I went to work today. It was Monday. Seemed the appropriate thing to do. Not much had changed... same office, same employees, and relatively speaking, same job. But it wasn't the same. Something had changed in a very subtle, yet profound way. Something was different, and that something was me.
Over the course of the last four days, my friends and I joined over eleven hundred people in the Washington DC AIDSRide - a 342-mile trek through the Virginia countryside from Norfolk to the nation's capital. It was an event that will forever change the way I view myself and the rest of the world. It was an experience so incredible and so universal that I want to share it with everyone I talk to, and yet, it was an experience so powerful and so deeply personal that I struggle to find the words to adequately express it. It seems so overwhelming.
Maybe I could start simply, almost superficially, and tell you about the trip itself. I could tell you about the rivers, about the roads that ran along side of them and kept pace with the waters, and the bridges both meek and mighty that crossed over them. I could tell you about the forest - so thick and deep and green that light could barely penetrate it, never mind the rain that hammered down heavily on the leaves but was reduced to a mere sprinkle on the road and riders beneath.
I could tell you about roads that rose and fell in long rhythmic arches and disappeared into mist and mystery ahead, the next turn always just out of view. There were rows of corn that flanked the road like some giant trough, guiding us along our way as if we were in some great maze. But no... it was so much more.
Maybe the hardships... maybe that's the way to go. Maybe if you knew about the long, slow ride out of Norfolk, about the traffic, the humidity, and the way that the heat radiated off of the hot black pavement. And the rain. My god, the rain. How it drenched us, beat against our skin, soaking our clothes and dampening our spirits. Perhaps if I told you how I lay in the darkness, legs aching under my wet sleeping bag, listening to the rain fall on the soft tent roof... maybe then you'd understand. But no, that wasn't it, because we laughed about it over breakfast. We made jokes about the weatherman and splashed each other in puddles. We sang "sun songs" as the water drove down on us from the gray skies and flew up at us from the spinning tires of the bikes. And when the sun came out at last, we forgot entirely that the rain had ever come.
So maybe then, it was the hills. We'd trained on hills of course, but never after 200 miles of riding. Maybe if you were there and saw the way that they loomed before us like giants, and you felt the burning in your legs, and you knew what it felt like to be totally, completely out of strength. Maybe then you'd understand. But then, you would also have been there to hear the cheering of the crew. You would have seen them on the side of the road half way up the hill, yelling and hollering and telling you that you could do it! You would have felt the miracle of finding just... a little... more... and you would have made it to the top where still more crew and other bikers were cheering you on and letting you know that you could and would make it.
Ah, the other bikers. If only you could have seen that. It's such a rare thing to be united with a thousand other people; to share a common belief and common purpose. From the moment we gathered in Norfolk, there was a sense of camaraderie that brought us together and gave us an unspoken bond. We stood and wept as the rider-less bike was walked solemnly into the arena, representing those that could not be there to ride... those for whom we were riding. We stood together. And we stayed together. No rider stopped without a hundred others asking if they were ok. No rider fell without others to pick him up. No rider struggled up a hill without others behind to tell him he could make it, and that they would be there if he couldn't. At pit stops we gathered and introduced ourselves, hearing each other's stories and personal reasons for riding. We never complained, because we knew that others suffered daily; we could endure anything for four days and, for four days, we were a family of a thousand.
Should I mention the crew? They were relentless in their efforts to help us, to encourage us, and to make sure that we had everything we needed. Volunteers all, they represented the various levels of the beneficiary organizations, including the president of the board. I have never seen such humility and genuine appreciation. And there was the simple, hand-written sign that read, "Thank you. Your 330 miles gives me 365 days of life." Maybe if you'd seen that you'd begin to understand.
And then there was the last day, as we rode the final 48 miles into D.C. Road-worn and weary we made our way, and with each mile the crowds increased. People stood on the roadside, in parking lots, and at intersections. They clapped and cheered and cried out their thanks. I rode with a new found energy then, with tears in my eyes, a smile on my face, and a heart filled to bursting with love and with pride. And my fellow riders rode with me.
I could spend pages telling you about the ride, trying to explain my four days in a world as it could be. As it should be. A world based on kindness, respect, and a willingness to do what it takes to make a change. But, when all is said and done, it may have been best and most simply stated by Brian Andreas in his poem, "Wish List," which reads:
I wish you could have been there for the sun and the rain, and the long, hard hills.
For the sound of a thousand conversations scattered along the road.
For the people laughing and crying and remembering at the end.
But mainly, I wish you could have been there.
I got involved with the AIDSRide because I wanted to help. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others... others who couldn't do it all by themselves. Somehow, things got turned around, and I find myself being the one who was helped. I'm the one who's better off in so many ways.
I encourage you to find something that you feel strongly about - something that really matters to you. It may not be AIDS. That may not be something that affects you or your loved ones directly. But find something you care about and get involved. You'll find that events like this have the power to not only help those in need, but to transform the participants as well.
See that job title? Check it out: "Spy". How cool is that? I know, you're probably wondering what it means to be a spy for an international organization like Intrepid Media, huh? Well I'd love to tell you, but I can't. It's all part of the spy game, baby.
ABOUT ROGER STRIFFLER
more about roger striffler
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.24.02 @ 12:12a
Roger, this is awesome. Just awesome. But both you and I (and Erik) know that there's no real way to put into words what an AIDS Ride is like. On my first ride my opening sentence was, "I have stumbled into a 7-day utopia..." And as corny as it sounds, it's true. It's a little look at what the world would be like if it were perfect.
In a time of cynicism doubt and apathy, it really does make you think anything is possible.
Next year, we'll ride together.
6.24.02 @ 12:36a
Bravo. Well-ridden and well-written.
6.24.02 @ 7:48a
Man that brought me right back.
Cheers, Roger. Great job. As Russ said, in the riding and the writing.
6.24.02 @ 9:39a
Roger, this is beautiful. And the experience sounds magical. We are all so proud of you.
6.24.02 @ 12:28p
Thanks so much, everyone. It really is an experience that effects you on so many levels that it seems impossible to convey. i re-read this and think, "Geez, that's just one little part of it all..."
It's amazing how empowering it can be to remind yourself that you're alive.
6.25.02 @ 8:23a
Anyone ever do something similar (or even anything radically different) that had the same effect you?
6.25.02 @ 3:16p
I think my trip to Israel in '90 opened my eyes, if not in exactly the same way, in just as profound a manner.
6.25.02 @ 4:05p
Well, I must say I now feel pretty shallow, as I can't think of an experience this powerful in my own life. Unless you count college. But that was less an experience than a sojourn, I suppose.
6.25.02 @ 4:13p
Or a series of experiences, one might argue.
6.25.02 @ 4:44p
Yes, one might.
6.26.02 @ 3:25p
I don't think there's anything shallow about it. It's a matter of becoming aware of opportunities/situations and taking advantage of them. It's only shallow if you don't believe you can benefit from new experiences.
6.26.02 @ 5:18p
Thank you Roger, I feel much better now.
Mmmm, warm fuzzies.
6.26.02 @ 9:56p
It's funny, sometimes I feel like that friend who buys a new CD and won't shut up about how good it is and how you just have to buy it...but it's just one of those things that makes such a deep impression on you that you want everyone to experience it.
7.1.02 @ 5:17p
WOW! Incredible experience incredibly captured and shared. I've been reading your work for over 9 years now... this is your best piece ever! I am proud to say I know you and that we count each other as friends!
7.12.02 @ 11:55p
I'm an admirer of fiction, and anyone who knows me knows it's because I'm scared of reality. I began reading your piece here with a great deal of hesitation because of this, but I want to thank you. "Your 330 miles gives me 365 days of Life" and other poignant-to-say-the-least parts of your experience have assisted me in facing reality--at least for a day or two, but that's more than I would have given reality otherwise. I have a lot to be thankful for. Thanks again for sharing, Roger.