On the 8th Day of Sundaze, my blog friends were inspired to share this…
It was just before Thanksgiving, and I was riding my bike to the beach. Even though it was late in November, this particular weekend it was in the upper-80s in Los Angeles, and I personally wanted to get a tan, just to make everyone at home (in Minnesota) a little jealous when I got there. It’s a little over 5 miles from my house to the ocean, but there’s a handy little path that goes almost door-to-sand and I use it very often, and today, it was relatively crowded, with everyone wanting to enjoy the beach for what could be the last time before real ‘winter’ set in.
A little more than half-way through my journey, I noticed my pedaling beginning to get more challenging, and eventually this noise that can only be described as “bike farting” became audible. I reluctantly looked at my back tire, and sure enough, it was flat. With a sigh and an eye roll, I made the executive decision to just walk the rest of the way to the beach. And as I walked my bike down the side of the path, I got may looks of pity from the families riding past, one guy even yelled, “Oh man, that sucks,” like I didn’t already realize. I was outside a small marine center along the path when someone rode up slowly beside me and said, “Need a pump?”
In my first assessment of this man, I was almost tempted to say no. He was riding his bike, towing a long trailer with what looked like enough camping gear for weeks. Over all of it was a sign that read “It’s Personal, Biking Across America for Cancer.” Before I could even make up my “oh it’s ok my roommate is going to pick me up” excuse, he had pulled over and started digging through his trailer for supplies. I walked my bike over.
“OK,” he said, “While I do this, I want you to read this,” and he hands me a printed version of a news article. As he started removing the tire from my bike, I read.
The man was Stephen Swift, 54, originally from Oregon. He had lost his father and sister to cancer, before being diagnosed himself, and losing a finger to the disease in 2002. In 2011, he lost his wife to a car accident which also left his 20 year-old daughter with brain damage and the mentality of a 10 year-old. Then, once again, in 2012, Stephen was again diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This time, he was given 18 months to live. It was his daughter who first suggested he go for a bike ride. The original trip was from one town in Oregon to another, a month-long endeavor, but instead of quitting there, he just kept going. And 27+ months later, he was still alive and still biking.
At this point, he had completely disassembled one tire on my bike, and I was standing there, trying not to cry. All I could mumble was, “This is amazing.” He went on to check my tube for a hole (he didn’t find one), put the tube back on the wheel, put the tire back on, hand me the pump, and teach me how to properly inflate a bike tire, put a wheel back on a bike, take one off (he had to check the front one, because at this point he realized I was completely incompetent with a bike repair), made me do it myself, and the go for a test ride to make sure everything was working.
All the while we were chatting, about his family, his life. At one point he lit a cigarette. “You know why I smoke these?” I said no. “I don’t drink or do drugs, and they help the pain. There’s a lump in my neck I’m worried about, I’m on my way home now, hopefully see a doctor when I get back.”
As he began packing his things back up, he asked me to sign his “guest book,” which he had asked everyone he met along the way to sign. His goal is to write a book when he gets home, about his journey and all the people he met along the way. As I finished trying to put into words how he had completely turned my day around, he pulled a few things out of one of his bags. He turned to me with a pink beaded bracelet and a small box.
“Here,” was all he said as he handed them to me, “You know what the pink bracelet means?”
As I examined it more closely, I saw little pink elephants, but also little pink ribbons.
“It’s for breast cancer awareness, right?”
“Yeah,” he nodded toward the box, “And the box is for keeping things, your little treasures. I always have what people need. I’ve met a lot of people who think I’m homeless, who discriminate against me because of the way I look, they think I’m homeless or whatever, but if they’d give me a chance, I always have what they need.”
At this point, to avoid completely breaking down in front of this man (and now a small crowd of people who had exited the marine center and gathered, chatting in the parking lot), I asked what he was going to do next.
“Oh, I’m heading up to Malibu, hopefully find a place to camp, I haven’t slept much in the past few days, maybe find some good coffee somewhere.”
At this point we exchanged whatever goodbyes you exchange in a situation like this (in my case, very awkward ones that ended in “I hope you find your coffee”) and biked off in our separate directions. I made it to my final destination, and as I lounged back in the sand I couldn’t help but continue to think about my interaction with Stephen. He was a good person, there was no doubt, but he wasn’t the type of “good person” they make movies about or that you hear about in the news. He didn’t seem particularly happy, in fact, he seemed maybe even cynically realistic, yet he had helped me out in a time of need, and in turn, made me happy. It was hard to tell if he was biking because he enjoyed it, or simply because it was a way for him to take his mind of the heartache and suffering his reality was filled with. Regardless, as I biked home that evening, with my back to the beautiful, warm sunset over the Pacific ocean, I couldn’t help but hope he was watching the same sunset from a nice little campsite perched on a beach in Malibu. One thing he said to me continued to ring in my mind long after I got home,
“Just keep on riding.”
(Read about Stephen’s journey in more detail here and here. Watch this video. And hopefully one day I’ll share his book here as well. And Stephen, if you read this, I’m still wearing the bracelet you gave me! THANK YOU.)