Friday, December 12, 2014

Band of Brothers: 'Quality Rolls' take 1...

Steel WÜleurs Matt & Sam Hess (my cousins) put together an eclectic crew to tackle a four hundred and twenty mile dirt Boogie from Pittsburgh Pa to Washington DC. Please enjoy this colorful recap that Matt has gifted us this holiday season. If this ride report doesn't make you want to call up your buddies and unplug for a week, I don't know what would...I absolutely love their wing and a prayer style of touring - absolutely no whipy-ass-artisanal-staged-handsome-farm to table-organic-Americana-johnny come lately-bull shit, just real people doing real things with real facial hair without all the fluff! Enjoy!

Words and photos by Matt Hess

Seven of us converged on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from all over the US in late June, 2014 like tributaries to a river.   Brandon Emerson came from Los Angeles, California.  He owned a Graphic Design company and was 38.  He was a former rugby teammate at Ohio University.   Chris Lytle and Ryan “Dog” Cortice came from Columbus, Ohio.  They were each 38 years old.  Chris sculpted the lives of our youth and taught middle school social studies.  He was also a former rugby teammate from Ohio University.   Dog was probably the most content with his career path as a baggage handler at Southwest Airlines.  Maybe it was true what they said about Southwest.  Dog was friendly and easy going.  Chris Schaney was a Cultural Geography Professor at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.  He was 42 years old.   Sam Hess, my younger brother at 34 years came from Texas where he was the chef at a high end steak house created to support the oil and shale boom.  Pat Kish, another former rugby teammate came from a mountain top just north of Charleston, West Virginia where he worked as a hydro geologist consultant.  He and Dog met at Marietta College where Pat played football before transferring to Ohio University.  Pat also introduced Schaney to the group.  They met at West Virginia University during grad school.  I came from Boca Raton, Florida, and worked as an HR Director for physician practices in South Florida.  I was 41 years old. Our average age was just under 40 years.  Mid-life!

We had become a disparate and dispersed group of guys over the years.  The days of 3 to 4 day parties and family gatherings on West Virginia mountain tops, or Dairy Barns in Apple Creek, Ohio were over.  The bands we played in had broken up.  However, Schaney landed as a sort of hired bass player and played with a few different bands near his University.  Lytle started a psychedelic band in Columbus, Ohio and was a founding member of Columbus Psych Fest.  Pat, Dog, Sam, Brandon and I just fiddled with our instruments.  Lytle used to play bass with my wife Amy, and I.  We were too old and brittle to play rugby.  Music, rugby, backpacking, concerts, mountaineering and camping had given way to soccer, football, dance, swim, baseball, skate park trips and basketball practices for our kids.  Coaching wasn’t exactly keeping us in shape.  Children, wives, jobs, and mortgages moved way up on our priority lists, almost without us noticing, like fat accumulating on our bellies.  One day you looked in the mirror and said, “How did this happen?  I’m fat.”  

We still talked about doing things, the past, how awesome it and we used to be, but strangely the present didn’t seem all that brilliant to us.  We still felt like diamonds, just without the clarity, cut, color and carats of our former selves.  Our minds used to have clarity. Our bodies used to be cut.  Our color was still good, just streaked with smile lines, wrinkles and grey.  Most importantly our carat or sizes had all increased which in the diamond world was terrific, but not in the middle aged man world.  We had plenty of stress, responsibility and obligations to others.  The transition took time for most of us to get used to and just because we were used to it and comfortable with it didn’t exactly mean our innate desire for adventure, and freedom from time constraints and other’s agendas wasn’t always lingering in the back and often in the foreground of our minds. 

It didn’t take much coaxing, but the sales pitch Schaney and I used to stoke some youth and vigor back into our weary bodies and minds was, “Look man, I’m doing this to prove to myself that I’m still a physically viable participant in the human race.”  That’s pretty pitiful I know, but when accuracy matters, truth sometimes hurts.  We all just needed to figure out the logistics.  The plan was for our wives and children to meet us in DC after we rode our bikes from Pittsburgh.  We’d camp, hang out, tour DC for a few days and take the West Wing tour of the White House.  

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  The Great Alleghany Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland Maryland was 150 miles.  It was mostly a gentle uphill grade to the Cumberland Gap and the Eastern Continental Divide.  From there it’s down to Washington DC on the C and O Canal Trail through Cumberland, Maryland, along the Potomac River, past countless locks in various states of decomposition.  Some were immaculate and appeared to work, others had been robbed of their massive stones which must have weighed up to 20,000 lbs.  The C &O trail was another 185 miles to DC.  The two trails were separated by the divide which crested at a tunnel.   The first 20 miles on the C&O were no pedal downhill runs.  We turned 335 miles into 420 because we stopped in towns for lunch and dinner when Sam didn’t cook.  We made beer runs in the evenings and even took two trips to the ER.  We averaged 60 miles a day.  

We looked forward to time away from the lives we’d created.  We’d respectively dialed out our bikes and bodies over the prior three months leading up to the convergence.  A couple guys got new bikes.  Schaney bought a 29 inch Cannondale mountain bike/hybrid with front shocks.  Lytle (AKA “the big giant monster” at 6’5” 285 lbs) bought a 29 inch Giant hybrid with front shocks.  Pat had a 12 year old Giant, Mt. Bike with 1.5 slicks and front shocks.  I had an 18 year old GT, Pantera Mt. Bike with 1.5 slicks and front shocks.  Dog rode a 21 year old Specialized Rock Hopper with 2.25 knobbies and front shocks.  Sam who stood at 6’7” 260 lbs came in with a 28 year old classic Schwinn touring bike with 1.25 slicks that he converted to a mountainish hybrid, with no shocks. Brandon bought a 29 year old Nishiki touring bike with 1.25 slicks and no shocks.  His Lemond would have been too brittle.  The terrain varied from packed gravel to sloppy, rutted out mud.  Looking back, I believe the big 29 inch bikes with shocks would be most optimal, but in fairness, every bike performed well.  

We rode a couple miles through downtown Pittsburgh to get to the beginning of the Great Alleghany Passage.  As we picked our way through Pittsburgh we saw a sign that said, “Quality Rolls.” 

 This image would become our mantra

Brandon took a photo of it almost as a mockery of us, our equipment, and our uncertainty of what to expect.  The combined age of our bikes was 110.  Some of us wore cleated shoes, others wore sandals.  Some of us had waterproof Ortlieb panniers, others had plastic kitty litter boxes.  Some had new tents, some had old tents and Lytle even slept in a homemade hammock.  

The official start point was across the river from Heinz field.  From there we meandered through the city until we found the REI close to where the pavement and buildings turned to gravel and trees.  We got off to a rough start.  The photo below was just moments after I skidded to a stop and dumped my bike after my cleat got stuck in the pedal.  I hadn’t done that since Santa Cruz, California in 1997 when I bought the pedals.  Pat said sarcastically, “Quality Rolls.”  Mitsy, Schaney’s wife, was there to send us off and snap the shot below. 

Pat Kish, Dog, me, Chris Schaney, Sam Hess, Chris Lytle, Brandon Emerson 
Averages: Age 39.8, weight 230, height 6' 1", bike age 15.7 years

We rode up and over a wood bridge that crossed the stream to REI.  Ping, ding, pong – Sam lost three spokes.  His back rim buckled.  Luckily, and as foreshadow to the rest of the tour, we were right around the corner from REI.  It couldn’t have worked out better.  We sat downtown, had coffee, picked up some more beef jerky, and waited, waited and waited some more.  We were impatient, and wanted to get on the trail and get out of civilization.  It was 10:45 a.m.  Sam finally got back on his bike.  He made a few adjustments and drifted to the rear of the pack.  Only a couple hundred yards from REI, his pedal sheared off the crank.   He pushed his bike back to REI and got a new pedal and crank set.  

The six of us continued down the trail without Sam.  We made an agreement - one doesn’t mean all.  We agreed that we would look out for one another, but that no matter what, the trip would continue.   With our worlds of work politics, back stabbers and the general BS that went with it, the comradery of all for one and one for all was relegated to, simply put, every man for himself.  I guess real adult life changed our youthful and idealistic constructs from Rugby - all for one and one for all.  The reality was we all knew the other could handle any situation.  They’d catch up, and if not, they certainly would not want everyone else to stop the trip.   It was good.  It felt better.  This agreement of course was within reason.  If someone was being chased by a bear, we’d most likely try to help.  If someone was shot, we’d help.  If someone fell down a cliff, we wouldn’t leave them there, we’d arrange for a rescue, but other than those freaky life and death situations, we agreed to let no one derail the trip unnecessarily.  

                We rode in pairs, side by side, or threes, or onesies and all at different speeds.  We had grown accustomed to carving our own paths and with age were used to doing things our way.  We naively thought we’d try to stay together and in sight of one another, but quickly realized that each of us at different times wanted to ride at different speeds and with different people, so we kind of cruised back and forth to one another.  We spanned close to a mile at first, but as the trip continued we spread out over 2-3 miles and even more.  This was not at all how I envisioned us rolling down the trail.  I thought we’d be like a gang and every living creature would come to the trail’s edge to see what rumbled through the woods.  

                At about the 25 mile mark on the first day, we stopped for a rest under a trailside pavilion.  Sam flew around the corner in catch-up mode and hit the brakes.  He was surprised that he had caught us.  We were too.  We high fived, and he sat down for a break.  The rest of us stood up as Sam settled in to rest.  Sam looked around as if to say, “What the hell, I just got here.”  Pat said, “Well, we better get moving - got some miles to cover today.”  Sam didn’t think it was funny.  Everyone knew that old stupid joke, but you know what, it didn’t get old.  

                Each night we downshifted into a variety of excellent camp sites.  Which as a piece of advice, always downshift before you stop when you are loaded with 50 lbs of gear.  The first site was in the middle of a median near a small town – worst one.  It looked like a make shift location that the city created for exactly the reason we used it.  Most other sites were on the river’s edge with wells and pumps for water, and plenty of open space.  As the trip progressed, what happened among us was nothing short of primitively divine.  We discussed daily stopping points briefly.  Most often a rough agreement was had in 2-3 minutes and we rolled out each morning.  These agreements were loose and rarely did we stick to them.  As the present unfolded, priorities presented themselves.  We made decisions to stop in the evening the same way.  Everyone did what felt right.  The only thing that was set was that we had to be in Washington DC in 7 days.      

                We transitioned into minimalists as smooth as silk from a spider.  We had what we needed on our bikes and the knowledge of self-sufficiency took apprehension and tension away.  There was nothing to focus on or concern ourselves with other than what rolled beneath us.  We went “animal” in a matter of about a day and a half.  Hygiene, other than river baths, and a quick tooth scrubbing was non-existent.  Our language deteriorated quickly into that of our younger, rowdier, louder and more abrasive selves.  It was the second day when Mitsy, Schaney’s wife, insisted on meeting us in one of the towns along the way.  She brought food, water with fruit in it and bread, hell an entire spread.  I begrudgingly pulled in for lunch.  I didn’t realize at the time the reason I wasn’t so excited about it, but after looking back, I think it was because it was an agenda with a time and a place and expectations.  Make no mistake about it, I love Mitsy, and what she did for us was thoughtful and generous, but at that point in time, I didn’t even want to see my own wife – I wanted to temporarily cut the umbilical cord– if only for a few days.  She brought Schaney a change of clothes.  That joke didn’t get old the entire trip.  Schaney would say something benign like, “hey, where are my socks.”  Inevitably, someone would yell out, “Have Mitsy bring you some fresh ones.”  

                We rolled out of the tents each morning within a half hour of each other around sunrise.  I was amazed at how quickly our bodies fell into the rhythms of the trip.  There weren’t a lot of words in the mornings.  Maybe the occasional reference to something from the night before, then followed by a fart.  From across the campground, laughs and reciprocation rang out.  Yes, farts at 40 years old were still funny.  Some guys would go right to coffee, others to their stoves for food, and others packed up first thing, and then ate.  The interesting thing was that without a stated departure time, somehow, within moments of each other, we pulled our bikes off trees, mounted and hit the trail.  It was as if our camp was a wild swirling dust storm that was concentrated by a huge subconscious vacuum that sucked us to the trail.  We were motivated by a vague point B.  It was a beautiful thing.  I’m not a Ted Nugent fan, but I did hear him say something that I liked one time, “You’re born at point A and you die at point B, kick maximum ass in between.”  That felt about right.  

                We rode 15-25 miles each morning before we stopped.  Once on the trail again, we broke into small groups or singles.  It was early on the second day before we met Mitsy.  I rode with Lytle. He was big, powerful and on a mission.  He was a beast.  Usually we rode side by side, but I could feel him pull away.  I slid in behind him because he had a better, less rutted line.  The trail had grass in the middle and gravel and dirt in the tire tracks.  He said something, but I didn’t hear him.  I cranked hard a couple times and slid in about a foot from his rear tire.  I felt the pull.  A crank here and a crank there was all it took to stay in the pocket.  I said, “Take me to camp, good sir.  Onward!” in a British accent as if he were chauffeuring me.   He pulled away even with me drafting.  A little while later, I stopped in where Lytle had pulled in for a break.   He and I talked about it with Pat and Dog who discovered the same phenomenon, simultaneously.  Drafting of course was something we were all familiar with, but had never really experienced.  Trust and confidence were paramount to drafting.  It changed our ride.  It was best when we formed two lines of 3 or 4, or even better one line of 7.  7 of us in a row was rare and didn’t happen until the end.  It took me back to the way I used to feel playing Rugby – invincible, calm and confident.

                Our ability to get lost and focus on what happened as it happened was encapsulated into a tiny defining moment.   The group had broken apart.  Pat, Dawg, Brandon, Schaney and I stopped for a rest.  This may seem insignificant, but I had no idea if Sam and Lytle were ahead of us or behind us.  For me not to have kept track of them was abnormal.  I spent my work days keeping track of hundreds of employees and my home life keeping track of little boys.  It was the first time that I really felt like I had no responsibility.  I felt like a kid.  

left clockwise - Brandon, Ryan "Dawg" Cortice, Pat Kish, and Chris Schaney - taking a dip in Maryland.  The glare...

Often, during the heat of the day we’d stop for a quick swim.  I came upon these guys after I had ridden solo for a period.  I didn’t swim because it was that morning, day three, that it became difficult for me to swallow.   The pain steadily got worse throughout the day.  I drank very little fluid and ate even less.  It was kind of a lost day for me.  I couldn’t’ talk without pain.  I drifted away from the group and into a meditative, machine like state pumping down the trail.  
                Later that night, Brandon and Pat returned from town after a beer run.  Pat and Lytle engineered panniers from plastic cat litter containers.  When empty they doubled perfectly as coolers.  Pat’s are below.

I couldn’t even gag down one beer that night.  For those of you who know me, this would indicate a serious problem.   My body felt fine, but I slowly became dehydrated and ran out of fuel.   My mouth and throat swelled up.  I only drank 64 ounces of water on the third day, which was about 1/3 to 1/2 of normal intake.  The next morning, I was unable to speak, could barely swallow and was in terrible pain.  I sunk into my own space that fourth day.  In fact, I couldn’t remember much other than an insatiable desire for water.

                We crossed the Eastern Continental Divide on our way to Cumberland, Maryland.   The trip down to Cumberland was exactly what I needed.  A few of us rode no hands and sat up right for miles.  It felt great to go down after going up for 150 + miles.  Occasionally we hit the brakes for a corner, loose gravel or ruts.  We covered some serious ground that day and stopped early because Cumberland was on the trail.  It was a good thing that about half the miles on that third day were downhill because I deteriorated quickly.  We pulled into the old train station in downtown Cumberland, Maryland.  I searched for an urgent care. There wasn’t one.  Pat called a cab (I couldn’t talk) and I went to the ER in Cumberland.  Everyone else went five miles out of town and set up camp on the river.  The ER gave me some Tylenol and antibiotics.  The Tylenol helped a little.  They ran a test but I didn’t have strep.  I got back to my bike later that afternoon and met up with the guys to watch the world-cup.  I drank 16 ounces of water and ate a small cup of soup.  It took two hours.  Everyone else was in full-on party mode.  They feasted and drank and then we rode five miles back to our campsite on the Potomac River.  
I climbed into the tent.  I couldn’t do anything else because of the pain but maybe the worst part was that I knew I could not get up in the morning, sling my leg over the saddle and pedal 65 miles.  Everyone hung around the fire that evening with a suspicious couple that camped nearby and drank beer.  Brandon, my tent mate, popped his head in at around 11:30 p.m.  I sat on a legless camp chair, slumped over and contemplated my next move.  I wanted water.  My mouth, face and throat swelled; the glands under my tongue pushed my tongue up against the roof of my mouth.  Brandon said, “You ok, dude?”  I shook my head, “no.”  He said, “hospital?”  I nodded, “yes.”  

                Pat, Brandon and Dog packed up my gear and loaded my bike.   They rode with me the five miles back to Cumberland, Maryland.  Pat called ahead for a taxi.  It met us where the trail crossed the train tracks outside of town.  Pat rode in the cab to the ER with me.  I guess in some weird world my condition was equivalent to being chased by a bear.  Pat was my oldest friend in the group and we lived in poverty together right after college in Lompico, east of Santa Cruz, California in the mountains.  He took my bike back to the taxi’s office.  I kept the panniers.  This time I sat in an ER room on a cold metal table under a thin cotton blanket and drifted in and out from sleep to pain.  All I wanted was an IV.  They didn’t give me one.  Instead they prescribed Tylenol again.  I managed to tell them that I already Tylenol.  They upped the prescription to Tylenol with Codeine.  That one knocked the pain down.  They told me the antibiotic from earlier wouldn’t help because what I had was viral, not bacterial.  I had viral pharyngitis.  They discharged me and gave me the Tylenol script for pain.  I took a cab to a downtown hotel and lay down at 3:30 a.m.  I woke in a total sweat, frozen and thirsty.  It was 7:30 a.m.   I walked to the drug store – closed.  So, I went to the restaurant in the lobby of the hotel.  I started to feel better and was able to drink 16 ounces of water, two scrambled eggs, fruit and even some OJ.  I picked up the prescriptions and went back to the room.  I slept for a few hours and let the pain meds kick-in.  When I woke up I felt like a different person.  The pain and swelling subsided a little.  I felt stronger.  I could talk.  I could swallow gulps of water.  It felt great!  I called a cab and went to pick my bike up where Pat had dropped it.  I hung my bags and hit the trail.  I estimated they were four hours ahead of me.  I passed the campsite at 12:00 p.m.– empty.  It was a nice ride that day alone.  I passed a dead, baby ground hog in the trail.  It looked fresh like it had died recently.  I stopped to inspect it.  It didn’t make sense other than that it was run over by one of my buddies.  The ride that day was cool, humid and quiet.  It was a good transition from ill, to being part of the gang again.  

I met up with Schaney at around 5:00 p.m.   He pulled off for a swim.  He didn’t say, but I suspected that he hung back for me.  I was glad to see him.  A few moments later, Brandon climbed the hill on the small country road across the canal.  It ran parallel with the C and O canal to the next town.  Schaney yelled out, “Asterisk!”  Brandon’s head sagged and without saying a word, he turned around and went back six miles to get back on the “trail.”   I wondered if my night in a hotel was an asterisk.  The idea was that we had to ride the entire trail, no detours through towns without traveling to the same spot we left the trail to continue.  

I wasn’t sure if my ability and physical toughness were excellent or poor.  Was I or wasn’t I a viable participant in the human race?  I got sick.  That would be weak.  But I recovered quickly and was able to catch up which would be strong.  But, I only had to be strong because I was weak.  I felt somewhat proud of my recovery, but would the group see it that way.  It was a real possibility that I could have just picked up a new nickname – “asterisk”.

Schaney and I rode together the rest of the day.  He said, “Did you see the baby ground hog?” 
“It ran out in front of me.”
I mumbled, “Murderer.”
Schaney laughed and said, “Quality Rolls.”
I shook my head, “No.”

Schaney dramatically hung his head like the guy on the ridge in the Johnny Cash song that accidentally shot a man while checking the sites of his gun.  Schaney was a soft soul, so you could work him pretty good in those situations.  He and I caught up with everyone else a little later.  They’d already set up camp.  

Brandon rolled in shortly after and said, “Hell no, I wasn’t getting an asterisk.” 
Sam solemnly said without looking up, “Character,” and nodded. 
The conversation was coming, I could feel it.  Sam was right about Brandon, though.  He was a solid dude.  They all were.  Brandon was in the best shape.  He had just done a Tough Mudder and he wore that damned shirt every day.  Check the pictures.  I even gave him a full frontal zip Steel Wul jersey that was a little too small for me, although it was an extra-large.  Cycling clothes must run a little different than normal clothes.  I guess there aren’t many 225 lb cyclists.  I think it’s kind of an unspoken rule in cycling, to be a “cyclist,” you must weigh under 200 lbs. 

After the word asterisk was uttered, Pat said, “Yeah, Hess spent a night in a hotel.” 
Dog followed up with, “asterisk.” 
e He waI still wasn’t able to elevate my voice above a dull mumble so I managed, “I thought I was going to die, like that baby ground hog Schaney killed.”  I tried to redirect the conversation. 
Pat said, “Did you see that?  Poor little guy...” 
Dog piped in, “Murderer.”   “Yes,” I thought.
Schaney shook his head, smiled, looked at me for support, (wrong dude – I needed this red herring so the asterisk conversation would fall away) then he looked to the ground. 
My little brother Sam spoke up, “He rode the trail.”  I nodded my head and opened my arms as if to say, “Yeah, thank you little brother.” 
Lytle said, “We’ll take it under consideration.”  The conversation was over.  This story would either be “asterisk” or nobody would ever mention the ER. 

During the sixth and seventh days we traveled together except for Lytle – he rode ahead and camped alone the sixth night.  He had his thing and we had ours, but I think we all sensed the imminent end.  Soon we’d be in DC and back in our lives.  The carefree, no expectation existence we’d so easily fell into in the woods, on the trails, paralleling streams and rivers would be over.  We rolled on.  Quality Rolls…  

As the journey unfolded and finally concluded it became increasingly clear that “Quality Rolls,” was a premonition to our experience.  It became our Mantra over the course of the trip.  We shouted it out in response to nearly anything.  Dog hung his water bottles from the bottom of his Panniers.  They dangled and swayed back and forth only a couple inches from the ground, and his spokes.  I said, “Nice mud flaps.”  He said, “Quality rolls brother, quality rolls.”  Brandon asked Lytle how his homemade hammock, bug net and tarp system worked.  Lytle said, “What do you think?  Quality Rolls.”  After someone complimented Sam on one of his incredible meals over the fire, he’d say, “Quality Rolls.”  Pat or Lytle in response to anyone saying anything about their Kitty Litter Panniers would respond, “Quality Rolls.”  It became the rebuttal to a compliment or a put-down.  It was undeniably a perfect mantra for the trip.  It was our little Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

The last night we got some rain, which was fine with us.  We’d carried tarps for six days.   Sam couldn’t deny our pleading to cook dinner.  We (Brandon and Pat) went sometimes way out of our (their) way to the grocery store to buy fresh veggies, meat and beer or wine.  That 5th night they took a fairy across the Potomac River and added 15 miles to their day.  We feasted the 5th and 6th nights.  It beat going to a restaurant in town.  Even though Mt. House food was good, if you have a chef in your crew, the recommendation is to use his skills.  It would be like having an amazing mechanic on your crew and then taking your bike to a shop.  

The last morning was like the priors.  Up, shuffle around, break down camp, load the bikes within moments of each other and hum down the trail.  The difference was that we rolled for the first time as a seven man, peloton.  I wasn’t comfortable using that word until now.  I guess I felt like we earned it.  We, to me, felt legit.  We snuggled in behind the next, just six inches away and rotated leads.  With the rain the night before, the trail was sloppy.  It was the worst cared for section to that point.  Dog was in the lead.  He started spotting for the group, “Puddle,” or “Rock”, or “Rut”.  His calls careened backwards from rider to rider and unified us for the final push to DC.  We rolled at 16 mph.   Our usual speed was more like 12-14 mph.

The trail meandered along the Canal through Georgetown, passed little entrances to townhouses that emptied onto the trail.  We rode lazily and soaked up the sites of Georgetown.  Then, the trail ran into a cross street.  The ride was over.  The group quickly broke apart as the pull of our families and lives intensified.  Lytle went into DC to scout out the site seeing trip for the following day.  The rest of us went to an Irish Pub in Georgetown and watched the World Cup, ate and had a few beers.  

Our lives off bikes and out of the woods had come back like we knew they would.  As soon as the trail ended, our disparate lives pulled us appropriately apart.  This happened so quickly that there wasn’t even a photo of all of us at the end.  Like magnets, our families drew us in.  The woman and children we loved were powerful medicine, but so was the trip.  I felt light.  Pat, and Dog met Lytle after his scouting trip an hour or so later.  They rode to the campground and were greeted by their kids and wives holding a banner.  Brandon, Sam, Schaney and I finished our food and a couple more beers.   We bought train tickets to the outskirts of town where our families camped.  

At camp, it took a solid day for us not to hop on our bikes to go to the bathroom, the pool or anywhere.  It wasn’t until the ladies called us on it that we stopped and fully transitioned back to domestic life.  They wanted to walk with us, and we wanted to walk with them except we didn’t know it until they told us how silly it was for us to “mount up” every time we went somewhere.  Amy, my wife, asked toward the end of the first day at camp, “Are you taking a shower, honey?” 
“Yeah, I was thinking about it.”  

Then in a deep voice followed by a giggle said, “Better mount up!”   We stayed near our families, in our camps and caught up during that first day.  We reconvened at night for stories, beer, food and fires.  Schaney and Lytle went on the West Wing tour that first evening back with their families.  Dog and Sam couldn’t take the tour.  They didn’t complete their paperwork for background searches.

The next morning we geared up for our West Wing tour, the Smithsonian, and as many other museums as we could get to before the West Wing tour began.  The general public was only able to take the East Wing tour.  We had connections.  Brandon’s wife, Emma, helped Joe Biden’s Director of Event Planning get the job and she came that evening and gave us the tour.  The West Wing was impressive, but not nearly as large as I had imagined.  The most memorable aspect was the art.  President Obama met regularly with the curator of the Smithsonian to arrange for displays in the West Wing and in his living quarters.  The theme was slave art – cotton fields, slave quarters, and even some that were a little disturbing, but I liked that he had the balls to do that.  He had busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln in the Oval office.  They looked like they had been carved from coal.  

After the tour we walked out under the canopy from the Press Room you see on TV, which was tiny, and I actually had to say these words to my sons, “Hayduke, Jude, stop bouncing balls against the White House!  Get over here.  There are snipers all around.”  They scanned the tops of buildings and asked, “where?”  I said, “You think they’re going to be in the open?  You can’t see them, but they see you.”  I never use the “Santa Claus is watching” thing for multiple reasons, but the sniper bit worked - they straightened up.  Here’s the crew we toured the White House with.  We had to go at two different times due to capacity.  Lytle and Schaney went the day before.  Dog and Sam had already skipped town. 

Back L-R – Emma Hite holding Ike Emerson, Brandon Emerson, Amy Hess, me, Pat and Karen Kish.  Front L-R – Jude Hess, Garnet Kish, Hayduke Hess and Everett Kish, about two hours before the bouncy ball incident.  We are at the side entrance to the West Wing of the White House

Over the course of 7 days we went from scattered friends with huge pasts, to a unit that shared a whole lot of present.  There weren’t politics, agendas, time constraints, or obligations.  In retrospect, apparently we were doing alright if we had lives that allowed us to “go away”, for 11 days.  For a week we forgot the past, didn’t really consider the future and lived in the present.  We lived without judgment or bias.  We just did what we felt was right, with the right person at the right time which seemed to flow from one moment to the next without effort.   We realized that equipment and gear was not that important, and that the range of functionality could be broad, but as long as the person using it was “Quality”, they could “Roll”.  It brought back to mind a quote from the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, “Form follows function.”  It was the individual experience in and of itself, independent of gear, style, age or bike which mattered.  It was the person on it.  It was the commitment that mattered, the attitude.  What we evolved into was a gang of cyclists experiencing consecutive moments in time.  We were starved for this trip.  Now, we were full.  

This is the closest we got to a shot of all of us at the end – a stinkin’ selfie.  Me, Sam, Pat, Brandon and Dog.  Notice that on day 7, Brandon still had on his tough mudder shirt.