach because highway 1 is simply too crazy for cycling. I yell my last "asshole" of the trip when one idiot totally cuts me off on a stretch with no oncoming vehicles. But even as I shout I am smiling because I don't really care as long as I am safe. Here it is, I push hard one final time, one last forceful motion of my legs on the pedals and the bike obeys, the chains rotates quickly around its rings. LA is mine, America is mine the world is mine, I am in total control of my life again. I don't smile, I just look around me as I do my best to stay in the tiny shoulder and try not to get hit by a car. The moment is anticlimactic, there is no Los Angeles sign, of course there wouldn't be, LA is not a town, it is a never-ending land of towns or neighborhoods and shopping malls. Santa Monica is where I am going to end the ride. I can't believe I have made it. This is the same bike, the same clothes, the same man that was on the other side of America 37 days ago. I wanted something and I got it. The beach is now a broad expanse of bright yellow sand and I easily find a bike path. This is it. I don't feel almost any emotion as I see the wheel of the Pier and it is time to hit the breaks, I felt more emotional in San Francisco when I saw the Bay Bridge. Staring out at the ocean from the beach I don't feel a surge of emotion that makes me want to scream and yell and jump up and down. But I feel a subtle tingle traveling up and down my body, all through my arms and down my legs, and then out through the ends of my fingers and toes. And that is enough for the time being.
I had a hundred reasons to bail on this trip, from the constant rain at the very beginning which messed up my schedule and made me fear for my health to the menacing trucks and rough roads that would destroy any bike and sap energy out of every rider, to the crazy headwinds in Idaho and in Oregon, and the loneliness of riding through the deserts or the freezing mountains in Idaho or Montana and the killer grades of Beartooth or the Big Horn Mountains. But I didn't. I didn't bail on it. I was determined to fight, to not give up, to make it all the way between the ends of America and down the California coast.
You know what? I did not realize it but my memory reminds me that today is the 12th of September, 12 is a big number, 17 months ago I was starting my first round of chemotherapy which I knew would drain my body of all my energy. And now, on another 12th I have accomplished a decidedly ambitious goal and I am looking at life with a smile and with defiance. I've done it. I'm proud of myself today.
I also think back on the crazy, the kind, the hilarious, and the weird people I met along the way. Yes, they were very brief encounters but long enough to leave something. I think about the beautiful landscapes, the quirky signs and buildings, the ghost towns, the abandoned towns, the communities that have been lost to time forever and the places that unexpectedly piqued my interest. All of the elements came together to create an amazing and rewarding experience that I'll revisit whenever I want for the rest of my life. So many places that I would have never been able to see and were only a dot on a map now fill a place of my heart and it is real, personal and deeply meaningful. In every little town I rode through I either stopped to rest or to drink or to eat or I simply rode my bicycle chasing a dream; chasing myself. I am looking at the ocean from the beach and so many people walk by me. Nobody is aware of my adventure, nobody can even imagine the things I went through these past weeks. I look at the carefree tourists and wonder if I can spot a familiar face. There is nobody but the loneliness of the moment does not get me at all, in a funny way it makes me stronger, it makes me feel at peace. Because you can't walk to the summit of mount Everest hand in hand with someone. You gotta stand alone on the summit. And that's more less how I feel now. With 4601 miles and so much money raised for a good cause I feel I have used my time in the best possible way. I hope my small contribution will help some unfortunate people to enjoy a little comfort, a comfort that we don't even view as such because we just have it. I look at the black charity:water wristband in my right wrist, whitened by the sunlight. The wristband which I have had all throughout my ride, through the rain and the wind. I touch it with my fingers and I feel the warm and smooth surface of the rubber under my skin. I close my eyes and breathe in. I am really here, where I wanted to be. I am home.
Too early to process what has just happened but I know that I asked a lot and a lot has been given to me. And not just today.
I ride on the bike path and I cannot keep my promise to strip naked on the beach but I take my jersey and shoes off and ask a bewildered couple to take a few pictures while I raise my bike in the air like a conquistador. The bike feels heavy and as I lift it up the mud falls on my head and it prickles my skin. It feels good. I look at the GPS and ride twenty blocks toward West Hollywood. At the local bike store they will box the bicycle for me; three blocks farther east and another Days Inn has vacancies. I am done. I look at myself in the mirror and my body has thinned and my legs have toned from conquering America. I have become mentally toned too. This journey forced me to face down challenge after challenge. It balanced those challenges with beauty and passion. It reminded what I love most about this world. It reminded what I love most about my life.
This was one hell of a ride.