A memoir by Keith Patterson
I was alone and out of water, pedaling my beat-up road-bike in the high-desert badlands near the border of western Colorado and Utah. It had been 113 degrees Fahrenheit before sunrise that morning at the lone gas station in the last town some 50 miles behind me to the east. The sun was directly over my head, and I figured it to be around noon.
The oppressive heat had only increased and was beginning to feel deadly. I was looking for a town or a gas station or any sign of human life. I had already pedaled at least 50 miles so far that morning and at least ten miles since I’d swallowed my last drop of water. I began cramping from dehydration, and let my bike drift to a stop in the middle of the baking blacktop.
As I cupped my hands above my brow and scanned the unforgiving panorama, I could see for many miles in every direction. There was nothing moving anywhere. I had been counting heavily on there being a town right there where I was straddling my ten-speed in the middle of the road. “YOW!” Searing pain in my feet alerted me that the rubber soles of my shoes were melting!
I shambled off of the oven-like asphalt onto the relative safety of the road’s shoulder. I dropped my bike and hopped from foot to burning foot. I opened one pannier, took out my two books and placed them on the ground. I removed my melting shoes and my socks came off with them. I stood on the books to protect my bare feet from the scorched sandstone roadbed and with my left foot set firmly on the Tao Te Ching and old King James protecting the heel of my right. I tried to catch my breath, clear my head and assess my situation.
I peered back down the road from whence I’d come. There was no sign of my cycling partner, Ted Aschenbrenner. He was carrying more water than me, and I had gotten way out in front of him because of my lighter load. After a month pedaling on the open road and several consecutive days laboring in desert drought conditions, Ted and I had figured-out that we each needed to carry an extra gallon of drinking water, in addition to our clip-on water-bottles, to pedal 40 miles. The first three days since we’d left the relative comforts of a K.O.A. campground in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, we had found another town before running out of our water supplies. That morning, as we consulted Ted’s map before embarking on the day’s leg of our cross-country journey, Ted said. “There’s no town for a hundred miles. I’m gonna carry two extra gallons of water with me today, and you’d better do it too.”
“Let me see that.” I said.
Ted relinquished the worn, stained Colorado road map. We weren’t sure if the road we were on was even on this map.
“Dude, there’s no town for a hundred miles,” he repeated.
I scratched at the map and uncovered a dot on the grid about where we wanted to go.
“Dude, that’s a piece of grease from the chicken wings we had in Steamboat Springs last week. That’s no town. You better carry two gallons. I’m not sharing.” Ted was serious. He tied down his two extra gallons of water, mounted his over-burdened ten-speed and wobbled off onto the black-top headed west with or without me. I made my decision concerning my supplies, tied down, mounted up and started out pedaling after Ted, who was struggling with his two extra gallons of water a hundred yards ahead.
My decision to carry only one extra gallon paid early dividends as I was able to find a rhythm to my pedal stroke and easily over take Ted, who was understandably hampered. As I passed him by, Ted grumbled, “I’m not sharing my water. You better go back and get more.”
“I’ll save you a seat at the lunch counter,” I replied as I pedaled by.
At least four hours and 50 miles had passed by since I’d seen or spoken to Ted. I was out of water. Ted was at least twenty miles behind me. There was no lunch counter, gas station or any other sign of comfort anywhere in sight. And I couldn’t just stand there, forever, on the side of the road, balanced between Lao Tsu and Saul of Tarsus.
“Ted must have stopped early for lunch” I surmised. I needed to make a decision. And it looked, to me, like I only had three choices. I could keep moving forward. I could go back from where I’d come, or I could stay put. I didn’t have the energy to go anywhere without some water, shelter, and rest. I decided to stay put and wait for Ted or a passing car to save me.
I put my still-smoldering shoes back on and then noticed the ruined first course of an old block structure across the road so I rolled my bike over and propped it up against the broken block. I stretched my jacket and shirt over the frame of my bike and crouched down under it, leaning my bare back against the block as I sat on my books and attempted to piece together the decisions that had put me in this predicament.
The Aschenbrenner brothers, Ted and Dan, had planned and trained for this cross-country bike trip for months. A deal gone south had convinced me to jump in at the last minute, and off we went, from the waterfront of Alexandria, Virginia, headed west towards adventure and glory. Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Mountains ruined Dan’s right knee and we had to leave him in Radford, Virginia to recuperate. Ted and I continued west, grinding through Appalachia and out into the heartland, counting corn through Kansas and then conquering the Rocky Mountains in Northern Colorado.
We summited Trail Ridge Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass, the tallest paved roads in the continental United States, and then cruised down from altitude into Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we met a pretty girl in a V.W. bus named Mona and got into a tussle in a cantina from which we were forcibly removed by some of the local gentry.
“WHOOOOOSH! A pick-up truck drove right past where I was crouched under my makeshift shelter! I was so deep in my thoughts that I didn’t hear it coming. I jumped up and waved my arms and tried to yell! I could only croak. I felt skin on my lower-back tear away, stuck to the fossil concrete. Someone in the back of the passing truck yelled “JERK!” and tossed off a couple of beer cans. I recognized his face and voice from the fracas in the saloon in Steamboat Springs a few nights back. I quit waving my arms as the truck bounced off into the distance and walked my bike along the shoulder of the road towards the beer cans that were thrown from the back of the pick-up.
I tried not to get my hopes up that the cans were full of cold beer. The two cans of PBR were empty except for scant warm backwash which I poured at my throat and it wasn’t enough liquid to pry my tongue off of the roof of my mouth. I blinked my squinted eyes and noticed a small cloud south of me up in the endless, pale blue sky. The cloud was peculiar looking and left a trail that reached down to the horizon-line which was obscured by some scrub pines. “Smoke!” I looked down and noticed what could be a rough driveway that led down into a ravine and south into the scrub pine. Again I carefully scanned both east and west. There was no Ted and no traffic of any kind coming my way. It was time to make a decision and it needed to be the right decision.  My brain was feeling the effects of heat exhaustion and making good decisions would only get more difficult unless I found some water and shelter. I decided to follow the smoke and hoped that it was coming from a ranch-house cook fire and wasn’t just a strange cloud.
The would-be driveway was rough and uneven at best, or just a washed out ravine. I had to walk my bike. With every step I took I worried that Ted or a saving passer-by would pass me by out on the road and nobody’d never know it. I kept on moving south deeper into the depths of the rough scrub. The further away from the road I got the further away the smoke seemed to be.
The ravine was rough, and I knew that my already damaged tires and un-trued rims were getting worse with every jolt and twisted turn. I considered reversing course with every difficult step but I kept on trudging, further away from the paved road and deeper into the ravine. I lost count at two thousand steps, and then lost track of the wisp of smoke that I’d been following; I became disoriented. My already desperate hopes went to a deeper place. A lone tear drop partially cleared one of my dust-choked eyes just enough, and then I saw it, a small dirt-colored farmhouse with smoke coming out of the chimney, about thirty yards away!
I hustled towards my savior’s humble mansion and tried to call-out a welcome but all that came from my parched throat was a hoarse croak. I approached the front porch of the house, leaned my bike against the corner post, took two-steps as one and pounded on the front-door as politely as I could.
No answer. I pounded again, less politely.
Still no answer.
I was thirsty and I didn’t knock again. I looked for a rock or something with which to break a window and get in the dwelling. Seeing nothing within reach, I thought of a suitable object and spun around to retrieve my tire pump and came face-to-face with a double-barreled shotgun in the hands of a grizzled, filthy-looking rancher.
“What the heck are you doing out here?” he hollered.
“I… I… “ My voice was just a whisper. “I’m… bicycling…  across… America! I’m out… of … water…”
The leather-faced farmer looked me up and down in a flash of cold, blue eyes. “Well you’re crazier’n you look! Now get the heck off’a my porch!” The farmer waved that shotgun in my face. My grandfather had a gun just like it, and I could tell that the gun wasn’t cocked.
“Please, Sir,” I pleaded. “I just need a small drink of water… dishwater… bathwater… any water.”
“BATHWATER?” said the farmer, sarcastically. Then his tone got deadly serious. “My cattle are dead and dying. My children have not had a bath in over a month. It ain’t rained yet this year. You ain’t getting’ any water here, boy. Get it through your head. There’s some water in the next town down the way. You look like you can make it another forty miles. Now get the heck off’a my porch and off’a my property.” The rancher continued waving the barrel in my face.
I knew that the model of the shotgun whose barrel was two feet from my nose was difficult to cock. I calculated the fraction of a second that it would take the farmer to manipulate the double side-cocking hammer and prepared to make my move to snatch the gun and get some water… because I was thirsty. The farmer and I locked eyes. He saw what I was thinking and cocked the gun. I stopped calculating.
“You get the heck off’a my porch . . . NOW! I swear it  . . .  I’ll bury you, boy.”
I complied and backed off the porch.
“Don’t you even look at me, boy . . . and not one word, I swear it! I’ll bury you!”
The rancher didn’t have to tell me again. That model shotgun was difficult to cock, but had a hair-trigger.
It was all uphill as I hauled my bike back out to the blacktop from my fruitless misadventure. I was beyond tears. I was beyond desperate. I was crushed, physically and emotionally. Each step was further than I thought that I could go.
I found a low place that I hadn’t noticed on the way in and stopped. There seemed to be moisture down in a crack too small for my hand. I reached in my pocket and retrieved one of my two pieces of folding money and stuffed the twenty-dollar note down into the crack to soak-up the moisture. That’s when I heard the snake’s rattle! I left my greenback imbedded in the crack and jumped out of that low place like a scared rabbit, dragging my bike unceremoniously behind me until I finally dragged myself back out to the baking pavement where the merciless sun was a little further to the west. I had forty miles to pedal with the sun in my face and a headwind from the Northwest beginning to kick-up. I looked back towards the east and thought that I saw some movement. Something was moving towards me at a leisurely pace from a great distance. Then it separated from the horizon and revealed itself to be a low-flying thing. As it got closer I realized that it was many flying things. And then a flock of vultures flopped to the earth about a hundred and fifty yards away. I didn’t like the looks of the creatures, and there was no sign of Ted, so I got back on my beat-up road bike and started pedaling.
It was a brutal slog. My body and brain, with deep cuts to process and function, were forced to work independently of each other as I careened west towards the afternoon desert sun. I knew that I was down to two choices now. I could keep pedaling or stop to die.  About every mile or three those buzzards would take to the air and flop about a half-a-mile ahead of me. I just kept pedaling.
Through the fog and misery of early onset heat stroke, my lizard-brain reflex took over and began to sync up the rhythm of my body’s various aches, cramps and injuries with the regular grindings of dust-clumped gears’ “cring cring cring” and the droning bumping “wumpa-wap-wap… wumpa-wap-wap” of my badly-bent front-rim. I could not open my mouth as my lips were stuck together. I could not really think because my fried brain pain was shutting down nonessentials.
Random thoughts flew by like note-cards in a tempest. The sun was in my eyes. My eyes were closed. I navigated by the shadows through my eyelids. My conscious mind was scorched clean of all pre-condition and I stepped on through and glimpsed the dawning of this universe from the Singularity that followed the collapse of the universe before this one… “And when the Three Arrows of Time intersect at the Coming Singularity, Time = Consciousness. Consciousness x Energy, which is freed from equaling MC2 by the collapse of the Physical Universe = The Mind of God. And if Einstein, Heisenberg, Hawking and old Saul are even remotely correct, the Mind of God is searching to know the mind of His god . . . .”
Beyond all thought patterns recognized by humans is the primordial response. Through the crust of my eyelids I could see that the buzzards, lulled to sleep by the regular rhythms of my grinding monotony, failed to take flight as I approached broadside of them. I snatched my tire pump and leaped from my wounded metal steed. I would bash the brains of the nearest vulture and bite a hole in his neck from which to drain its carcass of all useful fluids!  As my feet hit the ground my weapon was raised above my head and I was bent on mayhem! But my body would not respond to the instruction of its lizard overlord, and my cramped and depleted body crumpled down face-first into the dirt and scrabble. The buzzards, twenty yards away, didn’t budge an inch. They had been here before.
I lay there for a long, hard moment. The surface temperature of the dirt in which my face rested was a little bit less scorching than I had expected. I lay there, with my face in the dirt, and cooled off for a long moment. When I finally raised my head up off of the ground I caught glimpse of a green road sign about a half-mile up ahead. I slowly remounted my bike and struggled on.  The sign came into focus. “Dinosaur, Utah, 10 miles.”
You never really know what you can do until you have to do it. I had already pedaled at least eighty miles so far that brutally hot day, the last forty without water. I knew that I had another ten miles in me.
I rolled into Dinosaur five minutes before McDonalds, the only restaurant in town, closed its doors for the night. I had one piece of folding money in my pocket and some change. A dollar seventy-eight got me some fries and a coke, and I
was saved!
I maxed out my free drink refill quota before the staff asked me to leave so they could lock up, then I ambled on over to the K.O.A. campground just down the street. I could see Ted’s bike, but no Ted. I recognized a V.W. van parked next to Ted’s bike. It was Mona’s — the young woman that we’d met in Steamboat Springs several days before.
Then it started raining, cold, hard rain, the first rain in six months. The campground’s bathroom door was locked and I had given up my tent the week before in order to carry extra water. So I placed a piece of plastic over a picnic table and hunkered down. In between peals of thunder I could hear Ted and Mona in the camper. They were playing Yahtzee! And Mona was winning.