I have not posted any bicycle journeys for 2 years. This was because I had developed an increasingly severe, crippling pain in my left leg and hip. I had begun walking with a limp. I figured that in my late 60’s, this was arthritis and simply the price of aging and that the bear had not caught me. In the archaeological record, men rarely lived beyond 40. So, be it.
A doctor examined my leg and told me I had a torn groin muscle. Ow, because by the Spring of 2015, it was beginning to hurt terribly. I was teaching at Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri and I had managed to ride my bicycle the two miles EVERY day (like in EVERY) for the first seven months of school. I had also climbed the 94 stairs to my office EVERY day without taking the elevator once.
But then one day in late March of 2015, it happened. I could not get out of bed. The pain was too bad. I have always thought that I could take pain with the best of them. But now I found myself paralyzed. I could no longer walk without crutches. Time to get an MRI.
The results came back with urgency. I had no torn groin muscle. I had a completely deteriorated head of my left femur bone. No cartilage remaining, with floating bone chips and a deteriorated acetabulum on my hip. I also had some internal bleeding. This explained the bruising on my left thigh.
My choices were simple: walk with crutches and a walker, in pain, for the rest of my life, or hip replacement surgery. The radiologist and doctor said that I had waited too long before getting my MRI and I now needed emergency surgery. There was no other choice. When would I be ready? Right now. They put me on a waiting list.
They had to first test me to see if I were a good candidate for surgery. The EKG, urine, and blood tests were all fine. Good basic systemic health. My problem has always been wearing parts out: cartilage surgery on both knees, double hernia surgery, trigger fingers. Just too much much running, jumping, climbing, hiking, and pedaling in my life. I wear joints out, but I guess I would not have it any other way. I would not give up activity.
A few days later, the hospital calls me back. They have a break in their schedule. Could I be ready in two days? Sure. So I show up at sunrise, and after many details, I am anesthetized. And then in the next hours, they cut off the end of my femur, reem out my hip joint, put a titanium insert into my femur, attach a chrome-alloy femur arm onto it, put a stainless steel femur head on the end of that arm, and attach a polyurethane acetabulum in my hip, along with a few screws to hold it all in place. I also come out of surgery with a deep, 6-inch-long forever-scar on my left thigh.
For the first week of recovery, I am mostly on my back, taking pain pills for the first time in my life. I experiment with not taking them, and ohhh it does hurt. I can count my heartbeat in my hip. I find myself in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the pain and swelling to go down. After a week, I begin doing mild exercises. I can only walk with crutches or my walker.
Then I start going to physical therapy. I decide that I am going to be the world’s best patient. I will do everything they say, every exercise, as many repetitions as they say. And I do. I add to this by going to the gym. After a month of physical therapy, they sent me home early and told me not to come back. They said I did not need them or the crutches or walker anymore.
So I worked out more at the gym, doing very specific exercises to build up my still weakened, somewhat atrophied, left leg. The doctor forbade bicycling for three months. His main worry was that I would fall hard on my left side and do damage the the healing muscles and joints.
Finally, after 3 months, I started cycling again. But I had a new problem. I could not lift my leg high enough over my Cannondale touring bike. It had a standard men’s top bar, and my left side was just too stiff to lift my leg that high. So I bought this. .
My new ‘step-thru’ girl bike — NOT a girl’s bike. 🙂
I began riding it a few miles a day. Eventually, I stretched it to 15 miles here at my temporary home in Springfield, Missouri. After riding, I had unusual feelings at the surgery site. I felt a tightness in the muscle at the scar tissue. I felt this every time I rode. It was not debilitating, but I was always aware of it.
My real test would be taking a LONG ride on my new bicycle. I asked my physician’s assistant about it. He told me I should not do long, difficult climbs, just the flats. Winter was approaching, and I had friends and a nephew whom I wanted to visit in Florida. So I packed my bicycle onto the roof of my van and drove to Penascola, Florida, to stay with dear friends, Tracy Brown and Mimi Bass.
My brother Darrel was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident on the 4th of July, 1988. Tracy Brown was Darrel’s friend, and what a friend he turned out to be. Over the next 21 years, until Darrel’s death on the 4th of July, 2009, Tracy was there for Darrel. He must have spent a thousand hours fixing Darrel’s home, wheelchair, gear, and a specialized van that Darrel could drive to work. Tracy arranged so that Darrel could hunt and fish within his limitations. Hunting and fishing had always been my brother Darrel’s joy, and Tracy helped Darrel do it. Tracy did all of this out of friendship. Tracy also took on Darrel’s son, Jason. Later he hired Jason and trained him He did more than most family members would do for their own. And for that, among other things, we are forever grateful to Tracy.
But back to the bike trip: The big question for me was whether my new titanium hip could stand up to bicycle touring. But first, here is some wisdom I have discovered about world-traveling. By traveling, I do not mean one-week trips, but rather 3-6 month journeys or more:
There are four stages in a person’s traveling life. They are:
1. You have the health, but not the time or money, then
2. You have the health and the money, but not the time, then
3. Alas! You have your health, money, and time. (the sweet spot), and then…
4. You do not have your health, so the rest of it does not matter.
After my leg surgery, I feared that I might be passing from stage 3 to stage 4. It was time to test my new leg and hip. So I left Pensacola, Florida by bike on Thursday, November 12th, at about 10 am.
I had 4 panniers and a handlebar bag mounted on my bike. I decided at the last moment not to take my tent. In the winter, it gets dark at 5 pm here, and I simply did not feel like laying in my tent for that long before I slept. I took a windbreaker and jacket with me, and a few changes in clothes. But I only took shorts, no pants, socks, or shoes. My only footwear were a pair of Krocs. I did this to keep my bicycle weight down. Previously, I had ridden from Bangkok to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia only wearing one pair of Krocs for the whole trip. By the end of that trip, my feet had become like hoofs.
THEE problem with bicycle touring int the winter is not the cold. Keep pedaling and you will stay warm. It is that the days are so short. In the summer, I generally try for three separate rides:
1. From sunrise to maybe 10:30, covering 30 miles. Then eat and rest a bit.
2. From maybe 11:30 to 3 pm, covering 25 miles. Eat and rest again.
3. Then the final ride of maybe 20 miles, from maybe 4:30 to whenever it gets dark, or I am too tired to ride.
Then, right before sunset, I find a campsite in the woods, behind a cornfield, along railroad tracks, wherever is convenient AND obscure, and I set up my tent. No one ever finds me, because they are all at home watching their TVs. Next morning I am up before sunrise. No one sees me and I am gone. I prefer state parks and forests. All I leave is some grass pressed down for a few days. No garbage, no tracks. The Zen rule of travel.
As I left Pensacola, I rode into a strong crosswind, coming from the north. It would get colder as I rode along. I soon came upon the Pensacola Bay Bridge. It was 3+ miles long, with a narrow bicycle lane. It climbed high in the middle, to give large ships adequate clearance. I was glad to get off it. I veered off highway 98 to take highway 30A, the scenic coastal route. It would be longer, but have much less traffic. I had a pannier rack break off my bike and I had to do about an hour of work on it. I rode over a causeway after sunset and pulled into Destin, Florida, at 6 pm. On my first day, I had made 60 miles.
I was relieved that my new hip was working. Maybe Mercy Hospital had really done a good job. But I would not really know until I had done back-to-back distance rides. What would I feel like tomorrow morning? Would I be so stiff or sore that I simply could not ride anymore. I would soon find out.
I got up at sunrise next morning to find I felt good, and surprisingly, so did my left leg. It had none of the typical pain that I felt after a long ride, before my hip surgery. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees. With bare legs and no socks, I was cold. But the cold would also force me to keep pedaling, if for no other reason than to maintain my body heat. There are times when you just put your head down and do it.
I pedaled throughout the day, sometimes bucking the cold north wind. Finally I got to Panama City Beach. But I saw an upside-down building in the night. WTF!
Now in the Eastern Time Zone, it was dark at 5 pm. So I found a cheap, Indian-owned motel. It was painted garishly red inside, but it was clean enough and had good Wifi. Have you noticed that all the cheap motels are Indian-owned? They work for me.
Next morning, I hit the road early pedaling to Panama City. I rode through the well-preserved old city center, straight into the farmer’s market and an international cultures fair that was going on. So I stopped and watched the dancing and ate the fine ethnic foods. This is something that many car drivers would miss, for they are simply going too fast to see. I rode the coastal way, where I passed the 15 coastal dune lakes. These lakes can be either salt, fresh, or brackish, depending upon the rain and tides. They are only found three places in the world: Australia, Madagascar, and South Walton, Florida.
Then I headed south, to the Tyndall Parkway bridge. I climbed up a steep bridge, then I descended with speed to find myself in the twenty-mile long Tyndall Air Force Base. There were signs along the roadside every few hundred yards stating that this was a drone-testing site, and that it was illegal to get off the road. Furthermore, there was much unexploded ordinance in the woods and swamps on either side. Well, it looked like I had a long straight ride ahead. I put my head down and pedaled.
A few hours later, I saw a lone cyclist approaching me. He moved over to my side of the road and we stopped and spoke.
He told me he was riding from South Georgia all the way to Austin, Texas, where he had a job waiting for him. This young man was on an old, cheap, beater bike. With him he carried a large, bulky sleeping bag, a tent, a pot, a fishing pole, and not much else. He told me he had been catching fish along the way and cooking them, camping out the whole time. He said he was going to make it to Austin, but it was just going to take him some time. Then we talked about routes and road conditions. From a few things he said, I inferred that he had just been released from a half-way house. Then we said our goodbyes. Shortly after we departed, I realized that that young man was dead broke. Why did I not give him some money and food? I still regret not doing that.
I pedaled on to Mexico Beach, at night again, and it was cold. There I simply could not find a cheap room. So I paid my $80 and crashed out. Next morning I pushed on to Port Saint Joe. I took a cheap motel on the outskirts of town, stashed my gear, and for the next two days, I proceeded to explore the wonderful Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park. I walked the piney woods and beaches. I met a local archaeologist who stated that there were shell middens on the beach that had been dated to 11,000 years old. How amazing that humans had crossed the Bering Sea 15,000 years ago, and got down here so quickly. Along the beach I found a dead loggerhead turtle. It must have weighed 300+ pounds. Why had it died? I feared that if I cut it open, I would have found its stomach filled with plastic bags. Turtles mistake them for jellyfish, eat them, and die. Jellyfish have been taking over the coastal oceans in the last decades because of the lack of predators and chemical and climatic disruption. But I can assure you that if jellyfish were tasty to humans, they would now be endangered.
I met Tomas, an interesting bicyclist from Germany. He had flown from Germany to Newfoundland, Canada with his bicycle, all his bike gear including a trailer for his 35 lb dog. Then he had proceeded to ride leisurely over the next six months to Florida. Wow. We talked and talked. But it was getting late for, to me, as I was still fifteen miles from my motel. So I departed. I wanted to see him again, but I knew that I would not have time.
It was time to turn around next morning. I did not want to ride the same route back, so I headed north up highway 71 to Wewahitchka. 25 miles of swamps and pine trees.
Along the way I saw a mid-sized black racer snake, maybe three feet long. I stopped my bike to try to catch it. (I have only caught one of these in my life.) But it was long gone before I could approach it. They move at 8 miles an hour. Later, I found the land along the inter-coastal canals to be low in altitude. Twelve miles inland, and the land was not more than 6 feet above sea level. If the oceans just rise a bit, the coast will move far inland here. I got to Wewahitchka and I pedaled east, back toward Panama City. I pulled into the east side of Panama City at dark and quickly found a cheap motel room.
November 17th, 2015. (A big day for me)
I was up next morning before sunrise, checking to the weather forecast. A big storm would be coming in from the west within 24 hours, bringing in high winds and heavy rains. In the meantime, we would have strong winds from the east at 15-25 mph. A strong tailwind! I had better get started right now, and get as far as I can before the storm hits.
I ate quickly and was on the road pedaling west out of Panama City by 6:30 am. The wind blew me along highway 98. Ahead I saw a massive traffic jam, maybe a half-mile long. I got in the bicycle lane in the right and rode to my rightful place in the very front of the line, while waving to some of the frustrated drivers as I passed them. As I came to the front of the line, I watched the last car of the train pass over the crossing. I led the pack across the tracks. It would be a long time before the last car finally passed me.
All that day, I pedaled and pedaled. None of my breaks were over 15 minutes. Get as far down the road before the storm sets in, and then get a motel. In the afternoon, I passed this white bike. It is a ghost bike, where some bicyclist had been killed. I read the inscription and found that her name was Elizabeth Dawn Allmon. Later I looked her up on the net. She had been killed here in 2009, while riding in the bicycle lane. Her body flew 170 feet. She had been a classical concert pianist, then a computer engineer. After her second child, she slipped into deep post-partum depression, which she apparently never emerged from. She lost custody of her kids and became homeless, living in a shipping crate. She traveled everywhere on her bike, dumpster-diving and wearing tatters. But everyone said she was kind and an interesting conversationalist. She was noted for sneaking into expensive beachfront hotels and then surprising everyone by playing great classical music on their grand piano. They gave her food and welcomed her back. And now, all that is left of her is her ghost bike.
I was seven miles past Navarre by sunset. I had done 80 miles, a very good day, the best of my trip. I checked my smart phone for the nearest motel, and it said I would have to go back 7 miles. No way was I going backward, into that wind. I checked for the nearest motel going west. It said there was nothing until Pensacola, 25 miles further west. Surely it must be wrong. There has got to be at least one place. So I turned the lights on my bike and kept pedaling west.
Within an hour, it was pitch black. The bicycle lane was narrowing. Cars began to honk at me. Still no motel and this was getting scary. I finally crossed the busy highway 98 at night and found a sidewalk that I could ride on. It was unlit and rough, and I had difficulty following it. But at least I was away from the traffic. I struggled with it for the next hour. The wind was picking up and it was getting colder. Finally, at around 7:30, I got to the town of Gulf Breeze, and the 3.5 mile bridge across Pensacola Bay. There it was, all lit up. The wind now blew very hard from the south; I would guess at 30-35 miles per hour. Old Glory was snapping hard on a high flagpole, while the chain lashed loudly against it.
The bridge rose high in the distance, allowing large ships to pass under. I saw a pedestrian/bicycle lane on the right side, maybe four feet wide. Right next to it, without any divider of any kind, was the vehicle lane. It was filled with fast-moving cars and trucks on their way to Pensacola. I did not like what I saw. But what were my options? To stop here along the road, without a motel, and wait for the storm to drench me? It seemed that the only real option was to continue.
So I started pedaling up the bridge. I hardly needed to, because I had maybe the strongest tailwind I had ever had in my life. It blew me along. I was on my big front ring (high gear) of my bike while climbing up a steep incline at maybe 20 mph. The large panniers attached to my bike were now acting like sails to catch the wind. I looked over the side of the bridge to see large whitecaps breaking beneath me, while gusts of wind shook my bike. My big fear was of getting blown into the traffic lane in front of a truck. Sometimes when vehicles were passing me, they would uselessly honk their horns. No shit, I know you are there. I have seen your lights and heard you since you were a half mile away. But there was no safety concrete barrier of any kind to prevent them from getting blown into the bike lane and smashing me. This was the worse part of the trip. I clung to my handlebar grips to stabilize the bike with the gusts. I dared not get too close to the concrete railing either. For if I hit it, I could bounce into the car lane.
Finally I got to the top of the high bridge. With the wind it had not taken much effort. In my peripheral vision, I saw sea gulls flying about in the wind around the night lights. Feeding on something? What else could be flying in this wind? But I dared not turn my head. Below I saw and heard the whitecaps breaking between the swoooosh of vehicles passing me. Now I was descending. It looked steep and I already was going fast. I put my hands on both brakes and gradually added friction. Without braking in this wind while going down this slope, I imagined I could easily hit speeds of 50+ mph. And I did not want that. So I got the speed down to 25 mph and still I shussboomed down the bridge. Steady steady steady, squeezing the grips. I couldn’t wait to get off this slope and out of the high winds on the bridge. Finally I got to the level part of the bridge. Without pedaling one stroke, I let the wind blow me two miles more to Pensacola and land.
I pulled onto some grass and I called my buddy Tracy, and I led off with a manic burst. I told him I would be coming in two days early, that by the time I got to his home, I would have covered at least 115 miles today, that I was starved and have some wine ready. I guess Mercy Hospital had done a good job with this hip surgery after all.
Then I rode the last five miles to Tracy’s home. I was raging with exuberance, exhaustion, the works. Whooptedo! I quickly downed three glasses of wine. Mmmm Mmm. Then they invited me to a home-cooked, deliciously prepared meal; a meal that I had just crashed into without any invite at all. I sat at the table, still babbling on. They were the first people I had talked to in days.
Mimi, Tracy’s wonderful partner, said that maybe I should smoke a little bit, ‘just to calm down’. Tracy nodded and said, “Yeah. Something to shut him the fuck up!” and laughed. The smoke made sense to me, medicinally speaking. So I took one inhale of some super-smoke, sat down at the table, and promptly fell straight onto the floor and passed out. THUD.
I lay there for a while. I do not believe Tracy and Mimi did anything. I guess they were too shocked. But what if I had croaked on them, right then and there? I imagined Tracy saying, “It don’t surprise me none. That sonnaabitch been doing stupid things his whole fuckin’ life. Finally caught up with him. He’s lucky to have gotten this far.”
But I do remember having a WTF! moment while laying on the floor. Then it all slowly came back to me. ‘Yes, I must still be Dwight Worker, whatever that is. I believe I am at Tracy and Mimi’s. I had just ridden a long trip on my bike. And I had been sitting at the table a moment ago, before the floor rose up to meet me. And no, I am not dead. Not this time anyhow.’ So I gathered myself up and climbed back up into the chair.
“Tracy, it’s not the food, but I don’t think I’ll be eating tonight.”
“Good. More for us.”
Then I staggered over to the couch and passed out. But before I went into dreamland, I watched in awe as the wonderful, sexy Ms Euphoria appeared out of nowhere. You ever met her? For I have, many a time. We’ve been dating on and off for my whole life. Well, this here sweet thing Ms Euphoria starts pedaling straight through my soul, saying, “115 miles, on a loaded-down bike. Dwight you had never done more than 90 miles in a day. Your first century and your own personal record. ONE-HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN MILES AT AGE SIXTY-NINE! You sonofabitch you.”
Maybe my head was spinning, but did I feel good. Damn, and just five months ago I could not walk without crutches or a walker. And now, 115 miles.
I guess my hip must be better.