He was my closest friend. As kids we started our own informal bicycle club. He had that inexplicable way of drawing people to him. Our ranks grew to six. Some days we'd race, John usually won. On weekends we'd ride out to the lake or over to Pleasant Mountain, and hike the fire-tower. After school we'd play John's version of hide and seek. We'd break into two teams. Each group would pedal away from the other. After fifteen minutes both groups would turn back towards town. Our goal was to reach the grassy mall in front of the Junior High. That was our flag. We could either race there, hoping there were no spy's lurking. Or become a spy and stay behind enemy lines, lurking in the Alley between Allen's Pharmacy and Roy's Barber Shop. John was particularly patient and deadly accurate. If someone on the opposing team saw you first, and shouted out your name; you were dead. This was John's favorite game. But the golden ring would often change for him. Sometimes, the urge would seize him and we'd just keep pedaling. Leisurely, we'd pedal by the fields of corn that swayed in the late afternoon's breeze. We would see old Mr. Petersen, stooped over his potatoes, picking off the potato bugs one by one. Then we'd exchange hellos. Soon afterwards our chests would heave as we labored up the steep hills of the Burnham Road, only to be rewarded by the rich scent of Mr. Lovell's cow dung and the sight of his diary cattle. We oftentimes wouldn't make it back to our houses until nightfall. And I'd find my dinner sitting cold on my plate.
John came into his own in High School. He lettered in: cross-country, basketball, and track. He brought that same dogged persistent to running for class president that had led him to two consequtive triple C cross-country championships. He established himself as our class valedictorian. And I was his lab partner in Mr. Whitney's Biology class. I remember watching John act like a mad scientist transplanting frog organs into last year's overly dissected cat. Oh, I would have bet anything John would have been a scientist. I also thought our friendship would have lasted for life. But Anne stepped in the way of all that.
John was a thoughtful Casanova, a womanizer with a heart. He dated many girls but had the uncanny way of making everything seem all right when they broke up. I envied his knack. For three years I had labored over asking Anne out. John was very encouraging but I just couldn't get up the nerve. She was a close friend one of the few girls in our click. But I hadn't the guts to ask out. Although, we could talk freely about almost anything. A week before our Senior Prom Anne cornered me in afternoon home room.
"Hi Tom!" she said. Her dark hair and eyes searing into my own.
"Hiya Anne." I said, sensing her playful tone.
She continued, "The Senior Prom is coming up. Are you going?" She didn't wait for an answer. I was just wondering if you wanted to go."
"Ah...yes!" I felt my face growing flush wondering if she was about to ask me out!
"Great!" she said, "Leslie isn't going either and she'd really like to have you ask her." Anne said, clueless of my fractured heart.
At the prom, I danced with Leslie, but I watched John and Anne. How long had that been going on? And damn him he knew, only too well, my feelings for Anne.
After the prom, I wouldn't speak to John. And I couldn't speak to Anne. That summer came and went and many others passed. Through college, I biked a lot less frequently. And when I did, I biked alone. I never hurried, because I was never going anywhere. Although, I always went very far. After college, I got an invitation to go to the their wedding. I searched deeply inside myself and found my heart was still beating. Their wedding was lovely. John was handsome in his tux. He looked like the President on state business. Anne was regal and beautiful, just as I remembered her. Her alabaster skin was caressed by her dark hair that fell about her shoulders. And those dark penetrating eyes seared into me as we danced, for the very first time.
"Tom I'm so glad you decided to come. I was afraid I'd lost your friendship. John told me about your feelings. If I'd only known."
Embarrassed but prepared, I began, "Ah Anne, I'm no longer the shy boy I once was. I don't keep things like that hidden now. So I'll tell you, you are both very special people to me. I wish you all the happiness imaginable." I continued smiling, " And if that bastard ever hurts you just drop him and I'll be happy to step in."
After the wedding they moved back to town. John apprenticed in his father's law office and studied for his law degree. Anne became a teacher at the high school. I worked as a programmer. We saw each other often. Each summer John and I would make a bike excursion. Over the years traveled through the English countryside. Another trip was through, or rather, over Colorado. But that summer we'd planned to go to the Canadian Maritimes, in particular Cape Breton. It was my suggestion. I'd done the research. There was a 200 mile loop around the Northern part of the island called the Cabot Trail. It sounded fantastic.
He picked me up at 8 A.M. I placed my bike, a Specialized next to his Miyata. This is like parking a silver Porsche next to a blue Camery. John could have afforded any bike in the world, but was the most unpretentious person I've ever known. I was certainly not above a little status symbol. Besides, maybe with my new bike and the steady riding I'd been doing I could finally keep up with him. It was an eleven hour drive to Cape Breton. Normally, we'd talk each other's heads off, catching up on our lives, but not today. John's focus was on the road when he drove. And when we switched driving, he turned his head towards the window and his thoughts miles away, as if he was trying to resolve the riddle in the miles and miles of ochre that the Trans Canada Highway passed through.
"Okay what's up? You're so quiet. How's Anne?"
John looked at me, a stream of tears flowed silently down his face. "Tom I fucked things up pretty badly."
I was dead quiet and shocked. Here was the most able person in the world married to the best woman I knew. I hadn't seen him cry since we were kids.
He continued, stammering now. "I had an affair with the new paralegal. It really didn't mean anything but Anne found out."
I could feel my brow furrow in disbelieve. "You fucking idiot! I don't know what to say." I could feel myself shaking my head from side to side.
"I know. I know! It just happened. Now I'm going to lose Anne. I can't function at the office. I haven't told anyone else there and Cindy, isn't about to quit. I told her it was over and she refused to leave. She continues to flirt with me, and threatens me with sexual harassment and unfair dismal if I let her go. And Anne, she just scoffs at the whole thing....She threw me out last week."
"Jesus John, I can't believe this. How could this have happened? Oh don't answer." I said, picturing Cindy from my visit to his office the month before. I easily visualized her long legs and short black skirt, and her loose blouse which opened invitingly as she bent over John's desk, as she straightened his papers. "You Bastard."
"I know." He said. Then silence fell over us again.
Soon after we crossed the causeway onto Cape Breton. We both rented rooms, in an Inn. Dinner's conversation flirted between Ann, Cindy, his work and our trip. I concluded, what he and Anne already had, that he needed some time to think. I knew this trip would provide him ample opportunity. I vowed to myself to be the best listener I could be and stop my criticism.
I slept soundly. We were bike camping from here on out and this was the last bed I was to sleep in for the next three days. We woke early. The sun cut through the early morning clouds in a blaze of red. We climbed back into our car and headed another 30 miles to Margaree Fork. It was the closest access to the Cabot Trail Loop. Off came my Specialized glimmering in the sun. I pressed it over my shoulder. I said, "It's like a good woman, beautiful, fast, and only 22 pounds."
John leaned his 29 pound Miyata against the car. "Ya! you pedophile you. Funny, when you pay more for a bike you get less. And I'll still get there first with my trusty old $500 Miyata."
We loaded our bikes, decking both of them out with side panniers, front and rear packs and sleeping bags bungied to the rear rack. John lashed the tent down.
"Hey, give me the honors of carrying the tent." I volunteered.
"No, that's okay. The added weight will increase the pain and there's nothing like pain to cleanse the soul." He adjusted his helmet. "Which way skipper?" He asked. "Hell, It's a circle I guess it doesn't matter."
And like that he was off. "Fine, knock yourself out!" I shouted after him. I caught him some miles down the road, on the first hill. I smoothly shifted through my gears, as I passed him. Shouting over my shoulder, "Got to love these thumb index shifters." K knew he had to drop his hand down to his bike's stem to shift his old style hunt and seek shifters.
I had the need for speed so I pedaled hard. After, several minutes I no longer heard his labored breathing and shifting. I supposed I left him in the dirt. I pushed hard, bent to reach Cheticamp, 15 miles away, first. I flew down the grade into town. With my exertion I was like a hot desert wind, chasing the cool St. Lawrence's breeze away. Ahead, I noticed an overlook and pulled off the road expecting to wait minutes for John. As I skidded to a stop. I heard another set of skidding tires immediately behind me.
"You've been there all along." I gasped.
John smiled at me. "I could tell you thought you were alone. Thanks for breaking the wind for me. I've been tucked behind you for the last several miles. You really need to get a biking mirror for your sunglasses."
Cheticamp was the tour book's version of a fishing village. Small, white houses with dirt driveways lined with lobster traps. Each home had piles of lobster pots stacked like candy colored firewood against the white clapboard houses, that cried for some paint. And the lobster boats, some still about in the harbor, spoke of the hard lives that their skippers lead. We both drank from our water bottles, ate our carbohydrates, and took in the scenery.
"How's your spirit?" I asked.
"Still in need of cleansing. How far are we going today?"
"Well, John! I had planned on going counter-clockwise. But thanks to you my plans are all shot."
"Good, I hate plans. He pulled out a map. Let's see Pleasant Bay is another 40 miles. That would make it about 100km day. Let's shoot for there. But wait, there's a campground between these two mountains, MacKenzie and North. I'll meet you there."
"You're a crazy fool John." I put my water bottle in it's cage and pushed off the rock I was leaning against. I felt the gentle touch of a sprinkle against my hand as I gripped the handle bar. "Looks like it's going to rain." I said. But John was already attacking French Mountain and it's rise of 1500 feet. I was quickly into my granny gear, losing ground to John with each stroke he made. The clouds moved in fast. The deep blue of morning was fastly replaced by a tin colored cloud layer. The sprinkles became heavy cold rain as I climbed. I stopped at a sign denoting the high point on the island. I removed my helmet, feeling the cold sting of sleet against my forehead. The clouds were descending and visibility was only a few yards. I heard a car's engine as it moved through the cloud. I saw it's headlights, just feet ahead of me. I pulled myself off the road and walked to a nearby emergency shelter. A white shroud engulfed me. The wind had all but stopped. I sat on the floor of the lean-to, provided by the Canadian National Park Service. My feet dangled over the edge, and I listened to the sound of the rain and sleet on the tin roof. At times the sleet clanked against the metal like a flurry of fingers beating out gibberish on a thousand keyboards. I watched the torrents of water rush underneath my feet as I dangled them from the floor. On a nearby krummholz, bent over and stunted by the altitude and fearful winds. A lone crow screeched out a cry for help. My thoughts were drawn to John. Somewhere down the road, bent on cleansing his soul, he was peddling in the rain. I thought of Anne and their marriage. I remembered my joking promise to her that I'd take John's place. But, I also knew that the attraction I'd once had for her was gone. That my love for her was a love for them. Now, more than anything I wanted their happiness. More than anything I wanted the two of them back together.
It didn't look like it was going to stop raining. But the clouds had lifted off the pavement. I climbed back on my steed and set off to catch John. The downside of French Mountain was dangerous on a good day, steep and windy. But with my rain soaked breaks it was treacherous. Fortunately, it was a short initial descent. After a minute or so it leveled out into a long high plateau that resembled the artic tundra. Ahead I saw the Miyata leaning against a sign that identified this region as an alpine bog. There was a walk-way that wound through the bog and at some distance, I noticed John, decked out in his white rain gear, leaning against a granite crag that sheltered him from the rain. Transfixed, he looked like a marble statue of a sailor wistfully looking out to sea. I tried to imagine what would be inscribed on the plaque.
The sea becons to all men. She entices them to pass between her verdant shores. She graces those of stout heart, quick minds, and rich souls, with smooth pasage. But of lesser men she frowns and will keep all the rest.
I was torn between approaching him and waiting for him in the rain. I didn't see any other shelter. I opted to head out.
The rain stopped by the time I reached Mt. MacKenzie. I'd been pedaling for 6 hours, most of which was in the rain. I was thankful that the late afternoon sun had enough energy to filter through the clouds and give me a glimpse of its shimmering reflection on the water below. I passed several other groups of bikers. I nodded to each of them as I passed. Under their labored breath, they shouted encouragement and praised me for my strength. But I knew that somewhere behind me John was pressing. And when John presses.... I made it to the top. Another pull off. There was a couple, who were riding a motorcycle. Strange the camaraderie we shared. Julie and Kent. were from Moncton and on their honeymoon. They had been rained on as I had. They were enjoying the splendor as I was. Together our eyes followed the road I'd climbed as it traveled from the sea, across the valley floor, and up the road that wound it's way along the ravine. We could see the bicyclists as they walked and pushed, pedaled and road their bikes.
Julie commented first, "And see there's another standing up as he rides."
"Yes, that's called tacking. He's pulling with his arms as he presses with his legs. It's common, what's uncommon is he's doing it fully loaded. "That's got to be my foolish friend."
"Why is it uncommon?", Julie asked.
"Oh, his feet are locked into an old fashion cage so he can pull up with one leg as he pushes down with the other. What is really difficult is he's maintaining his balance with all that extra weight. It's tugging at him from side to side. I'd never be able to balance and tack like that up a hill like this one."
I looked at my $1200 bike. My being in shape or not. This bike or not. If John's pressing I won't be able to stay ahead of him. And John was pressing very hard!
"It was great talking with you, but he's not going to slow down when he reaches to top, that's for sure. We still have about 15 more miles to go." I said as I started out.
I tucked my head down as I raced down the back of the Mountain. It was dry now. I leaned as hard as I could into the switchbacks. The wind whistled through the vents in my helmet. And my eyes started to water.
As I neared the plain below the trees became taller and denser and I found myself riding through the shadows. I had some trouble adjusting to the shadows. I must have wavered a little.
"Hold your line!" I heard John shout out. Just a foot behind my rear wheel. He had caught me again. I held my grip firmly and rode the edge of the road. He sailed by, his face glistening and head low to his handle bars. "About 8 more...", he gasped. I pushed hard trying to ride his wind break. But he had too much initial speed and was gone.
I road down the dirt entrance to the campground.. I raised my hands to the top of my curled handle bars, easing the strain on my lower back. It was the first time since my descent from MacKenzie. The campground was small. A toilet, no power. No running water. A shallow rock strewn stream meandered by, patient to reach it's home in the sea. John's Miyata seemed somehow different to me. It looked more like a classic '57 Chevy. But I knew the credit was due John. He had the tent just about up.
"You rode like the devil, back there." I said, as I pointed back at the looming mountain behind us.
"I am possessed." I want to reach the car tomorrow.
"What! We're only about 80 miles into this trip. We can't do 120 miles tomorrow. Over these mountains'."
"I can. And so can you! Besides there are only two more mountains, North and Smokey. We'll start early I'll carry your bag and the heavier gear in my panniers."
"What about our trip and site-seeing."
"I've got a wife I don't want to lose. I'm going back to resign from the firm. I can get another job. I'm going to crawl back to Anne and grovel at her feet."
"I can make it back just fine." I said. "If that's all I can do to help than that's the very least I'm willing to do."
The next day was pure hell. I managed 100 miles, that's 160 km. two mountains and another thunderstorm, but my knee started acting up. We got a room in Baddeck. I got ice for my knee. And John left his gear with me and pedaled fast and light the remaining twenty miles on my Specialized to get the car. The next evening we were back at home.
That was three years ago. Today, I was riding past Mr. Petersen's garden. He died sometime ago but his daughter lives there with her husband. They tend his garden well. I road up that long hill to Mr. Lovell's farm. It's a little less fragrant these days. His dairy business collapsed against competion with the big agribusiness. He is now semi-retired and earns extra income with a vegetable stand that he and his wife operate. I saw John and Anne's car, parked next to the stand. I took my helmet off and looked around for them. In the doorway to Mr. Lovell's barn I saw the two of them hand and hand. Little Jenny, she must be almost two now, was sitting in a pile of hay with a clutch of tiny cackling chickens about her. She was cackling too.
I walked towards them, "Mind if I intrude?"