Avon, NY to Skaneateles, NY
74 miles – 7 hours 8 minutes
I am up and carrying my bike down the Inn’s two flights of stairs by 5:30. There’s no one at the desk so I leave my key in mailbox. Another cool morning. I feel strong and I don’t stop until I’ve gone nearly fifteen miles.
Canandaigua had some great parks. When I was a kid, in those easygoing years before high school, I would spend every summer day at Sonnenberg Park. We would play tether ball and jarts and Kiwanis sponsored a baseball league. Not as organized as little league, there were no parents involved, just a league director, Boone Baker, who organized the teams. At the end of the season Boone picked two all-star teams who played at Red Jacket Park under the lights. For that game we had real baseball uniforms with all-star baseball hats – red for one team, blue for the other.
I was the Alex Rodriquez of Kiwanis Little League. A perennial all-star each year, who flopped in the penultimate test – the Red-Blue Kiwanis All-Star Game. That is, until the summer before seventh grade.
The game was a pitchers’ duel with the score 0 to 0 through the first five innings of the six inning contest. I had struck out twice against Dick Buck when I came up to face him in the top of the sixth inning with two outs and no one on base. I was not a patient batter. I swung at Dick’s first pitch and hit it into left field, a line shot over the head of the four-foot tall third baseman, Billy Fox. The leftfielder that day was Jerry VanDamme. Jerry was not a perennial all-star. I think Boone added him to the team because Tommy Kautz had to go on a family vacation.
As Jerry raced towards the ball, his hat flew off. For some reason, that Jerry never shared with anyone, he turned and ran back to get his hat before proceeding to chase down my hit. The ball bounced past him all the way to the fence, which at Red Jacket park were set up for the adult softball league. I raced around the bases for a homerun. The Blues won the game 1 to 0.
Life is not always fair. That game should have been remembered as the game Len Joy won with a homerun in the sixth inning. But it wasn’t. My friends, especially one of my best friends, Jim Walsh, who was a catcher for the Red Team that day, made sure that that game was forever after known as the game where Jerry VanDamme ran after his hat instead of the ball.
Most of my friends have moved away. But Jim Walsh is still here - he runs a party supply store on the other side of town. I think about calling him, but I’m anxious to get to Skaneateles so I saddle up and head out.
Five miles from Auburn, I’m out of the refuge and riding through farm country again. On the opposite side of the road I see two dogs romping in the pasture next to their farmhouse. They spot me before I get to the farmhouse and run towards me, barking. To be safe, I speed up. Traffic in the opposite direction is steady so I expect that the dogs, who have undoubtedly lived next to that road all their lives, will know better than to run across the highway. There is a milk tanker heading in the opposite direction. I’m past the farmhouse before the dogs make it to the road. The golden retriever in the lead has already stopped running, but the black and white retriever is still going full bore. I can hear the dog barking and then the truck races past me heading west and the barking stops in mid-bark. I don’t hear a whine or a thump, nothing. I slow down, but I don’t look back. I don’t want to know.
I am to the city limits of Auburn. The highway remains four lanes, but there are no shoulders and the curbs are two feet high with a fence on each side. The highway bypasses the commercial sector so most of the traffic is trucks. There’s a gas tanker in front of me and I can hear a large truck behind me, close. Traffic is slow and I try to keep distance between me and the tanker in front.
Now the traffic is stopped for a light. I slow down and it feels like the truck behind is right on my tire. The light turns green so I know the tanker will be moving and I won’t have to stop and then start again on this cramped street. But the tanker doesn’t move. I’m thirty yards behind it, going as slow as I can, then twenty, then fifteen, then five. I have to stop. I squeeze the brakes and kick my right heel out to disengage my foot from the pedal clip. It’s stuck again. I can feel the heat from the truck behind me and there’s no room to the side of the tanker so I stop the bike and go down. Hard. Falling to my right. The impact knocks off my chain, and my pack. It also frees my foot. I get to my feet and drag the bike out of the way. Blood is flowing from my elbow, and it really hurts, but mostly I’m thinking that I’ve crashed with five miles to go on a five hundred mile trip. I don’t want to have to call my sister for help. I’m wondering how long it will take to walk the rest of the way.
The trucker who was behind me stops and yells from his cab, “You all right?” I nod my head. A woman in a station wagon is behind him with a car full of kids. “Do you want some help?” I tell her I think I’ll be alright. It’s an instinctive, shock-response. I don’t know what I am at the moment. I drag the bike off the highway onto the residential street that runs parallel.
A man walks out of the café on the corner and asks me if I want to use the washroom to clean up. I tell him I don’t want to mess up the place and he sees I’m bleeding.
“Stay here, I’ll get some towels.”
He returns with a handful of paper towels and several band-aids. I wipe off my arm and then he puts on three bandages.
I tell him I appreciate his help.
“No problem. I work in the seniors’ home, and those old folks are always falling down. I do this all the time.” I wait for him to say I’m far younger than his usual patient, but he doesn’t.
I assess the damage. The frame holding my pack is loose, but easy to fix. The chain has been knocked off, but there isn’t any damage to the bike, just to my elbow and my confidence. I ride up the hill to Genesee Street. There’s major road construction on Genesee. Buses, cars and construction equipment everywhere. I ride a block. I practice taking my foot out of the pedal and it sticks each time I try. I ride another block with my foot out of the clip. There’s too much traffic, too much construction and I am heading up a hill that looks like a twenty degree incline. I get off and start walking.
Pushing a bike with a heavy pack on it up a hill is not easy. And with bike shoes, that have a little cleat right in the middle of the sole, it’s even more difficult and uncomfortable. I walk the bike for over half an hour before I am free of downtown. I take a Gatorade break in front of one of the Auburn churches and psyche myself for the final leg of the journey.
Skaneateles is still five miles away.
I has taken me nearly ninety minutes to get through Auburn. My elbow throbs. The hills between Auburn and Skaneateles are the steepest since Pennsylvania. I come down off the first hill and looming in the distance is a hill that seems to rise to the sky. I take another break. I’ve gone two miles since my last break. I stare at the hill and it seems insurmountable. I tell myself to stay focused on the next fifty yards.
I pedal down the hill instead of coasting and when I hit the uphill I’m going twenty-five. I keep my head down and concentrate on my pedaling. I downshift, but keep the bike in the touring gears. When I finally look up, I’m close to the crest. My leg muscles are burning, my elbow’s killing me and I’m very hot and thirsty, but I’ve made it through the first hill. Three more to go. I take a break for fifteen minutes. Then I attack the next hill using the same approach. When I get to the top I rest again. Just two more hills.
I feel invigorated as I attack the next hill. The farms are looking more familiar. I can spot a large sign at the top that looks just like the sign for the Hilltop Restaurant, but I know that it is on the next hill over, the one that guards the outskirts to Skaneateles. I keep pedaling and as the sign comes into focus, I realize it is the Hilltop sign. This is the last hill. I’ve made it.
I laugh and feel like shouting, but I’m not a shouting type person. My eyes feel moist, even though I’m not a crying type person either. I coast down the hill, past Rosalie’s Cucina, past the cemetery, to the intersection of 41A. I turn right. Two minutes later I roll into my parents’ driveway. I am home.
I call Suzanne to let her know I made it. She’s relieved, but not surprised. After visiting with my folks, taking a shower and having a late lunch, I call Bob. More times that not over the last year, I end up getting his voicemail, but this time he picks up. I tell him I arrived safely.
“Okay, tell me again, how far did you go?” he asks.
“About five hundred miles.”
There is silence on the line. Then, “By yourself?”
I tell him about the crash in Auburn.
“You could have gotten yourself killed. But you can brag about it later. When are we going to that Cubs game?”
“I’ve got tickets for August 4th.”
“Okay, I suppose I owe you a beer. Maybe two. Very impressive. But you are crazy. You know that, right?”
On July 30th, the Sunday before Bob and I were going to that Cubs game, I was resting at home, having just taken second place for my age group in the Glenview Triathlon. My average speed on the bike leg had been over twenty – a four mile per hour improvement. After conquering the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania and New York and after sustaining myself on rides of seven, eight and nine hours, I knew I had reserves of energy to tap. I was two minutes behind the first place finisher and I was plotting where and how I could catch that guy next time out when the phone rang.
It was Bob’s wife, Pat. She was crying.
“Len, I’m at the hospital. Bob was out hiking this morning,” she told me. It had been brutally hot all week, with temperatures and humidity in the nineties. In the twenty-five years I had known Bob, Pat had never called me.
Wednesday, August 1, 1984
Cubs are half a game out of first place. Today they’re playing the Phillies and future hall-of-famer Steve Carlton is pitching for the Phils. Bob says we HAVE to go to the game. We leave work at noon, take the Red line to Addison. Monty the ticket-scalper wants thirty bucks for upper-deck reserved.
“We want field boxes,” Bob tells him. “I want to see the zits on Carlton’s chin.”
Monty shuffles through his wad of tickets, “Here you go. Hundred, worth every penny,” he says.
“A hunny. Oh man Pat’s going to kill me,” Bob says, but he doesn’t pause as he pulls out his wallet and hands Monty two crisp hundred dollar bills.
We’re in the fifth row behind the Phillies dugout on the third base side. Carlton has no zits on his chin, just an overpowering fastball. He’s leading three to nothing until Ryno hits one on to Waveland to lead off the fourth. Then Cey leads off the fifth with a homerun to center and we’re only down by one. In the sixth, Moreland hits the first pitch into the rightfield bleachers and then the pitcher Ruthven singles off Carlton to score Ron Cey from second. The Cubs lead 4-3 and they take out Carlton.
If we win this game we’ll be in first place, but the Phillies score to tie the game again. It’s four to four heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Henry Cotto leads off the inning with a double. They walk Ryno and then Gary Matthews hits an infield single to load the bases with nobody out. Everyone’s on their feet. Jody Davis hits a fly ball to deep center. Henry scores.
Bob is screaming, “Cubs win! Cubs win! He pounds me on the back. “We beat Steve Carlton. First place!” He turns and high-fives Agnes and Milt, season ticketholders from Berwyn, who have the seats behind us.
Nobody leaves the park. We’re all yelling, “First place”, and the guys in the centerfield bleachers are pointing at the flagpole where the team pennants are displayed according to the standings. The blue Cubs pennant is in second position behind the orange flag of the hated Mets. A guy in a Cubs windbreaker crawls out the walkway to the flagpole. The crowd gets even louder as he pulls down the pennants.
“Here it comes. Here it comes,” Bob is yelling in my ear. Slowly the string of pennants is sliding back up the pole. The Cubs pennant is on top. I can’t hear my own cheers. My throat hurts.
We sit back down and drink our beer - it’s no longer cold and has gone flat. Tastes great. The sun is warm on our backs. We breathe in the sweet smells of nachos and cotton candy and sweat. The crowd starts to disperse but still we stay. We have things to do, places to go. But not today. The Cubs are in first place and we have all the time in the world.
In Memory of Bob Russell
(June 22, 1946- July 30, 2006)