“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton
After 20 years of no exercise and 2 packs a day, I coasted east on Delmar, letting gravity do the work. My first serious trial was over a mile away and I was blissfully unaware of the pain that lay ahead. For now, I enjoyed the sensation of speed as wind brushed my face and I kept pace with the traffic on the gentle downhill run through the Loop. As I sped comfortably along, I passed clots of humanity milling outside the bars, some leaning on cars haphazardly parked at odd angles to the curb.
I turned the corner at Skinker and spied the trees of Forest Park ahead. I flipped the gears of my red 1980 Cannondale into 7th gear and began to pedal in earnest. I loved my bike. It was ridiculously lightweight. It was red. It was made for flight. It was red. I had purchased this fine specimen of 1980’s riding technology on Craigslist with a few weeks of cigarette money. I had made a lot of these purchases lately – trading the missing “expense” of cigarettes for anything that came to mind, so long as the price remained below the price of a carton-and-a-half of smokes per week.
Miraculously, my first ride, in St. Louis, in August, was cool and free of humidity. The summer air was pleasant as I cut across Skinker and took advantage of the bike path that skirted Forest Park and traversed the incline of Clayton road.
I panicked briefly as I fought a sensation of deja vu. For a moment, I had the nightmarish feeling that I. had. seen. that. bus shelter. before… I swiveled my head and caught sight of another bus shelter a half a block behind. Relief. Although the hill was gentle, I knew I had several miles to go, and this was my inaugural ride. I felt brave enough doing the ride once – no need for re-dos.
Now I zipped through Forest Park itself, down the road that skimmed past the zoo and to Tamm bridge. Pedaling like crazy on a downhill slope, I grew amazed at my bicycling prowess. I congratulated myself as I accelerated past 25 miles per hour. However, Gravity would soon require that I repay the credit I took for my speed – with interest.
I turned left and confronted another climb. As the concrete denizens of Turtle park looked on, I jammed the bike into third gear and attacked the hill, pedaling madly and hoping that my momentum would make the climb a little easier.
It took a long time to get up that hill. As I passed a hospital on the right, memories of my recent hospital experience flashed – the real reason why I rode a bike tonight for the first time in my adult life. I sweat, working the pedals, and paid homage to the friend I had visited for the last time not long ago.
This man I had worked with for nearly 10 years. He was a good friend and someone who would be missed by his peers. He helped many people in the years that I knew him. He was a rare person, driven by a desire to do what he could to change the world. When his doctor told him he had lung cancer, he quit smoking and ate apples instead. He took it upon himself to encourage his friends to quit smoking as well. He’d find me on the back porch and push an apple in my hand. As a smoker, situations like that make you nervous. And being nervous makes you want to smoke. It’s a catch-22 that ends in hospital stays and worried friends.
The last time I saw him, he was in bed, surrounded by machines which helped him breathe. Every breath a barrage of mechanical clanking and ghastly sighs. I said what I could – not nearly enough. I asked if there was anything I could do. His reply was muffled by his mask and interrupted by the laboring of his machines – nothing more than a hoarse whisper. I couldn’t hear his words at all and nodded in mute agreement. However, he was still alert enough to realize that I hadn’t understood him. With the help of his wife who bent close to his face to carefully decipher what he said, I finally understood him after several repetitions. “I’d like some lemonade.” He smiled and chuckled. A joke.
That experience helped me to reevaluate my life as a smoker. A little Buddhism (“life is suffering”), Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Quit Smoking, some auricular therapy and two weeks of fingernails-on-a-chalkboard withdrawals later and I had realized that buying cigarettes to cure the withdrawal symptoms that were the result of smoking cigarettes was stupidity itself. Smoking wasn’t release. It wasn’t counter-culture, it was the most mundane and robotic action any of us could do.
For me, the easy part of quitting was enduring the withdrawals. It was tangible; it hurt; it made me feel I was doing proper penance for my smoking sins. The hard part came after. All symptoms gone, it was easy to forget the addiction, become complacent and have “just one cigarette.” I’d done this several times, and was the reason I now rounded Hampton and endured the pain in my wrists as the stiff aluminum frame of my bike ex-act-ly translated the force of the front wheel hitting every pothole on Hampton. The best cure for complacency is agony.
Hampton is not the place for a pleasure ride. The view consists of the liquor stores and gas stations that sandwich the Metropolitan Sewer District HQ along the road. The cars that aren’t swerving into the liquor stores are buzzing by fast. The sidewalks are useless fields of broken glass and cinders. You get on Hampton, you hug the edge of the right lane and pray.
I coasted beneath highway 44 and took notice for perhaps the first time of “The Hill.” Funny thing about topography – everything flattens out when you’re driving a car. I’d always known “The Hill” as the best place in St. Louis to get pasta. It had never occurred to me before this moment how it had gotten its name.
I shifted back into 3rd. This was serious. I lifted my head long enough to see that I had a very long climb ahead of me. I could see Watson in the distance at the top and decided it was the goal of my journey for the moment – never mind the 5 miles which must come after.
A late model Camaro roared past as I struggled. Thank you for honking. Nothing gets the adrenaline going like the certain knowledge that your body will soon be fused with aluminum and pavement.
First gear. There is no motion in first gear. You look ridiculous as you pedal like a maniac and measure distance in inches. Embarassing. Painful. Slow.
Getting off the bike and walking was out of the question, of course. If I walked, I might as well buy a pack of smokes and light up. I’d chosen this hobby because it included a deterrent to ever smoking again – searing, painful lungs.
I looked up. Watson road was finally here, along with the rest of the hill I hadn’t been able to see from the bottom. The hill got steeper and continued a good quarter mile all the way to Elicia’s pizza. I almost cried. I didn’t know that within a few months I’d take this very same hill in 10th gear the whole way. Nor did I know that within 5 months, I’d ride 100 miles on the Katy trail in a day. Right now, what I knew was that I was in first gear, in pain, and very out of breath. My resolve weakened. I could take a break. I could walk it. I could call my wife and get her to pick me up. But I knew that if I gave up this journey tonight, it would be way too easy to light up again, invalidating the memory of my friend with the sense of humor on his death bed. I kept pedaling.
By the time I reached the top, my lungs were on fire. My legs were rubber and I knew they’d feel worse in the morning. I also knew I’d never smoke again. By cresting that hill on that cool August evening, I had crossed a threshold and would never look back. I was no longer an “ex-smoker” – someone who had given up something but who missed it. Instead, a new archetype had emerged – a new me.
Biking was not a new habit replacing the old, but a boat that helped me cross the river of uncertainty which separated two planes of existence. The shore I had left was littered with the debris of an 18 year habit – $30,000 spent with nothing to show for it but an ever-present fear of death and a couple of ugly tee-shirts. After crossing to a clean shore, the boat would be discarded, no longer needed.
However, tonight I knew that I had learned to persist through complacency to truly value the memory of my friend and create my own life anew. Although it was done badly, it was worth doing; and each ride would get better. Besides, after “The Hill,” it’s all downhill to home.
If you are a smoker and would like to quit, I highly recommend “The Easy Way to Quit Smoking.” I’ll happily buy you a copy. Let me know if you want one. Just pass it on to someone else when you’re done.