Awakening A New Sense
Last June I participated in the AIDS/Lifecycle for the first time: it was a week that I will never forget. Please allow me to take you on a sensual journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Sensual? Yes, I’m using a different sense as a filter to describe each of the days and along the way, I actually discover a new sense: ALCeeing.
Day 1: Orienting
The day began bright and early with an emotional welcome ceremony at the Cow Palace. I - along with 2500 other riders and volunteers - had gathered in the arena and we would soon experience the first of many emotionally moving speeches, giving goosebumps to many of us. To be honest, while I had watched quite a few movies that covered the AIDS epidemic, I have fortunately not encountered the disease in my personal life. Yet, standing in this arena I was showered with multiple sensations of what an emotional toll this disease had taken on many of people present here. Soon the ride directors relieved us into the field and we rushed towards our bikes, eager to be hitting the road and starting this journey of 545 miles down to Los Angeles. The first few miles were quite slow as everyone was trying to find their pace; it all kind of reminded me of a long freight train that slowly gets going: lots of jiggling and tucking at first, but eventually each wagon will have found its place and the train tuckers along peacefully.
Riding into camp that night I was elated, especially since a dedicated welcome committee cheered at each rider with chants. The camp, as it turned out, is kind of like its own village: a food court in one area, a chill-out section over here, the showers sitting at yet another corner, the medical and massage tents in the shade of the big Redwood trees and the big baseball field that would soon host all of our hundreds of tents. All of this was totally new to me and so I relied on the wisdom of the ALC veterans and followed their steps carefully. Here’s a brief description of what would become my routine for the next 6 days: grabbing my tent and bag from the gear truck; setting up my tent; taking a shower; stretching exercises on the lawn; relaxing and reading my book; dinner and then attending camp stage.
Day 2: Smelling
As much as arriving at the camp each night would soon become a well-oiled ritual, so would leaving the camp the next morning. My tent mate Michael and I were actually matched up perfectly: being the chatterbox that he is, he would always arrive at camp much later than I, and so it was my duty to set up our tent each night. In turn, I would get up even before the crack of dawn and left Michael to pack up our gear.
The sense that I associate most with Day 2 is the sense of smell. And let me tell you, one of the first odors in the morning isn’t necessarily a good one: the Porta Potties. And while this is certainly not the most appealing topic to talk about, the Porta Potties belong to the ALC as much as your bike: a long row of these green or blue cubicles welcomes you at every rest stop and camp side.
After the Porta Potties though, the smells got much better. I was heading over to the food tent, where I immersed myself in the holy trinity of breakfast smells: steaming hot coffee, fresh pastries as well as cinnamon-sprinkled oat meal. This combo surely got me in the right mindset and with the other early birds I left the camp at 6:30 sharp.
Day 2 led us through the Salinas Valley, which I’d already become familiar with when reading John Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden. Admittedly, the scenery today is quite different from when Adam Trask and his family first settled here, but I thoroughly enjoyed riding through acres and acres of farmland and taking in the the intoxicating scent of fresh strawberries. As it was still early in the day, the coastal fog hadn’t quite lifted and that added yet another mystical layer to the whole atmosphere. At one point I looked back and I saw hundreds of riders zig-zagging through the strawberry fields, many of them waving at the Mexican farm workers who were harvesting the red gold. And to this day, that stretch of the ride remains one of the strongest memories of the 2016 AIDS/Lifecycle.
After the endless fields of strawberries, we would soon be riding through the heart of the Salinas Valley, with the Gabilan mountains - “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness” - to our left and the “dark and brooding” Santa Lucia mountain ranges to our right. We had a very strong tail wind and I remember riding at times so fast , that I expected to take off soon. And lucky for us that we had such favorable wind conditions, as Day 2 with its 109 miles is also the longest day of the week with.
Arriving at camp that night, I was extremely sweaty and I’m sure I didn’t smell well. And so, as soon as I had pitched my tent, I stripped off my stinky clothes and headed for the steaming showers. After all, nothing can beat the smell of shampoo and soap. (Not to mention the sight of some really nice butts disappearing behind shower curtains…but I’m getting ahead of myself here, as I won’t be discussing the sense of “sight” until Day 5.)
Day 3: Touching/Feeling
Speaking of butts though, the sense of “touch” manifested itself in various forms throughout the third day. First and foremost in the form of a sore feeling in said part of my body. You see, while I’d done quite a few training rides prior to this week, I hadn’t exposed my behind to three days of riding back to back. Foolishly, I also hadn’t paid much attention to butt butter up until today. Butt Butter, you ask? Well, that is the vaseline-like cream that bicyclists apply to the chamois leather inside their cycling pants in order to prevent the formation of butt blisters. I had seen fellow riders limping into the medical tent - also referred to as the butt clinic - and as I wanted to avoid that “walk of shame” by all means, I now became a convert and started applying that cooling gel religiously. At first, I did so in the comfort of the wonderful Porta Potty, however, over the next couple of days I lost all my sense of shyness and joined the riders who did so in plain open sight.
Day 3 is also known for making another part of the body hurt: your quads. In fact, the first climbing challenge of the day is commonly referred to as Quadbuster. At this point I was seriously thankful that I live up in Marin County where hills are just a necessary evil of any bike ride. Whether it is an actual training ride, commuting to work or just a grocery trip into town: hills are my constant companion. But for many of my fellow cyclists, the Quadbuster posed a serious barrier and I was touched to see the extended ALC community coming to their rescue: all along the incline I saw people cheering up the riders, giving out hugs and even pushing them some part of the way.
As you will have gathered by now, a day in the life of an ALC participant is well-structured and relatively predictable: every 15 to 20 miles there is rest stop. But of all of the stops, number 4 is always the most anticipated one. And today’s rest stop #4 was set up in the courtyard of the Mission San Miguel. As it was a very hot day, the big trees gave us riders some much needed shade and the colorful popsicles also helped to cool us down. But the best part of this pit stop was the Quinceañera-themed dance show, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the AIDS/Lifecycle.
The sense of touch also has another dimension to it: feelings. And my feelings got on an emotional roller coaster ride every night during camp stage. Camp stage is when after dinner all of us riders gather in the communal tent. There we listened to the ride directors Lorri, Joe and Greg who gave us a recap of the day’s highlights. Many of these would be in the form of stories and anecdotes with a good chunk of them being laced with below-the-belt humor. Today, however, Lorri shared told a story that moved many of us to tears - including myself: she told us about the confession of an older woman she’d met during today’s lunch stop. That woman once had a son and when she found out that he was gay, she cut off any contact with him and never spoke to him again. The son moved to San Francisco and eventually died of AIDS. The women goes on telling Lorri that over the years she’s been quite apprehensive and even antagonistic towards the thousands of bicyclists riding through her little town of Bradley, CA every year. After all, many of them are gay. However, over the years her resistance has broken down and she’s now a returning volunteer to the AIDS/Lifecycle lunch stop.
Day 4: Tasting
Day 4 marked half way to LA and I dedicated it to the taste buds. However, in a somewhat twisted way, I also devote it to the sense of hospitality, two senses that oftentimes go hand in hand with one another. Let me tell you why…
With the taste of fresh coffee still in my mouth, I’m ready for today’s challenge: the Evil Twins, named after two climbing challenges following one right after the other. Once I’d mastered the twins though, I was greeted with a drop-dead gorgeous view over the Central Coast. Hundreds of cyclists at a time crowded onto the viewing platform to take the obligatory Half-Way-To-LA photo shoot.
Next we were heading downhill towards Moro Bay and the next stop would be a truly tasty one: Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Pismo Beach. Over the years this bakery has become one of the unofficial stops along the road and for a very good reason: those cinnamon rolls were damn tasty. But what I really loved about this experience, is the hospitality and excitement we witnessed in those small communities along the road; excitement about a bunch of queer and queer-minded riders in tight and colorful spandex outfits. And mind you, this happened to us on a daily basis: I really came to love riding through all of the little towns along the way, knowing that the streets would often be lined with people cheering us up, holding signs and handing us tasty treats. And when there was a big incline, you could be sure that at the bottom, in the middle and on top of the hill, there would be people from the surrounding community cheering you up.
Yet this generous hospitality wasn’t limited to the spectators: in fact, I want to take a moment and say what an amazing job the ALC team has done organizing this whole ride. I myself have worked in the service industry for many years and organized quite a few events. But what they have done here is just short of perfect. It is a fantastic feat making sure that two-and-a-half thousand riders are not only being taken care of, but pampered and entertained every single day. Sure, they’ve been doing it for many years by now and had time to perfect the show; but still, I’m immensely impressed at their attention to details. Fittingly, today also happened to be “Roadies Appreciation Day”, with Roadies being being the volunteers that make sure that us riders are having a good time. They do everything from setting up the camp, serving us food and cleaning up our trash. Thank you so much, I really appreciate all your hard work.
And to bring it back full circle to the sense of taste: when we arrived at the campsite in Santa Maria this afternoon, we indulged in delicious ruby red strawberries, which had been donated by the local chamber of commerce. So refreshing and tasty…
Day 5: Seeing
Speaking of ruby red: Day 5 is #RedDressDay, which means that most of the riders don some kind of red piece of clothing. I remember that when I peeled out of the tent that morning wearing my red tutu, I felt a bit uneasy and awkward at first, but I quickly realized that I was just another queen in crimson. A couple hours later, when we were snaking through the mountains between Santa Maria and Lompoc, thousands of us riders were forming “Cristo-sized versions of red ribbons”; the red ribbon being the symbol for the AIDS epidemic.
Needless to say, there were a lot wonderful sights today and instead of writing about them, I will let you see them with your own eyes.
Day 6: Hearing
During one of the camp stages, I learned that there’s actually a handful of deaf cyclists and it got me thinking: how different must their experience of this ride be to mine? The first thing that came to mind was that they won’t hear if someone wants to pass them. In fact, as ALC rider we’re trained to warn people when passing and so the most common phrase I heard (as well as uttered myself) during this week was “left side”.
But unfortunately there’s other, more threatening objects that want to pass you. Today, a large part of our route lead us through the Gaviota Pass, which is quite a dangerous stretch of US Highway 101 that connects the Santa Ynez mountains with the Pacific Ocean. At times the deafening noise of trucks was quite frightening and despite being right next to the ocean, I couldn’t hear the shrieking of the seagulls nor the familiar sound the waves make when crashing onto the cliffs: the highway noises swallowed up everything. In that regard, today’s route was quite the contrast to the previous days, where we would frequently ride through deserted backroads and the only sounds you’d be hearing were the monotone chirping of the crickets.
Aside from the frequent “left sides”, another daily recurring voice were those of the Viagra Man and the Chicken Lady . The Viagra Man is the husband to one of the veteran riders and every day he dresses up in a costume and stands on the side of the road to cheer up all of us riders. His most well-know costume is that of a Viagra pill and passing him he will greet you with a friendly “Keep it Up”. The Chicken Lady is another ALC veteran who wears a toy chicken on his helmet and in typical chicken manner, chatters with anyone that passes him; I could often hear is laughter from afar.
The most moving and memorable sounds of this Day 6 of the AIDS/Lifecycle were yet to come though. After this evening’s camp stage, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence handed out candles and we took the short walk down to the San Buenaventura Beach. Hundreds of us gathered there for a vigil to remember the people that had died from AIDS. Holding the candles, we sat in silence and listened to the requiem that unfolded: the gentle washing of the waves, mixed with the sobbing from people who remembered the loved ones that were no longer with us…
Day 7: ALCeeing
The last day took us from Ventura to Downtown Los Angeles and it held quite a few surprises - not all of them positive, unfortunately.
The first surprise was a good one though: the Chicken Lady had “laid an egg” on my saddle. I cracked the egg and read the following fortune-cookie like inscription: “Like a prized rose, we’ve remained a tight bud in our ‘Love Bubble’. As we come to the end of the ride, we have now blossomed. Let’s finish the ride in full bloom, filling the air with the essence of love, compassion and community. Love, Chicken Lady 2016”
About 10 miles into the ride it started to rain. Well, some people referred to it as super heavy mist, but whatever it was, it made the next few hours of our coastal ride much less scenic and quite a bit more arduous than I had anticipated. In retrospect though, the weather conundrum was kind of a test and it forced me to sharpen of all my senses. I encountered the smell of wet streets after a warm summer rain, mixed with the trembling that comes from almost freezing my butt off; the pleasant feeling of salt on my lips (although I can’t quite tell whether that came from the ocean or from the sweat-rain mixture trickling down my cheeks). Then, as we were filing into the noisy traffic of downtown LA, I recollect how my sense of sight switched to high alert.
As I was riding down Wilshire Boulevard, passing the glamorous Rodeo Drive, I heard another cyclist rushing by my side without announcing his himself via the obligatory “left side”. I was just thinking that he really must be in a rush to finish this ride, when I heard tires squeaking and looking ahead I witnessed how said cyclist crashed into a car. Within moments I was speaking to a 911 operator and it took only a few minutes until we heard the sounds of the ambulance. Luckily the cyclists was not severely insured, but still, for him the ride had come to an abrupt end here. As for myself, I soon was on my way to our final destination and while I was still trembling from what had just happened, I was also sensing the growing excitement of riding through the rainbow-shaped finish line.
Fast forward a few hours and I find myself sitting at V Wine Room in West Hollywood; it took only only a few sips of Chardonnay to made me pleasantly tipsy. This is when the sweetest and most surprising thing happened: the bartender came up to me and said that the three gentlemen at the bar would be sponsoring my wine. Perplexed, yet flattered, I went over to them and thank them for their kindness. They told me that they had seen me wearing the finisher shirt for the AIDS/Lifecycle 2016 and that they wanted to congratulate me. Turns out, they’d been done the ALC in the previous years, but weren’t able to attend this year. And it was at that moment - in this wine bar - when I first consciously noticed the new sense on the block: ALCeeing.
To me, a sense allows us to experience and navigate through a space - whether this is inside or outside of our bodies. And the sense of ALCeeing allowed me to experience a whole new community of people; all of who have one goal in common: to fight AIDS. Looking back at the previous week, it them dawned on me that I’d ALCed already quite a bit: such as when I chatted with a fellow German in front of a food truck emitting a tantalizing smell of fried artichokes. When I hugged a bunch of men, dressed up to celebrate a faux-Quinceañera in the cooling shade of a California mission. Or at that one evening when I enjoyed a Kailua pulled pork sandwich with cider slaw on brioche buns, lovingly served by a French-Canadian Roadie. When I climbed a windy road and saw hundreds of cyclists dressed in red, forming a human ribbon. Or those times I listened to Lorri Jean’s stories about the people she met on this journey and hear sniffles here and there from the audience...
In other words, ALCeeing to me means immersing myself in a community of like-minded people and realizing how much good there is in the world. And that is just an awesome feeling! Period.
By the way, I want to ALCee again. Want to sponsor me? DONATE HERE.