There are days when I feel like my 62-year-old body is falling apart.
Aside from having cancer milling around in my prostate (getting into God only knows what type of mischief), my hearing is deterioration. Last month, I got hearing aids. Two years ago, a hearing specialist told me I was really too young to be losing my hearing, but indeed I was. After I told him about bombing in Iraq, he said that explained it.
One day in June, I ordered stronger prescription glasses. Last fall, my left knee was scheduled for replacement, but I chickened out. My teeth are not what they used to be, and they need a lot of treatment just to keep them. The screws in the plate in my collarbone protrude from the skin and rub against my backpack or shoulder harness in a car and annoy the hell out of me. Two chunks of shrapnel in the back of my head irritates me sometimes. My right shoulder hasn’t been the same since that bar fight in Thailand many years ago.
I’ll stop there. Most of you have your own list of ailments. You know the feeling.
Most of the time, I manage the tension of work and everyday life relatively well. But I am a natural worrier. Worries about finances, children and family, bureaucratic injustices and other nagging concerns ratchet up the toxic stress that threatens my mental and physical health. Daily exercise, breathing techniques, gratitude diary and other stress management tools help. But several times a month, the anxiety reaches unhealthy levels.
So once a year, I take a cross-country bike-packing trip to reboot. I need to step outside my routine and challenge my mind and broken-down body.
In 2020, I decided to ride 650 miles across Florida. Having never ridden a bike more than 12 miles at any one time, I was not entirely sure I could do it. But I cobbled together 30-, 40- and 50-mile days to complete the journey.
In 2021, I rode 750 miles from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana and back. This year, I decided to check a box off of my bucket list and peddle from my former home in Indiana to my current home in Florida.
Long, arduous cycling trips like this challenge me, get me off of the sofa and deliver me into the lap of nature — outdoors exposed to thunderstorms, insects, morning darkness and the punishing midday heat and humidity — and remind me I am still healthy enough for one more long journey, that I am still alive, that the nursing home can wait. These trips push my body to the limit and clear my head.
I was not at all sure I could complete this year’s trip. Many things scared me. The heat, my weight and poor physical shape, the distance, but most of all, the foothills and mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. I had never confronted any challenge like this, and I was under time constraints. I had to be on a plane bound for Honduras no later than July 31.
I left my cousin’s house near Bloomington on July 5 and peddled up and down the rolling hills to Nashville. This first leg was brutal. I was out of shape and had never traversed hills like this before. I visited with family in Nashville, had Lucy (my bike) tuned up and left for Jackson County two days later. This leg was fun but just as hard. I visited friends and family that day and hoped to spend one more day visiting more friends. But the meteorologists had conspired against me.
At the last minute the next morning, I saw a very small window in the forecast to ride to Corydon and avoid most of the rain. Lucy and I made great progress the first hour, but as soon as we hit the big hill entering Washington County, the thunderstorms unleashed their fury. For the next five hours, torrential downpours pounded me. Just as I was entering Corydon, the rain let up. But Lucy’s front tire hit a slick, diagonal railroad track, and she bucked me off, tossing this old body onto the blacktop and cracking a few ribs.
Any sane cyclist at my age would have given up at that point. But I took a rain day to rest up, dry out and peddled on in the direction of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. When I crossed the Ohio River, I knew I had accomplished something meaningful. Now, I just had to take it one day at a time.
The hills grew more difficult every couple of days. Pushing Lucy and her 35-pound saddlebags up 1-mile and 2-mile hills became routine.
The temperature grew more intense as weathermen and women issued heat advisories almost every day. They were warned to stay indoors after early morning. Several days, the mercury reached 90 or 91 before I arrived at my motel. One day, after a 2-mile mountain and countless, grueling hills and about 6 miles into a 7½-mile leg, I got sick. I thought I might pass out. No matter how much I rested or how much water I drank, I couldn’t shake the feeling. Sometimes, the distance between breaks would be 1 mile, at other times just one block.
The ribs grew worse, too. The frayed nerves at broken ends popped and rubbed against each other, sending warning signals of pain and discomfort when I pushed Lucy or breathed hard, which was all of the time. When I sneezed or coughed, it felt like my chest exploded.
Yet, I kept going. I adjusted my diet, started eating more fruit and less junk and immediately, I found a slight energy reserve and my weight began to drop. Five pounds or 10 pounds can make a big difference.
Not once did I think about giving up. Not even when I became sick and felt like fainting did I consider throwing in the towel. Not because I am tough. I am not. Not necessarily because I am determined. I am. But because I am stubborn. Extremely stubborn. Just ask my wife.
Years ago when I learned insurgents had placed a $5,000 price on my head in Iraq, I remained in the country out of sheer stubbornness. When the priced doubled to $10,000 a month later, stubbornness drove my decision to stay. A few years later, I was working in Pakistan and articles began surfacing in the Urdu newspapers stating the Taliban were targeting my work colleagues and me. My friends left, but I dug in my heals.
When men dressed like the Taliban assassinated a friend of mine one block away, I still refused to leave. Even when the media produced 135 newspaper articles, TV talk shows and other digital news in four languages about me, threatening my safety, my refusal to quit the country was rooted in pigheadedness.
Had it not been for an order from US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson that I not return from leave in Paris — because she could not ensure my safety — I would have stayed even longer.
Old coots like me don’t surrender easily when challenged. I have walked away plenty, don’t get me wrong. But on my terms, usually when I was fed up with some untenable circumstances or in the face of nonsense or when anger got the best of me.
This 804-mile journey across five states, however, did not reach any of those thresholds. In fact, despite the physical and mental challenges, the rewards are well outpaced the setbacks.
I saw some of the most beautiful farms, fields, pastures, hills, forests, ponds, lakes, rivers and streams that the United States has to offer. I encountered dozens of kind, caring and interesting human beings. I watched interesting behaviors of bulls, cattle, goats, donkeys and horses. At one farm, a bull began running alongside me with two dozen cows and calves trotting behind as if I was going to feed them all. Horses and donkeys almost always stopped grazing to watch me. One calf came right up to the fence vying for my attention.
I saw beautiful birds, deer, foxes and other wildlife. I rescued a turtle on the highway in Alabama.
One daughter told me my writing was therapeutic for me, and she was right. I write the blog for readers, for family and friends and to chronicle my journey. Imagine how interesting these paragraphs and photos will be to grandchildren and their offspring in 50 or 100 years. I would love to read a journal covering 24 days in the life of my grandfather or great-grandmother.
Several people have asked me if I feel a sense of accomplishment now that I have completed this year’s journey: Five states and 804 miles in 24 days. Yes, of course, overcoming all of these challenges and reaching targets, staying on schedule, create meaning, fulfillment, a victory of sorts.
Although, indeed, my body is deterioration, it is not quite shot. I am not dead. I’m still here. Still kicking. Still peddling.
We’ll see what next year brings.
Read the entire 800-mile travel blog at marvingray.org.
If you have a bucket list of your own, please share it with me at [email protected]