27 June 2009

Bike Trip, Interrupted

My friend Tom has had more adventure in his life than I will in mine, no matter how long I live. But he has never been bicycle camping. And this spring we hatched an idea to take a 3-day trip together. My job was to plan the route, and whenever we talked about the trip, I also shared little tips and ideas I've picked up along the way. I travel light (but not technically "ultra light"), love to eat (hey, I ride to eat), and really just take my time when I tour.

My Saturday morning guys probably think I just take my time whenever I'm out! But that's another issue altogether.

Tom was pretty excited about the trip, and as Wednesday approached this week, he had his bike out - with his Bob trailer fully loaded, then repacked, and out again. When we talked on the phone Tuesday night, he had re-packed twice already. After we hung up, he re-packed again. And we agreed he would be at my place at 5:30am Wednesday.

5:30 was important for a couple of reasons - get out of the west subs before traffic got bad, and also to get a drop on the forecast heat for the day. With an early start on a 65-mile trip, we could be in Lake Geneva before the heat of the day, set up camp, and either swim or sit in the shade. A great start to our 3-day adventure!

Naturally, I was "not quite ready" when Tom rolled up at the exact time he said he would. To be fair, I was pretty close and we left much closer to the announced start time than I ever do when taking a solo trip. Hey, I've missed my own private start time by as much as 3 hours! So, rolling out by 5:45 was good for me. And Tom, being Tom, was characteristically cheerful about it. After all, we had all day ahead of us!

Our first day's route was on path and trail until the last 12 or so miles. Illinois Prairie Path, Elgin Spur, to Fox River Trail north to McHenry County Trail, to Richmond - at the border of Wisconsin. A couple of roads would take us into Wisconsin and up a few miles to Big Foot Beach State Park. A simple start to a "local" trip that would continue on Thursday, entirely on road, through Walworth (a great breakfast spot I recall from a trip with my son 9 years ago), through Beloit, around Rockford, and down to Lowden State Park in Oregon, IL. Day 3 would bring us due east through Sycamore (with the obligatory stop at Elleson's Bakery), the Great Western Trail, and home by whatever route then took our fancy.

Food. A bike trip, in my view, is almost entirely about the food. I love to plan the route, and I do really enjoy camping. But it's the food - what do I carry? Where will I eat? How will I prepare an evening meal in a camp-site? We agreed that the simple way to start the day is to have a breakfast bar or something simple in camp, then stop for a real breakfast - diner or breakfast restaurant is ideal. Then, during the day, you're always eating anyway, and will probably finish the ride early- or mid-afternoon. Supper then becomes the big question of the day: to fix in camp, or to camp where you can ride into town for a meal, or can you carry-out supper on the way to the campground?

Our first stop, and first food, was a Panera in Crystal Lake. It is right off the trail, across the highway, and if it wasn't there we could have got a good cup and breakfast option at the Caribou across the street. We were pointed to Panera by a couple of moms who were out for their morning 20 miles - trying to get home before their pre-teens woke up on this warm summer morning. Tom is a racer, and it turns out that I am more competitive than I want to admit. These gals had stopped to ask about our tour, expressed their wish that they hope to be able to do the same some time, then moved on. It wasn't long before Tom asked me "well, are we ready to pick our pace back up?" I knew exactly what he meant. We had no intention of letting these women stay ahead of us! And they might have, too. Because at every traffic-congested trail crossing we had to wait for, they rolled up behind us. We would move on, and they would catch up. Well, we're glad they did as we got into Crystal Lake (where they were, mercifully, ending their ride) because they pointed us to breakfast at Panera!

Let me just say here that even though these women did catch up to us all along those 10 miles, (a) they weren't hauling an additional 25-30 pounds of gear; (b) they weren't rationing their resources for a full 65 miles in the hottest day of the year to date; and (c) if we'd wanted to we could have gone faster. I'm fairly certain we could have beat them in a fair race. Well ... Tom could have, for sure.

Coffee and what normally would have been a decadent morning pastry, at a patio table in the shade of the building - a chance to sit and enjoy the morning and anticipate the next leg of our trip. Soon we were back on the trail and within minutes making our way through the hilliest, prettiest, surprisingest couple of miles - Sterne's Woods Park. And that is the only hill worth noting on this leg of the trip.

We enjoyed the nice smooth McHenry County Trail all the way through McHenry. As we approached Ringwood [cue ominous chord] I told Tom [foreshadowing] "this next section is the least kept-up part of the entire path to Wisconsin." It didn't take long for Tom to see what I meant, and it didn't take long for me to see that this segment was in worse shape than usual.

The night before, on our final planning phone call, we were going through some last minute things each of us had thought of. As for the simple contents of a wallet on a tour, I said "and of course your insurance card." "Oh, really?" "Well, you know just in case." Said Tom, "I would not have thought of that." To which my all too knowing honest reply was "that's because you've never ended a day trip in the emergency room."

Now I have to say that, for a change, what happened next is not my fault. I have caused my own accidents, and I have caused the serious injury of a friend. But this time "it's not my fault!" Still ...
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
That dear repose for limbs with travel tired.
But then begins the jury in my head,
To work my guilt, when body's work's expired.

(apologies to Wm. Shakespeare!)

It was my route plan (never mind it is the most direct and hassle free - well, now I'd have to say specifically traffic-free).
I could have pushed a move on to the highway (but the shade seemed more important to us than a smooth surface).
I think I had an expectation of invincibility about this trip. Tom is a crack bike mechanic, so I'd never felt so confident about potential bike problems. And he is a retired firefighter/medic, so that made Karen feel more comfortable about me going out.

Well, the path from Ringwood north to Richmond is generally lousy. But now it has big patches of sand - not dirt, not crushed limestone - soft and velocity halting like beach sand. Not like the part of the beach that gets the tides, the other part that you can't run in. We hit the first few patches and had to walk our bikes through some. So we were carefully picking our way through this dry quagmire. Suddenly - but not, I really must point out, swiftly or speedily - Tom hit a patch that was also in shade. That is, difficult to see until he was in it. He went down, and went down hard. In my opinion, this agile rider was "thrown" as much by the weight of the trailer as the surprise instability and sudden unplanned stop. He hit hard, on his left side, and his bike slid to the right, wheels facing right across the path. We had been more or less side-by-side; I guess I must have been a bit behind because I saw him go down and I ended up hitting/going over his front tire, and going down with my bike in the grassy berm.

I'm no medic, but it was clear Tom was in trouble. Tom is a medic, and he knew just what kind of trouble he was in. He never lost consciousness, but his eyes were closed and before he opened them he said, "I broke the collarbone." That was trouble, but I saw blood on his legs and knee, and when the helmet was off we saw there was blood on the scalp, too.

Two years ago, Tom was battling throat cancer. Among the side effects of the cancer treatment, his blood is complicated to keep in proper balance, some where between "will he get a clot" and "will he be able to stop bleeding"? The next few minutes were given to self-assessment, bike-assessment, and situation-assessment. It took just a little while to get Tom's bike rolling again. He already knew what was going on with his injuries. The way out of the situation was arguable.

Now, the women who have heard this story seem to agree. If I ask "do you want me to call 911" and Tom says "no, not yet" - then, if I'm a woman I go ahead and call, and later if Tom is a woman she thanks me for it. But given the genders we've been dealt, I just naturally figure, hey, Tom's a medic and I'm just this dumb guy, and if he says we can walk out of this, then ... why not?

Our walk was somewhere between 1 and 1.5 miles. Ringwood is tiny, and sleepy, and so unlikely to have any services that I proposed we keep on toward Richmond. We managed the bikes -- I tried to push them both myself, and on a street, this would have worked. In the sand, no way. So we traded bikes - mine no less heavy, but his trailer made the pushing more cumbersome. We walked. There's a bench in the shade, would you like to stop? No, my legs will seize up. Is that a road sign up ahead? Sure looks like it. And so, it turns out, it was.

And who should be driving down the road as we came to the intersection? A County Conservation Officer (named Tom). And he, though burly, manly, and good natured, called 911 without permission! The next to arrive was a Conservation Police officer. Soon the county ambulance, followed by a couple of sheriff cars. These guys were impressed with Tom's presence of mind - self-diagnosis, sense of humor, the long walk to the road - and dealt with him very personally and professionally. It wasn't long before they had him into the ambulance; Officer Tom and I had his bike and trailer loaded in the county truck (to be taken to a locked warehouse for retrieval later); my story and information were taken down; and they were on their way.
There's so much to say about the rest of the day - I'll save that for another post. The important part is that Tom's clavicle was broken into 4 pieces. (As he says, "my collarbone wasn't broken, it was shattered.") He was treated at McHenry County Hospital, picked up by his wife Carol, collected the bike and trailer, and went directly to his own doctor to begin to sort out the situation with his blood. He was sent immediately to Elmhurst Hospital, admitted to the oncology ward, and then began treatment and monitoring of his blood.
Pardon this very personal observation, and take it only for what it says: Tom is a stud. To see him in a hospital bed in nothing but his running shorts, is to see a man ready to audition for a Tarzan movie! Scabs and scrapes all along the left side, from his temple to his calves, his is a fit form with nice muscle definition and ample evidence that here is a guy who has taken excellent care of himself. But the really truly special feature of Tom in a hospital bed is to see that indomitable spirit, tempered by an impish good humor, his care for those who are visiting him, and his trust in God. These things I knew about Tom ... I didn't need this accident to learn them. But it's great to see it, anyway.
And the aftermath? Well, there's some question (no, I won't call it a dispute) about how long the doctor has taken away Tom's cycling privileges. But he did say, "well, we'll just have to go again next year." And so, I have no doubt, we shall.


Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

YIKES! So sorry to hear about the accident... that sounds really scary. It's great to see that everyone kept their head and got out of it as well as could be expected. This is a situation where I would be totally useless. I bet Mom is happier than ever about riding with companions!

His Wheels International said...

The way you wrote this story captures any cyclists. I'm with you either your ride to eat or don't ride at all. Sand and cycles spell disaster and I hear that's what Tom looks like. I'm off to see him today.
You certainly described the gender issue and the way we deal with Tom in emergencies to a T.
We at HWI are hoping for a speedy recovery so he can rejoin us doing bicycle mechanics. This article was well written and gave me as a cyclist a few good chuckles pre-sand.