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Posted by HIM on Tuesday June 16th, 2009
"I was a cycling machine, rising before dawn to shower and eat before riding a hundred miles, at one with my bike."
I was pedalling out of Santa Barbara towards Ventura on a seven-day quest to Los Angeles in the name of the California AIDS Ride. It was nothing but back roads for twenty miles. I went up one steep hill after another and then down a bike path along dirt roads – terrain that shook my bike so hard I thought the frame would crumble to pieces beneath my spandexed ass.
I was surviving on a diet of oatmeal, bananas and energy bars – pissing Gatrade. My skin was embalmed in sunscreen and Vaseline. The knot in my shoulder was visible through my cycling shirt, and the anti-inflammatory I took for my knee had worn off hours ago.
There wasn’t another rider within eyesight, or any indication whatsoever I was on the right path. For the first time in six days, I was completely, and utterly alone.
The decision to do the ride had been made during a solitary weekend in Laguna Beach, a few months after I tested HIV positive. The outpouring of support had been overwhelming; someone was taking me to lunch every day, patting my hand, telling me everything was going to be all right. There were all sorts of advice from “Don’t stop drinking and smoking,” to “Get steroids as soon as you can.” Once the sympathy had subsided I was left wondering, “So…now what?”
Laguna Beach didn’t hold the answers. The only lesson learned was this: Don’t cruise someone from your hotel balcony when you’re wearing a blue corn mask from The Body Shop.
On the flight back to San Francisco, I traced the Pacific Coast Highway winding it’s way up the California coastline through the porthole of the plane. Direction. That’s what I had been looking for.
I had been traveling down the same road for several years and the first bump had sent me flying. I needed to set a new course, but I wanted someone else to navigate.
Five months of training, and three thousand dollars in donations later, I was peddling through Steinbeck country, past migrant workers and roadside fruit stands, eating the dust of the eighteen-wheelers.
In Santa Maria I slapped the outstretched hands of school children cheering us on. Outside St Luis Obispo I pretended to race a school bus while the kids inside pressed their faces to the windows in awe.
The road to LA was filled with the chorus of a thousand riders shouting, “Left! On your Left! Coming up on your left! Car back! Left! On your left! Glass! Car back! Slowing down! Left!”
I was a cycling machine, rising before dawn to shower and eat before riding a hundred miles, at one with my bike. Behind every horizon was Los Angeles, and the rest of my life.
When I felt tired or lost, I looked for signs of the next pit stop: messages spray-painted on the ground, white tents, blue Port-O-Potties, orange pylons, and drag queens.
Eventually, as I coasted past white cement buildings, automotive repair shops and outlet centers, I lost the other cyclists. If there were any people, they were all inside taking refuge by the nearest air conditioner.
“Welcome to Car-pen-tear-ria?” I read out loud. “What the hell?” I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I didn’t remember seeing this on the map. It was the kind of terrain I’ve come to associate with white hoods and lynchings. The theme from Deliverance started playing in my head.
In the distance I could see the orange pylons coming out of the white road like a mirage. And then I saw some balloons. People were cheering. “Get your free hot dogs!” a woman shouted from the distance like a siren in the sun.
I struggled up the gravelly hill, my tongue hanging out of my mouth like a dog’s after a long walk. Where were the white tents? The Port-O-Potties? Where were the drag queens?
“Welcome to Carpenteria,” shouted a voice over a megaphone. “The best city in California!”
The whole town had shown up at a lone gas station to greet the contingent of riders passing through. They helped us off our bikes and hosed them down for us. The air was filled with the smell of hot dogs on a charcoal bar-b-que. Here, in the middle of no-where, was a bastion of tolerance waiting to be discovered like the lost city of Atlantis.
Whatever doubt I had experienced getting here, however lost I had felt, had been erased by hot dogs and ice cream. Refreshed, I got back on my bike and was sent on my way like a fish being thrown back in the water. The road ahead was no less treacherous, but I was confident that the direction I was heading would take me to me to my destination. When doubt set in, I would refer to my mortal compass, and chant: Carpenteria, Carpenteria, Carpenteria…
— Tony Correia
Originally written for Gaze published by Gayway
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