Tandem, An American Love Story

Our first tandem bicycle adventure took us from Dungeness, Washington, to Dungeness, Washington the long way around America, 14,000 miles of life altering discovery. This manuscript was represented by the Claudia Menza Agency to New York publishers. It received several positive reviews from editors, but no takers. Enjoy.

Copyright 2009(c) by Bob Rogers.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Three in the morning. It’s Claire’s mother, DeLee calling us from her hospital bed downstairs. We gave her a stainless steel bowl and wooden spoon to summon us with. It works. My turn.

The nightlight casts a pool of light on the table beside her, where the morphine suppositories and rubber gloves are. She’s in pain, has been for awhile. DeLee, don’t do this, I say. Wake us, I say. You know it takes some time for the morphine to work. I put on the glove, tear open the foil packet containing the morphine suppository. Bang on the bowl, I say, before it hurts so bad, I say. Clang. Clang. Clang, I say. I’m lecturing her. She gives me one of her looks: Don’t forget who you are, not-even-son-in-law-yet. I smile. She smiles. We tease each other. I am going to miss her.

I’m done. She should feel relief soon, and sleep. While I’m at it, I check the catheter, and bedclothes. Everything’s okay. I’m getting good at this, all of us are; Claire and me, and DeLee. It can’t be easy to let others take care of all your personal needs for you. At least we are not strangers, changing shifts, new faces. We are all in the middle of this together. There is little thought of dignity lost, or dread for certain tasks. There is only relief to be given, received; the exchange of love.

Comfortable, I ask? She doesn’t answer, but looks out the window at the Strait and Dungeness Lighthouse. She loves the regular flashing of the light. I catch her watching it often, it’s small silver flash in daylight, and as it sweeps through the darkened room at night. Every four seconds. Counting. She is counting along with it. How much time left? How much life?

Upstairs her only daughter, and best friend, sleeps in my bed. DeLee knows she probably won’t live until our wedding less than six months away. She hopes to make early May, and her 60th birthday. A goal.

A few months before, we had found her at her home, slumped in a chair, her breathing shallow, raspy. She was to weak to light a cigarette, didn’t seem want one; that told us she was very ill. She could have died then,  if we hadn’t wondered at her voice on the telephone and went to check.

We helped her to the car and rushed to the hospital. A tense night in the emergency room, papers to sign about use of life support, worried doctors, tears of self recrimination: How could we not have known? How could we not have seen how far she was slipping?

A 40 year cigarette habit had made her very good at denial, and very good at suppressing the concern of her family. Nicotine was her drug of choice and it ruled us all. The year before, Claire convinced her to have a check-up. She came home and said she was fine, just, “a little emphysema.” She would try again to quit. A little emphysema. Her nose was a net of blue veins and she became winded walking across the room. She didn’t want to come to my house for dinner; stairs to climb, and the indignity of having to smoke on the deck. A trip to the grocery with Claire was an exertion almost beyond her.

And yet, she would still make plans: adventurous travel, a new house with a water view… She knew she would never do these things; there was a desperation in the dreams. Perhaps she just enjoyed dreaming for the sake of dreaming. We all do sometimes. But, her dreams required increasing doses of denial to sustain; often as not, they sounded hollow at best, and very sad. We knew her breathing was too diminished to allow her much more than getting through her day and working in her flowers.

The bad part was our participation in her deception. She was a very intelligent woman, with a very forceful personality, and her denial was stronger than our will to upset our relationship with her. In order to feel at all comfortable around her, we had to play along with her self-deception. We wouldn’t, couldn’t ask her to choose between us and her cigarettes.

Two days after we took her to the hospital her doctor called us in to hear the diagnosis along with DeLee. Phenomena, severe emphysema, and the C-word, advanced lung cancer. We held her hand and cried. She stared at the wall. They would get her fever down, pump her lungs dry and send her home. Four months, maybe six. She could try a course of chemotherapy if she wished, but it was not a recommendation.

The next day, she seemed to be almost relieved. After living with fear and doubt for many years, knowing was better. A week hooked up to tubes and pumps and antibiotics, and she felt better than she’d felt in months. Her spirits soared.

Home again, DeLee, could get back to her plans, old dreams, dust them off and rearrange them to fit the new truth; a truth she tweaked from a few months to a couple of years left to live. She called in Realtors to sell her house so she could buy the one with a view. In the meantime, she insisted she could go it alone at home.

A week later, a stumble, a leg that didn’t want to move right. “It’s nothing, I’m just a little tired.” Another day and we came to find her on the floor, unable to stand, barely crawl. The cancer had found her spinal cord. We could stay with her, or she could come to our home. She asked us to check on nursing homes. We pretended to. It was our turn to be passive resistors.

I knew what the problem was. Claire moved in with me when we became engaged to be married and DeLee was afraid of being alone. We were rivals for the most important person in her life, her daughter. I had to convince her we were all in this together.

Claire told me of DeLee’s favorite meals, pork chops, baked potato and green beans. While Claire was at work, I went to DeLee’s house and cooked her the meal. We talked together while I cooked; about nursing homes and selling her house, and Claire. Because she couldn’t stand or even sit in a chair, we ate together on the floor. I asked her to come and live with us, to let us be her caregivers. I told her it was important for us to be a part of her life now, that it would be the right thing for all of us now and for our marriage later. I’ll never know if it was my way with pork chops, her need, or our desire, but she agreed.

A few hundred clangs on her pan later, DeLee died, her face turned to the lighthouse. We can only hope we made her final months better. What we do know is that the experience changed us, completely, forever, and led to this journey, this story.

We straddled our bicycle built for two, and turned to look at our home one last time. Our panniers held all we would need for more than a year.

Bob and Claire Rogers leaving their home for the  unknown

Behind us the snow capped Olympic mountains filled the southern horizon. Before us, the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca stretched west to Japan and north to Victoria, British Columbia. To the east lay the Cascade mountains, and the rest of America.

“Ready?” I asked Claire.

“I think so.” There were tears in her voice.

I patted her leg behind me. “Okay, one two three—go.”

Thus began a 14,000 mile muscle powered journey of personal discovery as a couple. We were leaving behind all that is home, family and friends. We were turning away from comfortable routine toward the unknown, the spiritual. Each day would bring new challenge, and we expected, new joys. Excitement and apprehension, joy and melancholy, vied for our emotions.

Forty miles of unsettled weather later, we pushed Zippy (our tandem’s way-too-cute name) aboard the ocean-going ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island. Out on the salt, a fitful sun finally put in an appearance. We leaned on the railing in the wind, savored the salt air and views of sparkling snow covered mountains erupting from low clouds; a typical Northwest spring day this, but for us, somehow charged, different. We watched as salmon fishermen in small boats jigged their fishing rods, as they rose and fell on the long smooth swells, hoping a big salmon would attack the plug-cut herring six fathoms down. Gulls dove and fought for discarded bait, a blur of flapping wings beat the water, their cries mingling with the throb of the ferry engine.

We circled the deck, taking in the day, and the people and the mountains and the sea. We held hands and grinned. We were giddy. We laughed at small silly things: a tattered ugly gull, a seal bobbing in the kelp waiting for a salmon meal, a woman wearing a huge coat, in a tiny boat, hunkered over her pole. We had a secret. None of the people on the ferry  knew what we were beginning, but furtive glances in our direction told us they could see something was up with us—something gave us away.

Our second day out took us up Whidbey Island, a large beautiful island, long and narrow, rolling buff-colored meadows, cut by fence rows and dark evergreens. Small roads overlooked the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca, container ships inbound, log ships outbound and those salmon fishermen congregating in kelp beds just off the channel. Snow-capped Olympic mountains filled the southern horizon and towered over the Victorian seaport of Port Townsend. Morning mists burned off and the sun broke through towering clouds and we removed a layer of clothing. Roads meandered along small inlets where sailboats bobbed. Orange-barked madronnas, pink blooming rhododendrons and dark green firs rimmed shore. The scent of evergreens, salt water and pungent tide flats rose to us on the heat of the sun.

Disaster struck in Oak Harbor. I was parking Zippy (not an easy task at over 100 pounds) at a grocery store, when I heard a loud snap. I had broken our flagpole on a hanging planter. Only our second day out, and our U.S. and Washington state flags hung flaccid and ignoble, upside down.

            “I wonder if this is some sort of omen,” said Claire, looking apprehensive.

“Of course not!” I blustered, ever the expert male, always in control. But I didn’t believe it.

Was it an omen? Were we being chastised for undertaking such a journey, for quitting our work and abandoning our community responsibilities? Were we being told to go home and forget this silly idea of exploring America by bicycle for a year?

“Bummer,” I said, and slumped against the concrete slab wall of the supermarket.

“Phoey,” said Claire, sliding down beside me.

We sat and watched the shoppers come and go. Our gloom grew. At least the sun was warm.

“What are we going to do?” asked Claire.

“What do we usually do when we’re depressed?”

“Eat ice cream?”

“Right.”

We bought a box of fudgecicles and ate them. Then we splinted our flagpole with the sticks and some duct tape.

We stood back, tummies full, satisfied, and admired our fix. It was a tad lumpy but sound.

“Looks funky, but it’ll work.”

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

After a celebratory kiss, we decided our quick fix was a sign. Dark omen had turned optimistic with but a little duct tape, ingenuity and a positive attitude. This episode convinced us that, next to duct tape, our most indispensable tool was a positive attitude. We vowed to pull out the most accessible of the two, at first sign of trouble.

Later we paused for a lunch of carrot sticks, apples, and bread with tub-cheese. Never could such basic fare taste so elegant as when shared high above the rocks and tidal rips of Deception Pass. Commercial salmon fishing boats, sailboats and kayaks came and went, gulls soared silently under the bridge, far below.

A picture: the air sparkles under cumulus clouds, Claire smiles in her brightest jersey beside our bright blue tandem, Zippy, resplendent in his new red panniers, and sun-burnished Pacific waters unfurl toward Japan. It was a picture I would not see again for more than a year. By then, Claire’s jersey will be worn thin, Zippy’s blue scratched, and the pannier’s scuffed and faded from over 14,000 miles in sun, rain, hail, snow. Claire’s smile will have  broadened, her identity empowered, and both our lives changed forever.

Our third night out, we camped at Colonial Creek, just before the steep climbs to the Cascade passes. Our site was on a reservoir, its cold aquamarine waters reflecting the alpine peaks of North Cascades National Park.

We met a man camped near us who had just returned from a stint overseas for his employer. He is considering early retirement so he can do more hiking, traveling. He looks young for his age, fit looking, like he has done a lot of hiking. He comes to the mountains often, he says.

The last bit of golden sunshine departs the reservoir, and with it his smile. He comes to the mountains alone. “My wife and I used to travel all over the West. She loved to camp, and never got tired of hiking,” He looks past me, past the other campers, past the trees to the high country, still snowed in, golden in the setting sun. “She was always ready to go.” He is quiet for a moment. “She became ill and died suddenly two years ago.”

“We took a whole summer once. Went everywhere, all over the West, just camping and hiking.”

He trails off, his eyes unfocused again.   He shifts his weight, takes a tanned hand and wipes over his face, gives his head a little shake, and turns to me.

“So where you headed?” his voice rising, changing the subject.

I tell him we are going to follow the seasons in a generally clockwise direction around the States, wintering somewhere in the Southwest, returning home the following June. We talk uncomfortably for awhile, and then he moves away in the fading light.

I think of them that summer, knowing the end; they sit on a Western rim rock, bathed in blood twilight and desperate love. I look up and he is gone, lost among the gloaming firs. The darkness of his pain and loss, and a chill off the reservoir, send us to our tent early. I hold Claire and try to think of something else. Anything else.

The following morning at Colonial Creek, we awoke to find what looked like three giant larvae curled up not far from our tent. One of them wiggled, and a disheveled and sleepy young woman’s head emerged from a lumpy sleeping bag, blinking at the dawn, rubbing her eyes.

Debbie Gafner and her companions were doing some training in preparation for a cross-country tour she is planning for Christian Adventures. They had followed behind us the day before, and heard about Zippy’s passing at every stop. I guess two very brightly dressed people on a long bicycle flying flags from a fishing pole, are hard to miss.

We talked about our common experiences and discussed the possibility of seeing each other around Jackson, Wyoming in a month or so. It’s often like that when fellow travelers meet on the road; suggestions to meet are made, vague promises, but everyone knows that the road has it’s own mind and serendipity cannot be scheduled. We’ll look for them.

Rainy and Washington passes are longer and harder than I’d expected. Either that or our lack of training this spring came back to haunt us. Boy did I hurt. My behind, my hands and my shoulders. It hit Claire mostly in her legs. Women’s behinds must be made different than men. I think I remember my Daddy telling me that, but I thought they were supposed to be softer?

We almost ran out of food, water and energy before the top. At the end we were taking a break at every milepost. Adding 60 pounds to Zippy makes him a different kind of animal. A heavy animal. We did have sunshine, a cooling breeze and, for the most part, considerate drivers, many who waved and beeped their horns, or gave a thumbs up in salute.

Then came the payoff. Downhill. Screaming, howling, falling off the edge of the earth kind of downhill. The kind Zippy loves. Fly we did, down and down for seven miles of curvy seven-percent grade, laughing all the way. Claire has her own drum brake on Zippy that she controls with a small lever on her handlebars. She used it sparingly. She likes fast as much as Zippy does. I like what they like.

We were told about Early Winters campground by two guys from Bellingham on racing bikes who caught us and rode with us for awhile. The way one of them looked at Zippy, and the questions he asked, I suspect tandem-love has struck again.

Our day was 52 miles with about a vertical mile of climbing; ouch. After we set up camp we got back on Zippy for the ride into Mazama for food; we were more hungry than tired.

On the way into town we saw a bunch of horse trailers parked by a large corral, and a huge dust cloud. We stopped to watch as maybe 30 cowboys and cowgirls worked in teams of two to rope running calves by the neck and legs;  all this set against the high desert of ponderosa and wild sunflowers, bright spring grass and blue, blue sky. Cowboys and big-sky country. I guess we’re not in Dungeness anymore.

One of the cowboys rode over to us at the fence; said he’d seen us coming up the other side of the pass, “You made real good time. That’s a big hill you come over.” He tipped his hat and rode back to his roping partner.

Now that made our day.


Comments

Tandem, An American Love Story — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

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