Death, life, and lessons learned: Cycling the road to redemption
My phone wouldn’t stop vibrating.
I was sprawled out on the couch in a half-awake state at my friend’s place in San Francisco on a Monday morning and still hadn’t shaken off a lousy night of sleep. True, I had a pretty hard night of drinking the previous evening, but that didn’t necessarily explain the pair of nightmares which woke me up in a cold sweat.
I didn’t remember the details of the first one, just that I awoke terrified and with my heart racing.
The second one featured an organ playing a funeral dirge.
I was barely a month removed from the loss of both of my parents, but despite living through a waking nightmare, actual sleep-time terror somehow hadn’t factored into the equation up until this point.
And yet, despite what would seem an obvious explanation, these dreams seemed something different, unrelated to what I had been through, which left me with an unmistakable sense of foreboding I tried to shove aside.
I fished the phone out of my pocket. A number with a Boston area code, where I was born, raised, and had recently spent more time than I cared to remember, was calling for the third time in an hour.
I didn’t recognize the number, and I’d long since reached my fill of lawyers, cemetery managers, bill collectors, and even of well-meaning, sympathetic voices.
“Not today,” I muttered. I tossed my phone down on a nearby coffee table, flopped back onto the couch, and managed to get back to sleep awhile.
Motion was my initial means of coping with losing my parents three weeks apart. I lived alone in Los Angeles and didn’t want to be consumed by my thoughts. I spent several days hiking at Death Valley National Park, then ventured from there to visit friends in Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego.
I was back in LA about a week when I jumped at my longtime friend Chile’s invitation to come to his place in the Bay Area and stay awhile. He lived high on Russian Hill, a block from the famous touristy section of Lombard St., and I was afforded alternating views of the East Bay and Alcatraz as I went to fetch my car from a street spot which had no weekend parking restrictions.
Life seemed to be slowly returning to normal. My friends had been fantastic, everything you’d ever want from your closest confidantes at your lowest point. “Maybe I’ll get through this after all,” I thought to myself.
On a whim, I decided to find out what that earlier phone call was about.
“Hi Dave, my name’s Matt,” the message said. “I’m Bob’s cousin. I’m sorry to tell you this, but Bob passed away last night.”
My body went numb. I dropped my phone to the sidewalk and paced like a caged animal. I struggled to breathe.
Bob wasn’t just a friend. Bob was family. Bob was the twin brother I never had.
I’ve often been mistaken for a loner. I’m not, but I’m an introvert at heart -- which presents challenges when you pick an extrovert’s game like sports journalism for a career -- and I’m slow to open up to people.
Eight weeks earlier, I had an inner circle of five people. My parents. My sister, Erin. Chile. And Bob.
My deepest support network, people who had been in my orbit ranging from two decades to my entire life, had been reduced from five to two in the span of two months.
I picked up my phone and staggered to my car. The right side rear-view mirror had been vandalized over the weekend. I barely even noted it. My head was still spinning.
Next I can recall, it was about two hours later and I was in Dolores Park, several miles away. I know I drove over because I managed to find my car after close to an hour of searching the neighborhood for it after spending time at the park, but other than that, my brain completely blotted out the interceding time.
“What about that time you guys got jumped down by the T?” my Dad asked.
I was thrilled to hear a crackle of excitement in his voice.
My Mom, his wife of 48 years, had passed away a few hours prior, on a miserable February day during the worst prolonged stretch of snowfall in the city of Boston’s recorded history. Mom had proven so resilient over the years through various ailments that I’m sure Dad had convinced himself she’d pull through this, too, despite obvious signs pointing otherwise, and I don’t think he had fully accepted the finality of the situation.
Bob was the only person outside of immediate family Dad would have allowed into the house on the night his soulmate passed away. Bob was just my Dad’s type of guy: A gentle giant with a sharp Irish wit who was all about family and Boston and Ireland and his beloved Catholic Church.
My friend drove 25 miles from his home in Marshfield through a snowstorm up to our house in Braintree that night, bringing my Dad and I Chinese food. And as we sat down to eat, Dad wanted to hear about the time Bob and I were jumped by the Braintree MBTA station when we were teenagers.
This requires a bit of setup. We became friends our first year at Boston College High School, in the fall of 1987. We were linemen on the freshman football team. We were, consistently, the two slowest lap runners on the team in practice. There was the main pack, there was the secondary pack, there were a few stragglers ... then came Bob and I, way behind everyone else.
Our friendship was born running those laps out on the edge of Dorchester Bay. We hated running. We never seemed to get better at it. The weather was always terrible. But we never let each other quit, even well after it became clear we were pretty far down on the depth chart. We’d scream at each other if necessary, but we made sure we stuck it out and got through the season, whether or not we got onto the field on game day.
The bond which started out on the practice field was sealed forever one fateful Saturday night during our junior year.
Bob and I shared typical Boston suburban teenagers’ interests in the late 1980s, from the Bruins of the Ray Bourque/Cam Neely era to metal and punk music to pro wrestling.
Especially the latter. The night of the T incident, we had gone to a wrestling show at the old Boston Garden. If memory serves correct, Randy “Macho Man” Savage defended the WWF title against “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase in the main event. Afterwards, we took the MBTA red line train back to Braintree. Bob was going to stay the night at my place.
To get to my house, we had to climb a hill. There was a bridge at the base of the hill, over which the trains ran. It was close to midnight, and we were still in the bridge’s shadows when a lone car pulled over.
There were three guys about our age in the car. Two got out. They clearly had misjudged our size while we were in the shadows. They had picked the wrong targets.
The first guy took a wild swing at Bob. Bob ducked the punch, then grabbed him and basically threw him halfway into the street, charged at him like an angry rhino, and began to more or less stomp him silly.
The second was either less inebriated or just smarter than his partner. He never tried to start anything with me. We stood side by side on the sidewalk in an uneasy truce and watched Bob put a beatdown on the first guy that would have gone viral if it went down today.
The first schmuck managed to get up off the pavement and tried to flee in terror, but Bob, with another surprising burst of speed, caught him underneath the bridge. At this point, the third perpetrator got out of the car. He began to reach into his inside jacket pocket for something, and as he did, he made the mistake of looking at me and saying “stay out of this.”
That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. As he moved toward Bob, I charged at his would-be assailant from behind and rather viciously slammed him into one of the bridge’s concrete beams. He crumpled to the ground. I fetched Bob, who was more or less screaming “you like that?”-type taunts at the first guy, who was on the ground whimpering. The one who had never gotten involved was nowhere to be found. We left the scene as the other two staggered to their feet, continued walking home, and were too hyped to sleep.
We played Nintendo until dawn. Dad came downstairs around 4 AM to try to get us to call it a night. A wry smile crossed his face as we told him the story. He told us not to tell my mother, implored us to stay quiet, and let us resume playing Super Mario Brothers 3.
This was, unquestionably, my Dad’s favorite story from my childhood. I have no doubt that over the years, he exaggerated our odds from 3-on-2 to 10-on-2 when he told and re-told it to his buddies at the former New England Telephone, where he worked as a repairman for 40 years.
And I was thrilled to see the lights go back on in my father’s eyes as we gathered around the dining room table for dinner and a re-telling of the tale.
Bob told his version of the story, prompting the first laughs I heard from my Dad since I returned home the previous day. Then my Dad started in with some of his. A child of South Boston, his young adult life was filled with misadventures in which, somehow, no one got seriously hurt in the end.
Like the time in his 20s when he went for a spin in his Vespa, which had a sidecar attachment. With his friend Salvy (I never found out Salvy’s full name and never wanted to; everyone in Southie had a Sully or a Fitzy or a Salvy or all of the above in their life) in the sidecar, my Dad drove around Cape Cod, and they talked and laughed and talked (my Dad could really chatter), and eventually, Dad was doing all the talking. Then he turned his head to his right, and noticed the sidecar was missing.
You can almost picture this sequence set to the Benny Hill theme: Mid-conversation, the sidecar had unhitched from the Vespa, and Salvy took a ride down an embankment, while my Dad continued blabbing. Dad, panicked, looped back, and found Salvy, a little shaken up but basically unharmed.
My Dad’s stories were like that. But as he started telling them, tales I had heard many times over the years, I started noticing details which were never previously included.
I smiled and allowed myself a moment to dream about how things would be once we got through the grieving period. Dad was 75. His mother had lived to 90 and his grandfather to 96. The way I figured it, not only would Dad have another carefree decade or so ahead of him without worrying about Mom’s health, but I’d finally get to hear the things my modest Mom didn’t want me to hear as a child. Maybe now, I’d finally learn the real shit.
Four days later, Dad had a massive stroke while we were sitting at that same dining room table playing cards. An Army vet who received a full military burial, he was too damn tough for his own good -- while I called 911, even though his left side was paralyzed, he managed a sip of tea with his right hand in an attempt at proving to me he didn’t need to go to the hospital -- so he fought for another two weeks before he finally went to rest.
On February 7, 2015, the day which ended with Dad, Bob and I telling stories over dinner, I spent time with three people -- Mom, Dad, and Bob. By April 7, I was the only one left standing.
“They fucking won. They fucking won!!!!”
Bob left that bellowing torrent of glee on my voicemail after the Patriots defeated the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV to capture Boston’s first pro sports championship in 15 years (Sure, everyone is sick of Boston sports in 2018, but we were of the Bill Buckner generation, and back then, the idea of one of our teams actually winning something was astounding). Bob’s enthusiasm when he was in high spirits was over-the-top infectious, something you wanted to bottle, so the message was still there on my phone more than three years later, when we sat down at Bob’s place to watch UFC 52 on pay-per-view.
And not only would Bob lose his mind again that 2005 night, but I was right there with him.
Matt Hughes, seconds away from being choked out and losing his UFC welterweight title, picked up Frank Trigg, ran him across the Octagon for a giant slam, then submitted and retained his championship.
Bob and I yelled and screamed and high-fived as if Boston had won another title.
We weren’t necessarily Hughes fans. But this was the most electrifying moment to date in the UFC’s Zuffa era, and while I didn’t concern myself as much with business matters back before I made the leap from fan to reporter, this was the moment where you just sort of intrinsically knew mixed martial arts, which was still a couple years away from breaking big, was going to make it somehow.
Given the rough-and-tumble nature of our other shared interests, it was only natural Bob and I became fans of the early days of the UFC. We started by watching UFC 3 live on PPV in 1994 and stuck with it until it was banned from cable television a few years later. We kinda-sorta kept up through via videotape through MMA’s dark ages and restarted full steam once the UFC got back on to pay-per-view in 2001.
By UFC 52, our fight night ritual was down pat. There was a Chinese restaurant down the street from Bob’s house which was hilariously named Hung’s. As two big dudes who could eat, we’d order a scary amount of food -- Multiple orders of beef teriyaki, chicken wings, boneless spare ribs, lo mein, rice, Peking ravioli, you name it. Throw in a giant container of duck sauce (New Englanders’ name for what the rest of the world calls plum sauce) and were ready to gorge ourselves all night.
We had leftover food after UFC 52, so I took some to bring home. Bob wanted me to take the remaining duck sauce. I didn’t want it. I tried to leave it in his fridge. He put it back in with my food. I tried to subtly drop the container on his kitchen table on my way out. He said “nope” and marched it straight out to my car.
Think back to the lengths you would go to win a clash of wills over something minor and/or carry an in-joke with a good friend when you’re in your 20s or early 30s. If you understand what I’m saying here, then you know that I couldn’t let this be the last word.
Bob lived on a hill. I drove to the bottom of the hill and around a corner, waited nearly a half hour, tiptoed up the hill, and put the container of duck sauce in the bed of his pickup truck.
I got a phone call from Bob the next morning. “You motherfucker,” he said, with the half-annoyed, half-admiring tone of someone who knows he’s been beat. “I came so fucking close to driving up to Braintree and leaving that on your front step.”
A year later, I took a job out in Los Angeles and soon thereafter found myself covering UFC events cageside in the defining turn of my sports journalism career.
Bob never left home. He lived in the Marshfield house in which he grew up with his single mother and stayed there until the day he died.
He was likely the most intelligent person I knew who never attended college. Bob found a solid-paying job on a road-painting overnight crew while still in his 20s. A plum state gig with overtime and night differential was better money than anything he was going to get with a degree any time soon, and he valued the 3-4 months off every year necessitated by Massachusetts winters.
Bob never once begrudged any of his friends who went on to make something of themselves. One of our crew from our teenage years, Jay, went on to become the drummer of the metal band All that Remains. Another, Luke, moved to New York City and started a successful role-playing game from scratch. And I began to make my name in MMA circles. As we all scattered, Bob settled into the role of the loyal friend who was always there for you when you went home, always happy to see you.
And given our history as MMA fans, I was glad to include Bob in my newfound orbit when I could. When I worked at UFC 101 in Philadelphia, he drove down from Boston, and after watching the fights, spent a couple hours circling around the arena parking lot in his truck waiting for me to finish work. He also came down to Newark to watch Georges St-Pierre fight Dan Hardy, then drove me back to Boston so I could spend a couple nights with my family before I went back to LA.
The quintessential weekend, though, came in June, 2008. It was the night of Elite XC’s wild network television debut in Newark. Gina Carano, the first women’s MMA star, was introduced to the masses, future UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler fought a wild bout with journeyman Scott Smith which was stopped too soon, and Kimbo Slice, for the first and far from the last time, become America’s topic of water cooler conversation, this time for his fight with James Thompson.
I spent the weekend at Luke’s place in Manhattan. Bob drove down from Boston. Luke and Bob attended the fights while I worked. When I finally finished, following a harrowing cab ride back into the city, we reconvened at a diner across the street from Madison Square Garden.
Luke, Bob, I had developed a distinct dynamic over the years. Our get-togethers featured a constant rhetorical push-and-pull. At any given point in the action, two of us would argue, and the other would serve as either a referee or instigator, depending on the situation. Eventually, the third person would express disagreement with one or the other and a new debate would kick off.
On this occasion, I was the middleman as Bob and Luke raged for what seemed like hours on the subject of Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton (as to who won the argument, my lips are forever sealed). I did my best to stay back and let the two go at it. We ended up staying at the diner until well after three in the morning before calling it a night. As we walked back to Luke’s place, in my overtired state, I thought to myself this was the sort of night I’d remember when I was old and gray.
As I wound toward The Big 4-0, I began to worry about Bob’s health.
I already had long been concerned about my own. I can pinpoint where I went wrong: I stopped playing football, started working at a candy store during my sophomore year of high school, and put on about 50 pounds over the course of two years. My attempts to get into shape and take better care of myself started at age 19, when I stepped on a scale, saw the number 298, and vowed I was never going to let myself hit 300. This being the early 1990s, I went on the Slim Fast diet, the raging fad of the day, lost 60 pounds in six months, then put most of it back on once I resumed eating actual food.
My efforts finally stuck several years later, during a stint spent in Seattle. A real attempt at eating right, the first gym membership of my life, and just walking up and down the Northwest’s steep hills going about my day enabled me to drop 50 pounds, where I’ve more or less stood since.
I discovered a passion for hiking in my mid-30s, accompanied with a desire to make up for the time I lost in terrible shape, which has taken me to national parks across the West from Death Valley to Zion to Saguaro to Redwoods. I took up cycling right around age 40. Realistically, I know I still could buckle down and drop another 20 or 30 pounds, and probably should. The fact I’ve gone from where I was (unable to walk up a flight of stairs without losing my breath) to where I am now (able to do things like hike halfway down the Grand Canyon and back in a day, or get on a bike on any given morning and pedal 40-50 miles), has in a counterintuitive way played a role in keeping me from doing so. ("Hey, I biked 45 miles today! Of course I can have beer and wings tonight!")
When I’d visit home in recent years, and Bob and I went to the former Hung’s (the joint’s now called Mandarin Tokyo), I found myself wondering how long these over-the-top feasts would last. I wasn’t used to eating this way anymore, and when I did, I felt like I was about to get sick.
I remember one memorable such day in which we ate our usual Chinese dinner, then stopped at Dairy Queen so Bob could get a Blizzard, then, when he dropped me back at my parents’ place, I gave him a couple bags of jerky from Alien Fresh Jerky -- a famous spot in the Mojave Desert for travelers going from LA to Las Vegas -- and he ripped a bag open and ate it all on the spot. That bag has four times your recommended daily sodium intake in the jerky alone, never mind the meal we had just consumed.
I thought about how Bob’s long overnight hours on the road, which sometimes turned into double and triple shifts, had to be wearing him down after so many years on the job. I thought about how his truck floor often seemed ankle deep in fast food bags and empty soda bottles. The combo of long, late hours and poor diet worried me.
One time when I went home for the holidays, Bob appeared to have dropped about 30 pounds. I wanted to encourage my friend to keep it up and offer some tips on what had worked for me.
When I tried, though, Bob snapped at me in genuine anger for the first and only time in his adult life. He made it clear I was to never bring up the topic again.
The day before my father’s funeral, Bob came up to Braintree, once again with Chinese food in tow. He asked how I was doing as I opened the front door and greeted him. “Fucking great!” I responded. “No one died today. Loving the snow.” Most people gave me blank stares when I resorted to gallows humor in the aftermath of my parents’ deaths. But Bob, who had lost his father a year prior, let out a good cackle and slapped me on the back.
As we sat down to dinner, Bob started talking about a passage from pro wrestler Chris Jericho’s autobiography. Jericho took a couple years off from wrestling, his everyday aches and pains from the grind of his profession healed up, and he felt better physically than he had in a long time. Then, one morning, he woke up sore from head to toe, and stayed that way for months. Jericho’s best guess is that it was his body getting the signal it no longer had to push through the equivalent of being in a car crash every night, and was finally responding to the years of physical punishment.
Just as I was about to tell Bob I couldn’t figure out where he was going with this, Bob pivoted.
“Your Dad took care of your Mom for years,” Bob said. “Maybe he was ready to go earlier, and he had something in his head that told him he had to make sure your Mom was in a better place. Once she went, and you were back home with him, that same part of his brain sent the signal his work was done and it was time to go.”
Dad had a history of neurological issues, including a seizure in his 50s and a minor stroke a couple years before his death. He took his medications faithfully for years, right up until the morning of his final stroke. Bob’s explanation is the best I’ve ever heard for the horrible sequence of events of Feb. 2015, one I’ve used for solace on many occasions when I’ve found myself pondering the eternal unanswerable question of whether there was anything I could have done to alter the outcome.
I next saw Bob outside the church after the funeral. He was wearing a suit jacket -- the only time I can ever remember him doing so in my life -- along with a black T-shirt, black Dockers, and bright white sneakers. For my part, I couldn’t find my sunglasses before heading out to the funeral home in the morning. It was a sunny day and there was a severe glare from the endless piles of snow, so I had to do something, and I ended up grabbing my Dad’s pair of aviator-goggle-type shades, the sort only old men wear.
Bob got right on my case. “You flying a fuckin’ plane today, kid?” he asked. I shot right back “I need these so I don’t go blind looking at your fuckin’ sneakers.”
I never would have guessed in a million years these would be the last zingers we’d ever trade.
Robert K. Doherty died of a brain aneurysm on April 6, 2015 in Marshfield, MA, at age 42. After spending Easter Sunday with family, Bob fell asleep on his living room couch while watching the late news. A bit later, his mother, who was upstairs, heard a scream, then a thud. By the time she got to the living room, Bob was gone.
More than one person has told me that Bob had confided in them that he never expected to live to see age 40. Would Bob would still be alive if he had eaten better and exercised? Sure, brain aneurysms aren’t directly tied to diet, but even if he had a hereditary predisposition, perhaps if he had better coping mechanisms for his life’s stresses, it might not have struck until he was 52 or 62 or not at all.
Maybe he had already given up by the time I tried to talk to him about his health and it was only a matter of time.
I still wish I had pushed back when he told me he didn’t want to hear it.
Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park holds the world record for the hottest recorded air temperature. What was the massive Lake Manly before the Ice Age is now a salt flat wedged between mountain ranges leading down to North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level. Warm air gets trapped by swirling winds at Badwater, which more or less turns the basin into an open-air convection oven. On July 10, 1913, the temps at Badwater hit a whopping 134 degrees, a reading yet to be matched even in the climate-change era.
The notion of traversing the Basin’s treacherous five-mile width on foot was once an obsession of mine. When I queried park rangers about the idea, they’ve almost unanimously answered “don’t,” with the exception of one who conceded -- after I impressed upon him that I’ve got a fair bit of desert hiking experience and am not some random idiot looking to chase after Pokemon -- that maybe it was possible if I went during the winter, started in the middle of the night, and timed it to return around daybreak.
I stopped seriously pursuing the idea a few years back, after I ventured about two miles out on a spring day and found myself sunburned and nearly out of water by the time I returned. I’m pretty sure had I continued even a mile further before turning back, I’d be a statistic and a cautionary tale.
But sunstroke was the least of my concerns when I pulled up to Badwater’s parking area on a grey day in March.
As chance had it, in Oct. 2015, I had been in Death Valley just one day after a flood meteorologists termed “once in a thousand years” hit the park. Five months later, I had been lured back by reports of a once-in-a-generation wildflower super bloom, a spectacular aftereffect of the massive storm.
And I was again greeted by the threat of a major storm, this one courtesy El Niño.
Twice venturing out to the hottest, driest place on earth and twice finding the possibility of torrential rain? Yeah, that was my previous year in a nutshell.
Attempting to get my life back in track in the wake of the events of the winter of 2015 was something akin to navigating a field rigged with land mines. Every day, fresh reminders of what was lost sprung from unexpected places. Want to relax at night and do something as simple as watching a Bruins game? Get slapped in the face with reminders your earliest life memories were of watching hockey with your Dad; that Bob was the most hardcore Bruins fan in your life; and that neither are with you.
See a picture of your Dad with his best friend, Tim, and be reminded that not only did Dad forever lament losing Tim to a heart attack in his 40s, but then ponder the irony that you can’t even talk to your Dad about losing your close friend at the same age because Dad’s gone, too.
My first real shot at moving my life forward involved spending more money than I ever could have previously conceived of spending on a nice road bike and pursuing a goal of cycling from Los Angeles to San Diego, about 135 miles. Then, on my first planned long training ride toward this goal, the rear wheel on my expensive new vehicle came loose and jammed itself into the bike’s frame. As soon as I gave up on the idea of fixing it myself and committed to a three-mile walk to the nearest train station, I heard a thunderclap, kicking off a downpour of rain which didn’t let up until just as I reached the station.
There were moments which renewed my hope, too, like holding my new niece, Emma, on the day she was born. By and large, though, by the time I returned to Badwater, I had become subconsciously all but resigned to the notion things were always going to go wrong.
Of course there’s going to be another downpour in the desert the day I’m here, I thought, as I stepped out of my car at Badwater.
Then: Fuck it. I didn’t come all the way out to one of the most desolate spots on earth just to mope.
I pulled my bike out from the back of my pickup truck and started pedaling south on Badwater Road, which connects the southern end of the park with the hamlet of Shoshone, some 45 miles away. There's no safety net here. No cell reception. No people, few passing cars, and I was biking in the opposite direction of the park’s visitor center and its surrounding roadside services. If I had a major issue with the bike this time, I’d pretty much be out of luck.
Adding to all this, a swirling headwind from the threatening weather system made pedaling on a mostly flat road feel like a Stairmaster set to its highest level.
Still, I persisted, as much as I wanted to quit. And I was ultimately rewarded with a patch of wildflowers, yellow and gold with occasional splashes of violet and red, all to myself, for a span of several miles. All of a sudden, it was as if The Sound of Music was transposed onto one of the earth’s harshest environments.
Fifteen miles in, I turned back north toward Badwater, now aided with a tailwind which propelled my bike like a rocket, and was treated to a surreal landscape: Thunderheads straight out of Weather Channel specials on natural disasters, mixed with the odd tint of sun-bleached brown mountains minus the sun, mixed with the whites and grays of the salt pan, mixed with wildflower patches passing as a blur in my peripheral vision.
For the first time in quite some time, I felt alive.
By the time I got back to my truck, safe and sound and with the ominous skies never quite giving way to a deluge, I intrinsically understood the lights in my soul had finally turned back on and there would no more flicking them off.
The next day, the clouds were gone, the sun had reasserted itself as Death Valley’s malevolent despot, and I simply had to get on my bike again before heading back to LA. This time, I started at Stovepipe Wells, located about 100 feet below sea level, near the park’s famed sand dunes. From there I biked a slow, slight, steady climb uphill to an “Elevation: Sea Level” road sign, simply to say I did so.
Death Valley’s vast vistas can play tricks on your mind. The park, the largest in the lower 48 states, is roughly the size of Connecticut, and unlike perpetually tourist-choked spots such as Grand Canyon, it’s possible to travel hours through the open desert without encountering another soul. If you’re on a bike, you can pedal at a furious pace and still feel you’re moving slow, simply because the endless horizon give the impression you’re not making any progress.
This mad dash which felt like anything but, combined with the beating sun, provided a mild case of delirium by the time I finished a 20-mile jaunt, but within that state I also had a moment of clarity: It was time to do that Los Angeles-to-San Diego ride.
The guy who was near 300 pounds at 19 was now 42, going on 43.
It was now or never.
Another flash of inspiration hit as I finished my ride: I’d find a charity and make the ride in my Dad’s name.
I named a charity called Hire Heroes USA, which helps veterans transition back to civilian life, as the beneficiary. My Dad, after all, had used his military experience to give his family a better life, so why not turn around and try to help today’s vets do the same for theirs?
The conceptualization was the easy part. Pulling it off was something else.
By late April, I had built my bike legs up to my first big, long training ride, from downtown Los Angeles to San Clemente, in south Orange County, approximately 75 miles. I almost quit before I got started. I had horrible trouble sleeping the night before the ride. I couldn’t shake images of my aborted long ride the previous summer, and I was hit like a sucker punch by the memory that the last time I was at my destination, the San Clemente Pier, in late 2014, I had one of my last long phone conversations with my parents.
After four hours of fitful sleep, I decided to go ahead with the ride, simply because I knew staying home and admitting defeat would have been worse on my psyche than anything the ride could throw at me. Things went without a hitch and I was euphoric as I contemplated the notion I had biked so far I had to take a 90-minute Amtrak ride home.
The doubts never fully subsided as the appointed date drew near. Could I physically pull this off? My brain had absorbed so much point-blank evidence over the previous year of just how wrong life can go that it would still occasionally wander into dark spaces. In the worst of them, I’d picture news reports headlined something along the lines of “former fatass has heart attack trying to bike too far.”
But each success helped further my steadily rebuilding confidence. My next big challenge came two weeks after the San Clemente ride, as I attempted to bike from LA to Oceanside in north San Diego county, about 95 miles. This turned into a misadventure at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, as the well-meaning guard at the gate sent me far in the wrong direction before I encountered a jogging Marine who put me back on the right path. As an unexpected bonus, my ride with the detour ended up at 102 miles, giving me both my first century ride and the confidence to go public with the idea of my charity ride.
The final week before the big ride turned into the most stressful time of all, as nearly every conceivable problem popped up, from bike maintenance issues to worrying about my fundraising goal to those nagging doubts about whether I could pull it off. In summary: I came to realize why charity bike rides and road races are usually done in groups, not solo. It’s a lot of pressure to place on one’s shoulders.
But also one of life’s most deeply satisfying feelings when you actually pull it off.
An unexpected calm hit me the night before the big ride weekend. Maybe it was breaking down and having a comfort food meal of chicken and waffles for dinner -- something certainly not on the meal plan during the Tour de France — which settled my nerves. Maybe it was the confidence of simply knowing all my fundraising was finally complete (I had set a goal of $5,000 and ultimately raised $5,500), my training done right, and now, all I had to do was actually pedal. Maybe I took the fact I was doing this over Father’s Day weekend, a detail which escaped me when I booked the trip, as a signal my karma was correct.
I wish I could build up some drama in the actual ride for the sake of the narrative, but there was little. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky on day one and it also wasn’t too hot out. The bike, with an assist from the folks at Budget Pro Bikes in Los Angeles, functioned fine. I cackled as I zipped through the lower end of the Los Angeles River bike path and pulled into downtown Long Beach, knowing I wouldn’t have to see the channelized river's disgusting concrete bowl first thing in the morning on training rides again any time soon.
A couple hours later, I aced the ride's first big test, a pair of big hills, one after another, on the Pacific Coast Highway along the border of Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. Two months prior, I had to walk my bike up the second hill; this time, I barely broke a sweat and only stopped at the top to take in the magnificent ocean view behind me.
Day one ended at a friend’s place in Oceanside, 95 miles from LA. When I woke up on day two, I felt fine physically, and only had to fend off the part of my brain which couldn’t shake utter disbelief that I was about to get right back on my bike. I pedaled an easy 20 miles to Torrey Pines State Beach in La Jolla, where I had one last test of my mental mettle. One hundred fifteen miles into my overall journey, I found myself sitting on a bench overlooking the beach.
On this bench, I had my very last normal phone conversation with my parents, just a couple days before everything went to hell. I briefly broke down and wept thinking about it. Then I felt one of the fiercest waves of determination I’ve ever experienced. Time to get the job done.
I pushed up and down La Jolla’s hills. My breath was taken away when I caught my first glimpse of Mission Bay and downtown San Diego. It was tangible now. This crazy idea which had popped into my head a few years prior, which seemed impossible when I royally screwed up my first attempt, this idea I had doubted I could pull off the entire time I trained, all of a sudden was so very real.
The descent into the city, with a view of the bay all the way down Soledad Mountain Road, was quite simply one of my life’s most fulfilling moments.
I caught a second wind pedaling through Old Town San Diego, laughed out loud when an unexpected rain shower broke out, and continued toward downtown. I felt like I could have continued all the way to Tijuana and actually found myself a bit disappointed the ride was coming to an end. But I had a small gathering of well-wishers waiting at Santa Fe Depot, the city’s main train station, my destination. Including Chile. My friend who was there for me through this entire ordeal, whose home I was staying at when I got the horrible news about Bob, flew down from the Bay Area to be a part of it and helped me bring everything full circle.
The rest of the weekend was a pure celebration with friends, which bounced from downtown to Hillcrest to the Gaslamp District to Petco Park.
The big-picture realization of what I had accomplished finally sank in as I leaned against the brick wall of the warehouse in Petco’s left-field corner during a Padres-Nationals game on a glistening Sunday afternoon, beer in hand.
There were two paths I could have traveled in the aftermath of the loss of my parents and close friend. In the first one, I could have become embittered by the whole experience and few would have begrudged me for it.
Instead, while it took awhile to get there, I ultimately stayed true to myself while growing comfortable in my own skin, and showed gratitude to those who helped me through, which enabled me to accomplish something my younger self never could have imagined possible, and helped give something back along the way.
In the span of two horrifying months, I learned all too well tomorrow’s not guaranteed. Since then, I’ve discovered the way you choose to live out the rest of your story is the way you honor the memory of those who graced your presence along the way.
(Postscript: It's a really weird time in the business in which I work. I spent several months trying to pitch this piece to various outlets. The response was almost always the same: "I really loved this piece," invariably followed with "I wish I had the budget to pay you for this." So, if you've gotten this far, I have an ask: If you liked this piece, or if you've enjoyed my work in general over the years, would you consider making a one-time donation via PayPal? . The address to send to on PayPal is davedoylemma at gmail dot com. I'm hoping to raise a couple hundred dollars to defray the costs of this website. Thanks!)