Confessio: Rolling Downhill

If I ever write a book, I think I’d like to write a confession — something in the vein of Augustine or Patrick. Not a defense mind you, but an admission. If I do write that Confession, this piece I wrote several years back will be in it. I’m posting it in remembrance of October 6 twenty years ago.


I’m a person with distorted perspectives. My portions aren’t normal. I think I can endure limitless pain, difficulty, adversity, etc… as if I could just go out and ride 50 miles at a whim. I, for some unknown reason, think I am exempt from the pain, monotony, trouble, and inconvenience of training. Who do I think I am? Actually, I do know why I think I’m exempt; it’s pride, arrogance, hubris. My proportion disorder manifests itself in every aspect of my life: work, play, home, tv, food, sleep, what have you. However, I have never had trouble with over-exercising. Granted, during those moments of self-aggrandized testosterone poisoning, I have overestimated self. Over the long-haul though, I’ve never been the one to over-commit to healthful discipline. Martin Luther spoke of living a disciplined life as a drunken man riding a horse: he climbs up on side, rides, falls off the other side, climbs back up that side, rides, falls off the other side, and so on.
What feels so dangerous about getting on my bike again is the fear of the inevitable slippery slope of disappointment, self-indulgence, failed passion, flagged commitment, finally to be overwhelmed by external and internal pressures, and at last, quitting. Or maybe just falling off and forgetting to get back on.
One of the last times I rode my bike was in 1990. Through the summer I rode up and down over the Parkway around Boone, North Carolina preparing and working toward a level of fitness which I thought would take me from 206 to about 180 pounds. I was planning on doing a biathlon in Greensboro and then a century ride in Goldsboro in late September. It was my desire to reach a level of fitness that would allow me to not merely finish but to compete.
My wife, Jennifer, and I had ridden the half-century of Seyboro Cyclists’ Harvest Hundred the previous two years. It was a great couple-thing to do. Our first year, we traveled to Goldsboro, NC which is, by a Carolinian’s reckoning, ‘Down East’. The Down East coastal plain has its own culture manifest particularly in its style of Barbecue.  Books have been written on the virtues of Carolina Barbecue. Carolina barbecue is always pork. It may be chopped, pulled, or sliced, or it may be seasoned with a sauce that’s tomato-based, vinegar-based, or mustard-based; but it’s always pork. In the Carolinas there are differing styles and any Carolinian will argue his preference till they’re blue in the face. Though I grew up in Western North Carolina where a tomato based sauce is used, it was when I traveled to Goldsboro and had my first vinegar-based, Eastern Style Barbecue, that I fell in love. I was and still am hooked. I won’t go near Goldsboro without stopping for a plate of Eastern Style at Wilbur’s.
Jennifer and I traveled to Goldsboro because that’s where her relatives lived. We would stay with her aunt and uncle Pilkington and usually visit with her Grandma Catherine and her Grandpa and Grandma Bowen.
The first two years we traveled to Goldsboro, Jennifer and I ‘toodled” the half-century route. The first year we did the ride I don’t think either of us had done a ride over thirty miles, let alone fifty. So when we finished the ride just under 4 hours we thought we had done great. About twenty minutes later, we heard a lot of excitement at the finish line, and as we moved closer to see, we saw a pack of riders sprinting to the finish. They had ridden the century in about four and a half hours. They rode twice as far, in about the same amount of time. That’s what I wanted to do.
The third year, I trained a little harder, and tried to prepare myself for the Century. As usual, we traveled to Goldsboro, stayed with her Uncle Terry and Aunt Nancy, visited Grandma Catherine, and went to Wilbur’s Barbecue with her Grandpa and Grandma Bowen.
Dinner with the Bowen’s was interesting. Mr. Bowen was a retired executive with Southern Bell, self-made man — opinionated and intimidating. For Jennifer it was, I believe, hard to make the emotional and relational transition from child to adult around them – as it always is with those who have watched us grow up. I, on the other hand, was a diffusing influence, and, I believe, added an unfamiliar mix to the relationship which allowed Jennifer to relate to her Grandparents differently. Grandma Bowen pressed me into offering to drive them to Wilburs in their Cadillac so that Grandpa Bowen wouldn’t have to drive – he always had a before-dinner-whiskey. Good thing too as he kept pointing to a radio tower beacon light and commenting about the C-130’s that kept the skies busy over Goldsboro as the flew into and out of Seymore Johnson Airbase.  Airplane indeed.
Grandma Bowens eyesight was worse. She was now, due to the effects macular degeneration, a degenerative eye disease, legally blind. While we were at Wilbur’s that evening, she kept swooshing her forehead with her hand. Finally, she asked, “Would someone please shoo this fly away from me?” It turned out that she was drinking her sweet tea from the side of the glass and had forgotten that there was a straw in it. As she drank, the straw would poke her hair, tickle her forehead, and she’d wave her hand to get that pesky fly.
I think that evening, Alvin and Thelma Bowen became a lot more winsome and a lot less intimidating to Jennifer and me. They had idiosyncrasies, and despite their intelligence and accomplishments, they were human. It was, sadly, the last time we would see them.
The following morning Jennifer and I rode out with the pack from the Goldsboro YMCA.  We began as a peleton, traveling at 19 miles an hour – an easy warm-up pace. Jennifer was tucked behind my rear wheel, and we were sucked along in a great mass of people power. It was quite an experience.
At about the sixteen mile point, I was pressing Jennifer to push forward and stay close to me. She needed to stop. I slowed down. She clipped my back tire, and flipped over her handlebars onto the pavement. She skinned the underside of her elbow and her thigh pretty badly. The pack, in its methodical cadence, disappeared in the distance. After twenty minutes along the side of that rode, assessing the damage, receiving first aid, checking the bike, Jennifer and I got back on our bikes. Something had snapped in Jennifer. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but she was off like a rocket. There is something to experiencing the thing you fear the most. When it doesn’t kill you, you have a surge of carelessness, anger, and drive that propels you forward in ways for which you could never have trained. She was an animal.
At about thirty miles her half-century route turned back towards Goldsboro. My century route continued out into Johnston County. Watching her ride off, exhilarated, and heading home, and I looking forward, alone knowing that she had twenty miles to go and I had seventy was one of the loneliest moments I have ever experienced. All I had as friends was orange spray painted arrows on the asphalt. Lost? Alone? Seventy miles?
At about forty miles I caught up with another rider. The fellowship forged by the common necessity of company and help always makes for the easiest relationships. We traveled together up to the seventy-five mile aid station. I felt great. Climbing back on the bike, I realized that I hadn’t much left, and I was alone again. At about eighty-five miles, I caught two riders. Obviously struggling, I thought we could help each other. Maybe it was presumptuous, maybe I was intruding, maybe we were bonking. They didn’t seem to want my company. The discomfort of not being wanted was overcome by my desperation for company and help, and I was grateful for it. I stuck with them till about the 92 mile mark. They veered off to a gas station for a break, I turned into the headwind and pushed the hardest eight miles I’ve ever worked. By the time I crossed the finish line – at about six and a half hours I was toasted. I ate like a pig, and the discomfort of being butt sore, leg sore, and back sore made me almost weepy. I didn’t think I wanted to ever get back on my bike again.
I did get back on my bike, and was as fit as I had been since high school football. Two weeks later, Jennifer and I took our mountain bikes to Boone in order to ride the Virginia Creeper with Ed and Pat, her parents. The Virginia Creeper is a rails to trails ride in Southwestern Virginia between Abingdon and the North Carolina state line. If you begin on the southern end at Whitetop Station you can ride down hill all the way to Damascus.  Riding fifteen miles — all downhill.  That’s my kind of ride. We never went on that ride. And I have yet to do the Virginia Creeper.
Phone calls in the middle of the night never bring good news. The phone call that Pat received on October 6 of 1990 was not good news. The call was made by a policeman at the Bowen’s house. The house had caught on fire, and it was believed that the Bowens had expired. “Expired,”  it sounds like they were a coupon. Over the course of the next twelve hours the bad news became horrific. The house had not ‘caught’ fire, but had been set on fire, and it had been set on fire to cover up the murder of Alvin and Thelma Bowen. Fourteen years later, and it still seems so surreal as to be unbelievable. A cocaine addicted man who seemed to have it in for old people, broke into their house murdered Alvin, raped Thelma, and murdered her. To the best of our knowledge, nothing was taken, and after he murdered them and before he set the house on fire, he sat in their living room and smoked a cigarette.
The details of the crime were well documented. The murderer was tried and convicted of three other rapes and murders that year. To recount the details here seems like hyping the narrative in order to manipulate you, the reader. It was an awful, brutal, and heinous crime. It is a super-giant planet in the fabric of my space-time continuum – one which exerted and still does, a tremendous amount of gravity, and one which has exerted a sometimes imperceptible but nevertheless ubiquitous force in my life, and the lives of my wife’s family for over a decade.
That the crime remained unsolved for over eleven years may cause some to wonder how you continue on. I’m sure we would’ve collapsed in upon ourselves like a black hole. The medical examiners report, the police investigation, the fear, the questions, the pressure: we should’ve imploded; we could’ve died. One almost did die.
Three months after Ed, Pat, Jen, and me should’ve ridden the Virginia Creeper, Jen’s mother, Pat, was in Duke Medical Center having a radical neck dissection to remove melanoma which had attached itself to muscle tissue, lymph nodes, and nerves in her neck.
As far as I could tell, the people at Duke were great: aggressive, forthright, and informative. Pat began immunotherapy almost immediately. Of the tissue that was removed, cancer was found to be in 98% of it. The prognosis wasn’t good. Melanoma is so very aggressive that once it metastasizes they speak of when it will kill the victim. It’s as inevitable as gravity.
I don’t mean to be flippant, but cancer and violent crime — it’s an little unsettling, and for one who has been committed to riding downhill, not a little overwhelming. I had the route all planned out. Now all my plans were up in the air. Seminary, success, children who know their grandparents, life untainted by tragedy and loss, an easy thrilling down hill ride.  I wiped out before even got on the bike.
I pretty much stopped riding in 1993. Oh, I’ve been on the bike, but it’s like I fell off and forgot to get back on. Life moved on, I finished seminary, I’ve been a minister for ten years, and have three kids. Pat, miraculously survived her melanoma to contract ovarian cancer five years later – she was receiving chemo in the same hospital and on the same day my wife delivered our son. Pat survived – again, and she moved on. My wife moved on too and discovered her love for art and now is an devoted artist and painter. I, on the other hand, was dropped on the Virginia Creeper. No longer even trying at life, it seemed as if I were sitting on the side of the trail, at the bottom of the hill, too tired, sad, or dulled to continue. Maybe, I was waiting for train to come pick me up.

One thought on “Confessio: Rolling Downhill

  1. Julia Cameron says that the thing we most need in life is “the grace to begin again” or “the grace to be a beginner again”. You have certainly gotten back on your bike and ridden to amazing heights. The wild thing is that you have to go back to the bottom to have the opportunity to climb again. I'm so glad I'm on this journey of life with you.

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