I had no clue that Russell rode bikes. I only knew him from our brief interactions at work in the ER. It would usually be a few off-handed comments or eye rolls while we transported a patient. Me just starting my day shift, Russell just about to escape his night shift. Neither beginning nor ending a 12 hour shift in such a rushed manner is appreciated in the hospital world. One of us hasn’t yet finished wiping sleep from our eyes and the other has fantasies of sleep growing in their’s. Most of us deal with these situations using humor, usually sarcastic and somewhat dark. Russell was fairly well versed at this type of coping mechanism and I enjoyed our shared 5:30am road trips. We never discussed outside life during our predawn passing, hence my surprise at him being one of eight riders assembling at the trailhead.
It was already hot when we left a truck at the trail’s ending. It was still hot thousands of feet higher when we unloaded our bikes to begin our ride. Summer’s early arrival and exceptionally dry weather had covered the trail’s surface in inches of silty brown powder. It was an unpredictable surface, it was blinding if you followed each other too closely. It was hard work to keep the wheels churning on anything that wasn’t a significant downhill grade.
Occasionally, I’d hang back allowing the dust to clear, hoping to find a photo opportunity. This was also a chance to check on Russell, whose abilities I did not know. He was competent, he was smiling, he stayed on his bike where other’s did not. Good to go!
He spent most of the ride in the middle of our group, slowing as the miles and heat built. By ride’s end, he was pedaling towards the truck hunched over his bars, head down, grinding in a posture each of us has known. It’s a posture that through gritted teeth and dry lips says, “please get me off this damn bike.”
He reached the truck, where we stood eating pickles, stepped off his bike and promptly collapsed onto the dirt lot, moaning. Once it was clear he was okay, we began shaking with laughter, pointing at his legs.
They were fibrillating. The skin covering his calves and quads danced like a container of jello placed atop a bass drum. Cramping, releasing, cramping, releasing.
We only laughed since each one of us had been lying in a dirt lot someplace before, legs cramped in agony. It was an acknowledgment of empathy, an opportunity to bond via shared experience. Once we’d eaten all the pickles, Russell gulped down the remaining jar of juice, some of it dribbling off his chin landing on his still quivering legs. A short time later, with the help of a beer or maybe beers, Russell’s legs had quieted and his smile returned. He laughed as we told our own stories about writhing with post-ride cramps.
That was the only time we rode together. Russell recently died in his sleep with the sudden unexpectedness of a popping lightbulb. Through the bitterness of his death, I can still look back and laugh seeing him on the ground in ride induced misery. It isn’t laughter born from meanness, but of knowing he was the kind of guy who would stand over me and laugh had our positions been reversed. It’s a laughter that bonds via a shared shitty, self generated experience.