The first mile
Last August I posted something here that I called The Last Mile, which was a recollection of a coast-to-coast bicycle trip I took in 1997 and the many lessons I learned along the way that were helping me in my current journey fighting brain cancer. Today I thought of that bike trip again because a woman named Beth Clark posted a comment telling me that she, too, is a GBM (glioblastoma multiforme cancer) patient, has found my blog and would like to compare notes on our treatment and prognosis. Beth hasn’t yet given me all the details of her case, but she said her prognosis (like mine) is looking pretty decent.
Over the months I’ve been writing this blog, I have had many strangers whose lives have been touched by cancer reach out to me — including other GBM patients, their loved ones or their survivors. That has been one of the biggest rewards of writing my story. But Beth’s note triggered other memories because she happens to live in Bellingham, Wash. — the city on the Pacific Coast where my bicycling adventure began on June 8, 1997. That place will always hold special significance for me. So in my response to Beth, I shared with her some specific memories I have of her city that I did not include in the earlier post about the bike trip. And in doing so I realized that even before I’d ridden the first of the 5,100 miles of that bike trip, I was already learning valuable lessons that I’m still applying today as I deal with this nasty condition. So after I sent my response to Beth Clark, I thought I’d copy what I wrote right here on the blog for anyone else who might care. My e-mail to Beth is posted in italics below, along with some pictures from my trip and links I’ve added to explain some of the local Bellingham references:
After flying into SEA-TAC airport and meeting one another on June 7, 1997, our group loaded into vans and headed up Interstate 5 to Bellingham to camp for the night at Shuksan Middle School. As I was setting up my brand new tent on the football field, one of the tent poles broke. And here I thought — “After all this preparation for this journey, I’m screwing up even before we even ride the first mile.” But, lo and behold, a cyclist who had made the same coast-to-coast trip the previous year happened to be there to ride the Washington leg with our group. He saw me struggling with my tent, and he came over to help me fix the broken pole. He also advised me that breakdowns and mini-crises like that will happen all along the way, and that you should never let them panic you. All problems on a bike trip are fixable as long as you remain calm. LESSON LEARNED: Some of the best help you’ll ever get in life will come from people who have already traveled the road you are on.
We ate dinner that night Izzy’s Pizza, [EDITOR’S NOTE: YOU REALLY SHOULD CLICK THIS LINK TO SEE WHAT LATER BECAME OF Izzys Pizza ] and came back to the school to sleep. On the morning of June 8, we packed our gear, left the school and wound our way through the streets until we reached Bellingham Bay for a “tire-dipping” ceremony. We dipped the rear tires of our bikes in the water there (12 weeks later, we would dip our front tires in Gloucester Bay when we reached the Atlantic). Then we found our way out of town and followed the beautiful, winding route south along Chuckanut Drive. After many miles, we needed to take a bathroom break but could not find a rest stop. So a group of us pulled over at a roadside view point. We stood there taking in the gorgeous view of the San Juan Islands not taking our eyes off the horizon even as we picked our way down a secluded, wooded trail to find relief. It was at that point that I looked down at my feet and realized I was just one step from the edge of a steep cliff. Had I taken that one more step, I most surely would have fallen off the cliff and suffered broken bones or some other serious injury that would have meant the end of my trip. So the fact that I happened to look down at that instant made me feel as if some guardian angel of bicycling was watching over me. So I made it to Newhalem that night, and over the Cascades the next day, and was on my way. LESSON LEARNED: It’s fine to keep your eyes on the big picture, but it’s how you handle all the seemingly insignificant steps along the way that will make you or break you. Even if it’s to do something as simple as taking a piss.
Somehow, I think both of those lessons I learned in Bellingham and still remember 13 years later are helping me deal with GBM today.