My wife of 47 years died in April 2004, after a two year struggle with metastatic cancer of the breast. She was with me at home the last three months of her life. Because she had been a nurse and I a physician, we learned to be pretty efficient at taking care of the tube in her throat and giving her nutrition through the tube in her stomach. She was particularly adept at it. So much so, she mostly did everything herself, including showering and dressing. She was a whiz at all the essentials. I just looked on admiringly in the background as her hands flew over the tubing, the bags, the connections, the aspirator. She taught me how to die with dignity. In so doing, she made me want to live life, every minute of it.
Soon after her death, despite my age of 78, I decided that instead of waiting for the world to come to me, I would go to it. My nephew, Jerry, who started me on bicycling tours when I was almost 60, had given me some clue what needed doing. Since then we had been on numerous trips together, five of them in the mountains, including Yellowstone, Montana, the Tetons, Wyoming, Colorado and the Oregon coast. I had learned a lot about taking care of my needs though there was still plenty to learn. What I never seemed to learn very well was the mechanics of bicycle repair. But I knew how to camp on the ground, the clothes and rain gear to carry, the food and preparation for long endurance trips. I was still a terrible navigator, reader of maps, scheduler of times and places. Still as far as I was concerned, I was ready with the essentials for a trip on my own.
I decided I didn’t need to wait for him. It was middle to late May and he wanted to go down the Danube as far as Vienna. I liked the idea but there was no way I was going to wait the five or so weeks to the beginning of July. So I planned. to meet him in Munich where he was to meet his son, Greg, who was winding up his five year program in the Max Planck Institute. There was plenty on my plate. I had Ann and Bill Couldrick near Oxford, who graciously invited me for a few days. There was London, one of my favorite cities. And there were my wife’s relatives, in the magnificent countryside of Durham. And in between, there were the Midlands and the Downs which I had mostly seen from the air and had hardly experienced on the ground. Jerry knowing and experiencing my inadequacies, was not pleased. For good reason, he had nightmares of disasters. He had dark visions of having to dig me out of impossible situations in far off places. Most logical people, having seen me and experienced me up close would be irrational not to have agreed with him.
So I got my bicycle in shape with the help of Richard at Wheels and Things. I did some careful packing and booked to London. My son-in-law, Tom, helped me pack the bike and bags and I was off. I stayed with the Couldricks four or five days during which Bill took me on an overland journey on the Downs just a bit beyond his house. We followed a track the farmers took when they took their animals to market during many centuries. What a ride. We must have gone close to 10 miles over the track full of deep ruts carved into the sod and earth by 4x4’s and 8x8’s. It was harrowing but a good test of my endurance and balance. As a result, I developed a small puncture in one of the tires barely discernable until I picked it up just before I left the Couldricks and their gracious families. Ann Couldrick, having more than an inkling of my inadequacies, subtly attempted to talk me out of my journey. At that point, I was in the fist of the Devil and nothing could dissuade me. Bill had been good enough to pick up bicycle maps which covered many of the sections through which I was passing. On about the fifth morning, he dropped me off on the edge of Banbury.
I immediately got lost. The British still believe the Nazis are on their way. They have practically no road signs understandable to strangers. Attempting to get directions from local people in the country was a challenge. Many times what they calculated was right seemed to me to be to the left and vice versa. They spoke an English that was as rustic and ancient as Chaucer. I was convinced I had passed into another century, another era. They often contradicted themselves though I was no great judge of this since in the first place, I had great difficulty making out the most simplest phrases. Finally I resorted to using my arms and my fingers pointing to things on the map and poking my arms toward some horizon or structure. I must have had to back track 40 times. Once I got entangled in a field of oats where I lost my pannier rain covers and got mud over everything. The busy farmer, when he saw me coming through the grain almost choked with laughter. He had seen madmen but never with a bicycle, coming through his muddy soaked fields. He got rid of me quick by putting me on the right road to Stratford. I must have supplied enough entertainment for a year. I was amazed when I finally did reach Stratford only an hour and half late. The youth hostel honored my reservation that night but the next night there was no place for me. A great many children had school holiday and had booked. Fortunately there was a camp ground in town where I stayed. The pause gave me time to attend the theater where I saw a Spanish play written about the time of Shakespeare.
It took me forever to get out of Stratford. Either people didn’t understand me or I didn’t understand them. My destination was Catshill. It appeared so easy on the map, but I easily became confused. I finally wrote down all the directions so I would not have to keep questioning my memory which as usual is maddening. But in order to get to Catshill, I needed to pass through the conurbia of Birmingham. First came Redditch, which a young cyclist after I told him I was a WWII veteran, got me in a bus corridor, in which I was practically alone and away from the heavy traffic. Then came Bromsgrove before Catshill. I must have gone around in circles close to two hours doubling back on myself at least once and barely recognizing what was happening, until I figured out how to get on to a lonely country road which led to Bromsgrove. But that quiet road made me pay in spades there were so many steep climbs. On the last one, half way to the top, I gave in and walked the hill which went on forever.
I got into Catshill about six in the evening. I thought there’d be bed and breakfast signs all over the place. There wasn’t one. Looking about I spotted a pub on the main road. I leaned my cycle against a fence and crossed the street and entered. There in the middle of the place were a group of middle aged men standing about drinking their pints while above them on television were all kinds of D day commemorations. Sixty years had come and gone. I piped up that I had been in that war. That got some attention. Here I was in my riding shorts, helmet, anklets, riding shoes disguising my close to eight decades on this planet. They stopped dead and immediately got on the phones trying to find me a place to stay when I told them what was needed. One of the men had his wife bring over their station wagon. They had found me a farm house down the road about a mile where I stayed the night. There wasn’t a woman in the place. It was run by men seemingly for men, one of whom was in a struggle with his wife who wouldn’t allow him in the house and may have put him in jail. He had been a salesman who by his dress was trying hard to keep up appearances while drinking his coffee, smoking and eating his rashers of bacon. Each one of these men seemed to have been shoved to the edge of their families and communities but kept the details inside except for the salesman. I wanted to know more but I wasn’t invited nor was there time either for them or me. They had more compelling matters to contemplate and I needed to be on a steady move, if I were to get to Munich by the end of June or the first days of July.
I rode down the wide boulevard in Birmingham on my bicycle, panniers loaded, front and back with clothes, food. My tent, sleeping bag, air mattress were strapped to the rear bracket with five bungies. We were in the midst of traffic big time. That was a picnic compared to the downtown traffic into which the boulevard emptied. I finally found an island of relative quiet where there was a bench and sat munching my cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich purchased at a bakery that morning. The traffic swirled around me as if it were water. I was trapped in the midst of its confluence. I hated to think having to enter its current once again, getting to the other side of the city. I looked in all directions. I needed someone sympathetic and knowledgeable. I found him. About 40, picking his way through the tumult of people moving in and out of stores, confidently, astride a bicycle.
I stopped him. “I need to get out of town somehow. Any way I can avoid this madness?” The man smirked, nodded his head, then told me they’d been trying to get bicycle paths forever and I needed to write the mayor. He then maintained that Birmingham was second in size only to London. “And Mate. Birmingham has more canals than Venice.” I found my way to the towpath of the main canal. It was perfect. Hardly anyone. One of the problems: the path would rise sharply each time a new canal would empty into the big one. Too sharp for the loaded bike to climb. That meant dismounting, pushing the bike up the incline and coming down the other side at break neck velocity. The second problem was the bridges over the canal as streets intersected it. They didn’t seem a problem. I passed under the arches of numerous without difficulty, until I came to one in which the path deviated slightly toward the water as it ran beneath its arch. It appeared no more difficult than those that preceded. Just as I guided the front wheel along the arc of the path, my helmet was suddenly jarred as if someone had come from the shrubbery and struck it with a club. My head had struck the bridge.
From then on everything happened in slow motion, swiftly. I became the prisoner of momentum and gravity. In the grip of these two insistent adversaries, I was helpless. I saw my front wheel leave the path and slice the water cleanly like a delicatessen sausage knife cutting effortlessly through meat. I rode my Elsinore into the water flawlessly. There wasn’t time to release the clasps holding my shoes to the peddles. I and the bike went in over our heads and handlebars. When I got to my feet on the bottom I straightened out. The water was as high as my chest. I was sure the bike was on the bottom. When I looked there it was floating before me on its side like a dead horse. Not a bag dislodged, not a bungie undone. The same was true of my helmet and glasses. Not a millimeter out of position.
I looked about. Not a TV camera anywhere. Not even a pigeon not an ant. How would this ever be recorded for posterity? Who would ever believe me? I shouted for help. I might have just as well been in the sewers of Paris with Jean Valjean. The edge of the path was head high. With all my strength I wrestled the fifty plus pound bike and baggage over its edge. I almost couldn’t find the leverage to get myself out. Only by jumping and pulling was I able to swing one of my old hips on to the asphalt enough so I could crawl the rest of the way, finally clearing my legs from the nasty water. I was drenched. Fortunately the temperature was tolerable though I became conscious the gentle breeze was chilling. I dove into my pack and pulled out a sweater I had placed in a plastic bag that morning. It was dry. After removing my jersey, I put on the sweater and immediately felt better. Everything else would have to wait till I got to Walsall.
When I got to the outskirts of Walsall, the traffic was unbearable and the route to my destination unclear. I felt stymied. Looking into a shopping center on which margin I stood, I noticed a man tossing old clothes and worn running shoes into a van. I went over and began helping him. The man worked for an organization that was sending all this overseas to people in countries that were barely surviving. I told the man how confused I was by the traffic, how I needed to get through it to Walsall and I needed a place to sleep that night. The man told me when I got back to America to kiss its ground. He had worked in Downers Grove for many years but returned to England because he needed to deal with family property left him. He and his wife never returned because the kids got too adjusted to school and friends. He loved the U.S. When he got around to retiring they were going to retire in Vegas. Then he stopped sorting the bags. “Do you have any hang-ups about riding in motorized vehicles? Some cyclists would never consider alternatives.” Immediately we shoved the bags aside and got the bicycle in the back. Then we were off. At that point I told him about the canal. The man pulled out his phone and called his partner. His partner told him he’d call him back in a few minutes. When he did it had all been arranged. His 80 year old mother would be taking me in.
She immediately parked my bike in the kitchen, took all my clothes, threw them in the washer, had me shower, gave me tea, started a fire in the fire place, gave me supper, told me about her family so in detail, I knew more about her family than my own,. We talked for hours. She maintained I could make as many international calls as I wanted. She then gave me one of the upstairs bedrooms. The next day, she made me breakfast, packed me a lunch and wouldn’t take a cent. In 4 or 5 hours I was in Lichfield, surrounded by the magnificence of the almost thousand year old cathedral, sitting in the choir listening to the resonance and echo of evening vespers.