Friday, July 17, 2009

On Not Wanting to be a Pussy




Those of you who are following me via Twitter and Facebook know that I had a bit of a scare yesterday. After spending four hours in the emergency room and surviving a night of sleepless self-inquisition I figured it made sense to go over what happened.

WHAT TRANSPIRED
Leaving my starting point, I immediately hit some pretty serious hills. This was a bit unexpected. I had been told there would be some hills ahead but that the road would wind through a valley for most of the day. By the time I summited my fourth hill I had climbed over three thousand solid feet under a hot, merciless sun. I stopped at the summit to catch my breath and find some shade. As I drank from one of my water bottles I realized I was now left with a bottle and a half of water and I still had close to 30 miles left to ride (I was near mile 28 by that point).

By mile 40 the road flattened out and I started to hallucinate. The sky suddenly appeared more ominous and turned a darker shade of red. The road became malleable, like a live snake that quivered ahead towards the horizon. From somewhere inside me came a voice that was firm and clear: “Jack, you are in trouble.”

I understood what that voice meant. I really did. But I had very few options. The sun was beating down hard and the temperature was still climbing. There was no place where I could stop and take refuge. There wasn't a house, a barn or even a tree around for miles and everywhere I looked I saw barbed wire fences on either side of the road. It was like I was in the middle of an open-air prison.

At mile 45 I stopped next to an electricity pole. Angling my body along the edges of it's shadow I drank deeply from my water bottle and closed my eyes. I told myself that I only had 13 miles to go. Looking down, I realized I now had less than a quarter of a bottle of water left. “That's just going to have to do,” I told myself.

Here's an iPhone photo of my bike taken from the meager shade of the electricity pole:



At mile 50 I began wheezing uncontrollably and stopped to take another break. I propped my bike on a metal marker. Sitting on the other side of the bike, I contorted my arms and legs to fit the shade of my bike as much as possible. I then grabbed my water bottle and drank the last drop of water I had.

Here's a photo of the road from where I was sitting:



At that point, it was clear to me that if I stayed where I was I would eventually succumb to heat stroke. I could try to flag down a car but traffic had been light to non-existent all day. The only viable option was to keep going. While getting back on the bike meant spending more energy, at least it gave me the possibility of reaching shelter.

I was delirious when I got back on the bike. Two miles later I spotted the first roadside tree I'd seen in over 20 miles. I angled my bike over and collapsed on some grass right underneath. I remember looking up as leaves rustled in the wind and shadows filled endless crevices of brown bark and green branches. I was talking to myself at that point. I remember arguing with my mom about something; trying to convince a junior partner at my old firm that a document I had drafted was what he wanted; wiping tears from the face of an old lover.

After 15-20 minutes I started to come around a bit. I looked around for the first time and realized that I was right in front of a farmhouse. Relief washed over me in waves. I struggled to my feet and made my way over to the porch door. I knocked politely, but firmly. An older women answered the door and let me in immediately. She brought me to the kitchen where she filled a 32 ounce container with tap water. I drank it all in one gulp. She filled it again. This time I drank it more deliberately. But I finished it. I went outside and grabbed two of my water bottles and filled those in the sink. Thanking my host, I propped myself underneath the tree again to consider my options.

I now had less than 6 miles to go and was already feeling much better. If I got going again I could get to my destination in less than 20 minutes and avoid even more heat later on in the day. I felt dehydration would be less of an issue now that I was packing water again. So I got on my bike and started pedaling.

Six miles later I stumbled into town, a shadow of my former self. The hallucinations had come back in full force and I was delirious again. And I had finished all of my water. Again. At that point, I really had no choice but to ask someone how I could get to the nearest ER.

THINKING BACK
Thinking back, there are probably several reasons why I ended up in the ER yesterday:

*Terrain Ignorance: Heading into yesterday's ride, I only had a vague sense of the terrain ahead of me. Normally, I try to nail down what each day's ride is going to look like with the help of the GPS function on my iPhone and a quick search on google maps. But this became nearly impossible the moment I crossed the Oregon border. Without good phone reception there really wasn't much I could do besides ask locals what lay ahead.

*Geographic Ignorance: Having decided to stay off the established Transamerica trail I didn't have a clue that Eastern Oregon is basically composed of a large desert dotted with some pretty significant mountain ranges. And here I was picturing towering mountains full of green vegetation, mist and frequent afternoon rains...

*Heat: The temperature in eastern Oregon has remained in the high 90's this past week. Lucky for me, road temperatures have been far higher because of the heat reflected by asphalt and surrounding mountains. At one point yesterday, my bike computer showed a temperature of 111F. Even adjusting for a discrepancy I'm pretty certain I was riding in temperatures exceeding 105F.

*Getting Up Late: I didn't get much sleep the night before. I camped next to a pretty active highway and woke up every time a car shot past. I eventually left my starting point about 8:30 am local time. It was already in the mid 80s at that point.

*Tire Flat: While I bought two new tires just recently, I decided to use one for the rear wheel and keep one in reserve. The front wheel had had only one flat since Virginia and I figured I would ride it until the tire was nice and worn. Lucky for me, I got my second flat just yesterday, around mile 20. It took me 25 minutes to change it and patch the tube. Meanwhile, the heat was getting worse and worse...

PROVING THAT I AM NOT A PUSSY
Beyond this stuff there is one overarching reason why I ended up in the emergency room yesterday: my absolute, constant and overarching obsession with proving that I am not a pussy. That I have more balls than anyone else. That when things get tough I just need to dig deep and push myself to the brink. That when confronted with something that is seemingly insurmountable my first reaction is to stick out my middle finger, yell out a firm “Fuck YOU!” and hit it head-on with every ounce of strength I can muster.

This mentality has served me well over the years. In some ways, it is the reason I was able to survive a pretty dysfunctional childhood. It is the reason I excelled academically, even as I poked my finger in the eye of more than one teacher/professor. It is the reason I have crossed the country on a bicycle, by myself, carrying an extra 30 pounds of stuff most people would have sent home a long time ago.

When things got rough yesterday I did everything in my power to avoid being a pussy. I rode on when I probably should have stopped and waited for a passing car. I rode on when I noticed that my water supplies were too low. I rode on when every part of my body was immobilized by fatigue and dehydration.

On the other hand, I can't help but see a great deal of irony in all of this. I may have put myself in a dangerous situation because I, stupidly, wanted to prove that I was stronger than the terrain, the geography, the heat, and the desert itself. But it was that same intense determination that helped me push forward towards safety when I could have just given up completely.

POSTCRIPT
As I got off my bike in front of the clinic yesterday I looked due east towards the desert that could have killed me. Slowly raising my right hand I extended my middle finger and muttered under my breath a raspy, but firm “Fuck You.”

38 comments:

Julia said...

Jack- I'm glad you are okay. I experienced heat stroke a few summers back. I missed the 3 mile turnoff and ended up on an 8 mile hike instead. I ran out of water quickly and knew I was in trouble when I stopped sweating and started seeing stars. I swear I've had heat sensitivity ever since.

You have proven yourself to be MORE than capable. Just enjoy the experience (with lots of water, of course). Your future kids are going to be telling this story on the playground one day.

"My dad is tougher than your dad. He rode his bike across America. All. By. Himself."

Take care, rest well.

Brian said...

Better to be an alive pussy than a dead dumbass.

elizabeth said...

I'm glad all's well that ends well. I remember driving through Eastern Oregon a couple summers ago. It was HOT. And desert-y. I was in a car with air conditioning and I was miserable. You have a ways to go before you hit the green stuff ..

Don't worry so much about trying to prove your toughness. You're biking across America! :) Anyway, there will always be something stronger or tougher .. it's not a battle you can ever win.

Take care, please.

Debbi said...

Whew! You are so lucky. Eastern Oregon is nothing but desert. (Like I have to tell you that now, right?)

The green stuff doesn't really show up much until you get a bit closer to Hood River, assuming you're heading toward the Columbia River gorge. Then you'll see much more greenery and it starts to look more like the image most people have of Oregon.

Don't be too hard on yourself. I think the heat affected your judgment. Exposure to excessive heat or cold can do that.

Just be careful, you! :)

Srividya said...

I guess its hard to know when its ok to give up and when its not. But please do be careful. Glad your survived and lived to tell the tale.

Jill said...

Wow, Jack,

I've missed out on a lot of your adventures having been out touring myself. Glad everything turned out OK. What did they tell you at the ER? Dehydration? Heat exhaustion? Electrolyte imbalance? Lots of things can cause fatigue and hallucinations in the sun. I did a tour in April in which I ran out of water about 10 miles from the nearest water source in 93-degree, shadeless heat in the Utah desert (White Rim Trail - no roads, no bailouts.) One thing that really pulled me through was to eat. I put down the calories and even though I felt thirsty and hot, I didn't feel dangerously underhydrated. But it's hard to guage a situation like that. I was really scared at the time, wondering what I would do if I began to feel faint.

Hope the rest of the trip goes well! So excited to see you made it this far!

Daizy said...

I would have to say "At least he wasn't a pussy" would not mean a lot on your tombstone. Glad you are ok and good thing you didn't decide to go through AZ this time. After 20 minutes outside I start to see stars.

Anonymous said...

...whereas I, as the occasional emergency room worker, have learned that the wisest thing to do when you suspect serious trouble is brewing is to take five, assess the situation, and probably ask for help which is what you did when you could. What happened to you was scary, the ER visit was necessary (heat stroke can cause other problems), but in the end you found help and you're okay. That's most important. Very unfortunate terrain, that looks like a total desert to me.

Also, just so you know, you are the ideal ER patient, and trust me those people know who the real pussies are. (I know that makes no sense, but stay with me here.) The ER people probably enjoyed, and I mean that in a professional sense, the incredibly rare biker that's traveling across the country, someone who's in tremendous shape but suffering from an acute though not immediately life-threatening issue. A joy to help even on a busy day. Imagine them mentioning you in the break room when they find time to have a bite ('how's the biker guy?' 'who?' 'you know, the guy with heat stroke' 'oh yeah him, he's okay' 'oh good') and that's that. These people if anyone know that stuff happens, and then you deal with it. No judging. So don't judge yourself either.

Hard to explain, but your motivations are good, and you did good.

Does this help? Hope so.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're okay, but the "Fuck you" to the desert seems like particularly pointless bravado. Of all the things you can blame (and you point out quite a few), the desert was just being the desert.

Tessie said...

Wow, thank goodness for that lady at the farmhouse. Sounds like she saved your life. Maybe you should add, "ladies with big jugs of water" to your List.

Jerry Critter said...

Jack, have you considered that your definition of pussy may be incorrect?

Glad you survived!

Circus Life said...

wow that sounds like a very intense experience...hope you learned something from it and glad you are safe!

Meg said...

I second Brian and Jerry Critter!

I've done a lot of stuff I shouldn't have done, pushed when I shouldn't have pushed, because I felt that I had to prove that I wasn't a crybaby, wasn't weak, wasn't "high maintenance", etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately, I've paid for that and then some. And you know what, I made myself suffer trying to prove some assholes wrong and it's not like they really care about me either way. It's not like I could do anything that would make them go, "Wow, you really are tough! I was so wrong and such a jerk!". All I did was hurt myself.

Debbi said...

I couldn't help but be reminded of you pushing yourself relentlessly across the desert as I read this post from Zen Habits: http://bit.ly/2kTFT

Now, I realize this is geared primarily toward the problems associated with multi-tasking, but it also raises the point that we shouldn't push ourselves too hard, in any case.

Even though suggestions like going to a local health food store and such don't apply in your situation, I thought the basic message of getting more done by doing less was worth thinking about.

Susanne said...

Beautiful story & great anonymous comment of the ER-guy. Good stuff to read. You enjoy us with your adventures. But, please, be careful.

Grtz,



Susanne

Linda said...

I'm wondering WHY you want to prove you're not a pussy? Where did you get this idea of having to prove something from?

And for whom do you need to prove this? For yourself? For others? Do you feel you need approval from yourself or from people around you? Why?

Anonymous said...

Meg's comment is excellent. Thanks, Meg!

Anonymous said...

Jack
I saw a documentary on tv today about a 412 lb man who bicycled from Nevada to Florida to lose weight. (Sidenote: he lost 125 lbs). He, too, ran out of water and stood by the side of the road, holding his empty water bottle upside down to show it was empty. It took 15 cars before one stopped! But then he hit the bonanza - 4 water bottles from a good samaritan. Hope you're not losing too much weight! :)
Lynn

Jack said...

@Julia,

Thanks. Sounds like you had your own close call. I wonder if I will have a similar sensitivity going forward.

 This whole mentality is a mixed bag and I'm not exactly happy about it.  I has served me but it nearly killed me that day...

@Brian,

So true dude, so true.

@Elizabeth,

Definitely hot.  I'm responding to your comment from a little bit of shade I found cast by an abandoned building.  Believe me,  I'm lucky today.

And you are right.  As I say above, this mentality isn't something I am proud of.  It's just a part of who I am.

Jack said...

@debbi,

Yeah. I guess I should have done some more research.  I had relied on the AC maps for so long I guess I was stupid in not investigating where I was going once I left the trail.  Thanks.

@Srividya,

Well, I can be harder when you have the mentality I describe in this post.  Need to figure out a better way to balance things.

@Jill,

Believe me, been following you all along.  Had this recurring urge to cut south and see if we could hook up.

The food thing makes sense.  I actually stopped eating (my mouth was so dry...), I wonder how much worse I made things    Oh and it was all three. 

Jack said...

@Daizy,

Good point:). And no, I suspect that the Oregon desert may not have anything on the one in Arizona. 

@Anonymous,

It definitely helps:)

By the time I got into town there was no way I could say that I was ok.  I definitely needed treatment.  Just glad was close enough to town.  If not, may have had to have camped at that lady's house or called an ambulance if k got worse.

@anonymous,

I don't think I was blaming the desert. I put myself at risk needlessly, and yet, there was this part of me that felt rebellious.  I was just being stupid.

Jack said...

@Tessie,

That sounds fantastic!

@Jerry,

Absolutely.  Just a bit of common parlance to describe some of the stupid was I see the world.

@circus life,

Definitely did.  As I said above, need to find a way to balance out this mentality with other priorities.

Jack said...

@Meg,

See my responses above.  You are absolutely right.  One thing I will say is that the mentality described in this post is almost exclusively internal.  That is, not trying to prove to anyone anything.  I don't feel I have to at this point.  I only have to prove to myself that I met a challenge and I overcame it, despite everything.

@Debbi,

Maybe I need to expand my embrace of simplicity to cover this side of my personality.  I think the link is totally on point.

@Susanne,

Thanks.  Yes, I think this has led to an interesting discussion.

Jack said...

@Linda,

I really don't know.  I wish I knew.  Maybe it's a coping mechanism.  It's the way I deal with many things in my life.  A huge hill, a deadline at work, slowly dehydrading in the desert all, somehow, are a little less scary when you are on the attack.  

I've answered the second part of your comment in my response to Meg above.  Let me know if you have any more questions.   

@Meg,

I thought so as well.  See my response above.

@Lynn,

Sounds interesting.  What was it called? 

Well, I definitely look different since I left Virginia.  Replaced all of my bulk muscle with lean muscle and have toned quite a bit. The traditional athlete body at this point.  

Anonymous said...

The show was on Discovery Health Channel and it was called "XXX-treme Weight Loss."
Lynn

Buck16 said...

Fuck the desert.

What has it ever done except cause confusion when trying to write 'dessert'?

Glad you survived to tell us about it Jack. I'm a giant pussy. I'd still be hanging out with the old lady, drinking water and telling her about life on the road.

She'd regret ever saving my life! *ha ha*

Safe(r) travels, man.

Rebecca said...

Things will be MUCH better once you cross the pass and arrive in the "real" West Coast. We Pacific Northern Westerners promise. And if you take a detour to see Multnomah Falls, it will be well worth the side trip!

Meg said...

Jack,

Yeah, but there's a fine line between trying to impress yourself and trying to impress others. I've come to realize that I try to prove people wrong even long after they've left my life -- when I should be just saying "Good riddance!". What people say can so often become part of your internal dialogue. I'm learning to separate it out, but sometimes it is still so hard.

(And thanks, Anonymous! I try.)

Money Funk said...

I am so glad to hear that you are okay! Definitely had me worried!

Confirmed: UR not a Pussy! You have done more for yourself than most people would do in a lifetime. Cheers!

microwave said...

It's too bad your hallucinations weren't more awesome. Like, punching the junior partner in the face. Just a thought.

Jack said...

@Lynn,

Thanks for the tip. Maybe download it via torrent or something.

@Buck16,

I probably should have done that to begin with...Maybe I am a pussy for not wanting to be one.

@Rebecca,

Your words hit me today when I made it out of the desert. :)

Jack said...

@Meg,

I guess you are right, at least to the extent other people influence your personality. I am sure there have been incidents involving others that has helped to crystalize this mentality of mine.

But no. I don't beleive there is real way in which I try to "impress" others by, for example, heading down a desert without water. Most of the people I know don't really understand this trip to begin with. They probably think it's stupid that I have come this far to begin with.

@Money Funk,

Thanks. Makes me feel better to hear that:)

@Microwave,

Now, that would have been awesome.

Heather's Moving Castle said...

I had a similiar experience with kids in tow. But on a smaller scale. I was lost in an Iowa cornfield with bikes, kids, and ran out of water. It sucked! I got scolded by my hubby afterward and my friends.

So glad you are better. I have learned to just be a pussy after that, which is easy for me anyway. LOL.

Take care, friend!!!!

Family on Bikes said...

I think it's important to realize that it is times like this that make you learn - you NEVER would have learned lessons that you learned from that experiene any other way. That's one of the beauties of travel like this - each experience builds upon the others.

I'm not exactly sure which road you pedaled, but I suspect it is the exact same road we biked a couple years ago. As we were headed toward Hampton, I ran out of water 10 miles before the "town". John and the boys on the triple bike still had a bit, so I just left them in the dust and raced toward town and water - but I arrived there hallucinating and very dehydrated.

There is NO WAY anyone can imagine the vastness and emptiness of the Eastern Oregon desert until you've biked it. I grew up in Boise and still didn't have any idea just how big and dry and empty that desert it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is - don't beat yourself up. You knew yourself and you knew you could make it in to town. If you couldn't, you would have flagged down a car. It's as simple as that.

I wrote a blog entry a while ago and that very idea - about how we learn rom each experience we pass through and that experience helps prepare us for the next. You can read it here: http://familyonbikes.org/blog/?p=672

Take care!
Nancy
www.familyonbikes.org

Jack said...

@Heather,

Wow. It is hard enough on your own but having to be there for the kids can be even more taxing...

@Nancy,

You are so right re: the build-up of experience. It was a lesson well-learned on my part. And you were close; it happened on my way to Burn, a day's ride away from Hampton. And yes, Hampton cannot really be called a town. I spent my time in front of an abandoned general store/cafe (which might have been opened when you were there)

Lance Huffman said...

The last time I checked in, I read a long discourse on here about your struggles with sexism. Then I return to find this blog entry, where you equate weakness with a pejorative for women's sexuality. If anything, I think the pussy is strong as hell.

That said, I am glad you're OK.

Anna said...

I have to second Lance. I'm glad that you survived and that you proved to yourself that you're strong. But why constantly equate 'balls' with strength and courage and 'pussy' with weakness and failure? I know it's a common slang term, but sexism has to be challenged by intelligent & thoughtful people choosing to reject such simple-minded and bigoted language. After all, you wouldn't call someone a 'fag,' would you? I doubt that thoughtless disparagement of women will endear you to the kind of woman you describe yourself as wanting to meet.
All the best :)

Anonymous said...

You could have died, Jack.

L.M.S.