The End of Inbetween
I’ve been sitting on this train for ten minutes and its almost as if to my left its still the same cresting and rolling wave I’ve been following since I boarded. I left Ernie at the single isolated platform of the aptly named Surf station. I saw him waving vaguely at an invisible me somewhere behind the heavily tinted glass.
This wide open land and the act of saying goodbye – albeit it only for a couple of short months – has put me in a strange state of mind. Sad, almost, but determined to succeed in the plan that has just over the last week, from the home-base of Ernie’s RV, become reality.
Yesterday Ernie and I went for a ride together on our new bicycle, a semi recumbent tandem that allows Ernie to sit, reclining up front with a 180 degree view uninterrupted by handlebars. Thanks to the coasting mechanism between us, he can put in only as much effort as he wants to. We cycled 22 miles to the ocean and back along the agricultural valley that forms a gentle east to west corridor from Lompoc to the coast. Ernie was bundled up in jeans, braces and a thick plaid shirt – he feels the cold what with the blood thinners he has to take, and he gets short of breath quickly. Thats what Lymphocytic Leukemia does. Through a slow proliferation of white blood cells, it crowds out the red cells, very, very slowly suffocating you.
But 74 year old Ernie has one more dream. And he can achieve it – I’m sure of it – with a little help. Maybe not quite how he had in minds many years ago, but hopefully he’ll discover a country he has not yet had the opportunity to explore by bicycle.
Ernie has a bracelet. I read it with a mix of amusement and concern. It reads:
Ernest Greenwald. Lompoc California. If my heart stops please do not resuscitate me. If I died on my bike I died happy.
Ernie’s last wife had died after a long painful period of battling illness. His life had stopped after that, as if it had had the battery taken out. Six months after that day I rolled through Lompoc on my way south on Achilles the tandem – that was two years ago. Ernie pulled himself together enough to join me for a day’s pedaling to Santa Barbara and in doing so helped me see a valuable side to my journey – an adventure that others could, in some small way benefit from. I liked that. It made everything seem a little more worthwhile.
“I cannot begin to describe the pleasure and pain I’ve been feeling today” he’d said, hobbling off the bike after a hot shadeless 60 miles. He seemed to have turned a corner, and the stoop in his walk had lessened. He was smiling.
He’d made the mistake of telling me that day that forty years previously, he’d always planned on cycling across his own country. If he hadn’t said that I may not have seen him again. I wouldn’t have sourced a suitable bike for the job and I certainly wouldn’t been quietly chiding Ernie for his funny habits while sitting in his RV. We set off from the west coast at the end of June this year, accompanied by a film camera, Ernie’s RV for him to sleep in and his two small dogs from whom he will not be parted.
He bought his bracelet before I whispered the idea of our journey in his ear, so I can be sure I didn’t coerce him into wearing this statement. I don’t think our journey will kill him, in fact I’m sure of it. But Ernie is that kind of guy. He agonizes over the blue prints and the statistics of every eventuality. Jesus, everything in this man’s life follows a thorough monitoring. He’s drilled a hole in the top of his small kettle in order to put a temperature gauge in it, not satisfied with the bubbling of boiling water as an indicator. He has three clocks in his tiny RV. One digital one is hung next to the traditional clock on the end wall next to the small but perfectly formed bathroom. Another clock, he told me, is hidden out of sight, because he said, taking on an air of extreme accuracy, ‘with only two clocks you cannot tell which one is wrong’. In every way this man is a self professed nerd.
At the age of fifteen he scrounged relays and circuitry from old pinball machines to construct an electronic tick tack toe board that never lost even if the human opponent played the first move. He was discounted from winning a regional science competition due to the fact that ‘he must have had considerable adult help’. He didn’t mind though. Its not in his nature to worry over ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’. Having now lived with Ernie for a few short days, I know he wouldn’t have needed help, his intelligence is so immense that it overflows into the social aptitude part of his brain, clogging it up occasionally, leaving him unable to compute simple humour or body language. Doctors call it Asperges disease, but like a friend of mine once said to me, we have so many labels these days they don’t mean much anymore. I prefer to call Ernie a proud sufferer of ‘Nerdiness’.
But underneath that carapace of binary and logic there are a deep set of emotions. He thinks about the past, about his shortfalls, about his children and about the days he let slip buy with ‘undue care and attention’. And looking carefully I think I recognize something like sadness.
Now I’ve been on this train heading south for one hour and still things are the same. On one side is the deep blue, broken with the darker shadows of waves growing in from the ocean. The other side is a vivid green, folding with the less regular shadows of tight valleys and empty cattle grazing hills. The Californian coastline here is an empty, organized wilderness.
The next time I’ll see this place will be in June, maybe on my birthday. But then I’ll be heading north ready to cycle east with Ernie, over the rockies and into the searing heat of the desert sun. And on, to the sea. One more goal completed. One more dream lived for Ernie. Hopefully.
Its never too late to live the dream.