I woke up at 5:30 AM. Still very cold. I can’t feel the tips of my fingers. I decided to pack and leave. Maybe moving my body will warm it up.
Where’s the sun?
Imagine a forest of very tall trees. Imagine a road in the middle of the forest. Imagine the sun coming up but still low on the horizon. Imagine that there isn’t a sunny spot anywhere. Imagine that you are cold and dreaming about finding a spot where the sun can warm your bones up… and then, finally, a break. No trees. There it is… The Sun King!
I am so happy. I am feeling its warmth. I have to take a picture to forever remember how happy I am.
Crossing the huge bridge and arriving in North Bend.
It’s noon time and I am not going any further. I have no energy after that cold night. I want to check in a warm room, take a hot shower, eat a hot meal, and sleep in a warm bed.
I am staying in Coos Bay, of Steve Prefontaine fame.
I stopped at the information center in Reedsport and when I got out I noticed that the rear tire was flat. Well, first one of the journey, and I have to be happy that it happened on a safe place with plenty of room to work.
I did a good job changing the tube and fixing the tire. I was proud of my accomplishment. By the time I was ready to put the wheel back the wind was blowing so hard that I had to ask someone to hold the bike for me. The temperature dropped and the wind increased. A cold front moving in.
I stopped to eat in Reedsport, and kept on going. I could feel the cold. I battled the wind, the cold, and some hills and finally got to the Umpqua Lighthouse.
It was mid afternoon and I realized that I could not go any further. It was too cold.
I pitched the tent on the grounds of the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.
Got inside the sleeping bag wearing all the clothes and went through one of the coldest nights in my life. At least, that’s how I felt. Face mask, gloves, all the clothes, sleeping bag, and frigid air all around me.
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my head… I thought about the Florida weather, and realized how lucky I am, that I can turn the heater on when it is cold. I imagined donating all the blankets I have at home to the homeless shelter. Maybe I’ll do a “blanket for the homeless drive” when I get back. I realized how proud I am of my son and their friends, and the work they do providing shelter to the Harvard Square homeless during the winter nights.
Lack of comfort is a good reminder of how rich I am.
“Sure. I am a writer. I write and I speak. That’s how I make a living,” answering with a higher dose of hope than reality.
“How cool is that?,” he said.
“And what about you? What’s your story?”
Conley told me that he started driving trucks when he was 18 years old, and how he did that most of his life, until the accident four years ago. The cargo escaped untouched, but he didn’t… fractured and compressed vertebras, plus problems with the shoulder pressed by the seat belt that saved his life.
He was lucky. He could be dead.
The saddest part of the story is how people reacted, he told me. The cleanest of records, the many awards, the frequent praises by the bosses as an exemplary employee did not go far.
“I was soon dismissed and forgotten. I wasn’t useful anymore. I used to go to their houses. They treated me as their friend. And when I needed their help, they pushed me away as if I had an infectious disease. They could have found another place for me. They could have recommended me… I was out of work, not making any money, and, for a while, I could not pay my bills. It ruined my credit. Now I am on disability. I work the front desk of this motel part-time. My wife cleans the rooms, and the income helps us with the bills… The sad part is how people avoided me.”
“I know how you feel,” I said. And this time I was being completely truthful because, actually, I knew exactly how he felt.
“But I am OK. Life goes on. I have my character. I am an honest man, and no one will ever take this away from me.”
Again, I knew how he felt.
“Can I take your picture?” I asked.
“Sure… and write about me!”
I got up on my bike and when I was leaving, he shouted, “You were brought here for a reason.”
I guess the reason was to sit down and listen with undivided attention while he told his story. I guess I was brought there simply to show Conley a little bit of kindness.
When I got to the campsite I was greeted by Tom… sort of… “Another damn biker!” he shouted out loud in his rough voice.
He wasn’t what you’d expect a regular cyclist on a bike tour to be. His appearance was more that of a homeless. In fact, there were three older guys already on site, and none of them fit the image of a tourist. I had an eerie feeling… “Maybe I should go somewhere else,” I thought, allowing apprehension to kick in. The internal dialogue continued… “Slow down, Piero. Don’t rush to judge. Here you are… profiling. You, the expert in diversity and inclusion! You teach that stuff. C’mon. Give the guy a chance.”
“Where are you heading to?” he asked. His appearance wasn’t the best. He was smoking, and I suspected that his water bottle, from where he kept drinking, contained a stronger kind of liquid.
“I’m going south, to California,” I responded.
“Well, pay attention. There are a bunch of campgrounds that are closed. Those damn budget cuts, you know? So as soon as you get to the border, stop and ask which ones are open. It is not funny to go up a hill, thinking that you will have a place to sleep right on the other side, only to find out that the next open campground is 40 miles away.”
“Why don’t you unload and come back here? I’ll show you my map.”
While I was assembling the tent and getting organized, I kept thinking, “Should I go there or ignore him?”
“Here I am. Tell me about the closed campsites, will you?”
“Sure, let me find the map.” It took him a while. He went through the bags and finally exclaimed, “Found it! Here it is!” He opened the map on top of the table… “Wait. Let me get my glasses. I can’t see a thing without them.” And with a lot of generosity he shared what he knew.
I learned that Tom was going north. This was the third time he was ‘circumnavigating’ the US. “I am going to the East Coast through the north part of the country during the summertime, and I will cross back to the west through the southern states during the winter.”
I thanked him and went to sleep.
Tom coughed all night long. A bad cough. The following morning, we both got ready to leave. I saw him when he came out of his tent to roll a cigarette and light up the first one of the day. I offered him a Biscoff cookie but he didn’t take it. “No, thanks.”
We talked a little more.
“Where is home for you?” I asked, expecting to hear that he didn’t have one, and that his tent was the only shelter he had. “Wisconsin. I have two houses there,” he responded, as if already knowing that he would surprise me with his answer. “My son takes care of them for me.”
“And how long do you stay when you are up there?” I asked.
“Maybe one week a year,” he answered. “I am 62 years old, a disabled veteran, and 4 years ago I started to ride the bike around the country, and I am still doing it.”
“What is your destination today?” I asked.
“It depends. Everyday is different. it depends on how I feel. What I know is that I am going north. Don’t know how far I’m going. Can’t tell where I’m gonna stop… You know, I have met guys who are obsessed with doing 100, 120 miles a day… this is no fun. I just take it easy and let each day tell me what I’m gonna do.”
I nodded, letting him know that I understood. I’m pretty much the same way, I thought to myself.
“Well, time to go,” he announced. “Be safe. Beware of those damn RVers and be careful with the homeless. They wait for you to go inside the store to snatch things out of the bags in your bicycle. They are known for doing this.” he said.
And I had a moment of clarity, when the inner voice whispered, “Another teacher, another lesson. Here’s the guy you profiled yesterday as a homeless, giving you advice about the homeless. What goes around, comes around… sometimes quickly. Time to learn, Piero!”
Can I take a picture?” I asked.
“Sure, go ahead!”
“Smile,” I asked.
“I never smile,” he said.
“OK,” I said, and took the picture.
“Besides, I have no teeth,” he added… and then he smiled.
He left, and I smiled as well. Now I understand why he didn’t accept the cookie. Biscoffs are pretty hard even for those with perfect teeth!